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October 22, 2003
The Shining Wire

"Do I wake or do I sleep?"

With those words, David Gelernter expresses his fundamental disconnect with a society that seems to obsess with nightmares, especially the kind from which it feels impossible to wake. He recalls the Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion and deduces that the various ways that followed in which we dispose of life in an ever-easier fashion all spring from this historical point. While I agree with a lot of what Gelernter wrote -- and I have tremendous respect for his opinions -- I disagree with this conclusion. As I wrote in my last post, all of these are symptoms of the existentialism and nihilism that has plagued the world since at least the aftermath of World War II, and perhaps World War I.

I felt that my post was incomplete, however, in that I didn't explain the link fully how they are linked to the issues Gelernter discussed in the Power Line post. What I left out was the concept of hopelessness that people feel regarding death. Even people who profess religious beliefs, of all creeds, are susceptible to this, even though most religions explain death as a stage one passes through to reach some higher consciousness. For centuries, for millenia, while humans struggled to progress while understanding that certain death awaited them, they relied on religious faith to maintain an equilibrium and ethical framework with which to interact with each other; losing your soul mattered far more than losing your life. While religion was used as a motivation for evil and terrible deeds, the overall benefit to human advancement is undeniable.

In the twentieth century, that began to change, as the world became more secular, both in government and in private life. Without the underpinning of religion -- and the valuation of life as sacred and holy -- humanity stopped focusing upward, as it were, but starting focusing inward. With the absence of the soul as a shared concept, life began to be a commodity. In societies built to be "workers paradises", religion was forcibly stripped from society and the only measure of a human was his contribution to the maintenance of the whole. Even in free Western societies, where religious expression was not discouraged, workers toiled in terrible conditions and in some industries (West Virginia coal miners, as an example) became the functional equivalent of slaves.

The results have been horrific. When people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and later Pol Pot found certain groups of people were inconvenient, they simply built enormous bureaucracies to exterminate them, either for their ethnicity, or their religion, or simply for poltical expediency. These were not deaths in battles; these were not unfortunate plagues; these were deliberate murder, either by intentional starvation, gas, bullets, whatever.

Even moving beyond the extremes, even moving into Western society, the concept of life as banal and essentially meaningless has eroded our sense of purpose. If human life has no value, then the fruits of human labor are also meaningless, and all effort becomes pathetically ironic. As this philosophy takes hold, we begin to value life not as sacred or holy, but for what practical purpose it can serve. Grandpa's getting old, and the cost of keeping him alive too much? Let's try euthanasia. Why house criminals when you can execute them and save yourself space, time and money? If someone wants to kill themselves for good reason, why not assist them in doing so? Why not? We're all going to die anyway.

I was reminded today of a book I read years ago named Watership Down. As memory serves (over fifteen years has gone by), a small group of rabbits must find their way to a new meadow in order for their warren to survive, and the book details their adventures. At one point in the book, the rabbits come upon another warren that is curiously detached, well-fed but not working, and the leader, a rabbit named Silverweed, sings odd and sad songs about the "shining wire" to entertain the rabbits. No one will leave with the main characters because they have no hope of a better life. It turns out that the warren is kept by a farmer, who sets his rabbit snares to harvest rabbits for food, and the shining wire is the snare that eventually will kill each of them.

That's what clicked with me when I thought about the Power Line post at more length. All of this nihilism, this constant postmodern, ironic disdain for humanity and its value, the obsession with death as the end of all things, is nothing more than singing about the shining wire, and we are surrounded by Silverweeds. Those of us who believe in something more find ourselves in the same place as Hazel, Bigwig, and Pipkin, looking around at a warren full of profoundly hopeless rabbits, who have consigned the entire meaning of their lives to death and death alone.

I don't mean to say in this that all atheists are consumed by hopelessness and are amoral, and all religious people rise above the material and focus on the spiritual; far from it. What I am saying is that where people attach no intrinsic value to life than its practical application, there you will find no hope at all. Religious fanatics who murder 3,000 people in order to make a point about the ascendancy of their creed attach no value to human life -- the 3,000 people are nothing more than a means to an end. Atheists who dedicate their lives to the betterment of those around them exemplify the assignment of a higher value to life. But what I am saying is that societies that assign no value above the practical to human life, who do not value human life as sacred and holy, will devise more creative and efficient ways of eliminating those lives it sees as impractical, and unfortunately, that is the theme of our world over the past century. All the issues are merely the symptoms of the greater sickness.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 22, 2003 9:06 PM

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