The trouble with everything

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Trouble begins with uncertainty

Contradiction and human understanding

In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman said: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself!"

If he had been writing as Werner Heisenberg, he might well have said: "Do I contradict myself? Maybe I do and maybe I don't."

The fatuous desire to be 100% self-consistent is a doorway into lunacy and fundamentalism of all stripes: religious, economic, romantic, logical and political -- whatever you have. So let's just say I'll make no attempt at being consistent, because even inconsistency can serve the ends of liberal humanism, which is my one and only creed.

Last night I watched a show about WWII -- the war in the Pacific. The show detailed the number of ships damaged and lost to kamikaze attacks (800 and 35, respectively); the number of civilians, Japanese and American soldiers killed in the battle for Okinawa (100,000, 70,000 and 12,000). It also detailed the numbers killed outright by atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (100,000 and 35,000), and the total deaths attributable to WWII (about 55,000,000). Do those numbers affect you? Intellectually they may: "What an appalling number of deaths!"

But emotionally...? Well, they are just big numbers.

What really affected me were these two scenes:

In the first, after the battle, a small boy, perhaps age 3, sits naked in the rubble, covered in dust and dirt, quivering helplessly -- as no child ever should.

In the second, home movies of an American marine and his wife and children played with a voiceover of a letter the marine wrote to his children in the event he didn't make it home (he didn't): The letter was full of simple, but eloquent wisdom. It talked about how he would live on through them... how all that was good in life would not vanish, but continue through them. No religious rubbish about afterlives and angels and God's will... just a simple man's inspiring thoughts about life and its meaning.

It's a pity some in the world have managed to turn both 'liberal' and 'humanism' into disparaging terms.

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