Death on Two Legs

Dec. 18 - I may have given poor Wilbur and Orville short shrift yesterday. I didn't realize quite how devastating their contribution has been to civilization—or that civilization, in its advances, has proved our ruin rather than our rescue.

I say this because on Tuesday morning I was lucky enough to stumble across this opinion piece by George Monbiot from Monday's edition of the London Guardian.

Mr. Monbiot makes a number of important points that I completely overlooked and I hope to redeem myself by addressing them now. What's more, I hope to atone for my oversights by adding some additional points that the gifted Mr. Monbiot, constrained, no doubt, by the limitations of the Guardian's format, neglected.

The title and subtitle of his column provide a wonderfully succinct condensation of what pedants might call his primary contention: "A Weapon with Wings: The Centenary of the Wright Brothers' Flight Should be a Day of International Mourning." That is his contention and, by God, he proves it.

Mr. Monbiot's intellect has penetrated to realms my own blinkered vision never could have discerned without his wise and steady guidance. Mr. Monbiot has used his formidable powers of deductive and inductive reasoning to demonstrate that, in spite of (or maybe because of) the many conveniences afforded by air travel, the airplane is one of the great afflictions of contemporary civilization, responsible for as much death and mayhem as anything ever wrought by man. "Every time we fly," he points out with stunning clarity, "we help to kill someone."

You might ask, as I did, "Then why do we fly so much? I don't feel like a serial killer." Mr. Monbiot anticipates our discomfort and patiently explains that the powers-that-be want us to feel comfortable spreading death and domination via tourist class. We are but pawns in their ruinous civilizational game.

"Those with access to the airplane," Mr. Monbiot observes in cold honesty, "control the world."

"Commercial flights," he points out to support this self-evident tautology, "like military flights, are an instrument of domination." Remember that next time you board the 12:18 to Raleigh-Durham! You may think you're merely popping down for a quarterly sales meeting—in fact, you're part of the demon machinery responsible for the transformation of the Carolinas from peaceful tobacco-harvesting slave plantations into the dens of imperial capitalism (or capitalist imperialism) that they've become.

It's a rock-solid argument no matter how you approach it. If the clarity eludes you, ask yourself: how many people or nations have acquired any earthly power whatever without airplanes?

And, Mr. Monbiot reminds us, it was always thus. "The airplane," he rightly observes, "was conceived, designed, tested, developed and sold, in other words, not as a vehicle for tourism, but as an instrument of destruction."

It would be superfluous to say that the truth is on Mr. Monbiot's side—superfluous and a little inaccurate. Our species has been fortunate enough to be blessed from time to time with keen minds like his—minds that don't just take truth on their side, but actually outpace it, often leaping ahead of it altogether.

We may therefore express some disappointment at Mr. Monbiot's failure to pick up the dangling threads of his argument and following them to the great distaff at the center of his contention. Airplanes, shmairplanes: their use as military and cultural weaponry is only a symptom of a still more basic truth: every technological development with which man has thought to bless himself has proved in the end to be a dismal curse.

Because I lack Mr. Monbiot's sweeping vision, I'd like to illustrate my own point not with a laundry list of other innovations that have turned around to bite our collective ass, such as the automobile, the microwave oven, the loudspeaker, and the ballpoint pen, but rather to trace all these innovations back to their source, back to our very fall from grace, the single technological development that stands before all others as Adam stands before all men.

That development was fire.

Surely, fire was also "conceived, designed, tested, developed and sold... as an instrument of destruction."

Destruction of what, you ask? Why, of other hungry bastards like ourselves. Of animals that had not yet learned to be willingly slaughtered, dismembered, wrapped in cellophane, and stacked in grocery freezers. And so on.

Fire has always had its merits, of course—light, for one thing, and warmth—but when we try to calculate the human death and suffering brought about directly by fire, the mind boggles—the ordinary mind, I mean, not the superlative sort of specimen found in Mr. Monbiot's extraordinary skull. And that's only the direct cost of fire. Consider the indirect costs, such as cooked food, which was not possible without fire. We all know cooked meats contain carcinogens, and yet we're positively helpless before the prospect of a juicy steak or hamburger, as if we weren't capable, like our ancestors and (presumably) Mr. Monbiot, of grubbing about for nuts, berries, raw fish, and the occassional small, slow-moving mammal (consumed raw).

Fire has been nothing but trouble. If we're going to mourn the development of the airplane, surely we needn't stop there. Let's also mourn the development of fire, of the wheel, of bronze and iron, of medicine and literature, of philosophy and music—they are terrible killers, all of them, and their day of reckoning is long past due!

Let us all make common cause with Mr. Monbiot and forsake this vale of tears (by which I mean, for example, Copenhagen, London, New York, or Dubuque) for a happier land, a land in which we can live, like our ancestors, off the largesse of nature's bounty. Let us shed our clothes and return to the savannahs—nay, the trees!—and eat our healthy diets, and find our way back into our proper place in the middle, rather than on top, of the food chain. Let us forswear medicine and dentistry and all the nuisances and indignities of our long, indulgent, murderous lives.

I for one intend to.

Right after Mr. Monbiot.

* * *

Out of respect for this Gargantuan of gray matter, I feel compelled to offer one final correction before I move on altogether. I'm sure it was merely an editorial oversight, but it ought not to be left behind to tarnish the otherwise glowing work of its author.

Tuesday, Mr. Monbiot declared, would be "the centenary of the world's most effective killing machine."

With all due respect to the airplane, the most devastating, effective, and efficient killing machine in the history of the world has been with us for more than a hundred years. It has been with us since the dawn of time and will remain with us forever.

It has neither wings, engines, propellors, nor in-flight magazines.

It stands on two legs, has opposable thumbs and stereoscopic vision, and can be a lot of fun in the bedroom.

Yet for all the hassle and inconvenience of other people, I still prefer a murderous world with them than a peaceful paradise without them. I lack the moral strength and intellectual courage to turn my back on civilization—I'd miss the french fries.

Mr. Monbiot is not so weak, however—else he could not wield his mighty pen with such enthusiastic dexterity—and will surely set an example for us all by sallying forth into the wilds as soon as his busy schedule permits.

* * *

A Canadian reader asks, "Cobwebs? Cobs do not make webs. Spiders make spiderwebs. Lying people make webs. Cobs do not make webs. Cobs make corn. Spiders make webs. So why do we call these annoying things cobwebs, hmm?"

(It was originally one long sentence sprinkled with commas, so I apologize if my edits made the question more confusing than it originally was.)

Coppe was Middle English for spider. Middle Englishmen (and women) therefore presumably called spider webs "coppewebs." Time did the rest.

It's nice when etymology is that straightforward, but in this case it's also a little troubling. Who the hell wants hot buttered "corn on the spider?"

* * *

It's Republic Day in Niger.

Brad Pitt turns 40 today, Steven Spielberg turns 56, and Keith Richards turns 60 (that's 97 in Keith-years). They share their birthday with Christina Aguilera (1980), "Stone Cold" Steve Austin (1964), Leonard Maltin (1950), Betty Grable (1916), Willy Brandt (1913), Ty Cobb (1886), and Paul Klee (1879).

Happy Thursday!

2003, The Moron's Almanac™

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