Columnists > Voices
Krieg Barrie

The exaltation project

Culture | It has moved from tower to tower, leaving a trail of destruction

Issue: "2013 News of the Year," Jan. 11, 2014

It so happened, late in the 18th century, when science was exploding the frontiers of knowledge, that great minds converged and said, “Let us exalt Man in God’s image, and bake the bricks of civilization into a mighty tower. Now we see our way to the skies: We know about gravity and oxygen and these interesting theories about smallpox. Kings have had their day (including heavenly ones); history is generously supplied with examples of what not to do. Down with all that, and up with Man. It’s a new day.”

And indeed, in spite of some unfortunate missteps—like that time they call “the Reign of Terror”—the Project came along nicely for the next hundred years or so. Science progressed even faster on the back of a steam engine, and just past midcentury a fellow wrote up a complete theory, with examples, solving the troublesome paradox of creation without a Creator: how propitious! Man could go on his way raping and pillaging—no, wait, that was the old way. Which, admittedly, seemed to keep cropping up, but education would correct those false impulses, once Man learned such behavior was harmful to everyone. More schools, greater literacy, and a peaceful Europe (imagine that!) pointed the way to a golden age. Depressed poets may mutter about “ignorant armies clashing by night” but that was just reactionary—

Uh oh. The 20th century barely got underway, before ignorant armies were clashing by night on a scale unknown before. Scarcely was the mess cleaned up before it happened again, this time with the ugly tincture of racism and the deliberate extermination of undesirables. Perhaps that was the problem. “Let us exalt Man” had been misunderstood to mean “Let us exalt white men of European extraction,” who are all racist bigots. Obviously the Project took a wrong turn, and it was high time to back up and change direction. Civil Rights was the new North Star: equality for all races, ethnic groups, and—

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A voice crying in the wilderness: Let us exalt Woman! This is where the old idealists—dead white guys all—went wrong! Nothing will go right until the other half of humankind brings their skills to the table (which are indistinguishable from men’s skills yet profoundly different). If coming to the table means leaving the home, so be it; Eve’s old designation as “mother of all living” is just subtle propaganda. We can thwart biology by emptying the womb; who says we can’t remake biology? And once we’ve reassigned gender roles, why can’t we reassign gender? Women can be men, and vice versa, mentally or physically; we’ve outrun science itself, and science will have to catch up. Even though the remade persons don’t seem happy, and relationships crumble, and women are more objectified than ever because erasing lines also erases restraint. ... 

Another wrong turn? Then Let us exalt the Children. That’s where problems begin, after all: low self-esteem, bullying, outdated stereotypes. Home is unstable or reactionary, so let us herd them into the arms of the regulatory state and teach them that toy guns are aggression and kissing a little girl, even on the hand, is sexual harassment. Let us replace sacrifice with sentimentality, virtue with “fairness.” Humanity is ours to remake in the preschool, even in the nursery—

Only there aren’t as many children now (unless you count the grown-up ones), and electronic stimulations have nibbled at their attention spans so they don’t seem to be learning our lessons. We may be able to condition them, but humanity is proving to be more complex and recalcitrant than we thought.

Then let us exalt Animals. And if that falls short, the Earth itself.

Earth’s landscape is littered with crumbling towers, from Babel to now. But the wind carries strains of a persistent song: “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Greatness overtook a Jewish peasant girl while she was making other plans—one tiny soul, one eternal Project. So it overtakes us, one by one. The secret is out: We don’t build the tower; the tower is us.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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