Tony Blair's 9/11 memorial speech in New York City
Unidentified footbridge, maybe Papua New Guinea, from the maths page of "Making The Modern World." In our time, a lot of footbridges have been built or upgraded to become spectacular tourist attractions. This is not a popular tourist attraction (although I'd go there, particularly if it is PNG, in a heartbeat).
For a reasonable risk of sudden terrifying death, human beings imagine a bridge where there is no bridge, think out what such a bridge will be after they make it exist, often with nothing written down -- maybe a couple of stick scratches in the dirt -- build it, and then cross it scores of times a year to annihilate a difficult, risky two-hour walk. Spiders make webs, but I think human beings are the only Earth life form that makes bridges. Homo faber, some call us, others Homo habilis. The Pope of the Catholic Church is, among many other things, the Pontifex Maximus. I don't think any anthropologist or zoologist has ever called us Homo aleator, but that would certainly fit a lot of what makes us distinctive.
Risk can be described mathematically to illuminate the relationship between the Lolipop we want so much, and the tiger's cage at the zoo where we've spotted it. These equations are from Game Theory, and are very easy to model on a computer. See specifically "The Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma" an invention of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. A recent theory suggests that we love casinos and gambling so much because it reminds us how our ancestors felt when, starving, they would run up against a wooly mammoth with a long stick with a sharp rock tied to one end.
Some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you.
Ordinarily I wander around town in the unfocused haze of a 3-year old, but I spent a week in late October in Churchill, Manitoba Canada, where it is imperative to spend as little time as possible outside, and when you must go outside, you don't dawdle or linger or tarry, and you constantly have to look behind you. When you get to your destination, a large sign says
BOLT THE DOOR
and doesn't say PLEASE.
Yet people have chosen to live around there for about 30,000 years. Polar bears and grizzlies and kodiaks, when you kill one of them in a fair fight with neolithic weapons, are tasty, have a lot of meat and fat, and there's no better fur in the Arctic (except wolverine fur). You can't eat polar bear liver because it's so rich in stored vitamin D it would be poisonous. Most of the time a polar bear complains that he's too hot, not too cold.
Probably the most thrilling game human beings ever chose to play were The Great Voyages. Here are the rules:
1. You've lived your whole life on a tropical Pacific island.
2. You and some other volunteers of both sexes build a raft and load it with coconuts, fruit, a breeding pair of pigs and some jars of drinkable water.
3. Sail east. (All the good islands to the west already have lots of people, who don't want you there.)
4. You navigate by Sun, Moon and stars, clouds and sky colors, flights of birds, color, texture, currents and smell of the sea and floating debris, and kinds of fish.
5. When the water, coconuts and fruit are gone, you figure out how to get more drinkable water and more food in the middle of the ocean.
6. If you kill and eat a pig, the other volunteers will kill you.
7. You have no weather forecasts and may be sailing right into a taifun. The ocean is filled with deadly submerged reefs.
8. You don't know if there's any dry land in your direction, no matter how long you sail. A typical successful voyage may take as long as three years.
9. There's a 95 percent chance you'll die of starvation and thirst or drowning, with no dry land in sight.
Successful players of The Great Voyages, originating in southeast Asia, eventually populated (and brought pigs to) every island in the Pacific; their Polynesian languages are structurally related. Many of them may not have been volunteers, but were forced to leave their home island by overpopulation pressure or at the points of spears.
In "Aliens," an exciteable young Marine panics when he realizes he and his squad cannot escape a primitive planet infested by superpowerful carnivorous predators. He screams: "That's it! GAME OVER!"
~ ~ ~
One day in the early 1700s, a footbridge like this -- the famed "Bridge of San Luis Rey" -- collapsed and plummeted five random people on random journeys to their deaths into a chasm in Peru. Or so Thornton Wilder's story says. A priest who witnessed the seemingly meaningless. senseless tragedy was convinced that if he studied everything about it and the lives of the victims, he could prove God's existence and discover God's mysterious plan.
Vleeptron is certainly no close friend or admirer of recently resigned Prime Minister Tony Blair, commonly described by his ruder critics as "Bush's poodle."
Political leadership consists not merely of wise and ethical decisions, but also of Words, an art of weaving words which touch hearts and resonate in minds and memory. When Abraham Lincoln dedicated a cemetery to the slaughtered soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, his short speech -- he scribbled it on an envelope on his train ride from Washington DC -- was sandwiched between several long, florid masterpieces of Victorian oratory, and American newspapers practically ignored Lincoln's remarks and heaped praise on the Great Public Gasbags who spoke for hours.
Today no one remembers the florid oratory, but American schoolchildren are (or were) required to memorize Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and you can also find it, and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, engraved in marble at his Memorial in Washington DC. Usually tourists are taking the time to read these walls, and are surprised by how powerfully moving the words are.
By the time of 9/11, Thornton Wilder's "Bridge of San Luis Rey" (1928) had been largely forgotten in American literature, remembered as a quaint and dainty footnote of a more innocent age. High school English teachers may still require students to read it, because it contains no sex acts or sexually vulgar words. But the novel can be quite brutally candid about one person's love for another person.
But when Blair faced the horrible task of flying to New York City nine days after the terrorist attacks to speak at a memorial service, he faced a question that has tormented human beings since they first taught themselves to speak:
What can anyone say to make sense of death? And if we can make no sense of death, what can anyone say that will, in some tiny way, comfort the living?
So this is not my declaration of love for Tony Blair. Rather it is Vleeptron's appreciation of the buried treasure that enriches, and sometimes even comforts us from a good education (Oxford University, St. John's College).
If someone wishes to advise us that it was not Blair, but a speechwriter, who resurrected Wilder's Bridge for this speech, then please identify the speechwriter and let us know where she/he went to school. Some Vleeptron readers have kids, others are kids thinking about college, and they might appreciate little hints about exceptional schools that shape exceptional intellects who grow up to enrich our poor, suffering Planet Earth. Bush went to Yale and then Harvard Business School, he is our first president to hold an MBA degree.
To memorialize their alumni who died in the 9/11 attacks, Boston College built an outdoor Chartres Labyrinth, which the public is invited to walk in quiet contemplation.
Lincoln was born into squalid poverty and illiteracy in frontier Kentucky, was mostly self-taught, and never took a college course. He read the law in an Illinois lawyer's office, and proved every theorem in a borrowed copy of Euclid's "Elements" after a successful politician rewarded young Lincoln with a state surveyor job for which he had no training.
I went to (among several other fine institutions of higher learning) NYU. The Olsen Twins recently enrolled there, too, but I went to the Bronx campus, which you can see in the movie "A Beautiful Mind."
Note also Blair's extremely rare correct usage of the word "enormity." It doesn't mean "very bigness."
The Guardian (UK)
Friday 21 September 2001
Text of Tony Blair's reading in New York
This is the text of the reading given by the prime minister, Tony Blair, at the memorial service for British victims of the New York terrorist attacks in St Thomas's Church
There is no reading, there are no words, that can truly comfort those who are grieving the loss of their loved ones today; and no matter how we try to make sense of it all it is hard, so hard, to do.
Nine days on, there is still the shock and disbelief; there is anger; there is fear; but there is also, throughout the world, a profound sense of solidarity; there is courage; there is a surging of the human spirit.
We wanted to be here today, to offer our support and sympathy to the families of the lost ones. Many are British. Amid the enormity of what has happened to America, nobody will forget that this was the worst terrorist attack on British citizens in my country's history.
The bonds between our countries for so long so strong, are even stronger now. For my reading I have chosen the final words of The Bridge of San Luis Rey written by Thornton Wilder in 1927. It is about a tragedy that took place in Peru, when a bridge collapsed over a gorge and five people died.
A witness to the deaths, wanting to make sense of them and explain the ways of God to his fellow human beings, examined the lives of the people who died, and these words were said by someone who knew the victims, and who had been through the many emotions, and the many stages, of bereavement and loss.
"But soon we will die, and all memories of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning."
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