“Eureka! Eureka! (I have found it!)” –Archimedes
“Having played with fire, one knows
inner forms, inner function.”
Let’s first debunk the “fake news”: Famed scientist and mathematician, Archimedes, probably did not cry out “Eureka! Eureka!” when he sat in a public bath in Syracuse, Sicily, discovering one of his — and our — laws of buoyancy!
But, as with most good, apocryphal stories — the parables in the Bible, for example — there are grains of truth, lessons to be vetted and discerned, pieces to be integrated into the bigger puzzle.
Here’s the story/myth: Hiero, the local tyrant, suspects a goldsmith of replacing a measure of gold with silver in a golden crown. Hiero contacts Archimedes to verify his suspicions. But…how?
During a trip to a local bathhouse, “the Arch” observes that the more he sinks in the bath, the greater the displacement of water. And, that displaced water correlates with his body’s weight and volume! Now he reasons: gold is heavier than silver; therefore, a crown of silver and gold would be bulkier than a crown solely of gold—thus displacing more water! “Voila!” he cries (or, more precisely, “Eureka!”) And he leaps out of the bath, runs naked through the Greek colony, declaring his discovery. (Whether or not the ladies were amused or alarmed is not reported….)
It’s a good story about the way critical minds work: they “vet.” They test ideas and propositions. They theorize and test their theories and then they vet their own conclusions with careful observations, records and consideration. They test — again and again. It’s a shining example of “trust, but verify”: The critical mind trusts the methodology—the scientific/methodical/hypothetical approach. But the results need to be noted, verified, repeated. Modulations of methodology and results also need to be noted and recorded.
Can the US Empire learn from this a thing or two about critical thinking?
In addition to his laws of buoyancy — much less apocryphal than the bathhouse story—the Arch thought a lot about levers. “Give me a lever big enough,” he said, “and a place to stand…and I will move the Earth.” (When imperialist Theodore Roosevelt spoke about his “big stick,” was he echoing the ancient Greek? Or merely being salacious?) Do we have levers big enough now to “move the Earth”? Do we have “a place to stand”?
Let’s start with “vetting.”
In 2017 it seemed to have become a wing-sprouting, ubiquitous neologism. That’s because Trump had campaigned on “building a big, beautiful wall” along America’s southern border—“vetting” illegal aliens, as well as legal immigrants, passing through Mexico. Now that the victorious presidential candidate intended to carry through with his campaign promise, the opposition party suddenly balked: unfair to immigrants! Unfair to “dreamers.” Not in the “tradition” of America’s “nation-of-immigrants” policies.
Odd how our “opposition party” — either one — always seems to make its strongest case — and loudest complaint — at just the wrong time! I recall John McCain squawking about “campaign finance reform” before that (s)election. After defeat, not a peep! (Why would he bother? He had lost, and he was a one-trick pony!) Back to the old system! After the 2016 election, we suddenly heard much more strident voices about the phoniness of the “electoral college”! When those vocal chords had belonged to those convinced they would win both popular and electoral votes — they had been mum on the subject! Not justice, not fairness, but opportunism rules our day.
Overload the system, and there can be no “vetting.” Much of our problem in the US today is not so much about “fake news” (a major problem in itself), but about a glut of news — both the fake and the legit. We are overwhelmed! What, and whom, to believe?
Don’t like “vetting”? Do you like your skin? If you don’t like “vetting,” remove your skin—a “vetting” agent between your internal organs and the enveloping world…of dust, toxins, microorganisms, etc. How about your lungs—“vetting” the air you breathe, taking in oxygen, expelling CO2? How about ideas? If we are lucky, we are “vetting” throughout our lives: determining what works, what doesn’t; who are the “good kids,” who are the “bullies”; what’s smart and what’s dumb; what lessons to take from teachers, parents, books, the arts; and what to file away — there if we need it (if we can discern). Cerebellum and cerebral “vetting”…to maintain physical and mental balance! And moral balance, too!
Why wouldn’t we want to “vet” who comes into America and who does not? Trump is right about this: “Without borders, you have no country.” He might have said, “Without skin, no body; just an exoskeletal-muscular system and a blob of organs.”
Our “nation of immigrants” mantra is nonsense. We’ve been a nation of conquerors from the beginning! The greatest growth in our numbers occurred in the 16-year period following the French and Indian War to our American Revolution! Americans don’t like to pay much attention to that war — probably because it had much more to do with defeating France’s “Indian” allies than with defeating the 60,000 French colonists. Britain’s 1,600,000 American colonists (in what would become the US eastern states), led by our “Great White Father” General Washington easily made mincemeat of the “savages” allied with the French. (“Savages,” btw, is how Jefferson referred to our “Original Peoples” in our “sacred” Declaration of Independence. Of course, most Americans never get past the first few flourishing, hyperbolic sentences. “All men are created equal”! Really?)
Having defeated the uppity, dandified French and their “savage” allies, we — i.e., the Brits — were now free to import boatloads of folks from Europe—mostly poor Brits, some Dutch, some Germans. “Immigrants!” — though, of course, only wealthy white men could vote! (We were also mercilessly packing non-immigrant African Blacks into sailing “cattle cars,” destined for “concentration camps — i.e., “plantations — in the South.) We had nearly doubled our population by 1776 — the year of our own “Glorious Revolution.” And we’ve been growing like crazy ever since — more than 160-fold since 1763! (And about 150% in just the past allotted 3-score and ten — about my lifetime up to now.)
And what was all that “largesse” about? Helping out “the wretched of the earth”? Much more to do with getting wealthy on slave labor in the South, indentured servitude and close-to (and sometimes worse than) “slave labor” in the factories in the North. Much more to do with constant displacement of those remaining “savages” in that vast Western “territory” conquered from Mexico. More to do with consolidating the Empire, knitting it together with railroads, and stretching past its borders (its skin!) to conquer the Caribbean (by 1898; we already had the “Monroe Doctrine” justifying all that, didn’t we?), and then across the Pacific to conquer the kingdom of Hawaii, the betrayed Philippines (handy coaling stations there!), butting heads with land-starved Japan, and always justifying all our conquests, all our “interventions,” with pleasant-sounding platitudes, e.g.:
“Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”
Pretty good for a platitude…but, what about “displacement”? Archimedes discovered the correlation between body weight, volume and displacement of water. It was measurable, quantifiable. In the US, we ignore “displacement.” Yeah, sure — we brought in all these “pioneers” from Britain, etc., but what about the “savages” displaced? Yeah, sure, we bring in all these tawny, olive-skinned people from southern Europe — some relatives of mine included! — but what about the people “displaced” in our factories, spewing pollution to the now unemployed, no-longer-needed “deplorable” masses? (And consider this, George M. Cohan, et al.: No doubt we would have far fewer people wishing to immigrate here if we made far fewer wars “over there”! And, is it not strange that no one talks about the Ehrlichs’ “Population Bomb” anymore?) The more the merrier? Really?
Is our “Labor Movement” getting a bit too big for its britches? Let’s pollute the “Movement” — bring in more immigrants! Let’s crowd our laboring masses into crime-ridden cities like Chicago and Detroit where they can be better “managed” by political “bosses” and our militarized police. And let’s just keep feeding the masses their fast-food slop, and fake-news and glut-of-news B.S.! The people are overwhelmed. They cannot “vet.” Education has been displaced by political, rhetorical nonsense. Media, including “the Arts” — their own kind of “media” — for the most part tittilate, inundate, reiterate, eviscerate and regurgitate! They don’t educate, certainly don’t elevate. Whether it’s a TV “anchor,” late-night mouthpiece “host,” Hollywood predator-producer, or some other hyped-on-self-importance droid…for the most part the name of the game is degrade and evade. Students at the “best” universities do not learn “how” to think, but “what” to think. Techno-humans (and non-humans) displace the extended family, the nuclear family, the individual, et al.
It takes most of us a long time to “discern”: to put the puzzle pieces together, to vet ideas and notions, weigh, observe and correlate. Do people still read books? Is there time? I finally got around to reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle last year! (One upsetting, unsettling capsule of a lesson learned: “Adulteration”—of food, of truth. It’s been an egregious, omnipresent fact of life since Sinclair’s time…and before.) I still haven’t read War and Peace! Much as I like Mark Twain for work like “The Mysterious Stranger,” isn’t it time for our public schools to replace Tom Sawyer with The Jungle? Might we replace Julius Caesar with Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children? Could we be a little more “relevant”?
Life is short; the grains of sand flow ever-faster through the hour-glass, and the algorithms now reach “conclusions” before we passing mortal beings can even stammer out a premise. What are our “human” values now? The very notions of “humanity” and “The Humanities” seem fading flowers.
One idea still lingers: after the vetting, and the discernment and recognition of the pain of “displacement”–the idea of “integration” remains.
After the old monuments are dismantled, what new monuments can we assemble? Do I have the right to destroy a man or woman’s pride in his/her heritage because it differs radically from my understanding? Does that “other” have a right to destroy my pride? Where are the teachers to help us understand our history, to help us reconcile our differences; to help us recognize who we are, who we have been, who we may become?
It is not a dreamy, nationalist, “melting-pot” fantasy we’ve nurtured, about forming a “greater Union” as Lincoln had it. (Shall we tear down the Lincoln Memorial or blow up Mt. Rushmore? The greatest mass-hanging in American history was ordered by “rail-splitter!” and “Indian-fighter!” President Lincoln, when hungry, destitute and desperate Sioux “Indians” wandered off their open-air-prison-“reservation” to gather food for their starving families. Over 30 hanged in a few shivering moments. A spectacle to teach them kind their place!)
Whom shall we lionize; whom condemn? While victorious and prosperous Americans were jitter-bugging during the “Roaring Twenties,” German children were starving in the streets…and their parents prayed for a “savior”! Who is “innocent”; who is “guilty”? What generation has been free of folly…or delusions of grandeur…or solipsistic violence? Is the pain of disenfranchised Palestinian children less keen than the “never-forgotten” pain of the Jewish holocaust? Is that holcaust less terrible, or more terrible, than the holocausts of North and South American native peoples, or those holocausts in Ukraine under Stalin, or in Russia during World War II when 20 million died, or Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dresden? Their embers burn in our hearts evermore.
We need not a greater “nation-state” to win the competitive economic battles ahead — and possible sanguinary battles — with an emergent China, a peristent Russia, or some new alliance based on the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) or OBOR (“One Belt, One Road” — China’s own super-version of the American rail system that knit our land-empire together, and our Interstate highways that changed our culture forever). Nein! Nyet! No! We need a greater Eureka vision now!
When I think about “integration” it is Martin Luther King’s words that I hear — about “all God’s children” being “free at last.” That is the “freedom” and “integration” of a greater vision, a greater calling. But, how can there be “freedom” without knowledge, without understanding? (“Where shall wisdom be found?” Job wondered. “Where is the place of understanding?” And, a long time after, “The Preacher” pondered: “In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” And yet, he pondered: “A wise man’s heart discerneth both time and judgment.”)
On this tiny, threatened planet–this electron whirling around our flashbulb sun–can we possibly transcend to a higher vision — a Carl Sagan/Archimedes kind of vision of that minuscule “blue-dot” of Earth in a spiraling galaxy? Transcend to a sensibility that courageously vets ideas and concepts rationally, educates our children honestly, and recognizes/discerns the pain we have inflicted by displacement, “deplorable” put-downs, and our ignorance and prejudices?
Can we rectify the names as Kung Fu-tzu/Confucius taught? Can we correlate, and balance the equations, judge between real gold and fool’s gold? Is it too late? Is it time to give up?
Then, who will tell the children?