Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cheer up! We are still in the 20th Century.

I have been nursing a dour notion about what we’ve seen happen to the public mood, since 2000. To me, it seems as if there has been much more going on than myopic commentators perceive. Indeed, I suspect a traumatic reaction to Y2K... that the arrival of a new century has rocked many of our countrymen far more than they allow themselves - at surface - to admit.

How else to explain why a happy, rich, successful and scientific society - one that accomplished miracle after miracle through pragmatic negotiation and ingenuity and neighborly good will - would swing about and choose to dive into nostalgia, spooky romanticism, infighting recrimination and cynical, short-sighted despair?

(Not ONLY from the right, but from every style and variety of indignant dogmatism.)

Is this to be the tone of the 21st Century? A slide away from the Enlightenment and the Great Experiment, shying back when we are on the verge of our supreme triumphs?

Certainly, if we do not wake up and reinforce the experiment, there will be elite powers who attain an array of truly daunting powers, such as real lie detection, personality profiling, and omni-surveillance tools that would make Big Brother look like an amateur. They know that if the people became adept with such technologies, tyranny would automatically vanish forever, so this is their one chance.

On the other hand, if they succeed at monopolizing these tools, the new tyranny could become pretty much permanent. No wonder they are making their big move now.

Is this the way the century... even the millennium... will be? Allowing the experiment to fail, because of a general malaise and failure of nerve? Perhaps.

And yet... I am cheered by a contrarian thought (a trademark habit the will always send me careening from optimism to pessimism and back again, like a bipolar shaman). The thought that centuries tend not to show their true theme until at least ten years in.

More like twelve or fifteen year. Take, for example, significant milestones in the last three of them.

1712 - The first steam engine and harbingers of a rising scientific Enlightenment.

1815 - The Congress of Vienna seals the end of enlightenment revolutions and locks in a century of European crowned consensus.

1914 - This consensus shatters, along with royal rule, as we dive into the savage Age of Ideologies.

If this rhythm holds, then we still have a few years before some great confluence of events will shape Century 21. Perhaps around 2015?

Yes, I have already mentioned one frightening literary coincidence... that Robert Heinlein foresaw the year 2012 as ushering in the reign of Nehemia Scudder “Prophet of the Lord.”

On the other hand, perhaps it will be a time when the momentum of vast increases in prosperity and education and mass internet-propelled access to knowledge and “sousveillance” will reach a critical threshold... literally... and the creative POWER of criticism - citokate - will shine into every dark corner, bringing on an era that Ben Franklin spoke of and yearned for. An era of light.

Ah, well. I told you that - deep down - I am the thing I fear most. A romantic.


Russ Daggatt is back: “1348 Days: That's how long it took from the declaration of war in World War II to the Japanese surrender. And that is, as of today, how long our Iraq war has raged. (On the other hand, it took Bush only 14 days to prematurely ejaculate "Mission Accomplished" on May 1, 2003. But W. is not know for his attention span.) In other words, as of today, the Iraq war has lasted longer than World War II.

“Certainly Bush and his Republican apologists have never treated the Iraq war anything like WWII. War is one thing. Paying taxes to finance it is another thing altogether. There are limits to the sacrifices Republicans are willing to make for their "generational struggle." Who ever heard of cutting taxes -- multiple times -- during wartime? And even chaos and civil war could not provoke Rumsfeld and Co. into increasing the size of our armed forces -- even by a couple of divisions. Rumsfeld's ideology dictated technology over manpower and damn if this Iraq messiness was going to interfere with his Own Private Reality.

“And then there is Karl Rove. In the Bush White House, all policy is ultimately dictated by politics. And the Rove game plan was always to seek "wedge" issues to "draw contrasts" with the Democrats. Why strive to unite the country to prosecute a war when war can be used as a partisan cudgel to pummel your opponents? Is there is any historical precedent for the president of the United States actively, intentionally seeking to use "national security" to DIVIDE the country during wartime, I haven't heard of it. Either it is damn near treasonous or the war isn't particularly essential to national security. It's hard to imagine FDR accusing the Republicans of aiding and abetting the Nazis. “

Ah, but as Time Magazine reported: “If this week’s announcement that President Bush is to meet Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the capital of neighboring Jordan raised eyebrows, by Friday it was abundantly clear why the meeting couldn’t be held in Baghdad — the Iraqi capital is under siege. After a day of open sectarian warfare on the streets had claimed more than 200 lives, the city’s airport is closed and its residents are forced to remain indoors under a curfew.” Um, weren’t we told that we were “winning”?

Daggatt resumes: “Everything seems to be staked on training Iraqi forces to take over from the US military. The problem is that we are trying to train an Iraqi army when there is no such thing as Iraq anymore. A united Iraq is increasingly an American fantasy. In reality, we are training a Shiite army that will probably eventually butcher Sunnis (as the Shiite militia and police are doing already). In all likelihood, it will also become an ally of Iran and, in the end, turn on us. Sort of like when we trained and armed the "freedom fighters" -- the Muhajadeen -- of Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. They morphed into the Taliban and al Qaeda. That didn't turn out too well. And then we backed Saddam against Iran. Now Bush and co. are asserting that the answer to our problems in Iraq is training the army of a pro-Iranian Shiite government in Iraq at the same time Iran is supposedly the new "Nazi Germany".”

------- AND ALSO THIS------

Keith Olbermann: Lessons From the Vietnam War - comments upon the grotesque statements made by President Bush during his visit to Vietnam.

"It is a shame and it is embarrassing to us all when President Bush travels 8,000 miles only to wind up avoiding reality again."

Let me reiterate: In Hanoi, President Bush acknowledged that America's unsuccessful war in Vietnam three decades ago offered lessons for the US war in Iraq. Among those lessons: "We'll succeed unless we quit."

Seriously. That is the lesson Bush takes away from the Vietnam war. The standard right-wing narrative. We would have "won" if anti-war types in the US (i.e., the majority of the American population) hadn't forced us out prematurely.

As Russ Daggatt puts it: “Let's see. We spent "only" 10 years in Vietnam. Our peak force levels were "only" 520,000. The war resulted in "only" 58,000 US dead and three million Vietnamese dead and a large portion of the countryside poisoned for generations.”

(And our purpose there was...? To “help the people of Vietnam”, right? No wonder the right only talks about "why we lost" but never about what "winning" would have been FOR.)

Okay, so the party line is now that we lost Vietnam because we "quit too soon."

In other words, we never really gave the thing a fair shot at "success".

Ah, but notice something very interesting... how the right wing has dropped one part of their standard litany about failure in Vietnam!

"Quitting early" is still part of it. But do you ever hear any mention of the biggest and most consistent excuse that they made, for decades, blaming the loss on "outrageous meddling in military decisions by clueless politicians who never served in combat themselves" - hm?

Not a word.



Stefan Jones said...

Something that gives me hope:

That likelihood the neoconservatives and the Bush / Rove / Cheney machines are, in fact, everything that is implied by their nickname, the "Mayberry Machiavellis."

That is, they may be evil, cynical, greedy would-be princes, but they're also incompetent hicks who got in way over their heads and may be a few months away from disgrace and jail.

What will be tougher to overcome are the precedents they set when it comes to surveillence, executive privilege, and "security." Checks and balaces must be restored, secret directives revoked and bright lights shown in the dark places set up by Rumsfeld an others.

Hardest of all to overcome: The thuggish, jingoistic, provincial attitudes cultivated by the right.

DemetriosX said...

There does seem to be a certain lack of direction in the public mood. This may, in part, be a reaction to Y2K. After all, this is neither the future we were promised during the second half of the last century, for good (Dude, where's my flying car?) or ill (post-nuclear holocaust or the gloomy visions of William Gibson and Lucius Shepherd), nor is it the end times of the apocalyptos (religious and secular).

OTOH, I think a lot of this actually stems from the end of the Cold War. Fifty years of conscious and unconscious purpose gone, and seemingly rather easily. Nobody seems to know what to do next.

Just as the paranoia films of the 50s exemplified the hottest part of the Cold War (Invasion of the Body Snatchers being perhaps the best example, thought there were many others), the current trend seems to be a sense of not understanding just what the hell is going on (Lost, Invasion, I'm sure there are others, but I'm less clued in since I live in Germany). Looking at it, this trend probably started with X Files and then Dark Skies. Like the paranoia of the 50s, this too shall pass.

Now, the current ruling coalition has tried to make use of this directionlessness. Fortunately, they botched it up as badly as everything else they've done. It worked for a little while, but people are starting to see through the smoke and mirrors. With any luck and some judicious pushing from the modernists out there, the new direction will be nailing that bunch back into their coffins

Tony Fisk said...

@DemetriosX: I thought a while back that, with the cold war over and less need to unite against a common foe, some unfinished union business might come to dominate US policy.

Speaking of Bush and his trip to meet the President of the Iraqi Green Zone, did anyone note the other diplomatic visit Cheney made to Riyadh? It did seem to be a hurried last minute affair.

Given the points made here previously, I'd have loved being a fly on the wall during that meeting!

While the mid-term elections went pretty smoothly, I'm still keeping an eye out for surprise opportunities: a bomb during the swearing in of congress perhaps? (with a distinct skew in house casualties)

Pat, age 67 said...

Concerning the public mood - the best source I'd recommend is a pair of books by William Strauss & Neil Howe, the older one called "Generations" and the newer one called "Fourth Turning." Both have been around a while. Their thesis for our own times is this:

The last of the can-do old tiimers is dead, retired, or as is whispered in the case of a certain Very Senior Senator, barely lucid. Their successors, the insecure and process-oriented War Babies, who cared enough about fairness to sometimes tie things up in knots (think Jimmy Carter as a honorary member of this group), are slowly leaving the scene. The people currently on deck (1) have no first-hand knowledge of what total war or ecomonic crisis is like, so they're waving their toy hatchets around and think they're actually doing something. (2) have a streak of moral self-righteousness which is their defining characteristic both on the left and the right(or why people are currently looking to a younger Senator without that streak)

The adults around us, a lot of them were latchkey kids and they have gone totally pragmatic (my own kids, too, who had two parents and were loved. It's the mode of their cohort).

And the mood set by the Reagan years (and do read Dana Blankenhorn's latest column on Consensus!) has played out, ripened, and soured almost beyond bearing and everyone has been waiting for the other shoe to drop since, when? 2000? 9/11? Was Katrina the other shoe?

For a parallel, check out Sally Bowles in Berlin. Life is a cabaret, old chum!

Catfish 'n Cod said...

Pat has beaten me to the mention of Strauss and Howe's work. They interestingly point out similar observations back to the very dawn of the West -- Polybius made observations as to cyclicity in innovation and organization with a ~80-100 year period; so did al-Khaldun in the medieval period, and Toynbee in the modern age.

S&H would agree on the 1712 and 1815 timings, but would argue that 1871 and 1945 were the starts of the bright new days for the world. 1914 was definitely on the destructive side of the scale, nes pa?

So according to this idea, we are right at the moment where the old order is swept away so that the Enlightenment may renew... as we were around the Depression, when the previous kleptocracy was swept away by progressivism, or the Civil War, when the agri-feudalism died a noisy death...

or right before the American Revolution, as the decay of the colonial order portended the greatest burst of Enlightenment ever witnessed!

Accoring to the S&H theories -- which remind one eerily of the good Doctor Asimov's speculations on ''psychohistory'', the statistical prediction of human behavior on very large scales -- the REAL Twenty-First Century should indeed begin sometime around 2015... just as soon as these pesky Baby Boomers stop attempting to impose romantic solutions and instead act as the spiritual guides for all the young'uns thirsting for the chance to be ''practical'' about the world's problems.

Of course, the same patterns predict that ''new'' boomer-esque cults should arise among the youth about 2045... such as the ''Ra Boys'' and ''NorAChuGas'' of EARTH!

Predictive hit?


Of course, one predictive hit we DON'T want is Heinlein's Nehemiah Scudder, and there are plenty of pretenders for the role. Fortunately, one of the key elements of Heinlein's nightmare scenario was ''a populace unaware of the danger in their midst'': a condition which certainly no longer pertains. I hope that "If This Goes On..." will fall in the same category as the works of Huxley and Orwell: a ''self-defeating prophecy'' that eliminated its own chances by presenting a dangerous antigen to young, activating social T-cells.

Does that make the science fiction community the thymus of society?

CITOKATE nitpick: what happened 14 days before 1 May 2003? I thought we invaded on 17 March...


The behavior of nearly all parties in Washington at the moment reminds one disturbingly of the attitudes in Byzantium towards outer affairs. It feels as if everyone thinks of running foreign affairs as an intellectual game where the goal is not to achieve a certain effect in the real world but to prove a philosophical point.

If you're just playing a head game, reality is just something you can use to manufacture game pieces and craft rhetorical arguments. Any good debater knows that you don't have to actually be truthful to win a debate... as long as there are no pesky fact-checkers criticizing your claims.

And if the only real gameboard is your own mind, it's true that you can only lose by admitting you've lost. But such an attitude represents a complete denial of objective reality as a marker of success or failure. Success and failure are Platonic concepts, you see. Pay no attention to Aristotle and Galileo in the corner actually paying attention to the world.

It truly is amazing how, in the name of avoiding the mistakes of Johnson and McNamara, Bush and Rumsfeld made nearly every single one point for point.

Blake Stacey said...

. . . which remind one eerily of the good Doctor Asimov's speculations on ''psychohistory'', the statistical prediction of human behavior on very large scales . . .


"Where can you be, psychohistory —
The fan boys turn their aging eyes to you. . . ."

Strauss and Howe aren't the only people whose work seems like a precursor to Hari Seldon. For example, there is also Lewis Fry Richardson, who hunted for patterns in the occurrences of war.

Previously it had been assumed that war was a rational national policy, to be used in the interests of a nation. However the way that Richardson modelled the causes of war was quite different, giving systems of differential equations which governed the interactions between countries caused by such things as attitudes and moods. Here were quantities which were little to do with individual leaders yet, he claimed, were major factors. Psychology of a whole population was what was relevant, an underlying factor which emerged when attitudes of individuals were averaged. As he wrote, "The equations are merely a description of what people would do if they did not stop and think."

Speaking of Asimov, have I mentioned yet that I figured out the real meaning of the Three Laws of Robotics? And it's not what Susan Calvin will tell you.

Blake Stacey said...

There's also the work of Thomas Schelling (2005 Nobel Laureate in Economics), recorded in such books as Micromotives and Macrobehavior (1978). In his Nobel autobiography, Schelling summarized this work in the following way:

The second subject that occupied me in the seventies was the ways that individual behavioral choices could aggregate into social phenomena that were unintended or unexpected. One part of this work involved modeling spatial "segregation," the ways that people who differ conspicuously in binary groups — e.g. blacks and whites, males and females, officers and enlisted personnel, francophones and anglophones — get separated spatially, in residence, in dining halls, at public events. Without knowing it I was pioneering a field of study that later became known as "agent-based computational modeling."

The idea is that any time you have multiple populations, the members of which prefer to live near other people in the same group, the resulting separation can be studied mathematically.

RoseCovered Glasses said...

You make many good points in your article. I would like to supplement them with some information:

I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

If you are interested in a view of the inside of the Pentagon procurement process from Vietnam to Iraq please check the posting at my blog entitled, “Odyssey of Armements”

The Pentagon is a giant,incredibly complex establishment,budgeted in excess of $500B per year. The Rumsfelds, the Adminisitrations and the Congressmen come and go but the real machinery of policy and procurement keeps grinding away, presenting the politicos who arrive with detail and alternatives slanted to perpetuate itself.

How can any newcomer, be he a President, a Congressman or even the Sec. Def. to be - Mr. Gates- understand such complexity, particulary if heretofore he has not had the clearance to get the full details?

Answer- he can’t. Therefor he accepts the alternatives provided by the career establishment that never goes away and he hopes he makes the right choices. Or he is influenced by a lobbyist or two representing companies in his district or special interest groups.

From a practical standpoint, policy and war decisions are made far below the levels of the talking heads who take the heat or the credit for the results.

This situation is unfortunate but it is ablsolute fact. Take it from one who has been to war and worked in the establishment.

This giant policy making and war machine will eventually come apart and have to be put back together to operate smaller, leaner and on less fuel. But that won’t happen unitil it hits a brick wall at high speed.

We will then have to run a Volkswagon instead of a Caddy and get along somehow. We better start practicing now and get off our high horse. Our golden aura in the world is beginning to dull from arrogance.

Doug S. said...

Here's another theory of how and why wars start. Do any of these theories make testable predictions?

David Brin said...

Stefan, the “Mayberry Machiavellis” image may be true. I pray it is. Combined with Y2K neuroses and a recidivist Confederacy plus some greedy parasitism by a clade of shortsighted klepto-plutocrats.

We can survive that combination. In part because the South and Rural America are filled with educated people who genuinely can be won back, if we appeal to them with respect and not spittle. And for every brainless aristo billionaire there is another who made it by providing brilliant goods and services. Someone who is loyal to the rising social diamond, and not a reflex urge for feudalism.

Alas, I find the Mayberry image unconvincing. One would expect such a crowd of clowns to stumble into right decisions at least SOME of the time. Likewise, some of the klepto-lords would have demanded an occasional act of decent governance.

No, the record is too perfect. Including Cheney’s recent road trip (mentioned above) in which he was clearly summoned on the carpet to explain the recent electoral losses and to explain what he plans to do about it.

Catfish: 1815 ended the Napoleanic crest of the Enlightenment
revolutions. exactly 100 years of major peace ended
in 1914, when the consensus collapsed and the 20th century horror show began.

In contrast, 1945 was the NADIR CENTER of the century
of ideology. A pit of despair that was slowly turned by men like
Marshall, acheson, truman... and a pragmatic can-do nation.

But dang! Hadn’t seen the North American Church of Gaia mentioned in a while. I can imagine worse.

The rest of your post is way cool.

Blake, to grok the full meaning of Asimov’s Laws, see FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH! ;-)

Self-segregation predicts that tall people will marry each other and breed new lords that way. And my predictions registry will provide them with viziers, who will marry each other till they make a ... qwizatz Hadderach!

RoSe CoveredGlasses, you are welcome here. I grasp your point. Still, men like Cheney/Rummy are VERY knowledgable about the system, and how to tap in and vampire many billions directly into the mouths of friends.

We do count on the stable hands of the civil service... and (as I have ranted) the US Officer Corps. SO? This is why the civil service and the Corps have been especially targeted, this time around, by the most relentless campaign of intimidation we have seen in a lifetime.

I assure you that I’d like to see our defense establishment remember its original goal... to prepare not only for skilled, professional action, but also to receive and use ten million volunteers.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin's optimism is infectious, so let's try blue-skying a few ideas...

2012 seems unlikely to give us a Nehemiah Scudder-style theocracy, since the 2006 election definitively rejected the theocrats. 2006 was the big test. And we Americans as a people came through. Ideological theocrats got rejected at every level of government except in the deep south.

In fact, data from the 2006 election suggests that the Republican party as it is currently constituted is no longer a national party, but a regional cult confined to the deep south:

Obviously the Repubs will re-invent themselves eventually -- but until they do, and until dinosaurs like Trent Lott and Mitt Romney are no longer their front-runners and minority leaders, the Repubs as they are currently constituted represent about as big a force in American politics as the Anti-Fluordiationist Party.

So that's one bit of good news.

Another bit of good news: we're overdue for a major technological breakthrough.

They seem to crop up every 30 to 70 years, and they radically change our lives for the better. 1796: the steam engine. 1831: the dynamo. 1915: Lee deForest's thermionic valve. (That's vacuum tube amplifier to the rest of youse guys.) 1947: the transistor. 1956: commercial nuclear power. 1991: the internet.

We should come due for a major technological breakthrough sometime around 2020 or 2030, maybe a little later. Possibilities? A new battery technology (say, 50 times more efficient than current battery technology) would unimaginably reshape the world. New nano-materials might revolutionalize space technology (think space elevator) or solve the energy crisis (if solar cells got just 3 or 4 times more efficient than they are now, they'd compete with oil economically). Gene therapies might not only let us re-grow organs or entire limbs, they might identify mental illnesses like sociopathy -- and even cure them. If so, we could give people like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay to cure their socipathic tendencies. THAT would change politics, wouldn't it?

Then there's the brain-computer interface, which might or might not take off. If it does, expect incredible changes in society. If, as is more likely, it doesn't, we've still got orders of magnitude of speed left to wring out the net.

A surveillance society is unlikely to develop because there are just too many hackers who'll find it easy to bust the system. Consider the current failed efforts at surveilling people's emails: anyone who wants to today can encrypt their emails with unbreakably strong encryption and obscure the route their mail takes using an onion-routing scheme like Tor. Moreover, you can even use an anonymous proxy remailed and make yourself completely invisible. In the same way, I expect that surveillance will fail completely as RFID jammers and RFID reprogrammers become common and easy to use. Adi Shamir has found that RFIDs are easy to crack:

And not long ago a German researcher strolled through a checkout lane in an RFID-equipped supermarket with a pocket antenna and changed checkout prices on other shoppers' items without their even noticing. So RFIDs are a giant security disaster and an identity thief's paradise, and when the lawsuits start coming down, RFIDs are kaput.

Every effort to create a total surveillance society will lead only to new cracks and new hacks by clever 14-year-olds. And life will continue, anonymously and securely for those who choose anonymity.

opit said...

The net adds to possible connections : like a neural net, the more complexity, the more processing capacity. You would expect that to cut down on lead times associated with new developments.
Go check out the Ergosphere.
Catfish 'n Cod certainly nails it in his last section. That's the Texas crew. Check out Kevin Drum's Dec 1 post at Washington Monthly for a rundown on the morphing of Republicans into a totally dysfunctional organization.
Which answers - in a way - the Iraq debacle.
Unconsidered consequences begs the question, of course, when Rumsfeld deliberately loses the old study predicting chaos AND wouldn't allow updated gaming. That's close enough to deliberate action as to explain a warrant on his sorry ass.
Cheney is still the scary one. Taking away restraints placed on kings and eviscerating any and all civil rights to make the President able to do anything he pleases means Iraq and 9/11 have succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams in wrecking American governance under a Constitution.
Guess it wasn't that important after all ; Oath of Office notwithstanding.

Jack said...

Certainly Bush and his Republican apologists have never treated the Iraq war anything like WWII. War is one thing. Paying taxes to finance it is another thing altogether. There are limits to the sacrifices Republicans are willing to make for their "generational struggle.