Saturday, November 26, 2005

Ideas For Rescuing Modernity - Part 1

I keep intending to get around to that series - "Twelve Central Questions about Theology in an Age of Science." But politics keeps rearing its ugly head.

Seriously, I'd rather be talking about anything else. But the issues are only getting worse and the peril for our civilization more evident. Take the "Nehemia Scudder" scenario, that is meaningful to science fiction fans, though woefully unfamiliar to everybody else. The thing that ought to be frightening us far more than Osama bin Laden. (Though in fact, these forces are allies against modernity.)

I have spoken before of the blatant... and yet never-reported... pattern shown by more than a hundred members of the United States Congress, appointing young cadets to the US Military Academies according to one criterion above all others -- their depth of religious zealotry. This infusion of young officers who believe in a coming apocalypse is discreetly worrisome at West Point and Annapolis, but it has already had newsworthy effects at the Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs. A town that is also now known as a main locus and training center for fanatics bent on dominating American civilization. (see: http://www.harpers.org/SoldiersOfChrist.html) This coincidence... one of many that simply cannot be coincidence... should be tallied and noted.

One other thing has triggered this latest smasm (or rant) on my part. A recent "call for new ideas" from a liberal activist group. One of the few to actually ask for fresh notions, instead of relying on failed nostrums of the past.

Taking them at their word, I've launched a new screed. Comments are welcome. Also CITOKATE. Only be warned, what follows may come across as more partisan than previous articles. Oh, I have plenty of sharp criticism aimed at the left. But the main focus is the long road that American conservatism has taken, to reach its present state. And what may be necessary in order to save its soul.

==Ideas For Rescuing Modernity==

There is an old military maxim, that only defeat teaches new skills. When you’ve been vanquished and driven into the wilderness, it’s time for reflection and re-evaluation, perhaps even a willingness to ponder fresh ideas.

At least, that is the philosophy promoted by one liberal interest group, the Service Employees International Union, in setting up a new contest at the web site SinceSlicedBread.com. The notion -- offering a $100,000 prize for ideas that might help bring about a Democratic Party victory -- is in part a grudging tribute to successful Republicans who, over the course of several patient decades, reversed their fortunes from political impotence to mastery over nearly all American levers of power.

Republicans began their own long journey of re-appraisal in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in 1964, then intensified their efforts after the debacle of Watergate. William F. Buckley, during the 1964 campaign, recognized the dominance of liberalism at that time. He urged that conservatives see themselves as “well-planted seeds of hope, which will flower on a great November day in the future, if there is a future.” And there were many other centers of patient determination on the right. For example, at the University of Chicago, followers of the emigre platonist, Leo Strauss, busily networked while looking far ahead, toward an era when America might be transformed into a true imperium, led by an aristocracy of reason.

Not even glory days under Ronald Reagan slaked this increasingly adversarial hunger for ever-greater influence over the direction of American life. For example, the lesson learned from the Iran-Contra scandal was not that open accountability is a good and desirable corrective force in American life. No, it was that genuine power must encompass all branches of government. When the opposing party controls even one house of Congress, their investigative committees and subpoenas can prove irksome, impudent. Accountability is best when it can be served in only one direction.

Elements of this prolonged campaign spanned a broad front, ranging from honest disputation and cogent criticism all the way to tactics that were downright disreputable... from endowing vigorous new conservative think tanks, dedicated to exploring and explaining fresh ideas, all the way to blatant and spectacularly successful endeavors in manipulating the electoral process. (e.g. gradually, the companies that manufacture most of the nation’s voting apparatus and software came to be controlled by dedicated right-wing activists; this correlation, piled upon hundreds more, puts shame to any protest of coincidence.)

This surge of fresh Republican thinking merits grudging respect, for its determination, innovation and relentless focus on achieving tangible goals. Indeed, some conservative policy moves must be acknowledged as good for America. Take the bipartisan consensus to reform Welfare, with great success, in the early nineties. It does not hurt liberals to concede that conservatism can offer good ideas, from time to time. Indeed, nothing could better help to improve liberal credibility.

Equally impressive has been the GOP’s adept willingness to take advantage of liberal mistakes. For example, it was never necessary for the left to alienate members of the military, or the nation’s churches, demonizing groups that had once been allies in the battle for desegregation and civil rights. Nor was it somehow required that rural America be written off from the Democratic Agenda. Even worse, a growing battery of left-wing ideological litmus tests -- e.g. excluding anyone who sincerely disagrees with abortion -- fostered an ever narrowing definition of liberalism. Anyone who failed to measure up in even one category might face ejection from the movement.

These self-indulgences were gifts that conservatives felt happy to exploit.


next time... the insanely self-defeating left-wing attitude toward coalition-building...

25 comments:

Steve said...

Here is an interview with Gary Hart where he demonstrates that we have the beginnings of a theocracy. Given his background as a Senator, Presidential candidate, and an Evangelical Christian, he is qualified to speak about it, I think. Some interesting observations that parallel what we have been talking about, though he falls into the Left/Right dichotomy.

jomama said...

Contemplating the controlling concept of power, what difference do the players make? Aren't they just distractions as part of the landscape of power?

Why is it necessary to beat anyone over the head to get something done?

What's the hurry?

Woozle said...

Related miscellanea:

1. I submitted two ideas to SinceSlicedBread.org, both of them being applications of CITOKATE and transparency:

Promote an Open Business Model
Promote Open Government

2. Issuepedia entry on Nehemiah Scudder; further contributions welcome.

Lately I've been thinking that one of the main sources of the rift we're seeing (red vs. blue etc.) is this idea that people are basically evil/bad/self-centered and need a firm guiding hand in order to remain civilized (versus the idea that we innately want to please others and make good things happen, and just need a little help learning how best to do that). Would be interested on hearing any thoughts on this.

David Brin said...

Woozle - (and the following words speak to you, as well, jomama) - you describe the old dichotomy between Hobbes and Rousseau. One said that hierarchies are necessary in order to control an essentially evil human nature. The other said hierarchies CAUSED all evil.

Locke and the Enlightenment began pondering a sidestep out of this dismal dichotomy. Any rational and reasonable person sees that human nature contains BOTH angels and devils. Without laws, the devils in us go wild (Lord of the Flies) in anarchy. Yet hierarchies inherently let a few at the top feel liberated to bedevil all of us.

Locke’s heirs proposed we avoid BOTH of these pitfalls by instituting special TYPES of laws, that liberate the creative angels of our nature - including competitive (but fair) angels - while making it harder for our devils to succeed. Hence. Most of us will lean a bit toward angelic behavior. Because the society makes that path of success easier.

What we have learned is that REDUCING HIERARCHIES can be a good design principle for this machinery. Keeping accountability open and reciprocal, rather than top-down.

Good concepts for the sliced bread site!

jomama, what’s the hurry? Both modernists and their enemies know that a time of crisis is coming. Either we are going to get a whole lot better fast or things are going to go to hell.

HarCohen said...

I'm really coming at this from the wrong end. What is the defining contemporary (non-fiction) text for modernity? I'd like to know what it is I'm rescuing.

Tony Fisk said...

I keep intending to get around to that series - "Twelve Central Questions about Theology in an Age of Science.

When Scudder is raised, then I think we have, in a sense.

Ugh! In which force is the GOP most advanced? Which one controls the ICBMs?

'And the Lord said...'

----
Blair's beginning to feel the pressure to release the 'Bush bomb' tapes.

(blair-derides-aljazeera-bomb-theory )

He really needs to release the relevant excerpts, wear a red face for a bit, then get on with life. At least, I think it's that simple. George may disagree.

Meanwhile, Moore's Lore has something to say about the mainstream press on this issue.

Anonymous said...

That darned British press! Shouldn't they be interviewing reality show contestants and the young stars of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire?"

U.S.-hired mercenaries in Iraq distribute video of themselves shooting up civilian drivers for kicks.

Stefan

daveawayfromhome said...

I had forgotten the name Nehemia Scudder, but not the scenario in the Long stories. Ugh. The big problem we have here is that it took 30-40 years for Conservatives to get where they are today, and will take at least half that time for any meaningful Liberal return. If we're lucky, the criminal behaviors of the BushCorp will undo Conservatives, but I suspect that it will only knock them back a pace. Plus, whatever happens to the Conservatives, their Supreme Court will be with us for decades.
Hardest to overcome, perhaps, may turn out to be the vilification of the word "liberal".

Rob Perkins said...

I've been here for a couple of months and I have to say, each time we dive into politics I get a big "bleah" taste in my mouth.

*Why* should we delineate WCN along "conservative/liberal" lines, not the same as left/right? Most of us here (especially those under 26 years of age or so) recognize the desparate need to liberalize certain areas of society.

But aren't there valuable things to conserve? Tried-and-true methods, for example, of rearing happy children? Certain institutional ways of doing things which have, in the main, created the diamond?

(The farther along we go with Social Security the way it is, for example, the more conservative we are!)

Part of the reason I'm riffing in this direction is that the political conversation here too often descends into "How to Beat Dubya", which is IMO disasterously tactical. Daveawayfromhome pointed that out, but still couches the fight in terms I reject.

I guess if I had two maxims to offer, they would be 1) The Democrats have poison pills in their platform, too, and 2) The best way to defeat the poison in the Republican platform is to coopt its more left-ish constituency.

But the absolute best would be to coopt most of the center in some kind of third paradigm, which takes some from "right" and some from "left", wherever the ideas are good. Make that our 30-year fight.

Maybe we could call it "Likud". ;)

Rob Perkins said...

Regarding the Scudderite scenario, I don't think it has a ghost of a chance of actually happening under Christian colors, due to the self-defeating prophecy dynamic: Too many people are watching the Christian Right, and opposing it, for them to fully sieze the organs of power.

That does not mean I think a Scudderite scenario will fail to happen, or at least be attempted, just that it won't come from that direction.

(Of course it also doesn't mean to stop watching and worrying about the "religious right," but I doubt I need to say that to *this* crowd :-)

David Brin said...

Rob, Please don't do that. You know darn well that I consider "conservatism" to be a very different thing than the monstrous coalition that is currently ruling us. The great tragedy of our times is that the Democrats have utterly failed to make this point to fifty million honest and sincere American conservatives.

This failure IS the point of my coming series.

Try to imagine the difficult situation that TODAY faces honest trade unionists in Venezuela, a country that has been taken over by monsters of the left. Many of them are writhing in discomfort - as you are - but get angry when their friends make general aspersions toward liberalism or the left -- as YOU get angry when people make general aspersions toward conservatism.

Alas, the discomfort of those honest lefties in Venezuela is not our concern. We have a right to expect courage from them. It is time for them to stand up and recognize that their time of heroism has come. As it did for honest and patriotic American liberals in 1947. To cut their links with monsters and make temporary alliance with the "other side".

This can be hard to do. The "right" in Venezuela is nasty and rapacious. But the trade unionists there MUST do the right thing...

...as honest American conservatives must do it here, now, and save the greatest civilization in history.

Honestly, Rob, there are many issues to talk about, but I have never seen a situation so dire. The time for American conservatives is NOW! To show what you are made of.


As for your other point, just because a lot of us are "watching that direction" does not mean that direction is not dangerous. If they are taking over the US officer corps and own the rural heartland, um, what scenario could possibly be more threatening?

Consider this flamboyant sub-plot. The cities are the chief zones of opposition, containing about a hundred million modernists... almost all of them packed together in tightly compact lumps.

Um, does that call to mind a scudderian possibility for cleansing America at one fell swoop?

Please, I am not offering this as a realistic or even plausible scenario. But at the level of a sci fi story, it is chillingly potent.

Provoke a mini-nuke war with ____.

If this starts Armageddon, fine.

If it doesn't, America is radicalized and unites under a great leader...

... with those 100 million urban-modernist crazies already burned and burning in hell.

Exactly what are the down sides to this, from the perspective of monsters?

On the other hand, the left's monsters are impotent... exactly what scenario CAN you come up with that is even remotely as plausible, within reach and compatible with their worldview?

dig it. I do NOT ascribe this dream to the 99% of fundamentalists who are decent folks... even those who are loony and think that *I* am damned.

But most who voted NAzi thought themselves decent. And the 1% of Nazis who were demons took the rest of them down a road like the one I described.

Anonymous said...

http://pogoblog.typepad.com/pogo/2005/11/cunningham_cash.html

links to:

Experts say at least 50% of the approximately $40 billion spent on intelligence by the US goes to private contractors. And these aren't just support operations, but central functions being handled by contractors--for example, intelligence analysts and interrogators (such as the ones with CACI International and Titan Corp who were implicated in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal).

Anonymous said...

I'd agree, but let me provide a different angle you may not have considered - the majority of my familys income is derived from my professional work, which sits on a foundation built almost completely from algebra and logic, with a dash of superstition thrown in when I can't follow a chain of reasoning any further - hence I've an appreciation for the values of the three Rs, so I can read your books, write my own (quite dull next to yours), and play with algebra at other peoples expense.
In my house I have a nine year old little girl who went through grades 1..3 in public school and went to the Kumon program for an hour a week. The result of all this, in a school system that values inclusion, not making anyone feel that they failed, etc, was pitiful, to say the least - it's unlikely they could produce a potential reader of your fiction, never mind someone with a snowballs chance of becoming a professional peer.
So what did I do - she's in a 'Christian' private school this year - not parochial, just Christian - they do make her memorize a weekly scripture, but they also work hard to lay down a solid foundation, and they believe in getting the job done, not redefining the meaning of success - yes, I'll have to rescue her from it before evolution becomes a non-subject, but if I'd left her in public school, there wouldn't have been any point teaching her.
I agree in principle vis the unfortunate trends we see, and I know I don't want to live in that place, especially if the trains run on time - on the other hand, discipline is a dying art, and much that we have achieved couldn't have been achieved without it - in fact, it may not be maintainable without it.

In summation, I live completely in a world of hard science - and in understanding that world, the only one I see around me that can make it possible for a fourth grader to be able to choose that world as well, if that is what she desires, is a Christian school - the public school can't even produce people that can make change, but they sure do feel good about themselves. sigh

David Brin said...

This effect varies greatly by region.

In simple fact, the rural states and counties are NOT doing better at education than urban ones.

Moreover, in the Silicon Valley area, the public schools are being abandoned by "white flight" BECAUSE of their extreme emphasis on math and science.

True this is an exception, in part because of the high tech locale and in large part because of a large Asian population. Still, it shows that no one set of cliches about schools is ever any better than any other.

In any event, none of this applies to my argument. I have nothing against tolerant Christians who are willing to concede the good aspects of modern civilization, as Jimmy Carter and even Billy Graham were willing to do.

What I will not stand aside for is people who tell me to my face that I am damned to burn forever in hell, and that science is the devil's work, and that any means at all to make this a Christian nation is permissible.

And that the best possible outcome in the next generation will be to see the horrific events described in the Book of Revelations unfold before our eyes.

And that any policy that might hasten that time would be a GOOD policy, for that reason alone.

This is not a majority of Christians, thank God. But damn all loony lefties who made these fanatics the voice of Christianity in America.

jomama said...

David Brin said:

jomama, what’s the hurry? Both modernists and their enemies know that a time of crisis is coming. Either we are going to get a whole lot better fast or things are going to go to hell.

I try to avoid the "us" and "them" thing so I won't put myself in either camp. That also is a distraction and I think a whole lotta folks know something (altho few can identify that something) is seriously amiss. They come from all labels.

My point was that beating folks over the head to get something done just creates more enemies, the lifeblood of power. That in itself will bring about its end...not without considerable bad times. I'm not an optimist in the short run, whatever that short run might be. And so, the question, what's the hurry?...to remake the world in the image of those with power.

This "hurry" won't make a bit of difference in the long run. In the short run only strife and most probably many dead will be the result. Not very modern.

I'm not sure I made my point clearly so I'm going to leave here with this:

How many of us, going about our daily business, beat someone else over the head to get what we want?

Rob Perkins said...

Yes, David, I know darn well what you think of most conservatives, but I'm not as convinced that your readers here are on the same page as you. Some of them (I name no names, of course) come across as very callow...

And, once again I point out that just because I come to the defense of an apparantly maligned group, doesn't make me one of them.

Of course, I didn't come to their defense at all, since my question isn't "why not conservative?" it's, "Why isn't the conservative=Republican/liberal=Democrat paradigm useless?"

"Mormon", except on certain social issues (and far fewer of them than I suspect you would suppose) is not the same as "Conservative", no matter what Utah votes for. Examine that state's *internal* workings sometime to see what I mean...

(And try to ignore that ID gadfly Buttars from West Jordan, UT when you do; he'll go away much sooner if he's just not rejoined.)

So I bristle at being called conservative, when what I want in so many areas is so freakin' liberal that Ted Kennedy himself wouldn't touch it. (Border policy, foreign policy, the structure of national and state laws governing certain social issues, other things)

But I like what works, which is why I mentioned "Likud" in the first place, having read a history of how that Israeli party began, and how much unlike its beginnings it now is.

I guess it could be summed up as this question, "Why does the vessel of American progress need to be the National Democratic Party?"

First answer that question, then go about proposing what needs changing in it in order to recapture the hearts of moderates and Bible Belters.

David Brin said...

Rob, what you describe and demand is precisely what I intend to do.

The reason you are perceived as "conservative" has to do with the tactics of inclusion, which the "conservative" movement has practiced.

Meanwhile, almost THE characterizing trait of the left has been exclusion.

Wait. I'll get to it.

Steve said...

Um, jomama? I think that the issue is you are perceiving that when we talk about "modernists" we are talking about techies or something; "Pragmatists" or "Realists" might be better descriptions. I don't think many here object to someone who thoughtfully expresses political or other differences. What we are talking about is what we perceive to be an assault on the precepts of the Enlightenment, or the linkage between obervation and response, a.k.a. science. To me, these anti-modernists have disassociated their actions, their mental model of the world, from reality, and so pursue activities that have no relation with reality.

So, given that description of "us" vs. "them" I don't see how you can't choose a side (sorry for the double negative!!). Are you for or against using reality as the template upon which to base your actions? Can you still say you don't fit in either camp?

Anonymous said...

Cogent remarks by Brin, as always. I'm prejudiced since I've also a
degree in physics...but Brin's not exaggerating the magnitude of the
threat.
Arguably the situation looms more dire than Brin makes out.
Call it The War Against Rationality. Moreover, this War Against
Rationality isn't coming only from the far right (though they're the
most visible acolytes of superstition right now, since they're in
power)...it also comes from the far left.
These are extraordinary claims, and extraordinary claims demand
extraordinary amounts of evidence. So let's tot up the alarming
evidence for the ongoing war against skeptical critical thinking by
both the left and the right:

[1] Denial of Darwinism by the far right. The Repub party now finds
itself united in wholesale denial of observed reality, including the
whole of the existing fossil record. That's remarkable. As Richard
Dawkins has pointed out, "To believe that the earth is only 6,000 years
old and humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs isn't just wrong,
it's almost insane." This is equivalent to denying the roundness of the
earth or denying that the sun shines -- the evidence for Darwinian
macroevolution is so overwhelming that there's no rational way to claim
it's not observable reality. Yet denial of Darwinism now amounts to a
major plank in the Repub platform.

"Welcome To Idiot America," Esquire magazine, December, 2005

templeofpolemic.proboards42.com/index.cgi?board=theo&action=print&thread=1130126466

[2] Denial of global warming. The evidence here has also become so
supererogatory it's impossible to rationally dispute. Yet this is exactly
what the Repub party continues to do. This is different from previous
political platforms because it's equivalent to claiming that 2 + 2 = 7.
When we get into that realm, we've left politics behind and have now
entered into the arena of Chinese thought reform, or Stalinist purges.
That's something new and scary in the American political landscape.

"Suicide By Pseudoscience," Sterling, B., Wired Magazine, 12.06, 2004
www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.06/view.html?pg=4

[3] Persistent denial of observed reality. This pattern can be
observed throughout the Repub party. From the claim that the first-term
tax cuts primarily benefited the middle class (provably and obviously
false), to the claim that Saddam was involved in 9/11 (provably and
obviously false) to the claim that Iraq had WMDs (not so obviously
false but given what we now know about extant humint and sigint in late
2002, clearly evident to the people with the pertinent info at the
time) to the claim that the occupation of Iraq is going well (clearly
and obviously false) to the claim that the intention in invading Iraq
was always and solely to liberate the Iraqi people (clearly and
provably false, check Bush's speech to the U.N. where he never mentions
this as a justification for invading Iraq)... The list of denials of
observed reality goes on and on. Here again, we're in uncharted waters.
Previous denials of reality, viz., Nixon's claims about Viet Nam, broke
down and rapidly distintegrated when the facts came out. Now the facts
about WMDs and the tax cuts and the Iraq war have come out,
yet the denials of observed reality have intensified. See Michael Barone's column in WSJ characterizing the statement that WMD intelligence in Iraq was distorted by this administration as "the big lie" (!).
That's something we haven't seen since Stalin's purge of the 1937
Soviet census bureau for reporting (accurately) that farm production
had dropped due to the genocide of the kulaks.
www.artukraine.com/famineart/stvictims.htm
The next Soviet census got it right (from an ideological viewpoint) and simply made up statistics out of thin air.
That's where we are in America right now...

There are just too many examples here of our current government and religious leaders and business leaders and other elites
denying observed reality to cite them all, but highlights include:

www.wsws.org/articles/1999/aug1999/kan-a13.shtml


"We Found the Weapons Of Mass Destruction"
www.americanprogress.org/.../cf/%7BE9245FE4-9A2B-43C7-A521-5D6FF2E06E03%7D/PRIRAQCLAIMFACT1029.HTM

"War Poll Uncovers Fact Gap: Many Mistakenly Believe U.S. Found WMDs"

www.commondreams.org/headlines03/0614-08.htm

Harris poll shows 68% of Americans believe in the Devil; 51% believe in ghosts; 31% believe in astrology, etc:
www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=

And perhaps most remarkable of all, the continued denial of
Darwinism at the same time that Republican leaders urgently fund flu
vaccines. Remind me again -- exactly why do we need a new flu vaccine for the HN5 strain of avian flu? It is precisely because the flu evolves, is it not...?

www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/293/5536/1773

[4] "Higher Superstition : The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with
Science" by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt. Not to leave the far left
out of consideration, the war against rationality has been going on
from both the right and the left ends of the political spectrum.
www.nous.org.uk/GrossLevitt.htm

[5] The decadent state of postmodernism, aptly illustrated by Sokal's
infamous hoax. The current intellectual status of postmodernism
approximates that of the spectral evidence brought forward at the Salem
Witch Trials: in short, pure delusion mixed with hallucinatory fantasy.
Among other po-mo doctrines we have literary deconstructionism, a
belief system according to which any system of thought is merely a
"text" which can be "read" in any way one chooses. This leads to such
bizarre delusions as the 1948 essay "Come Back To the Raft Agin', Huck
Honey" by Leslie Fiedler, which purported to detect a homoerotic
relationship twixt Huck and the slave Jim in Twain's "Huckleberry
Finn," (a mild example)... Or, at the more extreme edge of the
self-delusory frenzy, the assertion by various po-mo thinkers that
quantum mechanics is nothing more than a "text" which can have
"alternative readings."
muse.jhu.edu/journals/configurations/v003/3.1br_plotnitsky.html
It is left as an exercise to the adventurous reader to imagine in
what way an alternative "reading" of the evidence from Young's
double-slit experiment would change the observed interference pattern
on the other side of the double slit.

www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/
[6] The contrafactually irrational cult surrounding the alleged
"singularity" soon to befall us, though evidence for any of the claims
made by the erstwhile transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil or Hand Moravec has petulantly failed to
materialize. Viz.: claims about hard AI soon to eclipse human
intelligence -- yet when we study the state of AI, we find nothing but
catastrophic failure after catastrophic failure: Rodney Brooks asserts
AI has hit a dead end and a new paradigm is needed;
www.alternet.org/columnists/story/19850/ Marvin Minsky declaims AI as a
degenerate research program of exactly the kind Hubert Dreyfus warned
about;
"It's 2001: Where's HAL?" Minsky, M. David Gelernter asserts that the
entire concept of modelling the human as a computer is fundamentally
wrong and must be junked;
"Machine Beauty," Basic Books, 1998, Gelernter, D.
And Jaron Lanier decries what he calls "cybernetic totalism" as merely
another form of unfounded totalitarian superstition, and calls for a
return to basic humanism and common sense;
www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.12/lanier.html

[7] The degenerating research program formerly known as string
theory, now called "M theory," variously standing for "magic" or
"membrane," or, who knows, "muddleheadedness." Yet string theory
continues to get denser, like a black hole, sucking in all thebrightest
and best new physics graduate students, despite the remarkable fact
that string (or "M") theory has yet to produce a single objectively
falsifiable experimental prediction in more than 30 years of
theoretical work.

slate.msn.com/id/2131014/

One or two of these trends alone might seems irksome: all of them
together form a cohort of social pathologies that converge on what I would describe as "the
New Medievalism."

The medieval mindset did not arise from ignorance, nor from
stupidity. It arose from a conviction that it was unimportant to test
our assertions ruthlessly against observed reality. That is where we're
at today. It is fast becoming unimportant in a wide range of
intellectual endeavours, from theoretical physics to politics to Pentagon war planning to the patent office, to submit one's claims to the test of observed
reality.
http://www.smirkingchimp.com/article.php?sid=21160

The recent patent issued for what amounts to a perpetual motion machine serves as merely one among countless examples:
science.monstersandcritics.com/news/article_1060952.php/Patent_issued_for_anti-gravity_device

Theoretical physics finds itself in real trouble, but it's not
alone: untestable belief systems like string theory which persistently
fail to produce a single falsifiable prediction are twins
separated at birth from Intelligent Design "theory" (which also makes
no testable predictions) and po-mo litcrit deconstructionist "theory"
and faith-based "theories" like The Rapture...not to mention ufology
and orgone therapy, Kirlian auras and healing crystals. (I await with
bated breath the Pentagon's announcement of collimated directed-beam
orgone energy weapons... Following hot on the heels of the Pentagon's
recent 7.5 million dollar study of psychic teleporation:
stupidevilbastard.com/index/seb/comments/teleportation

) None of these so-called "theories" has any objectively
demonstrable connection with observed reality. For all these belief
systems, lack of evidence provides proof that the theory is correct. At that point, we exit the domain of skeptical critical thinking, and enter the darkling realm of medievalism, of spectral evidence, of witches and demons, of Sagan's demon-haunted world.

It's baffling in retrospect that otherwise astute observers have made so little of the recent nationwide American Satanic Panic.

1980s version, America:
www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/081269192X?v=glance

1990s version, Britain:
users.cybercity.dk/~ccc44406/smwane/English.htm

This looks in retrospect like a warning symptom rather than the
disease itself. Once we abandon skeptical critical thought, anything
goes. The current spread of torture -- which began is isolated cells in
Gitmo, quickly spread to Abu Ghraib, then throughout Iraq and which I
predict will soon become commonplace throughout America for anyone suspected of any
crime, and soon enough, any minor infraction -- confirms our return to a New Medievalism. When objective
reality becomes unimportant, torture proves crucial in enforcing
belief. Only by torture can otherwise rational people be compelled to
conform to the dictates of wholesale irrationlity that openly
contradicts observed reality.

Less obvious? The wellsprings for the current war against rationality,
AKA the New Medievalism. Brin locates the cause in the current
poiltical climate -- i.e,. the Republican Party. I'm not so sure.
Plenty of folks on both the right and the left seem eager to abandon
skeptical critical thinking and hurtle us backwards to the year 1100
A.D.

Reasons for the rise of The New Medievalism may have more to do with a general public dissatisfaction with
modernism than in one political party's opportunism. Modern art and
modernist music, it has been widely noted, represent intensely decadent
degenerate states. From the incoherent dissonance of the Second School
of Vienna in modernist music, which lacks perceptible melody or
functional harmony or discernible rhythmic pulse or observable audible
organization, to the ever-intensifying degradation of modernist "art"
involving such artifacts as pigs sliced in half and dumped into tanks
of formaldehyde, or, more recently, plasticized human corpses, the
decadence and lack of imagination has become too glaringly obvious to
deny:
www.kidzworld.com/site/p4690.htm

At the same time, modernist "serious" literature has collapsed into incoherence (Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce; White Noise by Don DeLillo; Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon), leaving allegedly "unserious" literature like
science fiction as the only game in town for readers desirous of basic
amenities like characters or a plot or a decipherable narrative.

Meanwhile, such miraculous modernist innovations as globalism (AKA
Ricardo's 18th century mercantilism with a new digital gloss on its
fuselage) chase misery and poverty around the globe by way of
impoverishing the bottom 80% of the population of the first world while
subjecting workers throughout the third world to toxic health hazards
so horrific it's hard to describe them adequately:
www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/25/AR2005112501183.html?sub=AR

(Ricardo's mercantilism involved a simple-minded scam in which
colonies were forced by military threat to sell raw materials at
unreasonably low prices to the British Empire, which then converted
those raw materials to manufactured goods and sold 'em back to the
third world colonies at unreasonably high prices. The modern version of
Ricardo's mercantilism, misnamed "modern globalized capitalism," merely updates this
age-old scam by forcing third world countries to host toxic factories
and unionless sweatshops to produce intellectual goods and services
sold at unreasonably low prices to the American empire (viz.,
outsourced programmers who work on the internals of Adobe Photoshop and
Microsoft Windows for a dollar an hour), which are then sold back (in the form of finished
goods like Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Windows) at unreasonably high
prices to the hostage economies of the third world. These coercions are
nowadays backed up by the legal club of WIPO treaties. So there's
nothing new about today's globalism, it's merely Ricardo's 1790
mercantilist parisitism updated for the digital age.)

The big problem with modernism is that it delivered on only a few of
its promises, and those only for a short while. Ever since the 1970s,
physics has produced nothing comparable to the big breakthroughs of the
previous 7 decades. From 1900 to 1970, we can cite atomic power, the
transistor (both junction and FET), the laser, and a whole host of
associated technologies like the microprocessor. These resulted mainly
from physics done from 1890 to circa 1950. But what great new
technologies have come out of quantum chromodynamics? Can you name one
everyday technology that came out of it? How about string theory? Has
even one single new technology resulted from string theory?

In medicine, the record is even worse: penicillin and associated
antibiotics worked for a while, then stopped working. Now we face
wholly antiobiotic-resistant strains of spirochete, along with a global
flu pandemic. The phrase "iatrogenic infection" has made a comeback with a vengeance. This isn't progress.

In the fine arts, the record's even more abysmal. We were promised fabulous
new music with atonal serialism -- instead we got unlistenable clangor
notable for its unutterably wearisome monotony. Modernist art has
followed a death spiral aptly traced by Wolfe's "The Painted Word,"
while modernist literary criticism has become such a laughingstock on
campus that annual "Worst Writing Contests" are regularly won nowadays by
po-mo literary academics.

Clearly modernism has not delivered on its promises. We were promised
nuclear power too cheap to meter, medicines able to cure all disease,
glorious new music and art. Instead, we got $3-a-gallon gas prices with
SUVs and $5 a gallon heating oil, a looming global flu pandemic, and pig carcasses sliced in half
and dumped in vats of formaldahyde for exhibit in art museums.

Indeed, the objective observer, while forced to agree with Brin's
observations, might question the entire premise of Brin's post.
Recusing modernity? Why? For what? So we can get more pig carcasses
dumped in more tanks of formaldahyde, and call it "art"? So we can more incoherent clangor and call it "modernist art music"? So we can get more tired old Ricardo mercantilism updated for the digital age and call it "the exciting new globalized economy"? So we can get more pandemics for which no cure exists, and no prospect of a cure, and call it "modern medicine?" So we can get more 10-dimensional angels dancing on the head of a pin, and call it "modern superstring physics"?
Rather than rescuing modernity, methinks we need to rescue common
sense and skeptical critical thinking. That done, modernity should take care
of itself. Once we turn the tide of the current war against
rationality, all else becomes a footnote. As Mandelstam's widow
remarked of Stalin, "It was necessary not that dissent alone be
destroyed, but that rationality itself be eliminated, for that is the
ultimate cause of dissent."

David Brin said...

This long post was very interesting. We are moving onward, but I did want to respond.

1. go back some months to my main series on "modernism and its enemies". I do NOT call the republican party the essential heart of antimodernism (or the new medievalism.) It is simply by far the most dangerous.

Others here will tell you that I see this spanning the left right axis...

...which is why we must portray the fight along a different axis. Modernists are not "moderates" between left and right...

...we are at right angles to political nostalgic romantics. We believe in pragmatic improvement of people and the world. Some of us may propose "left" communal/cooperative projects in order to get that improvement. Others may propose unleashing competitive creativity. I see virtues in both.

2. You said: "The big problem with modernism is that it delivered on only a few of
its promises, and those only for a short while."

This is totally untrue. I remember in 1960 a society that was hottifically unjust and vile in so many ways, compared with the vastly nobler people we created out of the ferment of those eras. We will not tolerate the kinds of senseless intolerance that we ASSUMED in those days.

This is proof enough that people are improvable...

and that improvability is THE modernist project that the romantics fear most.

Tom said...

I am flabbergasted to read such a well-crafted from an Anonymous writer!

I agree with most of what you say. However, I believe that modernism, cosmopolitanism and liberalism, the search for absolute scientific trust, did in fact deliver more or less what they promised.

I started twice to write about the world and what we could have given them and what they have turned to instead but I cannot bear it so instead let me talk about something sweeter and dearer to me.

Serialism is a straw-man. Despite the detour into dodecaphopy, modern music did eventually produce masterpieces of great beauty, composers like Riley, Reich, Adams -- but more importantly, the barriers between all musics are down, all available to everyone and praised and valued separately. My little machine keeps 27 days of mostly beautiful, clever music and precious little serialism there other than some Zappa.

We are right now in a golden age for non-fiction writing. Film and video are just reaching their maturity and their peak. Music is past its peak but has fractured and produced many pockets of surprising interest.

Certainly it is 90% crap and 10% (Sturgeon) caviar and I agree entirely about the crass and morally bankrupt nature of a great majority of the commercial mass market but there is an unending flood of splendidly alive art and music out there so don't give up on us creators just yet. With a bit of looking you should be able to find enough to keep you entertained until civilization crashes around our ears -- perhaps 2006 is the "Year of the Jackpot".

Tom said...

It's "dodecaphony". Feh.

Don Quijote said...

Try to imagine the difficult situation that TODAY faces honest trade unionists in Venezuela, a country that has been taken over by monsters of the left.

What Monsters?
Chavez may not be your cup of tea, but as far as I know he hasn't sent out deathsquads to kill his opponents, has not closed the press, nor is seding his political opponents to death camps.

This can be hard to do. The "right" in Venezuela is nasty and rapacious. But the trade unionists there MUST do the right thing...

The Unionist who does the right thing in South America is very likely to become a dead Unionist.

You seem to want to bring a pocket knife to a gun fight, which is what most Democrats do and why they keep getting their asses handed to them.

Christopher said...

[quote]I have spoken before of the blatant... and yet never-reported... pattern shown by more than a hundred members of the United States Congress, appointing young cadets to the US Military Academies according to one criterion above all others -- their depth of religious zealotry. This infusion of young officers who believe in a coming apocalypse is discreetly worrisome at West Point and Annapolis[/quote]

Where have you spoken of this if you would. I am interested in this information. If anyone of the regular readers could point me in the right direction please.

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