Soapbox Post

September 25, 2009
Filed under Holidays

Answer:  Leonard Cohen, adulterers in Aceh, and Malcolm Casadaban. 


Question: Who by fire?  Who by stoning?  Who by plague?


While I’m old enough to remember Johnny Carson’s “Karnak the Magnificent” routine (see this on YouTube), some of you may not be.  But bear with me.


“And who by fire//who by water//who in the sunshine//who in the nighttime…”


These Leonard Cohen lyrics are drawn in part from a Hebrew prayer called the U’netaneh Tokef, which is a central part of the liturgy of the Jewish High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – currently being observed by Jews around the world.  Cohen’s sly lyrics add a modern twist on the original prayer, which includes such “Life of Brian” versions of death as stoning, plague, sword, beast, strangling, and others.


“who by high ordeal//who by common trial…”


But Cohen’s update, however trenchant, is alas not as necessary as we might think, for some of the old stuff is still around.  A law – recently passed – in the Indonesian province of Aceh, a devoutly Muslim section of the world’s most populous Muslim country, imposes lashings and imprisonment for homosexuality and penalties ranging from lashings to death by stoning for adultery.  (And as revealed in a recent article in The Economist, the United States may be leading the way in other kinds of excessive punishment for sex crimes.)


“who by avalanche//who by powder//who by his greed//who by his hunger…”


On the other hand, there are weird contemporary twists on some of the ancient themes in which even Cohen might not find the poesy:  News media are reporting that Malcolm Casadaban, a researcher at the University of Chicago who died earlier this month, may have succumbed to plague.  Casadaban had been working on the genetics of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes Black Plague.  According to the AP wire story published by AOL, Casadaban was interested in the genetics of particularly aggressive pathogens, but he may have been vulnerable to the weakened strain of Y. pestis with which he was working because of an underlying metabolic disorder.


“And who by brave assent//who by accident…”


Such is the diversity of the world we live in, culturally and temporally.  The globe spins and circles as one, but individuals and cultures move into the future with different strides and dispositions.  Even as only some of the most intrepid travelers are willing to take a hindward glance for wisdom or precedent, others insist that, despite its new scenery, the path forward only circles back on what we have already been taught.  And as if on a group hike through the woods, no one wants to be forced into the pace or destination of any particular hiker.  I want to hurry to the waterfall, and you want to linger over the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora).  Yet we can’t agree, like Bruce Springsteen’s affianced lovers that “I’ll wait for you//And should I fall behind//Wait for me.”


“who in solitude//who in this mirror…”


If we can’t wait for each other, then can we at least design the itinerary to accommodate both hurrying and lingering, both visions of progress and cycles of regeneration? 


On Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, many Jews cease all forms of work and focus their minds and spirits by fasting.  While this is the most extreme of my personal religious observance, I find the denial of work, food and some of the “conveniences” of modernity like e-mail that move between work and non-work a useful reflection on this question of design.  It is reminiscent of Langdon Winner’s suggestion in his 1977 book Autonomous Technology that we engage in what he called “epistemological Luddism” – the studied, self-conscious dismantling of a technology in thought in order to understand and recover the role of human agency.  For the Day of Atonement, at least, I become a Luddite with respect to my Blackberry.


“who in mortal chains//who in power…”


I can turn off my Blackberry for a holy day.  I can ride public transportation.  I can buy organic produce.  But I can’t turn off the 3G network that feeds everyone else’s Blackberry.  I can’t not breathe diesel exhaust.  And I can’t reconstruct the unsustainable agricultural system of pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics and monocultures.  Individuals might be able to opt out of certain technologies locally, or – as the Amish – in small groups for some sets of technologies.  But we currently do an exceptionally poor job of creating the paths and places in which people with different strides into the future and dispositions toward it can move at a comfortable pace – or at no pace at all.  There are too many systemic risks, too many spill-overs, and not enough protected spaces.


“and who shall I say is calling?”


Many of our emerging technologies – with visions of wireless power, wearable networks, and implantable improvements – promise users an independent, off-the-grid experience without the consequences of being a frail, disconnected being.  Such users recognize the same truths as epistemological Luddites, but go about addressing them in an altogether different way.  A sense of humility should encourage us toward plural approaches to these questions of technological choice, and a commitment to pluralism should help us create the fair diversity of paths and places.



About the author:  David H. Guston is co-director of CSPO, director of CNS-ASU and a professor of political science.

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