I had a dream this morning, one of those dreams where you only remember the end bit. I don't know if the accepted wisdom is still that in such cases the end bit is the only bit you really dream, and all the rest is retconned to fit whatever it was that woke you up--I only know if I could compose that fast NaNoWriMo would not be a problem for me.

We, the Countess and I, were in a bus going somewhere, and our driver was one of those chatty individuals who Takes An Interest in his passengers. And while he was chatting to us about our destination, another bus pulled out across his bow, forcing him to brake suddenly. Instead of honking the horn and going on his way, though, he made some sort of signal to the other driver, and both buses crossed the road and entered an enclosed yard.

"Oh dear," I murmured to the Countess. "Now they have to lock antlers."

The drivers got out and approached each other, shouting and gesticulating. Then they did indeed turn into moose, or elk, or something like that, and charged at each other till their heads met with a crash. Then, one after another, they fell over on their sides and dragged themselves along with their hooves or whatever it is they have. Then, one of them got up, started to walk away, and as he did so burst into flames. And I woke up.

What this dream conveys to me is a twofold truth: first, that even after fifty years on this planet there are still many basic human interactions I don't understand, and second, that even the ones I think I do understand I really, really don't.

Some things in life are complex and difficult. Driving a bus. Designing an oil tanker. Removing a brain tumour. Composing a symphony. Planning a communal meal. Devising a fair but effective distribution of taxation. No-one with any sense denies that these are delicate and hazardous procedures, requiring a good deal of knowledge and a lot of care to bring off successfully. No-one with any sense would claim that they were easy.

But underlying these complex, difficult matters are simple, unequivocal facts. There's a right side and a wrong side to drive on, and if you drive on the wrong side you'll get hit. Oil floats on water and is deadly to most forms of marine life, so oil tankers have to be at the very least, you know, waterproof. The patient may die under the knife, but she will die without it. Parallel fifths really don't sound that good, unless done on a xylophone in a pentatonic scale, in which case they sound fake Chinese. Some vegetarians are not simply being faddy, but will actually get sick if you feed them anything that has been near meat. And nobody wants to pay taxes, but everybody's got to, and people who have more can afford to give more. Those are fundamental truths (well, except the one about the parallel fifths; I just put that in to see if Valerie was listening). You can't argue them away. You can distract people from them--people are very very easily distracted--but the truths are still there, and will come back and bite you in the bum, if you're still there too. This is where politicians get lucky. Sooner or later they lose, and then the winner has to pick up their rubbish, and the facts come along and bite him in the bum.

Now, just because the facts are simple, that doesn't mean the complexities aren't there. But, conversely, just because the complexities are there, that doesn't mean the facts aren't simple. There's no way round the waterproofing requirement on the tanker. There's no way to cook meat that will make it acceptable to a vegetarian. There's no justification for letting people with lots of money off paying tax while gouging poor people into poverty and homelessness. And yet it happens. Simple, fundamental facts are successfully obscured every single day by a cloud of complex details that make sensible people stop and wonder if they're right, or if they need to reconsider. Gods know they're not wrong to wonder. These things need careful consideration. But if, having wondered, having considered, they then lose sight of the fundamental fact, they are mistaken.

We need (for the moment, please gods) oil tankers. Those who design them can't afford to be paralysed by indecision as to how best to make them. We need surgeons. We can't have them standing in theatre staring at their hands and wondering if they dare. We need cooks--everybody has to eat. We probably even need musicians, though I'm not sure what for except as doorstops. And we need them all to be aware of the fundamental facts, unblinded by the complexity of the details, so that they can take decisive action. And the best way we can ensure by being aware and unblinded ourselves.

Not everyone is good all the time. There are those who don't care whether their tankers are waterproof as long as they're cheap. There are those who don't care if their food is safe for vegetarians as long as they can sell it at a profit. There are those who are rich, or who have rich friends, and don't want to carry their fair share of the tax burden. They will--they do--take merciless advantage of the hesitation of good people. They use the complexity of the detail to obscure the fundamental truth. They talk about implications, and ramifications, and nuances, and looking at the problem from all angles, and they are believed; and good people, sensible, honest, intelligent, well-intentioned people, are divided. Some say the facts are simple and call for decisive action. Some say the details are complex and that action would be a mistake. And the wrong continues.

To me, the facts are clear. All human beings must be equal under the law. Those who have more must give more. The purpose of government must be to support and protect all its citizens. There is no right way to start a war, and damn few right ways to end one. There is no excuse for tolerating poverty. There is no excuse for fostering prejudice. There is no excuse for torture (that you ought to know). I'm aware that there are complexities surrounding these facts, most of them caused by people trying to find ways round them. Doesn't matter. The facts remain facts, just as surely as if you drive on the right-hand side of the road in the United Kingdom, sooner or later something will hit you, just as surely as if you make an oil tanker with a hole in the bottom, the oil will pour out. I can't see how anyone could say otherwise.

Which only goes to show that, even after fifty years on this planet, there are still many basic human interactions I don't understand, and that even the ones I think I do understand I really, really don't.

Back to the Tangle Talk to me!