Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Heading for simpler times, Redux

I stumbled across a handful of Luddites, this past weekend.... complaining about how intrusive technology is and how much better things would be if we went "totally green and organic, like in the good old days." After listening for about a half hour, I decided I couldn't stay in the same room and not argue with them, so, mindful of manners while my parents aren't there to bail me out of jail, I left and went home. Then I remembered, this was not the first time I'd encountered this stuff.

Therefore, (and, since I've been a little preoccupied with other responsibilities, this week), I am re-running a column I wrote for the DRA nearly six years ago. A little of my style has changed, and a handful of other personal details are slightly different, as well, but the sentiment remains the same.

Heading For Simpler Times

People always seem to be talking about 'way back in simpler times. I didn’t live in them, but I have read a little bit about them, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go there. At least, not to stay for more than a few days. We humans have a way of glorifying the past, making it seem so much better than what we have today. They even write and sell songs like “Those Were The Days,” “The Way We Were,” and so on. I’m not buying it.

I mean, exactly how far back do you have to go before we had a really simple existence? I seem to recall in my greater youth that this small burg had a couple of spectacularly violent crimes, plenty of drugs to go around, and even a race riot. The ‘sixties were rife with war, drugs, drink, racism, and other self destructive behaviors of the masses. The ‘fifties? Donna Reed? How about "McCarthyism," the Berlin wall, polio? Another decade back, sure we showed ourselves to be noble, but against what, and at what immediate cost but death, or for those who looked Asian or had, say, German-sounding names, suspicion and often segregation. And let us not talk of the position of what was then called the Negro.

Okay, so this past century is too busy to have been called simple. The nineteenth was no great shakes, either. Europe was in a constant state of war, sometimes with us. When there was no declared war for young men to go die in, there was disease, there were skirmishes over expansion, there was lawlessness in the west, Indians killed and were killed, settlers the same, explorers ditto. Pretty much the same as the previous two centuries.

Well, gosh, there’s the Renaissance. Everything was happy and enlightened, then, right? Pardon me while I laugh up my ruffled sleeve. In Europe, while one hand was establishing trade routes, the other was supporting Inquisitions. Fiefdoms and principalities warred for land, serfs, gold, and glory. Plague broke out a couple of times or so. And over in the peaceful New World, natives were dying from disease brought by the Europeans who intended to exploit them by coerced conversion. The peaceful Incas had lovely little bloodbaths of their own, against neighbors who stood against their priests. Skulls were bashed in, organs were ripped out of the living, other cheery stuff like that. Of course, most of the great events touched none of the lowly citizens. Like when a city was besieged, the laborers were allowed to leave each day at five o’clock to get supper. And supplies were only cut off from the soldiers. And pixies and nixies live in my back yard.

So we roll the calendar farther back: in the Middle Ages, ignorance, warfare, rampant disease and starvation. The Dark ages, likewise. The Roman Empire, ancient Greece, ancient Egypt...elite individuals had education and freedom both. That did not make them immune to the vagaries of politics and expansion, any more than they were immune to eruption of volcanoes or typhus or being torn apart by wild mobs of humans or hounds.

The oldest stories of the Bible and Gilgamesh have sickness, drunkenness, hardship, betrayal, intrigue, lust, murder, attempted genocide -- and those are the high points to it all!

Throughout the long history of humanity, we have always had hardships. We, as a species, have labored each generation to make it better for the next. From hardscrabble existences of Everyman to the intellectual struggles of Aristotle, Plato, Isaac Newton, Confucius, Lao Tsu, et cetera, to the artistic endeavors of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, the moment was powerful, and humanity needed hard work for something as basic as betterment. I don’t see the word “simple” anywhere in the definition of labor.

We have developed a complex set of rules and tools for today, but they are not much more difficult to operate than a sixteenth-century political machine. A houseful of gadgets may seem to be a nuisance, but I do not spend ten hours a day cooking and cleaning, and I don’t have to have somebody do it for me (unless he’s hoping for something I won’t promise, later that evening). The food I buy is in season somewhere on the planet, so any time I want it, I can get it. My wardrobe is broad enough to cover all seasons, thank you, Levi Strauss. I’m rather fond of zippers, safety pins, sewing machines. My stereo lets Yo Yo Ma and The Sex Pistols perform in my house, even at the same time, if I so desire. I write on a word processor, able to edit without an eraser or a big trash can. I have safe places to walk, to keep healthy. When I become ill, it takes me five minutes to drive to a doctor’s office, where I am usually diagnosed and treated that day, and on my way to a speedy recovery. I like antibiotics. I like antihistamines. I even like cough syrups, as long as I can find something to mask the flavor. They make me feel good.

And, if something makes me feel not-so-good, e.g. the news, I turn it off for a while and go to my garden, or go with a friend to a house of peace. It’s that simple.

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