Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Retrotopia: The Far Off Sound of Guns

This is the twentieth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator is forced to rethink his ideas about progress even further, as the Lakeland Republic and the other nations of post-US North America are confronted by a sudden crisis with all too familiar roots...

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A phone rang in the darkness. For a moment I had no idea where I was, but then the bed shifted, footsteps whispered across the floor, and Melanie’s voice said, “Hello.” I blinked, and tried to guess what time it was. It felt as though we hadn’t been sleeping for long.

“Okay,” she said then, in a completely different tone. I finished waking up in a hurry. You don’t hear someone speak like that unless something’s gone very, very wrong. “Okay,” she said again. “I’ll be in as soon as I can. ‘Bye.” The handset clicked into its cradle, and Melanie said, “Peter?”

“What’s up?”

“Trouble.  Texas and the Confederacy are at war.”

I sat up and said something unprintable.

“Pretty much,” she agreed, and turned on a light. She was as naked as I was, of course, but the look on her face wasn’t particularly alluring.

“Any details?” I asked.

“Just a few. Texan ships attacked three Confederate drilling platforms around one o’clock; no word on damage yet. The Confederate navy came out, and there’s fighting going on in the Gulf right now.”

“That’s bad.”

“There’s worse.  The Confederate Army’s crossed into Texas territory between Shreveport and Texarkana. Our people down there think there’s division-strength units involved.”

I gave her a blank stare for a long moment. “Okay,” I said, getting out of bed. “You’re going in right away, of course.”

“Yes. Not the way I’d have chosen to end a really pleasant evening.”

I took her in my arms and kissed her. “No argument there,” I said when the kiss was done. “Give me a call when you get some free time.”

“I’ll do that,” she said, with a smile. “If you can stand it, stay close to your phone. I may be able to arrange something for you.”

I promised I would, and then she headed for the shower, and I pulled my clothes on, called a cab, and let myself out. She was right, it was a hell of a way to end a really pleasant evening, but if you’re in politics you get used to that kind of thing. I knew that, and so did Melanie; if things worked out, we’d find some time to spend together before I took the train back to Philadelphia, and one way or another—

I stopped the thought in its tracks. Later, I told myself. Later, when a couple of really hard decisions are over and done with.

The sky was still pitch black when I left the apartment building, stood on the curb waiting for the cab. The clop-clop of horse’s hooves announced its arrival a couple of blocks in advance. Moments later I was inside, watching the city of Toledo in its sleep. Here and there a light shone in a window, or a lone figure hurried down the street. It seemed hard to believe that not much more than a thousand miles away, robot tanks, assault drones, and long files of young men with guns were streaming through the pine woods of northeast Texas.

The cab got me to the hotel promptly enough, and I paid the cabby, said good morning to the tired-eyed desk clerk, and headed up to my room. I didn’t really expect to get more sleep, but decided to give it a try, and blinked awake four hours later with the pale gray light of morning coming in through the window. The clock said quarter past eight; I hurried through a shower, got myself shaved and dressed, weighed the odds that Melanie might call if I took the time to run to Kaufer’s News to get the morning Blade, and decided to call the concierge instead. Not five minutes later a bellhop knocked on the door with a copy. “We got a stack of ‘em down at the desk,” he told me. “Half the guests are gonna want one as soon as they wake up.”  I thanked him and gave him a good-sized tip, and he grinned and made off.

The paper didn’t have much more information on the current state of affairs than I’d gotten from Melanie, but the reporters had done their background research; the inside of the front section had big articles sketching out the history of the quarrel, running through both sides’ military assets, quoting a couple of experts from Toledo University on the potential outcomes of the war, that sort of thing. Tucked away toward the end was a terse little article about two moresatellites being taken out by debris.  I was maybe halfway through that last article when the phone rang.

“Peter? It’s Melanie. Can you get to the Capitol by nine-thirty?”

“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”

“There’s a courtesy briefing for the North American diplomatic community—the ambassadors will be meeting with Meeker; this is for attachés and staff.  I’ve arranged to get you in as a special envoy from Ellen Montrose’s staff.”

“No kidding. Thank you, Melanie.”

“Sure thing.” She gave me the details, we said our goodbyes and away I went.

The city was wide awake as I walked the four blocks to the Capitol. Newspapers and conversations in low voices were everywhere. The streetcars, horsedrawn cabs, and occasional cars still rolled down the streets; lamps shone in windows, contending with the gray winter light; nothing visible had changed since the morning before, and everything had. I remembered stories some of my older relatives used to tell about the first days of the Second Civil War—carefully sanitized stories coming over the mass media, wild rumors carried by blogs and private emails, and everywhere the sense that something had changed or shifted or broken once and for all, and the world would never be quite the same afterwards.

Somehow, the morning around me felt like that. I told myself not to be silly; there had been other wars since Partition—the three-way scramble between Texas, the Confederacy, and the Missouri Republic in ‘37, the Confederate-Brazilian invasion of the Lakeland Republic in ‘49, and the ongoing civil war in California—but this felt different.

“Extra!” shouted a paperboy on the sidewalk in front of the Capitol, where people were streaming by. “Richmond’s declared war.” He was selling copies nearly as fast as he could hand them out, but I managed to get one before his canvas bag was empty. I wasn’t the only purchaser to turn toward the Capitol’s big front entrance, either. We filed in the doors, and then some of us turned right toward the Senate end of the building, went down the first big staircase we found, and ended up in front of a big door flanked by two guards in uniform and a man in a wool suit.  I recognized him after a moment: Stuart Macallan, the Lakeland Republic’s assistant secretary of state for North American affairs.

“Mr. Carr,” he said, shaking my hand. “Good to see you again.Yes, you’ve been cleared—favor to the incoming administration in Philadelphia.” He winked, and I laughed and went on to the coatroom, where I shed hat and coat before going further.

The room inside was a big comfortable space with a podium up front and rows of tables and chairs facing it, the kind of place where important press conferences and public hearings get held. All the usual impedimenta of a high-end briefing were there—pitchers of ice water on each table, and so on—and something I hadn’t expected:  a notebook and pen in front of each place. Of course I understood the moment I saw them: lacking veepads, how else were the attendees going to take notes? Even so, that reminded me how many details of life in the Lakeland Republic I still hadn’t seen.

I sat down and opened the paper. The Confederate Congress had voted to declare war, as the boy said; the Texan legislature was expected to return the favor shortly. In the meantime, the naval battle in the Gulf was ongoing, with people along the coast reporting distant explosions and smoke plumes visible on the horizon. Nobody was sure yet what was happening on the land front; the entire region from Shreveport and Texarkana west to the suburbs of Dallas was closed to journalists, and the entire highway system was off limits to anybody but government and military, but long lines of army-green trucks were streaming east across Texas toward the war zone, and a reporter who’d gotten as far north as Henderson before being turned back by military police reported that he could hear artillery rolling in the northern distance like summer thunder.

Someone sat down at the chair next to mine, and I did the polite thing and turned to greet him. “Hank Barker,” he said as we shook hands, “with the Missouri Republic delegation.” I introduced myself, and he brightened. “You’re Ellen Montrose’s envoy here, aren’t you?  Once this is over, if you’ve got a minute to talk, that’d be real welcome.”

“Sure,” I said. It wasn’t until then that I noticed that he was dressed the way I was, in typical Lakeland business wear. Most of the other people filing into the room wore bioplastic, though we weren’t the only ones in wool. “Got tired of bioplastic, I see,” I commented.

He nodded. “Yep. You see this sort of thing more and more often these days, out our way. ‘Course a lot of the wool and leather Lakeland uses comes from our side of the Mississippi, so it stands to reason.”

I glanced at him, wondered whether any other Lakeland Republic customs had found a foothold across the Mississippi. The Missouri Republic’s big, reaching from the river to the crest of the Rockies and from what used to be Kansas and the northwestern two-thirds of Missouri to the border of West Canada, but a lot of it’s desert these days; it’s pretty much landlocked—its only ports are river towns on the Mississippi and Duluth on Lake Superior—and if they were paying off World Bank loans and coping with the same economic pressures we were in the Atlantic Republic, they’d have to be in a world of hurt. Before I could figure out how to ask the question that was on my mind, though, the last of the attendees had taken their seats and a familiar figure rolled his wheelchair across the low stage to one side of the podium.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming,” Tom Pappas said. “We’re still waiting for more details from the war zone—”

“Like everyone else,” said a voice with a French accent close to the front of the room.

“I’m not arguing,” Pappas said, with a broad grin. “But we’ve got a basic idea what’s going on, and we can also fill you in on our government’s response.”

An aide, a young woman in Lakeland army uniform, came up onto the stage, went to the back wall and pulled on a cord. Down came a big, brightly colored map of the eastern half of the Republic of Texas and parts of the Confederacy adjacent to it.  Pappas thanked her, took a long pointer from behind the podium, and wheeled over to the map.

“The three drilling platforms the Texans attacked last night are here.” The pointer tapped a patch of blue water in the Gulf. “Those are the ones Bullard claimed were using horizontal drilling to poach Texan oil. Based on what information we’ve gotten at this point, all three platforms were destroyed. The Confederates counterattacked less than an hour later, and both sides suffered significant losses—they’ve both got decent antiship missiles, and you know how that goes.”

A murmur spread through the room. “The thing is, the Confederates didn’t just fire on the Texan ships,” Pappas went on. “They used long range missiles to target Texan offshore oil assets. We’re not sure how many were targeted and how badly they were hit, but it doesn’t look good.

“Right now there’s still fighting going on, and both sides are bringing in naval assets from outside the area. Texas has a short term advantage there.  The Confederates have a lot of their ships on the Atlantic coast, and it’s going to take a while to get them around the south Florida shoals and bring them into action, but once those arrive, the Texan navy’s going to be in deep—trouble.”

That got a laugh. “Okay,” he said, and moved the pointer up to tap on the area between Shreveport and Texarkana. “That’s a sideshow. Here’s the show that matters. As far as we can tell, the Confederacy’s thrown three divisions into the ground assault:  one armored division, two infantry. More are being brought up as fast as the transport grid will carry them. The Texans are throwing everything they’ve got on hand into the fighting. It’s anyone’s guess whether they can get enough of their army into play before the Confederates reach Dallas; I’m guessing they will. Meanwhile Texan drones and land based missiles have been hitting military targets as far as the Mississippi, and the Confederacy’s doing the same thing—we’ve had reports of missile strikes as far west as Waco.

“And this is where it gets ugly. Both sides have allies overseas. The Confederates have already asked Brazil to intervene; no word from Brasilia yet, but given their track record in the past, it’s probably a safe bet that they’ll get Brazilian munitions and advisers, and maybe more. Texas has a mutual-aid pact with China, and after the business in Peru two years ago, the Chinese have got to be itching for an opportunity to take Brazil down a peg or two; a proxy war would be one way to do that. So we could be facing a long and ugly war.

“That’s the military situation. Stuart, you want to fill them in on our response?”

Stuart Macallan climbed up onto the stage. “Sure. Point number one is that we’re staying out of it. We’ve declared ourselves neutral, and President Meeker is working with the other North American governments right now to draft a joint declaration of neutrality and an appeal to the combatants to accept an immediate ceasefire and settle this at the negotiating table, using the mechanisms set up in the Treaty of Richmond.

“Point number two is that we’ve ordered a defensive mobilization all along the southern border, just in case. Those of you who know anything about our military know that this isn’t a threat to anybody, unless they decide to invade. If you’re not familiar with our system, Colonel Pappas here can fill you in on the details after we finish.

“Point number three is that we’re going to look for every possible way to expedite trade agreements with the other North American republics. Half our exports go via the Mississippi, and I know some of our neighbors are in the same boat—so to speak. We’re prepared to help the other North American republics keep their economies intact, to the extent that we can, and we’d welcome any help you can give us along the same lines.

“Finally, there’s the petroleum situation. For all practical purposes, the Gulf oil fields, onshore and offshore, have just dropped off the face of the Earth, and they’re going to stay that way until this whole business gets resolved. That’s a big enough fraction of world oil production to send markets into a tizzy. It won’t particularly affect us, as you know,. but it’s going to be a problem for pretty much everyone else in North America. We’re going to look at agreements with each of your countries to try to cushion the economic hit, but whatever you’re paying for fuel these days—our best estimate is that it’s going to double, maybe triple, maybe more, if you can get it. The way so much oil production is locked up in long term contracts, some of you probably won’t be able to get it at all.”

Hank Barker, sitting next to me, shook his head. Under his breath: “We are so screwed.”

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Back here in 2016, I'm delighted to announce the impending publication of David Fleming's astonishing book Lean Logic, an encyclopedic guide to the principles and practice of life in a deindustrializing world. Fleming was a central figure in the British sustainability movement for decades, and played an important role in the founding of the UK Green Party, the Transition Town Movement, and the New Economics Foundation; he spent some thirty years assembling Lean Logic as a comprehensive book on the ways of thinking and acting we're going to need to get through the mess ahead. (I'm quite sure it's still in print in the Lakeland Republic in 2065!) The hardback edition is now available for preorder here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Scientific Education as a Cause of Political Stupidity

While we’re discussing education, the theme of the current series of posts here on The Archdruid Report, it’s necessary to point out that there are downsides as well as upsides to take into account. The savant so saturated in abstractions that he’s hopelessly inept at the business of everyday life has been a figure of fun in literature for many centuries now, not least because examples of the type are so easy to find in every age.

That said, certain kinds of education have more tightly focused downsides. It so happens, for example, that engineers have contributed rather more to crackpot literature than most other professions. Hollow-earth theories, ancient-astronaut speculations, treatises arguing that the lost continent of Atlantis is located nearly anywhere on Earth except where Plato said it was—well, I could go on; engineers have written a really impressive share of the gaudier works in such fields. In my misspent youth, I used to collect such books as a source of imaginative entertainment, and when the jacket claimed the author was some kind of engineer, I knew I was in for a treat.

I treated that as an interesting coincidence until I spent a couple of years working for a microfilming company in Seattle that was owned by a retired Boeing engineer. He was also a devout fundamentalist Christian and a young-Earth creationist; he’d written quite a bit of creationist literature, though I never heard that any of it was published except as densely typed photocopied handouts—and all of it displayed a very specific logic: given that the Earth was created by God on October 23, 4004 BCE, at 9:00 in the morning, how can we explain the things we find on Earth today?

That is to say, he approached it as an engineering problem.

Engineers are trained to figure out what works. Give them a problem, and they’ll beaver away until they find a solution—that’s their job, and the engineering profession has been around long enough, and had enough opportunities to refine its methods of education, that a training in engineering does a fine job of teaching you how to work from a problem to a solution. What it doesn’t teach you is how to question the problem. That’s why, to turn to another example, you get entire books that start from the assumption that the book of Ezekiel was about a UFO sighting and proceed to work out, in impressive detail, exactly what the UFO must have looked like, how it was powered, and so on. “But how do we know it was a UFO sighting in the first place?” is the one question that never really gets addressed.

It’s occurred to me recently that another specific blindness seems to be hardwired into another mode of education, one that’s both prestigious and popular these days: a scientific education—that is to say, a technical education in the theory and practice of one of the hard sciences.  The downside to such an education, I’d like to suggest, is that it makes you stupid about politics. Plenty of examples come to mind, and I’ll be addressing some of the others shortly, but the one I want to start with is classic in its simplicity, not to mention its simple-mindedness. This is the recent proposal by astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, which I quote in full:

Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) June 29, 2016

That might be dismissed as just another example of the thought-curtailing properties of Twitter’s 140-character limit—if a potter makes pots, what does Twitter make?—except that Tyson didn’t say, “here’s the principle behind the constitution, details to follow.” That’s his proposed constitution in its entirety.

More precisely, that’s his sound bite masquerading as a constitution. An actual constitution, as anyone knows who has actually read one, doesn’t just engage in a bit of abstract handwaving about how decisions are to be made. It sets out in detail who makes the decisions, how the decision-makers are selected, what checks and balances are meant to keep the decision-makers from abusing their positions, and so on. If Donald Trump, say, gave a speech saying, “We need a new scientific method that consists solely of finding the right answer,” he’d be mocked for not knowing the first thing about science. A similar response is appropriate here.

That said, Tyson’s proposal embodies another dimension of cluelessness about politics. Insisting that political decisions ought to be made exclusively on the basis of evidence sounds great, until you try to apply it to actual politics. Take that latter step, and what you’ll discover is that evidence is only tangentially relevant to most political decisions.

Consider the recent British referendum over whether to leave the European Union. That decision could not have been made on the basis of evidence, because all sides, as far as I know, agreed on the facts.  Those were that Britain had joined the European Economic Community (as it then was) in 1973, that its membership involved ceding certain elements of national sovereignty to EU bureaucracies, and that EU policies benefited certain people in Britain while disadvantaging others. None of those points were at issue. The points that were at issue were values on the one hand, and interests on the other.

By values I mean judgments, by individuals and communities, about what matters and what doesn’t, what’s desirable and what isn’t, what can be tolerated and what can’t. These can’t be reduced to mere questions of evidence. A statement such as “the free movement of people across national borders is good and important” can’t be proved or disproved by any number of double-blind controlled studies. It’s a value that some people hold and others don’t, as is the statement “the right of people to self-determination must be protected from the encroachments of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.” Those values are in conflict with each other, and it was in large part over such values that the Brexit election was fought out and decided.

By interests I mean the relative distribution of costs and benefits. Any political decision, about any but the most trivial subject, brings benefits and has costs, and far more often than not the people who get the benefits and the people who carry the costs are not the same. EU membership for Britain was a case in point. By and large, the affluent got the majority of the benefits—they were the ones who could send their children to German universities and count on border-free travel to holidays in Spain—and the working poor carried the majority of the costs—they were the ones who had to compete for jobs against a rising tide of immigrants, while the number of available jobs declined due to EU policies that encouraged offshoring of industry to lower-wage countries.

What made the Brexit referendum fascinating, at least to me, was the way that so many of the pro-EU affluent tried to insist that the choice was purely about values, and that any talk about the interests of the working poor was driven purely by racism and xenophobia—that is to say, values.  As I’ve noted here in numerous posts, the affluent classes in the industrial world have spent the last four decades or so throwing the working poor under the bus and then rolling the wheels back and forth over them, while insisting at the top of their lungs that they’re doing nothing of the kind.

Wage earners, and the millions who would be happy to earn a wage if they could find work, know better.  Here in America, for example, most people outside the echo chambers of the affluent remember perfectly well that forty years ago, a family with one working class income could afford a house, a car, and the other amenities of life, while today, a family with one working class income is probably living on the street. Shouting down open discussion of interests by insisting that all political decisions have to do solely with values has been a common strategy on the part of the affluent; the outcome of the Brexit referendum is one of several signs that this strategy is near the end of its shelf life.

In the real world—the world where politics has to function—interests come first. Whether you or I are benefited or harmed, enriched or impoverished by some set of government policies is the bedrock of political reality. Evidence plays a role: yes, this policy will benefit these people; no, these other people won’t share in those benefits—those are questions of fact, but settling them doesn’t settle the broader question. Values also play a role, but there are always competing values affecting any political decision worth the name; the pursuit of liberty conflicts with the pursuit of equality, justice and mercy pull in different directions, and so on.

To make a political decision, you sort through the evidence to find the facts that are most relevant to the issue—and “relevant,” please note, is a value judgement, not a simple matter of fact. Using the relevant evidence as a framework, you weigh competing values against one another—this also involves a value judgment—and then you weigh competing interests against one another, and look for a compromise on which most of the contending parties can more or less agree. If no such compromise can be found, in a democratic society, you put it to a vote and do what the majority says. That’s how politics is done; we might even call it the political method.

That’s not how science is done, though. The scientific method is a way of finding out which statements about nature are false and discarding them, under the not unreasonable assumption that you’ll be left with a set of statements about nature that are as close as possible to the truth. That process rules out compromise. If you’re Lavoisier and you’re trying to figure out how combustion works, you don’t say, hey, here’s the oxygenation theory and there’s the phlogiston theory, let’s agree that half of combustion happens one way and the other half the other; you work out an experiment that will disprove one of them, and accept its verdict. What’s inadmissible in science, though, is the heart of competent politics.

In science, furthermore, interests are entirely irrelevant in theory. (In practice—well, we’ll get to that in a bit.)  Decisions about values are transferred from the individual scientist to the scientific community via such practices as peer review, which make and enforce value judgments about what counts as good, relevant, and important research in each field. The point of these habits is to give scientists as much room as possible to focus purely on the evidence, so that facts can be known as facts, without interference from values or interests. It’s precisely the habits of mind that exclude values and interests from questions of fact in scientific research that make modern science one of the great intellectual achievements of human history, on a par with the invention of logic by the ancient Greeks.

One of the great intellectual crises of the ancient world, in turn, was the discovery that logic was not the solution to every human problem. A similar crisis hangs over the modern world, as claims that science can solve all human problems prove increasingly hard to defend, and the shrill insistence by figures such as Tyson that it just ain’t so should be read as evidence for the imminence of real trouble. Tyson himself has demonstrated clearly enough that a first-rate grasp of astronomy does not prevent the kind of elementary mistake that gets you an F in Political Science 101. He’s hardly alone in displaying the limits of a scientific education; Richard Dawkins is a thoroughly brilliant biologist, but whenever he opens his mouth about religion, he makes the kind of crass generalizations and jawdropping non sequiturs that college sophomores used to find embarrassingly crude.

None of this is helped by the habit, increasingly common in the scientific community, of demanding that questions having to do with values and interests should be decided, not on the evidence, but purely on the social prestige of science. I’m thinking here of the furious open letter signed by a bunch of Nobel laureates, assailing Greenpeace for opposing the testing and sale of genetically engineered rice. It’s a complicated issue, as we’ll see in a moment, but you won’t find that reflected in the open letter. Its argument is simple: we’re scientists, you’re not, and therefore you should shut up and do as we say.

Let’s take this apart a step at a time. To begin with, the decision to allow or prohibit the testing and sale of genetically engineered rice is inherently  political rather than scientific. Scientific research, as noted above, deals with facts as facts, without reference to values or interests. “If you do X, then Y will happen”—that’s a scientific statement, and if it’s backed by adequate research and replicable testing, it’s useful as a way of framing decisions. The decisions, though, will inevitably be made on the basis of values and interests. “Y is a good thing, therefore you should do X” is a value judgment; “Y will cost me and benefit you, therefore you’re going to have to give me something to get me to agree to X” is a statement of interest—and any political decision that claims to ignore values and interests is either incompetent or dishonest.

There are, as it happens, serious questions of value and interest surrounding the genetically engineered rice under discussion. It’s been modified so that it produces vitamin A, which other strains of rice don’t have, and thus will help prevent certain kinds of blindness—that’s one side of the conflict of values. On the other side, most seed rice in the Third World is saved from the previous year’s crop, not purchased from seed suppliers, and the marketing of the GMO rice thus represents yet another means for a big multinational corporation to pump money out of the pockets of some of the poorest people on earth to enrich stockholders in the industrial world. There are many other ways to get vitamin A to people in the Third World, but you won’t find those being discussed by Nobel laureates—nor, of course, are any of the open letter’s signatories leading a campaign to raise enough money to buy the patent for the GMO rice and donate it to the United Nations, let’s say, so poor Third World farmers can benefit from the rice without having to spend money they don’t have in order to pay for it.

These are the issues that have been raised by Greenpeace among others. To respond to that with a straightforward display of the logical fallacy called argumentum ad auctoritatem—“I’m an authority in the field, therefore whatever I say is true”—is bad reasoning, but far more significantly, it’s inept politics. You can only get away with that trick a certain number of times, unless what you say actually does turn out to be true, and institutional science these days has had way too many misses to be able to lean so hard on its prestige. I’ve noted in previous posts here the way that institutional science has blinded itself to the view from outside its walls, ignoring the growing impact of the vagaries of scientific opinion in fields such as human nutrition, the straightforward transformation of research into marketing in the medical and pharmaceutical industry, and the ever-widening chasm between the promises of safety and efficacy brandished by scientists and the increasingly unsafe and ineffective drugs, technologies, and policy decisions that burden the lives of ordinary people.

There are plenty of problems with that, but the most important of them is political. People make political decisions on the basis of their values and their perceived interests, within a frame provided by accepted facts. When the people whose job it is to present and interpret the facts start to behave in ways that bring their own impartiality into question, the “accepted facts” stop being accepted—and when scientists make a habit of insisting that the values and interests of most people don’t matter when those conflict, let’s say, with the interests of big multinational corporations that employ lots of scientists, it’s only a matter of time before whatever scientists say is dismissed out of hand as simply an attempt to advance their interests at the expense of others.

That, I’m convinced, is one of the major forces behind the widening failure of climate change activism, and environmental activism in general, to find any foothold among the general public. These days, when a scientist like Tyson gets up on a podium to make a statement, a very large percentage of the listeners don’t respond to his words by thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” They respond by thinking, “I wonder who’s paying him to say that?” That would be bad enough if it was completely unjustified, but in many fields of science—especially, as noted earlier, medicine and pharmacology—it’s become a necessary caveat, as failures to replicate mount up, blatant manipulation of research data comes to light, and more and more products that were touted as safe and effective by the best scientific authorities turn out to be anything but.

Factor that spreading crisis of legitimacy into the history of climate change activism and it’s not hard to see the intersection. Fifteen years ago, the movement to stop anthropogenic climate change was a juggernaut; today it’s a dead letter, given lip service or ignored completely in national politics, and reduced to a theater of the abusrd by heavily publicized international agreements that commit no one to actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the rhetoric of climate change activism fell into the same politically incompetent language already sketched out—“We’re scientists, you’re not, so shut up and do as you’re told”—and the mere fact that they were right, and that anthropogenic climate change is visibly spinning out of control around us right now, doesn’t change the fact that such language alienated far more people than it attracted, and thus helped guarantee the failure of the movement.

Of course there was a broader issue tangled up in this, and it’s the same one that’s dogging scientific pronouncements generally these days: the issue of interests. Specifically, who was expected to pay the costs of preventing anthropogenic climate change, and who was exempted from those costs? That’s not a question that’s gotten anything like the kind of attention it deserves—not, at least, in the acceptable discourse of the political mainstream. We’ll be talking about it two weeks from now.

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In other news, I'm pleased to report that the print edition of The Archdruid Report is now open for subscribers. Stone Circle Press, appropriately enough, will be publishing the Report monthly as a zine. Their sales website, still very basic as yet, is here.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Retrotopia: You See It Is Not So

This is the nineteenth installment* of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator apologizes for an almost-quarrel, spends an evening on the town, and gets a sudden insight into the nature of the Lakeland Republic’s achievement from a seemingly unlikely source...

*(The actual nineteenth; the last one was misnumbered.)
 
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I felt a little worse for wear the next morning, but not too bad, and so when the alarm on the wind-up clock next to the bed went off at eight-thirty I mumbled something unprintable and got up. It was Sunday, of course, and I planned to go to the Atheist Assembly again, so I got to work making myself presentable. My electric razor did its usual halfhearted job on my stubble, and I shook my head and wondered what men used in the Lakeland Republic to keep their chins smooth when they didn’t let the barber take care of it. Probably some antique technology that works better than ours, I thought sourly.

To say I was in a rotten mood was a bit of an understatement, but it was my own doing. I’d decided on the cab ride back from the Harbor Club that I needed to call Melanie Berger sometime the next day and apologize. That’s not something I enjoy at all, and I also knew perfectly well that it might be wasted effort, but there it was. Partly, the professional in me wasn’t willing to lose a useful contact in the Lakeland government just because the two of us had both been too tired to be tactful; partly I felt  embarrassed that I’d handled the whole thing so clumsily, and partly there was the chemistry I’d sensed between the two of us. There may have been more than that, too, but that was enough.

So I’d decided to call her early in the afternoon, after I got back from Assembly and had lunch. I was brooding over that while I shaved and showered and got dressed, and I was still brooding over it at nine-fifteen as I got my tie settled. Just then the phone rang, and wouldn’t you know it, it was none other than Melanie Berger.

“Peter? I hope I’m not calling too early.”

“Not a bit,” I said. “I was just getting ready to go to Assembly. What’s up?”

She paused for a moment, in exactly the way I would have, and said, “I wanted to apologize for the way things went Friday night.”

“I was going to call you later today and say the same thing,” I told her.  A moment of silence passed, and then we both started talking at the same time; we both stopped, and then she laughed, and so did I.

“Okay,” I said, still laughing. “I’ll gladly accept your apology if you’ll accept mine. Deal?”

“Deal,” said Melanie. “The thing is, I’d like to make it up to you. Are you free this evening?”

“Sure.” That sounded promising.  “What do you have in mind?”

“You mentioned that you’d wanted to see the Toledo Opera production of Parsifal. Jaya and Ramaraj Patel have season tickets, and I heard from them last night—they both came down with the same flu you got, and they’re not going anywhere tonight—so I thought I’d find out if I could interest you in a night at the opera.”

“I’d be delighted,” I said, “on one condition.”

“Oh?”

“That you let me take you out to dinner first.”

“You’re on,” she said. We got the details sorted out and said goodbye, and I got out of the room and down to the street just in time to catch the streetcar to the Capitol Atheist Assembly.

The meeting was pleasant but not particularly memorable, though Sam Capoferro was up to his usual standard on the piano, playing Handel and Bach with understated elegance, and everyone I met greeted me as though I was already an old friend. The reading was a rousing bit of Bertrand Russell, and the talk was about telling the difference between reason and the habits of thought that people confuse with reason, which was edgier than anything I’d heard in the Philadelphia Assembly for a good long time. Afterwards we sat around in the social hall over coffee and cookies, and talked.

The tensions between Texas and the Confederacy got a good share of the talk, and I listened closely when Senator Chenkin sketched out the situation to a couple of friends who hadn’t been following it closely. “Both countries would go broke without the income from their petroleum industries,” she said, “and they’ve both had production declines for the last half dozen years, so neither side is in any position to back down. This could get really bad.”

“How bad?” one of her friends asked her. She didn’t answer, just shook her head, but I could see the answer in her eyes, and it wasn’t anything I wanted to think about.

So I filed that away and caught the streetcar back to the hotel not long thereafter. Once I was there I talked to the concierge about what you wear to an opera in the Lakeland Republic—I’d wondered whether they’d gone back to opera capes and top hats, and was relieved to find out that ordinary evening wear would do—and then went out to see if the barber I’d visited my first day in Toledo had Sunday hours. Fortunately he did, and he was just finishing up a shave and trim on another customer when I got there. When it was my turn, he greeted me effusively and said, “You got a special evening planned, I bet,” and laughed when I asked him how he’d guessed. “Of course you do.  Any guy comes in here midway through a weekend day for a shave and trim, dollars’ll get you doughnuts that’s what’s on the schedule. Don’t you worry, I’ll get your face smoother than a baby’s butt.”

He did, too. I left there looking ready for an evening out. A pleasant lunch in the hotel café, a talk with the concierge about restaurants, and a couple of leisurely hours reading the Sunday paper and getting caught up on the news: that filled the rest of the time before I caught a cab over to Melanie Berger’s, picked her up, and headed for a top-end restaurant not quite two blocks from the Toledo opera house.

We had a great time. The food was really good and the wine was better, and both of us had the common sense to keep the conversation well away from progress or anything related to it. Of course we talked about politics—get two people who work in any line of business together, even for a social evening, and they’re going to talk shop—but that wasn’t the only subject of conversation by a long shot. One of the others was the performance we were about to take in. The Toledo Opera had a homegrown bass, a young guy named Michael Bickerstaff, who would be singing the part of Gurnemanz.  He’d done a stellar job the year before in his first major role as Sarastro in The Magic Flute, but of course Wagner’s much harder on singers than Mozart ever dreamed of being.

“They say he’s really good,” Melanie said. “Good enough that a couple of European opera companies are interested in him, and some people here are talking about what kind of a Wotan he’d make.”

That impressed me. “Are they planning on doing the Ring cycle here?”

“Jaya tells me there’s been some tentative discussions with the Minneapolis Opera about a joint production,” she said. “They’ve got some really solid singers—tonight’s Kundry is one of theirs.”

Dinner wound down pleasantly, and in due time we headed for the opera house.  Like most of Toledo, it was new construction but old-fashioned design, with a spacious lobby and comfortable seats. Ours were about halfway toward the left wall on the first balcony. We got settled, and of course then had to stand up a couple of times while latecomers made their apologies and edged past to their own seats. Our conversation wound up, the lights went down, the conductor got up on his podium and the first bars of the Prelude sounded in the dim light.

When the curtains slid open, I admit I braced myself. In Wagner’s operas, there’s really only room for one monumental ego, and it’s his, but you get directors who don’t get that and try to make a production original by pulling some visual stunt or other. I’ve seen Wagnerian operas where all the singers were in Old West outfits, or superhero costumes, or bulbous yellow things that made them look like a flock of rubber duckies—I never did find out what those were supposed to be about. Apparently the Toledo Opera had managed to escape that bad habit. The set was abstract to the point of starkness, with fabric veils and shafts of light providing most of the decor; you could tell the designer had taken a close and thoughtful look at Bayreuth productions from the middle of the last century. The costumes looked more or less the way you’d expect a bunch of Grail Knights to look, which was a pleasant surprise.

Then Gurnemanz got up from under the abstract tree where he’d supposedly been sleeping, and broke into his first lines—He, ho, Waldhüter ihr!—and I knew right away that we were in for a treat.

Most of the singers were, in the strict sense of the word, second-rate: one notch below first-rate, which is still good enough to enjoy.  The soprano who sang Kundry, Maria Vargas Ruz, was better than that; she didn’t have the absolute purity of tone you need for the most demanding soprano roles, but the role she was singing actually goes better with a little roughness in the voice.

Then there was Michael Bickerstaff. He wasn’t just first-rate, he was world-class, a big barrel-chested young man with one of the best bass voices I’d heard in years. The role of Gurnemanz, the old Grail Knight, is the backbone of Parsifal; a good Gurnemanz can make a mediocre production enjoyable, while an unimpressive one drags like a lead weight on a performance that might otherwise be worth hearing. Bickerstaff was stunningly good; he more or less picked up the show and carried it on his shoulders, and I enjoyed the result tremendously.

The first act flowed past, and the second; Parsifal vanquished the self-castrated sorcerer Klingsor and recovered the Holy Spear; the third act got well under way, and Parsifal, Gurnemanz, and Kundry were on stage, surrounded by a tolerably good suggestion of a field of flowers. The passage that’s called der Karfreitagszauber, the Good Friday Enchantment, started up, Bickerstaff sang Du siehst, das ist nicht so— “You see it is not so”—and that’s when it hit me.

You know how sometimes you can brood over some problem for hours and get nowhere with it, and then when you go do something else for a while and you’re not thinking about it at all, the answer basically downloads itself into your brain? That’s what happened. I’d spent most of the day thinking of just about anything but the paradox Melanie Berger had dropped on me two nights before, and right then I realized that it wasn’t a paradox at all. I managed to drag my attention back to the performance before Bickerstaff was more than a few words further on, and kept the realization I’d just had at arm’s length for the rest of the evening, but it wasn’t going anywhere and I knew it.

Here’s what I figured out. As you might expect, it begins with opera.

These days, nobody listens to twentieth-century opera. That’s not accidental, either—it’s either painfully derivative or it’s impossible to sit through. Once I went to see a revival of one of Benjamin Britten’s pieces, I forget which one, and what I mostly remember was the audience gamely trying to pretend that they were appreciating something that was about as enjoyable as listening to a chorus of dental drills. The standard joke in opera circles these days is that opera companies put on twentieth century works when they’re tired of the inconvenience of performing in front of an audience.

One of my Philadelphia friends, who’s a much more serious opera buff than I’ll ever be, explains it like this. Any art form has a certain amount of notional space to it, and each work done in that space fills up part of it. Before you’ve filled up the space, innovation works more often than not, but after the space is full, innovation just generates noise. That’s why the history of every art gets sorted out into a period of exploration, when you succeed by trying new things, and a period of performance, when you succeed by doing old things very, very well. If you keep on trying to innovate when the notional space is full, the results are either going to be derivative or unbearable, and either way they’re not going to be any good, because the good options have already been taken.

You know that an art is getting close to the edges of its notional space when innovation involves a lot of risk. Wagner was right up against the edges of opera’s notional space, which is why his late operas are so exhilarating—you can watch him tiptoeing right up to the edge of noise and balancing there—but they don’t have the easy grace of operas written a couple of generations before his time. You see the same thing in jazz, starting in the second half of the twentieth century: people like Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck were self-consciously testing the boundaries, figuring out just how far they could go without falling over the edge into noise. Another generation or two, and you get the kind of jazz that nobody bothers to play any more, because by and large it’s just pretentious doodling.

The thing is, it’s not just true of art. Nobody’s pushing brand new alphabets any more, because that notional space got filled in a long time ago. Nobody’s inventing new can openers or bathtubs, and nearly all of what passes for innovation these days in cars, say, is just gimmickry aimed at getting the clueless to shell out money. I knew all that, but it never occurred to me that technological progress followed the same trajectory:  it had its period of exploration and then crossed over into its period of performance, but nobody noticed, and so everyone just kept on buying into the latest innovations, even though most of those had fewer benefits and worse downsides than the things they replaced.

I’d missed that completely.  I’d been wandering around the Lakeland Republic, noticing that the way they did things had better outcomes, lower costs, and fewer downsides than the way people do things everywhere else, and I still didn’t get it. It was as though I’d been listening to an opera by Mozart or Verdi and thinking that the poor people in the audience must be feeling horribly deprived because they weren’t getting Benjamin Britten. Du siehst, sang Gurnemanz, das ist nicht so.

Writing it all out like that, it sounds all clear and straightforward. It wasn’t. There was the first sudden realization while Bickerstaff was singing, and then other details—many more than I’ve written out—came dropping into my mind over the next couple of hours. All the while I was mostly paying attention to other things, such as a really solid performance of an opera I love, and the attractive woman I was seeing it with, and certain other things I’ll mention in a moment, and the things I’ve written were tumbling around in the back of my head. It wasn’t until I was in the cab headed back to my hotel the next morning that I finally sat back and let the whole thing come together into a coherent argument. Long before that happened, though, I’d stumbled straight through the door into a different world.

But again, there was an opera to take in. After the final minutes of the music, when it always feels to me as though the opera house has shaken off gravity and gone soaring into the sky; after the applause—we were all on our feet, and when Michael Bickerstaff bowed I’m surprised the roar didn’t cause structural damage to the building; after the house lights came up at last, and people started filing out, Melanie said, “Season tickets get us into the reception, and there’s someone there I’d like you to meet.”

So we filed out and went down a side corridor; Melanie showed our passes to an usher out in front of an unmarked double door, and in we went. The room on the other side was big and airy, with a mural of scenes from famous operas on one wall, and a bank of tables along the other with champagne and finger food. It wasn’t too crowded yet, and I gathered that the person Melanie wanted me to meet hadn’t arrvied, so we got a couple of glasses and sipped bubbly for a few minutes while more people filed in. Finally, when the room was getting good and packed, Melanie led me through the crowd.

“Janice,” she said, “this is Peter Carr, from Philadelphia—one of Ellen Montrose’s people.” With an impish smile: “And a limited partner of yours. Peter, Janice Mikkelson.”

Mikkelson was maybe sixty, with short straight hair the color of steel wool and a pantsuit that looked plain at first glance but probably cost as much as any of the fancy dresses in the room. She gave me an assessing look as we shook hands, and I said, “To the extent of one share of Mikkelson LLC.”

She laughed. “Not exactly a vote of confidence, but I’m pleased to meet you anyway.” I got introduced to her wife Sharon, a gorgeous Asian woman maybe fifteen years her junior, and we stood chatting for a while about the performance. Mikkelson turned to me, then, and said, “Any chance you have time in your schedule to talk? I’m interested in the possibility of doing business in the Atlantic Republic.”

“I can do that,” I said. “Also, if you don’t mind, I’d be interested in getting your perspective on things here in Lakeland.” She nodded, we both checked our notebooks, and scheduled something for Tuesday afternoon. “Come up to my place,” Mikkelson said. “Some drinks, some conversation, some business—I think it’ll be productive.”

We chatted a little more, and then moved on in the usual way. Not much later Melanie and I were on our way down the long ramp to the lobby and then out to the street, where cabs lined up waiting for easy fares. We took one to her place, a brick row house a dozen blocks from the Capitol, and I walked her to her door. I had a pretty good idea by then of how the evening was going to end, and so it wasn’t any kind of surprise when she gave me the kind of raised-eyebrow smile that means exactly one thing. I went to pay the cab fare, came back to her, took her hand and followed her inside.

***********
In other fiction-related news, the anthology of deindustrial-SF stories set in the future outlined in my novel Star’s Reach is finally, after an unconscionable delay, coming together. I’d like to ask everyone who submitted a story to that project to visit the Meriga Project website—I’ve got a new post up and need some data from contributors. Many thanks!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Outside the Hall of Mirrors

The outcome of last week’s vote concerning Britain’s membership in the European Union has set off  anguished cries and handwaving across much of the internet and the mass media. The unexpected defeat of the pro-EU camp, though, has important lessons to offer, and not just for those of my readers who live in Britain; the core issues underlying the Brexit referendum are also massive realities in many other countries right now, and will likely play a very large role—quite probably a decisive one—in this year’s presidential race here in the United States.

Now of course part of the outcome has to be put down to the really quite impressive incompetence of the Remain campaign. The first rule of political campaigning is that if something isn’t working, it’s time to try something else, but apparently that never occurred to anybody on the pro-EU side. From the beginning of the campaign to its end, very nearly the only coherent arguments that came out the mouths of Remain supporters were threats about this or that awful thing that was going to happen if Britain left the EU. Weeks before the election, as a result, faux headlines yelling BREXIT WILL GIVE YOU CANCER, EXPERTS WARN and the like had already become a common topic of internet humor.

That was bad enough—when the central theme of your campaign becomes a punch line, you’re doing something wrong—but there was another point that everyone in the pro-EU camp seems to have missed. Soon-to-be-former Prime Minister David Cameron spent much of the campaign insisting that if Britain left the EU, there would be harsh budget cuts in the National Health Service and other programs that benefit ordinary Britons. The difficulty here was of course that Cameron’s government had already inflicted harsh budget cuts in the National Health Service and other programs that benefit ordinary Britons, and showed every sign of doing more of the same—and “Brexit Will Do What We’re Doing Anyway” somehow didn’t have the clout that Cameron apparently expected it to have.

More generally, Remain supporters never got around to offering positive reasons for Britain’s EU membership that would convince those who weren’t already on their side. Instead, they simply insisted that “any thinking person” would vote Remain, and anyone who disagreed had to be a xenophobic Nazi moron. Their behavior in the wake of defeat has by and large been the same, alternating between furious statements that the 52% of Britons who voted to leave the EU must all be drooling fascist bigots, and the plaintive insistence that people couldn’t possibly have intended to vote the way they did, and can we please have the vote all over again?

Absent from the entire Remain repertory, before as well as after the vote, was any sense that the question of continued EU membership for Britain involved substantive issues about which it was possible to have reasoned disagreement. It should have been obvious that telling people that their concerns don’t matter, and berating them with schoolyard insults when they demur, was not going to convince them to change their vote. That this was not obvious to the pro-EU camp, and shows little evidence of becoming any more obvious even in the wake of defeat, hints that the issues in question are things that the pro-EU camp is utterly unwilling to see discussed at all.

I suggest that this is exactly what’s going on, and a glance back across the last century or so of British political history may help point out the unspoken realities behind the shouting.

A hundred years ago, two parties dominated the British political landscape: the Conservatives (aka Tories) and the Liberals. Both parties were run by and for the affluent. While a series of electoral reform bills over the course of the nineteenth century brought more and more British men into the electorate—British women got the vote in two stages, with wealthy women over 30 admitted to the electorate in 1918 and all adult women in 1929—both parties readily learned the trick of dangling meaningless favors in front of the poor to get them to vote in the interest of their soi-disant betters.

The rise of the Independent Labour Movement, the forerunner of the Labour Party, was a masterly counterstroke to this kind of political gamesmanship. Instead of letting themselves be led about by the nose for the benefit of the affluent minority, the ILM and then the Labour Party put the interests of working people and the poor at the forefront of their agenda, and refused to be bought off with scraps from the tables of the rich. By 1945, as a direct result, the Liberal party had been reduced to irrelevance and the Labour Party became one of the two major parties in British politics.

In Britain as well as America, the pendulum started swinging the other way in the last quarter of the century. The triumph of Margaret Thatcher in the 1978 general election had the same role there as Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 did over here: a new, more aggressive conservatism took up the Left’s rhetoric of class warfare with a vengeance and inverted it, ushering in an era in which the rich rebelled against the poor. The Labour Party under Tony Blair, in turn, responded to that shift the same way that the Democrats did under Bill Clinton: both parties quietly dropped their previous commitments to the working class and the poor, and focused instead on issues that appealed to affluent liberals.  They gambled that the working class and the poor would keep voting for them out of habit and misplaced loyalty—and over the short term, that gamble paid off.

The result in both countries was a political climate in which the only policies up for discussion were those that favored the interests of the affluent at the expense of the working classes and the poor. That point has been muddied so often, and in so many highly imaginative ways, that it’s probably necessary to detail it here. Rising real estate prices, for example, benefit those who own real estate, since their properties end up worth more, but it penalizes those who must rent their homes, since they have to pay more of their income for rent. Similarly, cutting social-welfare benefits for the disabled favors those who pay taxes at the expense of those who need those benefits to survive.

In the same way, encouraging unrestricted immigration into a country that already has millions of people permanently out of work, and encouraging the offshoring of industrial jobs so that the jobless are left to compete for an ever-shrinking pool of jobs, benefit the affluent at the expense of everyone else. The law of supply and demand applies to labor just as it does to everything else:  increase the supply of workers and decrease the demand for their services, and wages will be driven down. The affluent benefit from this, since they pay less for the services they want, but the working poor and the jobless are harmed by it, since they receive less income if they can find jobs at all. It’s standard for this straightforward logic to be obfuscated by claims that immigration benefits the economy as a whole—but who receives the bulk of the benefits, and who carries most of the costs?  That’s not something anybody in British or American public life has been willing to discuss for the last thirty years.

The problem with this kind of government of the affluent, by the affluent, and for the affluent was outlined in uncompromising detail many years ago in the pages of Arnold Toynbee’s monumental A Study of History. Societies in decline, he pointed out, schism into two unequal parts: a dominant minority that monopolizes the political system and its payoffs, and an internal proletariat that carries most of the costs of the existing order of things and is denied access to most of its benefits. As the schism develops, the dominant minority loses track of the fundamental law of politics—the masses will only remain loyal to their leaders if the leaders remain loyal to them—and the internal proletariat responds by rejecting not only the dominant minority’s leadership but its values and ideals as well.

The enduring symbol of the resulting disconnect is the famous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where the last three French kings before the Revolution secluded themselves from an increasingly troubled and impoverished nation in order to gaze admiringly at their own resplendent reflections. While Marie Antoinette apparently never said the famous sentence attributed to her—“Let them eat cake”—the cluelessness about the realities of life outside the Hall of Mirrors that utterance suggests was certainly present as France stumbled toward ruin, and a growing number of ordinary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen turned their backs on their supposed leaders and went looking for new options.

That’s what has happened in Britain in recent decades, and the last few elections show it. In the general election of 2010, voters blindsided pollsters and pundits alike by flocking to the Liberal Democratic party, until then a fringe party. That was an obvious demand for change, and if the Lib-Dems had stuck to their guns, it might have resulted in the eclipse of the Labour party within a few more years, but the Lib-Dems chose instead to cash in their ideals and form a coalition with the Tories. In the 2015 general election, as a direct result, the Lib-Dems were flung back out onto the fringes.

2015 had an even more significant result, though. In an attempt to head off the UK Independence Party (UKIP), another fringe party showing worrisome gains, Tory PM David Cameron pledged that if his party won, the UK would hold a referendum on EU membership. Polls claimed that Parliament would again be split three ways between Conservatives, Lib-Dems, and Labour. The pollsters and the pundits were blindsided again; apparently a good many people who claimed they were going to vote for Labour or the Lib-Dems got into the privacy of the voting booth and cast their vote for their local Tory instead. Why? Thursday’s vote suggests that it was precisely because they wanted a chance to say no to the EU.

Fast forward to the Brexit campaign. In polite society in today’s Britain, any attempt to point out the massive problems with allowing unrestricted immigration onto an already overcrowded island, which can’t provide adequate jobs, housing, or social services for the people it’s got already, is dismissed out of hand as racism. Thus it’s not surprising that quite a few Britons, many of them nominally Labour voters, mumbled the approved sound bites in public and voted for Brexit in private—and again, the pollsters and the pundits were blindsided. That’s one of the downsides of the schism between the dominant minority and the internal proletariat; once the dominant minority loses the loyalty of the masses by failing to deal with the needs of those outside the circles of affluence and privilege, sullen outward conformity and secret revolt replace the mutual trust that’s needed to make a society function.

The EU, in turn, made a perfect target for disaffected voters among the working class and the poor because it’s entirely a creature of the same consensus of the affluent as the Labour party after Tony Blair and the Democratic Party after Bill Clinton. Its economic policies are guided from top to bottom by the neoliberal economics that came into power with Thatcher and Reagan; its unwavering support of unrestricted immigration and capital movement is calculated to force down wages and move jobs away from countries such as Britain; its subsidies inevitably end up in the pockets of big corporations and the well-to-do, while its regulatory burdens land heaviest on small businesses and local economies.

This isn’t particularly hard find out—in fact, it takes an effort to avoid noticing it.  Listen to people bemoaning the consequences of Brexit in the latest reports from the British media, and you’ll hear a long list of privileges mostly relevant to the affluent that the speakers worry will be taken from them.  Aside from a few fringe figures, those who voted for it generally aren’t talking, since they’ve learned from bitter experience that they’ll simply be shouted down with the usual shopworn accusations of racism et al..  If they were willing to talk, though, I suspect you’d hear a long list of burdens that have mostly landed on the ordinary working people so many of the affluent so obviously despise.

It’s probably necessary to note here that of course there are racists and xenophobes who voted for Brexit. Equally, there are people who have copulated with dead pigs who voted for Remain—I’m sure my British readers can name at least one—but that doesn’t mean that everyone who voted for Remain has copulated with a dead pig.  Nor, crucially, does it prove that necrosuophiliac cravings are the only possible reason to vote for Remain. One common way to define hate speech is “the use of a demeaning and derogatory stereotype to describe every member of a group.” By that definition, the people who insist that everyone who voted for Brexit is a bigoted moron are engaged in hate speech—and it’s a source of bleak amusement to watch people who are normally quick to denounce hate speech indulging in it to their heart’s desire in this one case. 

Let’s look deeper, though. There are, in fact, a significant number of poor and working-class Britons who hold deeply prejudiced attitudes toward foreign immigrants. Why? A large part of the reason is the fact that the affluent, for decades now, have equated racial tolerance with exactly those policies of unrestricted immigration that have plunged millions of the British working class into destitution and misery. In the same way, a great many poor and working class Britons couldn’t care less about the environment, and a large part of the reason is that the terms of debate about environmental issues have been defined so that the lifestyles of the affluent are never open to discussion, and the costs of environmental protection cascade down the social ladder while the benefits flow up. As Toynbee noted, when society splits into a dominant minority and an internal proletariat, the masses reject not only the leadership but also the ideals and values of their self-proclaimed betters.  It happens tolerably often that some of those ideals and values really are important, but when they’ve been used over and over again to justify the policies of the privileged, the masses can’t afford to care.

Those Britons who are insisting that the majority doesn’t matter, and their country must stay in the EU no matter what the voters think, have clearly not thought through the implications of last Thursday’s election. Party loyalties have become very fluid just now, and the same 52% of British voters that passed the Brexit referendum could quite readily, with equal disdain for the tender sensibilities of the privileged minority, put a UKIP majority into the House of Commons and send Nigel Farage straight to 10 Downing Stree. If the British establishment succeeds in convincing the working classes and the poor that voting for UKIP is the only way they can make their voices heard, that’s what will happen. It’s a very unwise move, after all, to antagonize people who have nothing to lose.

Meanwhile, a very similar revolt is under way in the United States, with Donald Trump as the beneficiary. As I noted in an earlier post here, Trump’s meteoric rise from long-shot fringe candidate to Republican nominee was fueled entirely by his willingness to put himself in opposition to the consensus of the affluent described earlier. Where all the acceptable candidates were on board with the neoliberal economics and neoconservative politics of the last thirty years—lavish handouts for the rich, punitive austerity for the poor, malign neglect of our infrastructure at home and a monomaniacal pursuit of military confrontation overseas—he broke with that, and the more stridently the pundits and politicians denounced him, the more states he won and the faster his poll numbers rose.

At this point he’s doing the sensible thing, biding his time, preparing for the general election, and floating the occasional trial balloon to see how various arguments against Hillary Clinton will be received. I expect the kind of all-out war that flattened his Republican rivals to begin around the first of September. Nor is Hillary Clinton particularly well positioned to face such an onslaught. It’s not merely that she’s dogged by embarrassingly detailed allegations of corruption on a scale that would be considered unusually florid in a Third World kleptocracy, nor is it simply that her career as Secretary of State was notable mostly for a cascade of foreign policy disasters from which she seems to have learned nothing. It’s not even that on most economic, political, and military issues, Hillary Clinton is well to the right of Donald Trump, advocating positions indistinguishable from those of George W. Bush—you know, the guy the Democrats claimed to hate not too many years back.

No, what makes a Trump victory in November considerably more likely than not is that Clinton has cast herself as the candidate of the status quo. All the positions she’s taken amount to the continued pursuit of policies that, in the United States as in Britain, have benefited the affluent at the expense of everyone else. That was a safe choice back when her husband was President, and both parties were competing mostly over which one could do a better job of comforting the comfortable and afflicting the already afflicted. It’s not a safe choice now, when Trump has thrown away the covert rulebook of modern American politics, and is offering, to people who’ve gotten the short end of the stick for more than thirty years, a set of policy changes that could actually improve their lives.

Now of course that’s not what the politicians, the pundits, and the officially respectable thinkers of today’s consensus of the affluent are willing to talk about. The same dreary rhetoric applied to the pro-Brexit majority in Britain is thus being applied to Trump voters here in the United States. “Racist,” “fascist,” “moron”—all the shopworn, sneering tropes that the privileged use to dismiss the concerns of the rest of the population of today’s America are present and accounted for.

The passion with which these words are being flung about just now should not be underestimated. I had an old friend hang up on me in midsentence because I expressed a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton; we haven’t spoken since, and I have no idea if we ever will. Other people I know have had comparable experiences when they tried to discuss the upcoming election in terms more nuanced than today’s conventional wisdom is willing to permit. One of the most powerful and most unmentionable forces in American public life—class prejudice—pervades the shouting matches that result. To side with Clinton is to identify yourself with the privileged, the “good people,” the affluent circles gazing admiringly at themselves in the Hall of Mirrors. To speak of Trump in any terms other than cheap schoolboy insults, or even to hint that Trump’s supporters might be motivated by concerns other than racism and sheer stupidity, is to be flung unceremoniously outside the gates where the canaille are beginning to gather.

It has apparently not occurred to those who parade up and down the Hall of Mirrors that there are many more people outside those gates than there are within. It has seemingly not entered their darkest dreams that shouting down an inconvenient point of view, and flinging insults at anyone who pauses to consider it, is not an effective way of convincing anyone not already on their side. Maybe the outcome of the Brexit vote will be enough to jar America’s chattering classes out of their stupor, and force them to notice that the people who’ve been hurt by the policies they prefer have finally lost patience with the endless droning insistence that no other policies are thinkable.  Maybe—but I doubt it.

Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the sky is black with birds coming home to roost. Some of them have already settled on the rooftops of London. More of them are hovering above an assortment of European capitals, and many more are wheeling above the marble domes and pediments of Washington DC. When they land, their impact will shake the world.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

In Praise of the Reprehensible

Last month’s post here on cultural senility and its antidotes discussed the way that modern education erases the past in order to defend today’s ideologies against the lessons of history. While that post focused on the leftward end of the political spectrum—the end that currently dominates what we still jokingly call “higher education” in today’s America—the erasure of the past is just as common on the other end of things. Between the political correctness of the left and the patriotic correctness of the right, it’s hardly surprising that so many Americans stumble blindly toward the future in a fog of manufactured ignorance, sedulously shielded from the historical insights that could give them a clue about the troubled landscape about them or the looming disasters ahead.

This week I’d like to discuss another aspect of that erasure of the past. I’ll be concentrating again on the way it’s done on the leftward end of things, because that’s the side that’s doing the most to deform American education just at the moment, but I’d encourage my readers to keep in mind that the issue I have in mind is a blade that has two edges and cuts both ways. That issue? The censoring of literature from the past in order to make it conform to the moral notions of the present.

It so happens, for example, that quite a few works of American literature talk about people of color in terms that many people today find extremely offensive. Now of course just as many works of American literature discuss women, sexual minorities, and just about any other group of people you care to name, other than well-to-do, college-educated, white male heterosexual Anglo-Saxon Protestants, in highly insulting terms, but let’s focus on racism for the moment. In American universities these days, it’s fashionable to insist that such works should either be tossed into the dumpster, on the one hand, or reissued in new editions from which all the offensive material has been expurgated.

The justifications for these projects are appropriately diverse. On the one hand, there’s the claim that members of groups that have been subject to racial oppression should not be required to read books containing language or ideas that justify the oppression they’ve experienced. On the other hand, there’s the claim that people who don’t belong to those groups should not be allowed to read such books, so that they don’t adopt the language or ideas in question. Off in the distance lies the utopian vision of a society free of racism, and eliminating the language and ideas that were once used to justify racism is proclaimed as a step toward that goal.

Fair enough. What does history have to say about projects of this sort?

As it happens, it has quite a bit to say about the results of censoring the literature of the past to support the moral crusades of the present, and in that connection I’d like to introduce you to a gentleman who was once quite famous in his way, though nothing more than his last name survives in our collective imagination these days. His name was Dr. Thomas Bowdler; he was an English physician who lived from 1754 to 1825, and in his retirement he put together a new edition of Shakespeare’s plays, “in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions were omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” Yes, he’s the guy who inspired the verb “to bowdlerize.”

He was on the cutting edge of one of the great cultural projects of the 19th-century English-speaking world, the quest to eliminate every reference to sex from public discourse. The era that would take its enduring name from Britain’s Queen Victoria reacted against the relatively freewheeling sexuality of the preceding Regency era by embracing a more than Puritan horror of sex.  This wasn’t simply a pose; people in Victorian society were profoundly sickened and offended by human sexuality and anything even distantly related to it. The result was an era in which the legs—excuse me, “limbs”—of pianos in respectable English homes had little starched cotton skirts put on them to cover their overly erotic curves; in which the British ambassador bullied the Florentine authorities into putting pantaloons on Michelangelo’s David, so that lady tourists from the British Isles would not be scandalized by his state of undress; and in which we all started referring to the male of the domestic fowl by the newly minted term “rooster,” because what had previously been its normal English name, “cock,” had the same genital connotations then that it does now.

The Victorian rejection of sexuality achieved the level of cultural unanimity that today’s advocates of political correctness hope to achieve for their rejection of racism. All through the public sphere, rigid censorship of sexual content and strenuous denunciation of improprieties were universal; reputations were ruined and careers ended by incautious utterances or, in many cases, so much as a rumor of the same; across the English-speaking world, public figures spoke approvingly of the triumph of modern morality over the disgusting habits of the past, in much the same tones of self-satisfaction you’ll hear these days at the American university of your choice.

There’s our comparable historical example. How well did it work?

That’s where things get interesting. Human cultures are governed by something not too different from Isaac Newton’s famous third law of motion:  “every action produces an equal and opposite reaction.” The Victorian moral crusade against sexuality thus generated its inevitable countermovement, and for most of a century—from the 1890s until the late 20th century—just about every avant-garde literary, artistic, and cultural movement in the English-speaking world went out of its way to reject Victorian sexual morality and glorify casual sex. In the mid-20th century, that same reaction burst into popular literature; some of my readers may remember the torrent of science fiction novels from the 1960s—Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is probably the most famous of them—that proclaimed uninhibited orgiastic abandon as the next glorious step in human evolution.

The difficulty that Thomas Bowdler and his many equivalents had not foreseen was that erasing sex from literature and popular culture doesn’t make people innocent and pure, it just makes them clueless.  Growing up in respectable Victorian society, young people were kept ignorant of every attitude toward sexuality except the one hammered into them day after day by all the officially approved voices of their society, and the result was that they had never learned to think critically about the ethics of sex. If you raise lab rats in an environment completely free of pathogens, and then turn them loose, quite often they’ll drop dead from common diseases that a normally raised rat will shrug off with ease, because they’ve never acquired resistance.  Keep young people ignorant of sexuality, and the resulting lack of resistance may not be as lethal but it’s every bit as dramatic.

If the partisans of political correctness in today’s world achieve their goals, in other words, one very likely outcome is a period up to a century in length, starting some decades after political correctness becomes the conventional wisdom of society, in which every avant-garde literary, artistic, and cultural movement in Europe and North America will go out of its way to reject political correctness and glorify racial prejudice. I doubt that the professors who are advocating the political bowdlerization of literature realize that this is where their efforts are leading, but then history has a nasty sense of humor, and seems to delight in playing such tricks on those who don’t pay attention to the lessons she has to offer.

Let’s go deeper, though. The strategy of bowdlerization assumes that the best way, or even the only way, to discourage undesirable expressions and ideas is to keep people ignorant of them. The history of previous attempts at moral censorship shows that exactly the opposite is the case: since it’s never yet been possible to get rid of every expression of an undesirable idea, making people ignorant of that idea simply means that they’ll react to it uncritically when they do finally encounter it—and while some of those reactions will amount to uncritical rejection, there will also be cases of uncritical acceptance.

What’s the alternative? The capacity for critical thinking about whatever issue is in question—and that’s a capacity that can’t be produced without exposing people to the whole spectrum of ideas that relate to the issue, even those that happen to be offensive to modern sensibilities. For reasons we’ll be exploring further on, and in future posts as well, literature is particularly well suited to this kind of examination, and it’s precisely the literature that modern politically (or patriotically) correct thinkers find reprehensible that’s most valuable in this context.

A specific example will be more useful here than any number of generalities, so let’s take a look at a writer who’s come in for quite a bit of condemnation along the lines just sketched out: the American horror-fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft.  Was Lovecraft a racist? You bet; he proudly described himself using exactly that term in at least one of his letters. (You could get away with saying that in America between the wars.  A significant fraction of Americans described themselves as racists in that era, before Auschwitz et al. made it too uncomfortably clear what kind of results then-popular notions about racial superiority could have when put into practice. I mentioned history’s nasty sense of humor earlier; one solid example is the fact that the single most enduring impact the career of Adolf Hitler had on Western culture was to make overt racism and antisemitism unfashionable in many circles.)

Lovecraft’s racism wasn’t simply a privately held opinion, either. He put racist tropes into many of his stories. With very few exceptions, the people of color who appear in his fiction fall into a handful of classic stereotypes—the deferential drudges who “know their place,” the mindless masses who can do nothing right, the sinister and swarthy figures who deliberately serve the Wrong Side—if you know the pop culture of the time, you’ve met them all. Multiracial people tend to get even worse press at Lovecraft’s hands, with all the usual tropes present and accounted for; in particular, when you find out that a group of people in a Lovecraft story are multiracial, you can pretty much take it for granted that they’re in league with the tentacled horrors who are out to devour mankind.

Now it’s entirely possible to make a case that Lovecraft deserves to be read despite these unpleasant habits. That case has been made by a range of gifted writers, who point out that Lovecraft is among the greatest figures in 20th century horror fiction, and that the imaginative depth and the extraordinary richness of the philosophical issues with which he deals justify keeping him out of the dumpster to which politically correct opinion would consign him. I think there’s a lot to be said for that case, but it’s not the case I propose to make here. Rather, I’d like to suggest that if you want to get a clear sense of the underlying psychology of American racism—an understanding of the sort that will make it impossible for you to take racist notions seriously ever again—a close reading of the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft is a very good place to start.

Let’s start by noting something that hasn’t always been given its due in studies of Lovecraft: people of color weren’t the only people who came in for abuse at his hands. His attitudes toward poor rural white people, as set out in such stories as “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and “The Lurking Fear,” were just as bigoted. In Lovecraft, with few exceptions, if you’re not a well-to-do, college-educated white male heterosexual Anglo-Saxon Protestant, you’re probably being demeaned. 

For that matter, what gave the nonhuman critters at the heart of his most famous stories their frisson of horror in his eyes wasn’t so much that they’re hostile, as that they have the effrontery to exist at all. Consider “Dagon,” usually considered the first of Lovecraft’s mature stories, in which the narrator witnesses a huge, vaguely humanoid, vaguely froggy-fishy creature worshipping at a monolith that’s been thrust up out of the ocean by an earthquake. This sight drives the narrator to drug himself with morphine, and when his cash runs out, to fling himself out the window to a certain death.

Why? The froggy-fishy thing isn’t overtly hostile; it doesn’t even appear to notice the narrator, much less resent the intrusion on its religious practices; but the mere fact that there’s another intelligent species on the planet, one with its own religious and artistic traditions, is apparently enough to unhinge the narrator’s mind so deeply that suicide is the only way out. “I cannot think of the deep sea,” Lovecraft has his narrator say, “without shuddering at the nameless things that may be at this very moment be crawling and floundering in its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite.”  Would he have felt better if the nameless things were worshipping our idols and carving our detestable likenesses?

With one extremely important exception, in fact, Lovecraft’s whole approach to horror centers on trying to make questions of the sort I’ve just posed impossible to ask. The unhuman creatures at the heart of his most famous stories are dim incomprehensible shapes seen only at a distance, revealed to the narrator of a story by a babbling, frantic description uttered by some half-reliable figure unsure of what he’s seeing. Thus the closest the reader gets to the mighty devil-god Cthulhu in Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is a narrative written by one man and summarized briefly in a narrative written by another—and that’s why the story works. Get any closer to Cthulhu and you start to wonder what things look like from his perspective, and then the whole thing falls to bits.

Lovecraft’s tentacled monsters and sinister cultists have been accused of being two-dimensional, but that misses the point entirely. They work as figures of horror precisely and only because they’re two-dimensional. Give them a third dimension, an inner life, a name and a perspective of their own, and they lose much of their capacity to terrify. If you’re going to project your own fears onto something, one might say, the recipient of the projection needs to be treated as a flat screen—a point that has more than a little relevance to the prejudices that Lovecraft himself embraced.

The one time in his fiction that Lovecraft deliberately broke with the approach just described is the exception that proves the rule. At the Mountains of Madness, one of his three novels, features a team of Antarctic explorers who discover archaic life forms, apparently long dead, in a cavern beneath the ice. Shortly thereafter, radio contact is lost, and when other members of the expedition go looking they find that the team and their sled dogs have been torn to bits; the camp has been destroyed, and the critters are gone. It’s classic horror—except that as the story progresses and two members of the expedition follow the trail of the critters, it slowly sinks in to the reader that the critters’ actions are precisely what a group of human explorers, suddenly awakened in the far future and assaulted by bizarre alien creatures, would have done.

It’s a stunning reversal of perspective that adds tremendous force to the story, but Lovecraft can only maintain the horror by bringing in another, even more ghastly monster, whose perspective is excluded from the story by the usual means. It was also, if I may insert a personal note, one inspiration behind my new novel The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, which stands Lovecraft on his head by placing the tentacled Great Old Ones and their multiracial worshippers at center stage, and letting them speak for themselves.

There is, though, another way in which the monster’s-eye view enters Lovecraft’s fiction, and it’s deeply revealing. Over and over again in his fiction—in “The Outsider,” “Arthur Jermyn,” “The Rats in the Walls,” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” to name only the best examples—the revelation that brings the story to a close is the discovery that the main character belongs to the monsters’ side of the equation after all. The connection’s nearly always via an ancestress who wasn’t what she appeared to be—this theme recurs so obsessively in Lovecraft’s fiction that I frankly wonder if Lovecraft himself knew or suspected that someone on the distaff side of his ancestry was merely passing as white.

That sort of skeleton in the mental closet is far from uncommon among racists, by the way. I’m thinking here, among many other things, of a book I read years ago about the neo-Nazi scene in the United States. The author commented in his introduction that practically every one of the neo-Nazi leaders he interviewed claimed that some other neo-Nazi leader was really gay, Jewish, or not entirely white. The author went on to note that in a good many cases, those allegations turned out to be true. I hope I don’t have to remind my readers, along similar lines, of the number of gay-bashing preachers who turned out to have boyfriends on the side. Jung’s cogent discussions of the habit of projecting the shadow are relevant here: we hate most what we can’t tolerate seeing in ourselves, and our most savage denunciations are always directed, in one sense or another, at a mirror.

You can hear that said in so many words, and it might or might not sink in. Watch H.P. Lovecraft doing it, and if you read him closely and pay attention to what he’s doing, it’s impossible to miss. He took his own frantic terror of other races, blended it with the ethnic, cultural, and economic divisions of a troubled time, and turned that bubbling mix of status panic into some of the twentieth century’s most iconic horror fiction. In the process, like all great writers—and I would argue that despite his problems, Lovecraft was a great writer—he took his own idiosyncratic experience of the world and universalized it, creating literature’s most unsparing portrayal of the hatred and terror of the Other that every human being feels at one time or another: a hatred and terror that is always directed at some part of ourselves.

Grasp that—and a close reading of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, again, is a good place to start grasping it—and you’ll never be able to listen to racist cant again without instantly recognizing that the racists are projecting onto the blank screen of another human life something they find intolerable in themselves. For that matter, plenty of other modes of denunciatory cant stop being plausible once you grasp the lesson Lovecraft unintentionally teaches—and a good many of those modes of cant, dear reader, are to be found on the leftward rather than the rightward end of the spectrum. That’s what literature can do, when it’s not gutted of its power by bowdlerization.  That, in turn, is why reading literature that upsets you, written from points of view with which you disagree, is a crucial element in the kind of education that might just get some of us through the profoundly troubled times to come.

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Homework Assignment #2

As previously noted, since this sequence of posts is on education, there’s going to be homework. Your homework for the next month, let’s say, is to read a work of literature that offends you. The choice of book is up to you; if there’s an issue that’s too emotionally traumatic for you to tackle just now, read something on another topic instead, but don’t go too easy on yourself without good reason. You’re not expected to agree with the author—that would defeat the purpose of the assignment—but rather to understand why the world looks the way it does to the author and some of his or her readers. The same rule that governs the creation of good villains in fiction applies here: you aren’t there yet until you can imagine some set of circumstances in which you would have ended up doing the same thing.