Friday, June 29, 2007

Perspectives on Climate Change - and Denial

After I posted an earlier draft of this informal appraisal of climate-denial, the ensuing discussion helped to clarify many matters. It also provoked me to cover some additional categories. The result is an expanded and more fleshed-out article, which I'll post here, so that it can be available in a handy, semi-final form. Comments continue to be welcome.

=================

Perspectives on Climate Change - and The Ritualization of Denial


Recently, on the pages of a very high-ranked tech commerce newsletter, I was personally challenged by a former top member of Enron, to answer a series of standard neoconservative mantras concerning global climate change. Talking points that - in my opinion and in the opinion of almost every scientifically-educated person I know - smack of ritualized denial.

Alas, what we are seeing, nowadays, is not a debate, but rather, two subsets of the same civilization shouting past each other from entirely different assumptions and motivathttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifions and even mental processes. It can be difficult to find discursive bridges -- ways to cross this dangerous gulf -- when one side relies completely upon illogical and frantic catechisms of faith.

For those interested in a basic guided-tour of facts and fallacies behind the Climate Change Imbroglio, try starting with a list of 26 common questions in dispute, published by The New Scientist Magazine.

In contrast, what follows here is not so much a refutation based upon facts -- there are countless papers, books and sites devoted to compiling, presenting and hurling mountains of evidence -- as it is a list of points offered in perspective. Spotlighting some deceitful tricks used by those who want civilization to sit on its hands, despite a looming crisis that could end our recent golden age.

Let’s start with an excerpt from that former Enronista -- an example from the deniers’playbook of talking points:

...Global temperatures have not risen in concert with atmospheric co2 levels, which have shot up dramatically, while global average temperatures have not really changed very much at all since the late 1970s.

Except... um... that seven of the hottest years of the last 100 have been in the last decade? But no, I said that will not bandy facts. Except in service of logic. And so commenceth my reply.

1) Indeed, global temperatures have not risen as dramatically as CO2 levels have, in recent decades.

CO2 levels, in turn, have not risen as much as CO2 emissions have. So why have temperatures only risen a little, so far?

Most atmospheric scientists cite the prodigious buffering capacity of the oceans. But this is a double-edged sword. It also means that that buffering capacity may - at ANY moment - abruptly reach a limit, as anyone who has saturated a solution in chem class knows fully well. When that happens, not only will the partial absorption of CO2 excess stop, but any perturbation may “blurp” stored CO2 -- or even the methanic clathrates which lie in vast quantities beneath arctic seas. (For more on this.)


2) Another worrisome aspect of relying on buffering effects is that this same “climate inertia” may make it extremely hard to enact corrective measures, should our children (cursing our names) decide that they do not like the situation that we bequeathed upon them.


3) An obscure factoid - and one that’s rather fascinating, when one contemplates matters like life in the universe... and how we may be rather unusual. It appears that our sun’s “continuously habitable zone” (CHZ) actually extends beyond Mars! That poor planet was simply too small. If larger, it would have had seas, kept in “gaia-stability” by a high equilibrium level of greenhouse carbon dioxide. In other words, the farther out - and colder - you get within the CHZ, the more that greenhouse gases become your planet’s friend. (Trust me, planetary scientists know all about this. You don’t even need life on a water-world, in order to achieve gaia-balance, just ocean-mediated chemistry.)

Key point. The CHZ around a G type star is very wide, featuring a sliding scale of how much greenhouse gas a planet will settle upon, in order to keep liquid seas.

Now, what makes Earth apparently weird, galactically, is that we seem to skim the very inner edge of our sun’s CHZ. We dwell at the very hottest lip of Sol’s CHZ. Earth’s radiation balance depends on an almost utterly transparent atmosphere, swept almost completely clear of greenhouse gases. (Indeed, that inner edge will pass us in just half a billion years, when nothing will prevent the final warming, no matter how clear/transparent the atmosphere becomes.)

You can fight atmospheric science and climatology, but not astrophysics.


4) So, science itself must become the target.

How else to explain why neocon court mantricians like Michael Crichton have rushed to denounce the very concept of “scientific consensus”... sneering that scientific “facts are not things that can be voted upon. Nor do facts care about majority opinion.”

Hm. Well. Any scientist would concede this point... then add: “So?”

Look. What is at stake here is public policy -- the allocation of resources and application of laws for the betterment of a civilization and its people. And when you reduce this process to its essential element, public policy is based upon anticipation of what steps we should take now in order to have a better life later..

Ever since our prefrontal lobes acquired their time-forward focus, people have tried to plan for the future, based upon best-models of a murky tomorrow. Now that we have moved beyond arm waving prophecy, the pragmatic question has become, how shall we let science affect policy?

The classic American answer, ever since the days of the great (but now ironically named) Vannevar Bush, was to establish eclectic and august bodies of scientific expertise. To continually exposes areas that need infusions of research support. And for policy makers to lean on the best advisory teams possible. NEVER have these teams claimed perfect foresight! Still, despite some mistakes, they have done the best they could. Indeed, the record of good advice racked up by groups like the Office of Technology Assessment is admirable.

How has the Neocon movement broken with this tradition?

In 1994, the Gingrich revolution instantly disbanded every bit of autonomous advisory staff answerable to Congress. Later, when this movement took control of the White House, it acted against every scientific agency that could not be dissolved, from FDA to Agriculture to NASA itself, by cutting budgets, by redesigning mission statements and by stocking the top administrator slots with partisan hacks, most of them deeply despised by their scientific peers.


Which brings us to the twin hypocrisy of the Crichtonian rationalization.

a) The creed “there’s no such thing as scientific consensus” appears to claim that scientific advice should not influence policy, if even a small minority can be found, to disagree with that advice. What it boils down to is an excuse for scientifically ignorant politicians who have (at best) a 52% political mandate, to dismiss as irrelevant the worried expert opinions of (at-least) 80% majorities of scientists, in fields like atmospheric science.

It is just another version of the longstanding British tradition that “boffins” should stay in their labs and leave policy to Cambridge English majors.

b) The “we need more research” mantra, repeated endlessly on the right, becomes hypocritical to a truly treasonous degree when the people who chant this phrase then turn around and cut research! e.g. when they divert and slash NASA’s Earthward studies programs while publicly demanding that policy decisions wait for new data.

(Another example: strenuous efforts to divert attention from the other effect that is being wrought by increased atmospheric CO2, a recent, steady acidification of our oceans by dissolved carbonate, which is already wreaking harmful effects on the food chains we all rely upon. Completely aside from “warming” - this should be ringing alarm bells. What apology will suffice, if the neocons prove as wrong about this, as they did about, say, Martin Luther King?)


5) Another Shibboleth: “Harm to the economy.”

I cannot get over how little faith in markets is displayed by purported defenders of markets! Dig it. Society has artificially subsidized or scarcified numerous commodities, over the ages. Grain subsidies go back to Pharaohnic times. If past history is any judge, the chief effect of artificially advancing the rapidly-approaching era of higher carbon-fuel costs - in gradual increments - will be simply to open new frontiers for innovative businesses.

(Indeed, to start economizing now, while we still have some domestic petroleum reserves, would seem the prudent and “conservative” thing to do. But more on that, later.)

Sure, some troglodyte SECTORS of the economy may have to adapt if we take action now, using market incentives to act on climate change. But you don’t see Apple or GE or Hitachi crying fear of a general economic downturn.


6) A related neoconservative talking point is the outrageous “State of Fear” notion that all this fuss about climate change is a put-up job, foisted on a gullible public by venial conspirators who are doing it completely out of selfish greed. Supposedly, the eco/recycling industries - worth a few billions - allied with some PBS/media types, are nefariously imposing a culture-wide condition of unreasoning panic, all in order to line their pockets with massive amounts of ill-gotten lucre.

Meanwhile (naturally) the multi-TRILLION dollar carbon fuels industry is but a meek victim, completely innocent of anything of the kind. This party line, promoted despite a three-orders of-magnitude disparity in wealth and power and historically documented raw greed, is actually foisted with a straight face!

Indeed, this whole matter calls for a fairly lengthy side remark, about how psychology and our own cultural values are manipulated in order to achieve this marvel of double think. The American mythos is still deeply driven by Suspicion of Authority (SOA), the basic morality tale found in nearly all of our films and stories. A morality tale that says “watch out for sneaky, dominant elites.” Inherited from revolutionary days - and inherent to the Enlightenment - is the notion that accumulations of undue power merit relentless scrutiny. So deeply ingrained is this lesson - in the American psyche - that it is our reflex to always picture “our side” as the underdogs, and find ways to envision our opponents as some kind of illuminati. (Hey lefties, you do it too!)

What this generation of right-wing, neo-feudalist kleptocrats cannot afford is for “question-elites” scrutiny to fall upon them! Indeed, this may be the number one reason why “culture war” was fostered, creating a reflex among about one-third of Americans to despise anything associated with the word “liberal” - even when some issue at question ought to be non-partisan, technical and a matter referred to dispassionate, professional, scientific advice. The way climate change ought to be apart from normal politics.

Moreover, you have got to hand it to them. The manipulative effects of culture war have been incredible. Simply associate an issue with the despised “L-word,” and you can get Fox News viewers - essentially “Red America” - to envision a nefarious, conspiratorial “elite” that should be reflexively resisted according to our suspicion-of-authority instinct...

... while ignoring other elites who are a thousand times as rich, powerful, and conspiratorial, simply because they are on “the right side.”

ClimateSkeptics7) “Why should we listen to scientists, some of whom were talking about a New Ice Age, as recently as the 1970s?”

As Michael Le Page put it in a recent article: ‘At least, a handful of scientific papers discussed the possibility of a new ice age at some point in the future, leading to some pretty sensational media coverage. One of the sources of this idea may have been a 1971 paper by Stephen Schneider, then a climate researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, US. Schneider's paper suggested that the cooling effect of dirty air could outweigh the warming effect of carbon dioxide, potentially leading to an ice age if aerosol pollution quadrupled.

“However, Schneider soon realized (and published retractions) avowing that he had overestimated the cooling effect of aerosol pollution and underestimated the effect of CO2, meaning warming was more likely than cooling in the long run.”


Now, observe carefully what the real story shows about how far off the neocon interpretation - discrediting science - really is. Remember, we are talking about an era (The 60s and 70s) when climatology was in its infancy and the tools and data were microscopic, compared to today. The number of “Ice Age” papers involved was small, there was no multi-year consensus among atmospheric scientists, “panic” was almost nil. Proposed policy actions consisted of things that were already on the agenda anyway (reducing aerosol emissions, for health reasons), and -- above all -- the scientists involved engaged in a self-correction process that showed utter maturity and science at its very best.

”The calls for action to prevent further human-induced global warming, by contrast, are based on an enormous body of research by thousands of scientists over more than a century that has been subjected to intense – and sometimes ferocious – scrutiny.”

(For more detail: http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/mg19225822.300)



8) “All right, the climate is changing and humans have done it. We conservatives (finally) admit it. So? I guess it’s already too late to stop the warming. So let’s party on, dude.”

Seriously, that is one of the party lines (rephrased, I’ll admit, for satiric effect.) For example, faced with the fact that the US Navy is hurrying to make plans for an ice-free Arctic, some on the right are offering this “What? Me worry?” stance... as if it were actually logic, coming out of the mouths of adults.

Let me deal with this in two sentences -- all that such tripe deserves:

* Just because you concede that you’ve done damage to a system, that does not make it impossible for you to do MORE damage - e.g. by passing the ocean’s saturation point and triggering the release of vastly MORE greenhouse gases, spurring the “mother of storms.”

* We do not know enough about these things to tell what a “point of no return” would be; that’s what science (which the right has utterly betrayed) is supposed to be for.


9) Penultimate point. There is the matter of “burden of proof.”

Of course it is standard - in all emotion-laden polemical tiffs - to try dumping this burden on the other side. All partisans do this and I am no exception.

Still, ponder this -- it has already been proved repeatedly, that humanity is capable of affecting ecosystems, atmospheric systems (I grew up in LA) and even (in the case of the ozone hole) planetary systems. Thus, it is simply mind-boggling that a concerned majority of world scientists should have to prove their worries valid, beyond all doubt...

...before humanity decides to take simple precautions THAT MAKE SENSE ANYWAY.


10) And that is the final kibosh. The devastator. The ultimate eviscerator of this horrific mass-cult.

Because they never make clear exactly what it is that they are afraid of!

What? Efficiency?

Let me reiterate.
That is what it boils down to. Fear and loathing of... efficiency.

It is what Al Gore, the world’s scientific “consensus” community, the community of nations and all the sensibly worried folks out here are talking about.

Simply putting efficiency at or near the top of our civilization’s urgent agenda.

Investing in research, tweaking some incentives, adjusting some market parameters (that were already meddle-skewed anyway, in wrong directions)...

... all with the goal that we should ...
...get... more... from... less!


And that last part is the real mind-boggler, when you stop to think about it. That all of these polemical maneuvers and illogical arguments and contradictions and hypocrisies should be aimed at diverting us from becoming more productive while depending on fewer resources.

Oh, what has happened to conservatism?

Ever heard of “waste-not, want-not?”

Or “a stitch, in time, saves nine?”

Look back at the old puritans like Cotton Mather. Now remove their trait of nasty intolerance. Then ask - who most resembles the puritans nowadays?

Not today’s profligate, adventurist, insatiable and (above all) indulgence-promoting conservatives.

No. Today’s “puritans”are the worried, chiding and sometimes downright grouchy liberals! Wagging their fingers. Preaching that we ought to save our pennies and frugally learn to live within our means.

Oh, and not befouling our nest! How about a burden of proof for those who say “no worries” about that? Wasn't "cleanliness is next to Godliness" another conservative reflex? Once?

I’ve said it before and I will again, till enough “ostrich conservatives” wake up to how thoroughly their movement has been hijacked by traitors to everything it once stood for.

Hear that whirring sound. That’s the State of Arizona, drawing half its power from the spinning in Barry Goldwater’s grave.

David Brin



* Not to toot a horn. But my novel EARTH (written in 1988) portrayed many of the climate change effects we now see occurring. And then some.

==See: Climate Skeptics vs. Climate Deniers

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Refuting Lies About Climate Change

Recently, on the pages of a very high-ranked tech commerce newsletter, I was personally challenged by a former top member of Enron, to answer a series of standard neoconservative mantras concerning global climate change. Talking points that - in my opinion and in the opinion of almost every scientifically-educated person I know - smack of ritualized denial. Illogical and rather frantic catechisms of faith.

ClimateSkepticsWhat follows is less a refutation based upon facts - since there are countless papers, books and sites devoted to compiling, presenting and hurling mountains of evidence - than it is a list of points offered as perspective. Spotlighting some deceitful tricks used by those who want civilization to sit on its hands, despite a looming crisis.

Let’s start with an excerpt from the former Enronista:

...Global temperatures have not risen in concert with atmospheric co2 levels, which have shot up dramatically, while global average temperatures have not really changed very much at all since the late 1970s.
Except... um... that seven of the hottest years of the last 100 have been in the last decade? But no, I said that will not bandy facts. Except in service of logic. And so commenceth my reply.

1) Indeed, global temperatures have not risen as dramatically as CO2 levels have, in recent decades. CO2 levels, in turn, have not risen as much as CO2 EMISSIONS have. Most atmospheric scientists cite the prodigious buffering capacity of the oceans, but this is a double-edged sword. It also means that that buffering capacity may - at ANY moment - abruptly reach a limit, as anyone who has saturated a solution in chem class knows fully well. When that happens, any perturbation may “blurp” stored CO2 -- or even the methanic clathrates which lie in vast quantities beneath arctic seas.


2) Another worrisome aspect of relying on buffering effects is that this same “climate inertia” may make it extremely hard to enact corrective measures, should our children (cursing our names) decide that they do not like the situation that we bequeathed upon them.


3) An obscure factoid. Our sun’s “continuously habitable zone” (CHZ) actually extends beyond Mars. That poor planet was simply too small. If larger, it would have had seas, kept in “gaia stability” by a high equilibrium level of greenhouse carbon dioxide. (Trust me, planetary scientists know all about this. You don’t even need life on a water-world, in order to achieve gaia-balance, just ocean-mediated chemistry.) The CHZ around a G type star is very wide.

What makes Earth apparently weird, galactically, is that we seem to skim the very inner edge of our sun’s CHZ. Earth’s radiation balance depends on an almost utterly transparent atmosphere, swept almost completely clear of greenhouse gases. (Indeed, that inner edge will pass us in just half a billion years, when nothing will prevent the final warming.)

You can fight atmospheric science and climatology, but not astrophysics.


4) So, science itself must become the target.

Hence, neocon court mantricians like Michael Crichton have rushed to denounce the concept of “scientific consensus”... sneering that scientific “facts are not things that can be voted upon. Nor do facts care about majority opinion.”

Hm. Well. Any scientist would concede this point... then add: “So?”

Public policy is based upon anticipation. Ever since our prefrontal lobes acquired their time forward focus, people have tried to plan based upon best-models of a murky tomorrow. Now that we have moved beyond arm-waving prophecy, the pragmatic question has been, how shall we let science affect policy?

The classic American answer, ever since the days of the great (but now ironically named) Vannevar Bush, was to establish eclectic and august bodies of scientific expertise. To continually exposes areas that need infusions of research support. And for policy makers to keep near them the best advisory teams possible. NEVER have these teams claimed perfect foresight! Despite some mistakes, they have done the best they could. Indeed, the record of good advice racked up by groups like the Office of Technology Assessment is admirable.

How has the Neocon movement broken with this tradition? In 1994, the Gingrich revolution instantly disbanded every bit of autonomous advisory staff answerable to Congress. Later, when this movement took control of the White House, it acted against every scientific agency that could not be dissolved, from FDA to Agriculture to NASA itself, by stocking the top administrator slots with partisan hacks, most of them deeply despised by their scientific peers.

Which brings us to the twin hypocrisy of the Crichtonian rationalization.

a) The creed “there’s no such thing as scientific consensus” is just an excuse for scientifically ignorant politicians who have (at-best) a 52% political mandate, to dismiss as irrelevant the worried expert opinions of (at-least) 80% majorities of scientists, in fields like atmospheric science.

It is just another version of the longstanding British tradition that “boffins” should stay in their labs and leave policy to Cambridge English majors.

b) The “we need more research” mantra, repeated endlessly on the right, becomes hypocritical to a truly treasonous degree when the people who chant this phrase then turn around and cut research! e.g. when they divert and slash NASA’s Earthward studies programs.


5) Another Shibboleth: “Harm to the economy.”

I cannot get over how little faith in markets is displayed by purported defenders of markets! Dig it. Society has artificially subsidized or scarcified numerous commodities, over the ages. Grain subsidies go back to Pharaohnic times. If past history is any judge, the chief effect of artificially advancing the imminent era of higher carbon-fuel costs - in gradual increments - will be simply to open new frontiers for innovative businesses.

Sure, some troglodyte SECTORS of the economy may have to adapt if we take action on climate change, but you don’t see Apple or GE or Hitachi crying fear of a general economic downturn.


6) Penultimate point. There is the matter of “burden of proof.” Of course it is standard - in all emotion-laden polemical tiffs - to try dumping this burden on the other side. All partisans do this and I am no exception.

Still, ponder this -- it has already been proved repeatedly, that humanity is capable of affecting ecosystems, atmospheric systems (I grew up in LA) and even (in the case of the ozone hole) planetary systems. Thus, it is simply mind-boggling that a concerned majority of world scientists should have to prove their worries valid, beyond all doubt...

...before humanity decides to take simple precautions THAT MAKE SENSE ANYWAY.


7) And that is the final kibosh. The devastator. The ultimate eviscerator of this horrific mass-cult. Because they never make clear exactly what it is that they are afraid of!

What? Efficiency?


Let me reiterate. That is what it boils down to.
It is what Al Gore, the world’s scientific “consensus” community, the community of nations and all the sensibly worried folks out here are talking about.
Simply putting efficiency at or near the top of our civilization’s urgent agenda.
Investing in research, tweaking some incentives, adjusting some market parameters (that were already meddle-skewed anyway, in wrong directions)...
... all with the goal that we should ...
...get... more... from... less!

And that last part is the real mind-boggler, when you stop to think about it.

Oh, what has happened to conservatism?

Ever heard of “waste-not, want-not?”

Or “a stitch, in time, saves nine?”

Look back at the old puritans like Cotton Mather and remove their trait of nasty intolerance. Now ask - who most resembles the puritans nowadays? Not today’s profligate, indulgence-promoting conservatives...

...but the worried, chiding and sometimes downright grouchy liberals! Wagging their fingers and saying that we ought to save our pennies and frugally learn to live within our means.

Oh, and not befouling our nest! How about a burden of proof for those who say “no worries” about that? Wasn't "cleanliness is next to Godliness" another conservative reflex? Once?

I’ve said it before and I will again, till enough “ostrich conservatives” wake up to how thoroughly their movement has been hijacked by traitors to everything it once stood for.

Hear that whirring sound. That’s the State of Arizona, drawing half its power from the spinning in Barry Goldwater’s grave.

David Brin

Not to toot a horn. My novel EARTH (written in 1988) portrayed many of the climate change effects we now see occurring.

==Continue to Part 2: Perspectives on Climate Change and Denial

Also see: Climate Skeptics vs. Climate Deniers

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Crisis in Transparency... and the finale on "Trends in Violence"

We'll finish off our series on trends in violence across societies and millennia...

...but first news that ought to send chills down your spine.

In an earlier comments section, rushmc shared a news item about cops arresting and prosecuting a man for videotaping his own traffic stop. It is one of the most horrific cases I’ve seen and I hope one of you will investigate whether the victim has a legal defense fund or attorneys who would like to have perhaps an amicus brief from the likes of me.

”Last month, Brian Kelly of Carlisle, Pa., was riding with a friend when the car he was in was pulled over by a local police officer. Kelly, an amateur videographer, had his video camera with him and decided to record the traffic stop.

“The officer who pulled over the vehicle saw the camera and demanded Kelly hand it over. Kelly obliged. Soon after, six more police officers pulled up. They arrested Kelly on charges of violating an outdated Pennsylvania wiretapping law that forbids audio recordings of any second party without their permission. In this case, that party was the police officer.

“Kelly was charged with a felony, spent 26 hours in jail, and faces up to 10 years in prison. All for merely recording a police officer, a public servant, while he was on the job.”


In my book (1997) I forecast the arrival of both cop-carried cameras and reciprocal cams carried by those who are questioned. This reciprocality is vital to a free society and can protect decent people on both sides of such encounters, while holding malefactors accountable... on both sides.

(In fact, someone please look into whether there's a group or fund to help win this particular case?)

This is PRECISELY the crisis I spoke of in The Transparent Society, not only over transparency, freedom and accountability, but also between the professional castes and the Age of Amateurs. This is a fight that we cannot afford to lose.


=======

And now to complete the series (or Return to Part 1 of Trends in Violence)

Trends in Violence, PART THREE


WHY HAS VIOLENCE (APPARENTLY) WANED?

Stephen Pinker offers up a set of possible explanations for this decline in violence.

The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources....These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Eisner and Elias attribute the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity.

Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one's own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general.

A third theory, championed by Robert Wright, invokes the logic of non-zero-sum games: scenarios in which two agents can each come out ahead if they cooperate, such as trading goods, dividing up labor, or sharing the peace dividend that comes from laying down their arms. As people acquire know-how that they can share cheaply with others and develop technologies that allow them to spread their goods and ideas over larger territories at lower cost, their incentive to cooperate steadily increases, because other people become more valuable alive than dead.

Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one's own station, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I.”



MORE PLAUSIBLE EXPLANATIONS

This is one of those rare cases where I go with all of the above. In fact, some of these explanations are core elements of the Lockean Wager, that progress and improved societies can help us to evade the mistakes of both Rousseau and Hobbes. That our salvation will not come from oversimplifying prescriptions...

...but rather from nurturing open and accountable complexity, and the emergent properties that arise therefrom.

I would add a fifth cause that obviously overlaps with the others.

We tend, all-too often, to conflate and confuse empathy with sympathy. In its root meaning, “empathy” is an ability to extrapolate and imagine the internal feelings, motivations and thoughts of others. Empathy does not automatically translate into altruistic behavior toward those others.

Indeed, take almost any carnivore whose pattern of predation involves patient, one on-one stalking. A tiger or leopard must have empathy with its prey -- in effect, constantly pondering “what would I do now, if I were the deer?” -- as a tool that helps bring the hunt to a satisfactory conclusion. The same thing is true in war. The best generals routinely put themselves “in the enemy’s shoes.”

In order for this feral level of empathy to transmute into something recognizably altruistic, sympathetic and giving, there generally needs to be a second ingredient. Satiation -- (along with a personality trait called satiability) -- is what allows the predator, the warrior, the citizen, to stop pondering how the adversary feels, in order to overcome him, and instead transform empathy into a desire to help.

In other words, when you and your children have full bellies, when all needs are satisfied and likely to stay satisfied for a good time to come, then your imagination may tend to start broadening the Horizons of Inclusion -- those you are willing to consider fellow members of your tribe. From immediate family to band, tribe, and clan all the way to nation, race, species, and possibly even world. By this way of looking at things, the effect of civilization on violence becomes obvious ... and obviously related to Robert Wright’s reasoning, when he talks about “positive sum thinking.”

nonzero1(DO get Robert Wright's book NONZERO: The Logic of Human Destiny!)

By reducing our fear levels and letting us remain permanently satiated (for the basic needs of life) civilization allows us to gradually broaden these horizons of inclusion and transform feral empathy into sympathy, in which we can not only imagine being the other, but also want the other to do well.

Only then, just when it all starts making sense, there is this ironic twist!

The very process of expanding our horizons of inclusion is one that is complex in the extreme -- and often a fierce test of adaptability for both a nation and its citizens. For one thing, remember I said that satiation must be accompanied by satiability, in order for a secular decline in fear to translate into an increase in tolerance. Not all people or all civilizations are equal when it comes to this important trait. Indeed, many health care professionals report that insatiability is a hallmark of many kinds of mental illness. And even when a people or culture are basically sane, there are still old habits to overcome, as those horizons of inclusion expand outward.

We who experienced one of the greatest of those expansions -- during the Civil Rights and Gender Rights movements of the Sixties and so on -- can testify that decent people of basic goodwill can still need prodding in order to rouse themselves and re-evaluate old boundaries that have lost their relevance. Bad habits from older, more fearful times can be hard to break, even when the ingredients -- empathy, satiation, fear -reduction and an open society -- make things ripe for change. Like a super-saturated solution, ready for a state-transformation, there can still be a need for some kind of shock, to get momentum going.

Indeed, sometimes the provocation has to be vigorous, even militant, driven by a touch of indignant resentment toward past injustices that - in the context of those earlier, un-satiated eras - did not seem quite so unjust to peoples of old!

addiction(For more on the good and bad sides of righteous indignations, see:
http://www.davidbrin.com/addiction.html)

And here is where the irony comes full circle to touch upon Pinker’s topic -- the trend for so many nowadays to over-romanticize a supposedly peaceful and beneficent tribal existence. A bucolic moral superiority for which any evidence is sparse, at best. The Rousseauean fantasy of the noble savage. It is ironic because the real purpose of this guilt-tripping image is reformist and future-oriented! Its purpose is to propel modern and western culture forward, toward peacefulness and beneficence. And thus, at one level, it does not really matter if Pinker is right. The potency of guilt-by-comparison, as a motivator for social self improvement, is more than sufficient to keep this romantic fable forefront in the minds of many who seek social improvement and a better world.


BUT IS THE FABLE NECESSARY, ANYMORE?

Ah, but what if we are already motivated to fight injustice? To spread tolerance and truth and responsible goodness and all those other great things? Is it really necessary for us to continue wallowing in guilt trips that are -- all-too often -- lacking in evidence, or even simple outright lies? Is there not a level where saving the world with open eyes should be considered... well... more admirable than doing it because of silly myths?

Moreover, something else that Pinker does not say much about is the insidious immorality of the underlying impulse that causes so many well-meaning people to romanticize of ancient peoples and tribes. Quite independent of what the facts tell us, there is something darkly vicious and sanctimoniously self-serving about the reflex, which is shared by dogmatic, anti-future people on both the far-right and the far-left.

For one thing, it lets them play “I’m more moral than you are” games directed at their living neighbors. They do this by by associating themselves with people and tribes of the past who - because they are long dead - can be conveniently cleaned up, idealized and used for trumped-up, strawman comparisons.

(In this respect, by remaining conveniently dead and silent, ancient shamans and Gaian priestesses are much more cooperative than, say, today’s poor villagers in China and other developing nations, who keep choosing (despite being told they should not) to leave the countryside and head straight for the big city, preferring T Shirts and apartments and industrial jobs over grinding toil for rural land-owners. That choice, made by every group that has been offered development, since the days of Dickens, can seem annoying to those who preach hatred of modernity. Hence a growing preference for examples taken from the past.)

And yet, that isn’t really the worst moral fault of retro-nostalgists. I want to focus on another. One that I have not heard raised before, but that makes their position psychologically - as well as ethically - deeply worrisome.

Think about it. Every generation and every civilization has had some wise and decent people in it. Women and men who, despite whatever madness was going on around them, strove hard to improve conditions, to generate comfort for their families, to seek wisdom, to increase knowledge and also, above all, to raise a generation of offspring better than themselves.

That last part is the one that nostalgists find particularly threatening, because the very notion of ongoing human improvement smacks of hubris. Even worse, it threatens the notion of “eternal verities” that, by their asserted perfect nature cannot be improved. The implication, that no generation ever gets the “last word,” is one that’s been explicitly rejected, time and again, by dogmatists. From Marx to Rand to Saint Paul -- to University English Professors who dwell forever on the angst of Henry James -- the underlying psychology is the same.

“I can see the Truth - it is permanent - and no one after me will see it any better.”

But people CAN improve. Children CAN be better than their parents. Progress is possible. At least the best human beings always thinks so. (And here “best” is unambiguously applied. Try comparing those who you know, who are raising kids. It is a rare case of a truth that is obvious without need of proof or argument.)

The crux: when you claim that people in the past were better than we are, you are implicitly insulting those past people! Because you are thus saying that they failed in their greatest and dearest project. To make us better than them. I know for certain that I don’t want my descendants saying that about me! That I was better than them... and hence failed in my dearest hope? ouch!

(Though I would not mind them saying “He was a lot better than his times, and he helped to make us what we are.”)

Yes, there are some good reasons, as well as bad, to idealize ancient tribes. Modernism must not lose touch with older sources of wisdom. Especially empathy with how much our ancestors accomplished with so little to work with. I am thrilled by history channel shows that show (and sometimes exaggerate) “ancient marvels.” My kids are in scouting so they can appreciate both nature and how gritty life used to be. And may be again.

Still, I can see evidence of maturization all around me. My own kids seem to be better people than I was at the same ages. Moreover, they have almost no experience with the bullying and violence that used to be a routine part of growing up. I was pushed around, beaten or thrown into desperate battles almost monthly, back then. Though they study karate, not one of my kids has experienced, or even witnessed, a real fight. And yes, the ghetto is probably much worse... though probably better than it was.

Another reason that good people nurse nostalgic fantasies is fear of backsliding. If we acknowledge that any progress has been made, at all, then the pressure to reform and improve and push ahead - to take on injustice and poverty and our still rich flow of vicious violence in today’s world - might diminish.

I have dealt with this liberal impulse elsewhere, and I think that - while it is sincere - it is also smug, wrong-headed and deeply counter-productive. Worse, it is deeply puritan! Sourpusses who can only chide, without ever giving modern people a chance to feel good about progress, are latter day Cotton Mathers who believe that only guilt can motivate.

Make no mistake. These people have deeply harmed the very cause they believe in. Liberalism has suffered deeply because so many proponents of racial and social and sexual and ecological justice refuse ever to add a carrot to the stick. To use a little praise, as Pinker does, saying (in effect):

”Look how far you all have come! Our ancestors, who struggled to get us here, deserve half the credit. But you have also acted to repair so many faults. So many nasty habits. Good for you. The job is maybe halfway done!

“Of course, if we stop now our uneven levels of justice and inclusion may spark fires that bring it all down. We must continue the process. Become even better.

“Ironically, that is what the best of our tribal ancestors would have wanted of us! To be better than them, in countless ways. If we are part of the way toward making their greatest dream come true, that is neither an excuse for complacent smugness not a reason to disparage how much has been accomplished.

“It can only be reasonably taken as a challenge to keep moving forward. To take this journey as far as it can go.”

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Trends in Violence: Part Two

Trends in Violence, PART TWO:

The State of Nature... Are the Noble and Brutish Images Two Sides of the Same Coin?

51R2YlIF95L._SL500_AA300_Last time we pondered an issue that Stephen Pinker raised recently at THE EDGE, where he critiqued the widely and passionately-held belief that less technological native peoples tended to be more noble-minded and nonviolent than citizens of modern, western, industrial society. Certainly, that impression has been enhanced as our gore-drenched televisions bring us views of 20th and 21st Century machine enhanced mayhem.

But Pinker argues - backed by substantial evidence - that these myths are mostly illusory. That civilization, wealth, industry, law and education have made modern humans demonstrably calmer, more generous and less prone to violence, despite Hollywood cliches to the contrary.

I’ll leave it to Pinker to convince the reader with facts. My own role is to step back and offer some unusual perspectives. A few angles that may not have been fully considered, as this debate rages.


A FRATERNAL PHILOSOPHICAL SPAT

Does civilization take us closer to an ideal culture, by inculcating respect for law and calmer methods of accountability? Or does it take us farther away, by demolishing the democratic tendencies of so-called “primitive” societies?

This is actually quite an old puzzler. Indeed, one may be tempted to pose this issue in terms of two long-ago social thinkers, Hobbes and Rousseau. The former prescribed strict hierarchies and rules, in order to curb man’s reflexively brutish tendencies. In contrast, Jean-Jacques Rousseau preached that complex nation states corrupt the inherent goodness which all humans once displayed, in the state of nature.

BetterAngelsThough often presented as polar opposites, ironically, both of these views have been used to justify for rather nasty versions of oppression. They are, in fact, very close cousins, sharing many underlying assumptions and agendas. Both of them serve a pernicious, though all-too common, habit of romantic oversimplification. But more on that, later.

As we saw, earlier, modern anthropology has shed some light on this ancient argument. For example, it has long been known that native tribes ran a gamut fully as broad as the spectrum of modern cultures, with many of them now apparently as violent - on a per-capita basis - as the denizens of any urban gangland.

This does not mean we should stop trying to learn from different tribes, eras and ways. The essential lesson of tolerance and diversity is not that all ways are morally equal, or that “not-us” is routinely better than “us.” A far saner and more supportable justification for diversity is that we all benefit -- both ethically and pragmatically -- every time we learn fresh perspectives.

One needn’t be fetishistic about tolerance in order to deeply appreciate and promote the process I’ve called “otherness” -- (which is one of the wellsprings of science fiction, by the way).

Nevertheless, it is becoming clear that hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and traditionalist farmers had no mythical patent on moral-superiority, by sole virtue of being less complicated. While communalism does seem to work, on occasion, in some small tribes, it should be no surprise that close inspection always reveals plenty of human follies, imperfections and tragedies.

Yet, if Rousseau was off-base in depicting tribal life as totally innocent, does he still have a point about the corrupting influence of modern society? A fine and ironic parable for this point of view can be found in the comic film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, which depicts the results when a single useful modern tool lands among previously uncovetous bushmen, creating jealousy and strife where there had been none.

Eden, disrupted by the arrival of satanic technology. A theme that appears to be very popular (with variations) on both the far-left and the far-right.


THE PAST WAS ROUGH

In speaking up for the calming and civilizing effects of modernity, Steven Pinker cites some studies. I’ve seen others taken from ancient, medieval and pre-modern annals. Certainly, those who study the past most-closely nurse few Rousseauean fantasies. Just try standing in a trench at an archaeological dig and tracing with your finger layer after layer of chocolate-black soot from each occasion that a settlement was sacked and burned. Or sift through old-time diaries and other annals that portray how often the average male - in almost any society - found himself levied for duty as a soldier. (In very few eras did a non-slave avoid having to take up arms, often, in the course of a normal, forty-year life span.)

But let’s hear from Pinker’s essay on The Edge:

”To be sure, any attempt to document changes in violence must be soaked in uncertainty. In much of the world, the distant past was a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it, and, even for events in the historical record, statistics are spotty until recent periods. Long-term trends can be discerned only by smoothing out zigzags and spikes of horrific bloodletting. And the choice to focus on relative rather than absolute numbers brings up the moral imponderable of whether it is worse for 50 percent of a population of 100 to be killed or 1 percent in a population of one billion.

“Yet, despite these caveats, a picture is taking shape. The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century.”


I want to snip-in a few of the facts and studies that Pinker shares.

”The criminologist Manuel Eisner has assembled hundreds of homicide estimates from Western European localities that kept records at some point between 1200 and the mid-1990s. In every country he analyzed, murder rates declined steeply—for example, from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s.

“On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture: Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.

“Zooming in by a further power of ten exposes yet another reduction. After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts, and those that do occur are more likely to end in negotiated settlements rather than being fought to the bitter end. Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent.”


Naturally, this kind of talk sparks outrage from nostalgists of all kids. From right wing fundamentalists who dislike being told that the world is being made better by the hand of Man, and by left wing romantics who hate it ... well... for the exact same reason.


Next time: Why has violence (apparently) waned?

or return to Part 1 of this series


Note: Science fiction author - and fellow "Killer Bee" - Greg Bear will apparently be the guest on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, on the Comedy Network, Thursday night. Sparked by recent publicity attracted to SIGMA, the think tank of science-endowed sci fi writers that Greg & I helped to establish, some years ago. Knowing Greg, this ought to be fun.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Trends in Violence: Is the “Worst” Civilization Ironically the Best?

PART ONE: THE IDEALIZATION OF THE OTHER

There is a perennial topic that merits relentless attention, if this bitterly cynical first decade of the Third Millennium is ever to give way to a resurgent spirit of confident problem-solving.

Is modern civilization -- with its fermenting brew of technology, science, consumerism, production, trade, education, social mobility, egotism, extravagance and argumentation -- a worthwhile step along the road to something progressively better and wiser...

...or a mistaken wrong turn in human destiny? One that would be best corrected by a return to older and wiser ways?


Elsewhere, I have posed this as a fundamental question of our times, creating tension as a far deeper level than all of our superficial dogmas of politics and religion. See J.R.R. Tolkien vs. the Modern Age.

BetterAngelsNow, on the intelligencia site “The Edge,” philosopher Steven Pinker has resumed his ongoing effort to debunk what may be one of the most pernicious of all ubiquitous romantic notions - one that is reflexively (though unnecessarily) associated with extremes of liberalism. (Indeed, we’ll see that it shares deep roots with the far more dangerous extremes of the far-right.)

I refer to the wholly-unsupported and ultimately unhelpful tenet that, in less politically-correct times, used to be called the theory of the noble savage. Or the widely-shared mythology that life was far more pacific and beneficent in non technological tribes, than it is in our own benighted, arrogant and self-indulgent age of commerce and machines.

Pinker demurs:

“This doctrine -- the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset ("War is not an instinct but an invention"), Stephen Jay Gould ("Homo sapiens is not an evil or destructive species"), and Ashley Montagu ("Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood")."

"But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler."



THE UNDERLYING DILEMMA

Pinker is not the only one speaking up about the mythos of Noble Native Peoples, which has become such a reflex cliche in so many Hollywood films that a counter-reformation was only to be expected. (Some critics -- like Pinker -- appear sincerely inquisitive and should not be conflated with those driven by political or social motives.)

My own memic contributions to this topic have been:

1) To set it all in a wider perspective, by appraising a mythology that is strangely similar. Among those engaged the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) -- from radio astronomers, their associates, to many thousands of supporters -- there appears to be a widely-shared and seldom-questioned assumption that altruism must be a universal trait among advanced extraterrestrial species.

This tenet of faith -- in the inherently pure motives of aliens who are seen as far more technologically adept than us -- may have a lot in common with the impulse that Pinker critiques. The drive to romanticize bucolic tribes who were less technologically endowed.

NewOthernesscoverIndeed, the picture may be bigger than even Pinker realizes. I have suggested a common theme, under which some of the brightest members of western civilization have acquired a fascinating and somewhat paradoxical new habit -- perhaps an “emergent property” -- a reflex to extol the moral superiority of the other... the more different the better... a theme that I explore in my book Otherness.

2) To point out how much of this clash may be rooted far below the surface, in deep-down differences of personality. Between people who dwell on the comparative awfulness of contemporary civilization and those who nurse an equally alluring idealization -- perceiving our present stage as one of many along a generally rising trend.

Between those who see change as a lapse from eternal verities and those who invest hope in the possibility of rapid, positive-sum progress.


PROGRESS AS A DISSONANT IDEA

Let’s try to lay out this division in simple terms.

Do you believe in a basic improvability of human beings and human institutions?

Or, like so many, do you find talk of “improvement” worrisome, smacking of arrogant hubris on the part of a species -- and especially a (western) civilization -- that tries repeatedly -- and woefully -- to play God?


I contend that this contrast -- between those who see any Golden Age lying far away -- generally in the deep past -- and those who plant their idealized era in a gradually hand-built future -- goes much, much deeper than mere superficialities, like religious dogma. The split between “look-back” and “look-forward” worldviews may be so ingrained and psychological that it affects and alters perception itself.

Can people who are devoted to one fundamental, emotion-drenched viewpoint even notice evidence supporting the other, let alone engage their counterparts in useful discourse?

A hard lesson of the ages is that we humans are all subjectively biased... though science offers a few tools and habits that let us examine our biases, from time to time.

In this case, as we’ll see, some ironies seem to have emerged from the very best aspects of modern civilization. The very thing that we should most be proud of appears to prevent us from even noticing how very far we’ve come.


Next time: The State of Nature... Are the Noble and Brutish Images Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Reagan Bush, Reagan Bush, Bush Clinton....

Sorry, but I just gotta try this yet again, because I think (a) it's funny and (b) it suggests something important to think about. Feel free to spread the meme (attributing the source) until SOMEBODY runs with it. (Maybe JibJab?)

-----

THE COMING YEAR'S (AND CENTURY'S) POLITICAL CHANT!


Remember the funny “This Land Is Your Land” routine - by Jib Jab - that got so much attention during the Kerry-Bush race?

Well here’s an idea foir a video that has potential of really catching fire! I’d be happy to help script it.

You start chanting with images of Ronald Reagan together with George Bush Sr. presented onscreen (witha a caption “1980”) and then again “1984.”

Then follow with one of George Bush senior by himself (1988)...

Here’s the first chant.

REAGAN-BUSH
REAGAN-BUSH,
BUSH!


You repeat ... and then take it forward three MORE administrations (showing pictures each time) :

REAGAN-BUSH,

REAGAN-BUSH,

BUSH, CLINTON,

CLINTON, BUSH!



Can you already feel the rhythm? The pain?

Now repeat in a “round” - each time taking it a little farther, first ending in a querilous “Clinton”? Showing Hillary’s smiling face. (caption: 2008)


REAGAN-BUSH,
REAGAN-BUSH,
BUSH, CLINTON,
CLINTON, BUSH,
BUSH... CLINTON?


Now with gusto!


REAGAN-BUSH,
REAGAN-BUSH,
BUSH, CLINTON,
CLINTON, BUSH,
BUSH, CLINTON,
CLINTON...
(caption 2012)

...BUSH? (2016)

Now you’ve finished two Hillary terms with a final glimpse of ... Prez Jeb! And the audience starts to feel a chill.

Only the chorus is starting to really get into it. Using the names Bush and Clinton ad nauseam.


REAGAN-BUSH,
REAGAN-BUSH,

BUSH, CLINTON,
CLINTON, BUSH,
BUSH, CLINTON,
CLINTON, BUSH.

BUSH, CLINTON,
CLINTON, BUSH?


By now we’ve shown JEB’s SECOND TERM (2020) and then PRESIDENT CHELSEA CLINTON (2024 & 2028) and finally finished this round with a picture of president ... Jenna Bush... (2032)

And the singers are starting to look REALLY worried now.... even panicky, yet unable to stop...

I do believe this could be as bit a hit as the infamous “This Land is Your Land” skit during the Kerry race.

The title of the piece? Why... DYNASTY... of course. And that whirring accompaniment? George Washington, spinning in his grave.


======

Please. I like Hillary. I think she's smart and misunderstood. But we need a way out of this trap.And 8 more years of civil war ain't the route to anything but hell.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Top Level Defections... But is it too little, too late?

In Monday’s news: Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he would not seek the traditional second term for the military Joint Chiefs Chairman , Marine Gen. Peter Pace, or Adm. Edmund Giambastani. Ostensibly, this measure was taken in order to avoid the prospect of bitter reconfirmation hearings, this summer, but it completes a near clean sweep of high slots that had been purged and filled with men simpatico with the previous Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsefeld.

Adm Mike Mullen, Chief of Naval Operations, has been recommended to replace Mullen, one more good sign, since the Navy was the service least purged, least eviscerated, least bullied or ruined by Rumsfeld and his gang of nutjobs.

All of this supplements to other recent signs -- some of them only symbolic or superficial, and yet welcome, nonetheless -- that appear to suggest that Robert Gates may be an “anti-manchurian”... an actual, bona fide, competent adult American who has slipped into a crucial cabinet post at a moment when maniacs seemed on the verge of ruining the greatest military in history... or else driving the most apolitical military in history to the brink of open revolt.

Certainly the daily destruction of the United States Army and the National Guard continues, even as we speak. But there is a slim chance, it seems, for at least a small buffer of protection for the beleaguered men and women of the Officer Corps. If Gates manages to achieve this one thing, then he will earn our gratitude.

That is, if he is what he appears to be.

----
I have been telling everybody that the one thing they MUST do is “adopt an ostrich”. Find one borderline, quasi reasonable -- or at least capable of reason -- “ostrich conservative, perhaps a libertarian or Goldwater type who still hysterically shakes his or her head, mutter “Clinton was worse...somehow.” Grab ahold of that one person, and don’t let go until the head comes up, out of the sand, and they realize that it is their side’s turn to have gone mad. And it is their personal turn - and duty - to stand up, admit it, help save civilization...

...and even possibly help to save something of conservatism, from the inevitable backlash, when decent citizens find out what’s been going on.*

Ah, but be careful what you wish for! Some converts from right-wing silliness become, well, pretty dramatic (if interesting) people. Like Arianna Huffington. Only now, Paul Craig Roberts makes her look pallid and colorless in his torch-hot conversion and actinic rage against the monsters who have hijacked our nation and his old movement.

Take this from his recent article ”Losing Iraq, Nuking Iran.” In which Roberts worries not only about Bush, but about the whole mad meme-storm that is festering within today’s Republican Party establishment.

“The prospect of nuking Iran doesn't seem to disturb the three frontrunners for the Republican nomination, who agreed in their June 5 debate that the US might use nuclear weapons to destroy Iran's uranium enrichment facilities.”

For those who don’t know, Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He was Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review. So he knows the GOP establishment very well. And no one is better qualified to tell you that this is not Eisenhower’s party, or that of Barry Goldwater or even Ronald Reagan or Bush Sr., under whom cronyism and corruption were moderated somewhat by an occasional lapse into public spiritedness. Or at least a willingness to let skilled people do their jobs.

“The war in Iraq is lost. This fact is widely recognized by American military officers and has been recently expressed forcefully by Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of US forces in Iraq during the first year of the attempted occupation. Winning is no longer an option. Our best hope, Gen. Sanchez says, is "to stave off defeat," and that requires more intelligence and leadership than Gen. Sanchez sees in the entirety of our national political leadership: "I am absolutely convinced that America has a crisis in leadership at this time."

“More evidence that the war is lost arrived June 4 with headlines reporting: "U.S.-led soldiers control only about a third of Baghdad, the military said on Monday." After five years of war the US controls one-third of one city and nothing else.”


Moreover: “A year ago Colin Powell said that the US Army is "about broken." Col. Andy Bacevich, America's foremost writer on military affairs, documents in the current issue of The American Conservative that Bush's insane war has depleted and exhausted the US Army and Marine Corps:"Only a third of the regular Army's brigades qualify as combat-ready. In the reserve components, none meet that standard. When the last of the units reaches Baghdad as part of the president's strategy of escalation, the US will be left without a ready-to-deploy land force reserve."

Must I (tediously) remind folks where they heard first about this administration’s war against the US military, and especially the educated and hyper-dedicated men and women of the Officer Corps?

Roberts cites dismal, depressing statistic, but let’s skim ahead to the next phase of neocon madness. (And remember, this is a guy who knows all the GOP sources.)

“Neocons have convinced themselves that nuking Iran will show the Muslim world that Muslims have no alternative to submitting to the will of the US government. Insurgency and terrorism cannot prevail against nuclear weapons.Many US military officers are horrified at what they think would be the worst ever orchestrated war crime.

“There are reports of threatened resignations. But Dick Cheney is resolute. He tells Bush that the plan will save him from the ignominy of losing the war and restore his popularity as the president who saved Americans from Iranian nuclear weapons. With the captive American media providing propaganda cover, the neoconservatives believe that their plan can pull their chestnuts out of the fire and rescue them from the failure that their delusion has wrought.”



----
* When people “find out what’s going on.” Did I really say that? Is anyone, anyone at all, willing to contemplate the possibility that men who were bright enough to seize such power and steal such vast amounts may not simultaneously be morons, after all? When a narrow cabal acts in such a way as to relentlessly turn a great nation and Western Civilization around from a steep climb into spiralling decline, through a myriad acts of uniformly awe-inspiring incompetence - why is it impossible to ponder, weigh, or even allow the imagination to consider, the possibility that the outcome we perceive, so perfectly executed, is precisely what the inner-inner ruling cabal was after, all along?

Implementing a plan with brilliance, and not the clownlike imbecility that they have feigned? (Ask yourself, “Who could be so stupid?” Should that not have been a clue?)

Will no one else even contemplate this Cassandra warning about the slim possibility of a “Manchurian scenario? What? Not even in order to prevent David Brin from getting all the credit, if it just so happens that this cheap thriller plot is later proved right?

Come on, you professionals, who are reading this right now. Are you SO comfy in your view of things - or so lazy - or suborned - or so scared of the Bob Roberts University grads who have been installed above you as be-fanged assistant undersecretaries, that you won’t even ponder briefly the possibility that more is happening, in heaven and Earth, than your pat vision encompasses?

How smug. How unprofessional and indolent. Hear that whirring sound? It’s Donovan and Dulles, spinning in their graves. And if this dark scenario ever proves true, you will have been the ones who broke your vows. Who failed your duty. Who let us all, civilization, America, the dream and the experiment, get flushed down the tubes.

=========

Oh, here's a lagniappe: Under the category of If even a fraction of this is true...” (Of course a whole lot, most, and possibly all of it is. And yet, even so, the author does not connect the last dot.) The Muslim Brotherhood, Nazis and Al-Qaeda

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

An Ego Splurge (with a little whimsey...)

First an aside. If you get a chance, grab a copy of the June 11, edition of NEWSWEEK (or check it out online) just in order to read Fareed Zakaria’s AFTER BUSH: HOW TO RESTORE AMERICA’S PLACE IN THE WORLD.

Look, I sometimes (almost always?) seem arrogant and egotistical. (See much of what’s written below!) But I have priorities. And two that are much higher than my ego are (1) civilization and (2) an eagerness for good ideas, clear thinking, and good writing. Zakaria exhibits all of those traits.

And yes, I grumbled, “how come HE gets to say all these things in such a worldwide forum, when I was saying some of them five years ago?” But it’s with a wry smile. Because at least somebody is getting to say it all. At last.

Go read Zakaria. He’s better than me. There are some adults.

------
I bitch and moan and whine like a cranky child about lack of attention. But, well, I must be getting some traction somewhere. For example, one kind person wrote in to suggest people Google the phrase “self-righteous indignation”. Go ahead. I'll wait. Huh!

Even just “self-righteousness” puts me high on page 2. Oh, what pride.

But it gets better. Indignation is a topic that took a sudden surge when WIRED Science (online) posted a brief interview with me about “What science might do to help progress in the future.” My answer took a veer down unconventional avenues. For example:

“Given the daunting range of problems and opportunities that we face, I’d have to say that our most urgent scientific and technological need is to develop better methods for pragmatic problem-solving. Specifically, better tools for perceiving, for allocating scarce human attention, and for arguing usefully with one another, so that we can either compete creatively or reach effective consensus on measures to reach a better tomorrow.”

Well, well. This one certainly elicited a storm of nasty screeches in the comments section, calling my remarks “shite” and garbage and much worse.

No telling how many, though. One fellow was caught posting attacks under three different names... kind-of proving my point... which some others pointed out. Immature polemics are one reason the internet has remained noisy and noisome, almost bereft of actual discourse that can get anywhere...

...and yes, these kind people could be answered (as some did) with: “saying that my words just prove the author’s point is just another polemical trick!” That point is well taken.

Along with the suggestion that “Brin imbibes self-righteousness with the best of them.” Har! Anyone familiar with CONTRARY BRIN will recognize the wry wink that accompanies most of my postings, amid interactions with a lively and bright online community of skeptics. As for indignation addiction, well, I never denied being human.

But since my CORE push - pervading everything from EARTH to THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY is for universal reciprocal accountability... and my aphorism-acronym is “Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error” .... I guess that makes accusing me of hypocrisy about as valid as calling any decent man an “inherent rapist,” simply because he's male and has some hardwired (but never implemented) stone-age impulses, now and then.

Oh, sure, there's a level at which the accusation may have some philosophical validity. But it’s a level that is pretty dumb.

Generally-speaking, the level of behavior over at the WIRED site was pretty dismal, compared to you folks, here. If I am proud of anything in my online life, it is having fostered a few places where the discourse - if not as well organized and goal-oriented as I would like (see: http://www.davidbrin.com/disputationarticle1.html ) - at least feels eclectic and intelligent, with a shared theme of - above all else - a willingness (eagerness?) to entertain new ideas.

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And the privacy wars continue...

------- OTHER NEWS! -----

Webscriptions style downloadable files for Jim Baen's Universe are now available. PDF's will be delayed for a while, but if you've been waiting to download to your PDA or laptop or e-book reader. Consider starting with my serialized novel!

For the latest from the “Age of Amateurs”. (You heard it here first.)

As for another of my catch phrases, see a fascinating article about the use of satellite imagery to monitor the tragic and continuing genocidal crimes in Darfur. "What this satellite technology does, it makes it possible to break down those walls of secrecy. Not only to get information, but to get information in a way that's irrefutable," says Larry Cox, executive director of Amnesty International USA."

One person writing in (Andre Love) says: “The methodology is very much from the Transparent Society playbook.”

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See insightful comments by David Stephenson of Stephenson Strategies, re amateur action and the potential for a resilient citizenry: By contrast, Brin said that things were worsened during Katrina "...by a professional protector caste ....whose sole ambition appeared to be to staunch any citizen-organized activity" ...and that communication technology failed the public. An example of the potential: Douglas Brinkley detailed in The Great Deluge how one Richard Zushlag, of Acadia Ambulance, was a one-man technology emergency provider, via his company's own tower and his many satellite phones..)....

Now, if only we can start getting some leverage. _-- Anybody have suggestions what I should say when I speak at Qualcomm, next month? Beyond suggesting they incorporate self-healing mesh networks for text, beneath the cell-tower mediated main level?

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Another item for the prediction registry. (Is anyone collecting these for me? A simple file will do, till we have a place to post em, along with other sci fi forecasts that came true).

David Melikoff writes: ”I just read your story “The Giving Plague” on your website. What struck me was that there is a real-world aspect of it: some people actually do feel a lot better after donating blood, and as a consequence they may tend to donate blood periodically.

“You may be aware of the hereditary disease that causes this: hemochromotosis. Apparently it is the result of a mutation during the plague years in Europe a few centuries ago. It causes iron from food to be horded in certain parts of the body, but not in the white blood cells. As a result, when the white blood cells attack plague bacteria, the immune system works far better than usually, as the plague bacteria do not get access to iron. The downside is that too much iron tends to collect within the body, and such people over time gradually feel ill from the extra iron, the only real symptomatic relief is achieved by removing blood from the body.

“I guess the real question is: do people with hemochromotosis, who give blood frequently (as it makes them feel good), tend to become altruistic, as in your story?”


Huh! I didn’t know of this. When did science learn about hemochromotosis?

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Enough for now! That is... except for a final miscbit:

Last October, scientists at Duke demonstrated a working cloaking device, hiding whatever was placed inside, although it worked only for microwaves.

In the experiment, a beam of microwave light split in two as it flowed around a specially designed cylinder and then almost seamlessly merged back together on the other side. That meant that an object placed inside the cylinder was effectively invisible. No light waves bounced off the object, and someone looking at it would have seen only what was behind it.