2019

Grappling with understanding America

I loved teaching Moby Dick. Herman Melville’s novel is chock-full of scenes and passages rife with imagery and complexity that challenged my students to think more deeply. One scene, Ahab talking to a decapitated whale head, stretched the bounds of their reasoning landscape.  

“Speak,” Ahab says, “thou vast and venerable head.” After waxing about the wondrously horrific sites the whale had seen in its “awful water-land,” he wraps with a plaint: “O head! thou hast seen enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham, and not one syllable is thine!”

Melville titled that chapter “The Sphynx,” thus alluding to the Great Sphinx, a mystical symbol of omniscience. Ahab isn’t content with book learning, and he scorns indoctrination. He would not had been cowed like the First Couple about eating forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. He would have feasted.

Ahab is, of course, a deeply flawed character, consumed with anger and hatred for Moby Dick, which had grievously wounded him. From that perspective, it makes him an unideal poster child for intellectual curiosity. Nevertheless, for those not encumbered by fears and victimhood and endowed with curiosity about the unknown, Ahab can be an avatar.

The Edenic Myth has had deplorable consequences. For many, the quest for knowledge is a frightening prospect because it not only can undercut and obliterate preconceived, safe-and-secure philosophical constructs, it also puts the onus of responsibility of acting to solve problems squarely upon the learner. With learning, denialism is not permitted. Nor is blaming mythical cosmic ogres such as Satan or a personified dark force called Evil allowed. It’s no wonder, then, Arabs call the Sphinx Abū al-Hawl, or “Father of Terror.”

Science is the antithesis of fear-filled thinking. It focuses on discovery, uncovering verifiable truth, and fact-based evidence as opposed to ignorance, misunderstanding, or falsification. Whether natural or social, the sciences seek to understand phenomena, what is happening and why. Science might have erased the magic and mystery from elves and wood sprites, as Edgar Allan Poe laments in his “Sonnet—To Science,” but it also has slain the bogeyman.

Through the “ologies,” social scientists seek to understand humans’ complex behaviors, customs, and beliefs. They study that which we do and believe, why we do and believe this or that, and the nature of problems created due to homo sapiens’ poor practices and decision-making that began on Day One, that fateful day when Lucy’s grandchildren ventured forth from the African savannah to subdue the earth.

It has been tens of thousands of years from that time and place to this one. Still, our physical and psychological DNA, influenced by proceeding generations, carry genes from then and them. Our particular cultural DNA has a much later starting point: Jamestown, 1607 CE. From then to America 2019, we have evolved.

I am curious about our cultural evolution since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. I grapple with what we’ve become, why we have, and what it portends. For good or ill, future historians will likely look back at this as the Age of Trump. That will be their concern. Ours is the present. Our challenge is to do our best to shape a positive future for the country and the planet. It begins, though, with assessing the problem: What we do and why do we do it.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said, “It really boils down to this. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”

Care to partake forbidden fruit? A healthy salad, food for the intellect, has been prepped and tossed. Join me in future columns for the repast.

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