Saturday, 25 February 2017

Opening Pandora's Box

I'm sure you all know the story of Pandora's Box.

It's an ancient Greek tale, found in Hesiod's Works and Days.  Pandora was the first woman on earth, wife of Prometheus' brother Epimetheus.  Zeus, who was angry about Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, gave her a beautiful box as a wedding gift, with the instruction that she was never to open it.  What would you do?  Of course she eventually gave in to the temptation. Inside were all the evils of the world, in the form of flying creatures that I have always imagined as tiny, vicious wasps.  They swarmed out of the box, stung Pandora all over and then flew off into the wide world.  Once out, they could never be recaptured.

This is, of course, a Fall story, much like the story of Adam and Eve.  It provides a metaphorical description of the entry of evil into the world and the irreversibility of the process.  But I have a feeling Hesiod got it a little bit wrong.  I'm not convinced that the box is a binary object with only two states, 'open' or 'closed'.  What if instead, it was possible for Pandora to open to box just a little bit - enough to see the troubles buzzing around, but not enough to let them out?  Or what if, in taking a little peek, a couple of the pesky things got out, but she quickly slammed down the lid before the whole swarm could follow?  She, and the rest of us, would get away with a few stings, but we would be OK.  It's even possible that in their urge to get free they wouldn't stop to sting Pandora at all - especially if she stood carefully to one side as she peeked - and would fly straight out of the window to sting some innocent passer by.

Nor am I convinced that there is only one box.  On the contrary, there are as many of them as there are people.  The box is in our heart, and we can choose to let the wasps out through our mouths, or even through our fingertips.

There are lots of varieties of wasp in these little boxes, but the one I am concerned about is the wasp of mistrust.  It has a few sub-varieties.  One is racism and xenophobia - fear of those who have a different faith, different customs, different languages, different modes of dress.  Another variety is mistrust of evidence and science, which we see more than anything else in climate skepticism but is also present in other forms, like anti-vaccination campaigns and young earth creationism.  These two forms of mistrust are capable of interbreeding, producing a wide-ranging suspicion of anything that upsets our comfortable, insulated worlds.

This pernicious little insect both induces and feeds on fear.  The more we are stung, the more we fear.  The more we fear, the more the wasps sting us.  The more we are stung, the more we open our mouths to scream and let out more wasps.

Some people, of course, have bigger wasp boxes than others, and higher platforms from which to broadcast them.  Thus in 2001, in the middle of an election he was in danger of losing, Australian Prime Minister John Howard claimed that a group of asylum seekers in a leaky boat had thrown their children into the sea in order to force the intercepting naval ship to take them on board and ferry them to Australian soil.  No matter that the story was untrue - the wasps were released, asylum seekers were conniving, cruel sub-humans attempting to infiltrate our pure society.  The resulting wave of xenophobia pushed Howard back into government and gave him a mandate to release more wasps.

Once the wasps are out they cannot be put back, as Kevin Rudd discovered some years later to his cost.  His noble attempt to wind back the resulting program of imprisonment of asylum seekers was received by the infected population, not as the triumph of humanitarian governance it actually was, but as a sign of weakness and a threat to the nation.  For all his own relative freedom from these same stings, Rudd was forced to back down and reinstate Howards's policy.

But we can't blame either Rudd or Howard alone, because the wasps have been steadily released by less prominent individuals over a number of years and decades.  We can't even blame Pauline Hanson.  Although she released plenty of wasps of her own she also inadvertently stumbled into a pre-existing wasps' nest, a congregation of the creatures which had been slowly seeping into our environment from a wide variety of low profile sources, flying stealthily into ordinary suburban backyards and stinging unsuspecting guests at church services, birthday parties, in supermarket queues and increasingly in the online world of facebook posts and fake news.  A Hanson, or a Howard, can only fly on the wings of a million ordinary wasps.

Of course there are situations in which people benefit from the wasps and develop systematic programs for their release.  This is what Howard and Hanson and their cronies have done, of course, to gain power for themselves.  Fundamentalist Christians have been releasing skepticism wasps for decades, trying to convince their followers and others that thousands of scientists are evil or deluded in their claims that life evolved gradually over millennia.  Their reach has been limited, but where they have taken hold, they have become firmly established, changing whole ecosystems to accommodate themselves.

This provided a fertile breeding ground for the fossil fuel industry when they started to get serious about promoting climate change skepticism.  They, of course, had more venal, cynical motives for their actions.  They wanted to continue to make big profits from fossil fuels for as long as possible, and the environment be damned.  But they found a willing, perfectly primed audience in those who had already been convinced that scientists were not to be trusted.  Once this particular sting injects its poison, no amount of evidence can counteract its effects.

This illustrates why these things are so difficult to undo.  It helps us understand, for instance, why Barack Obama had such limited success.  Obama himself, as an African American, has been on the receiving end of racism.  Nonetheless, he was unable to undo racist policies which disproportionately imprison African Americans and needlessly detain and deport Latin-Americans.  Nor, despite his own faith in the scientific method, was he able to introduce more than modest emissions reductions programs.

Both he and Hilary Clinton did a kind of dance with the wasps.  They feared them.  They tried to fight them as you would fight an opposing military power, with a mixture of force and diplomacy.  They would at times launch frontal assaults against them, but at other times they would negotiate and compromise with them, allow them some space while trying to hem them in and stop them from spreading.  Their influence was limited, but they continued to grow.

Donald Trump and his friends are, of course, another matter.  They love the wasps.  They have long since opened their own caskets to the sky and have taken up the art of wasp cultivation.  They have stormed into power on the back of a huge, virulent swarm.  Components of this swarm are buzzing up and down the corridors of the White House, pouring out of the windows, following Air Force One in a huge cloud and interbreeding with the local wasps wherever it lands.  They are joining up with similar swarms in Australia, in Russia, in Europe, in the Middle East.  We are entering an era of the ascendancy of the wasps.

What can be done?  The likes of Obama, Clinton and Rudd have tried to stem to flow of the wasps, but they have not succeeded.  This is in part because they have not been fully committed to the cause.  On the one hand, they would not like them to triumph.  On the other hand, they want to triumph themselves, so much so that if they can benefit from a little wasp power they will do so.  Bit by bit the wasps infiltrate further into our laws, into our policies, into the psyches of our leaders and into our daily lives.  Our best intentioned leaders become their captives, our most cynical ones their servants.

Wasps are not vulnerable to mass campaigns.  They can't be rounded up and herded back onto their boxes.  They fly where they will.  They hide, when they need to, in cracks in our walls, in the hollows of trees, in the cavities of our ceilings, under our bridges and along our deserted creek banks.  They can only be rooted out patiently, with great determination, one nest and one swarm at a time.  They need to be fumigated, and their victims need to be gently nursed and inoculated against their poison.

The task will not be easy, and it will not be glorious.  There will not be an ultimate, final victory, only progress, only small successes.  But it is important.  Wasps can seem benign, even pretty, but their sting is deadly.

Those who are alert, and know the story, will know that we are not without help.  After the wasps vacated Pandora's box, the last creature left inside was a frail white moth which fluttered out uncertainly and followed in their wake.  This moth was Hope, and it is still at large in the world.  Whenever a new swarm of wasps is released, there is alongside it a new birth of this frail, peaceful creature.  We have to follow this hope.  It may seem fragile, but it is immensely powerful, and immune to wasp stings.  We need to learn to admire its beauty, follow in its wake and aid it in its good works.  It will never fail or surrender, and neither should we.


Kay Brothers said...

Thank you Jon! This ia a very good blog! I hope that we all never lose sight of that little white moth.... we all Need to keep hope alive.

Hermit said...

I would argue that mistrust is not necessarily wrong. We live in a world where people are frequently different to how they appear or how they try to portray themselves. Many people are liars. Many people have evil intentions, bad motives and hidden agendas. To trust everyone blindly is madness. This is not that sort of world.

A healthy sense of mistrust may save lives, and nations.

Jon Eastgate said...

Sadly true, but the mistrust I'm talking about is more generalised - mistrust of classes of people, like scientists or people of particular races or faiths. Such mistrust is dangerous in all sorts of ways.