Many pretentious and angry young men – and there may be no other kind, save for the infinitely irritating Justin Bieber – commit that passage from Shakespeare to memory:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
That’s from the last act of Macbeth, when everything has gone bad for the guy, as bad as bad can be. He’s in despair and getting coldly cynical. Nothing means anything now, and really, there was no point in trying in the first place. It’s all so tiresome, and only fools think they’re getting ahead in any way at all. Yep, and adolescent boys, expert at feeling put upon and misunderstood, in spite of their obvious sensitive brilliance that somehow no one else sees, love to mutter Macbeth’s words to themselves. Screw it all. People boast and threaten and worry, and then it all comes to naught – that was just noise, signifying nothing. Later these young men might end up reading The Sorrows of Young Werther – much the same sort of thing – or even listening to the Jules Massenet opera version of this particular tale of adolescent cynical despair. Werther commits suicide by the way, but only a few of Goethe’s readers actually did. Massenet is far more likely to give you that urge, as a few hours of his music may bring you to bitter tears, from boredom. There’s also Faulkner’s 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury – but that’s almost unreadable, a stream of consciousness thing about some very strange folks in Mississippi, maybe. No one quite knows what all of that was about. Maybe that was the point.
And here we are, as December begins and the year draws to a close, in a world full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, where events in Washington seem guaranteed to generate cynical despair. Those negotiations about the fiscal cliff are at an impasse, probably because no one is actually negotiating. Each side is just posturing, generating a classic stalemate. The problem is that one side imagines one America, where everyone wants to cut spending on things the government now does to help its citizens and keep things stable, and wants to make sure the wealthy aren’t anxious, and the other side won the election, rather convincingly. The Republicans are saying it’s not their problem – at the stroke of midnight, as the year ends, as agreed, everyone’s taxes will jump up and automatic drastic cuts in spending kick in, sending the economy into deep recession or worse, with misery for all. Of course the markets will crash too – and the Republican position is that Obama had damned well better come up with something quick, something that satisfies them and does not raise taxes on the rich by even one penny. Maybe, if they feel like it, the House Republicans will pass something like that and send it to the Senate and then onto Obama to be signed – or maybe not. Obama, on the other hand, is still saying he ran on letting the tax cuts for the top two percent expire so the rich pay a bit more, and, by the way, he won, and, by the way, all the polling shows that two-thirds of the public agrees with this, and has for a year or more. The Republicans have no leverage here of course, so they are now saying that, as much as they regret it, they’ll will be forced to let the country go to hell unless Obama changes his mind, and unless he also cuts Social Security and Medicare deeply too. They’d never do that – they want him to take the blame for ruining those programs – but more than two thirds of Americans oppose those cuts, even more than two-thirds of Republicans do, so it’s all just sound and fury, not signifying anything. Everyone knows that tax rates on the rich will go up and that Social Security and Medicare will be tidied up a bit, but not really changed. Republicans will strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and soon enough they’ll be heard no more. Be patient.
As for the current sound and fury, there’s this:
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner drew a line in the sand over taxes in defense of the Obama administration’s controversial proposal to avoid the fiscal cliff. In an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley on “State of the Union,” Geithner insisted that any compromise on the plan he presented to congressional Republicans on Thursday, which includes $1.6 trillion dollars in tax revenue, cuts to Medicare, and another $50 billion in stimulus spending, must contain an expiration of the Bush tax cuts for income over $250,000.
“There’s not going to be an agreement without rates going up,” Geithner said in the interview, which aired Sunday. “If they are going to force higher rates on virtually all Americans because they’re unwilling to let tax rates go up on 2 percent of Americans, then, I mean that’s the choice they’re going to have to make.”
That was met by this:
House Speaker John Boehner painted a bleak picture Sunday when talking about fiscal cliff negotiations between the White House and Republicans. “Right now I would say we’re nowhere. Period. We’re nowhere. We’ve put a serious offer on the table by putting revenues up there to try to get this question resolved, but the White House has responded with virtually nothing,” Boehner said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Boehner said the reason negotiations are going so poorly is that Obama administration officials – in particular, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner – aren’t taking Republicans seriously. Boehner said he was shocked at Geithner’s proposal to Republicans last week.
“I was flabbergasted. I looked at him and I said, ‘You can’t be serious.’ I’ve just never seen anything like it,” Boehner said.
Add in this too:
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said that she feels “almost sorry” for House Speaker John Boehner during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, explaining that Boehner is in a tough spot because of the far-right wing of the Republican Party.
“I feel almost sorry for John Boehner,” McCaskill said. “There is incredible pressure on him from a base of his party that is unreasonable about this. And he’s gotta decide, is his speakership more important, or is the country more important. And in some ways, he has got to deal with this base of the Republican Party, who Grover Norquist represents.”
It seems that America will spend this December watching the Republicans play out their losing hand. It’s tiresome and disheartening, like sitting through a long and meandering Massenet opera perhaps – and there’s only one thing to do. Brush up your Shakespeare. Start quoting him now. You know the song – and Cole Porter is more fun than Massenet anyway. Just quote that passage from Macbeth.
To be fair, however, it should be noted that Washington has no monopoly on all that is tiresome and disheartening. Everyone cheered the recent cease-fire in Gaza – the Israelis would not invade and level everything in sight, pretending to be sad at all the women and children who died, as these things do happen. The Palestinians would stop firing all those rockets into Israel every time an Israeli drone strike took out another one of their leaders in one more of those targeted assassinations, for firing rockets into Israel in the first place, and maybe Israel would lift the blockade, just a little bit, and maybe let some food and water in. The rest of the Palestinians, up north in the West Bank and around Jerusalem, looked on anxiously. Things were looking up.
That was a mistake. Things just went back to the same old thing:
Israel responded swiftly Friday to U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state, revealing it will build 3,000 more homes for Jews on Israeli-occupied lands that the world body overwhelmingly said belong to the Palestinians. The plans also include future construction in a strategic area of the West Bank where critics have long warned that Jewish settlements would kill hopes for a viable Palestinian state.
Israel’s moves served as a harsh reminder to Palestinians – euphoric over the U.N. upgrade – that while they now have a state on paper, most of it remains very much under Israeli control.
“This is a doomsday scenario,” Daniel Seidemann of Ir Amim, a group that promotes coexistence in Jerusalem, said of the building plans.
Nothing has changed. Netanyahu, who practically campaigned for Mitt Romney, is out to embarrass Obama. Yes, the United States was among nine countries in the General Assembly to vote against accepting Palestine as a nonmember observer state, so we stood with them, but they don’t care. And this speed-up in settlement construction sets up a confrontation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel hopes he looks like a fool now. And it’s back to square one – the usual sound and fury, with a new twist:
The new U.N. observer state status could enable the Palestinians to pursue possible war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court over settlement construction on war-won land. In his speech to the U.N. on Thursday, Abbas said he would coordinate with sympathetic countries and act responsibly, suggesting he would not seek confrontation with Israel.
“It is our right to get the membership of the ICC, but we don’t want to go to it now,” Abbas told reporters in New York on Friday, before the Israeli decision on new settlements became known. “We will not go unless we are attacked.” …
On the Israeli side, compromise on settlements seemed unlikely. Netanyahu is seeking re-election two months from now at the helm of a Likud party turned more hawkish since primaries earlier this week and in an electoral alliance with an ultra-nationalist pro-settler party.
Who has the sinning hand here? It’s hard to tell, and it’s tiresome, and there’s Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague:
If implemented, these [new settlement] plans would alter the situation on the ground on a scale that makes the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, increasingly difficult to achieve. They would undermine Israel’s international reputation and create doubts about its stated commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians.
No kidding. It’s like the fiscal cliff situation in Washington. Nothing has changed. Things have actually gotten worse:
Britain and France are poised to take action – possibly including the unprecedented step of recalling their ambassadors, according to senior European diplomats – in protest at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to move settlement construction ahead in the area known as E1, between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem.
“This time it won’t just be a condemnation, there will be real action taken against Israel,” a senior European diplomat said.
These two countries gave Israel support and encouragement during the recent Gaza operation, or whatever that was. Israel has a right to defend itself, and now this, which the UN has always said was illegal, which the United States has repeatedly said would only make things worse, which will inflame the Muslim world, if things aren’t bad enough already. Britain and France are pissed off. The rest of the world is appalled. Netanyahu and the Likud Party do stand all alone here, against the world, and now against their allies, like the Republicans in Washington, who clearly don’t represent the vast majority of Americans, the very folks they do want to vote for them next time around. Cynical despair is appropriate. Feel free to quote that Macbeth fellow.
Or don’t. Maybe your philosophy doesn’t allow for a world that’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing. There are those who tell you that everything happens for a reason, that this is not just some bad stage play with poor players mouthing nonsense, both of which will be forgotten soon. Everything happens for a reason. You hear that all the time on the news shows when they shove a microphone in the face of someone standing in front of the ruins of their home or the coffin of their dead child. You hear the words. There’s a purpose to the universe, there really is. There has to be.
Is that so? Maybe that’s a coping mechanism. Forget national and international politics for a moment, and forget that soul-sucking moral monster of a reporter with that microphone. Consider the general question. Was that Macbeth fellow right, or was he just having a bad day?
People do think about such things. In fact, the question of the day over at the John Templeton Foundation is Does the Universe Have a Purpose? This is part of their Big Questions Essay Series – not exactly light reading but rather interesting.
I Hope So – Eli Wiesel
Does that clear things up? Probably not, but Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium, offers this:
Anyone who expresses a more definitive response to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations. This remarkably persistent way of thinking, common to most religions and some branches of philosophy, has failed badly in past efforts to understand, and thereby predict the operations of the universe and our place within it.
To assert that the universe has a purpose implies the universe has intent. And intent implies a desired outcome. But who would do the desiring? And what would a desired outcome be? That carbon-based life is inevitable – or that sentient primates are life’s neurological pinnacle? Are answers to these questions even possible without expressing a profound bias of human sentiment? Of course humans were not around to ask these questions for 99.9999% of cosmic history. So if the purpose of the universe was to create humans then the cosmos was embarrassingly inefficient about it.
Just think about it:
How about human life itself? If you are religious, you might declare that the purpose of life is to serve God. But if you’re one of the 100 billion bacteria living and working in a single centimeter of our lower intestine (rivaling, by the way, the total number of humans who have ever been born) you would give an entirely different answer. You might instead say that the purpose of human life is to provide you with a dark, but idyllic, anaerobic habitat of fecal matter.
So in the absence of human hubris, and after we filter out the delusional assessments it promotes within us, the universe looks more and more random. Whenever events that are purported to occur in our best interest are as numerous as other events that would just as soon kill us, then intent is hard, if not impossible, to assert. So while I cannot claim to know for sure whether or not the universe has a purpose, the case against it is strong, and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be.
In short, he stands with Macbeth, as does Lawrence M. Krauss, the Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Case Western Reserve:
One is always free, as some people do, to interpret the laws of nature as signs of purpose, as for example Pope Pius did when Belgian physicist-priest George Lemaitre demonstrated that Einstein’s general theory of relativity implied the universe had a beginning. The Pope interpreted this as scientific proof of Genesis, but Lemaitre asked him to stop saying this. The big bang, as it has become known, can be interpreted in terms of a divine beginning, but it can equally be interpreted as removing God from the equation entirely. The conclusion is in the mind of the beholder, and it is outside of the realm of scientific theory and prediction.
Christian de Duve, the biochemist who received the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, says this:
Through music, art, and literature, we have been allowed to approach another facet of this reality, emotional and esthetic, rather than intelligible. With philosophy and religion, we have become aware of its ethical and mystical aspects. Encompassing all in a single manifestation, love has introduced us into its very heart.
It will be noted that there is no logical need for a creator in this view. By definition, a creator must himself be uncreated, unless he is part of an endless, Russian-doll succession of creators within creators. But then, why start the succession at all? Why not have the universe itself uncreated, an actual manifestation of Ultimate Reality, rather than the work of an uncreated creator? The question is worth asking.
Yes, maybe, if you have any idea what this guy is talking about, although Jane Goodall is hopeless:
When I was a child, born into a Christian family, I accepted the reality of an unseen God without question. And now that I have lived almost three quarters of a century I still believe in a great spiritual power. I have described elsewhere the experience I had when I first visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When, as I gazed at the great rose window, glowing in the morning sun, the air was suddenly filled with the glorious sound of an organ playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. It filled me with joy, brought tears to my eyes. How could I believe that blind chance had led to that moment in time–the cathedral, the collective faith of those who had prayed and worshiped within, the genius of Bach, the emergence of a conscious mind that could, as mine did then, question the purpose of life on Earth. Was all the wonder and beauty simply the result of purposeless gyrations of bits of cosmic dust at the beginning of time? If not, then there must be some extra-cosmic power, the creator of the big bang. A purpose in the universe. Perhaps, one day, that purpose will be revealed.
That’s hardly an argument, although Notre Dame Cathedral is a fine place, if you like that sort of thing. And yes, sentimentality is always an option – but so is becoming coldly cynical. Go ahead, stand in Notre Dame Cathedral and assume it all makes sense somehow, that everything happens for a reason. Maybe you’ll understand it one day. Or stand in the halls of Congress, or between Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem as the new settlements go up, again, and the rocks start to fly. It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing much but its own sound and fury. Maybe you’ll understand that one day too.