My Old Kentucky Homesite

A Bit of Sourness to Brighten Your Day

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 06/10/2010

The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.
(J. Robert Oppenheimer)

It turns out that there are a rare few intelligent atheists in the Lexington area. One of them is Sherwood Burress, a pleasingly cranky new friend with whom I had an interesting conversation yesterday.

Sherwood was bemoaning the fact that most Americans seem to hold a largely undisputed, but nevertheless unfounded, belief that the “trajectory of history is positive.” Such a view of history, Sherwood said, “undergirds exceptionalism,” which “continues to befog our spectacles when we look at the world.”

Nice vitriol. And I agree with his assessment. Most of us atheists — and even many aatheists — realize that the species homo sapiens is not the zenith of nature, nor the greatest “achievement” of any god’s creation, nor the point to which evolution was headed. However, many of those same “rationalists” do make the mistake of discussing human history as if it had some kind of foreordained direction. Onward and upward. To infinity and beyond.

But think about it. History has no trajectory at all. It’s just peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys, over and over and over again, with occasional, but recurring, plummets into the abyss of ignorance, and once in a great while a relatively short spurt of intellectual mountain-building. Of course, one man’s peak is another man’s precipice.

I get so tired of hearing statements that begin:

It’s the 21st century, so you’d think …

Quite frankly, I’d think … nothing, or at least, not the kind of drivel that usually follows those ellipses. It makes perfect sense to me that, for instance, BP doesn’t know how to fix its own gusher and clean up its eco-mess; why would it? Some uncontrolled companies have grown too big to fail. Duh, of course! Fundamentalists of all religions are waging war against one another all over the globe, and using the most deadly resources available. Why should anyone assume that they wouldn’t?

I’m not shocked that our country seems to be getting more and more ignorant and theocratic by the day. It should have been obvious from the nation’s birth that such a thing was bound to happen. We’re governed by humans, aren’t we? Yes, some of the so-called Founders had the brilliant idea to try building safeguards against the “populist” mentality into the Constitution. But, unfortunately, they didn’t anticipate a culture in which “majority rules” — essentially, “might makes right!” — is a kind of mindless mantra. Nor did they foresee that most of the country’s bastions of learning would be taken over by professional sports promoters, or that our main source of news would be a piece of furniture in front of which we passively sit while words and images lull us into a stupor.

It’s awesome, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, that our current knowledge of science has reached a level not heretofore attained. But we’d better be mindful that all of our learning can be wiped out in a mere historical “second.” I don’t see any reason to assume that the Dark Ages were an anomaly. Ignorance persists, and it’s always stronger and more widespread than intelligence. I’ve yet to see evidence that wisdom is a genetic benefit.

But just look at our progress, some of you may argue. Everyone with access to a computer has the ability to find all kinds of information instantly today. Isn’t that a huge boon to the advancement of knowledge? Won’t our species grow increasingly enlightened as we become more and more educated? I’d argue: Yeah, we have some pretty amazing communication tools, unheard of in the past. And, f’Chrissakes, we’ve got “aps” for everything. But most of the messages that are communicated, the vast majority of fact-nuggets that we exchange with one another, are probably no more cogent than primitive drumbeats. In what way are semi-literate tweets an improvement over the expressive grunts of our ancestors?

So, it’s the 21st century. Congratulations on being able to count from Jesus to 2,010.

But try not to be too smug about it, eh?


27 Responses to “A Bit of Sourness to Brighten Your Day”

  1. I just watched new work done by students I had just a few months ago, and many of them seemingly have forgotten most of what I’ve told them. Yes, the natural state of humans is lazy ignorance, and if given the chance, most will return to that natural state.

    Nice to see you’ve found a fellow sourpuss. The two of you can revel in this, or better yet, find some reason to be grumpy about it.

  2. Philly:
    So if that news story makes me feel more optimistic about my pessimism, does that mean I’d be getting stupider? In which case, hating to be stupid in any way, I’d get strongly pessimistic about my new optimism about my pessimism. But then I’d be grumpy again, and — if the story is to be believed — I’d probably feel highly optimistic about my strong pessimism about my new optimism about my pessimism.

    Oh, no. I’m caught in a vortex.

    But that makes me so grumpy that I’m overjoyed. And really smart! Or … maybe not.

  3. The third president of the U.S. was Thomas Jefferson. The lesser Bush was the 43rd.

    Early Christians practiced celibacy. Judging from the local Wal-Mart parking lot, modern Christians do not.

    In the 18th Century, bribery was often punished with tar and feathers. Of late, it is effectively legal as long as the money is called “campaign contributions.”

    Scientists, teachers, and journalists are poorly paid compared to their efforts. The people who nearly destroyed the American economy take home seven, eight, and nine figure salaries.

    Of course, many people still like to pretend that the 1950s, complete with bomb shelters, “duck and cover,” the Red Scare, and Jim Crow laws was the pinnacle of Western civilization. I’m sure the 50s were great. I imagine a lot of teabaggers pine for a time “when the b****es and n*****s knew their place.”

  4. Des:
    Nice rant. It makes me feel good.


  5. John Evo said

    “The trajectory of history is positive”.

    You mean like this? Robert “Wrong”

  6. Evo:
    I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know for sure.

    I will say, though, that anyone who starts a website called “” — as “Wrong” did — is unlikely to impress me much with his intellect or insight. And this load of bullshit helped clinch my negative opinion of his views.

    I particularly loved the moment when asked if he was a Christian, he said, “not exactly,” and then hastened to add: “I’m not an atheist. I’m not an atheist.”

  7. Evo:
    Y’know, watching that clip a second time, I can definitely state that the guy is one of those who believe the crap I complained about in this post. He’s also an educated moron — the worst, most dangerous, kind of moron.

    I think there’s enough evidence in human history of direction, that there may be a larger purpose at work, of moral direction, of people making moral progress. And religion assisting that process. … I think there could be a larger purpose unfolding on the planet.

  8. Ralph said

    I can understand , but not condone the ignorance of the people here in west Ky. What I can’t tolerate is the fact that they think their ignorance is a great way of life. Every day I hear them say ” I’m just gud ole county boy, I don’t need no education.” Or ” He’s just an educated fool”.

    Being an educated fool history major I see nothing pessimistic in this post. Just reality.

  9. Sarge said

    The fundies tell me, when I ask about certain discrepencies, that “we are no longer in the ‘Age of Miracles’, we are in the ‘Age of Faith’…” and my more forward persons-of-contact are wont to say, “It’s the 21st century, so you’d think …”

    Are there bulletin boards somewhere, that have schedules posted? You know: ‘Age of faith, no more walking on water, but moving mountains by wishing and believing 1750 AD…” “21st century: Jews/Arabs will stop hating each other, US will stop acting like “cold war” ussr…or the cold war US for that matter… people in need of medical care will get it according to actual need, not in accordance to how much a middle man can make off of the proceedure…”

    As often as these things are cited there HAS to be such things around somewhere…

    I know a guy like your friend. A lot of people think that he is an old sourpuss and crumudgeon, but he’s not any such thing.
    He is simply willing to see clearly and make statements about what he sees, and what’s wrong with it. And what’s right.
    Many find this to be an unfortunate and distressing way of life. It is intolerable to most. Fictions are quite necessary as a reality lubricant for a lot of folks, and they don’t like the smell or sound of reality “unlubricated”. High, screechy noise, unpleasant smell. Everything is NOT OK.

    His life hasn’t been easy, at least socially. When you say that “The emporer is naked…and his reproductive tackle isn’t any prize, too”, you better be ready to face the wrath of those who guard the “emporer” and those safe in admiring his “clothes”.

  10. Ralph:
    To me, there’s nothing scarier than a person who’s proud of his or her ignorance.

    Actually, I suspect that most people think of my friend as an ol’ professor type, a sweetie in disguise. I’m the one who’s the old sourpuss and curmudgeon. I’ve attained that station by living long enough not to be a young sourpuss and curmudgeon any more.

    By the way, I’ve never seen an emperor with clothes on. (The one time I met Napoleon, back when I was in my teens, he was standing in his skivvies.)

  11. BrentH said

    I wholeheartedly agree with your post. There is no positive trajectory to history. Although I do understand (but also do not condone why peolpe think this way). I think the human mind has unfortunately evolved to make these kind of faulty inferences. The human mind confabulates errant trends, correlations and causations from observations all the time. Unfortunately, we also have social institutions (religion, some schools, etc.)that actively teach this flawed thinking or a least reinforce these faulty inference systems. I particularly can’t stand the the parent’s of coddled honor students that think their kids shit bars of gold and will grow up to be rich, successful and cure cancer. Good educators and schools teach students that their minds aren’t perfect and the world isn’t the best of all possible worlds – “just reality”.

  12. Brent:
    What! You would dare to hurt a child’s self-esteem by telling him that he’s not perfect. What kind of unfeeling monster are you?

  13. I love Sarge’s response about how people can’t take the world unlubricated, only I immediately went somewhere other than grinding gears. It works just as well for both grinds, I think.

  14. Philly:
    Oh, you have to wake up pretty oily to top Sarge and Philly.

  15. the chaplain said

    Oh. My. Fucking. God. I had no idea that Robert Wright was such a moron. That clip put a damper on my weekend. Which brings me to my complaint about this post: it’s entirely unsuitable for a Friday or weekend post. It would be much more appropriate as a Monday post, since it’s difficult for the world to look any shittier than it normally does on any given Monday. I hope you’ll keep that in mind the next time you’re inclined to rant on a Friday morning: save it for Monday (and enjoy the weekend).

  16. Just like a 9to5er to foist her worldview on the rest of us. Weekends? My week never ends. Everyday is Monday, damn it!

  17. the chaplain said

    9 to 5? Who works such short hours? Not me. But, when I finally get to drag my ass home, I can leave my work-life behind.

  18. Chappy:
    …my complaint about this post: it’s entirely unsuitable for a Friday or weekend post.

    Hey, it’s not my fault that you were late to the party. This was a Thursday post.
    (Granted, it was published after 11 p.m. in the East, but we atheists have to get our facts straight.)

    Anyway, thanks to Evo (aka Debbie Downer), you wound up learning something about Robert Wright, didn’t you? So for the price of a few minutes spent reading my short grouse, you saved yourself the cost of a dumb download onto your Kindle.

    Have a nice weekend. If you can.

    Everyday is Monday, damn it!
    Except for Monday. Which is Tuesday. By the way, did you notice that Friday the 13th falls on a Sunday this month?

  19. the chaplain said

    This was a Thursday post.

    It may have been 11:00 in the East, but it was 12:30 AM, Friday morning, in Newfoundland.

  20. I watched that clip. Robert Wright is as terrible an interviewee as I am. I would never do a television spot for that very reason. I actually felt embarrassed for him. It shows the genius of Colbert that he can carry an interview where the interviewee backpedals at each challenge.

    I think the clip was a great example of the patheticness intrinsic to the accommodationist.

  21. Chappy:
    If I’d known you were in Newfoundland, I would have sent you a private warning that the material was rated NF (Not for a Friday). I would have probably also asked you to bring me back a dog.

    The Patheticness Intrinsic to the Accommodationist sounds to me like a book title, something written by an Eastern European litterateur. Have you translated it from the Czech?

    On the other hand, it could well be the name of a new comedy album by a mixed-ethnicity troupe of improvisers from Chicago.

    Whatever it is, it’s a true and hilarious phrase.

    Personally, I most definitely did not feel embarrassed for Robert Wright, or sorry for him in any way. When he decided to go on TV shilling his book, he should have been prepared for some questions about it. It was obvious that Colbert thought he was a jerk.

  22. Sarge said

    Yeah, Philly, I know the feeling.

    I’ll be working on an arrangement this morning, play a wedding this afternoon, do my “lounge lizard” thing tonight, direct a recording tomorrow afternoon, something all week long at all hours for the rest of the week. No nine to five for me! Good thing I was career military, otherwise it would be bothersome, this irregularity of hours and 7 day work week (sometimes).

    I just stumbled on a quote from T. S. Eliot: to the effect that mankind can only stand so much reality.

    If you’ve ever been in a coal mine, picked cotton, worked with tobacco (stripped, picked, dried), been inside a working steel mill (among other things), you can see why this may be.

  23. I’ve been fortunate enough to only suffer manual labor for less than two years. Many of my friends do so all the time. They, and most of the others I’ve ever met have never needed divine lubricant. They’re quite fine on other lubricants like drugs, alcohol, the occasional vacation getaways and of course sports. That latter is why I think Philly fans get such a rap as hard and nasty. This city is largely blue collar, and people invest a lot in the local teams and they rarely win the big one (the Flyers being the most recent of the teams to fall short).

    There are escapes that may not be healthy, but are far better than divine delusion.

  24. the chaplain said

    Here’s your dog:

    I hope you can afford to feed it. You may want to keep lots of towels handy too, as Newfies (the dogs, not the people) have been known to drool a lot.

  25. Sarge:
    I just stumbled on a quote from T. S. Eliot: to the effect that mankind can only stand so much reality.
    … as witness Eliot’s Anglicanism. On the other hand, did you know that one of his dearest “pen pals” in later life was Groucho Marx, whose alleged nonsense was often a cold, hard, meta-realistic smack in the face.

    I’m not convinced that rooting for a Philadelphia team is better than a divine delusion.

    Thanks for the picture of the Newfoundland. That’s about as much dog as I want for the time being. It costs nothing to feed, and it has absolutely no saliva. The downside is that it doesn’t come when I call it.

  26. TinaFCD said

    I like your take on the “peaks and valleys”.

  27. Tina:
    Good to see you again, and thanks. Your comment was the peak of a valley-ish day.

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