Departments

Victorian hypocrisy

The hypocrisy of the Victorians is the spittoon of critics: everyone feels entitled to take a passing shot. But it was the Victorians who taught us how to hate them, who exposed and exhibited how far they fell short of their own standards. They did not know how to take things, the Victorians: when they found that the best of them fell short, they concluded not that their standards were unworkable, but that the ones who had seemed best were hypocrites.

Other ages took it for granted that to be born human was to be born weak, part of a fallen race. But with the Victorians, and with their real descendants—not those of us with willing spirits and weak flesh, but those of us who pounce on them—it was established that moral malfeasance was always positive evidence of the intent to deceive and manipulate; that high standards are high only to shadow the sins that lurk behind them.

We have inherited, not the Victorian standards, but the Victorian attitude, the double bind that the ultimate sin is sin concealed. So we have become catalogers of sins; we have named them all, from megalomaniacal delusions to the crannies of sexual perversion. In this sense only, we have gone farther than any other age in understanding human nature; but though we have all the data, we learn nothing from it.

We are ungenerous with the species that we study. We have descriptive lexicographers, but no descriptive psychologists; they all study us in order to instruct us; and by instruct, they do not mean illuminate or capacitate, but disillusion. The psychologist who writes to disabuse us of pride writes to recognition and admiration; the psychologist who writes to convince us that we have strengths as well as weaknesses is walled off into the ghetto of self-help and managerial platitude-peddling.

The Victorians thought we were born good. That is nothing new; ask Mencius. But where Mencius blamed the bad examples we set for one another, the Victorians blamed themselves for being bad examples. In the Victorian view, evil is powerless over us until we give it power, the way Ahriman was born from a doubting thought of Ormazd; except that our misstep is not doubt, but hypocrisy.

The ancients offered us proverbs and dark sayings to make us wise, that is, to give us regret and fear; not to purify us from temptation but to teach us to compensate for human frailty. The moderns invite us to the spectacle of the convicted hypocrite being thrown to the lions and expect us to cheer. Here is instruction enough in not trying, in not daring, in not sticking the neck out.

The Victorians did something terrible to us. They lacerated the continuity of history. They hid the wide, wild world from us for our own good, and when at last we found it again, tucked away in the attic, we thought we had discovered something new. They disinherited us; they denied us our birthright, our place in history. Even when we denied them, we had no ground to stand on but the one they left us: their hypocrisy.

We are all Victorians; and they are Victorians most who, like the Victorians themselves, pile on contempt for the hypocrisy of their contemporaries or their forerunners, for whom the instrument which seeks out the motes in others' eyes becomes the beam in their own.

A little learning

All learning is dangerous. Knowledge, we are told, is itself power; but while power is only greater or less, knowledge is right or wrong, whoever holds it and however little they hold. In the development of zoöology and botany, for example, broad-minded polymaths bowed over and over to narrow-minded travelers. Learning, like war, is subject to sudden reversals and improbable victories. Empires of learning have fallen: Scholastic theology, Marxist philosophastery; and the territories of learning are subject to epochal overrunings from without: Descartes, Darwin, Marx.

Tyrants always first burn the books and bury the scholars. They have never got them all; but what the survivors have learned, whether alone with the hidden or forbidden books in their attics, or reciting them over and over to keep them straight in the attics of their brains; what they have learned while despised as wizards, devil-traffickers, heretics, sentimentalists, reactionaries, pedants, or just madmen—is that an age is not made dark or light by its luminaries, but by the lesser lights crowding around and beside them.

In an age of darkness an incandescent mind at best disorients, at worst horrifies those who have been accustomed to live in darkness. Great lights are bearable only to those with eyes adjusted to light, to those routinely aware, in themselves and in those around them, of the possibility, of the reality, and of the worth of light. Those who have walked in darkness all their lives, who have given their whole trust and faith to one or another memorized set of directions that have saved them from most falls and collisions without requiring them to be aware of where they are—will hate light. They have been blind to the world, and worse, unmirrored, unknown to themselves. Light will burn them, and they will hide from it, shroud it, or put it out with slogans and proverbs, with laughter and mockery and shouting down; with exiling potshards, with hemlock, with crosses, with the auto-de-fé and the pyre, with the breaking wheel, with guns, with imprisonment, with transportation, with impoverishing lawsuits.

Greatness requires audient mediocrity not for contrast, but for support. The opposition the great meet from the mediocre is but the resistance of the water to the swimmer. What holds them back also holds them up.

New worlds

The survival of humanity through cosmic timescales will not be secured unless we venture into the cosmos; but the extinction of humanity is assured if we resign ourselves to chasing the perfection of the species down the dialectical spiral of reform and nostalgia.

We are trapped on this planet, among earthly problems without earthly solutions. Real change takes room to experiment. Think of the changes in the world over the past few centuries from the mutual discovery of new continents. I live in a country which was conceived and undertaken as an experiment, and has become the proof and example of democracy without mob rule or faction and of freedom without chaos.

I am stuck here in the earthly mud with all the rest of us. I cannot imagine what experiments are yet to be done. But I trust that what hope there is to better the human condition leads through them.

No more than we can sit and reason out nature without experiment can we sit and reason out human nature and human possibilities. It must come to experiment. To colonize our sister planets or the stars is not to repeat the world we know on a larger scale: it is to discover new worlds, not in the sky or in the stars, but in ourselves.

To see what we take for granted, to see unimagined alternatives, will take perspective broader than the narrow experience of Earth. What we need first and always is surprise—and as there is nothing new under the sun, we must have new suns.

The Better Mousetrap

If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, February 1855.

You are an entrepreneur and the inventor of an all-around innovative product called the Better Mousetrap. Your competitor in this field is a new conglomerate, Universal Mousetrap, formed from the merger of US Mousetraps, Imperial Mousetraps (of England, with subsidiaries in all Commonwealth nations), and Anygrad Mousetrap, formerly the Anygrad Mousetrap Design Bureau. Universal Mousetrap also has a good relationship with the Mousetrap Company of Shanghai—once a subsidiary of Imperial Mousetrap, before Mao and the nationalization of foreign assets,

To start with, naturally, you need money. You make presentations to several venture capital firms, irrefutably demonstrating the technical superiority of the Better Mousetrap. You are nonetheless repeatedly turned down. This perplexes you until you realize, from certain cryptic comments and a long look through the hagiographies at Universal Mousetrap's website, that most of the Universal Mousetrap management, particularly the famous, dashing, well-tailored CEO, are graduates of a certain famous American university, which also supplies much of the management of these venture capital firms. You are asking them to betray their old friends and golf partners.

Very well, then. You will not be daunted. You seek out a smaller company, with management of less exalted background, and quickly obtain the funds you require. You build a factory in the Midwest, and start churning out sample Better Mousetraps to demonstrate to retailers.

Your first disappointment comes from your greatest hope: the ubiquitous retail chain, Tanto-Mart. Their handshakes are listlesss; they seem hardly to be listening to your presentation. They express doubts about your capacity to produce the volume they require. You produce charts, diagrams, ranks and files of facts and figures to show them they are wrong. You already have the whole chain worked out, from deactivated nuclear warheads to Tanto-Mart shelves. They are noncommittal, even after you show them independent studies demonstrating people's universal desire for a better mousetrap and their high opinion of yours. They contact you later to decline. Your mousetrap would have a shelf price 10 cents higher than Universal's. If you were just willing to outsource production...

But the Better Mousetrap is a sophisticated product. Cryptography is involved which it would be illegal to export; and there is the fear of patent violation and piracy. The manufacturing process for the mus capacitor is a trade secret which might be difficult to keep overseas.

You keep trying. You make local presences for yourself, especially in the "global cities," where sophisticated buyers love the Better Mousetrap. You start getting into the smaller chains and franchises on regional levels. From local supply you are building global demand.

Then one day you are out shopping at your local Tanto-Mart, and you discover a product called the Gooder Mousetrap. You buy it, take it home, and discover that it is in clear violation of your own patent. It is manufactured, according to the box, by the Gooder Mousetrap Company of Frontville, Kansas. You decide to sue. As you prepare, your lawyers find that the Gooder Mousetrap Company is in fact owned by Universal Mousetrap.

Your sales are already declining. Ad outlays actually seem to be decreasing your sales as the Gooder Mousetrap Company takes out competing ads putting its product forward as the cheaper alternative.

Universal's lawyers come into court and admit they have been in violation. They claim that they neglected to conduct a search for prior art before patenting the Gooder Mousetrap. They volunteer to withdraw the product from the market. They accept a fine and agree to destroy all stock of the Gooder Mousetrap.

You are elated. Gooder Mousetraps disappear from the shelves. Your Internet and mail-order sales increase dramatically, as publicity from the trial spreads the work about the Better Mousetrap. But outlet sales stay down. Why? You discover that the Gooder Mousetrap has reappeared in stores. You buy one and take it apart. It has all new workings; you are confident that it still violates your patents, just in a completely different way. You decide to go to court again.

You also decide that the time has come to capture the market you have always been aiming for: industrial mousetrapping, for grain storage, food warehousing, &c. Only no one is interested. You discover why: Universal is selling the Gooder Mousetrap in bulk, below cost, to industry. You manage to get ahold of one of these mousetraps only to find: this is not the new model; it is the old model you have already won your case against, all stock of which was supposed to have been destroyed. This is not just a temporary setback: since the Better Mousetrap, and consequently the Gooder Mousetrap, uses lasers to vaporize the carcasses and runs on 30-year plutonium thermoelectric batteries, buying an order of mousetraps is not a continuing expense, but an infrastructural investment unlikely to be repeated for decades. You start another suit against Universal Mousetrap.

The court judgments go again you. A media campaign has cast Universal Mousetrap as the victim of your incessant, litigious persecution. Media campaigns, of course, should not influence court judgments. You know that. Judge and jury, apparently, do not.

Although the only byproduct is drinkable water, and clean disposal by microsingularity is as simple as pressing the self-destruct buttons, an environmentalist group, PAP—People Against Plutonium—forms to protest the Better Mousetrap. It is easy to trace PAP's funding back to Universal Mousetrap; but few bother. Fake websites, fake blogs, fake packaged news reports from fake reporters soon start attracting a real community of real activists. PAP attains special notoriety after staging an event, video of which circulates widely on the Internet, in which a Better Mousetrap, disingenuously hacked to remove all of its extensive safety protocols, is swallowed by an elephant—which promptly explodes.

Universal Mousetrap offers a new product: the Saner Mousetrap. It differs from the Gooder Mousetrap in three respects: the box and case of the mousetrap are green in color; the words—true of all models—"Eco-Friendly" appear on the box; and it is more expensive than the Better Mousetrap. Catalogue sales plummet as the Saner Mousetrap becomes the connoisseur's choice.

The Shanghai Mousetrap Company begins churning out its own licensed version of the Gooder Mousetrap, the Mousetrap 3000. It looks, and is, crude; it would never sell on shelves; but it is choking your Internet sales.

With the cost of litigation to defray you cannot persevere. You put the Better Mousetrap Company up for sale. It is bought by Universal Mousetrap, which now offers the Better Mousetrap as one of its three lines: the Gooder Mousetrap, with a beige plastic case; the Better Mousetrap, with a white plastic case; and the Saner Mousetrap, with a green textured resin case.

Even as you buy a half-dozen Better Mousetraps from your former competitor to combat an infestation in your apartment you take a grim pleasure in the knot of PAP protestors outside—even now that their funding has lapsed, they have endured to annoy.