BOSTON — It's a subversive thing, this lottery that California is about to acquire on Oct. 3. It's a discontinuity. It sneaks in and sets our industrious odometer back to 0000, a reversal of the way things usually work.
In one way, that's obvious. Instead of our usual pattern of getting a little bit ahead only to find that everything else is getting ahead even faster--a $25 raise and a $50 rent hike--all of a sudden the winner is catapulted out in front, clear, and filling his mother-in-law's new house with Cuisinarts.
But the lottery reverses other things too. Take the news. Good news, as a rule, is no news. You rarely find a headline reading: "Terrorist's Son Gets Straight A's" or "Beauty Queen Is Pretty." Even in sports, where winning is either everything or the only thing, how do the headlines go? "Dodgers Smash Padres." Somebody has got smashed, in other words.
But after I walked into my drug store in Boston some weeks ago and bought a lottery ticket, the next day's headline did not read: "State Lottery Smashes Eder." It confined itself to the winner. In New York's recent $41-million jackpot, we read all about the 21 factory workers who split one of the three winning tickets. As for the millions who had lost: not a word.
Its tendency to reverse the customary order, I suspect, may be the essential objection many people have to lotteries. There are others, of course; the most cogent being that they are a blatant form of regressive taxation.
Lotteries' public purposes--education, in this case--are funded not by a greater contribution from the wealthy and a smaller one from the poor, but the other way round. Traditionally it was the poor who pinned their hopes on a bolt out of the blue.
But leaving economics aside, there is a deeper puritanism at work, as if the prospect of the blue bolt would lead us to forsake industry and purpose. It is scandalous and disruptive, the feeling went and still goes, to build a miracle into our daily expectations.
If you think about it, though, various lottery-like events are already built right into life--starting with life itself. We are all lottery prizes. The victorious spermatozoa responsible for Einstein and the man ahead of you at the checkout counter surmounted odds considerably longer than the 25-million-to-1 it is going to take to win $2 million in California.
Maybe there are people who cut their children's peanut butter with corn starch in order to buy lottery tickets. Maybe there are those who settle for yellowy-green in their TV sets. There may even be those who refused promotion in the confidence that their number will come up.
Somehow, I doubt that much of the world's business languishes undone because of lotteries. On the contrary, I suspect they supply something that the modern diet lacks; a kind of epistemological phosphorus.
If you look at the matter objectively, our lives nowadays are not dramatically less marked by chance than those of 12th-Century African tribesmen or German peasants. New mysterious diseases supplant the old ones, and a pretzel-like path takes a hurricane off of a Florida's Gulf coast and onto Mississippi's. And yet our emotional and psychological premises make no room for chance; or if you like, room for fate.
Ever since Renaissance days, Western man has steadily acquired more control of his circumstances. In the process, though, his bump of contingency has softened and shrunk, much the way his gums have from chewing white bread instead of black.
To the extent that we do, in fact, determine what will happen to us, the weakening of the sense of fate, so strong in so-called primitive cultures, is logical. But it leaves us unprepared for the element of chance that remains and that may, through various political and technological backlashes, actually be increasing. Religion can play a part in the individual acceptance of hurricane, epidemics and plane crashes, but it has little to do with the way we deal with these things as a society. Health-, casualty- and fire-insurance policies are as close as we come to a propitiatory rite in the face of calamity, and they lack ceremony.
For all but a century or two of its existence, human nature has found ways to feel and express awe at the uncertainties of fate or the deity. Even in an imaginary and perfectly controlled world, it is not clear how healthy we could be lacking this awe.
As it is, our public and social life adopts a Newtonian posture of cause and effect. However admirable, it neglects some troglodytic part of us that knows that it always rains when a picnic is planned, that all this is too good to last, that it's darkest just before the dawn, that a window cleaner on the 30th floor is about to drop his pail just as you walk underneath, and that if you rush out and buy your son's age, your street address, the last three digits of your phone number and your uncle's shoe size, you will win $2 million.