Sunday, May 06, 2007

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous... to the Just Plain Ugly... Part Two

We’ve begun a brief series that will take us on a tour illustrating the vast range and diversity of human nature... and governance.


An administration-appointed independent commission reports that the country's leader rushed into a war without considering alternatives to full-scale conflict. He set unattainable goals, failed to adequately assess the military's readiness for the task, and did not have a clear exit strategy. "All of these add up to a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and caution," said the leader of the commission.

As a result of the report, it is virtually certain that the country's leader -- already low in the polls -- will be forced to resign.

Of course, that last sentence is a tip-off that we aren't talking about President Bush and the Iraq war. (despite record low approval ratings that have fallen to 28%.) Rather, these were the conclusions of the Winograd Commission in Israel with regard to prime minister Olmert's performance in last summer's war with Hezbollah.Isn't democracy and accountability a wonderful thing? I wonder if we can borrow the Winograd Commission for a little while. (R. Daggatt source.)

And now The Decider has become The Commander Guy as Bush enters his "Nixon-talking-to-pictures-on-the-White-House-walls" phase.

As Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post this week: Is George W. Bush even trying to make sense anymore?

On Wednesday, speaking to the Associated General Contractors of America, Bush gave himself a new nickname. Responding to a question from the audience, he asked rhetorically whether "the Congress or the commanders" should decide how many U.S. troops are needed in Iraq. “And as you know," he went on, "my position is clear -- I'm the Commander Guy." ...

The last six years are rife with episodes that, had Bill Clinton done it, would have been splashed across the cable news tabloids. Like when Bush welcomed the first blind summiter of Mt. Everest to the Oval Office and - instead of asking a single question relevant to the sightless hero’s accomplishment, proceeded to ramble about the colors of various artworks and furnishings, apparently forgetting that his guest was blind! (Not the only time he’s done that exact thing.)

As Daggatt says: “What I find astounding is that the right-wing has chosen this president as the vehicle through which to push their notions of authoritarian government to their most radical lengths. Throughout the history of government there have been arguments about the merits of a strongman running the show versus representative government and the rule of law. But the advocates of the former often assume some kind of enlightened philosopher king up against the irresponsible rabble. It seems pretty hard to make the case that an obviously-incompetent, incurious ideologue should be given unchecked powers.”

Do you need any further proof that the Ostriches are seriously in hysterical denial, seldom asking themselves “what would I have done (or what will I do after 09) - if this same thing were done by a Clinton?”

Like openly declaring that the president and his men have the intrinsic power to throw American citizens seized on US soil in prison indefinitely with no charges, no counsel and no judicial review.

==Continue to Part 3


Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal Opionion Journal, a Harvard professor suggests that a strong energetic leader may be more important than the rule of law.

Yeah, Mr. Tedious Academic Twit, that's just what we need right now.

daveawayfromhome said...

Huh, more important than the rule of law for what?

...the advocates of the former often assume some kind of enlightened philosopher king..., as indeed do many science fiction/fantasy writers, though Dr. Brin is not of that ilk. An "enlightened" king would be lovely, if it were possible. Alas, a benign dictatorship will probably have to wait until the arrival of more objective alien overlords (wink). Maybe the SF/Fantasy world should engage in discussion about how their frequent portrayal of worlds/people happily ruled by incorruptable but absolute leaders might have a role in softening up Americans for just such a scenario (though less happy, I fear). I dont actually think it's a threat (SF as propaganda, that is), but wouldnt a discussion about it be interesting?

I wonder, with all the talk lately of blind following of/within the GOP, have you read any of Bob Altemeyer's work? It contains some interesting, researched information on the phenomenon of those who are unquestioning in their following of "leadership". I've been out of the Contrary loop for a while, so forgive me if this subject has been adressed and abandonned already.

David Brin said...

See my STAR WARS ON TRIAL for excerpts from the infamous NY Times interview in Which George Lucans dissed democracy (as he does in all his films) and called the best for of government a "benign dictatorship."

reason said...

I read that leader and found it hard to believe it wasn't a spoof. He was so stereotypically neocon that even Machievelli was taken as an authority. Didn't somebody tell him that neocons have eggs all over their face at the moment. Perhaps he has been asleep for a decade or so.

How does he explain for instance England which has had a figurehead King for centuries and managed pretty well (GREAT record in wars actually)? The Harvard Government department is an evidence free zone it seems.

daveawayfromhome said...

I was deeply disturbed by Lucas' decision to have Kenobi walk off leaving Skywalker burned all over his body and in agony, so that somehow doesnt suprise me. He's got a strange idea of benign, when it apparently cant even encompass a mercy killing at the very least.

I've always prefered Star Trek to Star Wars, if only because of the ridiculous way that every event in the Star Wars universe seems to be connecected to a half-dozen people.

Doug S. said...

"It seems pretty hard to make the case that an obviously-incompetent, incurious ideologue should be given unchecked powers."

Well, if you can talk said incompetent into writing you a blank check, why not? ;)

- Doug S.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but I noticed in the following interview regarding his ideas on Singulatiry that Verner Vinge gives a shout out to Dr. Brin. ;)

"Reason: Who are the most inspiring writers you’ve been reading lately?

Vinge: In connection with these topics, David Brin, Greg Egan, Karl Schroeder, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross —and I fear I am missing others. In nonfiction, Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec. Hans is awesome, a more radical explorer than just about any science fiction writer."

Anonymous said...

The best form of government may be a benevolant dictatorship, but the problems are...
1. Once you give the man absolute power, how do you take it away from him if it turns out that he's not all that benevolant?
2. How do you chose such a man? Any person who activily campaigns for the job of absolute dictator can't be trusted with the power; anyone who campaigns for someone else to hold the power can't be trusted either.

(On the subject of 'everything in the galaxy is influenced by a small group', read the Dune prequals by Brian Herbert, where the entire galaxy is run by 2-3 families)

(on rereading, I realize this isn't my best work. But time is short)

Anonymous said...

"I noticed in the following interview regarding his ideas on Singulatiry that Verner Vinge gives a shout out to Dr. Brin"

A friend and I once rescued Vinge from a tedious media-convention "meet the pros party." Spent two hours BSing about various things. Dr. Vinge noted at one point that A Fire Upon the Deep was an attempt to capture the big-scale sprawling-canvas hard-space opera feel of Startide Rising.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Doug S. on this one. I see the "plan" (if such there is) as two-step.

First step: elect a figurehead then expand executive powers. Electing someone smart enough to be a "philosopher-king" one runs the risk that they will think for themselves and stay true to the patriotic conservative philosophy, as opposed to the anti-democratic neocon philosophy.

Second step: The neocons might have to wait a presidential cycle after step 1 due to backlash from step 1, but we can be assured that the next executive *regardless of party* is not likely to give up any of those new powers. So by the time the "benign (to neocon interests) dictator" is elected in the following presidential election, they are just using the status quo to which everyone has by now become accustomed. He has the power, now all he has to do is use it. Tell him he is the philosopher-king, and he will see it as his duty to use these (already extant) powers.

I think an interesting question to the Democratic presidential hopefuls would be, "You and your party have complained of the extension of executive power. Do you promise to roll back these powers when you are President?"

RandomSequence said...


My response to you regarding courage and delusion is at the end of an older thread: officer-corps-stands-up-part-way

It is the essential problem of the ostrich, and of American society in general: a level of self-delusion about our society that is astounding. We are as self-mythologized today as the Germans were at the beginning of last century. I see this as the problem of the American polity - we don't need Winston Smith dropping our past into a memory hole for us, since we are all Winston Smith.

Think of the current authoritarian leanings to a strong presidency. It should be obvious that a congressional body is inherently more conservative than a single powerful leader - a simple appraisal of the effects of fluctuations should make that apparent.

But none of it is about reason. What's going on at bottom is a madness that is rationalized. The only way to stop the rationalizing is to point out the delusional nature of the premises: that we are inherently moral, brave, advancing God's work on Earth, and so on. Those delusions come out of a desire for an S&M society, one where fear and power dominate reason.

SpeakerToManagers said...

The best form of government may be a benevolant dictatorship,

Maybe, but putting this into practice runs into the same trouble as relying on "enlightened self-interest": so damn few people are enlightened.

David Brin said...

The last few posters have started down dangerous territory.

Let me reiterate. It is not just that it is hard to implement one man or narrow-elite rule by choosing just the righ man or few....


It is not just that it is hard to find great kings (or oligarchies) among the hundreds and thousands of deluded, brutal and awful ones. You CAN make a list of such men. Henry II and Gustavus Adolphus and suleiman the Great come to mind. And they were great indeed. Heck, Napolean had it together for a while.

But no. You cannot name even ONE such "great leader" who accomplished anywhere near as much - in his entire reign - as the American Republic did, during even its most dismal decades. Lucas's statement is not only questionable and doubtful; it is diametrically opposite to true, by any metric, at any time and place, and at any level.

There are simple reasons for this. Men who tout the importance of "focus and energy" as despotic virtues - like the inane Harvard Prof Stefan refers to... and who was already the topic of my next "example... either deliberately or stupidly miss the poitn about the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment -- or at least the Anglo-American branch -- is based fundamentally upon Locke's Wager. The gamble that open processes of dispersed decision-making can reap the benefits of reciprocal accountability and positive sum games, and reap those benefits so well that the noise and spume and fuss of democracy and markets and science all come out worth it, in the end.

Locke's Wager is not yet proved. The vast success of America's Great Experiment -- and its offshoots all over the world -- could possibly all come from:

- wastrel resource-hogging and ripping off native peoples (the far-left rant),

- or from Heavenly beneficence (the right wing rant) ,

- or from a devil's bargain in which we traded away our manhood for decadent pleasures (the Routine Alternative Enemy Theory rant).

But the theor yof complexity and emergent properties does support a notion. That we have found a way to rise above the eternal trap of human nature.

That cheaters and cabals of the mighty needn't dominate us in order to prevent reflex chaos (the simplification of Hobbes). Nor must we sit in the dark and shiver, imitating native tribes (Rousseau's simplification). Tribes who never turned down western progress when it became easily available.

I can't tell you that Locke's Wager is ideal or that it will get us to a promised land of wisdom. I do know that the systems prescribed by left, right, and mystical oversimplifiers HAD THEIR FAIR TRIAL. And they did not work. They never, ever worked. If simply being far, far better is enough, then Locke's case... and that of Adam Smith, Ben Franklin and James Madison and so on... is simply proved

RandomSequence said...


Wait, are you giving us a false dichotomy, that it's either a positive sum game, or we ripped off people across the planet to fund it? I think most "left-wing ranters" would advance that those two points are not exclusive - you have to somehow fund that transition energy before you get over the hump, and that part involves stealing from the natives.

Multiple games are being played at once. They all have some influence on the results.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

I have no disagreement with what you say. Just because rule by oligarchy/benevolent dictator cannot be as efficient as democracy/accountability, however, does not mean that short-sighted neo-Platonists are not angling to make it that way (or a close approximation) in order to reap the short-term rewards.

I'm not suggesting they are, and I am certainly not saying that it would be better, only that (as you are wont to say) it is a hypothesis that fits the data so far.

Realistically, I think that the neo-cons assume (or assumed previous to this point) either A) a permanent Republican majority (buying into their own shtick) or B) that even when Democratic Presidents are elected, the Republicans can keep them from using these powers based on either 1) Democratic antipathy to such powers or 2) The Republicans tying them up in public opinion so that they can't (and just cynically turn around and use it when they get the turn).

In my own humble opinion I think for the common ostrich the issue of executive powers boils down to, "We trust OUR guy with that much power, but THEIR guy would destroy America with it!" While completely missing the point of a dynamic balance provided by transparency and accountability.

Which implies that for those Republicans who know about the issue, the next campaign will be even more divisive since if the "other" guy wins, they inherit a lot more power than George W. Bush did. So expect truly nasty attacks on whomever is nominated on the Democratic side. The neo-cons can wait it out so I doubt they will be doing anything but going through the motions until their philosopher-king is up for election - none of the current batch, but the non-neo-con conservatives who recognize the vast increase in executive power will fight tooth and nail to keep a Dem out of the office.

The ironic/sad thing is that if a Democratic President is elected and abuses the new powers, George W Bush will not be blamed for expanding executive powers. It is like Bush giving a gun to a baby and blaming the baby if he shoots himself. The point is that NO politician can be trusted without oversight, transparency, and accountability.

RandomSequence said...

I don't think the neo-cons care if the authoritarians are D or R. If they fail with the R's, they'll just switch sides. They all exist in the same social networks. They may take a temporary hit in influence, but in the end they can just reposition themselves.

The authoritarianism is an end in itself. A way to reach "The End of History."

Rob Perkins said...


I've read the responses from various progressive blogs about that Harvard Prof's article. I don't believe that he is arguing for a primacy of energy over rule of law.

By my reading, he argues that there should be *tension* between the two. It might qualify as making current problems worse, but I imagine that he and his faction don't see it that way at all...

Rob Perkins said...

Well, let me qualify that I don't think he's arguing for that primacy in general.

I *do* thing he's arguing that "this is one of those times", a position upon which I know most of us here disagree, and some of us vehemently at that.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that it's "always one of those times". Going backwards in time, we have...
War on Terror
War on Drugs
Cold War
World War II
Great Depression
Communist/Anarchist uprisings
The Great War
Nihlist/Anarchist movements
Spainish-American War
Indian Wars
Civil War
Mexican American War
Blackhawk War
Seminole War
War of 1812
Barbary Wars
Naval War vs. France
Whiskey Rebellion
American Revolution

OK, there are times when nothing made the history books... but for the Autocratic Wannabes, it's Always The Right Time For A Strong Leader.

And Dr. Brin:
The Theoritical Benevolant Autocrat that I propose exists only in theory. Gustavus Adolfus (Rex Sweden) was close... but he was still a tyrant who did cruel and foolish things to his own people. The reason history speaks so well of him is 1. He was really good for his time period and 2. He died in battle before the Peter Principle brought him down.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of
- wastrel resource-hogging and ripping off native peoples (the far-left rant),

Colombia seeks eight in Chiquita terrorist scandal

The Colombian government says that it will likely seek the extradition of eight unnamed people affiliated with the US banana giant Chiquita Brands International for their alleged involvement in the company's payments to and arms trafficking with a violent right-wing paramilitary group.

What are the odds that those fine upstanding citizens will never be extradited to Colombia to stand trial?

More than 211 bodies found in mass graves in Colombia

The bodies of at least 211 victims of right-wing paramilitaries were found on Saturday in mass graves in southern Colombia.
I wonder where those leftist get all those silly ideas.

daveawayfromhome said...

could one make this comparison: the Republic vs. an Emperor, perhaps, to Open Source vs. Microsoft?

Anonymous said...

daveawayfromhome said...
could one make this comparison: the Republic vs. an Emperor, perhaps, to Open Source vs. Microsoft?

Only if open source developers got paid a salary and spent working hours on their products.

RandomSequence said...


How do you think Apache gets work done? Yes, a lot of the secondary and tertiary things are hobbyist work, but much of the primary tools are funded - either academically, governmentally (Secure Linux), or by industry (IBM etc.).

learner said...

There is another piece to this discussion and that is the role of education and science in a successful democracy.

Please notice how the right has attacked public education continuously and now science with the attack on the global warming science.
Our present education system does not really teach civics nor is it really allowed to do so. Travel by young people overseas always an eye openner has been curtailed by the destruction of our nation's image and the respect it has always had.

Teacher education at the college level is being hamstrung by decreasing the education subject hours allowed. An increase in teacher certification programs that do not require college level education further erodes the standards of our public education.

Continuing pressure to reduce property taxes and substitute state and federal funds erodes local control of education.

All of these factors leave the average citizen less educated and more likely to accept an enlightened despot.