The Way of the Word

17. January 2011

What We Leave Behind

Filed under: Commentary,general,Uncategorized — jensaltmann @ 10:27
Tags: ,

When people talk about the human race (from now on referred to as “we” or “us”), they justify everything we did and do with, “Look at all the things of lasting value that we have achieved.”

Have we? Have we really? Our artificial caves (that which we call “houses”) are things of lasting value? Okay, some of them (those not built of shoddy materials) will likely outlast us. Although I’ve read that the expiration date of the average modern house ranges between 100 – 200 years, before it has fallen apart to the point of being unsalvageable. Looking at some other architectural marvels, is building a skyscraper of a certain height really an achievement? How long until the world’s highest building becomes the world’s tallest pile of rubble? I’m not even talking human action, but one tsunami or earthquake will probably do the trick. Is building a higher house, or a more artful facade, really that much of an accomplishment? It will outlast those who built it, and will be remembered long after those who built it will be forgotten (quick: who designed the Sears Tower? Or the Cologne Cathedral? No Googling!). But even those will eventually fall apart without maintenance.

Looking at sports, there is no such thing as an achievement. Every time someone runs 1/100th of a second faster than someone else did (which boggles the mind, if you think about it: does that really matter to anyone besides statisticians and sports nerds?), it only spurs on those who feel the need to run 1/100th of a second faster than that. You also need to take into account that there are many sports where what the human body can accomplish has been surpassed already. That means any record that follows has probably been accomplished with the help of doping. Under those circumstances, should we really ban doping and reduce those competitions to what is actually humanly possible (probably not — where’s the excitement in that, right?), or should we man up, admit it, and allow the advances of doping technology to enter into sports? The latter would also have the advantage that it would reduce athletes to something the average armchair-bound sports fan can look down to: “If I took dope, I could do that too.”

After all, as we see everywhere now, modern man doesn’t want to be inspired. They don’t want to be confronted with role models and ideals to aspire to. That makes them feel bad because they can’t measure up, not without making an effort, and who wants that? Make an effort? That’s for chumps. No, better to bring down anyone who might be a role model to the lowest level, so we can feel better about ourselves for not measuring up.

Some people consider art things of lasting value. I’ll see that and raise you Mark Twain. If his work had any value, he wouldn’t have been censored, just because his 19th century writing offends 21st century sensibilities. I’ll see your William Shakespeare and raise you Kit Marlowe, who was supposedly even better but whose work is remembered mostly by scholars. I’ll see your distribution of literature and rase you multiples: first the everyday censorship of interest groups who claim that because they find something offensive, nobody should be allowed to read it. Second, the declining interest in actually reading, because, you know, that’s too much of an effort, man, let’s see the new Adam Sandler fart comedy instead. Third…

Well, actually, the third point takes a bit longer. You know all those postapocalyptic movies where the last remnants of humanity hang out in the ruins of libraries and use the books stored there as fuel for a fire. Let’s face it, under such circumstances, keeping warm through one winter trumps preserving art, so the value of literature is reduced to how long a book will burn. A nightmare vision? Actually, considering that even movies were written (well, most of them) by writers, it’s nightmare fuel for them. The average person, probably not so much, because people don’t really read anymore anyway, and who needs books when we have e-readers (which will also not survive in a postapocalyptic world, but that’s a different bullet point). In a postapocalyptic world, the entirety of human literature will probably be gone after one single winter.

But, you cry, what about digital? Okay, I’ll see that and raise you a complete technological breakdown. Without working computers, or even electricity, everything digital will be irretrievably lost. Wait, irretrievably? Won’t it be back once you turn the power back on? Well, we once again go with art vs. survival. In a postapocalyptic world, if you got power back, what would you switch on first: your Kindle, or the lights? Plus, you need to remember that the computers themselves will eventually break down. Those things are pretty damn sensitive, it won’t be too difficult.

Paintings have a similar lasting power to literature, but what about sculpture? Usually made of stone, won’t that outlast pretty much anything? Possibly, unless some interest group takes offense at some sculpture and smashes it. Besides, one man’s art is another man’s junk.

Let’s face it, the things that we say validate our civilization only validate it because we say so. The moment we say otherwise, those values are gone.

Do I hear you cry, “Laws! Our civilization is also defined by laws! They make us civilized!” To which I say, the fact that we need to codify how we treat one another is a point against us. The fact that even though we codify how we treat one another, we need groups to enforce those laws because we won’t do it unless we’re forced to is another point against us. If we were as civilized as we claim, if we were as terrific as we think, we would need only one single rule: “Above all, do no harm.” Actually, we wouldn’t need even that one rule, because we would know to behave in that way without having to be told.

If mankind were to vanish overnight, there is only one legacy we leave behind. Only one thing that, even in a few thousand years, would show that we ever existed at all, are the damages we’re causing this world. Nuclear waste, oil spills, toxic waste dumping. That is all we will leave behind that will not be gone within a few hundred years.

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