Fables and Truth   

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August 16, 2010

I move too often in a bright-eyed, idealistic cloud. This is mostly healthy for me, but every so often I have to admit to the lie. The lie I tell myself is that people are inclined to rational thought, and that reason almost always wins out. This is bullshit, and I know it.

WARNING: spoiler alert. If you want to watch the movie The Book of Eli, and I recommend it, you should go watch it and then come back to this little essay.

One story that I taught myself to believe is that the United States is a product of The Enlightenment. Philosophers such as Edmund Burke, John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton and our own young lions Jefferson and Madison, among many others called to order a republic of reason. And so should it ever be.

However there was another factor that figured large in the revolution. Religious Freedom was that factor. The protestant reformation brought a very large number of new inhabitants to the new nation, long before it was formed. Protestants were shunned, and even prosecuted in many parts of the world (and even in the colonies.) Most of the American revolutionaries were of one voice on this subject. Toleration.

If you have ever wondered why Americans are so religious compared to Europeans, I offer here one prevailing reason (not of my own invention): The King James Bible as a tool of culture and literacy.

The revolutionary leaders had libraries full of books. Most common folk could only afford one or two. The most easily available book was nearly always a King James Bible. The shipwright, the butcher, and the blacksmith, had little time or money to attend to culture and literacy. So much less so the farmer. A bible could be found for free.

Untold numbers of people learned to read English by following along with a finger as the parson read the testament. Religious tolerance and access to the word of God were so revered that even the slaveholder, despite a cultural edict not to teach slaves to read and write, could not withhold the scriptures. So here too, generations of people learned to read and write through worship.

There is also great literary value and cultural currency in the book. Great drama, great darkness, and great hope. Imagine that the bible was the only book that you had access to, and that an adult had taught you to read from that bible, and that every week, or even every day, you attended a church where the words were read, and elaborated upon and examined by a figure of authority in your community.

This one book, the bible, was your only window to a larger world.

In the movie The Book of Eli the hero is a mysterious and single minded ranger, on quest to reach an unnamed place to deliver an secret package. He exhibits wisdom, patience, and kindness, while mowing down anyone who stands in his way. He lives in a post apocalyptic world where some terrible incident had wiped out most of humanity. We learn that in the aftermath of this event, all Bibles were destroyed in order to prevent the abuse of power which produced the cataclysm.

Eli comes upon a town which is controlled by a malevolent war lord. It becomes apparent that this man is hell-bent on securing a copy of the bible so that he can learn its power and use it to control others. The man suspects that Eli possesses a bible. The war lord possesses a wife who was apparently blinded in the cataclysm. He also has a daughter, the daughter of his wife by marriage. The war lord tries to tempt Eli with this daughter to stay long enough to revel his secret. We learn that Eli is chaste and compassionate, and that he is able to recite scripture from memory. When Eli leaves the town, the war lord pursues him through the desert in order to kill him and take his treasure.

The war lord tracks down and shoots Eli. A gut-shot, which will doubtless be fatal within a short time. Eli cedes the book to the war lord, but it soon becomes apparent that the pages of the book are white. They are not printed with ink. Rather they are in braille and the war lord cannot read them. The war lord's captive wife denies that she can read braille. So, although he gained possession of the book, he will be unable to read it.

Eli still lives and, with the help of his companion, makes his way to the ocean. They find themselves at Alcatraz. There they find the end of Eli's quest. An old and wise man meets them and takes them to a vast library. He explains that it is an archive of all of the knowledge of the former age. He is a conservator, and he acquires the knowledge from all of the sources he can find.

Eli is dressed in a white robe and cared for and comforted as he recites the scriptures from memory. The old man writes them down. When the Bible is done, Eli dies.

So this Eli, as he journeyed — slaying enemies along the way — never let on that he was blind. He read the scriptures so many times that he had committed them to memory. He had to deliver the word to someone who would be worthy to keep it and care for it. He had to protect the word from those who would turn it to evil use. He succeeded in his quest.

This story, with it's miracles and heroic acts, moved me very deeply. It caused me to think a long time and about many things. My thoughts came finally to the issue of the fable. As a factual story, the book of Eli strains belief right to the breaking point. When we realize that Eli was in fact blind, and then recall that he killed dozens of threatening men — at one point shooting snipers off the tops of building over 150 yards away (with a hand gun, no less,) the breaking point is exceeded. These acts may only be characterized as miracles. And so, the book of Eli may only be accepted as a fable.

As I said, as a fable, I found the story very moving. It caused me to think about the morals, purposes, and meaning of mankind. Okay, so back to the rational word I live in. And the fables.

It occurs to me that, by and large, two kinds of people in our society tell fables on a regular basis. Preachers and politicians. Let's just accept that salesmen also preach, but that they fall into one of the two former professions on the whole. We only occasionally accuse preachers of lying, though few people would insist that they never do. We largely assume that politicians lie most of the time and we tell many jokes on the subject.

And yet we elect those politicians. I want to make one thing clear to you: I am not saying that the fable is a lie. A fable, like those handed down in the Bible, and those told by politicians, is a story that performs a useful function — unless it is used to deceive.

Such deception is in the eye of the beholder. All of us choose to either value and accept the fables we are told, or to refute and deny them. Often this choice comes down to our preconceived notions on the subject at hand. And this brings me to a recent example of a very affective fable. I say affective because this fable was at once wildly popular and widely accepted, and yet enjoyed no small amount of criticism from the community of scientists who's facts it purported to represent. I am talking about the movie An Inconvenient Truth.

We saw the film as a family. We all found it to be very compelling. We also hoped that the movie would turn public opinion with regard to threats brought about by global warming. We found the arguments presented by Al Gore to be personally affecting and compelling. We made some adjustments to the way we were living, and have, ever since, been working to make more such adjustments.

While it is true that the movie did manage to turn the tide of public opinion for a time, I was surprised to hear the statements of the critics. Many scientists, and even climate scientists, spoke out that they felt the move included some hyperbolic statements. That some of the segments overstated the dangers, at least as we understand them today. Scientists, you see, are not in the business of telling fables. They grow uncomfortable when the "sales" job jumps ahead of the established factual basis for speculation about outcomes. Scientists must be very cautious about any claims which they make. Their professional reputations depend on this caution.

Al Gore is not a scientist. He is clearly a politician. Mr. Gore is very comfortable in the arena of telling fables. Does this mean that he lied?

Scientists who spoke their concerns about the fable were careful to make it clear that they were not calling Mr. Gore a lier. They felt, rather, that he was making exaggerated claims in a few cases in the movie. The global-warming skeptics turned this into charges that he was being called a liar, and that he fabricated the claims made in the movie, and that the movie could not be supported by the facts. In other words, they refuted the tale and the man who told the tale. Academy Award and Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding.

Does this mean that he lied? Could the knowledge and moral dilemma faced by mankind have been communicated in another way, just at effective, but less like a fable? Well people certainly have been trying. And yet, that movie changed the minds of millions of viewers who had, before seeing the movie, been impassive or skeptical on the subject of global warming. Of course it did not change the minds of people who are hostile towards the subject. Nothing ever will.

I don't want to overstate the point. No, the movie did not cause my family and I to stop driving our cars or to disconnect the electricity to the house. We did not need to be convinced about efficiency. We converted to heavy insulation and CF lamps many years ago. We mind energy conservation and recycling every day, and have been doing so for over a decade. But it did cause us to actively investigate various ways that we might take the next steps.

Sometimes it takes a fable, well told, to do this. Perhaps scientists and activists must find ways to work together to tell more compelling stories and thus move us all forward into a brighter future. The facts alone never seem to do the trick.

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