In one of his wilder excursions in "The Cyberiad", Stanislaus Lem describes beings who have reached the Highest Possible Level of Development (HPLD). These creatures do nothing but lie on cushions in a desert of cybernetic sand and scratch themselves while watching indecent plays performed by lecherous elves in their abdomens.
When interrogated about why they don't use their highly developed science, technology and knowledge for the benefit of the universe, or at least to reduce the suffering of sentient beings, they reply that they tried, and it was useless.
Could they straighten a humped back or correct any deformity? Of course, but " ... when a civilization starts straightening humps, .... believe me, there's no end to it! You straighten humps, then you repair and amplify the mind, make suns rectilinear, fabricate fates and fortunes of all kinds. Oh, it begins innocently, like discovering fire by rubbing two sticks together, but eventually it leads to the construction of Omniacs, Deifacts, and Ultimathuloriums."
In Lem's story the interlocutor presses on: "If you are truly gods, your duty is clear: immediately banish all the misery and misfortune that oppresses other sentient beings."
The HPLD being replies: "You wish us to bestow happiness upon everyone? We devoted over fifteen millennia to that. [We tried] evolutionary eudaemonic tectonics -- not lifting a finger to help, confident that every civilization will muddle through. Revolutionary solutions, on the other hand, boil down to the Carrot or the Stick. The Stick, bestowing happiness by force, produces from one to eight hundred times more grief than no interference whatever. [F]or the Carrot, the results are exactly the same."
Here, in real world in the year 2004, the United States is at the pinnacle of development in a world inhabited, so far as we know, by the only sentient beings in the universe. Humans have highly advanced technologies that enhance senses, minds, and muscles; we command vast systems of information, communications and transportation to serve our goals, values, needs, desires, and whims. In addition, we Americans cherish ideals of democracy -- equality, justice, freedom, self-determination.
With such wealth, power and ideals, plus the largest arsenal of the most violent weapons in history, many Americans believe that the United States has reached the HPLD in the world (if not the universe) and lie on cushions amid sands of comforts, conveniences, security, and abundance, scratching every itch and watching ... what?
...plays of indecent elves displayed in bellies of our TV sets: people in quirky artificial situations seeking money, fame or sex; fantasies of arachnoid power to avenge; squabbles over who gets to use the word "marriage" to describe their intimate relationships, or whether children should recite the words "under God" in the Pledge; blame-games about gasoline prices, taxes, drug abuse; ads urging consumption of more "legal" drugs, beer, movies, or purchase of cell-phones or gas-guzzling vehicles; news designed to lead us to distrust our government and neighbors, and to value security over freedom.
Yet some keep asking: Couldn't we be using our wealth, sophistication, and highly developed technology to help the billions of humans on our planet suffering from hunger, ignorance, disease, violence, oppression and misfortune? In our affluence, can we ignore world-wide challenges of war, terrorism, genocide, poverty, AIDS, depletion of natural resources, global warming and pollution, and the commodification of food, water, politics, education and medicine?
Jeff Gates, in Democracy at Risk, (2000) suggested that an annual 3.5% tax on the $1 trillion assets of the world's 200 richest people would raise enough to provide all six billion people on earth the basic ingredients of a decent life: safe drinking water, good sanitation, adequate nutrition, basic education, and primary health care.
It's easy to point out flaws in that proposal. At that time, it was estimated that $2 billion a year was needed just to slow the spread of AIDS in Africa. But that figure is dwarfed today by the costs of George W. Bush's war on Iraq, which is so far costing American taxpayers about $43 billion a year.
In his latest book "The Economics of Innocent Fraud", John Kenneth Galbraith -- arguably the most highly developed being on earth today -- observes "Civilization has made great strides over the centuries ... [b]ut it has also given a privileged position to the development of weapons and the threat and reality of war. Mass slaughter has become the ultimate civilized achievement." He concludes: "War remains the decisive human failure."
Lem's tale and Galbraith's trenchant observations raise serious questions for Americans in the coming election. Should we vote for someone who apparently believes that the U.S. is already at the HPLD and who, as a self-appointed "war president" has given a privileged position to weapons and war? Is his opponent any different?
I don't know, but I believe that John Kerry is more likely to practice democracy, and listen both to distinguished voices like J.K. Galbraith and the more humble voices of ordinary Americans. I think that Kerry can see that we are not as highly developed as we would like, but that it is still our duty to work to "reduce the misery and misfortune of other sentient beings."
As I write this, Americans are trying to kill living Iraqi insurgents in a cemetery in Najaf without damaging the graves of already dead Iraqis.
Could the elves' plays watched by the HPLD creatures be more fantastic and obscene?