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Nobility Lost

7 July 2009

My friend, “B,” advanced a few pieces into the center of the board as a challenge to my opening gambit yesterday, “Things I Loathe.”  His implied objections deserve a more thoughtful reply than qb has yet given.  My postscript to that throwaway article was a start, but there is a great deal more at hand, including questions of nobility, responsibility, and social valor, among other things.

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It is common, alas, for us to think of technologies of all kinds as a sort of cultural tofu, borrowing flavor from the sauce.  In thinking so, we deceive ourselves, and systemic consequences obtain.  Which is to say, of course:  the consequences are unnoticed until the bill comes due.  By definition, we rely on prophetic voices to keep before us our accumulating cultural debts.

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And that is a central focus of this blog, not that qb is himself a prophet, but rather that the true prophets, those who are thinking the deeper thoughts and grappling with the harder and greater questions, are not being heard, for whatever reasons, and are certainly not being heeded.  My hope for this blog, to the extent it has any value at all, is to serve as an amplifier of sorts, or perhaps a conduit, that brings us into closer contact with those invaluable, thankless people who make it their lives’ work, often in vain, to ask, and then to answer in light of Christ-informed reason, those hard but essential questions.  In faithfully telling us what they see they render their indispensable service to mankind.  We need to hear them, and when they are right, we need to heed them.

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As trivial as they may seem on the surface, Facebook and MySpace force us to confront a systemic social evil.  We can thank technology for many things, not all of which are worthy of our undying, unquestioning gratitude.

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The blogosphere shares many attributes with social-networking sites (yes, qb’s aware of the irony).  A cursory survey of ESPN.com, CNN.com, and FoxNews.com reveals the obvious.  A columnist writes a provocative piece – sometimes it need not be all that provocative! – and opinions fly to and fro in the Comments section.  Within fewer than a dozen posts, the conversation has devolved into epithets, name-calling, ad hominem attacks, and other garbage.  This pattern obtains nearly every time, as anyone could confirm on his own.  And if we are reasonable, we are forced to reckon with this question:  if the medium were truly neutral, why does the phenomenon not proceed in the opposite direction from time to time, from the vulgar to the winsome rather than vice-versa?  Is there something intrinsic about the medium that lends itself to the vulgar and the violent?

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The legend of the Tower of Babel was a prescient, eternal piece of cultural criticism.  We began with a lofty goal, and we progressed rapidly toward that goal with an clever machinery lubricated by a common tongue.  When the time arrived for deity to confound us, he had only to distance us from one another by confounding our face-to-face speech.  That was enough.

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So let’s explore B’s objection, illustrated by his use of the firearm analogy and the Second Amendment overtones.  There’s plenty to work with here.

The gun, we are told, is nothing more than dumb steel, impotent of itself.  But that’s nonsense, of course.  Which are we parents far more likely to leave on our kitchen counters overnight while the children sleep, a block of razor-sharp Henckel knives or a loaded Smith and Wesson Model 686 stainless .357?  And why?  Could it be that a gun makes possible a vastly greater range of violent outcomes than an 8″ chef’s knife?  Could it be that the vastly increased range of lethality has a deep, psychological effect on us when we run through the possibilities and risks?  Is it not obvious that the further away I am from the object of my violence, the greater that violence can become without engaging my conscience’s self-restraining attributes?

qb owns just shy of a dozen guns across a spectrum of lethality:  five shotguns, a semi-auto .22, a bolt-action .22, a 7mm Rem. Mag., and a .243 Winchester.  Somewhere in all of those boxes in the attic, qb owns a Taurus .38, with a full handloading setup for the rifles and stacks of factory ammo.  But qb keeps nearly all of it in a fireproof, child-proof, thief-resistant, anchored-to-the-slab gun safe.  Why?  And why, by contrast, does he leave his Schrade Uncle Henrys and his Buck Pathfinder in a mesh bag on the shelf?

Somehow, we also know this:  on a spectrum of sporting nobility, hunting with a bow beats sitting in the cozy, anonymous comfort of an elevated blind 250 yards from the game trail.  (qb hunts with a 7mm Rem. Mag., primarily; clearly, qb’s not terribly concerned about that dimension of nobility.)  And we know it because (a) success with a bow is more elusive, (b) hunting with a bow is more primitive, and (c) getting up close and personal with a 700-lb bull elk is more dangerous by far than engaging him from a football field away.  That is:  our prospects are weaker, and we are in much more personal danger, with a bow and arrow than with a 140 gr. Nosler Partition moving at four to five times the speed of sound.

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That something is impersonal and inanimate does not make it socially or culturally neutral.  In search of deep conversation, we don’t typically choose a sports bar with flat-screen TVs in every conceivable field of view; why would we then pretend that TVs are culturally neutral devices?  They are steeped in, and profound exemplars of, the assumptions of consumerism, visual titillation, and multi-tasking utilitarianism, to name just a few.  TVs are anything but mere assemblies of copper, silicon, and plastic.

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It’s uncomfortable to do so, but we need to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring some other things to our conscious reflection.  Just the other day, a well-known talk-show host was extolling a WWII general who was responsible for the firebombing of Tokyo, and the conversation naturally moved toward the end of the war in the Pacific theatre.  We are told that the moral calculus, though certainly gut-wrenching beyond what most of us ever have to bear, could be boiled down to some pretty straighforward arithmetic, all things considered:  either we kill a quarter of a million (foreign) civilians from the relative safety of 45,000′, or we risk four times that many of our own soldiers and Marines, to say nothing of the 2 million Japanese casualties that were projected in an infantry-led invasion of Honshu.

qb’s not here to hold forth on the ultimate decision, which is a topic for another day.  And let me be clear:  I’m not positing any sort of moral equivalence between the agents of unprovoked massacre on 12/7/41 and the Oval Office on 8/6/45, any more than there is a moral equivalence between a Marine on house-to-house patrol in Baghdad’s Green Zone and a squad of 20 terrorists flying jumbojets full of civilians into skyscrapers.  But we mustn’t pretend that the crass arithmetic on which we base our popular ethics is of no moral consequence.  Do the math:  Given an equivalent military/geopolitical outcome of the two options as projected before decision day, the foreign noncombatant was worth X American soldiers.

In August 1945, X was greater than one.

Today in the Middle East, with the advent of remotely controlled Predator drones, our “moral” threshold X approaches zero.  We can off any number of noncombatants in an apartment complex, from hundreds of miles away, without putting a single soldier at risk.  And now we’re building infantry robots to pull our Marines out of harm’s way.  We call that progress.  In Weberan terms, there’s no dispute.  But what happens to us in the human dimensions of nobility?  And when technology skews the cost-benefit relationship of violent actions in such a way that our relative exposure vanishes, how will the fluid dimensions of Augustinian justice respond?  Again, there’s little room for dispute.

Here’s some raw material to inform the conversation.  We know that massive increases in irrigation efficiency ultimately accelerated the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer (the Jevons Paradox).  Is it conceivable that increases in killing efficiency of our weapons systems makes it easier to pick some fights than we might have in a more primitive day?  As long as we are using cost/benefit ledgers and body counts to build our cases for “just war” – recall that one of the five pillars of jus ad bellum is “reasonable hope for success” – does not a significant increase in killing ratio by itself potentially move a prospective conflict from the “unjust” to the “just” column?

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Gotta run for now.  I’m posting what remains on my Bulletin Board so you’ll know where we’re headed.

BULLETIN BOARD

Markets are a particularly seductive form of technology.

Whatever one might say in admiration of Predator drones, one word that clearly does not apply is “nobility.”

B and I understand these things; they are why we meet for breakfast on Saturdays, at Rosa’s when we can, and around the Bible on Sunday evenings.

The problems here revolve around our unexamined assumptions.

At very least, Aragorn’s dilemma involved a sword, not a joystick.

Anonymity.

Personal and voluntary accountability.

qb

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