Autism spectrum/A few impertinent questions/Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?

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Question 30

Both groups boarded the bus to travel back down out of the Himalayas. We had stayed in small groups on separate houseboats during the week in Kashmir and didn't see much of our tour companions. We became aware that Bill, one of the older Australians on our “young people’s tour”, had become ill. Pale and breathing with difficulty, he sat on the bus in his usual silence. Before this three-month bus-trip was over, we all became intimately acquainted, but the tour was just starting, and we didn't really know Bill. His wife, Celia, was a talker. She spoke with a lovely British accent, in a well-modulated voice, but she never stopped. She sometimes asked questions, but rarely gave anyone opportunity to answer. She had developed techniques which allowed no one to politely escape once she began one of her monologues. Bill and Celia always sat together on the bus. Bill looked out the window and nodded occasionally, while Celia talked.

Celia was silent now, worried about her husband. She called a doctor in the town where we stopped for the night and obtained an antibiotic. Bill improved somewhat. Lahore, Pakistan, was the next city with scheduled air-flights, and Celia and Bill decided to leave the tour there and return to Australia. However as we were about leave Lahore for the Khyber Pass, Haggis, the tour-guide, came and told us that Bill had died, suddenly, in their hotel room. We all stood by the bus in stunned silence on that hot, humid morning when we learned of Bill's death. The entire tour couldn't stay behind; hotel reservations had been made for the entire trip. People must have died on other tours, and I wondered how their spouses or companions managed in such a strange land where few people even spoke English. A young tour-guide-trainee happened to be traveling with us for a few weeks. It was decided that Robyn would stay behind to help Celia, and the tour would continue on as scheduled.

Another woman really should stay with the poor lady too, I thought, remembering my own husband's death. Even though Ike's illness had given me some warning, I remembered the feeling of being overwhelmingly alone. If I stayed behind with Celia and Robyn, I'd probably have to fly over the Khyber Pass to catch up with the tour. For me, crossing the Khyber was a highlight of the trip. I would have preferred going over with a camel train, if I'd known how a lone woman of my age might arrange such a thing, but I was confident my imagination would allow me to feel like I was making the journey on a camel. I waited, wishing someone else would offer. However I was the only single, older woman in our economy group, and none of the young people should be expected stay behind. But I hardly even knew Celia! In spite of its exotic history, the Khyber Pass is just a road over another mountain pass, I kept telling myself. Finally, although I was aware it might not be much fun, my conscience won the argument, and I volunteered to stay behind with Celia. A nightmare at first, the experience actually turned into my most cherished memory of the trip.

There was a knock on the door. A hotel employee stuck in his head. “Remember to keep the fan on,” he warned. “Bodies deteriorate fast in this climate.”

I hadn’t attended many funerals and couldn't even remember having seen a dead body. I looked at Bill's, lying there in his pajamas by the bathroom door. Could he suddenly begin to deteriorate? Maybe I was getting more adventure than I'd bargained for. "Can't someone pick him up off the floor," I suggested. The man returned with two more Pakistanis wearing those dingy white cloths tied around their waists as skirts, and they put Bill's body on one of the twin beds. Celia and I sat on the other one. Third-class Pakistani hotels didn't always offer the luxury of chairs. I tried to avoid looking at the body, but it remained a stark, silent presence.

Robyn returned and reported that cremation was illegal in Pakistan, for religious reasons, and burial must take place the day of death, because of the climate. He had located an Anglican missionary who agreed to conduct the funeral. We went to the police station to sign some papers concerning the burial.

“Why must I sign anything? My poor darling just collapsed there on the floor. And in this strange, land where one doesn't speak the language--”

The officials surrounding us didn't understand a word Celia was saying. They were shouting in Pakistani, convinced we would comprehend if they spoke loudly enough. Celia finally signed the papers, and we returned to the hotel. Three tall, thin, barefoot, Pakistanis came for Bill's body. They placed him in a box covered with black plastic. We followed as they carried it out through the lobby and put it in an old Ford station wagon. It had apparently been blue, but had been turned into a hearse by crudely repainting it black. We rode to the cemetery in a taxi with the missionary and his wife. Traffic on the streets of Lahore was crowded and hectic. Trucks, buses and motor scooters created a constant roar. Camels, horses, oxen, water buffalo and donkeys pulled carts and wagons, all contributing to an unbelievable chaos. Pakistani men standing in carts, wielding whips over mules and donkeys, sharing the congested streets with honking trucks and dilapidated vehicles - and noisy motor scooters darting in and out - that remains my vivid memory of Lahore.

A high, brick wall surrounded the Christian cemetery where the British had interred their loved ones. There, except for the murmur of traffic outside the cemetery, it was quiet. The sound of birds and the creaking wheels of the wooden cart, upon which the Pakistani men placed Bill's coffin, broke the silence. A few unkempt flowers grew under the huge old trees. The missionary wore a long white embroidered robe, which moved gently in the slight breeze. We stood by the open grave and read scriptures together.

As we made our way back through the noisy traffic to the hotel, Celia talked to the missionary's wife. “You are ever so courageous to live out here and work among the heathen.”

“One does what one must when one does the Lord's work, doesn't one--” the missionary’s wife managed to inject.

“I'm thankful to leave my dear husband in a Christian cemetery. If one can manage, one should always leave one's loved ones among one's own kind, shouldn't one, even in uncivilized parts of the world. You have been most comforting, really, very understanding. It was a lovely funeral though, wasn't it--”

“Quite lovely,” the missionary's wife murmured. The missionary nodded solemnly. Those quiet moments in the cemetery had been a peaceful respite in that nightmare of a day.

Back at the hotel the nightmare resumed. The hotel clerk expected me to share Celia's room and sleep in the dead man's bed. At my frantic insistence, he finally gave us another room, one for three. Celia, Robyn and I were to share. Someone else would sleep in Bill's bed that night. I hoped the sheets got changed. The tour we were on was cheap. The whole trip, including hotel accommodations for three months, only cost about nine hundred dollars. We sometimes slept four and five to a room. When the beds didn't come out even, a boy might sleep in a room with some of the girls. The young Australians seemed to pay no attention to each other as we awoke in the morning, and everyone brushed their teeth in their knickers and night clothes. The two older, married couples in the "young people's group" had always been given their own rooms. So while I had accustomed myself to sleeping in the same room with men, Celia was shocked to realize we were to share a room with Robyn.

“Really! What would my darling Bill think! His first night in the ground and I'm to sleep in a hotel room with a man? Just imagine! My poor dear must be positively turning in his grave. You don't suppose Robyn will try to rape us, do you Bertie?”

We went out to dinner and Celia told the waiter, “My dear husband died today. Just fell by the bathroom door. I had to leave him here in Pakistan among the heathen, you see. We had a lovely funeral though, in a Christian cemetery. An Anglican missionary conducted the service. A quite lovely service --”

“Yes Ma'am,” the waiter responded.

Muslim men must have considered Western women like creatures from another planet, with their bare arms and faces, and their bold and fearless manner, exhibiting the power of men, rather than acting like properly demure and docile Muslim women. Hotel employees didn't appear surprised by anything Western tourists did or said. Celia repeated her story to the waiter the next morning at brekkie (Australian for breakfast), to the taxi driver on the way to the airport, and to everyone in the airport who understood English. (And to several who probably didn't.) Because of recent political unrest, we were thoroughly searched. The discovery of a blond wig, false eyelashes and women's clothing in the suitcase Robyn was claiming caused some consternation.

“What's this?” one of the airport officials examining our luggage demanded of Robyn, holding up the wig.

“That's actually my dear, departed husband's suitcase,” explained Celia indignantly. “Bill wanted me to be my usual glamorous self, even on the tour, and men don't need a whole suitcase, do they? I had to bury him here in Pakistan, you see. . . ”

"Go get on the plane," the officials said hastily, probably overwhelmed by Celia’s talking.

We had been unable to fly over the Khyber Pass, thank heavens. I wouldn‘t miss that legendary landmark after all. We were headed for Peshawar, a small town at the foot of the mountains. Robyn and I sat together on the plane, silently, resting our ears. Celia sat across the aisle and talked to a beautifully dressed Pakistani woman sitting next to her. When we landed in Peshawar, Celia introduced us to her seat companion. The woman was going to her niece's wedding. She felt sorry for Celia and invited us all to the mendi, a Muslim wedding feast held the evening before the wedding. Celia thought the party might lift her spirits. Robyn and I were thrilled by such a fabulous invitation, one that Celia had obtained for us by her incessant talking.

That evening we squeezed into an open, three-wheeled taxi and rode out into the suburbs to a Pakistani general's home. Thousands of Christmas tree lights lit the garden. A huge canopy had been erected, and carpets were placed on the ground. Musicians played strange, eerie-sounding, oriental instruments. Robyn was hurried into the house to join the men. A mendi was a women's party, and men and women did not mingle socially in Pakistan. The women wore bright coloured tunics embroidered with gold, silk trousers and long scarves. All displayed diamonds, rubies and emeralds, and the family fortune on their arms in the form of gold bracelets. The younger women took turns dancing, moving sensuously to the strange, Asian music. Their movements were slow and sedate, and very different from any dancing I'd seen in the West. Older women placed money on the dancers' heads, which fell to the carpets and was collected for charity. It was an exotic performance, such as I wouldn‘t have expected women to perform so enthusiastically just for each other. The bride was led out of the house for a few minutes. She was heavily veiled and sat hunched over, staring at the ground.

“What's wrong with her?” I found myself exclaiming.

“She's just shy,” someone said, and they all laughed. If this was her party, she obviously wasn’t enjoying it very much. She looked about sixteen and terrified. An older, married sister of the bride was a medical student. Five of her classmates were at the party, all lovely girls with smooth complexions, dark hair and eyes, and fine features. They spoke beautiful English and were eager to explain Pakistani customs. Marriages were arranged, and the bride was unacquainted with her future husband. She had been presented to the groom. He could reject her, but the bride had no say in the matter. She only felt grateful not to be spurned. One Pakistani woman insisted such marriages were more successful than Western, romantic matches. Several of the medical students, who had their husbands chosen in this manner, agreed. I could see their point. Expectations might be entirely different in an arranged marriage. They might view their spouses as just another fallible human being, rather than the one unique, soul-mate with whom we have "fallen in love", and selected to ensure our happiness. Theirs wasn’t a custom I’d accept, but they seemed content with it, and I didn’t presume to try to convince them our Western ways were superior; I only felt fortunate to experience that exotic world, alien customs, colorful dancers and oriental music. By obtaining an invitation to this party Celia had more than repaid me for staying behind.

Robyn also enjoyed his time with the Pakistani men. Back at the hotel, he and I exchanged stories of the party over a cup of tea. We began talking to the friendly, young waiter, who acknowledged that he had recently wed. He asked Robyn if he was married. Robyn said no, and the waiter asked sympathetically, “Your family is doing nothing to find you a wife?”

“In my country we find our own wives,” Robyn said.

“How much do they cost?”

“I suppose a marriage license costs about three pounds.”

“Three pounds!" the waiter exclaimed. “If that were all they cost here, I'd surely have a dozen.”

The waiter explained that in Afghanistan, the country just over the Khyber Pass, wives were very expensive. Indeed, many Afghans lived their entire lives without affording even one. (A shortage probably caused by greedy rich men hoarding a dozen.) My excitement continued the next day, as I saw the brightly painted, Afghan bus in which we were to travel over the pass to Afghanistan. It was almost as adventurous as a camel train, I reflected blissfully. We squeezed into the rear seat with three Afghan tribesmen. Like many Afghans, they were tall, handsome and fierce looking. Baggage was piled on top of the bus. A box fell off a couple of times as we bounced up the pass. The Afghan riding on top would pound on the roof, the bus would stop, and someone would run back to retrieve the fallen luggage. Several times the bus stopped by a stream. The men jumped off and ran down to wash their feet, and knelt on the rocks to pray toward Mecca. Once, as they were returning to the bus after praying, two of them apparently got into some kind of a disagreement. They all took off their belts. They were apparently ready to sling them like whips, using the metal buckles as weapons. To our relief the argument was settled without violence, and the men put on their belts again. (Russia and the United States were soon to give them Western-style weapons, so obviously Afghans no longer have to resort to belt buckles to settle disputes.) The Khyber Pass was dusty, barren and rocky. I watched the nomads and camel-trains from the bus window. I was thrilled to be crossing the Khyber Pass with a bunch of Afghan tribesmen. So much history had passed this way, traveling between Europe and the East. I could imagine that some of these people were still living lives very similar to those lived by their ancestors centuries ago. At the summit we stopped, and everyone paid a fee (it sounded more like a ransom to me) to the local tribe "to ensure our safety across the pass". One of the men on the seat next to us spoke a little English.

“Where you from?” he asked me.

“America,” I answered, smiling at him.

“Ah, America!” he exclaimed, as he grabbed my hand and shook it. “How many husbands you got?”

He was young enough to be my son. Nevertheless, something in his attitude made me uneasy. “Two,” I answered. It seemed prudent not to admit I didn't have even one, and maybe two would be even more of a put off.

“Good! I meet you tonight, your hotel,” he announced. “Ten o'clock.”

Robyn, sitting next to me suppressed a smirk. I must confess I felt touched to have a handsome young tribesman try to make a date with me at my age - especially after being called grandmother by the Nepalese rickshaw driver. Nevertheless I stayed close to an amused Robyn until we reached Kabul, and was careful not to make eye-contact with any more Afghan tribesmen. Afghan women wore a tent-like garment in public. They saw the world through a mesh covered slit, ensuring that no man other than their husband even caught a glimpse of their eyes. I wondered if Afghans, never seeing women other than their mothers, could even distinguish between a sixteen-year-old and a sixty-year-old woman. I sensed the power women of such a traditional culture possess, exerting a potent effect upon sex-starved men, and turning them into helpless creatures with no will of their own - all by doing nothing more than being women. Some women might be reluctant to exchange such heady power for mere liberation. And who knows? If Western men had succeeded in their professed intention to protect us from all conflict and hardship, perhaps we would have also been content to remain "little girls". Western women waged a long, difficult fight to attain their place in society; I doubt we can bestow "equal rights" upon another culture. I suspect such women will have to want liberation enough to participate in their own struggle for equality.

Recently, as Afghanistan has appeared in the news on television, I've noticed that Afghan men don't really seem as handsome as I remember them. Perhaps it was the lust in their eyes that made them appear so attractive. I realize the Muslim attitude toward women has always had a darker, more sinister side than we observed. Men are regarded as helpless to resist a woman's wiles, and in Muslim societies women are held responsible for any sexual misconduct. Women have been brutally murdered, stoned to death, for the mere suspicion of sexual activity. However at the time we drove through Pakistan, the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan, what we encountered seemed more like childish innocence. Ours must have been one of the last bus tours to travel through that area. Soon, actually within days in that spring of 1978, their transition would begin to a more violent, dangerous society.

We caught up with our tour in Kabul. They were eating in a restaurant, the Istanbul Cafe. A delicious meal, including homemade American pie, cost about seventy two cents. The restaurant was dim and smoky, and packed with tourists. Asian music blared from a radio, and faded posters covered the walls. I sat with Celia at a long table, next to some other Westerners. I heard one of them ask if she was enjoying her trip.

“It's marvellously fascinating. We attended a Pakistani mendi last night. My traveling companions are most considerate. You see, my husband died day before yesterday and...”

The waiter arrived, and the tourists sat speechless, with dazed expressions on their faces, as Celia turned to give her order. Then she continued, “I miss him terribly. But there's no reason to return to Australia. One keeps busy and has less time to think, doesn't one. I'm going to look for an emerald ring…”

Celia did have time to think, though. I'd heard her crying at night when she was alone. She was doing her best to continue her life without her husband. Whatever her failings, she had the courage of an elderly Australian woman determined to continue her once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to her "mother country". She was certainly adventurous and open to new experiences.

At the moment we seem convinced that our Western democracies are the ultimate in human culture, something that will continue to grow and expand to all societies. We appear intent upon persuading (or even forcing) the rest of the world to emulate us. However history seems to indicate that after a burst of creative progress, most civilizations spend centuries in stagnant decline. Both the Greeks and the Romans experimented with democracy, and then regressed back to autocratic societies. Are our Western democracies an exception? Or will we eventually stop progressing and go into decline? Modern democracies are only a couple of centuries old, perhaps in their infancy, and our society still seems to have plenty of imperfections that need addressing. At times, our governing institutions even appear dangerously dysfunctional, and our population growth seems relentless. Even our most stable democracies can sometimes become susceptible to irraational rabble rousers. Hopefully, we may resolve a few more of our problems before beginning to decline. As a political liberal, I suspect I’d always be happier living in an imperfect, evolving, dynamic society, rather than in a society of stagnant perfection. I'm sure conservatives place more value on stability. I acknowledge my prejudice for innovation, but I also recognize the value of stability. A society consisting of nothing but liberals could become unstable, I suppose.

Questions[edit | edit source]

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Current page: Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?

  1. Wouldn’t volition be an essential aspect of creativity?
  2. Could an inherently creative universe, a living universe, ever be defined by mathematical formulas?
  3. How did the laws of nature originate?
  4. Are some scientific concepts too sacred to be debated?
  5. Are intelligence and creativity two separate and distinct processes?
  6. Are psychoanalytic theories profound? Or just convoluted?
  7. If purposeful creativity exists as an aspect of reality, why should we assume it is a process unique to human consciousness?
  8. Can the value of scientific knowledge ever justify enrolling people in research projects without their knowledge or consent?
  9. Exactly what technical knowledge enables psychiatrists to manipulate ids, egos and psyches?
  10. Should "normal" be equated with average?
  11. What technical knowledge enables psychologists to declare people emotionally abnormal?
  12. Are psychologists able to scientifically measure parental love? Or its lack?
  13. Is the universe, including life, an automatic, mechanical process, driven by nothing but the laws of physics and chemistry (the materialist position)? Or do other forces play a role, such as mind, consciousness, judgment and volition - most of which we presently have only have limited understanding?
  14. Should doctors and scientists refrain from expressing skepticism about theories of colleagues in other fields?
  15. Do people generally choose the challenges which force them to grow?
  16. How can we claim to scientifically manipulate thoughts and emotions if we don't even understand how such elusive phenomena relate to physical reality?
  17. What is faith? If belief that God organized the universe is a matter of faith, why isn't the materialist belief that the universe came together by some accidental, mechanical process also a matter of faith? (Or, the Buddhist belief in self-organization.)
  18. Are living creatures constantly evolving as they strive to grow and adapt? Or must evolutionary adaptations passively wait around for a random mutation to accidentally pop up in someone's genome?
  19. Should we have official committees to define scientific knowledge? Or is an ever-changing, constantly-challenged, general consensus our best way to keep our understanding of reality vibrant?
  20. Could lying on a couch and obsessing over a traumatic childhood ever be therapeutic?
  21. Would it even be possible to conduct a scientific study to determine whether psychological treatments are effective?
  22. What is racism?
  23. Does free-will exist?
  24. Would obsessing over a traumatic event ever cure any mental illness?
  25. Could a creative intelligence be an innate aspect of all Nature?
  26. What would define economic theories as materialistic or non-materialistic?
  27. Is intolerance often the result of personal insecurity?
  28. Consciousness and free-will may be defining characteristics of all life, but do we have much understanding of what they actually are?
  29. Can we do other people's growing for them?
  30. Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?
  31. Which would produce the most psychologically stunted individuals? Being emotionally challenged? Or never encountering any challenges?
  32. Could the purpose of life be to participate in the growth of the universe?
  33. Can science investigate and attempt to describe a non-materialistic version of the universe?
Current page: Are Western democracies civilization’s ultimate achievement?