Who Has Gone Farthest?

Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther,
And who has been just? for I would be the most just person of the earth…
And who benevolent? for I would show more benevolence than all the rest…
Walt Whitman.

Image by r1g00 from Pixabay

In 1867, humanist Walt Whitman wrote Excelsior, a poem about the choices we make. He challenged us to aim for our optimal, most benevolent – and his words appear to have been largely ignored.

The world approaches the twentieth anniversary of a heinous act of terrible, world-changing violence. Even twenty years later, I see this anniversary as an opportunity for humanity to learn and grow. How do we respond to acts of brutality, cruelty or violence? Popularly, it is asserted that any response must include a balance of using minimal force necessary to remove the threat, along with rebuilding a better world afterwards. But for me, any response must also balance a consideration of the best from our past – as per Whitman’s words – with our potential for nobility and benevolence in the future.

Hence my personal liking for science fiction as a glimpse of – or a warning about – our possible future. At the time of the September 11 attacks, I editorialised in the newsletter of my LGBT science fiction club:

The movie “2001” prominently featured a large black slab, and ironically, the real-life 2001 struck a world dumb as we watched the collapse of two large monolithic structures.

This comparison is not intended to be flippant or disrespectful, nor to make light of the suffering of the thousands of victims of the September attacks. It is designed to show how tragically far we still are from reaching our dreams.

The monolith in the movie, “2001”, symbolised the struggle for humanity to learn and grow, to evolve into better people. The destruction of the WTC twin towers showed the opposite in action – how a few people can be compelled into committing terrible criminal acts by their narrow-minded and ignorant views from a past that deserves to be relegated to the dustbin of history…

Where do we go from here? Do we descend into World War Three and racist chaos? Or do we try to build bridges in order to cross our planet’s divisions of nationality and poverty, of religion and racism?

Tragically, history shows us now that the choices made over the last twenty years, in response to this act of inhumanity, demonstrate that it is too easy to fall into similarly unenlightened behaviours. We have countenanced the invasion of nations, the winding back of human rights, extrajudicial human rights abuses, torture and indefinite detention, the turning away of millions of refugees, the siphoning of trillions of dollars into war machinery, the rise of intolerance and bigotry, and the building of walls instead of bridges.

Have we become ennobled or unnerved by these actions? Is our planet a global village or a battleground? Are we building a better world?

I have hope for the future. Today is International Literacy Day, which encourages people towards education, reading widely and thinking critically. Today is also Star Trek Day, the anniversary of a popular franchise that has traditionally promoted futurism, optimism and nobility, even though its current incarnations are failing to uphold this legacy. Our potential as a species – and our literature as a reflection of that potential – offer us opportunities for responsible, informed actions to change the world. Let us create and claim this future.

I recall, and slightly paraphrase, some words from my editorial in 2001, to reflect the ongoing challenge for planetary betterment in 2021:

Our situation challenges us to build a better world – to feed the overlooked millions who are starving, or to heal the forgotten millions who are living with HIV or COVID. We could make a determined stand to fight a war against injustice, poverty and intolerance. Are we equal to the challenge?


Geoff and Miriam (co editors), 2001. ‘From the Editors: In respectful memory…and in hope’, in Diverse Universe #9 – September 2001, Melbourne: Spaced Out, 10 October, p. 2.

Walt Whitman, 1867. ‘Exelsior‘, in Leaves of Grass.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

One thought on “Who Has Gone Farthest?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *