I just finished reading a hilarious book, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. It is a very funny account of what goes on behind the scenes at NASA. I particularly liked her contention (presented with a straight face) that the first American in space was the chimp Ham (and not Alan Shepard) and the first American to orbit earth was the chimp Enos (and not John Glenn), and that the chimps went through the same rigorous training as the astronauts, and the astronauts did NOTHING more than the chimps while in space (i.e. they just sat there on top of the rocket), but the chimps did not get a ticker tape parade.
There go my youth heroes, those space cowboys with "The Right Stuff", reduced to a couple of chimps. It's disheartening to find out that one by one I am losing all my heroes, that all my heroes were either hollow puppets or else creeps; JFK as the handsome lecher that started the Vietnam War, Beethoven throwing a hot soup in the face of a waiter, Newton spending his time trying to turn lead into gold whenever he was not trying to prove that Leibnitz stole his idea of Calculus, and Jefferson just a cynical slave owner shagging his pretty slave.
I can't help feeling cheated somehow. Don't you think we need heroes, people capable of extraordinary feats that we can admire?
I live in constant fear of the next book exposing Salman Rushdie as a pedophile, or proving that the Dalai Lama is a closet Anti-Semite, or that Maurice Ravel was a kleptomaniac stealing purses from little old ladies.
Who is left?
Here are a few things I believe but cannot prove:
Now, I admit that the proposition that in some unspecified future I will be able to merely think “we need cucumbers”, and at the same time my wife will hear in her head: “I must add cucumbers to the shopping list”, is preposterous. It would be even more preposterous if I predicted that there will be devices which would ensure that such instant information sharing will happen reliably and will be able to be turned off. But is it really so outlandish?
Consider a 17th Century scientist, a man with the wildest imagination, trying to imagine the communication of the future. Ignorant of the laws of electromagnetism, such a person would consider the idea of being able to say something in the privacy of his room, and within a fraction of a second being heard and seen by someone else half across the world, as equally outlandish. The reason is not just his lack of knowledge, but the limitations imposed on his imagination by what he believes to be self-evident. Our imagination is always limited by what we think we know about the world. To a 17th Century person, communication was inseparable from physical travel. Your letter could be carried by boat, or memorised by a horseman, to be repeated at the destination. The science-fiction writer of that age may have imagined the fastest mode of communication as a cannonball that contained a letter, and somehow kept flying across the ocean without falling down. But a non-corporeal, invisible fluctuation of electrons that can miraculously replicate a letter or an image thousands of miles away in an instant would have violated the entire worldview of such a person.
Today, we are no less limited in our imagination by what we believe to be self-evident. Our post-Einsteinean worldview for instance still maintains that information must “travel”, albeit very fast, at the speed of light. Traveling, no matter how fast, takes time. Since the speed of light is absolute, we firmly believe that information simply cannot appear simultaneously in two locations separated by space. It is a belief as firmly rooted in our thinking and just as limiting for our imagination as the idea that information requires physical travel was for our ancestors. Based on this certainty we are convinced that non-local simultaneity cannot occur in the macro-world we inhabit (though such phenomena do exist in the sub-atomic Quantum world).
I believe that the physical nature of thought will in time come to be understood far beyond the primitive brain mapping of our present time. It is entirely possible that energies that propagate thought are not electromagnetic at all, though they seem to generate an electromagnetic field as an insignificant by-product. Just as the discovery of electromagnetism transformed our world so could the discovery of a new form of “thought energy”. A 17th century philosopher proposing vibrations in the air that cannot be heard connecting specially designed transmitting and receiving devices would have been relegated to the occult, even though he would have described precisely what would transpire over the next 200 years. Perhaps there was such a fantasist, who made the mental leap without the benefit of research or proof. I would like to think of myself as a similar fantasist.
I believe, but cannot prove, that once this new form of energy that is not limited by the speed of light is discovered, it will not take long for it to be applied to technology that will enable us to share information spontaneously, instantly, in a regulated way. I also believe that the capability to turn on or turn off such knowledge sharing will be universally accepted just as email and instant messaging is today.
Why do I believe all this? Well, we have a very large body of evidence, that has been annecdotally collected over centuries, of precisely such instant knowledge sharing. It goes by various names like intuition, hunches, or clairvoyance. We treat it like flukes, or coincidences, much as our ancestors treated electromagnetic phenomena as metaphysical or occult phenomena. To my mind ESP and déja-vu have nothing to do with metaphysics. “Paranormal” is just a word we mistakenly use for physical properties we are yet to discover.
How will “instant-knowledge” affect our social fabric, our ethics, our belief systems (including religion)?
What such capabilities will do to our social fabric is another matter. Will our ability to be “inside” our fellow humans’ minds be a blessing or a curse? Like all scientific and engineering advances, only the future will tell how we end up using them. But the possibility of misuse has never stopped us from making our discoveries, and I don’t believe it will in this case either.
The year is 2152, or 1576 according to the Islamic calendar. The world is divided into three great empires, America, Sino-Russia, and the largest of the three, the Eurasian Islamic Caliphate, embracing all of Europe and western Asia, from the Iberian peninsula to the Ganges. In the previous century two momentous events have precipitated the emergence of Islamic Europe, the transformation of the European Union into a cohesive federal republic with a central government, modeled on the United States, and the emergence of a new brand of secular Islam that synthesized the most progressive elements of Islam with the best of secular humanism of the European tradition. It had first swept Germany and France, the countries with the largest Muslim population as a reaction to fundamentalist Islam, and from there it quickly spread to North Africa and onwards to the Middle East, essentially reversing the course of the original spread of Islam over 1,000 years earlier.
No one had expected this turn of events, least of all the oil rich emirates, the Mullahs of Iran, or the autocratic rulers of Saudi Arabia. Within just a few years the political map of the Middle East changed dramatically and irreversibly. In place of Jihadists preaching the destruction of the West and religious fanatics renouncing modernity there arose the appealing alternative of adopting a new kind of Islam. forward looking, humane, and with an immediate appeal to the rest of the world.
As always, it was mainly the work of a charismatic leader, a Dutch cleric in fact, Mullah Ali Masoud Al-Bindi, a television savvy evangelizer who came to be known to posterity as the Martin Luther of Islam.
It did not take long before the growing numbers of “New Muslims” and their bright meeting houses, so different from the hate filled mosques of just a few years earlier, started to attract ordinary Europeans by the thousands. Neither was it a surprise that these swelling numbers quickly realized their political muscle. In short order New Islamic parties were popping up everywhere and forming coalition state governments, first in Germany, but soon also in Spain, Holland, Italy, and Sweden. It was only a matter of time before a Muslim would ascend to the newly minted position of European President. That historical event came to pass on November 28th, 2076, a date auspiciously coinciding with the anniversary of the Hijra, the Prophet’s escape from Mecca to Medina, precisely 1500 years earlier (the Hijra marks the founding of Islam as well as the start of the Islamic calendar).
At first, the Muslim president was just like any other politician elevated to that highest of positions. But within a few years, as more and more young Europeans and other nationalities everywhere kept flocking to this new secular religion that embraced everyone, of every faith and every political persuasion, new laws were being enacted in Europe to reflect the beliefs of the New Muslim majority. Slowly but inexorably Europe was becoming in law and in fact a Muslim empire. And as more countries succumbed to the lure of this new faith, major countries like Iran and Pakistan, the empire spread to a size the world had not seen since the time of the Ottoman Empire at its peak.
It is beyond the scope of this brief historical outline to enumerate all the political ups and downs of this new global power, the internal squabbles of the member states, and the inevitable external military conflicts. Our subject here is merely tracing a single epochal event, the transformation of the European republic to a monarchy, a Caliphate.
That process having evolved only in the past twenty or so years is too fresh to yield any predictions as to its impact and longevity. All the same, it is a momentous event by any standard, not only because history rarely goes back on itself to repeat past glories, such as an Islamic Caliphate, but more importantly because of what this new Caliphate in fact bodes for all of Humankind.
Here is just the bare-bones summary of how this strange transformation came about.
As was to be expected, the surprising ascent of New Islam, and the success of the early Muslim leaders of Europe to appeal to all their constituents, could not be maintained without opposition. All the regional, linguistic, and cultural histories of Europe did not go away overnight. Neither did the long cultivated suspicion and animosity towards “Arabs” and their foreign religion, even though most of the “new Arabs” were now the sons and daughters of everyone. It was not long before regional tensions too started threatening to boil over into full-fledged secession movements, and from conservative quarters came the call to shake off this takeover, this surreptitious hijacking of old Europe.
On the other end of the political spectrum were traditional Islamic voices calling for a greater fidelity to older tenets of the faith that were superceded and suppressed in the new state religion. Still others in the halls of power simply would not tolerate dissent. These were the military men and their industry backers. “Crush the malcontent” was their simple recipe.
Things were looking bad for Europe, when of all things the most outlandish solution to the crisis was started to circulate everywhere, It was promulgated not through political manifestos but through a series of novels. The author, a young Dutch woman of American descent, whose mother converted to Islam even before it was the New Islam quickly became the most read author in Europe. Her books called for, believe it or not, the establishment of a monarchy, an Islamic monarchy called a Caliphate in Europe, a form of government that had not existed anywhere for centuries. Why bring back the most anachronistic relic of a past long gone? It made no logical sense. If a republic could not manage its internal affairs, how on earth could a monarchy be anything but pouring oil on the flames of discontent?
And yet, such was the power of the author, Khalifa Al-Masri, and such was her following, that this outlandish idea started getting adherents, first half-embarrassedly by some renegade intellectuals, but gradually, mainly thanks to the film adaptations of her novels, by the general public. Here is what was the core of Khalifa’s proposition. The problem of the republic was not its vast size or the cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of its citizens. Neither could the problem be blamed on New Islam, which clearly had the support of the majority of at least the young people of the state. The problem , according to Al-Masri, was the outmoded form of a republican government trying to rule a federation, and modeled on the long bankrupt model of a United States of America, long past its prime.
There was another model, a model not tried anywhere for 300 years, and even that model was a corrupt version of a much more successful model that had not existed for close to 2,500 years, said Khalifa in her stories. That model was the original Muslim Caliphate in Baghdad that flourished under the Caliph Harun Al-Rashid. In that model, a head of state was elected for life, though he could be removed by his Viziers (or cabinet) if he abused his position. The salient point that caught the fancy of everyone, federalists and separatists alike, was the one tenet of Islam most missing from the new religion, tolerance. It was the remarkable tolerance of early Islam that was its enduring legacy.
Of course Khalifa did not advocate a literal return to a medieval form of government. All she suggested in her thrilling tales and movies was the possibility of letting people feel masters in their own backyard, without regard to how many different backyards the country actually consisted of. Let there be no more uniformity in Europe, but let there be a central authority that governs through the approbation of the multitude, a focal point to hold for the empire.
It was a ridiculous premise, to say the least, one destined to be forgotten once a new literary fad or film style swept the public. But against all odds, Khalifa continued to fire up people’s imagination with her images of a benign, respectful, and civilized co-existence between entities of semi-autonomy and between the individuals who made up those entities.
In the end, as all other option were failing, and the Eurasian experiment was seeming to collapse, Khalifa’s harebrained idea started to seem to be the only way out. When it was put to a referendum just five years ago it won an overwhelming approval. Now, the only question that remained (and a thorny one at that) was who could be entrusted with the immense responsibility of governing the largest empire on earth, for life?
It was a no-contest. Khalifa Al-Masri, a mother of two young children, the most celebrated author of Eurasia, who had never held a public office, was the only candidate. She chose as her royal name the title Khalifat Al-Awlad, the empress of children.
And so it transpired that a woman who happened to be (if you comb the historical records) the great great great granddaughter of an obscure Jewish musician in America centuries before, became the first Caliph of the Eurasian Islamic Empire.
And you couldn’t guess it of course, but I was that Jewish man back in America, the proud great great great grandfather of a Muslim empress.
After President Barak Obama was elected I was hopeful that the shameful wars waged in the Middle East by his predecessors will come speedily to an end. Others had the same hope, and to express it the Nobel committee in Oslo awarded him the Peace Prize shortly after his election, based on nothing but his campaign promises and a naive dose of wishful thinking. As it now stands, Obama has the distinction of having continued to wage war while being a Nobel Laureate for peace. While it was not his fault that the Nobel Committee gave him a prize he clearly did not deserve, it is to his eternal disgrace that he did have the decency to return the prize.
I choose to think of Obama not as a cynical war monger but as a decent politician defeated by the machinations of government. One can argue the geopolitical reasons that have prevented him from putting an end to the bloodshed all one wants. The truth is simple, the bottom line for any president is to be reelected. A few thousand more dead are a small price to pay to that end.
Still, just think what a statement of integrity the returning of the Nobel Prize could have been. What and an admission of the impotence of the President of the United States to act upon his conscience and vision. And a clearing of his name from the stain of war.
I was so incensed about this that I wrote my war protest composition "Let There Be War", using historical recordings of presidents' war speeches and weaving them into a musical Requiem to peace.
But indicting the politicians who send young people to die in distant lands for nothing still only tells half the story of the crime of war. The soldier is not blameless. A soldier, when stripped of all the self-serving patriotic euphemisms, is nothing but a killer for hire, a mercenary, a hit man. In the current war now raging in Afghanistan, he was not conscripted against his will. He willingly offered his services to the bosses in the backroom who hired him to liquidate their real or perceived enemies, those threatening their turf. The turf now is the world and the bosses are not some two-bit wise guys but men in designer suits living in the White House or populating the board rooms of Haliburton, General Dynamics, and the rest of the Military-Industrial complex.
Their hit men don’t use silencers but smart bombs, and their protection victims are some faceless goat herders in a godforsaken land halfway around the world, that has never been and never will be tamed. But a racket is a racket.
A soldier, willingly contracting himself out to kill distant people who did him no harm, is never a hero. And whether he knows it or, like a brainwashed zombie, believes his handlers’ propaganda, he is in the end nothing but a hired gun, a small expendable pawn in the savage game that cynical ruthless men play for greed and power.
Hit men should not be celebrated for their senseless sordid deeds even if they are just dutifully following their bosses’ orders. Instead we should urge “Our men and women in uniform” (what a nicely sanitized politically correct euphemism for killers) in Afghanistan to consider the following: If you have any decency and common sense left in you, quit while you are ahead, seek another mode of livelihood before you are returned to your family along with a neatly folded rag.
And consider also the lessons of history. Each and every one of the 40,000 Americans soldiers who lost their lives in Vietnam, each and every one of them died for absolutely nothing. Not a single benefit accrued to the United States from their dutiful senseless deaths. We know this now with hindsight. We shouldn’t have to wait long to learn the same lesson about the current senseless carnage in Afghanistan.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)