On the Golden Record.

On the Golden Record.

I have yet to master the art of pillow talk.  The other night, after my spouse and I turned off our bedside reading lights — at a time when a more reasonable soul might murmur a sultry something or whisper sweet dreams — I said:

“The Golden Record was a terrible idea!”

Apropos of nothing!  Seriously, what is wrong with my brain?

Luckily, instead of sighing, or pretending to be asleep (as a normal person might have done), my spouse continued the conversation.

“What, Carl Sagan’s?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s terrible.”

“Well, nobody’s going to find it, but that’s not really the point.”

My spouse was alluding to the fact that our universe is really, really big.  We launched the Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1972, and it has traveled something like 13 billion miles since then.

13 billion miles sounds pretty impressive!  But miles are not very practical units for describing outer space.  13 billion miles is the same distance as 0.002 light years.  Our galaxy is a flat disc of stars, approximately 1,000 light years  thick and 100,000 light years across.  Compared to those distances, the Golden Record may as well still be here on Earth.

And it’s not as though finding the Golden Record would be the easiest way for an extraterrestrial intelligence to learn of our existence.  The Golden Record is traveling slowly and is trapped inside a small spacecraft.  Our television and radio broadcasts move much faster, and they’ve been radiating in a ever-growing sphere for decades.

Still, I argued.

“They probably won’t find it, but isn’t it a bad idea to send a message that you are hoping won’t be found?  Either no one sees it, and so it’s a waste, or else they do find it, and that’s worse, because then we’re doomed … “

“Doomed?”

“Right?  I mean, maybe it’s silly to extrapolate from human history to predict what an alien species might do.  But in human history … in prehistory, even … it seems like every time a voyaging people found a stationary culture, it ended in disaster for the people who weren’t traveling.”

“Every time?”

Homo sapiens traveled north and found the Neanderthal.  The Neanderthal died.  We traveled east and found the Denisovians.  Denisovians died.  Chinese people displaced the native Taiwanese, Europeans wrecked havoc all through North and South America.”

Given that it was bedtime, and all our lights were off, I definitely shouldn’t have been raising my voice. 

“About the only example I can think of where the voyagers were eventually driven away was the Vikings in Greenland.  Inuits lived there before, during, and after some twenty generations of Viking occupation.  But, really, the Inuits won through luck.  The Vikings pretty much refused to eat fish.  Hmm, we’re big strong Vikings, we eat sheep!  Well, Greenland’s not for grazing, so the sheep all died, and then the Vikings starved.  Not that they had to.  They could’ve switched to eating fish, just like their neighbors.  But they were too proud.  And then dead.”

My bedtime tirade wasn’t an accurate description of the Inuit diet – a lot of their calories came from seals and whales, which are generally considered less palatable than fish, and also rather more difficult to catch.

In recent years, some archaeologists have begun to argue that it wasn’t the Vikings’ fault that they all died.  I’m sure it’s sheer coincidence that many of these contemporary Viking apologists are of vaguely Norse descent.  Their theory is the Greenland Vikings had a stable civilization but were doomed by climate change. A huge volcano erupted half the world away — the whole planet cooled. Life was miserable for everyone. Greenland’s Vikings were abandoned by the mainland, which meant they lost their major trading partner. 

These archaeologists claim that small farmers switched their diet early on, and that only the wealthiest of Greenland’s Vikings continued to raise cows and sheep until the end.

In any case, the Vikings died.  Their conquest failed.  But other times, voyagers brought devastation to stationary cultures.

The movie Independence Day had it wrong.  The encounter wouldn’t have ended with Homo sapiens celebrating.  If an extraterrestrial species was so technologically advanced that they could reach our planet, they would simply extract whatever resources they needed before moving along to harvest yet another insufficiently advanced world.

We should expect extraterrestrials to show the same forbearance toward us that a chimpanzee shows toward ants – chimpanzees are more clever than ants, and chimps use sticks to dig up anthills for food.  Homo sapiens are more clever than chimpanzees, and we’ve harried chimps to extinction, cutting down their forests because we wanted wood.

An extraterrestrial species that was able to travel to our planet within a single individual’s lifetime would be more clever than us, and if they needed to extract something from our world, we’d be powerless to stop them.

“But the Golden Record was never really about aliens,” my spouse said.  “It was about us.  Whether we would change, if we knew we might have guests.”

That makes sense – given that my spouse and I are always exhausted, our home fluctuates between live-ably messy and an absolute disaster depending on how long it’s been since we’ve had grown-up friends over. 

“If the goal is togetherness, though,” I said, “aren’t there better ways?  Especially since a lot of people don’t even know about the Golden Record.”

“I still teach about it!”

“Yeah, but I mentioned the Golden Record in jail, and nobody knew what I was talking about.  And, even then, is that the best we can do?  The tiny chance of visitors sometime in the next few billion years?  I mean, shouldn’t we be working on climate change, a global wealth tax, guaranteed basic income, wealth transfers to preserve natural wonders like the Serengeti or the Amazon Rain Forest?”

“Sure, I like having the Rain Forest.”

The Amazon rain forest. Image by the Center for International Forestry Research on Flickr.

“So we should pay for it!  But, right, I think those plans would do more than launching a recording of laughter.  And none of those plans has the risk that we’d lure the cause of our own extinction.”

My spouse sighed.  “Don’t we have a rule about not talking about human extinction at bedtime?”

“Do we?  I thought it was just that I couldn’t talk about thermodynamic heat death of the universe.”

“No, it was more than that.  No collapse of civilization as we know it, no heat death, nothing about the lifespan of our star.  Not right when I’m trying to fall asleep.”

“Whoops.”

“It’s okay.  I still love you.  I just wish you hadn’t said all that at bedtime.”

“Well, I wish they hadn’t launched the Golden Record.”

It’s true that the risk is low.  But why risk the Earth’s destruction at all when there are better plans available?

That’s what I was thinking while I fell asleep.  As it happens, I wound up answering my own question.  One virtue of the Golden Record is that it invites us to imagine Earth being destroyed – marauding aliens could learn our address and then come to stamp us out.

That’s a sad thought.  So perhaps we should do what we can to protect the Earth.  And not just from those unlikely marauders – maybe we should protect Earth from ourselves.

Otherwise we, as an entire species, will seem far more foolish than Greenland’s Vikings.  Hmm, we’re big strong Americans, we eat sheep!  We fly airplane, we buy new big screen TV, we stream video from satellite!

What can you say about a people who refuse to change their culture in the face of absolute calamity?

On power and dignity in defeat.

On power and dignity in defeat.

Winning is pretty easy.  It takes effort to get there, but once we’ve done it, most people can act with grace.

It reveals more about a person’s character to see how they handle defeat.  In the Christian bible, Jesus is a more compelling character than Yahweh.  Jesus faces adversity, which sometimes he accepts calmly – he willingly submits to crucifixion despite knowing in advance that he has been betrayed – and sometimes heatedly – braiding a whip when he’s angered by commerce in the temple.

Luca_Giordano_-_Christ_Cleansing_the_Temple_-_WGA09000

So, sure, Jesus loses his temper.  Don’t we all?  It’s understandable to lash out when unconscionable behavior seems to be taking over the world.

Which is why, when Jesus rages, he still seems like a sympathetic character.  But when Yahweh does it, He seems small and petty.  After all, Yahweh is omniscient.  Omnipotent.  He always wins, and yet he’s still jealous and wrathful.

In Norse mythology, every champion is shown both at moments of glory and in defeat.  The latter episodes let us see the true depth of their strength.

In Laughing Shall I Die, Tom Shippey writes that:

image (7)Losing is a vital part of the Norse belief structure.  Ragnarok is like Armageddon, the battle at the end of the world.  In it the gods and their human allies will march out to fight against the frost giants and the fire giants, the trolls and the monsters.  And in that battle – and this is not at all like Armageddon – our side, the good guys, will lose.  Thor will kill the Midgard Serpent, the great snake that coils round the world, and then drop dead from its poison.  Odin will be swallowed by the wolf Fenrir.  Heimdal and the traitor god Loki, Tyr and the great hound Garm: both pairs will kill each other.  Frey, left swordless, will fall before the fire giant Surt, who will then set the world ablaze.

The gods know this is going to happen.  That is why Odin habitually betrays his own chosen heroes to death, and this is where the myth of Valhalla comes in.  Odin wants his best heroes dead so he can collect them in his own Halls of the Slain (Valhalla), where they will fight each other every day, for practice, and come back to life-in-death at the end of every day, to feast. 

The myths had a built-in answer for, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The Norse imagined that gods betrayed their champions in life because they needed allies in death.

Odin knows Ragnarok is coming, but since he does not know when, he wants his team to be at all times as strong as possible, even though the result is foreordained.  Even the gods will die, and their side will lose as well, and they know they will.  But this does not make them want to negotiate, still less change sides.  Refusal to give in is what’s important.  It’s only in ultimate defeat that you can show what you’re really made of.

All this shows an attitude to winning and losing markedly different from ours.  To us, calling someone ‘a loser’ is seriously insulting.  This must be the result of 150 years of competitive sport.  All modern games start off by imposing fair conditions.  Same numbers on each side, level pitch, no ground advantage, toss a coin at the start for choice of ends in case there is some advantage, change ends halfway through to cancel any such advantage, umpires and referees to see fair play – all the rules are there to see that the better team wins.   So if you lose, you must have been inferior in some way, strength or speed or skill, and if you lose consistently, then there’s something wrong with you: no excuses.

Worse, our culture is so permeated with the ethos of sport that we mistakenly believe every victory reveals moral worth.  Ayn Rand argued that financial wealth revealed a person’s merit; many contemporary politicians have been suckered into the same beliefs.

Vikings were wiser.  They knew that in the real world, conditions aren’t fair.  Heroes may be outnumbered, betrayed, trapped, caught off guard or just plain run out of luck.  That doesn’t make you what we call ‘a loser.’  To their way of thinking, the only thing that would make you a loser would be giving up.  And there’s another factor, perhaps the most distinctive thing about the Viking mindset. 

The heroes of the Viking Age, both gods and men, fixated as they seemed to be on death and defeat, just did not seem able to take death and defeat seriously.  Unlike the ponderous heroes of the classical world, they kept on making jokes, coming out with wisecracks.  To them, the throwaway line was another artform.  They had no sense of their own dignity.  Or maybe, they had such a strong sense of their own dignity that they felt no need to stand on it.

Finally, and combining the attitude to losing with the attitude to joking, what was especially relished in story after story was the stroke that showed that the hero hadn’t given up, even in an impossible situation.  What was best was showing you could turn the tables, spoil your enemy’s victory, make a joke out of death, die laughing.

People who think like that, one may well conclude, can be beaten by superior force, but though they can be killed like anyone else, they are impossible to daunt.  If they’re alive they’ll come back at you, they’re not done until they’re stone dead; even if they’re dying or helpless they will try to think of some trick, and if you fall for it, then the joke’s on you.

Viking humor.  Their secret weapon.  Part of their mindset.  Take warning, though!  There’s a mean streak running through it.

The Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project receives many requests for material about Norse mythology, but unfortunately we rarely send any.  White supremacists decided that the Norse myths should underpin their religion, and so current publications of these materials are often laced through with racism and hate.  I’ve (slowly) been preparing my own anti-racist pamphlet about the Norse myths, though, because many are lovely stories.  And the above passage seems like it could be quite helpful for many of the people who get caught in our nation’s criminal justice system.

In jail, we often read Julien Poirier’s poem “Independently Blue,” which opens with the lines:

It’s easy to fly a flag when you live in a nice house

in a beautiful city.

Things have worked out nicely for you,

and you think everyone can agree

this is the greatest country on earth.

illustration

 The people who are “winning” in our country – the wealthy, the comfortable – rarely began on an even playing field with everyone else.  Their patriotism costs little.  Why wouldn’t you love your country if it provided you with everything?

deadpool_by_steelstrugglin-d9stlbzThere’s a chance that Deadpool’s current popularity is due to the fact that so many people feel like they are not winning at life right now.  After all, Deadpool’s superpower is the ability to suffer with a smile.  He’s a hero who embodies the ethos of Norse mythology, willing to joke about his own failures.

From Shippey:

A hero is defined not by victory but by defeat.  Only in defeat can you show what you’re really made of.  Only in final defeat can you show that you will never give in.  That’s why the gods have to die as well.  If they did not die, how could they show true courage?  If they were really immortal and invulnerable, who would respect them?

At a time when so many people feel as though the world is stacked against them, seeing Superman score yet another preordained victory isn’t so compelling.  Better to root for a loser, to see Deadpool grin through a mouthful of cracked teeth and make one more bad joke before he passes out.

Especially for people in prison and jail.  Many were born into crummy situations.  After they’re released, they’ll have to navigate the world with huge additional burdens impeding their efforts – if you haven’t read it, you should check out poet Reginald Dwayne Betts’s lovely essay about trying to become a lawyer despite having been convicted of a felony when he was a kid.

I hope the people we’ve incarcerated manage to carve out some form of success.  We should want that for everyone.  People can grow and change; why not do what we can to help others change for the better?

But maybe these people will not win.  Maybe they’ll submit dozens of job applications but receive no interviews.  Maybe nobody will want to give them a second chance.

That is, unfortunately, the way it often happens.

Would defeat hurt less if we celebrated myths in which our heroes suffer, too?  And not just the way Jesus suffered, undergoing a torturous death as a trial before his ultimate ascension.  What would our world be like if we venerated gods who died with no hope of rebirth or redemption?

George Patton said, quite accurately,

Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.

But people at the bottom are strong, too – often stronger than those whom fate allowed to start at the top and stay there.  Our world will be a better place once we learn to show kindness to those who actually need it.