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What if the world were a completely different place?

WASHINGTON — Behold this week's "What if" column, in which I respond to supposedly unanswerable hypothetical questions framed by my editor, Tom the Butcher.

What if all men, and all women, were physically identical?

The concept of human beauty would disappear. So would sexism. Men would judge women the way women now judge men: by their intelligence and their personalities, particularly the higher virtues such as compassion, generosity, selflessness, and justness in thought and deed. All relationships would become deeper and more genuine, and flourish in this marketplace of goodness and charity.

Just kidding! Men, being men, would find a way to objectify women through whatever arbitrary and superficial differences remain discernible: Voices, for example. Vast "voice porn" industries would proliferate around an unattainable ideal. Convinced by societal pressures that their voices were deficient, women would spend small fortunes on voice enhancement, voice modulation, voice reduction, etc.

Or possibly the criterion wouldn't be voice. Possibly it would be something else, like ear-wax flavor. Whatever the arena, it would be a shame and a disgrace.

What if we chose our president by convening a roomful of rich, smart, knowledgeable people and letting them hash it out among themselves?

This is a trick question. As you well know, Tom.

What you describe is how we used to do it, back when the country was young, and the leaders did not trust the will of the unwashed without some rigorous filtering by the landed intelligentsia. The electoral "college" was exactly what it sounded like: a group of educated, smug, elite gentry-plutocrats who, as "electors," were not robotically committed to a single candidate, as they are now, but were able to argue, pontificate and horse-trade their way to a new administration. This system pretty much selected our first six presidents, who — by acclamation of historians — gave us the best six-man run of the entire American presidency. The "weak link" among those six chosen by the arrogant elites was probably John Quincy Adams, who is generally regarded as the best American statesman, ever.

But that was then, when Democracy was young. Today, we trust the process to The People, unschooled though so many of us may be. And we think we've done it much more betterly.

What if the only way we could communicate with others was through attack ads?

Not much would change, really. With all interpersonal interaction reduced to hostile statements shared in public forums, the baseline measure of civility would shift. We'd adopt the elementary-school, pigtails-in-the-inkwell, teasing-as-affection paradigm. All trivial criticism — say, "Janice Rosenstein has fat tonsils" — would be both offered and received as a tender invitation to romance. Meanwhile, the other end of the continuum would ratchet up, too. Someone might publicly proclaim someone else a "Hitler-besotted, slime-toothed despoiler of corpses," and this might be a rebuke for talking in a movie theater.

What if the distant horizon really was the edge of the world?

It is.

Think of it this way: It is the limit of our world, because we can never arrive there; it always eludes us, the succulent carrot we can long for but never reach, the impetus for all exploration, the constant reminder that there are vistas within our imagination but beyond our grasp. The awareness of an unattainable horizon is what makes us human, in the best sense.

But you didn't mean it that way, did you? You are an editor, which means you are a literalist, with the soul not of a poet but of a bloody-aproned meat merchant in his abattoir, defining things as he sees them with the sullen myopia of the common tradesman.

So. If the distant horizon (D) were the edge of the world, one would have to make use of this formula:

D = the square root of (2Rh + hh), where R is the radius of the Earth, and h the elevation of the viewer. For a 6-foot man standing at sea level, the horizon would appear at a distance of just under 3 miles, meaning the surface of the planet Earth would extend in a circle 6 miles in diameter and encompass about 28 square miles, about the size of Minnetonka, Minn., which is the moccasin capital of the world.

But more to the point, the Earth would be a slightly concave sliver of a disc, roughly the shape of a gas-permeable contact lens, and not much larger in the cosmic scheme of things. No one would be standing on this planet to see the horizon because shortly after forming in our solar system, this meaningless, virtually gravitation-less shard would likely have been sucked into the sun and vaporized. The good news is that editors would never have been invented.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. You can chat with him online at noon Tuesdays at www.washingtonpost.com.

What if the world were a completely different place? 11/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 9:42am]

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