A Misguided Manual for Civilization

When I was a schoolboy, I used to plan for the world’s end. What would we need to survive? Where would we keep it? How would we defend it from the inevitable roving bands of marauders, who—if movies were any guide—would possess impressive organizational discipline, yet no ability to create anything but weapons?

My side, which included my smart-but-bullied friends and me, would be prepared. We made lists. We drew pictures of supply depots. We diagrammed useful contraptions. The world would need rebuilding, and us to accomplish it.

Years later I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which science affords predictions that aid civilization-builders. A planned future was possible because the smart people were in charge. When I was older still, I immersed myself in SimCity, designing cities from start to finish, crafting everything from the shapes of their waterways to the style of every home’s roof.

Knowledge is a means of seeing. As you acquire it in great quantities you are tempted to imagine, because you know more than most about important things (and you know they are important things, else why would someone as smart as you bother to know so much about them?), that you are a giant, rather than perhaps just a remarkably stout midget. From your privileged vantage point, you can see distant horizons.

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What Our Children See

“Your child,” says the executive director of a national sex-education organization, “is going to look at porn at some point. It’s inevitable.”

The first woman I saw bare-breasted, her legs splayed for the pleasure of men, was posed in the slick pages of a magazine stashed in my stepfather’s dresser drawer. He kept this woman and others like her hidden, but not well enough. Often when I was alone, I would go into that darkness to see what lay there. I was twelve years old.

Some boys in my neighborhood stashed dirty pictures (despite our ignorance we knew that was what to call them, though these fantasy women were smooth and unblemished) in the hollowed center of an old cable spool that rotted at the edge of our subdivision. This became a sort of library. We were twelve and thirteen and fourteen. Some of us were younger.

“It’s inevitable.”

Perhaps this was true even when I was a child; it certainly seems true now, when so many of our children can access the internet unattended at their friends’ houses, in the privacy of their bedrooms, on the tailored screens of their hand-held devices. Two of my sons have reached the ages of the boys who crept to the edge of our neighborhood when we craved more.

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The Casserole Dish Manifesto

I possessed a consummate ideology before I had children. It was a perfectly distilled comprehension of man, God, and government. I knew with certainty that if everyone would just turn off the television and read Important Books, we could live alongside one another the way the Almighty intended when he crafted laws of the universe that so clearly comported with my belief system.

It was all so obvious to me, which made the fact that some people disagreed with my worldview both infuriating and validating. How do you not see the truth? How can you ignore these facts staring you in the face? How awesome am I that I have not fallen prey to the deceptions entangling you?

I was enlightened. I was chosen. Only the ignorance and avarice of my ideological enemies stood in the way. Surely God would not have gifted me with words if he didn’t want me firing them from both barrels at the enemies of peace, freedom, and progress.

Then my children arrived.

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The Cave of the Heart

caveNot long ago a young man announced on a video chat site that he intended to kill himself, and that he would let people watch, if only he could have help setting up the video feed. Someone gladly complied, and so the boy positioned his camera, sat in his chair, and washed down a handful of pills with alcohol. Afterward he set a fire in the corner of his room. Then he crawled into the darkness beneath his bed and waited to die.

Hundreds watched, while others who were being excluded complained that the site’s bandwidth was inadequate. Ideas were tossed back and forth in the comments section about how to include everyone who wanted to enjoy the show. One of those who was able to watch griped about the smoke. He couldn’t see the boy dying. He logged on to watch a boy die, and the stupid smoke was getting in the way. [Read more...]

Scientific Privilege

According to an enthusiastic radio report, children benefit from creative play. The reporter could say this with confidence because an interdisciplinary team of psychologists and anthropologists have confirmed it. Benighted hick that I am, I’ve depended on unsubstantiated hearsay for the past seventeen years of parenting. As they say in baseball, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

I mean, I suppose luck is better. The scientific community has not yet established, so far as I know, a robust body of empirical evidence regarding the relative advantage of luck over skill, though a large number of politicians and corporate CEOs seem to substantiate this adage.

I’m theologically and politically inclined toward folk wisdom, and therefore suspicious of scientism. That doesn’t mean that I oppose scientific inquiry, however. Without a doubt, some of the folk wisdom passed down by my grandmother is flat-out wrong. I know several African-Americans, for example, who do not in fact know all the other African-Americans. And the eyesight difficulties I presently suffer did not commence until well after those awkward boyhood puberty years.

So by all means, Science, lay waste to Nana’s oeuvre of accumulated insights on the human condition. Report with great fanfare that we should not be starving fevers, or feeding colds, or letting sleeping dogs lie. Civilizations survive based on their ability to transmit accumulated wisdom across generations, and this body of knowing certainly includes the valid findings of its scientists.

I get the feeling, however, that the scientific method, rather than being one avenue by which we may come to know something, has become the only respectable avenue. I suppose it’s helpful for scientists to confirm that most people prefer mates who are sexually attractive, or that exercise is good for you, or that bullies pick on unpopular kids—each being a finding reported in science journals in recent years—but was our knowledge of these facts less valid before scientists undertook to measure them?

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