April 11, 2011

Quality and History

Quality is a funny thing. Some people demand quality in all aspects of life, but their idea of quality is defined strictly according to the cost. They assume that a higher price or a more difficult acquisition is a certain indicator of high quality. I knew a man in Tokyo, for example, who owned an impressive collection of African masks. He could go on and on about the history of African masks, their uses in ceremony and war, the names of the Africans who made each of his masks, how much trouble he had gone through to acquire them, and so on. The centerpiece in his collection was a bright red mask with angry eyes, a demonic grin, and genuine kudu horns. He had spent several thousand dollars at auction to acquire the mask and was convinced it was the highest quality African mask he had ever seen. Unfortunately, the only thing "African" about the mask were the kudu horns. The face itself was a more or less traditional Japanese oni. He must have known this. After all, only ten minutes away from his front door was a temple with two very impressive oni statues guarding the front gate.

I never bothered to point this out to him, and more than once in the years since I have wondered if perhaps I should have. After all, there may have been a very good reason why someone would mount a pair of kudu horns on an oni mask and claim that made it "African". In today's world it is even possible that someone from Africa had made the mask and added the horns as an experiment in hybridization. The problem for me was that this man's definition of "quality" supposedly hinged on "historic and cultural authenticity" and yet, the centerpiece of his collection was a complete fabrication! The paradox held too much irony for me to do anything but grin and nod politely every time he told the story of the auction where he had acquired the mask.

Similarly, I recently bought a pair of 1875 Remington replicas made by Uberti, an Italian gunmaker. Originals, such as those in the NRA museum, are worth thousands of dollars each, making them far too valuable to fire. Most people think of the Colt Peacemaker (a.k.a. the "Single Action Army") as the ultimate old west revolver. While the Colt is an excellent firearm and sold in far greater numbers than the Remington, I much prefer the Remington. The heavier weight, the longer barrel, and the size of the grip are all far better suited to my idea of a quality firearm. The Colt's lightweight makes it easier to handle, but in my hands it always feels like a toy. For me, the Remington recovers faster and falls on target far more naturally. I can well understand why men like Frank James carried the Remington. He was the only member of their gang to die of natural causes. No doubt this was at least partly due to the reliability of his preferred sidearm.

Our definition of quality determines almost every aspect of our daily life. A major reason why there is so much difference in lifestyle choices people make is their personal definition of quality. Some people cannot stand to live in anything less than a castle while others are perfectly happy with a tent alongside a wilderness trail somewhere. When a person lives beneath their personal standard of quality it creates jealousy and envy aimed at those who have it better. That individual then must decide what they will do to bridge the gap between their desired lifestyle and their current one. As long as their plan does not involve theft, violence or coercion, they should be free to pursue it to whatever degree of success or failure they have the ability to achieve.

Unfortunately, there are many people who are not content to avoid theft, violence, and coercion. They feel that by birthright, by injustice suffered, by education, by talent, or by some other personal quality they are entitled to a better lifestyle than the one they have and it is the duty of others to provide them that lifestyle. To their mind, it is the collective duty of society to give them their dream. Some of these people are rich, some of them are poor, most of them are somewhere in between. The one thing they all have in common is this inflated and unrealistic sense that life has cheated them and they deserve better than they have. I call these people "elitists" because of their sense of entitlement and "collectivists" because of their expectation that society as a whole owes them a better life. I have spent my entire life in opposition to the arrogance, hypocrisy, and sadism that these people exhibit in their daily lives and I will not apologize for it.

There is no one religion, society, culture, or political system that is reponsible for collectivist thinking. Like all forms of mental illness, it results from a combination of childhood traumas, social isolation, and genetic inclination. Parents who impose huge social expectations on their children produce collectivists as well parents who use their children to fulfill their own lusts and parents who treat children like property. These all have the potential to create children who become adults that believe society owes them a better life. And sometimes it does not matter how much time and effort the parent devotes to their child. In some cases genetics or a series of bad choices will lead the child down the same road with the same end result: an inflated sense of entitlement and a willingness (or even an eagerness!) to inflict great pain in order to achieve their goals.

We cannot engineer a perfect society. The main reason is that in order to do so we must make a basic, collectivist assumption that all people are born with a blank slate that upbringing writes a personality onto. Anyone who has more than one child and has spent time involved in their children's lives will immediately assert that the core differences in the personalities of each child are there right from the beginning. For example, one might sleep through the night right from the beginning while the other never sleeps through the night, not even as an adolescent. Traumatic experiences, the one thing an engineered society might possibly manage to avoid, can destroy a child genetically inclined to warmth and social involvement, but so can excessive praise, overprotectiveness, and avoidance of trauma. There is simply no way to determine at birth what a given child needs in order to become a balanced, productive, compassionate adult and that is why we cannot engineer, indocrinate, or even educate our way to a utopian society.

Lots of people keep trying, however. It can even be argued that by denying their ability to succeed and by condemning their efforts I am participating in the engineering process. If only it were that simple.

Although Hammurabi often gets credit for the first codified legal system in human history, fragments from Ur, Uruk, and even Eridu imply that his is not the first legal system, merely the best preserved of the early Sumerian ones. Bits of ceramics, bronze utensils, and shattered stones from the Ganges and Yellow River valleys clearly indicate a fixed social structure with at least two economic classes which would imply the need for a codified legal system of some kind in order to maintain stability, but no early examples have been found. In current historical thinking the Sumerian city-states are dated between 500 and 1500 years older than the other two, but nothing is ever really final and there is no telling what new discoveries will be made in the future. The Egyptians with their pyramids and extensive hieroglyphics are actually relative latecomers in the scheme of things, but they encountered the same problems as the other three: starvation, greed, violent individuals, and corruption.

Marx's great scheme of an evolving society does not exist in the archeaological record. There is no physical evidence for it whatsoever. There is no grand march from barbarism to civilization to some future utopia where everyone is happy, healthy, well fed, and living in luxury. There is, however, a constant conflict between the individualists who strive to improve their own lives and the lives of their family against the collectivists who demand the more successful of the individualists share their resources with everyone else. Into this mix are thrown the ambitious and the reckless who seek the wealth of the most successful, the influence of the political leadership, and some way to justify extracting everyone else's wealth not for the common good, but for their own.

Human history is not a record of the oppressed and the oppressors. Our history is a record of dynamic, sometimes violent shifts of resource control between individuals, groups of individuals, or even just back and forth between humanity and the natural processes of growth and decay. Every historic transistion of resources is also a transition of power. I am convinced that the reason our current world is in such turmoil is because we are poised on the brink of yet another mass transition of power and resources. It is even possible that the transition has already started. The end result of this transition is impossible to predict. It always is. The only certainty is that it will occur, some will profit by it, some will lose everything, and some will just barely survive.

Future historians will look back on a period of time that began in 1972 with the slaughter of Israeli Olympic athletes by Palestinian terrorists as the beginning of this period of transition. Others will point to the creation of the Nation of Israel as the starting point. Some will place it further back in history while some will point to April 19, 1995 or September 11, 2001. All of them will remark on the violence, the unrelenting demonization of one group by another, and the ongoing pattern of self-destruction versus expansion that has been the mainstay of human society since the introduction of the steam engine. Some will look to assign blame while others will wonder how society could have gone so completley and totally insane in such a short period of time.

I guess, in the end, my real point is this: the next eighteen months will be hair-raising. A lot of people are going to die for a lot of different reasons. National boundaries will be redrawn, or perhaps even eliminated entirely. Your individual survival and the survival of your family will depend on luck, preparation, and perseverance, but in many cases even that will not be enough. I don't know what the world will look like eighteen months from now. The one thing that history clearly teaches me is that it will be nothing like it is today.

Good luck and God bless! We're all going to need it.