Sunday, October 20, 2013

Radical Fundamentalism and the Evolution of the Rattlesnake

Fundamentalism might have a role in a democracy but can it ever emerge as a majority without destroying the basic elements of the same democracy within which it thrives? The answer, of course, is no.  The very essence of a democracy is diversity. The very essence of fundamentalism is the annihilation of any diversion from its fundamentalist path.

Fundamentalism carries with it the necessity of truth.  It’s a return to the first principles of those truths.  It is assumed by fundamentalists that the truth always lies within these first principles.   The Qu'ran, the Bible, the U.S. Constitution.  All can be used as foundational constructs...but many other foundational constructs can and do exist, many within the very same constructs from which they sprung. The stronger the  foundational construct the stronger the institutions that rise up around them.  The strength of the institution, then, reinforces the truth contained within its foundation.  Mess with the foundation and you mess with the entire institution.  That’s the bottom-line of fundamentalism and it’s underlying truths are so true as to be, well, true.  Those who are extreme fundamentalist are so fervent in their belief that they are correct, based on this self evidence, emerge as self-righteous fanatics for their cause.  Unfortunately, that is what we call a self licking ice cream cone.  The evidence that you are correct in your cause is evidenced by the fact that you exist to fight for your cause.

The radical fundamentalism of the self-righteous has no role in a democracy because by definition these radicals don’t see themselves as having a role in a democratic process.  Once you have found the truth, there can be no negotiation.  After all, you can’t compromise on the truth. Without compromise you have no democracy.

Returning to foundational principles with it’s presupposed definition of singular truth is alien to reason.  Belief in a single truth from among the infinite number of truths that surround us hems in diversity.  Evolution occurs.  It’s not a scientific theory to be debated any more then warm is warm and cold is cold.  It’s a fact of life. Everything evolves.  Plants, animals, systems, cycles, and processes.  Nothing is immune from either change or the passage of time. So too is the evolution of democracy as a system of government.  

In 1833 the number of insect species on earth was estimated to be 400,000. That prediction was made by the entomologist John Obadiah and he is quoted as having said, “If we say, 400,000, we shall, perhaps, not be very wide of the truth.”  Today we have cataloged over a million species of insects and as for the potential number of all species on the planet that number could simply grow higher than 8 million with 15,000 new species being cataloged each year.  Of course that number could also be seen as, not “very wide of the truth” as well but we have to keep in mind, even today, there is still plenty of disagreement in how it was derived.  This type of biodiversity is the cornerstone of our great blue planet.  We also have a huge diversity in the way the 7 billion people on earth choose to live and govern or be governed.  This is something to be embraced, not feared.

Evolution works extremely well.  The very fact that we are screwing around with genetics is already happening within the broader context of global change. We have evolved as humans  to the point where we can screw around directly with our own genes.   There are two possible outcomes.  Those who screw around with genetics will doom us to extinction.  Or, conversely, our doom is imminent and those who screw around with our genetics might just be the ones who can actually defer some of us from extinction.  The trick of evolution is the changes occur simultaneously and it’s hard to know in advance which change is useful.  The change that wins doesn’t necessarily know it has won.  The change that has lost doesn’t really know it’s lost because it’s not around to argue it’s point.

When I first started driving, over 30 years ago, all squirrels in Northern Virginia ran out in front of your car. When they felt the threat of a 3,000 lbs metallic animal bearing down on them, they instinctively reversed direction and ran straight back to their tree.  Sadly this reversal to run back to safety took them straight under the back tires of the car. Squish.  Unfortunately, it will be hard to do research, other than anecdotal, on the gene that causes squirrels to reverse directions and die because we haven’t been collecting statistics on the subject.  What is clear, is that when squirrels in Northern Virginia now dart out into the road most of them run as straight as an arrow and never reverse direction.  It appears that cars have eliminated that “turn-back” gene from the squirrel gene pool.  Only squirrels with a weak impulse to reverse direction have survived to reproduce.  Or, squirrels with a strong impulse to run straight were the only ones who have survived.  Or it could be a combination of both. Any way you look at it, that’s how evolution works, and there are less dead squirrels on the roads..

A more recent example where the science is being collected, but is still considered an urban myth in some circles, is that of the plight of the Prairie Rattlesnake.  The Prairie Rattlesnake is losing it’s ability to rattle.  Basically the theory is that in the presence of man, only the rattlesnakes that are predisposed to either stay silent, or genetically have an atrophied rattle muscle, are the ones that are surviving to reproduce.  The ones that are noisy to warn of their presence had this evolved survival trait to avoid being tread-on or perhaps eaten. This trait was once an asset but has now become a liability.  In the presence of man, it’s hard to not have our own self-survival instinct kick-in and meet the sound of a rattle with sound of shovel hitting the ground or, better yet, a shotgun blast.  Heck, you don’t even have to hear a rattle to kill a snake.  Snakes have that whole Garden of Eden thing working against them.  Time and time again one can find a suburban homeowner  flushing the harmless black snake from their den, where they have ironically protected the homeowners property from mice and other vermin for years, only to find the deep mahogany stain of their blood on the black asphalt street.  The homeowner stands proud, garden hoe in hand, self-righteously believing that he has made the world, or at least his cul-de-sac piece of the world, a safer place to live.  Judge, jury, and executioner, all in one.  I, on the other hand, feel a weakening in the Force. 

The snake’s life, however needlessly taken, doesn’t compare to the life of Trayvon Marshall, also needlessly taken by the self-righteous, self-appointed, self-protector of property in Sanford Florida.  Strangely, the law-of-the-land, in that neck of the woods defends such behavior, known as stand-your-ground.  Stand-your-ground works on the prairie and in the old west, where there are no laws.  There are only those who are hunting and those who are hunted. It’s not quite to that point in Florida yet, but there is no doubt that’s one of our 50 States happens to moving in that direction...the direction of the wild west.  After centuries of maturing democratic thought, which gave us civil society and the cloister of the upscale modern suburban neighborhood to begin with, do we still need vigilantes keeping the peace?  Another weakening of the Force.

Recently, the Boy Scout’s of America troop leader’s Dave Hall and Glenn Taylor, believed they had come across a cache of “WMD” while hiking through Goblin Valley State Park in Utah.  The men discovered a stone, which, by most estimates, had been standing for 200 Million years. They believed that particular stone was getting ready to fall upon the next young troop or family  heading down that particular path. After 200 Million years they happened upon that moment in history where the threat was real and present.  The rattlesnake was about to strike.  They toppled the stone, on video, to proclaim their sovereignty, the protector of scouts, of lives, and of the world.  They made their 200 million year decision in about 15 minutes talking among themselves.  They made the world safer place by toppling that stone.  It’s probably wrong for me to wish that stone would  have rolled the other way.  Yet another weakening of the Force.

Self-righteous behavior leads to disaster.  Why? Because by reasoning to first principles, by becoming a fundamentalist, you can always justify your behavior. Safety first, after all.  Rather, what we should be doing, is thinking.  Democracy exists for those who can think, those who can reason.  It sprung from the imaginations of those who wished to only reason.  These were men who wanted to break free from the tyranny of oppression at the hands of a few fundamentalists who believed in their own sovereignty as Lords over other men, those proclaimed as Monarchs.  The government that emerged has been the greatest in history...thus far.  The louder we proclaim with our own self-righteousness about our system of government being the best, the more other systems of government take note...particularly those within their those culture who are themselves leaning toward the self-righteous...can we all be right?

What’s so strange about this behavior, on our end, is that the Bible, one of the most fundamental of all documents, the one that guided the development of western culture and the evolution of our democratic system, doesn’t teach self-righteousness.  It teaches exactly the opposite.  It teaches humility, awe, wonder and selfless behavior.  Why then are there so many self-righteous fundamentalists on the loose?  There are certainly a lot of freedom loving folks living in democracies these days.  But freedoms and democracy don’t teach self-righteousness behavior either.  Democracy teaches equality first and then compromise.  If we are all equal, that’s everything, our rights and our beliefs, all equal.  To exist together, we then must compromise, and then respect the bounds of the compromises once they have been created. We can’t all be right, in fact, most of us must be wrong from time to time.

Our system of government is set up to evolve.  To evolve in whatever direction the majority and norms of society might take it...good or bad, but mostly good.   Our entire system of government is based on the equality of men, not the self-righteousness of man.  Ironically, the democratic system of government is the one system that allows bastions of self-righteous fundamentalist to exist.  In any other government, if they were not the ruling class, they would be eliminated.  

However, these enclaves of extreme behavior, are in fact necessary in a democracy.  They create the diversity necessary within a democratic society to evolve.  This diversity as a country  makes us stronger.  It gives us a vast gene pool of genetic material from which to grow and change.  That progress shouldn’t be viewed as good or bad.  It should be viewed simply as the evolution necessary to survive.  Because that’s exactly what it has been doing since our Founding Fathers set it up.  Those men of reason who gave us our constitution.

The U.S. Constitution is a living and evolving construct.  We can’t base our system of government firmly on it’s foundation, rather we need to base our lives on the flexibility of how it can change.  That’s the way we will evolve and survive.  That’s the way our system of government was set it can change.  So we can change it.  It’s not the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th amendments to our constitution that are it’s bedrock.  It’is all of the other  amendments as well.  Including the 13th, and perhaps even more important,  the 18th and 21st that serve as a stark reminder that we can always screw things up...and then, after a few years without a beer, go back and fix it. Democracy must be free to evolve and we can change it.  That’s what’s important about our system of government.  I for one prefer an evolving that can change and one with which I can sit down to discuss these weighty matter with my within which I can also have a beer...and I thank God for the 21st amendment almost everyday...

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