Sunday, February 27, 2005

Modernism Part 15: Modernism & Science are assaulted from all sides...

Before resuming this long essay about modernism, here's a link to my big speech about libertarianism.  It's a cult classic... among the very few pragmatists in that sadly loopy movement. Sad because they could not even do to Bush what Nader did to Gore, even though their type of "conservatism" is far closer to the meaning of the word held by a majority of GOP voters. They could have become a strong force for freedom while undermining the drift of the New Right toward aristocratism. But year after year, libertarian purists blame the customers for not buying, instead of re-examining their product. It is pathetic, and a real betrayal of the movement's deeper potential. (Romanticism strikes again.)

Now onward.


Monsters to the Left of Us...

After Part 14, which discussed the obsessive neoconservative campaign against science and modernity, can we take it that the Enlightenment is principally under attack from the "right"?

Far from it! Let's take another example of this all-out reactionary frenzy, this time from the political "left."

oryx-and-crake-22Michael Crichton's apparent polar opposite would seem to be Margaret Atwood, the doyen of feminist fiction and well-known for her attacks on the white-male-financier power structure, in both fiction and polemical nonfiction. Oryx and Crake, Atwood's latest novel, portrays yet another world devastated by human greed, incompetence, and brutish oppression, this time nearly denuded of human life by scientific innovations gone awry.

Of course this is a familiar premise and one that I have used myself. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with some vivid extrapolative exaggeration in trying to make a point. The greatest 'self-preventing prophecies' have done it by showing how much we'd lose "if this goes on."

And yet, this motif can also become hackneyed, cliched, even a crutch. For example, nearly all feminist science fiction tales seem to begin with a scenario based on some (literally) manmade catastrophe. One can easily see why. The End of the World is such a bad thing - the very worst thing - that it offers a moral excuse for any author to pour opprobrium upon whole types who might be assigned blanket group-culpability. A neat trick, since you aren't really supposed to judge people in straw-man type-categories.

But that's what romantics inherently do, whether their particular ire is aimed left or right, at all commies or all capitalists or at all males. (See my article on Tolkien and the Modern Age) Romanticism is about one side being pure and good while the opposition is all-bad. And the attraction of this way of thinking is clear. Indignation feels good! It's lovely to disdain your opponents as-a class that is inherently immoral.

But even when your worldview officially promotes poilitically-correct hypertolerance? One way around this bind is to portray the enemy class (males, plutocrats, whatever) as all-powerful, and determined to bring about the end of the world.

(I expect grief from these paragraphs, so let me say very clearly that I consider myself to be a feminist and have written my own feminist utopia, Glory Season. Moreover, creating a cliched world holocaust and then assigning venal blame to conspiring corporate lords can seem less preposterous than Michael Crichton's recent attempt to call ecological activists the Great Illuminati! Here my criticism of the standard feminist fictional scenario is not aimed at the surface agenda of universal tolerance and opportunity - of which I deeply approve - but at a nasty undercurrent that many authors may not even be aware of.)

As part of this tradition, Oryx and Crake doesn't hold back. One of the book's key themes is the corrupting influence of commerce on science. When business interests dominate "you enter a skewed universe where science can no longer operate as science," Atwood says.

The book takes this to extremes. For example, biotech company HelthWyzer puts "hostile bioforms" into vitamin pills while at the same time marketing antidotes. "The best diseases, from a business point of view," the author writes with irony, "would be those that cause a lingering illness."

And it all goes to hell from there. Talk about a penalty for man's arrogance! The destruction of all art, all love, all hope. This is portrayed as the ultimate and likely outcome if we continue plunging forward with our insolent program of meddling with Nature's wisdom.

The crux: science cannot be trusted. Not while money or competition or self-interest are involved. (In other words, not while we are human.) Not anywhere as well as certain self-appointed artistic-elite guardians of Truth.

In effect, this is exactly the same lesson as that preached by Michael Crichton. Except replace "artistic" with "aristocratic." (The words even sound similar.)

state-of-fearTill now, I'd wager very few critics have even typed the names Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood in the same article, let alone calling them allies and co belligerents in the same cause. And yet, having come this far in a lengthy essay, the reader can now see why I present them, side-by-side. True, they have probably never supported the same politicians, and never will. Their particular choice of villains will always be surficially different; so will their heroes and heroines. But those are superficialities and distractions.

Indeed, this pair of authors show countless eerie parallels. Both claim relentlessly, and rather defensively, to be pro-science. Crichton avows a scientific education while Atwood often refers to her father and brother, biologists of some prominence. Both Crichton and Atwood mourn that modern science is relentlessly corrupted by corrupt interests that destroy its credibility. Even the unscrupulous conspiracies are remarkably similar, differing only in the cosmetic surfaces that distinguish left-wing authoritarian bogeymen from right-wing authoritarian bogeymen.

Both offer doomsday scenarios that arise almost entirely because of secrecy that stifles the natural corrective, error-prevention of open accountability in a free, democratic and scientific society.

And yet they never call secrecy the culprit, per se.

No, it is always hubris.

Dig down, and you will find that these authors, and a myriad others like them, tap the mythic current described by Joseph Campbell. A river of tradition, nostalgia and fear of the future that watered nearly all of the great literature in our tortured past, from Homer and Murusaki to Joyce. A despairing sense of loss. A belief in eternal verities and traditional values under threat. The rightful superiority of a wise or all-knowing class. A sense that the past knew better and that today's citizens cannot be trusted with bold new tools to "improve" the world. To improve their children and themselves.

Don't be distracted by minor differences. While lefty postmodernists express contempt for money-polluted, power-driven science in principle, Crichton and his neoconservative friends rail against what they perceive as a liberal-activist tilt on the part of the modern scientific community in practice, proclaiming that humanity's smartest and best trained minds -- the entire vast and amorphous marketplace of skilled scientific competitors -- have been polluted and discredited by outrageously unprofessional mysticism and consensual bias.

These two positions are seldom laid side-by-side. The common aim of antimodernists - both neoconservative and ultraliberal - is to discredit the process and credibility of science itself, a process that benefits from relentless criticism of specifics , but that is undermined by broadbrush general condemnations, hurled without supporting analysis from fanatical extremes of both left and right.

...on to Part 16... how it spreads outward from the arts...


Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Modernism Part 14: more on Crichton vs science

Let me preface the following installment with this - I met Michael Crichton only once, when we were on a television program together. He seemed a thoroughly nice fellow and my impression was of someone who cared sincerely about human success in a dangerous era. 1984Moreover, as you may read in other essays, I have no problem with people writing dire warning stories, about potential failure modes, or ways that technology might go awry. Indeed, the highest form of science fiction is arguably the self preventing prophecy, which causes enough thoughtful discussion that a particular worst-path is avoided. Best example? Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, though one could make similar cases for The China Syndrome, Soylent Green, and Silent Spring.

Certainly, if we ever do build robot or dinosaur theme parks, I am sure MC will get credit for warning us not to do it in the stupidest imaginable way.

But none of this has anything to do with my key point here, which concerns the bitter war for survival that modernism must now fight against enemies on all sides - romantics who cannot bear the fundamental assumptions of the Enlightenment. Especially that openness, pragmatism, accountability and rising human maturity may make us worthy - using good will and our own skilled hands - to remake a better world.

Moreover, while I respect the storytelling skills and breadth of interests shown by Michael Crichton... much as I respect the intellect and honesty of the late JRR Tolkien... there is simply no question which side of this struggle they both consistently chose.

Onward to part 14, taking up where we left off....

14: The agenda of the new-right does not want interference from Nobel-winning boffins...

state-of-fearIf criticism is the only known antidote to error, that means we are certainly behooved to listen when intelligent and articulate critics like Michael Crichton - or his left-wing, postmodernist counterparts - assail what may be faulty or premature conclusions, accepted too readily by “consensus science.” (See Michael Crichton's The Case for Skepticism on Global Warming, also in his fiction, State of Fear.

The beauty and magic of criticism is that it can be right at the level of details, even if the overall argument is inane.

For example, I have elsewhere said things similar to what Crichton says about the excessively dramatic environmental jeremiads of Paul Ehrlich and Carl Sagan who, for example, cut corners and did inaccurate science while predicting imminent mass starvation and/or nuclear winter by the century’s turn. (Other examples chosen by Crichton are singled-out unfairly.)

(For more on achieving a balanced and vigorously pragmatic view toward environmental crises, see: My review of Jared Diamond's Collapse and my review of Greg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better Why People Feel Worse. Or, of course, my novel Earth.)

But while pot-shotting easy targets, Crichton makes no effort to actually do what he recommends -- engage in the dispassionate and careful scientific work of proving his own case. For example, he is rich enough to fund a panel of neutral experts to statistically appraise how many politically tendentious or biased studies there are, compared to the surrounding sea-tide of accumulating human knowledge that is the general process of worldwide science. Or whether the biases of left and right counterbalance in some reasonably pragmatic corrective process.

He might even have suggested methods of appraisal that would catch sophistries perpetrated by paid-off scientists of both the left and right. Many such methods have been contemplated, for example "science courts" that would expose controversial notions to harsh criticism and cautiously evaluate their credibility. Elsewhere (Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict for Society's Benefit) I describe why this notion is unnecessary and potentially harmful. But Crichton should certainly have discussed a range of possible ways to fix the problem he describes. After all, he surficially claims to revere science, while bemoaning its fallen state.

Prey [Hardcover]-Michael CrichtonAlas, he is not interested in such processes or potential solutions, especially any that would enhance the validity and influence of science in public affairs. In fact, by cherry-picking anecdotal bad-examples - and misquoting those sources that he does cite - he demonstrates that his real aim is to besmirch the entire vast community of science, doing quite-blatantly the very thing that he derides.

The political agenda is very clear, of course. With a vast and growing scientific consensus building over the issue of Climate Change, and letters appearing in the press signed by scores of Nobel Prize winners, the deniers of global warming and other environmental threats face a deepening credibility gap. They must discredit the very notion of "scientific consensus" at a basic level, so that - no matter how many respected experts sign on to a petition - they can be prevented from influencing policy.

One of the commentors on Part 13 put it this way: Crichton says: "Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way." I contend that this is exactly how scientists would speak IF the distance to the sun or the energy equivalent of a kg were being disputed by non-scientists with a political agenda. This is precisely what is happening with Darwinian Evolution, which biologists regard as being on as solid a footing as Relativity or Orbital Mechanics, and their response is to invoke consensus.

In effect, by disdaining "consensus science", and offering no alternative, this branch of an obstinate aristocratic clade is - through Crichton - telling civilization's finest minds to return to their labs and tend their own business. As "boffins" they should stick to test tubes and leave policy to whichever self-chosen elite of aristocrats, politicos and/or philosopher kings happens to sit at the pinnacle of government and finance.

But then, look at Crichton’s novels, most of which follow a startlingly consistent plot outline.

First, a gosh-wow technological breakthrough is pursued by some cryptic entity (government agency, corporate lab, mad scientist or, lately, eco-fanatics) in total secrecy, evading the corrective effects of criticism. Errors are made due to a combination of hubris, profound stupidity, overweening pride and the utter absence of oversight by an obtuse civilization. And then (of course) hubris is compounded by more hubris. These errors very nearly lead to calamity while a solitary goodguy demigod berates the team efforts and the entire ignoramus culture that brought us to the brink.

Alas, not one of these lecturing heroes ever mentions the one corrective prescription that might actually work - general openness. The way we have often managed to get so many advances without hubristic calamities. (The almost perfect correlation between secrecy and catastrophe is a major point in The Transparent Society.)

Amid all the lectures in each Crichton novel, the plot - punctuated by gruesome deaths - does often build a lovely, reckless and heartpounding pace, hurtling toward a precipice of man-wrought doom...

...whereupon (more often than not) a miraculous salvation not only nullifies the error but then puts everything and everybody (except the dead) back where they came from, restoring a comfortable (but worried) status quo.

Try watching Jurassic Park again. Then murmur to both the hubristic strawman of a Disney-mogul and the smarmy-lectury-romantic mathematician -- "Duh... let's start out by making only herbivores!" Crichton’s dire warnings about misused science would go away in nearly every novel, but for an assumption of venal stupidity compounded by unnecessary (if convenient) secrecy.

Let there be no mistake, this plot outline is not modernist. It is romantic at every level that I describe elsewhere. Despite Crichton’s speech before a meeting of the AAAS , claiming “I am not anti-science!” -- he most definitely is. You can see it clearly in the following statement from his lecture at Caltech.

“In recent years, much has been said about the post modernist claims about science to the effect that science is just another form of raw power, tricked out in special claims for truth seeking and objectivity that really have no basis in fact. Science, we are told, is no better than any other undertaking. These ideas anger many scientists, and they anger me. But recent events have made me wonder if they are correct. “

Of course he does. As I alluded earlier, every foe of the Enlightenment must eventually converge on the same destination.

No specific scientific error is really at issue, since those can be fixed with tools of science, especially open and reciprocal accountability. No, the deep agenda and aim is to generally discredit the smartest members of our civilization, so that nothing they say can be used against other elites who have decidedly LESS respect for objective evidence than scientists do.

...Next: It ain't just the right-wing. Margaret Atwood and lefty postmodernists wage their own war against modernism....

Friday, February 18, 2005

Modernism Part 13: Michael Crichton vs Science

Thanks for the comments. What a small but intelligent - and skeptically (!) interesting - group.

Now onward...

and Margaret Atwood:
The far-left and far-right, united vs modern science

In the last section I discussed a schism within speculative fiction, a gulf between fantasy and science fiction . I suggested that it really isn't about magic vs. spaceships. Rather, it is much more about whether or not the author believes that progress - however unlikely - is possible.

Ah, but not everybody visits the "science fiction and fantasy" section of the local book store. So shall I illustrate this divide by shining light outside the genre ghetto? At writers who are vastly more famous than I (a miserable sci fi scribbler) ever will be.

Let me choose two authors who have gone to sometimes frantic lengths in order not to let their books be labeled science fiction. Two "mainstream" writers who engage in relentless, passionate polemic, both on the pages of their novels and in public life, using fantastic fictional extrapolations to preach about the real world.

One of them sermonizes from the "left" and the other from the "right". And yet, their boiled-down messages are strikingly similar. Both authors express white-hot loathing of the modernist agenda, as well as any thought of human-wrought improvability.

The Andromeda StrainIn January 2003, Michael Crichton, author of famous book/movies ranging from The Andromeda Strain to Jurassic Park visited Caltech, one of the world’s pinnacle scientific institutions - (and my alma mater) - to deliver a speech deriding the condition of modern science.

In “Aliens Cause Global Warming” the author of WestWorld and Timeline proceeded to lay out what has become his standard address -- an indictment against the credibility of researchers who spread scientific “myths and superstitions.” His favorite example is the widespread consensus among a large majority of prestigious working scientists that we should be worried about environmental degradation and global climate change.

“In my lifetime, science has largely fulfilled its promise. Science has been the great intellectual adventure of our age, and a great hope for our troubled and restless world. But I did not expect science merely to extend lifespan, feed the hungry, cure disease, and shrink the world with jets and cell phones. I also expected science to banish the evils of human thought---prejudice and superstition, irrational beliefs and false fears. I expected science to be, in Carl Sagan's memorable phrase, "a candle in a demon haunted world." And here, I am not so pleased with the impact of science. Rather than serving as a cleansing force, science has in some instances been seduced by the more ancient lures of politics and publicity. Some of the demons that haunt our world in recent years are invented by scientists. The world has not benefitted from permitting these demons to escape free. “

DrakeEquationCrichton goes on also to berate astronomers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project for foisting upon a gullible public the so-called “Drake Equation” -- a way of making back-of-the-envelope estimates about the possible number of detectable, technology-using civilizations in our galaxy.

“This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated.”

In fact, I quite agree with Crichton about the Drake Equation, having criticized it extensively elsewhere. But where I see it as a flawed but harmless bit of speculative fluff, with some fine pedagogical uses, Crichton portrays the vagueness of this “equation” as some kind of scientific Original Sin. Without pointing to a single way that the Drake Equation has actually harmed science, Crichton seems to be saying that scientists can never let their hair down, have a couple of beers and indulge in some fun, arm-waving conjecture.

Of course, this is very odd, since Michael Crichton made his living by performing entertaining, science-fictional gedankenexperiments. True, his novels are properly labeled as novels and the Drake Equation has too-often been treated with more reverence than a what-if thought experiment deserves. Still, Crichton’s double standard is showing.

state-of-fearCrichton’s examples of bad science range from second-hand smoke to Nuclear Winter and world deforestation. Since all of his examples are chosen from a list of enemies-of-the-right, it might have been honest to avow his political agenda openly at the start. His core argument could be re-stated: that science in general has been polluted, even taken-over, by malignant memes of the left.

(For more on Crichton and climate change: See: Real Climate: Michael Crichton's State of Confusion  and Real Climate Part II: Return of Science.)

Ironically, left-wing activists would gladly compile an equally lengthy list of erroneous or biased ‘scientific studies’ that have leaned the other way, at behest of corporate or aristocratic or neoconservative interests.

If you try, it’s trivial to pick and choose anecdotes and examples of dogma-driven excess, from any perspective. Given what may be at stake -- either billions of dollars or else a perceived world-in-peril -- it would be surprising if human subjectivity and bias did not sometimes bias outcomes.

This is, in fact the critical discovery of science. That we often perceive what we expect or want to perceive, often at variance with what is objectively true. The Cro Magnon genius of trumping objective evidence with subjective belief. The original and only true form of magic.

How has science dealt with this quandary? By encouraging open enquiry and vigorous reciprocal accountability. And by enticing younger researchers to take risks and challenge portions of the edifice that may be weak, with substantial status awaiting those who do succeed in toppling a paradigm, some time.

I have generalized this with a catchy acronym-aphorism - CITOKATE ... or... Criticism is the Only Known Antidote to Error. A practicing scientist knows this, in his or her bones, even as the Cro Magnon ego inevitably tugs in the other direction, murmuring to each of us that we are 100% correct and that critics are all vile fools. Yes, that tug is overwhelming. Which makes even the partial success of scientific training - at making some egotists welcome criticism - all the more wondrous, almost a miracle.

200px-MichaelCrighton_TimelineThe lesson for everyday life? If none of us are likely to catch our own mistakes, we can hope that others will catch them for us. And yes, even when eagerly rebellious, snotty graduate students do the catching. (Even Nobelists relearn this lesson, the hard way. There is no privileged safety from criticism, in science, though some Cro Magnon professors and laureates certainly do try.)

...on to Part 14 with more about Crichton... and then Atwood!...

David Brin
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Monday, February 14, 2005

A Divide Within the Arts: Modernism vs. Romanticism in Fiction Part 12

Part 12 on Modernism:


I began examining the harsh divide between modernism and its enemies in a much narrower context.

The field wherein I've made much of my living, Speculative Fiction - or SF - consists largely of novels and stories that are not set in a standard, contemporary setting or time. (Of course that includes historical fiction, but that type is treated separately.) Most people see SF consisting of two main branches - science fiction and fantasy.

A lot of argument roils around defining what either separates or unites these two genres that are lumped together in most book stores. Superficially, one branch features swords and magic spells while the other uses spaceships and lasers. But that kind of superficial dismiaal heeds only pop imagery, ignoring deeper issues.

I don't perceive the division as a matter of tools and furniture at all. It is really all about the author's attitude toward change and the improvability of humankind.

Through a series of controversial essays that ran in Salon Magazine, I tried to show how supposedly high-tech space operas like Star Wars ( and The Matrix ( are in fact deeply anti-science fantasy stories that hew to an ancient storytelling tradition that abhors progress or change, casting doubt upon the whole process of open advancement using tools of science.

k7803It is a tradition made explicit by Joseph Campbell in his series of books and television interviews, e.g. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. While Campbell emphasized some deeply moving aspects to this tradition, he glossed over its darker side -- for example the way that fantasy tales nearly always extoll feudalism, mysticism, mystery cults, secrecy, and inherited social position, even when they are set in "the future" or in outer space.

Above all, they promote the notion of a static social order - the kind that most of our ancestors toiled under for most of the last six thousand years. As if following a long and eerily consistent checklist, fantasy tales nearly always choose sides, preferring:

- tradition over innovation

- the pastoral over the urban

- craftsmanship over production

- apprenticeships over universities

- the subjective over the objective

- incantation over skill in the physical arts

- secret knowledge hoarded by a suitably chosen elite

- heroes who are destined for greatness because of inner qualities rather than relying upon social mobility among diverse and resilient citizens

- villains who are evil by their basic nature as a type, rather than by individual choice

- inherited hierarchies over democratic institutions

- the notion of a lost-lamented golden age, over ambitions to build a new one.

giftset1vol-cover-rszIn another Salon article, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age,  I extended this appraisal to include a fantasy series that I actually quite admire, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy. As nostalgist romantics go, Tolkien was among the most erudite, sincere, deep-thinking and - above all - honest. His characters, images and stories resonate with the romantic in each of us, including myself.

And yet, if I must choose sides (and during this era, I contend that we all must) then the woldview pushed by Tolkien is one that I must respectfully oppose. (

Because - like every modernist - I have to believe that it is possible for human beings to improve through science, reason and goodwill, and thereupon to make a better world.

... on to Part 13: Crichton & Atwood...

or return to the beginning of this series

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Back to Modernism: Under Assault from All Sides (Part 11)

Departing from the spasmodic passion of political blogging (lest we despair over the blatant run-up toward unnecessary war with IRAN) let us now return to the serialized essay on modernism.

My detailed arguments about this administration's ideological and other motives can be found on two essay-sites: 

NeoConservatism, Islam and Ideology: The Real Culture War 


War in the 21st Century: Maturity vs. Neocon Panic and the True Role of Pax Americana 

Modernism Part 11: Under Assault from All Sides

Liberalism-ModernityLast time, in Part 10: How Liberalism has betrayed Modernity I talked about the slow but steady alienation that has grown between two former allies, the liberal left and progressive modernism. This chasm is not as total and devastating (yet) as the one on the other side.

 The Democratic Party is still marginally led by modernist pragmatists. But the selection of Howard Dean as party chairman shows which way the wind is blowing. Soon, not a single national political institution will remain un-radicalized by one form or another of romanticism.

Of course we have seen extreme examples on the left, who at times make Jerry Falwell sound like a believer in tolerance and science! The latest poster boy for the "Romantic Che" complex is Ward Churchil, who compared denizens of the Twin Towers to Eichmann. The neocons love guys like this because they serve as wonderful strawmen-bogeymen, helping to consolidate their hypnotic hold over decent, conservative Americans who might otherwise notice their leaders' monstrous habits.

War21CenturyIn my last posting, I spoke of how the growing romanticism of the left began banishing former allies - space, nuclear power, engineers, the military, the churches.

And then... "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."

Meanwhile, scientists were being driven off by conservatism. For that movement, too, had been taken over by dogmatists. By a triple alliance of groups who actively hate science and all that it represents.

  --By a clique of aristocratic kleptocrats who do not believe in economics.

  --By apocalyptic sects that reject geology and biology.

  --By neoconservative imperialists who repudiate climatology, ecology, chemistry, pharmacology and... ultimately... history.

Why has nobody commented on this? The Left has nothing but contempt for engineers, spurning can-do projects in favor of a single party line prescription for saving the world. Puritanical conservation. We must quickly abandon our cars and shiver in the dark. (Political suicide, but boy does it feel virtuous.)

Meanwhile, the Right - while willing to pay engineers for near-term guns and toys - will have no truck with ambitious research into technologies that might save a planet through assertive conservation -- vastly improved efficiency standards and sustainable energy supplies.

Neoconservatives smile and shrug at petitions signed by scores of Nobel Prize winners, since egghead boffins obviously cannot possess any common sense. The neocons’ oft-expressed contempt for objective reality -- as opposed to a subjective/ideological model of the world -- mimics that of the postmodernist left with eerie perfection. (Foucault or Leo Strauss? The common theme is a belief that elites can redefine reality however they like, as a matter of magical will.)

(As they have redefined "freedom." And now they are talking themselves into redefining IRAN….)

==Extremes of both Left and Right==

While rejecting science, both movements are infested with romantic nostalgia for a better past-that-never-was. The future cannot be a realm of promise and opportunity.

Oh, there are differences. The Left is certainly sincere in fretting about tomorrow’s dangers.

 But meanwhile, no one seems to notice how closely their dark forebodings of ecological collapse resemble the apocalyptic visions of right-wingers who confidently expect an imminent end to this world, amid a reckoning foretold in the Book of Revelation. (See my essay, Whose Rapture?)

These gloomy visions are not only eerily similar, they are chillingly compatible.


... next in Part 12... Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood: fanaticism in fiction illustrates the alliance of romantics against science...
Or return to Part 1 of this series: The Radical Notion of Modernism: Is it relevant for the Twenty-first Century?


David Brin

Monday, February 07, 2005

A Political Side-Rant...

Another pause in my article about modernism. Provoked by an item in the news from long ago....

From the September 4th, 1967 edition of the New York Times.
U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote: Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror
by Peter Grose, Special to the New York Times (9/4/1967: p. 2)

WASHINGTON, Sept. 3-- United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting. According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong.

The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the nation election based on the incomplete returns reaching here. The hope here is that the new government will be able to maneuver with a confidence and legitimacy long lacking in South Vietnamese politics. That hope could have been dashed either by a small turnout, indicating widespread scorn or a lack of interest in constitutional development, or by the Vietcong's disruption of the balloting.


I have longed for someone in the cowed media to start making parallels with Vietnam. To my knowledge, nobody else has publicly made a parallel between the faux pretext of WMD and the eerily similar Tonkin Gulf Incident. (I offer this comparison at

Above all, I am amazed that nobody stops to ask the simplest of questions. "If you were an enemy of America, looking at history, what would you see as the best way to damage us?"

Answer: "The ONLY thing that has come close to damaging America's confidence, cohesion, confidence and economy during the last century was an impulsive, ideologically obstinate and stupidly mishandled land war in Asia." (Exactly what Ike warned us never to do.)

Let us be clear. Osama Bin Laden's overall plan was NOT simply to topple two buildings in New York, but to lure us into the killing field where he had his glory days against the Russians. He imagined humbling yet another superpower in the dusty mountains of Afghanistan.

Alas, for him, and to Osama's amazement, America proved resilient. We went to Afghanistan - (executing plans and preparations made by the Clinton Administration) - and proceeded to competently root out the Taliban, doing it at low cost, with few casualties. The first outsiders to succeed in Afghanistan since Alexander the Great. Both Bush & Clinton deserve grudging credit. And yes, the outcome is imperfect. But it's astonishing, nonetheless. America is very impressive and our enemies keep underestimating us.

No, the Afghanistan Gambit wasn't enough. The ultimate planners of 9/11 came to realise that it would take a bigger, more deeply stupid land war in Asia to repeat the damage done to our society by Vietnam. The sheiks fired Bin Laden as their surrogate and instead gave a certain influential DC power broker her instructions. Use any and every excuse to get America mired in Iraq.

(Can you come up with a single aspect of the Iraqi quagmire that does not serve Saudi interests? Iraqi oil production plummets. That nation is crippled. Our armed forces are being ground down, with readiness plummeting to pre Pearl Harbor levels. Our nation hasn't been so divided since 1968. And each evening's news footage on Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, viewed from Morocco to Mindanao, serves as an hour-long informercial for pan-Islamic Jihad.)

And now there have been elections.

Frankly, I am torn. There is the immature temptation to welcome each day's bad news as proof that we were right. NOT to oppose toppling Saddam. (The record shows that I have always been in favor of toppling Saddam... intelligently.) But to oppose toppling him stupidly, with relentless deceit and divisiveness, leaving the Western Alliance and American civil society both in shambles.

Yes, schaedenfeude is tempting. But ultimately, I must choose to root for success. Despite loathing our leaders, I must... I must... hope and pray that this will NOT be another Vietnam in the long run. I would much rather swallow bile and see President Bush succeed in his proclaimed goal of creating a democracy in Iraq. (Even though I do not think it is the goal of those calling the shots.)

It's called maturity. And patriotism.

And it could happen, because there is a fourth party to all of this -- the hundreds of thousands of American professionals who do not take their orders from sheiks and petro-princes. They believe that spreading democracy really is the reason that we went there. And they may turn the excuse into reality.

The sheiks may be surprised by the competence of our soldiers and statesmen and aid workers, most of whom ARE trying hard to do this ambitious deed, despite horrifying levels of corruption and stupidity at the top. In other words, those who sent us into this trap, ensuring that we committed every mistake, may be shocked if... when (?) ... we pull off another miracle.

We must prepare for both eventualities. If this trap truly does repeat every insanity of Vietnam, we must prepare to save our nation. And if, on the other hand, American competence astonishes the world yet again, we must not let our suspicions blind ourselves to the fact that a somewhat democratic and free Iraq would be a good thing, whoever brings it about... and whether that was really their intent all along.

Right now, my chief worry - as it has been for 3 years - is IRAN. Condi seems bound and determined to drive the awakening Iranian people - who are our natural friends in the Middle East - back into the arms of the mullahs every chance she gets. Watch the pattern of her saber-rattling pronouncements. She does this every time they start to move toward us. With unnecessary provocative language tuned to insult Iranians on the street. It is ALWAYS counterproductive. And she is much too smart not to notice that fact.

Alas, she could easily have done the opposite. Proved her Kissinger-level chops by sending her boss on a peace plane to Tehran, bypassing the mullahs and emulating the judo-maneuver of Nixon-to-China. That's the sort of nimble tactics that can truly transform an international stage.

(It is also the worst nightmare of our real enemies. The ones calling the shots and stage-managing Jihad. That's why they have forbidden it.)

Rant-mode off.... Please thrive. We'll endure.


Oh, a final note. A very interesting, if partisan, bimonthly webzine can be found at:

Sorry about the political aside. Back to the serialization of my paper on modernity, soon.

You'll find the next bits especially controversial, as I use both Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood to demonstrate the Left-Right joint assault upon science and hope.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

An aside about this dichotomy of mine...

Before putting forward the next installment I want to (1) thank the erudite and intelligent commenters. Wow. And (2) offer a quick and ironic aside in the form of a couple of quotations that show that any dichotomy, even my favorites, can be off kilter.

I mean, what can we do with Robert Hutchins, the central figure of the University of Chicago, that weirdly American institution of higher learning where Enrico Fermi started the atomic age and Leo Strauss infected a generatiuon of neocons with Platonic madness? Where F.A. Hayek pierced to the heart of how both economies and freedom work, but we also saw emerge some of the silliest cult pseudoscience ever written? And Allan Bloom, that quintessential elitist grouch and snob. What a place.

Hutchins and his pal Mortimer Adler led the work in organizing, publishing and promoting the GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD. I have a set and it's marvelous. Two shelves ranging from Aristotle (and yes, Plato) to Einstein, which carry much of the heat and light of western civilization. The project is rather nostalgist in one way. Its core assumption looks back toward received wisdom... received from giants of the past.

Superficially nostalgist-romantic, right? Well, always be willing to see twists and exceptions to your own Neat Idea. see the following two quotations. One of them sounds positively fizzy with modernism... in 1943, when it seemed about to destroy (or save) the world. The other sounds like some grouch of 2005 were saying it. And it should make you smile over the notion of America's "failed" education system.

"When we remember that only a little more than 1500 years ago the ancestors of most of us, many of them painted blue, were roaming the trackless forests of Caledonia, Britain, Germany, and transalpine Gaul, despised by the civilized citizens of Rome and Antioch, interested, in the intervals of rapine, only in deep drinking and high gaming; savage, barbarous, cruel, and illiterate, we may reflect with awe and expectation on the potentialities of our race. When we remember, too, that it is only a little more than fifty years ago that the "average man" began to have the chance to get an education, we must recognize that it is too early to despair of him." - Robert M. Hutchins, Pres. University of Chicago
["Education For Freedom" (1943)]

"Ask any foreign scholar you meet what he thinks about American students. He will tell you that they are eager and able to learn, that they will respond to the best that is offered them, but that they are miserably trained and dreadfully unenlightened. If you put these two statements together you can come to only one conclusion, and that is that it is not the inadequacy of the students but the inadequacy of the environment and the irresolution of teachers that is responsible for the shortcomings of American education." Robert Hutchins again... in 1943.

I mean, dang.
Watch out for dichotomies.
Even really, really good ones like mine!