I’ve been struggling lately trying to re-wrap my mind around the somewhat-infamous “small-souled” passage in Godel, Escher, Bach. I’ll have more to say on this in future (much more, trust me), but the the central idea discussed by the author, Douglas Hofstadter, is that we cannot help but value some “souls” more than others, and that the reasons for doing so are more complex than we can easily understand or accept.
But if you want an example of how we, as humans, easily and naturally venerate some “souls”, even if they are not human, and consign others to hell’s dustbin, then look no further than this week’s news, a fallen tree, and a crumpled Boeing.
There is no easy way to say this – The Oak Tree is down. The iconic landmark that has come to symbolize VIRginia International Raceway has fallen, broken at the base.
“We are in shock and mourning,” said track owner Connie Nyholm. “We’re too busy right now trying to get the racetrack cleared of debris. We are grateful no one was at the corner station or on track when she fell and that there is no damage to the track surface. Tomorrow we’ll begin to get our arms around what this really means, but I can tell you that it means more than any of us want to think about today… I can tell you this,” Nyholm said, “The Oak Tree will live on in our minds and hearts, and we will give it an appropriate send-off. Please email your thoughts and suggestions to oaktree@VIRnow.com for proper ways to honor this old friend.”
IT WAS A FUCKING TREE.
It was a grand old tree, to be sure, and I cherish every one of the laps I took beneath it in cars ranging from my black VW Phaeton to the majestic GT 500. But it was a tree just like many others in the area. You can drive by hundreds of them on your way to VIR. The tree was special because of where it had grown. Had VIR never been rebuilt, the tree would be meaningless and when it fell this week it would have been the proverbial tree that falls in the woods, with nobody listening and nobody much caring.
The unbelievable outpouring of anguish that I’ve seen over the past week on Facebook defies belief. IT WAS A FUCKING TREE. That’s all. It wasn’t your mother, or your brother, or your best friend, or even a fellow driver. It was a tree that happened to cover a flagging station. I’ve harped on this many a time before, but this is a classic case of confusing the signifier with the signified. The tree was just a signifier of the racetrack and the people and the competition and the lives spent there. Had the tree fallen on the day that VIR closed for good, then you’d have something. But VIR is very much open for business and this was just a tree and the racing will continue and entire generations of drivers to come will find their own meaning and their own stories at VIR in which the tree plays no part whatsoever.
Now for that San Francisco jet crash.
I wish I had more of the conspiracy theorist in me, because this makes great fuel for that sort of thing. A woman who is worth something like $1.47 billion dollars changes a flight so she can snag some frequent-flier miles for her family? That’s directly proportional, given our respective net wealth, to me changing a flight for me and three other people so I could take advantage of a free packet of Big Mac Sauce at a particular airport McDonald’s.
I was frankly flabbergasted at how much of the post-SFO-crash coverage was devoted to SANDBERG COMES ALIVE! stories. In the American media, she got a lot more play than the faceless dead or the mostly unimportant injured. Our society, taken as a whole, values her soul far more than we value the souls of the dead people. For all we know, although the statistics of it are iffy, one of the casualties was sitting in her seat. Imagine, if you will, some poor working-class shlub getting a cheap upgrade to first class because Mrs. Sandberg decided to snag 8,000 airmiles on United. After the first-class multiplier, incidentally, that amounts to just one half of what you’d need to send one person on a coach-class roundtrip in the US. It’s a $300 value, tops. If you are personally worth a million dollars, then what Sheryl saved by doing that is equal to your saving twenty cents.
Anyway, our theoretical upgrader counts himself very lucky, doesn’t he? Coach-class flights across the Pacific can be tough duty. He can stretch out and sleep now. He has a nice big TV screen. He reads a book and possibly has a drink. He’s the luckiest fellow alive until BANG he’s dead.
At which point Sheryl Sandberg becomes the luckiest fellow alive.
No surprise, really, since luck has defined her life. She managed to catch Larry Summers’ eye when she was just a dewy-eyed Jewess (hey! I was married to a dewy-eyed Jewess once! So I can say that! CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE!) and from there it was nothing but roses, right up to the point where she ran into Zuck in Davos, Switzerland (as one does) and became a billionaire through the amazing idea of selling ads on Facebook, which had occurred to everybody in America except Zuck, apparently. Charmed life. She has it all. Not bad looking, really. Children. Career. The aforementioned billion dollars.
Five hundred years ago an individual of her wealth would have rushed to the nearest Catholic Church and very publicly done some devotional stuff just so nobody led a mob up to her house. Mrs. Sandberg is no fool, so she did the modern equivalent. She
put her name on wrote Lean In, which is probably one of the worst books ever published and which amounts to a monstrous, drooling screed about income inequality across men and women. It’s been suggested that she let other people write the whole thing. (Apropos of nothing, in the photo accompanying that US News review, Sheryl looks completely bangable in the broad-hipped, brunette, stretchy-dress vein that occasionally derails your author’s mind for literally hours at a time.)
Lean In was a public tithing, an offering to the Church Of Liberal Thought. Society now values her soul quite a bit. She’s said all the right things and done all the right things. In a world where identity politics have the force of ancient magick, she is a wizard. We can construct the following equation, where “->” stands for “means more to most of us than”
Sheryl Sandberg -> VIR Oak Tree -> dead people in plane
Sheryl is a saint. The Oak Tree was a holy relic. The victims of Asiana Flight 214 are already afterthoughts. It’s how we are wired as human beings, where that wiring occurred at the behest of the Divine or through a million primate generations in darkest Africa. Some souls are worth more than others. Deal with it.