Monday, November 10, 2008

Mere Humanity

Chris Hedges' latest Truthdig column, "America the Illiterate," could easily be taken as a profound jeremiad for our times were its arguments not shot through with so much fallacious reasoning. A full enumeration of these flaws would be one of those exhaustive tasks best left "as an exercise for the student." I feel it is more important to focus on a single point, which might best be described as an error of misrepresentation. This is the problem that Hedges' essay overlooks the extent to which the act of reflecting on one's own humanity has always been a relatively elite pursuit. Thus, we think of Greece as the "cradle of civilization" on the basis of a handful of data points, such as Sophocles and Plato; but just how many of the inhabitants of that land actually went to the amphitheater to ponder the fate of Oedipus or had the time to spend the day wandering around the agora with Socrates? In any community, regardless of the extent of its scale, most folks just want to get on with their lives in a way that will put food on the table, provide clothes to protect against the cold and the rain, and keep the roof secure. These priorities have little to do with whether ancestors could follow Abraham Lincoln's eleventh-grade vocabulary level (which Hedges compares with the sixth-grade level of George W. Bush) or whether their ancestors chose to ratify our Constitution on the basis of the convoluted language of the Federalist Papers. (Hedges cites the Princeton Review for his data from a study that compared the oral vocabulary of major political debates, so the linguistic sophistication of the Federalist authors was beyond the scope of that study.)

Those of us who reflect on "the human condition" almost always lose sight of how few our numbers are. The result is that there is always some "end," which the jeremiahs among us (like Hedges) claim is clearly in sight. Yet "humanity" endures, probably because it is so diverse (particularly when viewed on a global scale, as it should be) that, like Wittgenstein's example of the noun "game," it is a concept that eludes any clear definition. Through diversity "humanity" survives by simple Darwinian logic; and even the most reflective of us really have no hand at all in that survival mechanism. Rather than agonizing over the fact that Mickey Mouse today is now more famous than Voltaire was in the eighteenth century (one of his many propositions that deserves a skeptical reading), he should take Voltaire's advice by seeing to the needs of his own garden while letting "humanity" take care of itself!

1 comment:

i.m.small said...

Points well taken.