‘Too much proximity to folly tends to make it seem normal’

It’s a solidly-held truism that there is no such thing as a new idea. The only thing you can do, especially through writing, is to repackage old ones in ways that appeals to what is in fashion at the time. Occasionally, a writer — or any kind of communicator — will come up with something that remains relevant to an audience down through the decades. A lot of that depends on the audience.

MX was not the written work for which Ed Abbey was best known. Most of us, his fans, were introduced to his writing through Desert Solataire. He wrote fiction, which was mostly bad, but his non-fiction — especially his rousing defense of the desert and wilderness — was often excellent. But, it’s MX that translates best today.

The essay is, at its heart, an exploration of mankind’s fascination with technology intended to exterminate mankind. It’s also an exploration of the cost of that exploration. Security through the MX missile system, a way to foil a Soviet nuclear first strike, would come by way of destroying natural parts of the desert Southwest and also the lifestyle of those living in it. He sees in the MX a soul-less sort of safety, where celebration of spirit and individuality is sold off to corporations that profit from war and death. And, as is typical of Abbey, once he finishes reviewing a technical journal glorifying the weapon, he loads his sleeping bag and food into a pickup truck, points himself in the general direction of the wilderness and goes.

It was hard to reread the essay and not think of last week’s events in Syria and the chess game we’re playing there with a familiar foe that could get out of hand. It’s impossible to reread the essay and not think of our general reaction to last week’s escalation of that conflict in which American media and political figures basked in the glory of our Tomahawks, chosen specifically because they are unmanned, erupting from the cells on our destroyers and bound for a Syrian airbase. Syrian civilians died at the hands of a barbarous tyrant, and we got a $100 million lecture on how when the missiles are in flight that we must genuflect before those in power.

Abbey reminds us, 40 years later, that a world of sterile war technology is also a world where technology is turned towards keeping us in line. Of course, the MX network must be protected from espionage and, in the event of war, sabotage. To prevent that, the entire network must be kept under close watch by electronic and infrared sensors. You are free to camp almost anywhere you want, Abbey wrote, but you will be kept under close watch. He extends this to places familiar with issues today related to surveillance by law enforcement, national security and even private businesses. If you object to being watched while you use the bank or object to having your Internet activities shared, then perhaps the problem is with you.

The effect, writ large, is one in which humanity is rolled over and crushed, and where conformity is demanded and enforced, by tools sold as ways to keep us safe. This is not something new. It was not even new in 1981. But, reading MX and seeing where we are today, it’s not difficult to conclude that in this struggle that our sense of humanity is losing.

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