Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Rotten Fruits of Progress

‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ wrote Dylan Thomas while contemplating the slow decline and death of his father, ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’; but the bard was guilty of failing to practice what he so eloquently preached. The man who famously declared that ‘An alcoholic is someone you don't like, who drinks as much as you do’ stumbled into the Chelsea Hotel in New York on the 3rd of November 1953, uttered the immortal words ‘I've had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that is a new record!’ and expired at the tender age of 39. Reciting poetry boisterously in the pub and drinking yourself to death strikes me as a singularly ill conceived method of halting the dying of the light, in fact, its more akin to replacing every light fixture in your abode with Tesco ‘energy saving’ bulbs and then grumbling incredulously as one by one they fizzle into impotence. I tried this the other day in a brief moment of eco-religiosity and was subsequently returned to the dark ages as the purchased lightbulbs burned with the kind of feeble effervescence one would associate with manufactures assembled by downtrodden wage slaves in some god forsaken corner of the Orient. As a result of this, the eighty watt bulbs have been returned to their fittings where they will remain proudly until the day of revelation when the prophesies of Al Gore, Lord Stern and the IPCC will be fulfilled and the earth’s population will be purged for its eco-sins. The world may be engulfed in floods, tidal waves, swarms of insects and whatever new cataclysm is cooked up in the tabloid-esque pages of ‘The New Scientist’ but at least I will be able to find my pants in the dark recesses of my bedroom.

If like me, you were brought up on comic strips from the 50s like Dan Dare pilot of the future, where men in spaceships with improbably geometric chins did battle with the Mekon of Mekonta and travelled to faraway galaxies in search of adventure, you will probably feel more than a little twinge of disappointment at the news that our latest step in the march of progress is to send a flimsy robot to Mars equipped with a drill – not to conquer the Martian microbes in some glorious neo-colonial escapade but for the unglamorous task of looking for ice. Aside from the prospect of using this minuscule portion of the Martian Ice sheet to create the world’s most expensive dry martini, this story has nothing of the high drama and epic adventure which earlier writers expected of the 21st century. Even browsing the science journals merely hastens the onset of disillusionment. ‘Enlightened’ 18th century philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot scorned the medieval scholastics of the Middle Ages for their turgid debates on the nature of the trinity and the number of angels that could feasibly dance on the end of a pin - and yet, among the most popular scientific theories at the dawn of the 21st century are that our universe is part of an infinite multiverse in which multiple copies of Elvis exist, that human beings are ‘nothing more than’ blindly programmed sex robots infected with mind viruses and, amusingly, that the universe is shaped like a doughnut, and will presumably meet its apocalypse when it is finally spotted by a universe shaped like Homer Simpson. All these make the metaphysical musings of figures like St Thomas Aquinas look positively sane and one is tempted to reach in disgust for Occam’s Machete. According to the over enthusiastic science fiction writers of yesteryear such as Issac Assimov this was to be the time when machines finally achieved human like properties, acting as our trusted servants and making the course of our lives effortless. Well here we are in the 21st century and the closest object I have which resembles this vision is my Wii Fit and accompanying balance board. This rather paternalistic object mocks my portly frame, labels me as obese and make me insert pre-programmed excuses into my ‘weight chart’ when I consume one two many bevies at my local. Its rather like inviting a 17th century Puritan into your house and then having him chastise you while your perform sit-ups. As a result I am racked with guilt when I over indulge in life pleasures. My customary pint of Stella and accompanying packet of salted peanuts on a Friday night turns to ashes in my mouth when I reflect that the following morning, ‘the machine’ will reprimand me for my gluttony and instigate an overly harsh weight loss program. Such are the rotten fruits of progress.

When the word ‘balderdash’ is mentioned to me it conjures an image in my imagination of an elderly and eccentric character from a P.G Wodlehouse novel, who might possibly use it in the context of an unusually heated discussion at the dinner table or perhaps a dispute with his gardener. It is a quaint and seldom used expression, a remnant of Olde England, I certainly wouldn’t have expected it to be used by the world’s most unhinged oriental despotism. And yet, last month the North Korean ‘news’ agency released this gem of a statement:

“…the U.S. let loose a spate of balderdash against the DPRK, terming it "closed" and "highly militarized society" and "dictatorship." The U.S. had the impudence to find fault with the supreme headquarters of the DPRK and slander the Korean-style socialist system centered on the popular masses”

It is gratifying to see that whilst in the country we insist on polluting our own language with vulgarities, the international appeal of English is such that words which fall out of favour here are being resurrected on the other side of the planet, albeit by the axis of evil.

I was amused to see that there is a new book out written by the last surviving member of Hitler’s bunker entourage. According to the book, Hitler was always playing humorous japes on his colleagues. His favourite victim was Herman Goering, who was notoriously fond of awarding himself medals and designing his own uniforms. Hitler was fond of recounting how Mrs Goering found her husband waving his Field Marshall’s baton over his underwear in the bedroom and asked him what he was doing. "He replied: "I am promoting my underpants to OVERpants!". Evidently Hitler was so proud of this joke that he had medals made from gold and silver paper for Goering to wear on his pyjamas. Reviews of this new contribution to our understanding of the great dictator were far from impressed by his sense of humour, but its worth recalling that Hitler was a comic genius compared to Lenin. In 1920 the pompous British Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell spent five weeks in Bolshevik Russia as part of a Labour party delegation. The delegation naively expected to find a socialist utopia brimming with milk and honey and with contented workers spontaneously breaking into choruses of the Internationale. Russell first realised all was not well when a ragged group of what he presumed were beggars turned out to be distinguished mathematicians keen to pay homage. Lenin granted Russell an audience as he posed for a portrait sculptor. At first Russell thought how friendly and jolly he was. But a question cropped up about Communism and agriculture. Lenin described with gusto how he brought about a vast improvement in agricultural practices by inciting the poorer peasants to murder the richer ones – “and soon” added Lenin “the poorer peasants hanged the richer ones from the nearest tree. Ha Ha Ha!”. He then broke out into a fit of ghoulish laughter, oblivious to the fact he had just committed something of a public relations faux pas. Russell returned home in disgust to denounce communism in his ‘Theory and Practice of Bolshevism’, perhaps reflecting that on the whole it is not a good idea to meet ones heroes in the flesh.

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