Once upon a recent time, there lived - and lives - a race of creatures quite like ourselves, on the planet Tenalp, in a neighboring galaxy. And like ours, their society has plenty of folk-stories and customs and fairy tales.
A space-traveller named Anthony I.S. Alexander paused for rest last week in my back yard, and after downing a few in my den he was kind enough to leave me a copy of one he related, along with a Concise Grammar and Vocabulary so that I could translate it for you into English. I'm pleased to present this result.
The Namuh people, for such was their name, knew from time immemorial that a certain food, gazponcho, was vital to their health. This fact of life was taught by generation to generation; it was part of the culture. While in many other respects their culture was scientific and rational (how else could they have built low-cost, personal space-vehicles such as the one used by my visitor?) in some other respects, their minds were curiously closed to rational analysis. Their fanatical belief in gazponcho was a case in point.
Nobody had taken a sample to the laboratory bench and broken it down to its constituent nutrients, to discover WHY it was vital to health. Nobody had systematically charted what happened to individuals' health when they ate, over some measured period, varying but specified quantities of the stuff - to find out what might be the optimal diet. Such rational investigation was absent; the need to eat it was a matter of faith, tradition and superstition.
Speaking of faith, the Namuh race had their own equivalents of churches, and these varied in the degree of authority to which they pretended. Some gave instruction ex cathedra and excommunicated any Namuhs found guilty of Questioning Authority; others were more easy-going but still made gazponcho feasting a Warmly Commended Activity at least once a week.
Little Namuhs were taught in great instructional buildings so that they would all grow up believing the same things, more or less, and of course a belief in the necessity and essential goodness of gazponcho was repeatedly emphasized there for their learning. All the Health Maintenance Organizations and Advisors told the same story; in fact, it was almost impossible to find any dissenter. A Namuh would have to hunt down a counter-orthodox publication like this column, to find any kind of opposing opinion; and the urge to conform, powerful there as here, made sure that very few even bothered to look.
A rational race would have spotted that quite soon and done something about it, but as I mentioned, the Namuh people had a curious blind spot in their minds when it came to fictions deeply embedded in their culture. So nobody did.
Anyway, there are those poor Namuhs, told on every hand to eat gazponcho because it's good for them, and whenever they do they get ill, more or less. Sometimes they get just a little bit ill, so that they can't earn their own wages; then, gazponcho's net effect is just to lower their standard of living.
At other times, though, it's a real disaster - they die, and sometimes they die in very large numbers indeed. Half a century ago, for example, there was a terrible period when tens of millions of Namuhs died through eating lots and lots of gazponcho, all over Tenalp. Incredibly, not even that catastrophe caused them to stop! One has to wonder whether gazponcho might contain a narcotic, that addles the little gray cells and creates a chemical dependency, destroying the will to kick the habit and do without.
Irrational though they are in this regard, sometimes the Namuhs do sense that something is awry; they fire all the gazponcho growers and instal a new lot in their place. It isn't that they have had it with gazponcho, mind, just that they think the particular farmers must be growing it the wrong way.
Indeed, in some parts of Tenalp, the growers were smart enough to anticipate that much dissatisfaction, and actually put in place a practice by which they are always kicked out and replaced, every four years! This was smart, because it meant popular discontent never reached boiling point and all the growers got the chance to profit every four years out of eight; the people retained the illusion of having done something useful when in fact not a blind thing had undergone any change whatever.
I asked my visiting friend, when he'd reached this point in his story and when we were each on our third Bourbon, how gazponcho rated as a cause of Namuh premature death. He thought for a bit (a mid-pitched hum was audible at such moments) and said that it was probably #1. There were other Namuh diseases, of course, but if he counted up all the premature deaths over all the centuries, yes, there could be no doubt: gazponcho had caused hundreds of millions of Namuhs to die, a far greater total than from any other single cause except old age; and only the Gray Death plague of 700 years ago had carried away more of the Namuh race in any one short period than gazponcho had.
So I said, WHY, why on Tenalp, do Namuhs go on eating this poisonous stuff? - for such, to the rational mind, it very clearly is! And to that, my informant had to admit he hadn't the slightest idea; except that idiocy is unexplainable.
So now, children, it's bedtime, and it's your turn. Think hard: is there, do you suppose, anything like gazponcho at work in the human race on Earth? - Is there anything that depresses our living standards everywhere and often kills people, and yet in which almost everyone retains a mindless, irrational trust?
Let me know, when you wake up. See you in the morning.