I have found that, if you find a simple answer to something, it generally turns out to be wrong. Sometimes it is very wrong, but almost never is it totally wrong. The trouble is, we all are compellingly drawn to simplification. It is why we so frequently choose very simple, uncomplicated people as our leaders. People who inspire; who move us emotionally; people who exude utter certainty about their positions and courses of action. Fanatics.
Life, reality, the universe are all complex beyond any possible imagining. So what do we do? We imagine a creator who/which can embrace all of that; an all-knowing, omnipotent god.
Then, on top of that, we imbue our governments with ideal characteristics, with a “rightness” which cannot be easily challenged. It is obviously (at least to us) the best government there is. Maybe the best government there ever was. To suggest otherwise is a bit like bumping a beehive. It may be exciting for a short time, but soon becomes unremittingly unpleasant.
These remarks began as a preamble to some comments I wanted to make in response to an essay about the history of the use of tetra ethyl lead in vehicle fuel. The essay was written by one of perhaps a dozen or so skilled writers, writing on diverse subjects, which seemingly had little in common, other than being damn interesting.
One thing I noticed very early on, is that the essays, while they were not short, and treated their subject beyond the “sound bite” level, did not express strong opinions. And even if they were not exhaustively comprehensive, generally managed to be quite thought provoking, and yet, always refrained from coming to any firm conclusions. There was no obvious advocacy of a position. My hat is off to them for being able to manage that. It is something I find very difficult to do.
Another thing that I noticed was the sheer number of comments. Oh, they were often short and without much informational value. But sometimes they were longer, with good ideas and firmly held, sometimes acrimonious opinions. Collectively they were often more than ten times the length of the original essay. Remarkable.
And I repeat, the original essay was not written from the position of any sort of obvious advocacy. It did not matter to me that so many of the responses were blather or at least not well thought out. In terms of the average of posts on the internet, the batting average of these comments was still remarkably high.
Now a few observations about the tetra-ethyl lead story. What stands out to me is that, as early as the 1920’s there is persuasive evidence that the world at large, and specifically authorities in the U.S. government knew the grave dangers posed to the public by leaded gasoline. The authorities ignored it. As a result, we all absorbed this toxin, slowly but continuously for a half century. I find it really hard to be neutral about that.
Another point that really grabs me is that this irresponsibly creative chemist, Thomas Midgley also brought the world chlorofluorocarbons. It is perhaps a fitting irony that he was murdered by one of his own inventions.
Conspicuously absent in the article was any mention of any adverse consequences to the politicians, judges, and businessmen who contributed to the duration and severity of this disaster. As far as I can tell, none of them were inconvenienced in any way, other than breathing the same air that we all did.
This lack of consequences has consequences. Our leadership knows they can trump up reasons to wage war, for example, and will never be held accountable. Not just because of scandals of this sort, but more directly from history. Weapons of mass destruction: trumped up to wage war. Gulf of Tonkin: trumped up to wage war. The sinking of the Battleship Maine: trumped up to wage war. Was the “surprise” attack on Pearl Harbor truly a surprise to all elements of the American government? There is some evidence to the contrary.
Will the shrub or any of his weeds ever be made to account for their actions? Not likely.