Tuesday 19 June 2012

Is Progress Real?

I love JMS.  He’s a brilliant writer and when I don’t have time to go through the hundred some hours of Babylon 5, I can enjoy his comic Midnight Nation, the story of a struggle between God and the Devil over a single human soul.

In the tradition of all the best Devils, this one has some great speeches that contain just enough truth to twist the perception of reality.  This is one of my favourites where he denounces the “lie of progress”:

“Creation is built upon the promise of hope, that things will get better, that tomorrow will be better than the day before.  But it’s not true.  Cities collapse, populations expand, environments decay, people get ruder, you can’t go to a movie without getting in a fight with the guy in the third row who won’t shut up.  Filthy streets.  Drive-by shootings.  Irradiated corn.  Permissible amounts of rat-droppings per hot dog.  Bomb blasts and body counts.  Terror in the streets, on camera, in your living room.  AIDS and Ebola and Hepatitis B and you can’t touch anyone because you’re afraid you’ll catch something besides love and nothing tastes good anymore and Christopher Reeve is in a wheelchair and love is statistically false.”

No one can deny there are a lot of terrible things in the world.  How many heroes have looked out over the world and wondered if it can be saved, if it’s even worth saving?  Check out the Internet and you can find plenty of fringe groups who believe only a massive reboot can help.  Who believe humanity is beyond saving.

And yet, there’s always the other side of the pancake.

People do fall in love.  They fall in love with people who aren’t logical choices and experience the crazy bliss of being with someone who makes you laugh and who thinks you’re one of the most amazing people to ever exist in all of history.  Christopher Reeve may have spent his last years in a wheelchair but his money and celebrity opened up vast new areas of research that are bringing hope to paraplegics everywhere.  Besides, Steven Hawking is in a wheelchair too, but his mind is able to wander the vast expanses of the cosmos.  There are terrifying new diseases out there, but we know how to defeat the ancient scourges of tuberculosis, diphtheria and influenza, which once cut our lives so short.  We are capable of great violence and hatred, but we are also capable of great understanding and compassion.  We are coming to understand ourselves and our impulses, we can reach across the globe to offer support to others.

Life is pinball.  The reward for doing it well is the opportunity to keep doing it.  The alternative is to walk away and not get a chance to play.

You can make the argument go any way you want.  Because the truth isn’t simple and straightforward.  We are both awful and wonderful.  We gave the universe both Hitler and Beethoven.  We destroy and we create and if destruction is faster and easier, there are still those who struggle to create.  We make our own choices and sometimes we choose bad things for both ourselves and the world.  But sometimes we choose good things.

In Midnight Nation, the Devil drives the hero mad by making him aware of all the misery in the world.  But he isn’t given an opportunity to feel all the happiness, all the contented sighs of parents holding sleeping babies, the first kisses, the jumping up and down excitement of getting concert tickets, the laughter among friends.  Would it outweigh the misery?  None of us is likely to be in the position to know which gives us the freedom to choose what we want to believe.

And I choose to follow another JMS character who proclaimed: “I take great comfort in the unfairness of the universe …. Wouldn’t it be awful if we deserved all the horrible things which happened to us?”

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