Wednesday, July 23, 2008

People should be more selfish, not less

Humans are the masters of mediocrity. They live in the happy median between two extremes and will do anything in their power to remain that way. Whether it’s the Pope, the Jihad or the President of the United States of America, the extremists will eventually lose when they remove the majority from its comfort zone.

There was a great moment in the new Batman film – a film that should be applauded for its dark, moral complexity alone – where Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne are having a dinner conversation about Rome in its time of peril and domestic tumult. One man stood up and took charge of the city when no one else would and for a time took matters into his own hands, and it was considered a public service. But this man eventually kept the power for himself, and became the first in a long line of Ceasers to gain and maintain power. And maintain they did, for a good 400 years, at least.

That seems like a hell of a long time for people to just follow self-appointed rulers. But the truth of the matter is no one really gives a fuck what’s going on around him unless it affects their ability to acquire food and take a shower (this may be coming to a head in this country real soon, but don't expect any revolutions until then). They prefer comfort over action. Ask anyone today why he wants more energy alternatives such as ethanol or hydro-electric, and the number one reason you’ll get is money. They’ll play ball if it saves them money, but no one, save for a small minority of – you guessed it – extremists, really gives a shit about the environment.

We are so used to thinking of this kind of mentality as “apathy,” myself included. But I now think the matter runs much deeper. A person’s inability or unwillingness to act should not be couched in such language that makes him appear to be right or wrong for doing nothing. It shouldn’t make him think that he has to write to a congressman, or lobby against a tobacco company, or lay down in front of a Caterpillar tractor to save an Oak tree, or donate money to a campaign, or solicit pamphlets and books about nutrition or drugs or crime or pot or God or whatever – it shouldn’t make him think that if he doesn’t do one of these things that he’s a bad person and that he cares about nothing and no one but himself.

If people actually cared enough about themselves, they wouldn’t constantly place burden and blame outside themselves. “Oh, the police didn’t get here fast enough,” says someone who doesn’t care enough about his own safety. “The doctor gave me the wrong diagnosis,” says the person who doesn’t care enough about his own health. “The mechanic broke my car,” says the ignorant man who doesn’t care enough about anything that he owns. Be your own mechanic for a change. Be your own doctor. Be your own security guard.

The point is, if people cared just a little bit more about their own lives, the world would be much better off. They wouldn’t rely on every Mexican or shop clerk or waitress to give them what they need. This doesn’t mean being heartless and uncompassionate, it simply means being responsible. The trick is this: whatever you CAN do for yourself, do for yourself, or learn. Don’t blame our leaders for your problems. That’s how Rome ended up the way it did. Not that Rome didn’t have good leaders, because for a time, they actually did; there was no war and everyone got along great – for a while.

Having leaders is good when times are bad, but they’re just people who can’t be expected to handle everything, and certainly shouldn’t be granted limitless power and authority. Besides, the kinds of people attracted to leadership are usually very idealistic extremists of some sort or another; just because they aren’t Islamic extremists (the only thing we seem to think of when that word comes up) doesn’t mean their views aren’t extreme. Someone stands up and says “I believe what we need is a theocracy,” and if enough people agree, then it stands, and it works. To them it’s not extreme, but to others, it very much is. And we bomb those people. Because we’re extreme, too.

Being mediocre at a lot of things is what made men like Einstein, Newton, Franklin and Edison so great. They weren’t one of a kind people, they were simply ordinary men thinking outside of the box. We made gods out of them with our teachers and our textbooks.

And that is why man is not usually seen as the mediocre person he is: the in-between doesn’t get nearly as much ratings. People want to believe in something bigger than them, because it gives them hope, not to mention a sense of self-worth. I can't imagine why, since it in turn makes them powerless. Were they to realize that great men are actually common in this world, they might be forced to become great themselves. And that requires sacrifice. It’s easier to believe that one day some deus-ex-machina-like hero will decend out of the clouds and save them all in the end.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

There Were Bombs Over Tucson Today

Today was special. At least, when I woke up this morning (or rather, this evening), I sensed that today was a special day. Was it because I had spent the second night in my new place, and now, having gotten most of the work done on the apartment, I may now relax and prepare for my pseudo-housewarming tomorrow? Or perhaps it’s a special day because the monsoon which has been inching its way in our direction for the last few days has finally caught up with us, hence giving me that little burst of creative inspiration which always comes with such weather. Or maybe, I’m just happy to be alive, knowing my friend’s girlfriend just suffered a heart attack.

Actually, I’m told that this day is a special day because 232 years ago, our ancestors said fuck you to a greedy tyrant. That was when, by the good graces of our Lord, our brave men fought against the oppression of insatiable bankers and gluttonous monarchs on the other side of the Atlantic. God bless America.

Well, they did fight a good fight, anyway, and win they did. A whole lot of blood and tears went into that revolution, which was followed by a desperate attempt to learn from past mistakes by creating a system of government that was most fair and reasonable to all who were willing to play ball and make sacrifices. It wasn’t easy then, and it’s not easy now, but at least they understood what was at stake.

Now, in the 21st century, I ride my bike to work as the storm clouds continue to hover over Tucson. It’s nighttime, but the utter lack of stars in the sky is somewhat ominous. God bless America? Well, as long as you don’t count Tucson this year.

There are still, however, hundreds of fireworks going off all over the city. All around, people are on rooftops and parking garages watching in awe at the light show. It’s probably the most exciting thing they will see or do all month, and so they put all of their eggs in this basket. Lucky for them, they probably won’t disappoint themselves.

It does say something about how far we’ve come in ten generations that the most iconized Fourth of July tradition is still the very expensive re-creation of wartime explosives going off – as entertainment. As if the most fun they had during the revolution was blowing shit up.

Granted, traditions exist for the purpose of reminding us of things we’ll eventually forget; namely, “that one time that awesome thing happened to those probably-cool people.” Whether it’s the Super Bowl party you have every year or whatever, it’s still that one time we had that awesome party. Let’s not forget that. Great. Sign me up for two. But what does it say about us that we need these things to progress? How are we to become better people if all we do is reminisce? Not that nostalgia is bad, but when it’s all we are, how can we possibly move forward? And if we pin all that we are to a day, like we pin all that we are to a book or to a person or to anything, then that thing rules over us. It becomes sacred, and we become submissives to it. (god bless america)

And so this day will pass for me like another rung in life’s ladder. I know in my heart what made America great over two centuries ago. It wasn’t a perfect system then, but it was the best they could come up with. And it was pretty good. I’m the last person to talk it up nowadays, of course, but I don’t passively wave a 99 cent flag and think that makes me a patriot, either. I still believe in what makes America great, even if it is dying. I don’t need sparklers and pinwheels to remind me. In fact, they only remind me of how truly fucked we are.

As planned, I’ll have my friends over tomorrow evening. It’s not a birthday party for my friend who’s turning 34, or a Fourth of July BBQ, or even a housewarming. It’s just a party. A gathering of friends and acquaintances, which doesn’t need a reason at all. It’s more genuine if there’s no reason anyway. I shouldn’t need an event centuries ago to tell me if I should have one or not. And I’m sure God would agree.