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Andy Rooney (2005) gave echo to William James (1910)

Memorial Day 2017 is now almost history.  Before it completely gets away from us, let us reflect on something Andy Rooney originally said in his 60-Minutes segment on May 29, 2005 (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/rooney-rethinks-memorial-day/):

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the day we have set aside to honor by remembering all the Americans who have died fighting for the thing we like most about our America: the freedom we have to live as we please.

He continued,

It gets to be just another day on the calendar.…For too many Americans, Memorial Day has become just another day off.

This is to what I want to draw your attention.  Rooney continued (I have added the emphasis),

I wish we could dedicate Memorial Day, not to the memory of those who have died at war, but to the idea of saving the lives of the young people who are going to die in the future if we don’t find some new way – some new religion maybe – that takes war out of our lives.  That would be a Memorial Day worth celebrating.”

Yes, it would.  It would, indeed, be a day worth celebrating.  But you know what?  In 1910 William James thought about the same thing.  Not in terms of Memorial Day, because as a holiday it did not yet formally exist.  Graves of soldiers were decorated from before and during the Civil War, but Memorial Day did not become the official name until the 1960s (I think it was actually 1967).  If you are old enough (as I am) you may remember a grandparent routinely refer to it as Decoration Day (for me, it was a grandfather, grandaddy Vic).

William James was thinking about, actually fearing, the onset of a second world war, having just come out of The Great War, as the first one was called until the second one was a reality.  James was searching for the “Moral Equivalent of War,” the title of his graduation speech at, I think, Stanford University.  (You can listen to it here: https://librivox.org/the-moral-equivalent-of-war-by-william-james/ or read it here: http://www.constitution.org/wj/meow.htm) He was arguing for something that would, to use Andy Rooney’s words, “take war out of our lives.”  This is William James’ solution (again, the emphases are added):

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man’s relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes washing, and window washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.”

Andy Rooney was asking us to find some way, perhaps a new religion, to take war out of our lives.  William James, 95 years earlier, had proposed, in order to take war out of our lives that we conscript the youth in another war, the immemorial human war against nature.

So I ask, and this is my concern, how is that working out for us?  And what is wrong with this picture when Elon Musk argues that we must put a million people on Mars if we are to ensure that humanity has a future (https://aeon.co/essays/elon-musk-puts-his-case-for-a-multi-planet-civilisation) or Stephen Hawking suggests we only have 100 years left to find another planet to live on before Earth has been rendered uninhabitable.

Talk about a Memorial Day to top all Memorial Days!

But what is really wrong with this picture?  When one engages in war, one attempts to vanquish the opponent.  A war against Nature, which we have actually been waging for several centuries, pace William James, only means to vanquish Nature.  But wait a minute!  The exciting engineering challenges not withstanding, is there something wrong with that picture?

We have been given this one very hospitable planet, one very interesting planet, and we want to vanquish it, to defeat it completely, and move on to Mars (or some other planet) as though anything we find, including Mars, will be anywhere as hospitable to human life as the one planet we inhabit now.  Explain that to me if you can.  Have we gone completely nuts?

Happy Memorial Day (and let us hope there will be many more to come).

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