What We Need

     Everybody is screaming a warning about something. Each of those everybodies is peddling a nostrum of some sort – usually something you can buy over the counter – he’ll tell you is essential to deal with the threat he hawks. And while it’s not perfectly uniform, a great many of the everybodies hope to fatten their bank balances by doing so.


     There are a lot of threats out there. Most of them are perfectly visible. We don’t need to be alerted to them; we merely need to stop covering our eyes and ears and screaming “Make it go away!” That goes just as strongly for the doom-shouters as for anyone else. The typical doom-shouter has elected to ignore or downplay N-1 of the N threats so he can scream about his favorite: the one he hopes will make him a media personality who can command big speaking fees. That form of elective blindness is just a smidgen less blind than most.

     Relax, Gentle Reader. I’m not here to tell you that everything is really just fine, that you can sit back, ignore all of today’s Nostradami of Doom, and enjoy your blended scotch and Cheez Doodles® while you wallow in your DVDs of Three’s Company. We both know, along with Howard Beale, that things aren’t just fine, so I’m not about to try to sell you that particular line of BS.

     No, indeedy! I’m here to peddle my very own nostrum! Hey, why should a novelist / commentator from deepest, darkest Long Island be left out of the rush?

     Nor will I keep you hanging from those nasty unsanitary tenterhooks for a single moment longer. Quoth Tom Kratman:

“Never go to a religious war without your religion.”

     Explication to follow.


     It occurred to me, quite recently, that every single “issue” in contemporary public discourse is at base a religious issue. Moreover, they can be reduced to a single religious issue, to wit: whether there is an absolute standard of right and wrong.

     While it may not be apparent on first acquaintance, that is a religious issue:

  • It is a corpus of beliefs;
  • It cannot be proved;
  • It cannot be disproved.

     In fact, it is the reason for the existence of religion per se. Every conflict among men, regardless of the specifics, is founded on that issue.

     What’s that you say? You want proof? Some people are never satisfied! Oh well: here goes.

     Imagine that there exists a Supreme Being, or if you prefer, a committee of same, that holds absolute power over our universe and everything in it. Imagine further – girls, hold on to your boyfriends – that the Supremacy, by whatever name He / She / It / They goes, is completely unconcerned with the way humans behave. In other words, there is no code of human conduct which, whether followed or not followed, would make any difference to one’s ultimate fate: i.e., no absolute standard of right and wrong.

     Give that a moment to sink in. Postulate that Mankind could somehow ascertain it with absolute assurance, which is something we can’t do in our reality.

     Would there be any religions at all under those circumstances?

     Yeah, right. Why worship a God who doesn’t care what you do—who doesn’t care whether you even acknowledge his existence? And how could anyone promulgate a code of conduct and claim it to be somehow obligatory? Yeah, he’s there. So what? Let’s go back to our argument about whether Ginger was really prettier than Mary Ann, or just brought better cosmetics.


     Contemporary conflicts of importance are about right and wrong. Most wars are, at base, about right and wrong. But the very terms we use have inexorable implications: right and wrong either exist or do not exist. If they exist, they must have certain fixed properties – and anything with fixed properties is not a matter of opinion; it is absolute by definition.

     I don’t expect everyone to follow this. It’s a rather subtle argument, considerably more esoteric than my blather about time. But if I’m correct, it classes virtually the whole of the contemporary American political wrangle as a religious controversy.

     It’s time for a bit of Jack Vance:

     Thissell waited in silence. Ten minutes passed. Then Angmark reached to a shelf and picked up a knife. He looked at Thissell. “Stand up.”
     Thissell slowly rose to his feet. Angmark approached from the side, reached out, lifted the Moon Moth from Thissell’s head. Thissell gasped and made a vain attempt to seize it. Too late; his face was bare and naked.
     Angmark turned away, removed his own mask, donned the Moon Moth. He struck a call on his hymerkin. Two slaves entered, stopped in shock at the sight of Thissell.
     Angmark played a brisk tattoo, sang, “Carry this man up to the dock.”
     “Angmark!” cried Thissell. “I’m maskless!”
     The slaves seized him and in spite of Thissell’s desperate struggles, conveyed him out on the dock, along the float and up on the dock.
     Angmark fixed a rope around Thissell’s neck. He said, “You are now Haxo Angmark, and I am Edwer Thissell. Welibus is dead, you shall soon be dead. I can handle your job without difficulty. I’ll play musical instruments like a Night-man and sing like a crow. I’ll wear the Moon Moth till it rots and then I’ll get another. The report will go to Polypolis, Haxo Angmark is dead. Everything will be serene.”
     Thissell barely heard. “You can’t do this,” he whispered. “My mask, my face …” A large woman in a blue and pink flower mask walked down the dock. She saw Thissell and emitted a piercing shriek, flung herself prone on the dock.
     “Come along,” said Angmark brightly. He tugged at the rope, and so pulled Thissell down the dock. A man in a Pirate Captain mask coming up from his houseboat stood rigid in amazement.
     Angmark played the zachinko and sang, “Behold the notorious criminal Haxo Angmark. Through all the outer-worlds his name is reviled; now he is captured and led in shame to his death. Behold Haxo Angmark!”
     They turned into the esplanade. A child screamed in fright; a man called hoarsely. Thissell stumbled; tears tumbled from his eyes; he could see only disorganized shapes and colors. Angmark’s voice belled out richly:
     “Everyone behold, the criminal of the out-worlds, Haxo Angmark! Approach and observe his execution!”
     Thissell feebly cried out, “I’m not Angmark; I’m Edwer Thissell; he’s Angmark.” But no one listened to him; there were only cries of dismay, shock, disgust at the sight of his face. He called to Angmark, “Give me my mask, a slave-cloth. . . .”
     Angmark sang jubilantly, “In shame he lived, in maskless shame he dies.”
     A Forest Goblin stood before Angmark. “Moon Moth, we meet once more.”
     Angmark sang, “Stand aside, friend Goblin; I must execute this criminal. In shame he lived, in shame he dies!”
     A crowd had formed around the group; masks stared in morbid titillation at Thissell.
     The Forest Goblin jerked the rope from Angmark’s hand, threw it to the ground. The crowd roared. Voices cried, “No duel, no duel! Execute the monster!”
     A cloth was thrown over Thissell’s head. Thissell awaited the thrust of a blade. But instead his bonds were cut.
     Hastily he adjusted the cloth, hiding his face, peering between the folds.
     Four men clutched Haxo Angmark. The Forest Goblin confronted him, playing the skaranyi. “A week ago you reached to divest me of my mask; you have now achieved your perverse aim!”
     “But he is a criminal,” cried Angmark. “He is notorious, infamous!”
     “What are his misdeeds?” sang the Forest Goblin.
     “He has murdered, betrayed; he has wrecked ships; he has tortured, blackmailed, robbed, sold children into slavery; he has—”
     The Forest Goblin stopped him. “Your religious differences are of no importance. We can vouch however for your present crimes!”
     The hostler stepped forward. He sang fiercely, “This insolent Moon Moth nine days ago sought to preempt my choicest mount!”
     Another man pushed close. He wore a Universal Expert, and sang, “I am a Master Mask-maker; I recognize this Moon Moth out-worlder! Only recently he entered my shop and derided my skill. He deserves death!”
     “Death to the out-world monster!” cried the crowd. A wave of men surged forward. Steel blades rose and fell, the deed was done.

     [Jack Vance, “The Moon Moth”]

     Seldom will you read anything with as much relevance to our squabbles as the segment above – and in Vance’s flowing, impeccably elegant prose, at that. What matters on the planet Sirene is one’s status, which is proclaimed, in large measure, by the mask one chooses to wear. Not to wear a mask at all is unthinkable. The face must be kept covered, by unanimous agreement – an agreement the Sirenians are willing to enforce at sword’s point.

     Thus, the religion of Sirene is a good distance from anything we of Twenty-First Century Earth would recognize. However, to the Sirenians, it’s worth fighting over and killing for.

     Makes a two-bit novelist feel just a wee bit humble.


     Tom Kratman’s epigram has overwhelming relevance to our present age. The “sophisticates” of today chuckle contemptuously about the “religious wars” of earlier centuries, blithely unaware that the conflicts of today, from the merest difference of political opinion all the way to the largest and bloodiest of armed encounters, are just as much “religious wars” as any squabble of the Fourteenth Century. But then, “sophisticate” is in practical terms a workable synonym for “idiot.”

     And so, at long last, we return to the title of this piece:

What we need is an agreed-upon religion:
A code of conduct we are willing to enforce.

     The lack of such an overwhelmingly accepted code is what’s killing us – and make no mistake about it: that’s very much in the interests of the worst men in the world.

     Think about it.


    • Hoagie on September 27, 2021 at 9:32 AM

    I thought that’s what the Ten Commandments were and as a caveat, the Constitution.  I could be wrong.

    1. No, you are exactly correct. As long as the country was almost entirely Christian — the different denominations didn’t and don’t matter — and its government respected the Constitution, we were good. Our separate approaches to “the pursuit of happiness” made it possible for all of us to rise together. But once that agreement on our common religions — theological and legal — fell apart, the country started to go downhill. We’re nearing the bottom of our slide today.

    • jwm on September 27, 2021 at 9:56 AM

    That so many of our co-inhabitants (they are not my fellow anything) have eagerly adopted the mask is the single most horrifying thing I have seen in my close to seventy years. They do not regard this as a mortification. They do not see anything humiliating about being forced by law to cover the face God gave them. Indeed, they seem to like it.

    Every time I leave the house, I see the faceless zombies shuffling down the streets with faces covered, ears blocked up with the blue-tooth pegs, and eyes locked in the cell phone screen. The English language does not have a word to describe the depths of my hatred for this. It feels like I’m stuck in a science fiction nightmare, and I can’t wake up from it.



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