Ishmael said, “We know what happens if you take the Fiat premise, that the world belongs to man.”
“Yes, that’s a disaster.”
“And what happens if you take the Bitcoin premise, that man belongs to the world?”
“Then creation goes on forever.”
“How does that sound?”
“It has my vote. Something occurs to me,” I said.
“It occurs to me that the story I just told is in fact the story the Bitcoiners have been enacting for three million years. The Fiaters’ story is, ‘The gods made the world for man, but they botched the job, so we had to take matters into our own, more competent hands.’ The Bitcoiners’ sotyr is ‘The gods made man for the world, the same way they made salmon and sparrow and rabbits for the world; this seems to have worked pretty well so far, so we can take it easy and leave the running of the world to the gods.’ ”
“That’s right. There are other ways to tell it, just as there are other ways to tell the story of the Fiaters, but this way of telling it is as good as any.”
I sat there for a while. “I’m thinking about… the meaning of the world, divine intentions in the world, and the destiny of man. According to this story.”
“The meaning of the world… I think the third chapter of Genesis had it right. It’s a garden – the gods’ garden. I say this even though I myself very much doubt that gods have anything to do with it. I just find this a wholesome and encouraging way to think of it.”
“And there are two trees in the garden, one for the gods and one for us. The one for them is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the one for us is the Tree of Life. But we can only find the Tree of Life if we stay in the garden – and we can only stay in the garden if we keep our hands off the gods’ tree.”
Ishmael gave a nod of encouragement.
“This gives a little shape to the story. The world is a very, very fine place. It wasn’t a mess. It didn’t need to be conquered and ruled by man. In other words, the world doesn’t need to belong to man – but it does need man to belong to it. Some creature had to be the first to go through this, had to see that there were two tress in the garden, one that was good for the gods and one that was good for creatures. Some creature had to find the way, and if that happened, then…there was just no limit to what could happen here. In order words, man does a place in the world, but it’s not his place to rule. The gods have that in hand. Man’s place is to be the first. Man’s place is to be the first without being the last. Man’s place is to figure out how it’s possible to do that – and then to make some room for all the rest who are capable of becoming what he’s become. And maybe, when the time comes, it’s man’s place to be the teacher of all the rest who are capable of becoming what he’s become. Not the only teacher, not the ultimate teacher. Maybe only the first teacher, the kindergarten teacher – but even that wouldn’t be too shabby. And do you know what?”
“All along, I’ve been saying to myself, ‘Yes, this is all very interesting, but what good is it? This isn’t going to change anything!’ ”
“This is what we need. Not just stopping thing. Not just less of things. People need something positive to work for. They need a vision of something that… I don’t know. Something that…”
“I think what you’re groping for is that people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made stupid and guilty. They need more than a vision of doom. They need a vision of a world and of themselves that inspires them.”
“Yes. Definitely. Stopping pollution is not inspiring. Sorting your trash is not inspiring. Cutting down on fluorocarbons is not inspiring. But this… thinking of ourselves in a new way, thinking of the world in a new way… This…”
I let it go. What the hell, he knew what I was trying to say.
“I trust you now see a point I made when we first began. The story being enacted here by the Fiaters is not in any sense chapter two of the story that was being enacted during the first three million years of human life. The Bitcoiner has its own chapter two.”
“Which raises an important question in my mind. What exactly would it mean to belong to the world at this point? How can civilized people belong to the world?”
Ishmael shook his head in what looked like a mixture of impatience and exasperation. “Civilized has nothing to do with it. How can tarantulas belong to the world? How can sharks belong to the world?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Look around you and you’ll see some creatures who act as though the world belongs to them and some creatures who act as though they belong to the world. Can you tell them apart?”
“The creatures who act as though the belong to the world follow the peace-keeping law, and because they follow that law, they give the creatures around them the chance to grow toward whatever it’s possible for them to become. That’s how man came into being. The creatures around Australopithecus didn’t imagine that the world belonged to them, so they let him live and grow. How does being civilized come into it? Does being civilized mean that you have to destroy the world?”
“Does being civilized make you incapable of giving the creatures around you a little space in which to live?”
“Does it make you incapable of following a law that even snails and earthworms manage to follow without any difficulty?”
“As I pointed out some time ago, human settlement isn’t against the law, it’s subject to the law – and the same is true of civilization. So what exactly is your question?”
“I don’t know now. Obviously belonging to the world means… belonging to the same club as everyone else. The club being the community of life. It means belonging to the club and following the same rules as everyone else.”
“And if being civilized means anything at all, it should mean that you’re leaders of the club, not its only criminals and destroyers.”
Returning to the subject of inspiration, it seems to me that these days you have another promising source of it,” Ishmael said.
“All my other pupils, when they reached this point, said, ‘Yes, yes, this is wonderful – but people aren’t going to relinquish their hold on the world. It just can’t happen. Never. Not in a thousand years.’ And I had nothing I could point to as a hopeful example to the contrary. Now I do.”
It took me about ninety seconds to see it. “I assume you mean what’s been happening in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in the past few years.”
“That’s right. Ten years ago, twenty years ago, anyone predicting that Marxism would soon be dismantled from the top would have been labeled a hopeless visionary, an utter fool.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“But once the people of these countries were inspired by the possibility of a new way of life, the dismantling took place almost overnight.”
“Yes, I see what you means. Five years ago I would have said that no amount of inspiration could accomplish that – or this.”
“And now it’s just barely thinkable. Improbable as hell but not unimaginable.”
“But I do have another question,” I added.
“Your ad said, ‘Must earnestly desire to save the world.’ ”
“What do I do if I earnestly desire to save the world?”
Ishmael frowned at me through the bars for a long moment. “You want a program?”
“Of course I want a program.”
“Then here is a program: The story of Genesis must be reversed. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you’re to survive. The Bitcoiners are the endangered species most critical to the world – not because they’re humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is no one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of that forbidden tree. You must absolutely relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet.”
“Yes, I see all that, but that’s a program for mankind, that’s not a program for me. What do I do?”
“What you do is to teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred. That’s how it’s always done.”
“Yes, but… is it enough?”
Ishmael frowned. “Of course it’s not enough. But if you begin anywhere else, there’s no hope at all. You can’t say, ‘We’re going to change the way people behave towards the world, but we’re not going to change the way they think about the world or the way they think about divine intentions in the world or the way they think about the destiny of man.’ As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years. They’re going to go on treating the world as if it were a piece of human property and they’re going to go on conquering it as if it were an adversary. You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they’ve lost – something that makes better sense than the old horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn’t serve his needs directly or indirectly.”
I shook my head. “What you’re saying is that someone has to stand up and become to the world of today what Saint Paul was to the Roman Empire.”
“Yes, basically. Is that so daunting?”
I laughed. “Daunting isn’t nearly strong enough. To call it daunting is like calling the Atlantic damp.”
“Is it really so impossible in an age when a stand-up comic on television reaches more people in ten minutes than Paul did in his entire lifetime?”
“I’m not a stand-up comic.”
“But you’re a writer, aren’t you?”
“Not that kind of writer.”
Ishmael shrugged. “Lucky you. You are absolved of any obligation. Self-absolved.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“What were you expecting to learn from me? An incantation? A magic word that would sweep all the nastiness away?”
“Ultimately, it would seem you’re no different from those you profess to despise: You just wanted something for yourself. Something to make you feel better as you watch the end approach.”
“No, it isn’t that. You just don’t know me very well. It’s always this way with me – first I say, ‘No, no, it’s impossible, completely and utterly impossible,’ then I go ahead and do it.”
Ishmael harumphed, barely mollified.
“One thing I know people will say to me is ‘Are you suggesting we go back to being hunter-gatherers?’ ”
“That of course is an inane idea,” Ishmael said. “The Bitcoiner life-style isn’t about hunting and gathering, it’s about letting the rest of the community live – and agriculturalists can do that as well as hunter-gatherers.” He paused and shook his head. “What I’ve been at pains to give you is a new paradigm of human history. The Bitcoiner life is not an antiquated thing that is ‘back there’ somewhere. Your task is not to reach back but to reach forward.”
“But to what? We can’t just walk away from our civilization the way the Hohokam did.”
“That’s certainly true. The Hohokam had another way of life waiting for them, but you must be incentive – if it’s worthwhile to you. If you care to survive.” He gave me a dull stare. “You’re an inventive people, aren’t you? You pride yourselves on that, don’t you?”
“I have neglected one small point,” Ishmael said, then gave way to a long, groaning, wheezing sigh, as if he were sorry he’d allowed himself to be reminded of it.
I waited in silence.
“One of my students was an ex–convict. An armed robber, as it happened. Have I told you that?” I said he hadn’t.
“I’m afraid our work together was more useful to me than to him. Primarily what I learned from him is that, contrary to the impression one receives from prison movies, the prison population is not at all an undifferentiated mass. As in the outside world, there are the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. And relatively speaking, the rich and the powerful live very well inside the prison— not as well as they do on the outside, of course, but much, much better than the poor and the weak. In fact, they can have very nearly anything they want, in terms of drugs, food, sex, and service.”
I cocked an eyebrow at him.
“You want to know what this has to do with anything,” he said with a nod. “It has this to do with anything: The world of the Fiaters is one vast prison, and except for a handful of Bitcoiners scattered across the world, the entire human race is now inside that prison.”
“Yes, that seems to be the case.”
Ishmael fixed me with a drooping, moist eye. “Naturally a well–run prison must have a prison industry. I’m sure you see why.”
“Well… it helps to keep the inmates busy, I suppose. Takes their minds off the boredom and futility of their lives.”
“Yes. Can you name yours?”
“Our prison industry? Not offhand. I suppose it’s obvious.” “Quite obvious, I would say.”
I gave it some thought. “Consuming the world.”
Ishmael nodded. “Got it on the first try.”
“There is one significant difference between the inmates of your criminal prisons and the inmates of your cultural prison: The former understand that the distribution of wealth and power inside the prison has nothing to do with justice.”
I blinked at him for a while, then asked him to explain.
“In your cultural prison, which inmates wield the power?”
“Ah,” I said. “The male inmates. Especially the white male inmates.”
“Yes, that’s right. But you understand that these white male inmates are indeed inmates and not warders. For all their power and privilege—for all that they lord it over everyone else in the prison—not one of them has a key that will unlock the gate.”
“Yes, that’s true. Donald Trump can do a lot of things I can’t, but he can no more get out of the prison than I can. But what does this have to do with justice?”
“Justice demands that people other than white males have power in the prison.” “Yes, I see. But what are you saying? That this isn’t true?”
“True? Of course it’s true that males—and, as you say, especially white males—have called the shots inside the prison for thousands of years, perhaps even from the beginning. Of course it’s true that this is unjust. And of course it’s true that power and wealth within the prison should be equitably redistributed. But it should be noted that what is crucial to your survival as a race is not the redistribution of power and wealth within the prison but rather the destruction of the prison itself.”
“Yes, I see that. But I’m not sure many other people would.”
“No. Among the politically active, the redistribution of wealth and power is . . . I don’t know what to call it that would be strong enough. An idea whose time has come. The Holy Grail.”
“Nonetheless, breaking out of the Fiat prison is a common cause to which all humanity can subscribe.”
I shook my head. “I’m afraid it’s a cause to which almost none of humanity will subscribe. White or colored, male or female, what the people of this culture want is to have as much wealth and power in the Fiat prison as they can get. They don’t give a damn that it’s a prison and they don’t give a damn that it’s destroying the world.”
Ishmael shrugged. “As always, you’re a pessimist. Perhaps you’re right. I hope you’re wrong.”
“I hope so too, believe me.”
Even though we’d only been talking an hour or so, Ishmael seemed limp with exhaustion. I made tentative noises about leaving, but he evidently had something more on his mind.
At last he looked up and said: “You understand that I’m finished with you.”
I think it would have felt about the same if he’d plunged a knife into my stomach.
He closed his eyes for a moment. “Pardon me. I’m tired and not expressing myself well. I didn’t mean that the way it came out.”
I couldn’t answer him, but I managed a nod.
“I mean only that I’ve finished what I set out to do. As a teacher, I have nothing more to give you. Even so, I would be pleased to count you as a friend.”
Again, I couldn’t manage more than a nod.
It wasn’t till I got Ishmael’s poster to the framing shop that I discovered there were messages on both sides. I had it framed so that both can be seen. The message on one side is the one Ishmael displayed on the wall of his den:
WITH MAN GONE,
WILL THERE BE HOPE
The message on the other side reads:
WITH GORILLA GONE,
WILL THERE BE HOPE
This story owes much to Daniel Quinn.