Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Political Battle over Modernity: Part V

I'm planning to post this series, plus the full list of a dozen slicedBread suggestions, at http://www.davidbrin.com/politics.html

I know this is a bad idea. Till now I have been able to claim I was at least somewhat neutral, taking sides because one side is awful, not because the other side is great. But in these series, I do seem to be very partisan, talking about what the Democratic Party must do in order to defeat these very BAD examples of conservatism.

Tell you what, in order to show balance, I think I may re-register as a... Republican.

You doubt me? Just wait.


The Political Battle over Modernity


What can we expect in the next few political seasons?

Some things are more certain than sunrise. For starters, standard leftist mantras will dominate the primaries, while candidates vie for support from the passionately committed...

... followed by a frantic, post-convention scurry as candidates earnestly burnish their "moderate" credentials for the November face-off.

Alas, for the poor benighted Democrats, this dance will prove (as always) ineffective. The rightwing-controlled press will recall every vaguely lefty statement that each candidate ever made. Any subsequent explanations or equivocations will be labeled "wishy-washy" or indecisive, a character flaw that is routinely portrayed in the press as more heinous than dogmatic obstinacy.

Meanwhile, there are already dark warnings from the left, that any drive for the center will be punished by the Democratic Party’s home-grown ideologues.

metaphor-politics-electionAs happened to every Democratic candidate, other than the agile Bill Clinton, this quickstep of relentless explanation, clarification, and re-explanation will dominate campaign news. Too-left. Too-moderate. Too wishy-washy in between. These are the Scylla, Charybdis and Styx of every modern Democratic candidacy. And by dancing to this tune, the candidate inevitably wastes both time and resources, then winds up dashed against all three shoals, at the same time.

So, how did Bill Clinton escape this trap?

* First, he relentlessly avoided excluding people and groups, unless it was clearly necessary. He even found things to praise in Newt Gingrich’s "Contract With America!" (This is a hint to something the Democrats really ought to try next.)

These Clintonian behaviors weren’t just a matter of tactics, but of personality. In taking this approach, Clinton resembled the inclusive tendencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Moreover, conservatives were right to fear this. It was why the true believers had to be diverted from debates over policy to issues of "character."

* Second, Clinton never bought into the silly and insipid notion of a clearcut "left-right political axis." And when fanatics of left or right tried relentlessly to apply such labels, he simply shrugged it off.

* Third, Clinton only got into real trouble when he lied.

This final item would seem to be a tautology! After all, the self-hypnotic mantra of the far right is that Clinton always lied. And yet, the irony is that he won almost every battle that he ever fought, and most of them weren’t even close. The ONLY fight that was truly a squeaker happened to be the only time anybody was able to prove that he lied.

Now, there are two possible paths you can take from there. One is to say that he wasn’t caught in any other lies because he was so "slick." Too slick to be caught even by the entire apparatus of the GOP, after they had all of the filing cabinets and all the papers of the Executive Branch in their hands, for five long years, along with all of the resources of the Justice Department and the FBI. Right.

The other, far simpler explanation -- but one that neocons cannot conceive, or even parse -- is that, contrary to the mantra, Bill Clinton simply did not lie very much. Despite the howls of derision that this second hypothesis will reflexively provoke on the right, which view is supported by actual evidence?

A detailed rebuttal can come elsewhere. But three irrefutable facts are utterly inconsistent with the standard mantra.

secrecy-3d. (a) Under Clinton the government’s use of secrecy went down to its lowest level since WWII (in contrast to overwhelming Bush-Cheney increases in secrecy, to levels never seen even during the Cold War).

. (b) During almost the whole span of the Clinton Administration, it was subjected to relentless supervision and scrutiny by subpoena-equipped staffers from Republican-controlled Congressional committees -- something that has not happened, even remotely, under the present regime.

. (c) We were promised that Slick Willy and his guys would all go to jail, just as soon as "honest Republicans" got those Executive Branch filing cabinets to pore through. "Any day now..." we were assured during the first six months of 2001. By autumn, people were starting to wonder. Now, five years later, after untold millions in resources spent looking for smoking guns, the total number of Clinton era officials indicted for abuse of their actual powers in office is... still… zero.

These facts are not ambiguous or politically biased. They are simply, blatantly, outrageously plain facts. They put severe test to standard articles of neoconservative faith posited by the right and inflicted upon Americans for thirteen years.

* Finally, Clinton was unashamed of reaching out to particular subsets of conservatism, taking advantage of inherent schisms, splitting the right-wing coalition and luring away support from the other side.

Alas, these efforts were nearly always of short duration. Clinton’s own notion of a Big Tent was always tactical, never strategic, a character flaw that historians may someday deem far worse than sexual pecadillos. As soon as the next political battle came along, the same obdurate "liberal-conservative" party lines re-asserted themselves.

liberal-conservativeBecause classic liberals and conservatives wanted it that way.

Hence, even if the Democrats come up with another political genius like Clinton, and even supposing that he wins the Presidency, that will be no panacea for a revitalized liberalism, or even revitalized moderation. Not if the same self-defeating habits continue to prevail at all lower levels.

Unless something is done about the deeper problem… that of a deliberately induced "Culture War"… the grand strategy of neoconservatism will continue to achieve brilliant success, out of all proportion to the merit of their policies or agenda.

...next, detailed examples of liberal suicide....

Return to Part 1: Ideas for Rescuing Modernity


Tony Fisk said...

Tell you what, in order to show balance, I think I may re-register as a... Republican.
We know your little game! (Hmm! I wonder how the new oz anti-sedition laws have to say about such activities?)

A lot of this stuff is a bit repetitive to regulars, but I guess this is now coming together as a serious article, so...

A detailed rebuttal can come elsewhere. But three irrefutable facts are utterly inconsistent with the standard mantra.

Oft stated, but unsubstantiated. Could you please provide backing references to these facts?

Oh, and I think the title would read better as: "Clinton: The Exception to The Rule", as the piece clearly defines him as such.

...Except toward the end, where you're trying to explain why his efforts didn't endure:

Alas, these efforts were nearly always of short duration. Clinton’s own notion of a Big Tent was always tactical, never strategic, a character flaw that historians may someday deem far worse than sexual pecadillos. As soon as the next political battle came along, the same obdurate "liberal-conservative" party lines re-asserted themselves.

Because classic liberals and conservatives wanted it that way.

This bit starts by defining Clinton's tactics wrt 'big tent' policy as a character flaw, then makes his failing out to be an inevitable consequence of the will of the parties. Which is it?

I would suggest that the conclusion start by reiterating that Clinton was the exception (to liberal exclusivity), but unable to provide a long term answer because etc.

Hope that's useful.

Haven't weighed in on this topic before since I've been busy, but this notion of 'liberal' exclusivity seems a bit strange to me. I wonder if it arises from a mix of youthful fervour and an excessive devotion to theory. (sez an armchair theorist ;-)

A recent New Scientist article on the biological underpinnings of Morality strikes me as being of some relevance. The article concentrated on how far right Christian attitudes to sexuality get coupled with disgust (Kessler being a prime example). I wonder what tangles left wing moralities?

Anonymous said...

Tony Fisk:
"This bit starts by defining Clinton's tactics wrt 'big tent' policy as a character flaw, then makes his failing out to be an inevitable consequence of the will of the parties"

I'd guess that had his policy been a more strategic one, one that actually changed the nature of the whole political community rather than the minds of a few politicians, classic liberals and conservatives would have been less 'classic' and not so inclined to favor the lib-con dichotomy over a less polarized paradigm.

"I wonder what tangles left wing moralities?"

Maybe the same thing, disgust and indignation are related aren't they ?

Anonymous said...

Clinton's inclusiveness was tactical rather than strategic because he seems to have had a gift for tactics but not strategy. I used to say he had a fine strategic brain - but she is now Senator from New York. So if you want a picture of Bill Clinton strategically, you really do have to look at Hillary.

P.S. as the tired old political joke goes, Clinton had a fine head on his shoulders, but that's not what he thought with.

Rob Perkins said...

Clinton's "slick" reputation predates his presidency. ISTR he got it when he moved to the political center after losing the governorship. Did the same thing after the Dems lost the Congress in '92.

The slippery slope arguments go that if he were able to lie about x or y (or sex) then he's capable of lying about anything, so throw him out.

But people like one of my relatives, who hated the Clinton Presidency for every year he was in office and celebrated the prosperous things done during those years as credit to the Congress, could not deny his tactical skill.

*I* can't think of any Dem except Hillary who could possibly duplicate that skill.

David, I don't know how you're going to stomach the local California Republican Party apparatus, unless the San Diego caucuses are better than the impression I get when the statewide Party's infighting is reported. Unless you're registering only to vote in the primaries, which ain't a bad idea.

Anonymous said...

Being a registered Republican isn't a bad idea in some areas. I was a Republican back in South Dakota- mainly because the GOP primary is the only relevant one, and often decides the election (especially in races for governor... the Republican always wins these days).

But anyway, there's an interesting article over on the Huffington Post that deals with triangulation and the redefinition of "conservative"- as well as underhanded tricks used by so-called conservatives over the years. Take a look:


David Brin said...

Thanks all. One minor point.

Yes, Hillary was the strategic thinker... and her grand policy-wonk initiative... National Health Care... demolished and ended the Clinton Presidency as a grand strategic operation.

Had she thought incrementally -- e.g. a national program to insure all children first -- few would have dared to oppose it and the Gingrich revolution would have been much milder. Clinton might have continued proposing bold measures.

As is, he became a tactical president, focusing his attention on management. And what neither party will tell you... but DC bureaucrats will... is that he was the best manager that town has ever seen.

No credit though.

In any event, that's off topic. Do like to joke about him, though.

Want a nightmare scenario? Hillary vs Condi in 08. gaaaaaaaaaah!

Anonymous said...

Wow! good insight about Clinton as not a strategic thinker, I never saw it that way until now. He was so talented a coalition builder he never had to create a good plan.

Personally I never voted for Clinton because his economic plan did not make sense. Luclay for him the dot-com boom came at the right time or he would have never been able to pay down the debt. Plus the result of his lack of strategy was the democrats lost control of both house and senate in his last term. For example he did NAFTA to gain republican votes and improve the economy but failed to force Mexico to clean up its EPA, and OSHA and fix its infrastructure. So industry went south to pollute more and pay less and we at the border have to breathe toxic air. Result both conservatives and liberals were mad at the democrats.

I could never figure why the democrats never made there verison of the contract with America.

Tony Fisk said...

Want a nightmare scenario? Hillary vs Condi in 08

A bit like the tiger vs dragon meme showdown in 'Earth'! Predictive hit #...


(Hmm! Where did they get the title for that film?)

Offline: Al Jazeera memo update

While it's died down in the Google news search, there's still motion...

A formal FOI request to have the tapes released was submitted on November 22. A response is required within 20 days.

Following their trip to UK to obtain more information, the Al Jazeera MD and Chief Editor presented a summary to staff as follows:

* As far as we know, the memo contains approx. 10 lines about Aljazeera and the rest is about Fallujah. There may be even more sensitive issues which led the attorney general to gag the press.
* We went to London to seek the truth. It is not possible to make any judgements until we know exactly what happened.
* The British media were great and supported Aljazeera and we thank them all for that. In Britain, there is what one can call a distinguished media establishment - it is really independent and show high professionalism.
* Many journalists in Britain expressed their support and wished if they could get hold of the memo so they publish it in defiance of the gag act.

Damn Al Qaedda rabble rousers! Why do they have to seem so reasonable?!! (must be all that clandestine BBC training!)

David Brin said...

For those who'd like to browse the 22,000 ideas submitted before deadline to the SinceSlicedBread site, here is their snipped request for lots of people to come, look, and vote.

I know some of you submitted ideas. Come and see if you recognize anything that originated here.

1. Sign up to receive your vote-alert as soon as voting starts, and ask your neighbors, friends, and co-workers to do the same. The more people vote, the more the ideas you choose will be truly representative of America.


2. Spend some time reading and reviewing ideas on the site (can you believe that there are even more reviews than ideas on the site?). Choose a few of your favorites, and track them over the next couple weeks to see if they make it to the top.


3. Follow the blog over the holiday season to keep up with the contest. The blog is the best way to find out the latest SSB new, and to participate in the larger conversation taking place around the Contest. We have some surprises in store, including special guest blogposts from some of our top reviewers and podcasts with some of our celebrity judges.


Anonymous said...

Hey David

I just checked out the slicedbread website. I admit I didn't read everyone but the majority of the ideas i read were just plain stupid or so criminal it is scary. Now there might be some excellent ideas in there, from my random sampling, must idea's I would classify as utterly insane.
take the pasted idea below as an example:

To Provide for the Common Defense
Submitted by RICH W. in Pennsylvania
We must actively defend our southern border from the influx of illegal immigration. I suggest we do as the ancient Chinese once did to defend againt the Mongolian hordes. Build a Great Wall across the southern divide between the United States and Mexico. This should be accomplished by private citizen groups. These groups will fund, acquire the land, construct, and police the great wall through an organized militia. The wall would extend from coast-to-coast and consist of varying intervals of checkpoints and towers manned with fixed armaments (.50 cal. machine gun(s). At irregular intervals the wall should have varying depths to its foundation and seismic sensors to detect tunneling. Minefields to be spread also at varying intervals. The militia would be organized of private citizens who rotate in and out at 3 month intervals. During this time they are provided living quarters and all basic necessities while at post. All land within the boundry of the wall is to be clearly posted as private property with orders of no trespass. Violators to be shot.

Not the worst I saw on there, which makes it even more scarier that so many people are thinking like this.

Simon Neville

Tony Fisk said...

Having got over my wee huff that the sliced bread folk wouldn't let non- US citizens participate, I've resorted to the next best thing and have started insinuating my thoughts via reviews.

This seems to work:
- surf the site at random. (I think it important that reviewers be exposed to as wide a range of other contributors as possible if the site is to realise its potential as an ideas crucible.)
- Comment on the one's you think have merit. (this gives you some review links, so you can get back to them)
- Importantly, provide cross references to other ideas with a similar theme (I've noticed a few others are starting to do that, too... this is going to be an interesting exercise in self organisation)

@David: saw your whistleblower fund. Haven't commented on it there yet but felt the presentation was needlessly partisan and detracted from the idea.
(the principle applies to all, and Clinton would have had nothing to worry about, would he?)

...Wow! Simon, you found a doozey there! (actually, I liked the one about shootin' 'missels' into hurricanes). I have to say that the ones I've seen (at random) vary from naive to so-so to quite good. That's OK: brainstorming! What's happening now is augmentation and evolution via reviews, so I think the 'Great Wall of Arizona' is going to find itself submerged under the silt of the Rio Grande in a while.

Either that, or it'll win by a 'clear majority' while we all scratch our heads matching the result with the comments and wonder why the vote buttons didn't seem to respond...

Hey! It'd give all those no good idle 'loafers' some productive employment!!

(I wonder who'd get the construction contract if it did win? ;-)

Don Quijote said...

Bill Clinton, the finest Republican President since Einsenhower.

Yes, Hillary was the strategic thinker.

Hated by the right & not trusted by the left.

For example he did NAFTA to gain republican votes and improve the economy but failed to force Mexico to clean up its EPA, and OSHA and fix its infrastructure. So industry went south to pollute more and pay less and we at the border have to breathe toxic air.

And then China joined the WTO and all the Mexican Jobs went to China where the wages ,environmental & regulatory standards were even lower, and Unions were illegal.

Rob Perkins said...

My sad suspicion is that the Dems can't bring themselves to market their ideas the way Gingrich did because enough of them in the right positions can't bring themselves to *admit* Gingrich had a few good ideas and the genius to package them properly.

They spent too many years vilifying and looking for ways to bring him down, you see. So, they're kind of reaping what they sow, with a nasty reactionary minority leader like Pelosi at their House helm, and a gadfly like Reid in the Senate. (Reid is possibly exactly where he needs to be; I'd actually like to see the Senate change hands this next election, if only to see him as Majority leader...)

Plus, the *press* would jump all over it, with the most leftish of them parroting Deaniacs and such, lamenting the loss of the Democratic Party "to the Right" or some such nonsense.

trueborn said...

Oddly enough I may vote Republican merely for Bush's recomittment to space.
I'm still hoping they can fix Hubble.

Anonymous said...

Trueborn I would not get your hopes too high. Rembember Bush 41 and his plan to go to Mars. The money never got voted, and it all turned out be cynical hype. With billions of debt and money bleeding into Iraq, it will get spent on the military or SDI before they ever get around to fixing the Hubble.

Anonymous said...

Insightful as Brin's remarks about Clinton prove, this discussion of tactical minutia seems to leave aside the larger question of why a drunk-driving C student has managed to illegally squat in the Oval Office for five-plus years despite never having been elected. More to the point, it leaves out of the question entirely the issue that a solid Repub majority of barking mad loons has consistently gotten re-elected to the House, which holds the power of the purse. The House remains the locus of real power in American politics, since the House decides the budget.

Why have Americans consistently elected and re-elected a group of characters who claim that two students shot up Columbine because of the teachings of the "liberal elite"?
"I want to say to the elite of this country - the elite news media, the liberal academic elite, the liberal political elite: I accuse you in Littleton..." -- Newt Gingrich

And why have the American people consistently re-elected as majority leader in the House a person who claimed about the Columbine massacre :

"Guns have little or nothing to do with juvenile violence. The causes of youth violence are...the teaching of evolution in the schools, and working mothers who take birth control pills." --Tom DeLay

You don't have to be James Randi to figure out that the people who made these bizarre claims are crackpots, far out on the lunatic fringe where the busses don't run. Claims that the teaching of evolution caused the Columbine massacre are on the same level as claims that satan controls UFOs and is about to invade earth with an army of the living dead:

(I look forward any day now to pronouncements by the Repub leadership that the Demos work hand-in-glove with evil lizard people who use secret underground entrances to enter the White House while they plot to convert us all to Rastafarianism. It's gotten to that point.)

Indeed, the real question to my mind, given the current bizarre political climate, is not why liberals continually lose elections and why members of the lunatic fringe like Tom DeLay constantly win them...but, rather, why Sherry Shriner isn't majority leader of the House of Representatives.

As I mentioned in an overly long earlier comment, the epicenter of these bizarre upheavals in American culture seems located not in this or that tactical political ploy by this or that more or less skilled politician (Clinton, Karl Rove, or whomever), but rather in an overall American revulsion against the modern. And I vouchsafe to assert that a major political leader who claims a schoolyard massacre in response to bullying by jocks was caused by teaching evolution...well, that qualifies as (to use the immortal phrase of that eminent cultural scholar Russ Meyer) "Mondo Bizzare-O."

If we look objectively at both the left and the right, we find a roughly equal recoil from the modern with a roughly equal amount of irrationality and incoherence. On the left, for example, hysterical knee-jerk rejection of anything with the term "nuclear" in it. Water-cooled nuclear reactors of the old Hanford design were indeed theoretically vulnerable to China Syndrome problems, though in practice the safeguards were so well designed that we never had a significant problem despite gross operator incompetence at Three Mile Island. But that's in the past, since the old water-cooled reactors have been replaced nowadays by TRIGA and modifications of High Temperature Gas Cooled nuclear reactor designs which are designed so that as the temperature rises, the reaction slows down. (This occurs because nuclei are present in HTGC reactors which absorb neutrons and slow the reaction down; at higher temperatuers, these nuclei absorb neutrons with a wider range of energies, which decelerates the chain reaction even faster at higher temperatures. In such modified TRIGA and HTGC designs, meltdown is not possible since the nuclear reaction is self-limiting.) These newer reactor designs have been used throughout Europe and in Japan with nary a problem, so even operator error becomes a non-issue with such newer reactor designs.
Yet throughout the left of political spectrum we find a continuing visceral horror of anything having to do with the word "nuclear." The most bizarre example includes this news item just days ago from Alaska:


Briefly, an Alaska man planned to use a donated cyclotron to create short-lived radioisotopes for use in a local hospital. Alaskan legislators went non-linear and passed a law banning it, and the guy's neighbors threw tantrums and started jabbering about the alleged danger of "meltdowns" and "another Three Mile Island."

There comes a certain point at which gross ignorance and folly rises past the level of lunacy and into outright dementia, and in this instance the left certain reached it (equivalent, in its own way, to completely unhinged statements like Rick Santorum's claim that Boston's pedophile priests were a direct result of Bostonian liberalism

A cyclotron is nothing but a big magnet. It cannot melt down in a chain reaction. It contains no fissionable isotopes. There is no possibility of a Three Mile Island crisis with any cyclotron. Moreover, the reason for the cyclotron is that hospitals use extremely short-lived radioisotopes as tracers, particularly in devices like PET scanners. These scanners are harmless and the radioisotopes themselves decay in just a few minutes. That's why a cyclotron is needed near the hospital: the radioisotopes are so short-lived that they can't be flown to Alaska before they decay.

But the cyclotron found itself tangentially and peripherally associated with the word "nuclear," which sets off a chain reaction of frantic hysteria on the left, just as "evolution" seems to do on the right. So we get convulsive paroxysms of irrationality from both the left and right, depending on the hot-button word used ("nuclear" or "evolution").

Now, what strikes me is that both of these hot-button words, "nuclear" and "evolution," radiate the incandescent aura of the modern. So in effect what we have got is a buzzword-induced psychosis generated by key icons of modernity. "Nuclear" seems to raise spectres of contamination and fallout and mushroom clouds (not to mention 1000 cheesy 50s horror movies full of giant mutated atomic insects with no relation whatever to reality, courtesy of the square-cube law), while "evolution" appears to stimulate foaming-mouthed frenzies in right-wingers involving Frankenfoods and eugenics and Nazi death camps and suchlike twaddle. None of these far-right boogeymen have any discernible valid connection to Darwin's actual theory of macroevolution, of course. Darwin's actual theory of evolution is to Nazi eugenics as lightning is to a lightning bug. Nazi eugenics represented a bizarre occult superstition based not on science, but on vacuous tripe filched from the post-syphilitic Nietzsche and empty pseudoscience like Welteislehre and Ernst Roehm's "myth of blood."

The point is that both the left and the right appear to recoil from modernity like vampires in a crucifix factory. I would suggest that this is the root cause of our current bizarre political deformities nowadays, rather than this or that tactical error by Demos like Clinton or some specific strategic ingenuity by Repubs like Rove.

The American public has simply decided that it does not want to live in the modern world.

This is of course a strong statement: what evidence supports such a claim?

At this juncture I should like to introduce as Exhibit A a recent fashion photo layout which gives strong evidence of the current cultural climate in America:

This fashion layout features exhausted or possibly dead models in what looks like the aftermath of an alien invasion that just destroyed earth. Could you get any more explicit than that?

The message seems clear: "America is comatose, we're too exhausted even to open our eyes, and we're lying face down in the dirt in the midst of a gigantic cultural trainwreck. There's nothing left of American culture but rubble, and we Americans are too spiritually enervated to even get up off our fat lazy arses to do anything about it."

This fashion photo shoot is now THE exhibit A in my demonstration of America's cultural exhaustion and collapse in the early 2000s. It makes the "heroin chic" of the 90s look postitively peppy. What has exhausted Americans seems to be The Modern. Not one specific facet of modernism, but the entire enterprise of modernity.

Among the symptoms of the current American cultural malaise we may adduce the following:

Art involving death and corpses. This has exponentiated over the past 10 years. As with the fashion layout above, along with the "heroin chic" of the 90s, it gives evidence of a general sense among the American public that things have fallen apart, that progress is at an end, that science has become toxic rather than helpful in everyday life, that the cultural disruptions caused by that which is modern, prove more destructive than progressive.
Tech that doesn't work.
Constant confusing purposeless change (notable in particular among computer operating systems and audio and video formats, which seem to change bewilderingly and pointlessly every couple of years now, and for no good reason. Ask any Mac OS 9 user if you doubt this.).
The fact that average folks work longer hours despite huge amounts of new labor-saving tech
Increases in fees by greedy banks and other large corporations, despite immense reductions in labor costs courtesy of technology
Outsourcing (another fallout of technological advances)
Absurdly escalating costs for basic amenities like health care and housing
The fact that kids are going beserk having all kinds of sex, including lesbian and group sex, while both parents work themselves to the bone at the office till 8 pm at night (This deeply disturbs a certain portion of the population, while the rest of us don't care as long as the kids use condums.)

As exhibit B, I should like to offer the following essay by the contemptible shill and far-right lickspittle Peggy Noonan:

"I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now. In fact I think it's a subtext to our society. I think that a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even in some cases unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks. That in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can't be fixed, or won't be fixed any time soon. That our pollsters are preoccupied with `right track' and `wrong track' but missing the number of people who think the answer to `How are things going in America?' is `Off the tracks and hurtling forward, toward an unknown destination.'"

Even though Peggy Noonan vomits out crazed lies the way other people breathe, and even though her senile ex-boss (Bonzo's co-star) was most famous for the memorable statement "Facts are stupid things" (which aptly summed up the maladministration of Bonzo's co-star), the mere fact that any far-right pundit would pen something like this even though Repubs control all the levers of power...well, it tells us worlds about how America perceives itself right now.
If even one of the head conductors on the delusion train, like Noonan, makes bold to admit things are going badly wrong, that's significant. Normally, you'd expect the party in power to explain that it's morning in America and everything's hunky-dory. When they don't, one needs must perk up and pay attention.

If we zero in on Noonan's remarkable assertion that Americans feel as though things are "hurtling forward, toward an unknown destination" this contrasts strikingly with, say, the American national reaction to the same situation circa 18 July 1969. At that point also things were off the track and hurtling foward toward an unknown destiation -- and America loved it. On that date we landed on the moon for the first time. You can't get any more "unknown" than that. Yet no one seemed to object to the rate at which America was hurtling toward an unknown destination in 1969. On the contrary: Americans cheered themselves hoarse.

So perhaps the difference over the last 35 years is not the degree to which the modern has entered our lives, but the way in which Americans have come to _perceive_ the modern. In 1969 modernity glowed with the wonder of infinite possibility: "a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind." Today, the prospect of new technologies or new innovation seem to evoke a universal howl of horror, rather than delighted enthusiasm.

As Exhibit C, consider this wonderfully lowbrow recent painting by schlockmeister extraordinaire Robert Williams:

This proves easily the scariest of the 3, since it represents a whole-hearted manifesto for a return to the dark ages...with gusto. It's like the 6 million dollar man intro in reverse: "We can make ourselves weaker and dumber and slower... We have the technology!"

The surreality of the current situation in America puts me in mind of the start of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with a twist. It is as though when the primate touched the monolith, its intelligence went _down_.

We surely live in the golden age of matehmatics, as well as the golden age of cosmology and the golden age of materials science and molecular biology. More solid brilliant hard science has undoubtedly been done in the last 20 years than in the previous century, and more remarkable science was done since 1900 than in the entire previous history of the human race. If we simply chart the number of articles published in peer-reviewed hard science journals, we find an exponential upward curve.

Yet at the same time all this remarkable intellectual ferment has been going on, America seems to have gotten dumber and more ignorant.

As Exhibit D, note the poll showing that when asked how long does it take for the earth to go around the sun, 15% of Americans thought that no answer was correct because (they claimed) the sun goes around the earth.

For the record, 72% of respondents polled asserted that "all radioactivity is man-made," while 48% of Americans polled said that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans. Take that, Raquel Welch, with your nifty fur bikini.

And only 9% of American could give even a vague definition of a molecule. (Hint: a molecule is a collection of divers atoms connected by atomic bonds.)

This helps explain why the drunk-driving C student has enjoyed such impressive success squatting illegally in the Oval Office. Americans approve of the drunk-driving C student because he's just like them -- he doesn't know where Afghanistan is either, he got drunk and fell down and threw up and passed out in his own puke every weekend during college and squeaked by with a C average, and when push comes to shove, the drunk-driving C student can't even squeeze out a coherent sentence. Viz.: "More and more of our imports come from overseas." —Beaverton, Ore., Sep. 25, 2000

Among the reasons we may adduce for America's wholesale revulsion against the modern, the following seem to loom large:

Two world wars fought with increasingly horrific modern technology and a nuclear standoff
which promised to extinguish all life on the planet. Not the best advertisement for hi tech. Stand well clear of the Interocetor, Doctor Meechum, or you may get hurt.

The internet, which turned from a thoughtful discussion salon into a combination red light district / spam factory / plague quarantine zone. It is now estimated that the time before an unprotected PC connected to the internet gets infected by a worm or virus has dropped to 20 minutes...and still falling:

Cell phones (it was prematurely asserted in an overblown new items) could infect new cars' computer system with a virus

...leading car manufacturers to design their cars with a "limp home strategy" when the absurdly overcomplicated computerized systems embedded in one of the 50 superfluous microprocessors in a modern automobile fail:

Meanwhile, new digital technology for audio and video appears to be used primarily to REMOVE features from new media players:

Once upon a time, when you bought an LP or a cassette or a CD or a VHS tape or a laserdisc, you played it on your player and it worked. Think of that: it worked! Nowadays, the only thing the new digital technology seems to be doing for consumers is _preventing_ them from playing their music or their video:

-- and the manufacturers are busily beavering away to insure that the newest audio & video technologies, like Blu-Ray discs, have even _fewer_ capabiliies than current DVDs:

An objective observer discerns little forward progress here. On the contrary, we seem to be going _backwards_. This is the consumer-electronics equivalent of The Gong Show, with Sony and Philips and JVC as contestants. DCC, then minidisc, then DVD-Audio, then Supser Audio CD...and the public isn't buying any of 'em. (A forthcoming digital audio standard, the succcessor to AC97, promises a 384 khz audio sample rate. I won't be able to hear a difference, but my mutant five-eared bat will love it...) The more new technology gets loaded into consumer products, the fewer capabilities we get, the more restrictions, the more invasion of privacy (i.e., Sony's rootkit DRM that dials home every time you play the CD), the more borked operating systems and broken computers.

These are, of course, cultural issues, not technological ones. But the American public appears to have conflated culture with technology, so that now the latest waves of interne viruses = a loathing for modern technology in general: indeed, for the modern eo ipso.

This puts the American public in the peculiar position of agreeing wholeheartedly with the fundamentalist Islamic jihadis who describe the UK as "the United Animal Kingdom" and America as "The Great Satan." Both Islamic wahabi fundamentalists and the majority of the American people seem to think:

(A) Modern technology and culture has led to immorality and depravity
(Islamic pronouncement on this subject are so frequent they need not be cited, but for the American version see the hysterical news magazine covers warning about the alleged flood of child molesters and stalkers supposedly unleashed by the internet)

(B) Modern technology and culture have destroyed belief in religion
(The Islamic fundamnetalist attitude is obvious, but for the American version see Tom DeLay's hysterical proclamation that the Columbine massacre was due to a liberal elite promoting godless atheism)

(C) Modern technology and culture have eroded people's belief in the importance of humane values
(Jaron Lanier, of all people, has made a potent argument in this direction in his article "You Can't Argue With A Zombie"

(D) Society would be better if we rolled back modern technology (the Islamic wahabi attitude is obvious, but for the American version, see the anti-GM food rallies, the nati-nuclear rallies, and the anti-evolution tirades among both the American far right AND far left)

51% of the American people, in short, seem to agree with the Taliban and the wahabi fundamentalists on everything except minutia like the name of the religion that should be instituted in place of the current sacrilegious secular misrule:

People from other countries often ask me, "What has gone so terribly wrong with America? How did you wind up this way?"

I tell them "Members of the Republican party from the deep south have taken over America. If you want to understand these people, look here."


The good news? Only 51% of the American population seem to loathe modern technology and culture. The other 49% of us have few problems with it, aside from minor misgivings about spam (get a Bayesian spam filter) and porn (don't surf to goatse.cx if you don't want to be grossed out).

In short, 51% of the American population appears to have concluded that it is the modern which is to blame for current social ills, while the other 49% of us have concluded that is the current _use_ (or misuse, or abuse) of the modern which is responsible. Consequently 49% of us judge that it's easy to fix things by merely applying modern technology the right way, and changing our society accordingly. For example, rather than banning "Frankenfoods" we should change the legal system so that Monsanto can't successfully sue innocent farmers whose fields get inadvertently sown with GM seeds from neighboring fields because the wind was blowing hard that day.

Likewise, shut down the RIAA's and MPAA's out-of-control gestapo tactics in the courts by making it illegal for them to sue individual customers who aren't engaged in an obviously criminal mass piracy enterprise.

These commonsense solutions seem to have no appeal to both the hysterical and increasingly vast right and left ends of the political spectrum. Probably because a reasonable commonsense approach like "install a Bayseian spam filter" doesn't provide red meat for the political base.

Until then, the hysteria and the frenzy continues to spiral out of control in America, with both right and left growing increasingly incoherent and increasingly dissociative, and I am altogether certain that variations in tactics by the Demos will have no effect on the overall trend. Our current situation in American was aptly described by William Butler Yeats in 1920:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all convictions, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Anonymous said...

Uhhh . . .

My cat's breath smells like tuna fish.


Tony Fisk said...

...Anonymous, I think you need to get a blog!

(Incidentally, while going critical isn't an issue, and while I agree the authorities did act in panic without working it through, cyclotrons in the basement do produce streams of high energy ionised particles which you don't want to get in the way of. Furthermore, anything that is in the way of said stream (like the basement wall) is likely to start glowing of its own volition after a while: with isotopes of unknown type and half life. Just what you want to leave for the next tenant!

The penetrating power of the stream shouldn't be underestimated, either. (There was an apocyphral tale that background radiation level in the Student Union basement at Melb Uni was a bit high when the adjoining cyclotron was operational.). Still, that's easily checked.

Rob Perkins said...

Felt like indignant ranting to me.

Two counterpoints: Peggy Noonan is probably far more secure in her premises than anonymous is in his. And, there were massively compelling reasons to release and support OS X.

Don Quijote said...

Yet throughout the left of political spectrum we find a continuing visceral horror of anything having to do with the word "nuclear."

Mainly cause most of us (on the left and on the right) have no idea how nuclear power works, but we know that it's dangerous.

The experts tell us that it can be safe, but how are we to trust the experts (
Report: ExxonMobil Spends Millions Funding Global Warming Skeptics
) when we see that they are for sale to the highest bidder.

How are we know that GE is'nt paying a bunch of scientist to sell us inexpensive & dangerous Nuclear Power.

Anonymous said...

Viz.: "More and more of our imports come from overseas." —Beaverton, Ore., Sep. 25, 2000

I feel obliged to point out Canada, Mexico and Latin America are not in fact over any seas from America, so this statement isn't as stupid as it may first appear.