Saturday, May 26, 2012

Good? Bad? Who's To Say?

A farmer named Sai Weng owned a beautiful mare, which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sai Weng for his great misfortune. Sai Weng simply said, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sai Weng for his good fortune. Again, he said, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

Some time later, Sai Weng's only son, while breaking in the stallion, fell and broke his leg. The villagers once again expressed their sympathy at Sai Weng's misfortune. Sai Weng again said, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village, except Sai Weng's son, were drafted and killed in battle. The villagers were amazed as Sai Weng's good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sai Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

I have long said that destruction precedes creation; pain precedes joy; and loss precedes gain. In that spirit, here are some horrific tragedies that resulted in good things:

The Black Death
The Plague that utterly ravaged humanity, killing up to 60 percent of Europeans, and dropping the population of the entire world by 20 percent by some estimates. The Plague came in three forms. Bubonic was the most common and easiest to spot. Sufferers developed huge sores under the armpits, on the neck, and in the groin. Death occurred less than a week after infection. Pneumonic was the second form, and it infected the lungs. It also had a mortality rate of 95 percent, which seems impressive until you learn that Septicemic Plague, the third variety, had a mortality rate close to 100 percent. Much like attacking Bruce Willis on Christmas, if you contracted Septicemic Plague, your life expectancy was about a day!

The Silver Lining?
The birth of the modern world! Before the plague there had been massive overpopulation in Medieval Europe. Along with it came famine, poor sanitation, overcrowding—all of which helped to accelerate the progress of infectious diseases. Disease, starvation, and predators make up Mother Nature's three-pronged population control failsafe, and things had gotten to the point where it was going to be the Plague or lions!

The ensuing wave of death and horror set off a series of dominoes that would help create the modern world. First, the Plague left behind a sudden shortage of labor, thus landlords were forced to compete for workers by offering higher wages and better treatment. A lower population also brought cheaper land prices, more food for the average peasant, and a relatively large increase in income among the lower classes. Essentially, the Black Death brought about the end of feudalism, the establishment of capitalism, and was one of the major factors that ultimately caused the Renaissance.

Chernobyl Meltdown
Chernobyl is considered to be the worst nuclear disaster in history. It started when engineers at the plant wanted to see if, should power to the plant fail, they could keep the cooling pump system going from the reactors themselves. We can see how someone would be eager to break up the drudgery of life at a communist-run power plant, which probably consisted of hauling atoms back and forth in drab, gray wheelbarrows and standing in line for enriched uranium, but deliberately messing around with nuclear safety regulations just to “see what happens” seems to be taking it too far.

Two huge explosions blew off the reactor's roof, the highly radioactive contents were spewed into the atmosphere, air was sucked in which ignited carbon monoxide gas, and the reactor was set on fire for nine days straight. Because the Soviet Union couldn't be bothered to house the Chernobyl reactor in a concrete shell, as was standard, 100 times more radiation was released than in the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings combined!

The Silver Lining?
It ended the Cold War. Or helped to, anyway. What happened in the USSR, stayed in the USSR. Secrecy is what having a police state is all about. So at first, the Soviet authorities stuck to their communist policy of “ignore the disaster and hope it will go away.” The only problem was that you can't just explode a nuclear reactor and release a cloud of death in the process, and expect nobody to notice. Officials in Sweden raised alarm about the huge levels of radiation sweeping over Europe from Russia, and the Kremlin was forced to break its customary silence after 48 hours. Three weeks later, Mikhail Gorbachev finally commented, with unprecedented honesty. This is the point when, against the will of the hardliners, the light came shining in. Gorbachev was forced to be completely honest, and give journalists access to nuclear officials and doctors. And once the press was allowed to start tugging at loose threads, communism came unraveled. When the citizenry found out that bread lines were not “awesome,” this led to mass dissatisfaction that fueled the eventual end of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union.

World War I
Almost 60 percent of the soldiers who mobilized in 1914 wound up as casualties. They pulled off those numbers with bullets, and bayonets, and poison gas, and guys screaming in muddy trenches—the human experiments of technology and weaponry that strove for better ways to turn humans into a fine red mist.

The Silver Lining?
The Women's Rights movement. World War I was really the point where war made an abrupt transition from bunches of angry guys on horses to tanks and other mass-produced machines. War was becoming a contest of manufacturing capacity and that meant the assembly line worker became just as important as the soldier. It was around 1915 that Britain realized all their able-bodied males were off shooting at Germans, and started employing women in munitions factories. A year later, conscription sucked even more men off the production floor. It's true that most of those women would quit their jobs when the men came back home, but it was too late. They had escaped the kitchen, and would win the right to vote in 1918, and ultimately the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 came about because of the War.

The Crusades
The Crusades were an attempt to convert the world to Western Christianity, and unite them under the leadership of the Pope—and predictably ended in a giant pile of corpses. The West tried to conquer and hold the Holy Land (Jerusalem) for the entire medieval period! Usually, if something doesn't work for a couple of centuries, you should probably just quit. Both sides were bloodthirsty, cruel, and greedy; but the initial Christian assault took the cake with a particularly bloody, largely unprovoked conquest of Jerusalem that resulted in funeral pyres “as large as houses.”

The Silver Lining?
America! With all the travel between the Islamic and Western worlds, the Christians were bound to pick up something useful. The exposure to Islam gave the west the foundations of modern science, medicine, and architecture. Yeah, pretty useful! The need to transport and supply huge armies also led to improved trading in Europe, and helped to kick-start the Renaissance in Italy, which further shaped modern art, science, music, and philosophy. Oh, and one more thing. Eventually, due to the rising Ottoman Empire in the East cutting off Western trade with Asia, Europe was forced to find alternate trading routes, which ultimately led to Columbus discovering America. Attempted medieval genocide—Good? Bad? Who’s to say?