Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Decadence Excuse... The Song Sung by All Our Foes.

Stirring the porcelain bowl again, former GOP White House staffer Peggy Noonan offered up the following observation, one that seems worth a little commentary:

"I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim. I don't know why intellectuals--or cerebralists or eggheads or IQ hegemonists--seem to miss the most obvious things, floating on untethered by common sense.”

What Noonan does here is illustrate a phenomenon we should study carefully and recognize in all of its forms. In fact, it is what all enemies of America and the Enlightenment do... coining fancy rationalizations to explain-away facts that would otherwise have to be acknowledged. Nay, recognized as clear refutations of their entire position.

(Yes, it is more generally a human phenomenon. But I want to address the particularly anti-modernist and anti-American aspects, up front.)

I have several times mentioned the Decadence Rationalization. This is an act that ALL enemies of the Great Experiment, have had to perform, without exception, during every generation for at least 150 years. Indeed, it may be their most commonly shared trait. It goes something like this:

“Americans rich and happy and progressive and dynamic and have way too much fun. They must have traded away something essential and precious in a devil’s bargain, in order to get all that. Clearly, what they have given up was (variously) their sanctity, manhood, character, soul, chance-of salvation, racial purity.... (Details depend on whether you are Osama, a Russian poet, a fundamentalist, Oswald Spengler, Adolf Hitler, or...)”

Some of you will recognize the familiar tunnel vision of the Zero Sum game, a way of viewing life that stood unchallenged in most societies, during nearly all of human history. (And prehistory, for that matter.) The logic of simple tradeoffs. If you win a point, it is because I lost one. If you are good at math, you must be bad at sports. If you are eating, it must have come off of my plate.

The alternative, Positive Sum approach is something that comes less naturally to a human mind, though it’s been making headway. People either grasp it right away, or perhaps they never will, as a matter of deep-down personality. “It is possible for us both to win. Ideally, I will have the satisfaction of winning a little more than my opponents do. But it may be possible for us all to do well, at an accelerating rate.”

See: The Unlikeliness of a Positive Sum Game.

The Positive Sum game is much more than just a simple matter of personality or perspective. The core principle underlying democracy and markets and science, it is also the very foundation of modernism, and fosters the notion of human-built progress. For that trait, above all, it is hated, passionately, by all of the simplistic ideological extremes. And you can see why. Take the quandary of explaining the wealth/happiness/fun/success of contemporary American society.

We’ve seen the Zero Sum rationalization, that Americans paid a stiff price of decadence. The alternative -- the Positive Sum interpretation -- is devastatingly obvious and utterly unbearable. Suppose there was no wretched tradeoff, no fatal surrender of virtue in exchange for decadent pleasure. Then the real reason for all this success must be that we found a better way for human beings to live.

Intolerable. Inconceivable. So, without exception, we see variations of the same tiresome, just-so story, repeated like a hypnotic mantra: ”They are rotten fruit. If we strike Americans a sharp blow, they will whimper and crumble like spoiled, rudderless children.”

It doesn’t matter that we refute the Decadence Rationalization every single generation. (Find one exception. It really is tediously rhythmic and predictable. And it will happen again.) Always, always, it erupts again to snipe and pester us. Because it must.

This time, we got off REALLY cheap. The heroes of flight UA93 stood up from their seats and showed that they were made of the same stuff as their ancestors at Lexington and Gettysburg, flushing away Osama’s version of the decadence scarecrow with abrupt agility and such dramatic decisiveness that their impromptu insurrection really did end that particular war, on the very same day it began. That is, the phase of the war that was really about “terrorism.”

(There have been a dozen or so cockpit door incidents, etc., on planes, since that day, and on EVERY occasion, passengers simply sat on whichever loon was causing a ruckus -- so routinely that the airlines now have standard reward procedures in place. This, plus strengthening and locking the doors themselves, made ALL the difference. And yet, has this changed attitudes toward citizen empowerment? See: The Value and Empowerment of Common Citizens in an Age of Danger.

As for Peggy Noonan? Let’s go back to her excerpt: “I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim. I don't know why intellectuals--or cerebralists or eggheads or IQ hegemonists--seem to miss the most obvious things, floating on untethered by common sense.”

Yeah. Karl Rove said something similar, about how there can be such a thing as “too much education.” How about that!

Well, let’s not get all hot and bothered, because it really was predictable. They have to come up with their own version of the Decadence Rationalization, after all. Because (as I was among the 1st to point out, at the so-called education level advantage of the GOP over the Democratic Party has recently reversed, in a big way. Hence, the primacy of education, a thing that they once crowed about is suddenly irrelevant, dumped in the trash, along with other obsolete tenets of 20th Century conservatism... fiscal restraint, suspicion towards foreign adventurism, skepticism toward the “discredited utopian fantasy of so-called nation-building”...

...and a few other quaint notions. Like the patriotic willingness of previous elites to at least help pay the cost of wars fought by other peoples’ children.

Ah, how easily we surrender the things of youth.

Oh, but when it comes to education, this kind of two-step reversal is no minor thing! The GOP advantage in this area wasn’t easy for Democrats to overcome. After all, they have long stood up for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, the poor and immigrants. Naturally, those demographic groups laid a heavy statistical burden, dragging down Democratic averages. Democrats have always enjoyed a counterbalancing edge at the other end of the education spectrum, causing a “U-Shaped” education-level effect. But that slight uptick at the postgraduate level was never enough to overcome the statistical tilt caused by urban poor...

... that is, till now. Now the Democrats' advantage at the high end has become so profound that even the neocons can no longer ignore it! Once you get above (on average) three years of college at an Aggie school, GOP support peaks and then starts to plummet, like a rocket. As skill and knowledge climb, so does awareness of the world’s complexity, along with willingness to see past a few polysyllabic nostrums, toward more distant horizons. Horizons of time, of space, of inclusion. Horizons of possibility, for well or ill.

Is Noonan TOTALLY wrong?

Of course not. Obviously, there has always been a core of truth to the so called “egghead effect”! Fads and fashions and limp-wristed hyper intellectualization can reach truly impressive levels of foppish impracticality and smugly addlepated dopiness that make the old French Court look positively -- well -- enlightened by comparison! Take campus postmodernists, for example, who use “textual analysis” to prove that there is no objective reality and thus no such thing as science. What tripe-aholic yertzes! (They are among Karl Rove’s favorite people, for obvious reasons.) Anyone with a dram of sense must acknowledge that such people exist. They certainly are loud enough to be noticed.

Which is what hypocrites like Noonan and Rove count on, a small grain of truth that they then use Big Lie techniques to amplify, in their attempt to discredit the vast and growing demographic that threatens them most -- Americans who have postgraduate degrees! (Or the equivalent in dedicated post-college learning.) A pool of skill and talent larger and more fantastic than any the world has ever seen... blithely dismissed by the Noonans and Roves as “eggheads” (or, in British parlance “boffins”) -- portrayed as specialist, hot-house minds, too high-strung to be trusted outside their expertise, and maybe not even then. Nutty perfessors who are of use in the lab, but far too absurd ever to be allowed near policy.

Stepping back a bit, notice the familiar, “zero-sum” notion of a fateful tradeoff. The brilliant or self-made or well-educated must have sacrificed something essential. Some basic grounding in common sense. Perhaps even their souls.

(How DO they manage these tricks? Out of one side of their mouths, they call New York a city of heroes... then turn and diss every supposedly decadent trait of that capital of Blue State America, including New Yorkers’ “excessive” levels of reading and education. Do they notice or ever acknowledge that the principal American victims of terrorism also happen to be the Americans least afraid of terrorism? Not ever. They cannot. Because it would mean accepting that city as more American than the so-called heartland. But let’s veer back to the topic at hand. The new anti-education, anti-intellect campaign of the far right.)

What this is really about is power, of course. Should those who know a lot have a right thereupon to influence public decision-making? As much as -- say -- those who have a lot?

No -- they maintain -- policy cannot be trusted to scientists, or those who dedicated themselves to self-improvement and learning more about the world. Policy belongs in the hands of those who always had it before the Great Experiment began. Those who were bred to it. Born to it. Who are connected. People of quality.

(Want irony? Other than those aforementioned campus postmodernists, what group most intensely fits the image of overly-erudite, elitist snobs? Who, other than the neo-platonist followers of the University of Chicago’s own Leo Strauss, those neoconservative smartypants boys, Kristol, Wolfowitz, Perle and their ilk, so relentlessly sure of themselves. So relentlessly superior. So relentlessly and repeatedly and devastatingly wrong about almost everything.)

No, this latest sally by Noonan and Rove & co is dismally predictable on so many levels, not just as “anti-egghead” populism aimed at their base. No, that would not explain their cabal’s deliberate demolition of the entire Congressional scientific and technical advisory apparatus, depriving the legislative branch of any chance for independent analysis and neutral fact checking. Nor does mere populism explain their campaign of obfuscation, calling it “false consensus” when 90% of scientists demand that attention be paid to something that may threaten our children.

Can self-interest explain it? True, we are in the middle of the greatest kleptocratic raid in the nation’s history. The smartest must know it cannot last. Indeed, it must be dawning on them that , like the great campaign to deny the dangers of tobacco, the anti-science denial of climate change will eventually lead to the assigning of blame.

Nor can any rational reason really explain the open war that these ninnies are waging right now against the intelligence community and United States Officer Corps, the third best-educated clade in our society. The one group standing between us all and a very cold wind. Who could possibly be benefitting, in any lucid way, from that?

No, after going through it all, we can only conclude that we are seeing the Decadence Rationalization playing out, all over again. The same mental acrobatics that have been performed by every enemy of the American Enlightenment, ever since it began.

A contortion of both perception and logic that allows an old-fashioned, zero sum mind to explain to itself how fun and wisdom and learning and practicality and compassion and cooperation and accountability and openness and joyful competitiveness and a myriad other good things (especially fun) can co-exist without equal and counter-balancing cost.

These people sincerely believe what they are saying, folks.

And of course, that’s the scariest part of all.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Then There is the T Word!

Last time, I weighed in about the missing "V Word"... asking why even opponents to the Iraq Mess aren't mentioning the greatest American mistake of the 20th Century, our misguided and disastrous intervention in Vietnam.

Yes, there are differences aplenty. Still, the similarities are so numberous; they imply that at least we ought to be considering what went wrong then... and what mistakes we might be repeating now. The budget-busting, inflation-spurring, readiness-diminishing, alliance rupturing, World-popularity-destroying, and internally-nation-dividing effects are all too similar to blithely dismiss.

Nor should the hypocrisies go unchallenged. For three decades we heard ninnies declare that we "lost Vietnam because politicians interfered in military affairs"... only to see professional military judgements trampled beyond belief in Iraq, by a clade of draft-dodging preppies who always know-better and can never acknowledge a mistake.

Both land wars of attrition in Asia showed diametrically opposite decision-making skills from the agile, quick-effective methodologies used in the Balkans... methodologies that were refined by the US Officer Corps - in collaboration with allies - in direct effort to AVOID quagmires like Vietnam.

Only now, with newspapers mentioning "ink-blot counterinsurgency tactics"... while never mentioning where the technique was last tried (!!) we appear to see an almost psychotic "V Avoidance" from not only the Messopotamia's defenders, but its critics, as well.

Now bear with me while we veer from the "V Word" over to another ghost at the banquet, that nobody seems inclined to mention...

... the "T Word."

I'm talking about Tobacco.

For a while now, I've been trying to picture the some kind of parallel to the jibbering dance-of-distraction that we are seeing from the "it's not proved yet" anti-global warming crowd. Their frantic need to discredit the entire scientific community. Michael Crichton's astonishing claim that "consensus has no meaning" in science. (So a political party that wins questionable elections by slim pluralities somehow has a huge "mandate"... but a belief shared by 90% of reputable scientists can be dismissed out of hand?)

Yes, we have seen this kind of frenetic holding-onto obsolete and reactionary opinions, before. Racism and sexism, for example. In fact (here Brin goes again!) the left has its own loony shiboleths and hypocrisies, aplenty! Though usually less harmful ones.

merchants-of-doubt1Then it struck me when we last saw the closest parallel. TOBACCO AND CANCER!

Recall how the behavior on the part of elite "suits" could only be called identical!

Hypocrites and self interested liars would BOTH claim that "there is not enough evidence, WHILE strenuously blocking the research that would get the evidence!

The same anti-science maneuvering, while chest-thumping that science has no such thing as "consensus." The same relentless refusal to see any public good... or the blatantly obvious truth, that some things are so dangerous that better-safe-than-sorry is a reasonable proposition.

In other words, those who say that it is perfectly okay to go about fouling our own nest should be the ones with a burden of proof, called upon to offer evidence, instead of the other way around.

Um, duh? I find myself often wondering... "what would Cotton Mather think?" Or Silas Marner, or the other founding Puritans? Yes, they might not like tolerance of gays... or tolerance of any kind. But let's put that part of it aside. There were other values. Other aspects of conservatism in the American sense. Aspects that conservatives still claim to support... and get away with the claim only because people let them!

Pay-as-you go refusal to go into debt.
Waste-not, Want-not.
A stitch in time, saves nine.
Mind your own business.
It takes a Village.

I could go on and on, but this is another topic. ("How the hell did Democrats become the party of puritan conservative values?")

Getting back to the issue at hand... let's consider the T Word... and whether these dipso-kleptos really are as smart as they think they are.

One the one hand: it is clear to any sensible person what they are doing. They aren't idiots. They KNOW the climate is changing and there will be huge disruptions. Watch land purchases and shifts in the stock market. These guys have a LOT of equities that will be dogs in the new era. they need time to dump them and reposition! That's got to be the core reason for the delaying tactics.

On the other hand,will this really work? Just look at tobacco! The precendents must be terrifying. Because the Tobacco industry stonewalled, they were later judged at fault for billions in liability claims. Today, the entire industry backpedals like mad, spewing warnings about health risks... too late for millions.

Don't these anti-climate-change people realize that this precedent WILL apply to them? Has it even occurred to them that the civilization that's been harmed by their shuffle and delay act may want... well... compensation when the heat hits the fan? Indeed, when the damage looks vastly greater than that from tobacco, can they really trust their lawyers’ assurances that they are personally insulated?

As in tobacco, is this liability thing that may cause a turnaround? A change in attitude, suddely seeing-the-light?

The likelihood, looking ever-greater in this heat wave, that The People may not LET them sit on their new, reconfigured portfolios?

Not when the rivers run dry and the sands begin to blow.


And now for something Completely Different....

An appeal from a bright young writer, Jeff Carlson. (We’re working together on a project!) Jeff doesn’t have my vast coterie of pre-readers, savvy and picky and oh so good at CITOKATE! Hence, I am passing on this request for him:

A Call For Genius !

I am paying a small shot at fame and a free autographed copy of my first novel… for the name of my first novel… Yes, does that make sense?

My editor tells me the marketing dept. at Ace/Berkley feels that the title we’ve been using all this time is a bit “soft” and instead they’d prefer something grabby, evocative and amazing. Well, right.

Oof. To me, it’s always been THE INVISIBLE SEA. Briefly, the book is about a medical nanotech prototype that gets loose and devours all warm-blooded life below 10,000 feet elevation. No mammals. No birds. Entire nations throw on top of each other as they fight for land. Loads of action, intrigue, surprise twists, our heroes running around at great personal risk, you know the drill. And of course it's impossible to see the machine plague covering the entire world except for a few high islands because the nanos are microscopic. Hence the title. But apparently it’s too artsy.

Here’s what my agent had to say:

>> Very likely they are anticipating how major accounts (esp. Barnes & Noble) will react and order. B&N and a handful of other chains are 50% of book sales. If these few key buyers don't like the title, think it's too "soft", or whatever, well, then you're screwed. They want to be sure that B&N will place a healthy order. To an extent, I see their point. What B&N wants, they tend to get. It is possible that early feelers even have been put out. That happens. In any event, sales and marketing people are very twitchy about things like titles since it makes such a difference to whether they can "sell in" or not.

And my editor:

>> The concern is it doesn't convey the content of the book. Obviously, once you start reading it's apparent how the title relates, but the book needs to attract people from the cover and title alone--otherwise they won't even open the book and find out what "the invisible sea" is. I think something that indicates the nanotech plague / post-apocalyptic / survivalist nature of the book would be ideal.

Sadly, the best I’ve been able to come up with so far are substitutes like THE KILLING SEA or cheesy clunkers that sound like made-for-tv-movies such as NANO PLAGUE or WORLD OF DEATH. Or, when I’m feeling despondent, great stuff like THE TOTALLY COOL GLOBAL MUTHAFUCKA.

I think what they’re really looking for is something broadly commercial like SURVIVOR or even HIGHLANDER, but of course those have been done.

Heeeeeeeeelp! Help me! Aieeeee! Ug! Ohhhh. AYAAAIEEEEEEE!

I think I'd rather re-name our kids...


Thursday, July 27, 2006

And it does NOT stand for Victory....

“Where’s the V-Word?”

Last night, John Stewart interviewed Senator John McCain, who endured 5 years of hell in a POW camp during (ahem) an earlier attempted US “police campaign against terror” on the continent of Asia. While I normally admire Stewart, I kept waiting in vain for him to raise the word that starts with the letter V... the one that nobody, left or right, press or military, Pro-intervention or against, seems willing to utter aloud!

Yesterday, in the paper, I read that our forces in Iraq are trying the “ink-blot” tactic of securing a zone and then letting security leak outward into the surrounding territory. The article did not mention where this approach was first tried. Or how well it did there.

Seriously, when we hear phrases like “cut and run.” When flag waving (on one side) and simplistic screechy sign slogans (on the other) substitute for debate. When we keep hearing about light at the end of a tunnel. When collateral damage to civilians creates new enemy recruits. When the BEST that we can hope for, from a new, propped-up government is a different style of hating us and the empowerment of some other regional power...

Has anybody, anywhere, the balls to mention a word that is apparently forbidden from the 21st Century American lexicon? The OTHER time that we got suckered into doing sumo, instead of jiu jitsu, throwing half a trillion dollars into an utter futility that spoiled our alliances, created division at home, ruined our military readiness and ended (exactly as Ike warned us it would) very very badly?

In fact, looking over the vast success story that is American history, suppose YOU were some nasty force in the world that suddenly owned and operated a clade of suborned US leaders. What horrid thing would you have them do? What trap would you have them order us to step right into. What example should we have avoided at all costs, if we had a shred of memory, or any ability to learn from our mistakes?

Hey, you know me. I do NOT oppose a smart, agile Pax Americana, like we saw in the Balkans and even in Afghanistan. Don’t you DARE “peacenik” me! There were dozens of other “nation building” exercises we could have engaged in, to foster democracy in the middle east. A mere ten billions spent in Lebanon, in 2003, could have helped them get far enough that the current crisis THERE was avoided. Instead of diving into the worst and most expensive and least likely place to plant Enlightenment seeds. (With IRA and SA the biggest winners, by far.)


What? Do I live in a parallel universe where it never happened? Could there be any greater proof that there is psychosis afoot?

And -- if you have NOT been saying the V word in an attempt to understand the similarities and differences with today - then that “P word” must apply to you, as well.

---- Under the “if this had happened under Clinton” department…

Once-secret documents obtained by The Associated Press show a disaster supply management company went unpunished for Sept. 11 thefts after the government discovered federal agents and other government officials had stolen artifacts from New York's ground zero.

And again, under the ever-recurring theme of “imagine if this happened under Clinton...” take the recent move by GWB to suddenly allow vast tonnage of radioactive materials owned by US companies to be sent to Russia for reprocessing as they see fit.

In fact, so much of the news can be viewed more colorfully if you squint and imagine the Limbaugian apoplexy. “if this had been dod by Clintonites, instead.” Have you seen the figures about small business health as opposed to the big corporations listed in the Stock Market? And for six years STRAIGHT the administration has found yeat another excuse not to offer 23% of its contractors to small businesses instead of cronies. This time, they tried using shills and secrecy. Surprise.

Misc: geopolitical items:

The UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown's major unofficial assignment has been to act as a liaison between the UN and the U.S. government. If someone like him — a Briton with a lot of experience in international organizations — suggests U.S. leaders to care more about the United Nations, the world should take heed.

Does Migration Hurt Developing Countries?

Under the category of “Is there no limit to their outrageousness?”
(Submitted by Stefan):

NASA’s Goals Delete Mention of Home Planet

From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers ... as only NASA can.”

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

David E. Steitz, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the aim was to square the statement with President Bush’s goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars. But the change comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the “understand and protect” phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Several NASA researchers said they were upset that the change was made at NASA headquarters without consulting the agency’s 19,000 employees or informing them ahead of time.

Next time, a longer and more detailed essay about “What liberals and democrats could to do win, by learning some tactics from Karl Rove...” Or at least by “not giving Karl Rove a gift.”

Sunday, July 23, 2006

An Appeal for Laughs... plus some misc....

On a completely different topic....

Have any of you subscribed to Jim Baen's UNIVERSE MAGAZINE yet?

I urge that you do so! This is the very best online magazine yet, filled with GREAT content. The top paying market, it has attracted the very best authors, including you know who. ;-)

There is a second reason to do so. If you read my serialized novel... my first comedy (!)... you will have a special chance to participate and possibly even get Tuckerized!

By that I mean that if you read the story and get inspired by an IDEA or two... for a pun or something very very funny to include in this new satire... then among the rewards for Best Suggestion may be to have your name included in a list of minor characters in the book.

There is precedent, of course. Piers Anthony, in his Xanth series, got so many awful puns and jokes sent in to him that his later books almost wrote themselves. I would not do that, of course. Still, comedy IS hard. I am not too proud to accept help. Especially if it's funny.

So, if anyone who reads about Dr. Montessori and the Demmies suddenly gets a flash of humorous insight, let me know!

And now this from maven Mark Anderson:

“I magine a single chip the size of a grain of rice (actually, it's the size of half a grain of rice), or 2-4mm. long, capable of carrying up to 4Mbs of memory. At about 2K per page of text, that would be about 2,000 pages.

HP Labs calls it a Memory Spot. Sounds more like a revolution to me.

The Spot acts like an RFID device: it has no battery, but gets power from induction currents set up by a separate read/write device. It does have an antenna, capable of data transfer speeds of about 10Mbps.

The company suggests primary markets may include storing medical records on a hospital patient's wristband, providing AV supplements to postcards and photos, stopping pharmaceutical counterfeiting, adding security to ID cards and passports, and providing supplemental information for printed documents.

In other words, Everything.

-... and...

A new study revealed that non-Hispanic blacks have better hearing on average compared to non-Hispanic whites and Hispanic adults in the United States, and that women tend to have better hearing than men. (Huh? What’s that, honey?)

A massive crater in Antarctica may have been caused by a meteor that wiped out more than 90 percent of the species on Earth 250 million years ago. (The Permian exctinction.) The 300-mile-wide crater lies hidden more than a mile beneath a sheet of ice and was discovered by scientists using satellite data. As if you needed another reason to eat chocolate, German researchers have shown that ingesting types rich in cocoa solids and flavonoids - dark chocolate - can fight skin cancer.

It's hundreds of times thinner than a human hair but as sensitive as a human finger. Researchers have devised a "nanosheet" that can be wrapped around any surface - such as that of a surgical instrument or a robotic hand - to mimic the sensitivity of touch. The sensitive sheet was produced by encouraging microscopic particles to bond to the sensor surface by dipping the materials in a series of chemical baths.

Someone report back here to us about this!

Nearly 50 tons of mysterious red particles showered India in 2001. Now the race is on to figure out what they were. One Scientist speculates that the particles could be extraterrestrial bacteria adapted to the harsh conditions of space and that the microbes hitched a ride on a comet or meteorite that later broke apart in the upper atmosphere and mixed with rain clouds above India

Thursday, July 20, 2006

An Interesting Guest Posting...Post-Modernism, Science, and Religion

One of my interlocutors at the recent International Conference on Complexity was Blake Stacey. A very bright fellow to whom I will now give a brief guest spot, on account of some interesting books that relate to the Modernism Project.
David, I mentioned Meera Nanda's Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India (Rutgers University Press, 2003). The week after the conference, I happened to discover that this book comes with the recommendation of Daniel Dennett, who mentions it approvingly in the preface to Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006). I originally made my way to Nanda via Alan Sokal, who draws upon Prophets Facing Backward in his essay "Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?", which is available from his NYU website.

The central irony which Nanda explores is that our common notion of postmodern ideas --- science as a social construct, "incredulity toward metanarrative", all that --- which we associate with the "political Left" is really an illusion due to a Eurocentric bias. If we look farther afield than the Parisian faculty lounge, we find that these same ideas have been appropriated by fervently nationalistic ideologues. In the ivory towers of the West, "postcolonialism" is a trendy pomo thing, a way of feeling warm and fuzzy after decades of imperialist stomping over these other cultures. Uphold the validity of their beliefs! Give them affirmation, confirm their customs and their "ways of knowing".

The problem arises when actual members of these former colonies pick up the postcolonial speech habits. Fundamentally, it comes down to the question of what you do when science, whether foreign or domestic, challenges a comfortable ideology. One approach, beloved by Young-Earth Creationists, is flat-out denial. Another, more akin to Intelligent Design, is to appropriate the words but leave behind the music: by practicing a kind of epistemological judo, one can adopt the useful fruits of technology while ignoring what the basic scientific discoveries imply about your belief system. At the same time, all the people who acknowledge the abundant evidence that science **works** --- and who therefore have a default respect for the men in white coats --- have a new reason to trust your ideological pronouncements.

Sokal's essay discusses how practitioners of "alternative medicine" have done this in the United States. There's nothing quite like a dose of quantum physics to make your aura vibrate at a higher harmonic and up the effectiveness of your uber-holistic Touch Therapy! And if the Medical Establishment comes along to question the effectiveness of this Touch Therapy, then you can whip out the "all world views are valid" line. It's not as good as real scientific evidence, but it can compel a degree of belief.

Nanda addresses how this has played out in modern India. One crucial difference between quantum altie woo in America and Hindu "Vedic science" is that the nationalist practitioners of Hindu "Vedanta" **do** uphold the primacy of one worldview: Western science is merely an imperfect realization of the truths spelt out in Vedic texts millennia ago. From page 197,

" [...] the Hindu right wing is modernist in a reactionary, anti-Enlightenment way. Hindutva is gobbling up modern science by declaring the Vedic knowledge systems to be at par with modern science in rationality and credibility. Proponents of Vedic science claim the Vedas to have presaged all the advances in modern science without admitting that in fact, modern sciences challenge the metaphysical foundation of the Vedic view of the world."

Notions of "decolonialization" have found a favorable home with these people, because they downgrade the primacy of Western science and insulate the Vedic alternative from disproof. The political beliefs of the French and American postmodernists don't matter, once their ideas have been spread --- ideas which those of all political persuasions can use to rationalize the antirational. (I'm tempted to use the word "meme" here.) The propositions of this "Vedic science" would be laughable if no one believed in them. Nanda summarizes Raja Ram Mohan Roy's **Vedic Physics** (1999) in the following words (p. 114):

"Roy's book is a compendium of absurdities where references to animals mean bosons and fermions, animal sacrifices stand for quark containment, where annihilation of dark-skinned people means annihilation of anti-matter, food is matter-energy, and where the reference to 10 directions stands for superspace, so on and so forth . . . ad nauseam."

Roy's ideas, and those of Vedanta enthusiasts like him, have been adopted wholesale by the Bharatiya Janata political party (now in opposition).

Nanda's book contains large amounts of interesting stuff which is not easy to summarize. Methinks the verbal ejaculations of postcolonials, whether in American literary journals or Vedic-science textbooks, are particularly resistant to my old-fashioned linear paradigm of thought.

Blake goes on to add:

bc_why_people_believe_cover.jpgOne quick note before I forget: on the subject of Ayn Rand, you should check out (if you haven't already) Michael Shermer's essay "The Unlikeliest  Cult", which was published in **Skeptic** magazine and reprinted as a chapter of his book Why People Believe Weird Things.

I was able to dredge a copy out of a Google hit parade:

Here's the money quote:

"The cultic flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is not in the use of reason, or in the emphasis on individuality, or in the belief that humans are self motivated, or in the conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion.

If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics."

-- Blake Stacey


Randroids are what I call Platonists. And alas, the libertarian movement, which OUGHT to be supremely modernist and pragmatic and logical, is instead one of the modern movements most rife with romanticism, impracticality, misplaced idealism, obsessive cultism and an absolute dedication to incantations whose sole result is to provoke a drug high of indignation. Never practical and incremental improvement of markets or freedom.

Platonism is the very worst enemy of democracy and modernism because it is the romantic variant that KNOWS democracy and understands it, and yet loathes and despises it down to the very roots. It has poisoned so much of the Enlightenment and provides intellectual fiber to the mad neocon priests like Perle and Wolfowitz and other followers of Leo Strauss. True, much of their coalition is made up of OTHER enemies of the Enlightenment... neo-feudalist oligarchs and kleptocrats and future-terrified nostalgists. But these are the guys who betray us with open eyes.

see my article: Neoconservatism, Islam and Ideology: The Real Culture War

Slowly, we are coming to see that the real enemy is human nature itself, which seems always lured and tempted by certain things: Self-delusion. Incantation. Nostalgia. Self-serving demonization... and a level of self-interest that ruins markets instead of playing fair in them.

Human nature would destroy the Enlightenment, if it ever gets a chance, and snuff it out far LONGER than those same forces kept Pericleanism quashed, the first time. 2500 years of darkness. It happens so easily! The French wing of the Enlightenment got lured back into Platonism - believing you can attain truth through incantation.

Even American modernist ikons like Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert Moses gave into the temptation to become tyrannical gurus, in the wizardric tradition, rather than collaborative modernist pragmatists. Modernism barely survived their antics and the NAME was driven into the wilderness.

What a slender thread is the trail that leads from
Pericles, through scattered candles of light, to John Locke and
Adam Smith and Ben Franklin, who pointed us down a new

One that is under attack even as we speak.

I think the very unlikeliness of this event helps to
explain why the stars seem so empty of intelligent

And (as I have often said) this time our enemies have vowed. When it is quashed, they will NEVER let it be tried again.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Can Conservatives...or Liberals... Govern?

An interesting essay crossed my line of sight, written by Alan Wolfe (author of Does American Democracy Still Work?) on “Why Conservatives Can't Govern”. Published in the July/August Washington Monthly, the article was insightful and erudite, offering an earnest, clever interpretation of why American conservatism finds itself cornered, in a cycle of relentless failures and rationalizations.

And yet, at another level, the piece illustrates the very same kind of political myopia that has guaranteed defeat for Democrats and liberals, for years. Starting with this blanket generalization.

“Contemporary conservatism is first and foremost about shrinking the size and reach of the federal government.”

In a moment I will discuss this axiom, this fundamental premise. But first, let me attempt the obligatory task of any honest arguer, a duty to paraphrase. To show that I understand what I plan to criticise.

Wolfe’s core contention appears to be that those who ideologically despise government power are inherently ill-suited to handle that power well, when they manage to grab absolute control over it. Since they disdain government’s ability to accomplish great good, they refuse to use it that way. And yet, since they are human beings (and therefore corruptible), they cannot actually reduce government power, once it is in their hands. The temptations are just too great.

Hence, the result of conservative power is not reticence, when it comes to matters budgetary, administrative, diplomatic or military, but rather the opposite, a kind of extreme adventurism, justified by hypocritical rationalizations that grow more frenetic and frantic with time.

(Wolfe might have mentioned the ultimate irony. Historically, the few successful efforts to reduce government paperwork, or to stimulate industries through fair and unbiased deregulation, were all accomplished under Democratic administrations. The far-fewer GOP-led efforts at “deregulation” were, in fact, sweetheart giveaways and not true deregulation: e.g. Energy “Reform” and the Savings and Loan Scandal.)

Hence, Wolfe explains both today’s pork-orgy of graft and the relentless waging of political “culture war” as natural outcomes of cognitive dissonance. An inability of the ruling caste to face or examine their own betrayals of principle. Those who oppose governmental authority as a matter of creed (and Wolfe labels this as the core trait of conservatism) are inherently and psychologically unsuited to wield power.

Wolfe especially disdains those self-described conservatives who have been pulling away from the present administration and from the recent orgies of neocon excess. He likens these people to Trotskyites, who (in a few smoke-filled, bohemian corners) still mutter that Communism was hijacked by Stalinist-Maoist monsters, and never given a proper trial. Wolfe drips contempt for the rationalization that “those neocon looters aren’t true conservatives.” Rather, his exegesis attempts to prove that the sickness is inherent, across the board. It is rooted in the fundamental premises of conservatism itself.

How convenient. Wolfe’s opponents are disqualified from ever having useful contributions to offer, in government, because of intrinsic traits of dogma and personality that apply to all varieties, at all times. Wow. Impressive.


As you might expect, while I found Wolfe’s essay stimulating and interesting, I also deem it to be cockeyed and utterly foolish, for about a dozen reasons.

But first pause. For the record, I share a profound motivation with Alan Wolfe. I truly despise the rascals and monsters who have seized power over our great nation, at least as much as Wolfe does. Among my own many essays proving this are:

          The Real Culture War: Defining the Background

          Should Democrats Issue a New 'Contract with America'?

And yet, as a contrarian, I must part company with many of my allies over strategy and tactics. For example, while some liberals and others see this as a matter of waging an ongoing culture war more effectively, I look back at the relentless torment of the Clinton Administration and ask: “What if we win?”

Seriously. Suppose a great miracle happens and democracy thrives, despite the imabalnced influence of cash, or the rigged game of Diebold-fixed electoral fraud and even gerrymandered radicalism. GLet’s imagine that grownups resume power, at least enough to let civil servants issue subpoenas and stop the Great Raid. At one level, that would be grand, of course. But at another....

If the ambiance after victory is yet another round of bitterly partisan savagery (recall the Clinton Era), won’t Karl Rove still have won? Won’t America simply become another petty Balkans, a nasty and brutally silly people, endlessly sniping, blue against red, our side imposing peurile vengeance against theirs, until it becomes “their turn” again? How, in such a nation, can big problems ever get ambitiously solved? The ultimate solution to “culture war” is not to wage it better, but to calmly and decisively end it. To take power out of the hands of these monsters forever, by denying them the main levers that they have used to attain it -- oversimplification and divisiveness.

When we oversimplify the enemy, categorizing in a way that demonizes millions of potential allies, we may get a surge of satisfaction, but it is not smart tactics. Sun Tzu would have told you, long ago, to find ways to divide your enemies, to find common cause with some of them. To reduce the size of their coalition and to enhance your own.

This is the very same methodology that led to neocon victory.
And please note: there is certainly a time and place for studying your opponent’s winning tactics. While many are and were despicable, some of those tactics may have been smart and morally neutral. Those we should think about, carefully.

In biological science there has long been a collegial struggle between “lumpers and splitters...” between those who lump all sorts of sub species together and those who are seeking subtle differences among them. Clearly, the temptation, politically -- one that Wolfe demonstrates in extreme -- is to lump together all “conservatives” using an a-priori definition that he blithely tosses off as an obvious and assumed axiom... and upon which derives his entire thesis.

But the flaw in Wolfe’s argument -- in his finely molded strawman of the opposition -- is in this axiom. In this fundamental , lumping premise.

In fact, countless self-described “conservatives” in America today have far different obsessions and concerns than would be simply explained by Wolfe’s diagnosis. Indeed, the differences among conservatives are so fantastically broad and astonishing that they merit whole books, analyzing how Karl Rove achieved this marvel of a Big Tent... one so filled with contradictions that it should have fallen into tatters long ago! And perhaps it would have, if so many on the left weren’t just as intent on keeping it intact as Karl is!

(In this case, lumping is - tactically - the sheerest folly. Talk about an inherently self-defeating character flaw!)

Where shall we begin, peeling away exceptions to Wolfe’s axiom? Let’s put aside those “conservatives” who would be far better called “anti-modernists terrified of change” e.g. fundamentalists. “Excess government” per se is not the fixation of paranoid nativists and aggressive jingoists. Nor those neo-feudalist aristocrats who quite openly adore government, so long as it is their enrichment tool.

I would certainly remove those who share the belief that Barry Goldwater expressed, in his last year of his long and fascinating life -that hate-filled neocons are a pack of crazy, nasty jerks. I think those denunciations are meaningful, but Wolfe and I can legitimately disagree about that.

Putting all of those (and a myiad other) exceptions aside, let’s ponder only those “conservatives” who DO genuinely and centrally despise government power. Even in this large category, there are millions who feel deeply wronged by the contradictions that Wolfe describes. Many would argue that these would properly be called Libertarians, rather than “conservatives.”

And yes, a great many libertarian Americans do choose the GOP as a “lesser of evils” -- a lazy tendency that I have been fighting hard, since it is based on absurd premises that are easily disproved. Wolfe would hold that my efforts are a waste of time. I contend that it may be the best possible way to undermine the monsters, by drawing away from them millions of their most intelligent and most sincere supporters.

I start by pointing to Adam Smith, the patron saint of creative free markets. And yes, one of the core founders of “liberalism.”

Anyone with an open mind who reads history ought to already know this. The very thing that Smith despised most was not “government bureaucracy, but instead oligarchy. The market warping of aristocratic cheaters who use money, influence and crony favoritism to wring economic benefits unrelated to delivery of superior goods and services.

This historical fact is devastating! Some truly clever liberal tactician could use Adam Smith as an icon! Millions truly have heard of him and it would be easily grasped by those millions (if someone pointed it out) that today’s markets are far more in danger from oligarchic cheaters than from earnest bureaucrats. If only someone were to say, aloud, that the Emperor has no clothes.

If only someone would remind us all what the term “liberal” originally meant... which was unleashing the creatively competitive spirit of humanity in ways that would benefit us all, while minimizing the almost universal capacity of cheaters to cheat. Levelling the playing field enough so that no youth would enter it disadvantaged, but giving the markets enough room to breathe and grow.

Government has a role to play in this fostering of open, joyful and fair competition. (And even in ensuring that nobody loses too badly.) Today’s “liberals” are right about that... while they are wrong to forget that competitive markets were the greatest invention of their movement! Decent conservatives have a point when they remind us that government has no rightful place in predetermining all outcomes of the game.

It would be so powerful an argument, especially in contrast to the neo-oligarchy’s orgy of insatiable cheating. But this cannot be done, because fellows like Wolfe automatically and reflexively dismiss the posibility of a positive conservatism. Wolfe dismisses these millions of libertarian-leaning fellow Americans as fools and/or psychotics and/or members of a criminal gang. What utter foolishness!

Look, for years I have been defying classic political and culture warriors to define for me the standard left-right political axis, a hoary and insipid metaphor when it was first concocted, by the French, in 1789. Nearly everyone stammers and fails. And as for the few who appear to succeed? They nearly all do so the way that Wolfe does, by armwaving a strawman caricature in the general direction of everybody they dislike.

But suspicion of government authority is not automatically insane! Our social mythos is deeply woven with messages of suspicion of authority (SOA) that fill almost all of our popular books, movies, dramas. If democrats fixate on one kind of looming authority figues -- conspiring aristocracies and corporations -- were not libertarians right to at least worry over the extremes of bureaucratic control that were typified by, say, communism?

Neither of these views are inherently sick. But they should be better informed about history, about the world, about each other.

We will not win this struggle through oversimplifications that feel oh-so righteous and portray as idiotic everyone on “the other side.”

We will win be separating the monsters from sincere libertarians and others who might be persuaded - instead - to support a return to general sanity.

See more: Politics for the 21st Century

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Some Other cool signs that progress is still possible...

==Tesla Signature One Hundred Event ==

After much anticipation and countless rumors, rivalling the unveiling of the Kamen Seguay, PayPal founder and tech-visionary Elon Musk is finally ready to show off one of his keynote projects... the Tesla Roadster. Tesla Motors is a new American car company developing fully electric vehicles that are high performance, high production, and affordable. The Roadster will first be sold in a limited set of 100 to a select group at an evening event on July 19 in Santa Monica. An all-electric car, the Roadster delivers better acceleration and handling than a Porsche Turbo, meets all U.S. safety standards, operates at twice the energy efficiency of a Prius, and has a highway range of 250 miles.

Wow. I’ve long said that we desperately need help from the portion of the billionaire caste that “gets it”... in order to save us from the half that doesn’t. Elon... along with Warren Buffett and some others.. clearly falls into the category of getting it. Let’s hope he becomes very rich (again) while doing lots of good. Because he has other plans, too.

== The New Medical Revolution==

Famed economics author and pundit John Mauldin’s recent newsletter had the following fascinating riff on progress in medical technology:

Late last century, we began to get scanning technology that was a single slice per rotation. Then it went to 4. Then in 2002-03 we saw scanning that went to 16 slices, by 2005 it was up to 64, and this year we find scanning machines that can do 256-slice rotations. We can start to see some really small parts of your body. Combine that with imaging software and doctors can start to see what's wrong with you. But we are not small enough yet. By the end of the decade, that scanner will be at 1,024.

Recognize this progression? 2-4-16-64-256-512-1024...? Does it sound like the number of transistors in a chip or the size of your computer memory? Or the speed of your computer? Or any number of things that Silicon Valley views as engineering problems?

It will not be long before they can "see" the plaque building up in your heart or veins. Long before it would be a problem. And running hand in hand with this technology is the work being done to develop drugs and targeted therapies which will remove the plaque. Right now, scans are expensive. We don't usually get one unless there is a problem. But in the very near future, those scans will be able to give you a very early warning signal about heart problems. And while in the first few years it will only be those people who can afford or whose condition dictates an expensive scan, the cost will come down. Think cellular phones.

Within ten years, a regular part of your check-up will be a full body scan. Yes, I know that full body scans have a bad reputation. And deservedly so at lower resolutions. But that will change as they become much higher resolution, as well as relatively cheap and ubiquitous. Certainly cheaper than letting a problem build up.

John goes on to recommend the latest book by Andy Kessler called The End of Medicine, subtitled "How Silicon Valley (and Naked Mice) Will Reboot Your Doctor.”

One question. Do the radical FIBMers actually believe all this has happened... and will keep on happening... amid a return to propertarian feudalism? Are socialist GAR fans unable to notice that most of this innovation occurs in the land with “the worst health care system”? Is ANYONE ready to point out that this “devil’s dichotomy” of insipid oversimplifications has nothing at all to do with what’s really going on?


Five Hot Products for the Future -- (CNN -- June 9, 2006) Trend spotting is serious business. So much so that the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto-based think tank, produces an annual 96-page 10-year forecast - an exhaustive compendium of societal and technological trends, widely regarded as the bellwether of long-range planning. But people wanted specifics, so it started giving away prescient product ideas instead.

==And From the Progressive Policy Institute==

“Pakistan is in the third year of an economic surge. The 2006 Economic Survey of Pakistan notes that Pakistani exports have nearly doubled since 2001, from $8.5 billion to nearly $17 billion. (Three big factors here: Despite troubles along the border, exports to Afghanistan -- cement, rice, wheat, light manufactures -- have risen from $100 million to $1.5 billion since 2001. At 8.4 percent, the national growth rate is closing in on those of China and India. Foreign investment is up, as are remittances from Pakistanis working abroad. Cities have added nearly six million jobs a year since 2002. Life expectancy has grown by two years since the turn of the century, and hospitals have hired 17,000 more doctors. The World Bank backs up ministerial optimism in a paper released last month; its forecast is that based upon current trends, "poverty in Pakistan is likely to fall dramatically, from the current 35.4 percent to 12.4 percent," by 2015.”

I did predict both the semi-bust of Japan and the boom of China, back when everybody thought Japan Inc would own everything in the 80s. I predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall and a period of terror war with Islamic machismo. But I admit I completely missed the rise of South Asia. I just assumed it was impossible. My bad.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Illusion of Public "Panic"... and the Power of People.

Several of you commented on a story-motif that has rarely appeared in films and other media, till recently, that of showing common citizens -- everyman and everywoman -- stepping up to help the hero of the story, showing guts and grit in defense of their civilization.

(Certainly the complete repudiation of this concept is one of my biggest complaints against the Star Wars universe - at least in the later four films. See STAR WARS ON TRIAL!) *

Daniel and Stefan gave examples of some superhero stories in which common folk got to help in pivotal ways. These used to be exceptions, but I see cause for hope in a rising number of examples. Certainly, I found such moments to be especially vivid and moving in both Spiderman films, and I hope the theme continues in the third.

What does this reflect about real life? At the Defense Dept "threat" conference two weeks ago, several of us on the panel stomped hard on the notion of public "panic" - a mythology that has been fostered ever since 9/11. From varied expertise (e.g. psychology, sociology, emergency services), a dozen of us opined that there were almost no signs of genuine panic on that day. Yes, we all saw people running from danger and some crying. Still, New Yorkers and DC ites ran TOWARD danger whenever there seemed some useful purpose to be served.

See The Value -- and Empowerment -- of Citizens in an Age of Danger for a possible explanation for why this notion of "public panic" has been fostered.  (See also: Forgetting Our American Tradition: The Folly of Relying Exclusively on a Professional Protector Caste.)

Indeed, at the conference I suggested that this entire phase of the "War on Terror" was launched, fought and won all on the same day.

Think. Due to a combination of unlucky factors, our professional protectors failed on 9/11. FAR less culpably than their failures during Hurricane Katrina, I think, because point failures happen. Live with it and deal with it. The real lesson is that it is foolish to rely only on professionals anticipating and stanching all dangers. We also need the partner of anticipation, resiliency, the very trait that erupted amply on 9/11, a day when EVERY action that worked was performed by empowered and dynamic citizens. Citizens no less courageous than those at Lexington and Concord. The spirit of Cincinnatus lives.

(And was deliberately quashed during Katrina! Keep your eye on these symptoms.)

When the heroes of UA 93 rebelled, taking the plane down, rather than letting the US Capitol be struck, they effectively repudiated the image of soft-decadent Americans. (An image that all enemies must foster every generation, for deep psychological reasons.) THAT is why there have been no further hijackings... that plus reinforcing and locking the cockpit door.

Just a few days ago yet another deranged person attacked the pilot's door on an airliner. It held for the necessary minute or so before alert passengers leaped up and sat on him. This has happened maybe a DOZEN times since 9/11! Proof. Simple proof.

Now please stop frisking us to death at airports. Let us get back to normal life.

Even if we really were "at war", there would be no excuse for a lot of the gup we've put up with. But in fact, we are NOT "at war." That is pure political propaganda. A ploy that Americans are getting sick of. (In four years, Americans marched from Pearl Harbor to Tokyo and Berlin. In five years we cannot catch one absurdly tall and gawky terror chieftain. Nu?)

Not at war? Correction. Way back in 1986, I predicted both the fall of the Berlin Wall and that we would have our next "memic war" early in the 21st Century, "against some version of machismo - one that will have a superficial ideological dogma-excuse like Islam, or latin culture. But the underlying foe will be some form of retro-macho-romanticism that deeply fears and hates the West."

Yes, I said that. And a memic war ... over ideas and how human beings ought to live... is exactly what seems to be going on, right now.

Just look at the letter that the Iranian President sent President Bush, a couple of months ago. Did any of you actually read it? Do so! It is startlingly intelligent and thoughtful. Stark jibbering loony (from our perspective), but smart and deeply, deeply sincere. In it, the Iranian addresses Bush as a fellow opponent of "liberalism" and flawed-false Enlightenment values. He collegially calls upon Bush to look past superficial differences of religion and nationality, to see their common desire for a return to tradition, authority, and every person knowing his or her demure place.

True, Bush rejected this overture. He has no practical or dogmatic reason to accept the hand he was offered. Indeed, the Enlightenment is far better fought by fomenting foreigner-paranoia! Fear is the great enemy of modernism, after all. Still, I found that all but a few commentators, in dismissing the letter, completely missed this important aspect of a fascinating event.

The crux: democracy and the Enlightenment (especially the pragmatic modernist branch) are under assault exactly as I predicted back in 86, by a memic attack from both without and within. This "war of ideas" can be won, but only with confidence and agility. Not by driving away every ally! Not by dividing us with “culture war.” Nor by bankrupting us or destroying readiness.

Nor by denigrating and quashing the very thing that makes us strong -- the very same trait of dynamic resiliency that our ancestors showed every time it was needed in the past. The trait that common citizens can and do display, whenever they are allowed to, in an open society that is forever strengthened by light.


(* The aforementioned rejection of civilization and citizenship by George Lucas is a special pity, since the entire saga began with an act of defiance by a normal man - Captain Antilles - who was shown being snuffed-out by an evil demigod. That stirring moment could have been a theme-setter. But alas,the same demigod would be made the central awe-fixation of the series, and civilization/citizens would be portrayed as fools.)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Some riffs on new and old art...

I just went to the theater to see the Superman Returns flick, and was pleasantly surprised... though in part because of preset expectations that were extremely low. I had heard, for example that there were dozens of pretentious Father-Son-savior-redemption referents, and there were... as Supe blatantly takes upon his shoulders the burden of humanity’s sins... ooooh. And yet, it was quite not as offensively pushy as I feared. And while the protagonist’s endleesly schoolboyish , brokenhearted crush on Lois was way over the top, some of the movie's color and vivid flash helped make up for it.

There was a point when Lex Luthor seemed about to push for sharing Kryptonian secrets with humanity, referring to Prometheus in ways that seemed to foreshadow a movie that was set upon preaching AGAINST science and progress. But, fortunately, this hint and story line was dropped entirely, in favor of yet another simpleminded, addlepated Luthorian get-rich land swindle. At one level, that was a steep IQ-chopping lobotomy. And yet, a welcome one, since it spared us another “there are things man is not meant to know” Luddite rant.

On the positive side, there were a few moments of normal people stepping in to help out. Perhaps a new superhero tradition? Not as beautifully and meaningfully as it was done in both Spiderman films - (those two did this in boldly profound and marvelously moving ways that I deeply admired) - but at least a bit of it was there.

And now, regarding art on a much more elevated level.... Stefan provided this and I want to thank him for it:

David, Samuel Clemens's slam against Sir Walter Scott reminds me of your rants about Bakshi, Lucas, and JRRT. Take this excerpt from the chapter "Enchantments and Enchanters" of _Life on the Mississippi_

"Against the crimes of the French Revolution and of Bonaparte may be set two compensating benefactions: the Revolution broke the chains of the _ancien régime_ and of the Church, and made of a nation of abject slaves a nation of freemen; and Bonaparte instituted the setting of merit above birth, and also so completely stripped the divinity from royalty, that whereas crowned heads in Europe were gods before, they are only men, since, and can never be gods again, but only figure-heads, and answerable for their acts like common clay. Such benefactions as these compensate the temporary harm which Bonaparte and the Revolution did, and leave the world in debt to them for these great and permanent services to liberty, humanity, and progress.

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless, and worthless long-vanished society.

He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully.

There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive work, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.

But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner--or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it--would be wholly modern, in place of modern and mediæval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter."

Phew! I am not sure that even I would go so far as Clemens does here, in my denunciations of romanticism. (Indeed, I feel that I do not denounce as much as caution.) For example, it seems to me that Clemens ignores the INHERENT allure of feudalism. I see it as clearly the “natural” human order, since it erupted almost everywhere, across 4,000 years. Certainly the proud and prickly Southern caste system was already present before Sir Walter Scott.

And yet, he is right to point out that this elitist-feudalist-fantasy-ramantic stuff - when it becomes anti-modernist propaganda - is one of the purest evils around. Moreover, how can I feel anything but warmth toward Clemens for expressing - once again - his alliance with us moderns, and with our determined goal of human progress.

Want an irony? read something else by the same man... Mark Twain’s lovely rant against Benjamin Franklin! Superficially similar, it has very different deep meaning. It is a great piece, in which one grouchy brother gripes about another... while you can tell that they were so very much alike, under the skin. Both rambunctious and eager and bold and tolerant and deeply, deeply American. They were siblings.

Last week, standing by Franklin’s grave... just a block away from the American Enlightenment's Sinai... I felt very much the same.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Return of the Blog

Did you all enjoy the hiatus?

I just got back from a frenetic trip to New York (to film my new History Channel show)...

...then Boston (the International Complexity Conference) ...

...DC (a conference on thwarting "evil genius" scenarios, hosted by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency) ...

...then Gettysburg and Philadelphia. The kids toured sights and learned huge amounts of history while I worked, sigh. (We always seem to bring freakish weather when we travel east and this time it was a monsoon! The Archives and Pickett's Charge and some other milestones were washed out.)

Favorite parts? Congressional aides/lobbyists (there's a difference?) Dan and Erik taking us on a lovely guided tour of the Capitol. (God bless the heroes of UA93 who saved BOTH our civilization AND this heart-filling treasure!) Thanks Dan & Erik!
...Touring Gettysburg by foot and car (after having watched Ted Turner's great film.)
... Living in a Hoboken fire house for three days, meeting real heroes like former NYC Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen and the men of Rescue One.
...Seeing old pals in DC and meeting great minds like Judge Posner, while Tom Clancy gave our dinner speech...

... and standing yet again in that Temple of the Enlightenment - a place every bit as sacred as Sinai - Independence Hall. (I get shivers, every time. All choked up.)
...And, yes, a block away, visiting the humble grave of old Ben. My hero.

(One complaint. At Arlington National Cemetary, most of the tour guides had not even HEARD of George Marshall, let alone had a clue of where he could be found. Only the greatest American in 100 years. Should have been Time's Man of the Century.)

A great (if exhausting) trip.

All right, then, shall we resume?

Where shall we begin? How about one small item that's apolotical and one from politics? Sound fair?

1) Announcing the most vivid and interesting new online magazine -- Jim Baen's Universe
which offers a generous variety of fiction and fascinating articles. Editor Eric Flint has gathered an impressive array of talent, and even allowed me to slip in too, with a serialized novel... my first big science fiction comedy in years! The good news? Subscription is a real bargain. The sad news is that founder and publisher Jim Baen recently passed away, even at the moment of triumphantly launching Universe Magazine. A tragic loss to the field - one of our most vivid and dynamic leaders.

2) Under the category of "can you imagine what would have been said if this happened under Bill Clinton?"

Oh the hypocrisy! Enron's Ken Lay dropping dead, just as he's in the process of plea-bargaining a tell-all to prosecutors in order to avoid prison? Is this a no-brainer? (Even if it really was of "natural causes.") And yet the obvious paranoid riff gets no mention at all? Yeesh!

I mean, are paranoid freakazoids REALLY that partisan, that they cannot spread it around a bit? Without a scintilla of cause or evidence, they STILL call poor Vince Foster's "travelgate" suicide a murder (murdered... over that?) and yet never seem to notice stuff 10,000 times as suspicious on the other side.


I accuse them of utter hypocrisy. They are credulous maniacs, every single one.

More soon.