Flying into John Wayne (ooof! "Sorry, pardner!") at year's end, E.L. Doctorow's City of God on my lap and our own godforsaken sprawl below, lit like a radioactive printed circuit etched to the horizon, I thought about man and ants.
Did you know your standard house ant can learn its way around a maze in only two or three times what it takes a lab rat to navigate it—this with a brain that's smaller than lint?
In a 1989 piece in the American Scientist, Nigel Franks speculated ants' sense of direction is reckoned by polarized sunlight, but one needs multifaceted lenses for that, and army ants only have single-lensed eyes. But Franks and others believe that ant colonies have a collective consciousness, that, since ants communicate via brain chemicals, each ant functions as a neuron in a group brain. Hence, an ant is but two lenses in the communal eye.
To an observer from another world, would humans seem much different from ants? Like us, ants live in communities. They tend their young, build, explore, farm, war against other ants. All they lack is some snappy theme music, Wolf Blitzer and a graphic reading, "Showdown With the Grease Ants!"
In a 1997 article in Perception, Richard Gregory has this lovely sentence: "Biologically, insects are extraordinarily successful, though what they get out of their lives is totally mysterious." You said it there, pal. Ants work their ceaseless butts off, slaving for a queen most will never see. They don't get vacations. They don't retire. They don't get HBO. They toil until they expire and their bodies are dragged to a communal grave by other ants. Meanwhile, you're taking 16 units at Orange Coast College and wondering, "Shit, why bother?"
City of God came out two years ago, placing it beyond the pale of newsworthiness in our antic world. You have to credit the folks who marketed the Bible: they got it out when there wasn't much competition on the shelves, and folks had time, centuries, to ponder it. City of God should be so blessed, for it's a bracingly contemporary novel with the soul of ages running through it, a kaleidoscopic search—refracted through Einstein, Sinatra, a priest, a novelist and others—for meaning in the modern world.
Are there ants in the book? You bet—piles of 'em. And Doctorow wonders if we haven't also developed an "urban overmind" of communal consciousness. As individual as we are, we are each as malleable as an ant is to the chemical instructions it receives from another ant's antenna.
"Think of the contingent human mind, how fast it snaps onto the given subject, how easily it is introduced to an idea, an image that it had not dreamt of thinking a millisecond before," he writes. "Think of how the first line of a story yokes the mind into a place, a time, in the time it takes to read it. How you can turn on the radio and suddenly be in the news . . . how when you hear a familiar song, your mind adopts its attitudinal response to life before the end of the first bar."
* * *
All cities, even Stanton, seem to be of a pattern when you look down on them at night. You know they're a patchwork of competing infrastructures, developers' schemes, civic planners' empire dreams and myriad other individual's desires made concrete—all of whom should turn their goddamn lights off at night. Yet from the sky, it does have that appearance of a purposeful electrical grid.
Rugged individuals though we are, there issome aggregate consciousness here. Otherwise, what is this talk of civic pride, a national will or the spirit of America and so on? Lately, I worry more about the ways we don't connect.
Take concert audiences. I recently saw Fountains of Wayne at the House of Blues in Anaheim, and it was a thrilling show, though you'd scarcely know it by the audience, who watched it like a TV show.
Though you'd prefer something short of a Nuremberg rally, there's a lot to be said for an audience getting caught up in an event and feeding their energy into it. I mean, from the Minutemen to the Dead, I've seen shows where you could feel waves of energy wafting between the stage and the crowd.
What's with the wet blanket these days? One musician friend thinks it's due to the quantity of people who are damped down on antidepressants. If enough of the synapses aren't firing, the whole brain doesn't connect up the way it should.
Maybe it's that, or maybe it's overstimulation, with our collective consciousness burned out like a crackhead's by constant sensation.
* * *
There's a story they used to have us ponder in high school, back in the days before you needed a goose pt funnel to get all the prescription drugs down your kid's gullet. The story asked us to imagine a place where everyone was happy, prosperous and secure, but in order to achieve that, the society had to lock one innocent little girl in a windowless concrete cell for her entire screamingly lonely life.
Would that be all right, we'd be asked? Is that a sacrifice anyone except that little girl has the right to decide upon? What would it say about the rest of us if we were willing to buy our security with someone else's suffering?
And, like students everywhere, we'd wonder, "What the fuck has this got to do with anything?"
Little could we guess that this would become a flesh-and-blood ethical question for our nation today, not that many people in the nation have managed to notice.
For starts, there are the thousands of innocent civilians we've killed in Afghanistan in our quest to root out the few in their midst who were a threat to us. Even closer to our fable is the story the LA Times broke recently that at least 10 percent of the 600-plus prisoners we've imprisoned on Guantanamo—in tiny cells, indefinitely, with no contact with the world or recourse to justice—are so obviously innocent that even members of our own intelligence community are incensed about the injustice of it.
We're talking about old men, teenagers, bakers, farmers, halfwits too dim to even know which end of a gun points out, who got sold to us by Pakistani mercenaries or got caught up in the bureaucracy, and they've been vigorously interrogated and stuck in cells half a world from their homes ever since. This after Donald Rumsfeld assured us we shouldn't worry about these people's rights because they're "the worst of the worst"?
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As much as I like to rag on the Times' shortcomings, they have enterprised several kick-ass stories lately, including pieces on how many of our best and brightest Marine pilots have been killed by their balky but brass-beloved Harrier aircraft, or about how die-offs of endangered whale populations are likely caused by our Navy's sonar. Both again raise questions of our security purchased with some other person's or species' scrip.
It's a blow to freedom when newspapers don't report these stories, but what about when they do? There should be an outcry on these issues, a national debate over who we are and what we stand for. The innocents in those Guantanamo cells may be locked away from our sight, but they define who we are. What would it say about our national character if we're holding more innocent prisoners on Cuba than Castro is?
But there is no outcry. The national debate on CNN is about Michael Jackson's nose. Are we so bombarded with fluff that we don't even feel it when we collide with a moral ice shelf?
What is good? What is just? What is right? If our society no longer has the time or the collective ability to grapple with such questions, what are we but an anthill?