Imagine widespread ignorance and casual cruelty
That’s only part of the setting of Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
There’s also slavery, poverty and “a ruling class established mostly on the grounds of inherited ignorance.” The New Atlantis continues this exercise in imagination…
Instantly impressed with all these problems, Hank
believes that, possessed as he is with the benefits of a modern
education, he should do what he can to relieve medieval man’s estate.
He endeavors to build an educational system, encourage inventions,
establish a free press, promote freedom of conscience and a
multiplicity of religious sects, improve communications and
transportation, and diminish suffering and injustice wherever he
Sounds hopeful. But hardly…
The book concludes with the massive death and
destruction brought on when Hank’s reforms meet with a
counter-revolution and a bloody civil war…Excitement and satisfaction
at their initial victories give way to the realization that they, the
conquerors, have now been conquered. If much of the novel appears to be
a celebration of reform, progress, and Yankee ingenuity, the end is
Hank, the prototypical American, is a cheerful,
optimistic fellow, slow to take offense and wedded to modern
conveniences and to the way of thought that underlies them; all
problems can be solved pragmatically, he seems to think, and he expects
that he himself will be central to their solution. He is committed to
republican government, religious diversity, modern science and
technology, patent laws as a way of promoting the useful arts, comfort
and cleanliness, and public newspapers to make information available to
all. Instinctively averse to human suffering, his heart goes out to
victims of injustice and disease. He undertakes great personal risk for
good causes, such as the liberation of unjustly enslaved prisoners and
the education of the king.
This is Twain’s critique of feudalism. Fascinating depiction of modern man.
Hank has badly misjudged the people of Camelot. He may
have brought them the trappings of modernity, but they are not moderns.
His external reforms have not been matched by an internal
transformation. The Yankee ought to have foreseen this problem, having
earlier repeatedly lamented the imperviousness of the English to
rational arguments like his; such arguments “have no chance against
petrified training; they wear it as little as the waves wear a cliff.”
Reason and argument cannot easily divert the “inherited ideas” that
flow “in ruts worn deep by time and habit.” The people of Camelot, he
had recognized, were intractable:
“Training—training is everything; training is all there is to a
person. We speak of nature; it is folly; there is no such thing as
nature; what we call by that misleading name is merely heredity and
training. We have no thoughts of our own, no opinions of our own; they
are transmitted to us, trained into us.”
Indoctrination, so to speak.
So where is this excursion into the Dark Ages going? Can exposure to
modern ideas and technologies break people out of destructive group
Twain finally seems ambivalent toward his Yankee, and
this ambivalence reflects his complex assessment of the attitudes and
principles that characterize his modern hero. The Yankee and his author
both condemn the injustice and superstition of Arthurian England, and
we may join them in cheering modern liberty and progress.
On the other hand, with the blessings of the modern age come great
risks (and lesser ones as well). Oblivious to these risks, the Yankee
destroys Camelot, friends and foes alike, without even being aware of
what he is doing—one might say that he seems almost as free of real
responsibility as a child, rabbit, or lunatic.
But with Twain’s warning, we are not. Mixing powerful technologies
unreflectingly with modern ideologies makes for a toxic brew, and while
our naïve optimism and democratic tastes can be charming, they may not
suffice to stave off destruction.
Amazing timing, coming across this. On this weekend’s ‘America’s Lifeline’, bioethics expert Wesley J. Smith
ran through a brilliant and staggering list of ways we’re stumbling
down that same dark path. He exudes frank realism more than pessimism,
but that’s just how things are at this precise point.
Bioethics is not a narrow category of topics now, he says, but
includes “everything having to do with human exceptionalism.” What’s
most important in our society is related somehow to bioethics. “How we
perceive the importance of being human, of how we treat each other,
how we should treat those with disabilities and those who are frail and
elderly. How we treat people who are dying and how we include them into
our community. How to assure that biotechnology remains ethical”
instead of turning human beings into another ‘corn crop’, Wesley said,
ticking off a rapidfire list of gut (and conscience) checks for ‘modern
“Will being human continue to be morally relevant?” Wesley asked,
rhetorically, but in all seriousness. After all, world bodies are now
not only considering extending human rights to animals and plants, they’re actually doing it,
and enforcing these brave new world mandates through governments and
the ’court of human rights’, which is an increasingly odd misnomer. “In the ideology of the ‘deep ecology’ movement, humans are the scourge of the earth,” he said.
“Then there’s the Peter Singer mentality that being human isn’t what
matters but being a ‘person’, defined by cognitive abilities. It’s a
quality of life ethic. The higher your capacities, the greater your
value. And Singer’s ’ethics’ are triumphing. It’s an effort to make us
a ’moral community of equals’, whether humans, gorillas, apes,
orangutans, etc. And people say ‘oh sure, gorillas with human rights, that’ll be the day’ but it’s not the kook fringe saying these things. Spain has ratified
this legislation. Austria refused to declare a chimp a person and were
taken to court. The Swiss constitution says plants have ‘intrinsic
dignity’ and rights as humans….It’s a collapse of critical thinking.”
When that show becomes available in audio archives, listen to it,
download it, tell others. The other two co-hosts of the show are the
brother and sister of Terri Schiavo, who was deemed unworthy of life
and then by court order, starved and dehydrated to death. While the
flowers next to her bed were kept well watered.
After doing that show, I stumbled across the New Atlantis piece on
Twain’s book and the “toxic brew” of “mixing powerful technologies
unreflectingly with modern ideologies”. And they dovetailed too
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