Monday, August 10, 2015

What would Steinbeck say about Singapore?

John Steinbeck uses the rich backdrop of marine creatures in order to think about humans and humanity.  I will, in turn, use his musings in the context of Singapore in order to think about humans and humanity and, in the process, to perhaps even convince this skeptic that deep reading is a worthwhile effort ;)

On Good Friday, while looking at marine animals in Baja California, Steinbeck thinks about disease and suffering and genetics and, therefore, how the species changes to "another animal entirely."  And why the elimination of diseases might trigger discomfort to "religionists":
For it is through struggle and sorrow that people are able to participate in one another--the heartlessness of the healthy, well-fed, and unsorrowful person has in it an infinite smugness.
There is something in pain and suffering and sorrow that makes us reflect on life and cosmos as more than merely about ourselves, right?  During those tough times, those who believe turn to their gods.  They pray. When everything is going well, most believers that I know not only forget their own gods but go one step more and claim that all the success was theirs and theirs alone.

The dystopian science fiction also suggests that a future with abundance and free of diseases is not one that we might enjoy.  One of the Swedish girls whom we hosted during the California years remarked about depression and suicide among teenagers in her country along the lines of "we have everything, but there is no meaning, and so the kids invent troubles."  It is a rather strange notion that troubles, pain, suffering, help provide us with meaning to our lives.

Singapore, which recently celebrated its 50th birthday, is the closest contemporary example that we have of a place on earth where troubles, suffering, and diseases, have all been pretty much wiped out.  To such an extent that the government has even preempted potential troubles that could otherwise arise from people freely expressing thoughts--a notion that always makes me uncomfortable.

Pankaj Mishra puts a spin on it and argues that if the authoritarian leaders put their minds to it, they could make the country "an exemplar of that much-invoked but nearly extinct thing: democracy."
Rule by and for the people seems to have been replaced in many formal democracies with rule by and for the rich and powerful. It’s clear now, after decades of rhetoric about democracy, that its original ideal -- a community where human beings live together without holding power over another -- can only be realized, imperfectly if at all, in small states. ... Singapore has a huge advantage over centralized and dysfunctional democracies. It's actually a functional city-state with a relatively small (5.5 million) and highly literate population, and it has no enemies.
But then, maybe the leaders are like those in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451--they worry that if people are allowed to think and express their thoughts, then they will get depressed and become unhappy.  The two-legged paradox haunts Singapore, too!  If only we would understand that a happy life does not mean a life of nothing but happiness.

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