February 19th, 2002


Independent Thought

This weekend, I went to a book reading by T.Y. Sammerset, one of my favorite nonfiction authors, at a local independent bookstore. He was supposed to read from his latest book, The Wisest Years, but when everyone was assembled, he refused.

"That book, and all my previous work, is complete dreck. I don't know what I was thinking. I cannot with good conscience read from it. Instead, I will present to you my model for an ideal community."

The audience was shocked, but curious.

And then he pulled out some wrinkled-up napkins, with frantic felt-tip scribblings on them, and began to read.

His assertion was that modern industrial society has caused a downfall in the human psyche, and left us with an unnatural connection to ourselves, the community, and the planet. Too many choices, he put forth, and too much focus on soulless efficiency, have brought about a kind of mania which can only drive humankind deeper and deeper into trouble.

His solution, he claimed, was simple but elegant. The Last Name Solution. Rather than individuals pursuing their talents or ambitions, in an ideal society trades would be assigned by last names.

If your last name is Tanner, your job is to tan leather. If it's Smith, you work metal. If it's Helm, your job is to steer ships. Of course, your family name must first be translated into English.

The crowd listened. Most left, annoyed. Others, who had previous trusted T.Y.'s insight, asked him about his plan.

Q: What if your last name is Miller, but you're no good at milling at all?
A: The question of work efficiency is a modern conceit. If one keeps to one's trade, the work will be good enough.

Q: What about last names which don't indicate a profession? Family names that are trades are mostly a Western European thing.
A: Actually, many other cultures have the same tradition. However, for those which don't, the best fit of the surname must be used. For instance, if your last name translates to "Bridge Rock," then you'll be a civil engineer. If your last name translates to "Little Eagle," then you'll be a pilot.

Q: What about last names that just mean "Son of ...."
A: Those people will be given the career of Viking.

Q: Wouldn't a society with this system fail to match the needs of the world? I mean, there are far fewer people named Doctor, or Physicist, or Teacher, than would be needed?
A: To the contrary, the distribution of surnames corresponds to the archetypical distribution of careers. If few or no surnames for a career exist, the career is a modern conceit and must be downplayed.

Q: Have you been told that your idea for a model society is actually racist, patriarchal, Luddite, fascist, and, on top of everything else, completely inane?
A: I believe I just have.

The audience listened patiently, and gave polite applause, before shuffling off to compare notes on the mental collapse of the speaker.

But people also played the "What would my profession be?" Personally, I'm not sure if I'd be a messenger, or a prophet.

On his way out, though, T.Y. Sammerset was assassinated by unknown government agents from a sniping position on a nearby rooftop.