Friday, May 24, 2002

I OFTEN WONDER: Why do so many seemingly-intelligent people play the lottery every day? Have they forgotten that they didn't win anything the day before, or the day before that? After they have failed to win 50 times out of 50, or 100 times out of 100 -- after they utterly fail to break even after 500 games, or 1000 -- how do they manage to convince themselves that the odds will be in their favor tomorrow?

Something monstrously, horribly inevitable is taking shape, just beyond the horizon. Humanity is beginning to look like a historical aberration, hard-wired to produce its own extinction.

Consider how so many people believe in a "junk science" like astrology. No intelligent person can make a credible case for the "science" behind the influence of stars and planets over one's personality or fate, when the gravitational force exerted on me by the pencil two feet away from me is vastly greater than the combined pull of every celestial body in the zodiac.

Yet people persist in believing in astrology, because -- absent critical thinking -- it's pleasantly reassuring to hold something larger than one's self responsible for the lack of control they have over their lives.

As an amusement, astrology is harmless enough. I begrudge no one the thrill of reading a horoscope that seems eerily prescient, while conveniently disregarding all the ones that fizzle.

But when a large percentage of a whole culture clings to debunked mysticisms for guidance and solace, it's a symptom of emotional immaturity, of intellectual rot,. It's an indication that we, as a nation, as a culture, have abdicated our joint responsibility to engage in skeptical inquiry and critical thinking. And that's a very scary portent of things to come.

When a whole culture is willing to buy into any idea that merely sounds credible without thinking it through to its logical conclusion -- well, for starters, that's how we end up electing presidents whose campaign promises are mathematically inconsistent with one another. It shows that we simply don't care about the meanings of words.-- as if words don't actually translate into agendas, policy decisions and laws.

From there, it's a short step down the slippery slope of forfeiting personal liberties without so much as questioning the motives of those who would ask us to do so. But we'll do it anyway, because even a false sense of security feels better than none at all.

Bad enough that such things happen in America despite all of our Constitutional safeguards. But in other countries, in other cultures, where there is no free press and no open debate and no intellectual inquiry -- where most people live in poverty and squalor, and have nothing to look forward to but more poverty and squalor -- it's no surprise that the intellectually lazy go looking for someone else to blame for their problems.

And that's when the lies of Holocaust deniers find an audience.

I do not play the Hitler card frivolously. Nor, obviously, do I mean to suggest moral equivalence of astrology and the Holocaust. But it is the same frivolous abdication of critical thinking that allows both "harmless" astrology believers and genuinely dangerous Holocaust deniers to flourish.

It is the failure of critical thinking that makes frauds like John ("I see dead people") Edward into minor media superstars. It is the failure of critical thinking that gives quarter to suicidal lunatics like Jim Jones and Marshall Applewhite. It is the failure of critical thinking that foments popular movements like those which brought Pol Pot and Arafat and, yes, Hitler to power.

Institutionalized worldwide antisemitism. The growing threat of Islamofascism. Add to that, the simmering conflagration between India and Pakistan, which seem to be on the verge of going nuclear at any moment. Civilization is literally on the brink.

A commonly cited definition of insanity is repeating the same activity over and over, expecting to see a different outcome the next time. I look at the people waiting in line to buy their lottery tickets every day, and I can't help but think that we're either a species of idiots with very short memories, or else we're simply insane.

Either way, we don't seem to be capable of collectively learning anything.

Most Americans, I fear, have either failed to learn or already forgotten the true dimensions and consequences of the terrorist attacks. Here in New York City, it's probably a little different, because we have to confront that hole in the skyline every day. But to the extent that people outside of the New York area think about the World Trade Center at all anymore, I'd imagine that most just mutter to themselves, "What a shame ... All those innocent people ... Those amazing buildings .. All that economic chaos ... But darn it all, we've got to get back to normal now, or else the terrorists will have won!"

Well then, if that's going to be our mantra, human civilization may as well pack it in right now.

We "get back to normal" at our extreme peril. Because, historically, "normal" amounts to simply hoping for the best. Normal is buying another lottery ticket tomorrow, as if something different will happen next time. Normal is an undiminished belief in the power of junk science, superstition and prayer. Normal is burying our heads in the sand and trusting that some entity larger than ourselves will handle the hard work, so that we can just get back to living our normal little lives again.

Normal is insane.


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