The Vast Edifice of Culture

The vast edifice that is culture is as fragile as a butterfly’s wings. It is as beautiful and as tenuous. Over the many centuries of struggle since we first began to bang rocks together we have tried to build something that we might have in common. We planned for a time when our achievements would become simpler and better organized, and to that end we accumulated information. We began, perhaps, with the type of rock that responded best to chipping, and although there were those who doused our cooking fire and pitched our blasphemous spearpoint in the river, that procedure is still ongoing.

Over the millennia we pressed words onto clay tablets, pushed rafts out to sea before a storm, twisted fibres together into rope, burned food to release nutrient, and bent a stick with a cord to make a bow. We tirelessly worked on the accumulation of human knowledge. We rose each morning rejuvenated, ready for another day of learning how to manipulate the natural world in order to make our survival more assured. Even while we worked, however, there were those who worked against us.

Although we have laboured over centuries to build libraries and schools, laboratories and tests, amongst us there are terrorists who wish to tear the entire building down and build anew, each time based on a different dream. They have always existed, those who watch the sky for portents, the chicken-gut prophets, the crystal rubbers, astrology followers, the anti-vaccinators and global climate change deniers. With the confirmation bias that is the internet, those who trade conspiracy theories like an evil currency of defeat pollute the greatest database in our long history.

They are the schoolyard bullies of the life of the mind, the vandals who burn the neighbour’s house. For every one of us for whom knowledge was our watchword, who strove to make sense of a varied and chaotic world, there were those who burned their neurons to unravel the meaning in the slapping of manure in a green pasture. For every scientific advance, there were those who called upon gods and crystals and magic, trying to Harry Potter the world around them as if reality would buckle to suit a fantasy, as if you could rub your need into a stone and make the gold you desired.

Rather than simplify the overwhelmingly complex and wondrous universe to a facile story, and thereby throw away everything we have learned in order to base our lives on caterwauling in the dark, we need to move away from those who insist on licking the posts on the palace we’re building. I speak, of course, of the superstitious. Ranging from dim unthinking faith in invisible entities to checking a locked door three times to ensure its security, superstition rears its Hydra-like head into modern affairs like a barbarian at a child’s birthday party. With clumsy skills and terrifying effectiveness, those caught in its mindless grip either tear at the posts that hold up the cultural edifice, or run their rough tongue along the doorways for reasons that are as inscrutable as they are patent nonsense.

Such behavior would have a negligible effect, possibly, if the culture were more stable. As it is, the building is but a fragile shell in which we pedestal our reason, logic, the urge to communicate, and the use of evidence. Even while those most valuable discoveries are taken from the shelf and examined for their contribution, modified and stretched to better serve our goals, we are under siege. Outside, the forces of animate entropy, in the form of fanatics and the very mad, tear at the walls, wanting, in their incoherent way, all coherence to fail.

We cannot afford to let them in, even for the sake of their possible education, and we definitely cannot afford to continue to provide a haven for them. If they would live in the mud-spattered wild, chewing on each other in the anarchy of insanity, if they forsake the only chance humans have of rising out of the mud and achieving an understanding of life that makes it worthwhile, then let us deliver them to the wolves. Let them pray for their medical intervention when cancers eat at them, rub a rabbit’s foot when drowning in a flood, call upon hidden spirits when they can’t afford food, and wish a tree into a home. In short, let us quit coddling them, and concentrate on what we are doing. Across a hundred countries and in every home, we’re trying to build a lifeboat of knowledge so that at least a few may be saved from the nonsense of the many.

If you feel you have a choice about which project you want to join, then I encourage you to throw away the illiteracy of your bibles, ignore the illogic of your political process, and help with the greatest barn raising of all. Join hands with our many million ancestors who tried their best to improve human knowledge and achievement, for those who gibber at the empty sky can only promise you heaven when you’re dead.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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