Saturday, February 25, 2017

flat wrong

Who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

-- John Milton, "Areopagitica," 1644

. . . the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.

-- Stephen Miller, February 12, 2017

I don't know why there should be something rather than nothing, but there is something. If there were nothing, then I wouldn't be here wondering about it.

Asilomar, Pacific Grove, CA, 2/19
And there is truth, for without truth there would be nothing. The Something is what it is no matter what we think of it. The earth is not round today and flat tomorrow, depending on someone's opinion. Or someone's belief. Or someone's faith. Earth is there, exerting itself against us in a characteristic way. If it did not have a character, it would be nothing.

Ever since there were sailors, it was known that the earth is round. Sailors know that the other ship disappears "over the horizon" not by becoming too small to see but by sinking beneath the curve of ocean.

There are those who say the earth is flat, but they are wrong. Flat wrong. To maintain their false opinion they must bury themselves away, not just from theoretical predictions and scientific data but from ordinary human experiences as well; and when their little dungeon crumbles and the voice of truth breaks in again, they will have to flee again. If there is no place left to run to, they might resort to violence. Ignorance is essentially aggressive.

The American faith in Milton's "free and open encounter" of thoughts is so severe that to a surprising extent we tolerate ignorance, with all the dangers that such toleration poses. We don't imprison people for speaking falsehoods, unless we can prove they have done serious and deliberate harm. We judge falsehood however, and judge it hard. If you say the earth is flat, you lose credibility. What else, I think, are you deluded about? Perhaps your bank balance is another article of your faith. Should I accept a check from you?

Flat-Earthers do not possess alternative truth. They are wrong. And potentially dangerous. Though the American principle extends to them a right to be wrong, we retain the right to question them. If they respond to our questions by fighting and lying, there are penalties to be paid.

Ignorance is essentially aggressive and potentially dangerous, but then we're all ignorant, aren't we? Truth exceeds the capacity of any of us. No one can own it. Despite our years and diplomas, you and I can only claim to have traversed a small part of Truth's expanse, and that is why we must discipline our ignorance. We must expect to be questioned, and when questioned we must provide answers. Stand and deliver -- the deepest commandment of civil society.

Emerson drew knowledge as a series of circles on the surface of Truth, each superseded by a larger one containing it. My first circle is the sweep of my eye over the horizon. I expand my knowledge by rambling outside of the circle's limits, or I expand it by climbing to a higher altitude from which a larger circle is visible. I see within my world the tiny circle of the flat-earther, within which the world might as well be flat. I see all around that circle its contradictions. Driving from here to the hardware store, taking the subway to midtown, one sees no sign of earth's curvature. But if one flies to Europe, the aircraft follows a Great Circle route that looks like nonsense on a flat map. I see this and am wise, and yet, from the wilds of some even Greater Circle, who watches me and knows me for a fool?

The wider the circle, the greater its territorial claim on Truth; but no circle is final -- "Around every circle another can be drawn." And so goes the progress of mind, of heart, of what we might with fear and trembling call civilization. The earth that looked so flat is revealed, when we go to sea or climb the air, to be round. The round rock spins and reels around a star. Our powers for good and evil expand.

There is of course resistance. As we build the larger circle, we invest in our carpentry; we don't like it when some yokel, whippersnapper shouts "False!" before the plaster dries. We wanted to enjoy our larger limit for a while, take some credit, receive the plaudits of a grateful nation. We don't want to see our drywall knocked down for some other dimension of which we had no notion. And yet it's that, or start to obsolesce. The rot on the vine begins.

Or more terrifying yet, we could start to defend our corrupted position, build the wall higher and thicker, send armies to defend against the threat of Truth, not only as it masses on the outside, but as it undermines and bubbles up on the kingdom's interior. In this way tyranny breaks out, a deadly plague to which nations are prone, but to which churches and political parties, families and social classes are susceptible as well.

The United States of America -- my beloved country -- is not a kingdom. No one gets to say, "This is the last circle!" It was designed by people who intimately knew the human lust for power, were aware that those who seize it almost never give it up unless compelled to do so. They invented something that changed the world -- the peaceful non-hereditary transition of power. They knew that no one has the whole truth, and they symbolized it in divided government; no one has the whole of power. They permanently divided power in a much-abused scripture called Constitution. Those who love America hold sacred the nation's separations of power.

In the America whose documents I learned by heart as a child, and to which I have pledged allegiance thousands of times, no one gets the last word. No one. Particularly that ill-paid employee we imprison in a White House four years at a time to do our dirty work for us. That public servant's word may be first, but will never be final. God help us we are only human, and the endless conversation is our only salvation.

A few days ago, deluded King Heffalump put one of his courtesans on TV to declare that no one can limit his power, or his proclamations. (No, I don't mean "courtier.") There was a revelation: we all saw how hostile to America, its people, its laws and its values were both the serpent and his master. Go back, sonny boy, sad herald with threadbare tights and kazoo for a trumpet, to the one who sent you. In the United States of America you have constitutional rights, but deserve no respect.