Friday, April 13, 2007

Surviving the Epilogue: A Farewell to Vonnegut

The world remembers Kurt Vonnegut whose passing this week is a painful reminder that the world my generation tried to create may have been stillborn with the dawning of this new millennium. Even as a rabid, paranoid GOP tried to impeach the best President in a generation, there were, amid progress in Palestine, real hopes for lasting peace.

It was a time when Bush had not yet stolen the American presidency. Paul Gigot of the Wall St. Journal had not yet gloated of a GOP coup d'etat. Where are those hopes now? Did my generation fail its ideals? Do those hopes lie bleached on the deserts of Iraq -or awash in Gigot's amoral cynicism and his utter lack of intellectual integrity. As Vonnegut himself asks in the following video - is the story over?

Harvey Wasserman of the Free Press wrote "...lets not forget one of the great engines driving this wonderful man - he hated war." Most recently, Vonnegut hated the war in Iraq and the men who planned it and started it. Those men survive to threaten our future, to start another war. Meanwhile, a lonely voice of sanity is gone. Vonnegut is already missed.

This plot has a long back-story - some 1000 years. In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, crossed the English Channel, conquered the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Harold, and asserted his claim to the English throne. Though he ruled by force and forts, William stayed, imposing his rule upon an unwilling population that absorbed his native language of French but would not cease to be "English". Incidentally, it is almost possible to date the assimilation of a French word by its English pronunciation. Beef, for example, most certainly dates back to the invasion. Rendezous, litle changed from the original French, was not assimilated until much, much later. I wouldn't want to hazard a guess.

In a little more than two centuries hence, Norman "Kings" would be referred to as "English" and would assert their right to rule over Normandy – now thought of as "foreign". Still, William’s crossing of the English Channel, a feat never again equaled, has become a bookend for a millennium only recently ended.

It seems like yesterday that the world celebrated the end of a millennium. But historians will most probably mark the end of that era with another event. Nearly one thousand years after William’s daring channel crossing, American, British and allied soldiers mirrored his feat by invading Normandy, an event that may yet prove to be of equal historical importance. It may be tempting to think of William’s invasion as the beginning of an era and the conclusion of World War II as its end.

World War II changed the world in profound ways. It was a dramatic culmination of issues that are easily traced to 1066. Secondly, World War II defined the Twentieth Century even as it summed up the millennium. It was an event that shaped the lives of Vonnegut's generation.

First of all, World War II sobered the world. When the Americans exploded the first Atomic Bomb in the desert of Alamogordo in July, 1945, American scientist, Robert Oppenheimer was inspired to quote an old Hindu poem:
"I have become death, the destroyer of worlds".
That blinding flash in the desert was the reductio ad absurdum of a process of technological warfare that began with William’s victory over the English at Hastings, the English victory over the French at Agincourt, and the American victory over the Lakota Sioux in the Black Hills, the American genocide throughout the horrific trail of tears, an event my own ancestors barely survived. Warfare became unthinkable and in becoming unthinkable became never-ending: a cold war of fifty years followed now by the unceasing struggle against world terrorism. George Orwell's perpetual war.

Secondly, the computer, itself a product of World War II, has changed the way we think about the universe. Information is seen to be the very warp and weave of space-time. Not Eniac - but Colossus - was the first electronic computer. Colossus was the product of English and American code-breakers, the team headquartered at Bletchly Park. They cracked the Nazi enigma machine but would not reveal the eastern Nazi troop build-up to Russian allies. It would have blown the Enigma advantage but the Russian people would pay with their millions of lives.

Inspired by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead who had sought, in Principia Mathmematica, to ground Mathematics upon a foundation of pure logic, Alan Turing envisioned a machine that could write symbolic theorems derived from symbolic axioms. Such a machine could, and did, automate the code-breaking process. Turing has forever established the criterion by which we may judge artificial intelligence, i.e. if a computer’s responses to our queries cannot be distinguished from those of a human being, then that computer may be said to be "thinking." Mankind will have created "consciousness" in a machine.

Some thinkers have put forward the idea that at the end of the first millennium – the year 1000 - human consciousness was raised. In fact, the first stirrings of a Renaissance are in evidence in a mere two centuries hence. It’s full flowering, of course, came in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries.

Arguably, the 20th was the bloodiest of centuries, and, until Iraq descended into chaos, it had been said, erroneously, that we had been at peace for over 50 years. That was not so, course. What are called "isolated" conflicts –Korea, Viet Nam, Persian Gulf War I –were but continuations and aftershocks of a conflagration that engulfed the world. Can it be said that the legacy of that conflagration will raise human consciousness yet again as it had been some one thousand years earlier? We must hope. There is no alternative. Perhaps humankind, surviving yet another one thousand years under the threat of nuclear annihilation, will so conclude. Bluntly, however, unless men like Bush are forever forbidden any power at all, mankind will be fortunate to survive another 50 or 100 years, let alone a millennium.

Lest we despair Wasserman adds:
Now he's (Vonnegut) having dinner with our beloved siren of social justice, Molly Ivins, sharing a Manhattan, scorching this goddam war and this latest batch of fucking idiots.
Vonnegut lives and rocks on. You can find a good list of his major works at the usual reference sites: Wikipedia and at the Harold Tribune.

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