The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
13.3 (Summer 2013)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
What Thales Found: A Play in One Act
The Traditionalist (T), not dressed up but tidy in his humble way; he wears a loosened tie, a sweater vest, and a white Oxford shirt with cuffs turned back during this period of relaxation. His hair is cut short and he sports a neatly clipped beard consisting mostly of a short goatee. He is about forty years old.
The Progressive (P), tall and thin in a Corduroy jacket with elbow patches; his shirt is open at the collar. Though clean-shaven, his wavy hair has been carefully molded to trail back from his forehead in an almost equal part and gather in an upward swirl well below his collar. He has reached his mid-thirties, being perhaps slightly the younger of the two.
The Faculty Lounge of a small college. The two, being alone, have occupied the choicest seats, the Traditionalist planted comfortably in an armchair and the Progressive sprawled so amply on a sofa that his shoes almost touch the upholstery where they dangle off the far end. The usual collection of rumpled journals and neglected coffee mugs lies strewn over block-like end tables and a counter with a sink. The sunlight penetrating a window to the side slants far into the room, indicating mid-to-late afternoon.
T: I’m not denying that she’s a very attractive girl. I’m just distressed that she doesn’t seem to have a stronger moral character.
P: Because she’s not married to her boyfriend yet she lives with him—is that your objection?
T: Well, part of it. She also appears to have had more than one boyfriend. Some of them—maybe most of them—aren’t around much longer than a weekend. At least, that’s the way she tells it. And I’m bothered, by the way, that she tells all these things out in the open where anyone can hear, as if she were talking about the weather. We don’t really know each other, but I know all kinds of details about her personal life.
P: So honesty is something else you don’t like about her?
T: You can call it honesty if you like. I could tell everybody the details of my last trip to the bathroom, and that could be honesty, too.
P: So you think having sex is like having a bowel movement?
T: It seems to be for some people, doesn’t it? Something you just have to do once a day—an involuntary behavior, forced upon you by the healthy functioning of organs.
P: But you think it’s something dirty—something smelly and disgusting. Don’t you?
T: Why would you say that? Because I don’t think it should be discussed publicly? You seem to think that honesty is as simple as sharing all of one’s private life with the world. Can you not think of any reason for holding something back other than that it’s dirty and smelly?
P: Actually, no. I wouldn’t shout my credit card number to the world, but… but that’s another matter. A matter of self-preservation. But in matters of lifestyle, I don’t know why a person shouldn’t be free to say what she wants. Yours is the crowd that’s always screaming bloody murder over the fate of the First Amendment.
T: I’m not saying she doesn’t have the right to recite her catalogue of boyfriends; I’m saying it’s in bad taste, and that it doesn’t show her moral character in a good light. Come to think of it, yours is the crowd that doesn’t want people to utter racial slurs—and it’s not just a matter of taste with you. You go as far as criminalizing speech that you find offensive. You want students expelled from campus—and faculty dismissed from their positions—for saying things like… I don’t know… like, “Lauren is attractive.” If I said that in her presence, I could be fired for sexual harassment.
P: Yes, if she found it offensive. You could be making her feel that she’s just a piece of meat on the counter—which is crudely put, but that’s exactly the way those remarks make some women feel.
T: Yet these same women, in some cases, chatter on and on about their latest sexual partners without any hint of binding commitment or spiritual attachment. And the rest of us have to hear which dog has most recently salivated over the meat.
P: You perceive what she’s saying in that light because you’re obsessed by what you feel is the dirtiness of sex. She’s actually trying to share her happiness with people she considers her friends.
T: Well, maybe I’m trying to share my happiness when I say, “Lauren, how pretty you are in that blouse!” Maybe the shirt shows off her straight, square shoulders—and no one would dispute that she has an eye for matching colors. Okay? But no—can’t say that. Bad. Dirty minds instantly start reading your mind. Isn’t it kind of obsessive in a woman to think that such remarks are always about her boobs? There’re a lot of plain-looking people in the world. Maybe I’m just trying to thank a friend for not being one of them… and then she makes a beeline for the Title IX Compliance Officer.
P: As I’ve said… you have to consider how your remarks are received by the other person.
T: And as I’ve told you, the other person should give a little thought to how her remarks are received by me, and by others who honor their wives and families and believe in monogamy and in a life dedicated to sacrifice rather than pleasure.
P: Oh, please! Would you feel better if we gave you a medal?
T: No. You see, people who give things up for higher alternatives don’t do that for medals. Medals are just garbage. But we would feel better if you would show a little respect for the struggle. If you were a smoker and had decided to kick the habit, would you appreciate my lighting up right in front of you?
P: So now you’re saying that sex is a kind of addiction, and that you married guys are recovering addicts?
T: As a matter of fact, if you want to reduce it to those terms, I won’t object. Yes, when you’re trying to stay on the straight and narrow, it doesn’t help to have revelers splashing you with Champagne from both sides. That’s part of what was once called common decency—a large part. I understand your position, believe me—probably better than you do. People like you think that people like me are hypocrites and perverts who hate all the things that are naturally pleasant. We don’t. And it’s really very arrogant of you to think we do. Maybe you just like belittling us for the feeling of superiority. But you’re right that we do try to suppress certain pleasures in order to build things that require focus and dedication.
P: Actually, only the “suppress” part is what I think of you…
T: Good. Then at least you understand that suppression involves a certain effort. And it’s not very nice of other people to complicate the effort casually and without a thought. Common decency doesn’t tell the rest of you that you can’t burn the candle at both ends. It just requires that you not do so in our presence, and especially in our faces.
P: No. You don’t like light. I get that part. In too much light, one runs the risk of seeing. That’s why you have to wear blinders.
T: As a matter of fact, blinders are better than the alternative. Those clinical studies you love to cite have shown that heavy consumers of pornography just want more and more, and finally want to do something besides look at pictures.
P: Oh, really? Which study would that be? I’d be impressed if you could come up with one… though the Organization for the Biblical Overhaul of Reality has probably published several, come to think of it.
T: Well, I’m sure that few organizations measure up to the objective purity of the Kinsey Report. But say that I accept your snarky comment about blinders. Don’t you wear blinders, too? Doesn’t everyone? The guy who feeds constantly on porn is precisely the guy who can’t see that a strawberry blonde looks good in her green blouse. He’s just gaping at her boobs—he couldn’t tell you green from polka-dot. So it turns out that Title IX crusaders are trying to protect women from the very sex-crazed men that the freedom crusade created, in the first place. You guys need the blinders—and the curb and the tight rein—of a whole new set of laws to keep your hands where they belong.
P: Whoa, there, Silver! You’re assuming that what you call heavy porn consumers are the friends of sexual emancipation. From where I stand, it’s just the opposite. The guys who need a permanent drool rag in front of their video monitor are the Christian soldiers who can’t break ranks publicly to go a-courting.
T: As the studies show… you forgot to add that final fantasy to your fairy tale.
P: And so they do. That’s exactly what the studies show.
T: Oh, for crying out loud…
P: Jesus, man! You can’t even let loose with a “shit”! Just say it. “For crying out loud”… you make me think of my grandmother…
T: Yeah, okay. Take language. Take venting your irritation with a few “f” bombs. I’m guilty sometimes—but I don’t do it in public. Because other people may be trying to preserve something like civil discourse, and if they hear me giving up the cause, then they’re that much closer to giving it up themselves. The end of common decency…
T: And who ever—back to your other flimsy contention—managed to use fewer foul words by using more? If a revolving door of sexual partners makes a man less inclined to look at porn, then letting out a blue streak of cussing should make him less apt to cuss in mixed company than a guy who’s bottled it all up. Do you really believe that?
P: About as much as I believe that a guy who goes shooting every weekend is less likely to go postal than a guy who never touches a gun. That, I think, is your position, is it not?
T: No, my position is that a guy who knows how to handle deadly force is less likely to use it than a guy who’s had no practice with it. A karate black-belt, or whatever they call themselves, is less likely to get in a deadly brawl than someone who has a lot of anger and no skill.
P: And a skilled lover—a black-belt in lovemaking—is less likely to glaze over in front of a porn site than somebody who never gets the real thing.
T: For the umpteenth time… it’s no wonder we get nowhere! You can’t keep your mind fixed on the main point. It’s not about never… we were talking about monogamy versus promiscuity, not lifelong celibacy versus having a mate. I’m not making a case for a celibate priesthood, or something, which is a whole different issue.
P: Just as well. We all know where that ends up.
T: This isn’t about life without sex—it’s about a life not dominated by sex, but by real caring for one’s partner and raising children and other such things.
P: You’re right, I’d almost forgotten. This is all about what a hard time you have being faithful to your wedding vows because Lauren’s a slut. Is that because her lifestyle makes you think you might have a chance with her?
T: I’m not going to let you piss me off today. You have a well-worn pattern of being the last man standing in an argument because you insult your adversary until he’s tongue-tied. Like you did with the black conservative economist who came to speak before the election last fall…
P: The Uncle Tom who didn’t want any generation but his own to profit from Affirmative Action… yes. I accept that badge of honor.
T: Instead, I’ll just volunteer for a little more rudeness by telling you this. When I was single, I could never get interested in a girl who was tumbling around with a different guy every month. She just wasn’t even a possibility to me, because I could see clearly that she wasn’t after what I was after.
P: A mother for your children and a maid for your kitchen. Right. It’s a shame to imagine how many girls must have missed out on that grand prize.
T: Are you or are you not capable of being civil? And to think that you’re the big defender of campus speech codes, the enemy of offensive language…
P: I hadn’t realized I had turned you into a victim—white, male, and empowered though you are. Perhaps you should be included in a legally protected class… but, oh, I forgot! You don’t believe in protected classes.
T: And I’m not asking for yet another one…
P: Good, because I’m damned if I see what right you would have to it.
T: I’m only claiming that I should have the right—since you mention rights—to believe that Lauren’s conduct is immoral.
P: Oh, you can cuddle that little right and take her to bed with you, as far as I’m concerned.
T: No, that’s really not true. If I want to rear my children to believe as I do, I find that you guys take my right away. The right to a belief isn’t simply the right to think privately, because a belief isn’t just a thought hidden away secretly in your heart. It’s something you impart to your children. The privacy of thought isn’t a right, but a fact. Thoughts are private, by definition—though you utopians are laboring to change that, like when you tell me what I see in a blouse.
P: I know what you see.
T: You know what you see.
P: I know what you want not to see. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this stimulating conversation.
T: I’m glad you’re not bored. Will it bore you if I finish an abstract point? The right to a belief is the right of parents to transmit a view of reality to their children. And your bunch refuses to let me teach my children my way rather than your way.
P: I really don’t know what you’re talking about—sounds like more neo-Nazi extremist paranoia. Nobody controls what you teach your kids. But you don’t control what trained professionals teach your kids, either. You can’t blame the Establishment for raising children to be socially integrated and considerate of others. Just because your beliefs, as you call them, divide people and create dissension doesn’t mean that society has an obligation to stop teaching harmony and cooperation to its young.
T: There’s no arguing with double-talk. I only wish you could hear just how sinister those sanitized abstractions of yours sound.
P: So when I say something abstract, it’s sanitized double-talk. I guess I’m just too far gone… no point in talking to me!
T: Not much. But let me try it another way. Say that I’m a Muslim. If my daughter ran off with a boy for even one weekend, I would smack her silly and lock her in her room for a year. That’s assuming that I didn’t kill her. Let’s say I’m a moderate Muslim, so I only take away all my teenage daughter’s privileges and never let her leave home except to go to school. Would you say that I was… ah, what was it, now? That I was dividing people and creating dissension? Would you?
P: You should seriously think about becoming Al Qaeda, man. That would be a perfect fit!
T: But I’m seriously asking you a serious question, man. Can you not handle it?
P: I’ll really have to bear down. I was being serious when you started on Lauren a million years ago, but your insanity pushed me past my limit.
T: You just said that you could easily imagine me as a member of Al Qaeda. So tax your feeble imagination a little less, and just suppose that I’m a Muslim.
P: With one wife or a harem?
T: I have a daughter, she runs around too freely with boys for my belief system, I consult the holy Koran and the hadith and talk with my imam. Finally I determine that the girl must be shut up in her room except during school hours—and that I will drop her off and pick her up at school myself at the specified hours. I take her cell phone away and disable her Internet connection, and I require her to pore over instructive readings. What would you say to that? Am I a sex-obsessed pig, just because I follow the law of Islam? Am I encouraging disorder and injustice when my beliefs tell me that I’m standing up for righteousness?
P: If you really were a Muslim…
T: You can’t just shrug—that’s not an answer.
P: Naturally, I wouldn’t like what you were doing… but that would be your culture, if you really were a Muslim.
T: Which is to say, those would be my beliefs. So why does the game suddenly change if I’m a traditional Christian rather than a moderate Muslim?
P: Because… because you’re part of our culture—the broader, dominant culture you see in our movies and TV shows and everywhere on campus that you don’t want to look. American culture.
T: No, I’m not! That’s exactly what I’m telling you. Believe me, I’m not. Your ways are not my ways.
P: The hell they’re not! All the things I hate about American culture are a result of your influence on it—your kind of person. The commercialist propaganda, the stupid gender-stereotype myths, the… the…
P: The Protestant work ethic that lets people starve if they don’t suck up to the boss or have the wrong skin color, the branding of everything pleasurable as sinful, the corrupt Wall Street crony-capitalist political machine…
T: Wait a minute…
P: The determination to meddle in the private affairs of other nations just to steal their oil…
T: And this is what you call being serious?
P: Forcing minority women to have babies, and then locking their babies up for life when they reach sixteen…
T: Okay, abortion is something that a moderate Muslim would oppose. And sending women off to become CEO’s in pants suits, too. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
P: But he would also oppose your raping his ancestral country for oil, and your putting a dollar sign on every patch of holy ground—since I suppose you both have sacred real estate. So how can you pretend to be him?
T: Christians don’t support those things, either.
P: Are you kidding? Is that what you call being serious?
T: I’m a Christian, and I’m telling you that I oppose wasteful, unbridled industrial development just for the sake of making a few more bucks. And I also oppose wars in countries where we have no vital security interest.
P: How many in your congregation? You and your dog?
T: You don’t get to tell me what I believe, though you can caricature it as much as you like. I’m sure a lot of people say they’re Christians who don’t go more than skin-deep with it.
P: You think?
T: But you’re evading the issue again. Even if there’re only a hundred people nation-wide who believe as I do, we should still get the same consideration for our beliefs that you would give to a Muslim. In fact, if there are so few of us, then we should be one of your beloved minorities. I couldn’t care less about that. But if you’ll allow the Muslim guy to imprison his daughter outside of school hours, then you have to allow me to teach my daughter that Lauren’s lifestyle is wrong.
P: Sure, go ahead. Who cares what you teach her, anyway? She’ll go away to college one day, and then she’ll figure things out for herself.
T: Is that your answer to the Muslim, too? “Go ahead and believe whatever you want. We’re not telling you about it… but we intend to subvert your children.”
P: For the last time… you are not a Muslim!
T: And back again to the first time, still unanswered… why does that matter?
P: Because you don’t have their excuse. You didn’t come into another culture that had discovered electricity and open-heart surgery: your own culture did that. And you know damn well that you don’t believe that dinosaurs are a hoax, or that their fossils are only five thousand years old. You’re part of modern American culture, even though you don’t want to be. You don’t get to choose that: it’s just a historical fact. You’ve lagged behind—you’ve come kicking and screaming. If there’s any virtue in that, then you can have it, bro! But you still can’t deny where progress has dragged you. In the days of our forefathers, probably everybody was a Christian of your Neanderthal stamp… but some of us came out of the caves at last. Most of us. And now all of us have to. That culture is now this culture. It’s the same culture, even though you’re refusing to be a part of it.
T: Are you really arguing that because our great-great-grandfathers were all Christian, therefore our generation today is required to be post-Christian?
P: Why do you make it sound so ridiculous? Of course that’s what I’m arguing! That was then and this is now. We all once believed—or our forefathers did—that the earth was the center of the universe. That was okay for then; but if you now say that the sun orbits the earth, then people will look at you like you’re crazy—and they’ll be right. Our culture moved, and you should have moved with it.
T: But the Muslim is excused from moving, because…
P: Because Western science was not part of his heritage. He’ll come along later.
T: Oh, I don’t think he’d like that formula! But what interests me is you. The Muslim is allowed to lord it over his daughter because… because his culture is inferior, and he has to be treated like a little child or someone with Down Syndrome.
P: I didn’t say that.
T: What in hell do you think you said?
P: I didn’t say he was stupid. I said he was…
P: His culture is backward.
T: So you’re judging his culture now? Because his values are not your values, you’re going to tolerate him in this condescending way until he learns to exchange his god for yours—Allah for progress?
P: You know what? You were right earlier. It’s completely impossible to carry on a conversation with anyone who speaks in double-talk. Anybody else would get it, and I think even you get it—but you enjoy not getting it. You always have to be the caveman. Well, enjoy your cold rocks and your wet fire.
T: I’d rather have the cave if the La Brea Tar Pits are waiting just outside its entrance.
P: I thought you guys were all keen on Plato. Haven’t you ever read the Allegory of the Cave?
T: Yeah, that’s usually good for an extra point on the SAT, or so students tell me. Did you ever hear what happened to Thales when he went stalking around in the dark staring at the stars?
P: He probably invented a constellation where some superhero was raping a girl in a tight blouse.
T: Interesting guess.
P: Did I get it? Really?
T: No. But it’s interesting that you equate the granddaddy of science with… well, what would you call my type? A neo-Nazi religious fundamentalist pervert. Oddly enough, we’re both looking up at the stars, I suppose. Only mine are in heaven, and you think they’re fires scattered about the earth, reachable by the march of progress.
P: No, sorry. That sounds more like your Genesis account. Our means of approaching the stars involves physics and engineering to create options that you guys can’t even dream of.
T: And if you could get to one of those stars, and if it had an earth-like planet orbiting around it, you would want to colonize the place. Right? You didn’t come all that way just to test your warp drive.
P: Yeah. Sure we would. And we wouldn’t be building mosques, and we wouldn’t be building churches.
T: Exactly. You would build the ideal society. Even if an intelligent species already populated the planet, you would move in and make your Shangri-La.
P: Now… I didn’t say that. You just threw that in there. We wouldn’t be trying to contaminate any pre-existing culture.
T: Wouldn’t you? But you’d have no choice. The visible appearance of your spacecraft on their horizon would probably already have sent major ripples through the native belief system. And then, why wouldn’t you take the Muslim approach up there if you’d taken it down here?
P: The Muslim approach! What’s that supposed to mean?
T: I mean, you do everything superficially to let them think that they can remain as they are, but deep down you’re counting on their coming around to your way of doing things.
P: Or maybe their way is superior. Maybe we’ll go native and do things their way.
T: Really? You mean like some kind of New Age ritualist who contemplates his navel as the sun rises on the spring equinox before jumping into his hybrid car and going for a latté at Starbuck’s?
P: Pwuh! Whatever. Maybe their priests won’t molest children.
T: Okay, forget about that. I pulled things off target. Your sarcasm has infected me. But say that they have some belief system that you consider beautiful. It still didn’t build them a spaceship. The fact remains that you’re the discoverer and they are the discovered. Your practical science is necessarily superior to theirs. So by your own standard, explicitly stated… they are inferior…
P: Their culture! Their culture is a little backward, that’s all.
T: … and they therefore are destined to yield—oh, not under duress, but just by a kind of osmosis—to your more enlightened ways.
P: As we are to their ways. It’s called cultural exchange—you should try it sometime. We give them the benefits of our chemistry and medicine, and they teach us how to achieve inner piece through living in harmony with natural rhythms.
T: Oh, dear! Every extraterrestrial you guys meet is doomed to be Pocahontas or Chief Seneca, I see. And you don’t find any contradiction between spaceships and living within nature’s rhythms, I suppose?
P: None at all. Spaceships will reflect a mastery of those rhythms. The age of the steam engine is over for good. We no longer have to destroy things and fight nature to make progress. True progress will come for the very reason that we now understand nature and move within her without making waves. That’s it—it’s like a swimmer. A bad swimmer flails and splashes and sends up clouds of spray without making much headway. A good swimmer finds and rides the current and hardly has to make a kick now and then.
T: So… so, theoretically, if the native tribe’s mystical sachem takes enough pulls at the native weed in his pipe, he can journey in spirit to earth without ever having tightened a bolt or welded a joint.
P: Wow! I actually like that… hadn’t thought of it that way. That would be too cool, wouldn’t it?
T: Oh, boy! Socrates would have fled Athens willingly if he’d had to handle answers from pupils like you.
P: Sorry I’m not predictable.
T: You’re predictably unpredictable. You’ve just virtually admitted that a fantasy experience—say, something induced by nanobots injected into the brain, so that the neurons are all telling you that you’re descending through a green gas cloud to a planet of giant broccoli—you’re as much as saying that that is interchangeable with real interplanetary travel.
P: And so it would be. If your neurons are reporting sensations to you in a fashion identical to the real encounter, then your encounter is real. Because there’s no way for human beings to judge reality except through information gathered by neurons.
T: So why go space-traveling at all? You could stay at home, fine-tune your nanobots to simulate the most amazing planets—all of them safe, or at least not deadly—and you’d never have to risk polluting another planet or corrupting an indigenous culture.
P: Yeah. Sounds great. Sign me up.
T: But… but you wouldn’t be learning anything! It would all be imaginary—you’d just be diddling yourself! Your life would be like a long dream that you’d never wake up from.
T: Almost sounds like your life, doesn’t it? The big man in the clouds with the white beard steering goodies toward his faithful, dead bodies springing to life so they can go sing hymns forever… personally, I’d prefer the seventy-two virgins.
T: It really annoys me how you barrel-roll out of every awkward conclusion with some flippancy. Just answer the question. Is there or is there not objective truth?
P: It depends. What are you calling objective? Objective for stars and planets… yes. Objective for establishing cultural superiority… no.
T: But even there, your objective truth about cultural values is that none can be judged superior to others. You presented that as a categorical truth. But let that pass. Just stick with stars and planets. If a star either does or does not have a habitable planet, and if you build a spaceship because it’s so important to find out for sure, then how can that undertaking be no more valuable than getting high or dosing on nanobots until you feel yourself visiting a land of talking horses?
P: I believe you said a while back that the real value of the space expedition was to build an ideal society. That would be worth the trip in itself—to create a place where nut-jobs like your cohorts didn’t exist.
T: But that’s even worse than saying that you’re in search of scientific knowledge—you really are going to make me lose my mind! And then I’ll be just like you!
P: Everyone should have a grand ambition.
T: You just said that no culture can be judged superior to any other. But now you’re saying that the ultimate value of space exploration would be to found your kind of culture in preference to mine.
P: If the planet was deserted to begin with, what difference would it make?
T: That’s irrelevant. The point is that you’ve just determined one culture to be superior to another. And you’re not allowed to do that according to your own values.
P: But your culture really is inferior, and it’s so because it judges itself to be superior. We’re simply going to set up a culture where cultures like yours don’t come stomping in and try to trample everybody else down.
T: And that will be the only rule—that nobody must judge anybody else?
P: Pretty much. Live and let live.
T: So if I want to teach my daughter on your planet that she shouldn’t grow up to have multiple lovers, one after another, you’ll let me do so without the schools interfering?
P: No, because you’ll be teaching your daughter cultural bigotry.
T: But so will you. Because you’ll be teaching her to go ahead and be promiscuous.
P: No, we won’t. We’ll be teaching her to make her own choices. She can become a nun, for all we care… only she won’t have any monastery to hide in.
T: But that’s ridiculous! A child doesn’t know what she wants—she’ll do whatever she sees all her friends doing. And if you don’t allow self-control to be taught without official contradiction, then you’re de facto teaching hedonism. You’re teaching everybody to scratch his itch and to do what the group does. Why even leave earth for that? Why even build a city on earth… or why even try to be adopted into Pocahontas’s tribe? Because you’re bound to know—even you—that tribal cultures have some of the most oppressive rules on earth. They won’t just let you smoke weed and corrupt virgins.
P: They won’t? Well, there you go: that’s the ideal society we need to found on Delta Sigma 84b.
T: You… you jerk.
Voices are heard off-stage, drawing closer.
T: And to think that this is the way you treat a serious conversation, yet you had the nerve to stand up and heap your righteous indignation on that poor economist last fall…
P: Shut up! It’s… Lauren.
A faithful contributor to this journal for the past decade, Ivor Davies resides in the North Georgia area with his family, where he writes, teaches, and consults (in reverse order of remunerative advantage).