Thoughts on the History of Broken Glass

Did you know they used to make baby bottles out of glass?

They did.

Amazing, isn’t it? You’ve got this item that, when dropped, shatters into razor-sharp and needle-sharp fragments, glass shards which are virtually invisible in low light, but capable of cutting deep enough to sever tendons, nerves, major arteries. Hell, every silver screen bar fight aficionado knows you can make a closely similar bottle into a deadly weapon simply by whacking it on a nearby chair.

And they handed them over to babies. Toddlers just discovering how to walk, and none too steady to begin with, tottered around with these things in their hands. I myself have a jagged little scar on the top of my right foot which my mother said came from dropping and breaking a glass baby bottle and then slipping and falling on it. I have another silvery scar on my palm that gives me electric jolts up my arm with the merest bump. There’s a poorly-healed nerve there from yet another baby bottle I dropped and fell on.

And damn, I wonder if there are any statistics for these types of injuries? Because there must have been millions upon millions of them. Heck, I know full-grown adults who have gone to the hospital over glass injuries.

I suppose it was all they had, at one time. Still, you’d think there would have been a major safety campaign: Moms! Glass baby bottles are to be used only under adult supervision! Only on carpeted floors! Never allow one in the hands of a toddler learning to walk! Never near pools or bathtubs!

I don’t recall any such thing. And in fact, parents kept using glass baby bottles for decades after plastics were introduced. Bakelite, a virtually indestructible plastic that used to make up the body of those old battleship-tough telephones, was invented in 1907, and a long list of other plastics – vinyl, nylon, neoprene, teflon, polyester – followed after, many of them years before my 1952 birthday.

Looking back on it, glass baby bottles were a bad idea. In fact, glass itself is kind of a weird commercial product, when you come to think of it.

We hand it out in restaurants and bars to people consuming alcohol. We fill it with toxic chemicals and then plop in onto supermarket shelves where anybody can pick it up … or drop it. I haven’t paid attention recently, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, even today, you could still get soft drinks, destined to fall into the hands of kids, in glass containers. (Certainly beer and other alcoholic drinks still come in glass bottles, buyable in any convenience store.)

No doubt glass is useful. Incredibly useful, in fact, as it has a huge number of commercial and industrial applications. But think about it: What other consumer product do you know of that, with the merest accident during its everyday use, turns into a random collection of swift-moving, almost invisible fucking KNIVES?

If there was no such thing as glass and you were to invent it today (as an easily-available consumer product, anyway), I think we can be pretty sure you’d be appearing in court fairly often. If a woman can successfully sue McDonald’s for spilling hot coffee on her lap, you’d think that this extremely dangerous product would have likewise been sued into non-existence years ago.

Admitted in evidence, we’d have vivid images of children, teenagers, poor people, working mothers and fathers, probably even famous people, horribly injured, permanently disabled, even killed, by glass. State attorneys general would get into the act and entire areas of the glass industry would be heavily regulated, possibly even shut down.

Yet here it is. A product known to be dangerous, even deadly dangerous, and it’s still right out there where even kids and drunks can get to it.

Why? Because … well, call it historical primacy. We’ve got it because we’ve always had it. And because when it was invented, more than 5,000 years ago, there was really nothing like our modern ideas of personal rights. The ideas of rights changed, but glass stayed with us, a special case that none of us really ever got around to thinking about.

Historical primacy comes into play in lots of other ways. There’s a book lauded as an icon of American literature (and no, I won’t tell you what it is because I don’t want to get into an argument) that I consider to be just … average. There’s a film consistently voted one of the top movies of all time that, by today’s standards, is just, meh, okay.

But because they were first, with a provocative idea – a new look at Southern racism, say, or a look into the life of an enigmatic industrialist – they are seen as never-to-be-equaled.

Historical primacy.

It’s a fact that in most situations, you have to fight like hell to end historical primacy. Slavery. Women’s rights. Discrimination against gays.

All three subjects – slavery, subjugation of women, oppression of homosexuality – were automatically considered to be good things in their time. So much so that all three fights are very much still ongoing.

But in each case, we finally fought through historical primacy enough that each of these ideas has been defeated – at least in the civilized parts of the world — and remnants of the practices are viewed as unfortunate aberrations.

Each of those cases also serves as an object lesson in the tragic flaw of historic primacy: You can have things that have been a part of your life for all of your life, part of the lives of your entire culture for as long as anyone can remember, and yet turn out, when we’re finally able to look at them objectively, to be horrifying abuses.

(Circumcision: Elective surgery. For reasons of fashion. Without anesthetic. On the genitals. Of a baby. Jeez.)

All of these things seemed like good ideas at the time, the time when we were blithely able to treat each other as property. But they turned out, for a number of very good reasons, to be bad ideas. Bad ideas not just for those who would normally be subjugated, but even bad ideas for the ones who would normally be the oppressors.

Slavery is bad for slaves but also bad for slave-holders. The oppression of women is bad for women, but also bad for men. Equal rights are a good idea for gays, but damn, a good idea for everybody.

So: Religion. You knew we were getting there, right?

Religion is another one of those things. It enjoys historical primacy such that even today it holds an astonishing array of special rights and protections. It is automatically allowed to affect social customs, commerce, government, laws, holidays, science, education, private reproductive choices. Even, if you live where I do, the sounds you hear on Sunday morning.

And the “automatically allowed” part is so strong that it takes practically a violent revolution to unseat the damned thing, in even the tiniest specific case. It takes enormous effort even to convince people there is any sort of negative effect.

If you’re a Christian, a Muslim, a Mormon, a member of any of the other mainstream religions, you probably feel good about that. Your only worry is which religion is going to affect everybody’s life.

But I don’t feel good about it. To me, religion is a defective product. Something that looks nice and seems to work well normally, but which shatters into knifelike shards at the slightest pressure, and lends itself to the protection of pedophile priests (not to mention, probably, the pedophilia in the first place), bad health care decisions, executions, other legal silliness of all sorts (for instance, the fact that you once couldn’t buy a broom on Sunday in Texas), bad laws regarding other people’s reproductive choices, bad public policy regarding other rights, and especially bad education … that perpetuates the problem.

And that’s here (in the West), where religion has been relatively neutered by the Enlightenment.

I’m okay with people believing that this certain novel is an everlasting monument of American literature. I’m okay with people thinking that this certain film is the best movie of all time.

But nobody forces me to read that book or see that movie.

Religion, though, is still on the market, still pushing itself out into my life and the lives of countless others.

We just finished this annual event where Christianity, in the entity of Christmas, was in our eyes and in our ears – in our faces! – for an entire month. Yes, I mean the songs and Nativity scenes and stuff, but also this very nasty new idea that Christmas belongs to Christians, and Christians only. Hell, this year I had people I’ve known for years pushing it on me, saying “Merry Christmas” with squinty eyes and less-than-subtle extra force.

Yeah, I get it that the nice Christians think there’s a war on Christmas. Eh, they’re wrong about that, but if it entertains them … knock yourselves out, guys.

But what there really is, for me at least, is a war on religion. Yes, I admit it. I oppose faith itself.

But what I’m after is not the destruction of any person’s private right to pray or believe. Not after their right to go to church, or to claim that Jesus appears on grilled cheese sandwiches. Or even their right to have themselves prayed over rather than go to a doctor.

What I’m after is all those places where their religion laps over, without my permission or approval, into my life. Into the lives of others. Especially my fellow unbelievers and non-Christians, but even the children of godders, those who have even less choice than I do to tune their silly beliefs out.

I’m after all the time people spend trying to shove creationism into schools, or to get Ten Commandments plaques into courthouses. I’m after the fact that every scrap of paper money that will pass through my hands has been turned into a religious pamphlet by that damned “In God We Trust” inscription. I’m after the fact that there is a literal castle less than two blocks from my apartment that has enjoyed tax-free status for (I don’t know the numbers off the top of my head but probably) hundreds of years. I’m after the practice of scaring and lying to children, no matter whose they are.

I’m at war with all those places where their religion impacts my life.

I tell you, this is one of the coolest darned moments in history, ever. Yes, I like the computers and phones and satellites. I love the pictures from space. I love the medicine.

More than that, though, I love the fact that some of the darkest parts of history are coming to an end. Finally able to talk about it, to share ideas about it, we’re discovering just how bad religion has been for us. How badly it has injured us. How much damage it does even today. And how little we need it.

We’re all living in the time when the historical primacy of religion, the automatic cultural addiction to religion, is ending.

Ha! Maybe it’s even the end of the world. For religion, anyway. And maybe it’s the real beginning of a newer, better one. For the rest of us.

One Billion Atheists
Dawkins and Dennett in Boston
Herd Immunity: The Internet vs. Education
One Billion Atheists: Two Additional Ideas

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