A friend recently told me that her great grandmother to the ninth generation was aboard the Mayflower. The young lady in question arrived in what was to become this country when she was only four. Living to be eighty-three and becoming a matriarch directly linked to at least fifty grandchildren, she was obviously a most incredible woman. But what also struck me about her story was that her future father-in-law was the leader of a Purists/Separatists/Dissenters group in Holland. In one of his sermons, he said:
“But now we are all, in all places, strangers and
pilgrims, travelers and sojourners.”
The words from the sermon of a man from the seventeenth century have come rolling over me in these days of mass hysteria about immigrants. But instead of hearing similar soaring words of hope coming from the mouths of some, we are increasingly subjected to abusive epithets, words of scorn and derision, fear- mongering, and hatred. Instead of portraying ourselves as a haven, we are now presenting ourselves as a place of exclusion. Qualifiers like “temporary” are now bandied about to define a “reasonable” period when we can suspend our commitment to providing new homes to today’s “wretched refuse” who would have the temerity to wash up on our shores. We are promised that our handwringing will eventually end, since the measures are only “prudent.” We are also patted on the head and assured that “thorough vetting” is the only approach that will ultimately make us safe. In the interim, though, we should no longer feel any compunction about keeping the lamp “lifted beside the golden door.”
I have a friend who speaks more directly to political issues than I do usually. So this morning, “The Big T(yrannosaurus)” weighed in on an e-mail rant of mine. As he so succinctly put it, “You just can’t fix stupid.” He goes on to add, “I’ve come to believe that the human race is essentially a violent animal at its core and thus our better instincts (if indeed we have better instincts) are not allowed free rein for any significant time frame. At best there is only a lull in the fighting and killing, never an end to it.”
He thinks I fall into a certain cretin category when I hold out that we indeed have good angels as part of us and that we rely on them to temper our intemperate ways. But when listening to all the current nonsense about the threat that immigrants pose, I begin to question myself about the essence of human nature. In today’s tribal world we certainly have no shortage of opportunists who parade as “statesmen” and who pander to the fears of the chronically fearful. In the name of some twisted ideological pureness that is part of the fear parade, we now have a failing educational system and a suspicion of anyone who thinks beyond the fifth-grade level. What other than fear would compel an otherwise sane person to demand the right to bear arms when going to Sunday School? What does it take outside of fear to tell yourself that the right thing to do is to bomb abortion clinics, shoot up schools, denigrate immigrants, cut aid to the poor and castigate them for their condition, deprive impoverished children of subsidized breakfasts, believe in torture, deny climate change, and sing along to “bomb, baby, bomb” when formulating foreign policy. Why do so many of these frightened people never miss a photo-op outside their church of choice proclaiming all the virtues of Christianity?
Perhaps the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was correct in his bleak vision of the world. The question is whether his assessment is still relevant to contemporary politics. He lived in a particularly violent and intolerant period, the same time as our preacher friend in Holland, so his main concern was the problem of social and political order: how can human beings live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of civil conflict? To him, the solution lay in an overarching authority figure to keep them in check. According to his famous quote, without such a force there will be:
“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual
fear and danger of violent death: and the life of man,
solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
So as this holiday begins to end and we give thanks at this time of year for all our so-called blessings—with the exclusion of Black Friday Shopping and free shipping—we are left to wonder if we have indeed slipped into “the demon haunted world” described by the late astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan, who encouraged people to learn critical and skeptical thinking or risk living in a world of superstition and irrational fears. Sagan was famous for his “baloney detection kit” to poke holes in fallacious claims. As an example of skeptical thinking and how the kit worked, Sagan offered a story concerning a fire-breathing dragon that lived in his garage. When he persuaded a rational, open-minded visitor to meet the dragon, the visitor remarked that he was unable to see the creature. Sagan replied that he “neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.” The visitor then suggested spreading flour on the floor so that the creature’s footprints might be seen, which Sagan said was a good idea, “but this dragon floats in the air.” When the visitor considered using an infra-red camera to detect the creature’s invisible fire, Sagan explained that the fire was heatless. He continued to counter every proposed physical test with a reason why the test would not work.
Sagan concluded by asking: “Now what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.”
I’m not sure how well prepared most of us are to use the “baloney detection kit,” but I think that Hobbes and our seventeenth-century preacher in Holland could have easily recognized its value. If we are to maintain our position, at least in our own minds, that we are a special place of tolerance and a beacon of freedom, we must not allow ourselves to buy into the baloney that so many politicians are spreading about. If we view others with open arms and welcome embraces rather than with stop signs and hyper-suspicion, we can perhaps prevent going into free fall, tumbling back into a benighted world where we all might consider emigrating somewhere else.