Sunday, January 30, 2005

Part 10: How Liberalism has Betrayed Modernity

...excellent comments, thanks...

Now you liberals should be warned. After laying into neoconservatives for quite some time, it is time to show faults on the other side. The Left-Right political axis has been a chief tool that romantic anti-modernists use to distract us from the real struggle.

Between future and past.

Part 10. Modernism gets a bad rap from the Left.

The irony is that everybody wants to accept the fruits of the LAST generation's modernist endeavors, while romantics of both left and right want to prevent anything new. I mean, would even the neocons want to go back to segregation? Would the most anti-tech lefty give up cell phones and recent medical advances? And who could complain about that music? All that incredible music.

Still, it is not the fruits of modernity that upset romantics. It is the conceptual underpinnings. The whole personality that they find offensive.

Counter-reaction had already set in before the can-do Congress of 1964 went cold. There had always been romantics on both the left and right who hated modernism. They found justification in Vietnam and urban riots. In Three Mile Island and the Exxon Valdez, and a long list of costly errors.

On the left, dogma-driven romantics warped the natural American suspicion of authority (SOA) into a never-ending list of political axes to grind. The fight for civil rights was such a heady and successful thing - overcoming ages of stereotypes and reflex discrimination - that soon every rock had to be turned over, seeking the next and then the next intolerance to expose, amid a drug-high of indignant fury.

Make no mistake, it was a good thing to extend this trend to gays, the handicapped and even to Wiccan tree-worshippers. But along the way it became less and less about equalizing basic opportunity and ever-more about creating and stoking a movement. A movement that came equipped with ideologies, litmus tests, enemies lists, and long catalogues of forbidden words. Forbidden topics of conversation.

And forbidden technologies, forbidden projects, forbidden ideas. Former allies found themselves ejected from a liberalism that was fast becoming a dogmatic faith, led by an elite priesthood.

First to go were spaceflight and nuclear power, though both had done wonders for the planet and its people.

Then the military, although its desegregation under Harry Truman and George Marshall had been the event that gave civil rights irresistible momentum.

Then polite dissent became a crime within a thousand academic departments that veered toward doctrinal purity, purging any unacceptable deviation.

Next to be ejected from an ever-narrowing liberalism were the nation’s churches, forgetting how men and women of faith had helped to combat slavery, then to promote civil rights, then to resist the moral error of Vietnam. (Thus, they reject one of the greatest modernists of all, Martin Luther King.) And with the churches banished, so were traditional notions of parental guidance during childhood. Finally, that quintessential hippie, Jesus, got the boot from a movement that he probably would have helped to establish, at Woodstock.

Liberalism began reflexively assuming that everything white, rural or suburban, bourgeois, American, or socially demure was automatically suspect, until people with those traits began responding with hostility of their own. The very word “liberal” became a weapon in the hands of its enemies. And when this happened, the movement’s elites only made things worse by diagnosing that the common citizens had been brainwashed by propaganda. Contempt for the masses, invigorating and satisfying, thereupon displayed its deadly side-effect -- political suicide.

(Contempt is ultimately lethal, once the voting masses find out how you feel. We can hope this will be the comeuppance of the haughty neocons, before they do too much more harm.)

But the biggest break was between liberalism and modernism. Every ill-conceived or ill-executed error of the ambitious modernists came under scrutiny. Not for its pragmatic success-failure ratio, but for whether it met the Left’s growing catalogue of litmus standards. Engineers became reviled enemies. The very nerds and technologists who had been at the core of liberal-modernism’s can-do spirit were progressively alienated, until you can hardly find one who will even talk to a liberal anymore.

...on to part 11...

or return to Part 1: The Radical Notion of Modernism


David Ivory said...

Consider this comment a Caveat Emptor for international readers as
it has always amused and confused me that Liberals in the US are considered just this side of communists when in Europe they are considered to be to the right of neocons!

In Laissez Faire Hong Kong we get hit by the media from both sides and so one never knows what to think...

But one thing is clear - who would want to call themselves a Liberal when you're screwed both ways?

The Economist is similarly exercised.

I think David's complaint ( Liberals losing touch with Modernism ) has similar roots to that of the Economist. Originally the Liberal ideal arose from the Enlightenment...

"The idea, with its roots in English and Scottish political philosophy of the 18th century, speaks up for individual rights and freedoms, and challenges over-mighty government and other forms of power."Which meant not only freedom from economic interference by government - but also social freedom and equlaity. There was not left right divide just modernist enlightened ideas about political conduct.

Again as the Economist puts it (they've been saying it for 100 years and more so they often say it best)...

..."modern politics has divorced the two strands, with the left emphasising individual rights in social and civil matters but not in economic life, and the right saying the converse. That separation explains how it can be that the same term is now used in different places to say opposite things.

"What is harder to explain is why “liberal” has become such a term of abuse. When you understand that the tradition it springs from has changed the world so much for the better in the past two and a half centuries, you might have expected all sides to be claiming the label for their own exclusive use."
In essence where David Brin speaks of Modernism the Economist speaks of Liberalism. Both are similarly upset that modernism/liberalism is often misunderstood.

So we're not confused now right? ... um I mean left...

Let's just get it straight instead!

Anonymous said...

"The very nerds and technologists who had been at the core of liberal-modernism’s can-do spirit were progressively alienated, until you can hardly find one who will even talk to a liberal anymore."

Bah, humbug!

If this were true, discussions on Slashdot wouldn't be as nearly as contentious.

I work for a techie company, and the vast majority of my co-workers are liberal, with many being a bit more to the left than the Democratic party mean.

The characterization of the liberals as anti-modernist is only true is you conflate the "liberal" with the most fringie of the far left . . . the self-marginalized, culturally inbred folks found in forgotten corners of academia and bohemian districts of large cities. They make a lot of noise, but they're politically and culturally powerless. (Well, I guess we can credit them with Nader and Nader's spoiler effect in 2000.)


David Brin said...

Yes, the word "liberal" was porrly used here. The word in its pure sense describes most of us, even libertarians, who support general notions of the Enlightenment.

Alas, I was just at a libertarian convention and it is truly hopeless to get past the tinfoil hat folks. See for my speech at their national convention about how they MIGHT rescue America by robbing the GOP of its largest voter class, leving it exposed as what it truly is now... a cult tun by apocalypts, neocon-platonists, and (especially) 5,000 aristocratic ripoff artistes.

It should be pointed out that the Democratic party is NOT yet run by enemies of the Enlightenment. Probably a majority of Democratic voters AND pols truly believe in modernist pragmatism.

But they, too, are damaged severely by ant-modernists who routinely hijack subsets of the agenda and frighten voters with lefty madness.

At present, the Dems are the only place where pragmatism prevails... eg Bill Clinton actually balancing budgets while carrying out the extremely competent Balkans War. But how to persuade millions of conservative voters that they are better off backing ONE kind of modernist competence rather than "their" kind of kleptocratic monsters?

Anonymous said...

Bah, and here I was going to make points about the mostly-irrelevance of the "hard left" an the moral bankruptcy and looniness of major portions of the current Republican Party. (Who, me biased?) Though it may be that much of the pragmaticism of the current Democrats and activists is due to the threat they/we see from the "Neoconservatives" and the apocalyptic folks.

And the fact that "conservative" attacks on "Liberals" sound believable enough, and have enough of a basis in truth to fit in this series isn't good. But liberals are not nearly as bad, I think, as we've been made out to be.

Personally, I think the only real hope is to reinvigorate one of the parties, probably the Democrats. Though they're mostly decrepit and confused as a party, as Mr. Brin said, they're not totally ruled by anti-modernists like the Republicans seem to be. Personally, I don't hold out much hope for the Libretarians. I flirted with Libretarianism for a while, but the "Free Market" isn't the best fit for everything. There are things that government does well, and there are things that markets do well. In addition to the tinfoil hat crowd others have mentioned.

What I'd like is a party supporting sane things that work on more than one level at once. Like encouraging energy conservation and more distributed energy production, which would help environmental things and national security and reduce dependence on foriegn oil. And while I'm dreaming, I'd also like a dozen Tahitian dancing girls and a metric ton of chocolate.

- Nate (Who doesn't have a blogger account)

Anonymous said...

A few points...

Now, I agree with another poster that you probably used "liberal" in a rather bad way (as I did in the paper I sent to you several weeks ago). I think the problem that you cite here isn't one with liberals, but one of the "New Left" (which, having originated in the 60's, is now fairly old as far as political movements go). The "New Left", philosophically underpinned by Marcuse, was of a very different character than the "Old Left" it tried to displace. The "Old Left" was modernist, pro-science, pro-tech, and optimistic (if communistic and at times corrupt). The "New Left", displacing economic concerns with social ones, rejected the optimistic, scientific attitude of the Old Left in favor of histrionic fits and pessimism. Though this is a caricature, it isn't a terribly innacurate one. (See Ayn Rand's "Return of the Primitive"- though I'm not Ayn's biggest fan, this work pointed out the difference between liberal modernists and New Leftists in the starkest contrast imaginable.)

Now, a few comments on the essay-

-I know people who are pretty far from anti-tech lefties who would be more than happy if the cell phone had never been invented. I among them, quite frequently.

-it's hard to say if we really have extended civil liberties to gays in full, at least until the problem of gay marriage or civil union rights has been resolved. And Wiccans aren't tree worshippers, they worship a goddess and a god (some more panentheistic wiccans describe these as immanence and transcendence, while others have a more mythical approach, but either way, they don't worship trees any more than Christians worship two sticks in the shape of a t).

-the "movement" that emerged out of civil rights was largely a product of Marcusean critical theory- applying Marxist theory to social liberation movements... which gave rise to political correctness, "victim consciousness", and a thousand unnecessary protests. MLK is rolling in his grave.

-Spaceflight fell from favor because, well, while it may have done wonders for us, it didn't justify the massive, ever-escalating price. Arguably the tech buildup of the Apollo Program was partially responsible for the communications, computers, material science, and aerospace progress of the late 20th century, but this is less than immediately apparent to most casual observers, and we're running into more technical roadblocks than the optimists of the 50's and 60's expected. We still haven't built a real spaceplane, we don't have materials sufficiently effective at blocking solar and cosmic radiation to keep our astronauts safe, we can't stabilize an ecology independently of Earth (Biosphere 2, anyone?), and the energy costs are steadily increasing. On top of that, there just isn't much reason to go. The resources available aren't worth the price, nor is colonization terribly justifiable when we haven't even really begun to colonize the hostile frontiers of Earth, such as the oceans, Antarctica, or the planetary crust, all of which would be easier to tap into than outer space.

-Nuclear Power never lived up to the hype. Many scientists question if fission plants are even energy generators- when the energy cost of mining, refining, transporting uranium and constructing the plants is taken into account, nukes might barely even be a break-even proposition. While it is a shame that fusion isn't getting nearly enough research attention because of nuclear fears, it's hard to say if fission is really worth a dime (though you are probably far more knowledgeable on this matter than I am).

-Did we ever end our love affair with the millitary? We might have let our forces atrophy during the detente of the 70's, but Reagan spent us into a black hole building our millitary into the hyperpower-worthy force it is today. Unfortunately, the lion's share of that money went into developing a millitary that wasn't exactly designed for fighting postmodern wars- anti-terror and extended guerilla campaigns.

-The liberals didn't abandon the churches, the churches abandoned the liberals. The rise of the Moral Majority was just the beginning of the end for Christian Modernism, as the left switched it's focus from economic and human rights issues to civil liberties and social justice issues abroad, and in the process embraced issues that were a turn-off to the Christian population at large (abortion, gay rights, separation of church and state). In many ways, right-wing demagogues and "evangelists" spun these issues in a highly cynical manner, making fringe opinions seem mainstream, but the damage was done nonetheless. Along with the collapse of the labor unions, folks who once took their political marching orders from their union boss started taking them from the pulpit, causing them to fall right into the cynical triangulation of the far right- selling themselves to the glue factory, to borrow an image from Orwell. On top of that, liberal protestants have lost a considerable amount of clout as their ranks shrink in favor of the more experiential and simple evangelical denominations.

-Other posters have already mentioned the issue of liberals and nerds, but I'll just mention what I've experienced of nerds (which would sum up my social group- all of my high school buddies ran off to get CS degrees, while I was the lone government and philosophy major- or "unemployment" major, as they like to tell me). The majority of the nerds I've met are liberals of one stripe or another- whether they're right-wing libertarians, centrist Clinton Democrats, or lefty Move On members. When I was in Seattle a few years ago with a friend who works at Microsoft, I couldn't help but note the way software engineers and bohemian capitol hill and university district folk rubbed shoulders- they've got different ideas about the future, but at heart, they know they're allies. As my friend told me when he called the day after the election, "Seattle did it's best to try to beat the Bush- too bad Ohio and South Dakota didn't help." I was too embarassed to comment.

Again though, I'm enjoying the essay. Keep it up.

-Nicq MacDonald

Anonymous said...

For someone who claims to dislike the "left-right political axis" you sure seem to say "the left does X" and "the right does Y" a lot. Perhaps it would be a useful effort to recast your thinking in ways that completely avoid using "left" and "right"? I mean, if you really think the situation is multipolar, depict it as such.

Then again, I personally agree with those who say that the two-party system is an emergent property of the U.S. Constitution, and that a "left" and a "right" will emerge from any situation due to the fact that you've got to hook up with one of the two sides to get anything done.

Saying "the real struggle is between the future and the past" is not going to win you any converts, because people of all political persuasions believe their program will lead to a better future. (Even believers in a Golden Age, because they feel that even if we'll never recapture the Golden Age, we can at least try to emulate it and get something better than what we've got today.)

Anonymous said...

In part 10 you imply that what you call modernism should be judged on the "pragmatic success-failure ratio" of various endeavors. Presumably you believe that ratio is greater than 1, and that any honest observer will come to the same conclusion.

The problem is that many honest observers won't, and here's why, via an analogy. There's a paradox in mathematics where it can be shown that the number of even numbers is "the same" as the number of numbers in general. The problem is that both sets are infinite. For every number you can pair up a corresponding even number, and vice versa, so there's justification in saying there are as many of each kind, even though one is "obviously" larger than the other.

A similar principle applies when it comes to evaluating data points in support of political positions today. For any situation where there is some disagreement, both sides will have an effectively infinite number of facts to support their position, due to the fact that a vast amount of raw data is collected about everything these days. Anything one side comes up with to support its position can be match on the other side with something to support its position.

So now it's not simply a matter of "my side has more facts to support its position than yours". Both sides have "the same" nearly-infinite number of facts supporting their positions. Your view of the world then comes down not to some kind of objective comparison, but by how things *feel* to you personally.

So when you say "obviously, the modernist program has had more successes than failures", someone who feels the opposite can say "that's not so obvious" and counter every success you cite with a failure.

(The environment created by this blizzard of data is what allows modern spin-based politics to exist, and figuring out how to deal with it will be necessary if we think the future of the country shouldn't necessarily be directed by whoever has the best public-relations apparatus.)

Anonymous said...

About the comments above about moderate social issue terrain, Hillary Clinton had a speech about abortion the other day that seems to be trying to set out some moderate terrain on that, at least. Promoting education and contraceptives, and trying to emphasize the "Safe, legal, and rare" forumulation. And I think that's about all I'm going to say on that topic now.

I do also kinda agree with the two party system being so strong because of how elections are run. When it's 50%+1, it boils down to two parties, because otherwise, two parties in general agreeement could get 35% and 25% of the vote and lose to the other party, which got 40% of the vote. It's one of the reasons I think election reform is important. (Besides, y'know, making sure that the elections actually end up with the votes properly counted)

- Nate

David Brin said...

One flaw with anonymous's comments. America's "Old Left" wasn't communist in the years after WWII. Indeed, anti-communism as a vigorous and dynamic policy (excluding McCarthite witch hunts) was in large measure pushed by (believe it or not) the AFL-CIO and the US labor movement.

Communism claims to be future oriented and progressive... and it can be when the ultimate goal is the topic in a quasi theoretical way. But it rapidly decays into another aristocratic romanticism at every opportunity.

Wiccan comments are corrected. As for gay marriage, there is all the world of difference between that buzz phrase, which was designed in order to offend bourgeois America, and Civil Unions, which were a pragmatic way to achieve all of the same practical benefits without provoking political fire storms.

As for space, you could multiply the cost 10 X over and still not use up the benefits of communication satellites alone, let alone weather satellites. Above all, we are still alive because spy satellites enabled the great powers to act on actual knowledge and not their worst fears.

I think it's entirely unfair to saddle fission power with the amortized cost of political and legal fights OVER nuclear power. You could start a legal/political fuss over anything and amortize away its benefits that way. Now we multiply the costs exponentially by trying to ensure 10,000 year safety in storing material (radionuclides) that will be sold to our grandchildren as a valuable commodity.

While Reagan is far from my favorite person, and nowhere near the god the right makes him out to be - indeed, he played brinksman roulette with all our lives - the fact is that his gamble worked (in THIS parallel universe... others are molten slag.) By driving the USSR into economic collapse, we (and it is WE... including Jimmy Carter's Human Rights campaign) ended a great evil. Let's be fair.

And yes, the split between churches and the Left was reciprocal. But the Left did not have to demonize faith. Or tradition. Or being white, or male, or sexually demure. They do that for their own indignant satisfaction.

Self-righteousness is an addictive drug high. The worst and most damaging drug abuse of our times.

Re the libertarians, I just had a run in with Harry Browne, 2x nominee of the LP. His smooth-as-silk denial that there could possibly be anything wrong with a dogmatic rant that has failed, utterly and on all levels, for 40 years, shows how pathetic a bunch of foil-hat losers the LP has become.

It is truly tragic, because a small pragmatic tweak could make them a major force, stripping millions of voters from the apocalypt-neocon-klepto triumverate.

Re abortion, the commentor misses the whole point of the abortion imbroglio, which is that it serves the interests of polemical radicalizers themselves. In this case, the right needed some issue over which Jesus would side with them, since in all other ways he was clearly a socialist. Saving babies gives a single issue on-off switch to have Jesus side with them, despite everything else. That won't wok if abortion is ambiguous and subject to a sliding scale.

Yes, compromise SHOULD reduce the NUMBER of abortions drastically. As compromise over gun control should reduce gun deaths while preserving a basic 4th Amendment right. So? You are simply saying "I am a modernist, let's solve problems." Good luck.

You are right that the left is incapable of seeing how they have deliberately and repeatedly offended middle america, causing the very situation we face today. But remember, that is the ONLY power the Left has, today. Communism and socialism are as dead as Dodo. That reason, if no other, is the chief one that we should explain to voters for turning away from the right. The Left can't actually DO much of anything.

Because the main liberal agenda is accomplished, or underway, and all that's needed is for society to do a million small pragmatic things to make it all succeed. It's why Bill Clinton was a success despite passing zero legislation (other than welfare reform). He spent 8 years dotting i's and crossing t's and good stuff got done.

Re libertarianism again, right on. The demonizing of "government" is an insane misinterpreting of libertarianism. Across 6,000 years, far more free markets were destroyed by conspiring aristocratic cliques than ever suffered from bureaucracy. Yet the Cato Institute never met a monopoly or oligarch it would not suck up to and make excuses for. See my "Libertarian Dilemma" article at

In fact, if some of you haven't seen my "Culture War" article, go to:

Thanks for interesting and lively comments from a whole bunch of great modernists.

Anonymous said...

Is it just me, or has everyone forgotten science fiction in all of this? Specifically, I'm thinking of two of Issac Asimov's stories.

In "The Evitable Conflict" he reminded us of certain aspects of history, that everyone thought that England couldn't survive as half Protestent and half Catholic, only it did. I wonder if someday someone will write, "In America in the early 2000's they thought that the country couldn't survive half red and half blue, only it did. So much for Lincoln's contention that a house divided against itself could not stand."

In "The Caves of Steel" he shows that Romantics and Modernist/Pragmatist/SF Fans/Dreamers/Spacers/whatever you want to call them can find common ground. The Romantics say, "Back to the soil." The others say, "Back to the soil, on other planets, thanks to the robots."

Anyways, I like that I'm taking some philosophy courses that overlap these conversations (recommended this website to my teacher, and my Philosophy of Science class will soon discuss the links between science and modernist architecture.)

Lastly, I'd like people to check out this photo accompanying a bbc article on the Titan spacecraft. (

It looks like something that might have grace the covers of Argosy, Analog, Weird Tales, etc. as a painting once. Dammit, we're living in the future and it's not as great as it was cracked up to be. Feh.


Anonymous said...

Another minor thing. I'm suprised to see David Brin refer to the Libertarians as "tinfoil hat losers." Maybe I've been reading a bunch of his books and essays with blinders on, but I thought that he avoided ad hominems and isults for the most part.