Sunday, November 27, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: The Hidden Context of the Book and Film

Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. - Mark Twain

There was nothing else even remotely interesting in our queue -- so we rented ATLAS SHRUGGED.

Well, after all,  I often talk about Ayn Rand and her passionate followers, who have effectively taken over the U.S. Libertarian movement, influencing much of the rhetoric we hear from the American Right... (even though no libertarian policies have ever been actually enacted during Republican rule). I've published both scholarly papers and popular articles about Rand's fiction and philosophy.

So, I thought, why not give her acolytes one more shot at selling me on her biggest, most-central tale? An honest person does that. Whereupon, with a sigh, but opening my ears and mind, I slid the disk into the player....

== For the record ==

First a couple of honest disclaimers:  (1) It may seem that I am aiming most of my critical attention, lately, at "right-wing authors." (Recently, I dissected Frank Miller's travesty "300," showing how it tells outright historical lies in service of a deeply anti-American theme. ) But I do notice foibles of the left, as well.  For example, I promise soon to offer up that long-awaited piece about James Cameron's beautiful but misguided film, AVATAR.

(2) As one of the few sci fi authors who delivered a keynote at a political party convention - indeed it was the Libertarian Party - I may seem somewhat of a "heretic" to the Rand-followers who now dominate the LP. But no one can deny my ongoing campaign to get folks to read Adam Smith, the founding sage of both libertarianism and liberalism.

Like Smith, I believe in fair and open and vigorously creative competition - the greatest innovative force in the universe and the process that made us.  Encouraging vibrant, positive-sum rivalry - in markets, democracy, science, etc - is one reason to promote universal transparency (see The Transparent Society ), so that all participants may base their individual decisions on full knowledge. That positive aim - also preached by Friedrich Hayek - should be the goal of any sane libertarian movement... instead of fetishistically hating all government, all the time, which is like a poor workman blaming the tools. Anyway, a movement based on hopeful joy beats one anchored in rancorous scapegoating, any day.

(Adam Smith favored feeding and educating all children, for the pragmatic reason that this maximizes the number of skilled, adult competitors, a root motive of liberalism and a role for government that is wholly justifiable in libertarian terms.)

For my full, cantankerously different take on the plusses and minuses of contemporary libertarianism -- and other oversimplifying dogmas -- have a look at this essay: Models, Maps and Visions of Tomorrow.

Only now, with due diligence done, let's get back to ATLAS SHRUGGED: THE MOTION PICTURE.

== Rand's Books... and the Movie ==

Despite my low esteem of Ayn Rand's simplistic dogma, I do rate THE FOUNTAINHEAD as by far her best book. In its smaller and more personal scope, that novel offered a pretty effective (if melodramatic) portrayal of  uncompromising genius having to overcome the boneheaded doorkeepers of art and architecture -- two realms that are always beset by bullies and villainy.  In that tale, the hero's adversaries came across as multi-dimensional and even somewhat plausible, if also a bit cartoonish. Indeed, the 1950s Gary Cooper movie was pretty good, for a Rand story.

Alas, in contrast, ATLAS SHRUGGED takes on civilization as a whole -- all of its institutions and enlightenment processes, top to bottom -- calling every last one of them corrupt, devoid of hope, intelligence or honor. Moreover it proclaims that the vast majority of our fellow citizens are braying, silly sheep.

(Consider this irony; a movement propounding that all people can and should think for themselves also teaches its adherents to openly despise their neighbors as thinking beings. A party that proclaims fealty to market forces also holds that the number of deciders and allocators can and should be very small. In other words, you can have Hayek or Rand. Not both.)

But pause a moment. How does the book hold up, strictly from the perspective of writing and art? Well... I won't mince words. ATLAS SHRUGGED royally sucks as a novel, with cardboard characters, rivers of contrived coincidence and dialogue made of macaroni. (Can you dig a 70 page SPEECH?) Of course, none of those things matter if your taste runs to an endless smorgasbord of indignant resentment. (A scientifically-verified drug high!)  In which case the speechifying is mother's milk.

Heck, the left produces plenty of polemics just as turgidly tendentious. In fact, the previous paragraph pretty much described Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Am I letting politics bias my judgment of Rand's literary qualities? The intellectual maven of conservatism, William F. Buckley, a founding light of modern libertarianism and also a noted novelist, called Atlas Shrugged "One thousand pages of ideological fabulism; I had to flog myself to read it."

Given such source material -- and universal boos from both critics and the viewing public -- was I surprised to find that the movie version of Atlas Shrugged bites, at the level of basic film 101 storytelling?  For example, it is only in the last five minutes that the director deigns to clarify a core villain. As for the "heroes"... well, their famously emotionless "I don't give a crap" mien may work for campus geeks. But not in cinema, where passion propels.

(A deeply ironic and smirk-worthy "oops" appeared on the cover of the DVD version, blurbing ATLAS SHRUGGED as a saga of "courage and self-sacrifice" -- which would be the ultimate Randian sin!)

== A High Point ==

One sequence of this film does stand out.  I'm a sucker for lyrical cinematography, especially when it involves beautiful scenery, or else a love-ode to fine technology.  And there's about ten minutes in ATLAS SHRUGGED when we get both, as the male and female leads ride their new super-train along shimmering rails made of miraculous metal, speeding across gorgeous Rockies and over a gasp-worthy bridge.

The emotional payoff -- two innovators triumphing over troglodyte naysayers by delivering an awesome product -- portrayed Rand's polemical point in its best conceivable light.  I am all for that aspect of the libertarian dream. Indeed, it is the core theme that makes THE FOUNTAINHEAD sympathetic and persuasive.  So, for ten minutes, we actually liked the characters and rooted for them.  Significantly, it is the portion when nobody speaks.

Alas, though. The film then resumed a level of simplistic lapel-grabbing that many of us recall from our Rand-obsessed college friends -- underachievers who kept grumbling from their sheltered, coddled lives, utterly convinced that they'd do much better in a world of dog-eat-dog.  (Using my sf'nal powers, I have checked-out all the nearby parallel worlds where that happened; in those realms, every Randian I know was quickly turned into a slave or dog food. Sorry fellows.)

Ah well. Let's  set aside the pathetic storytelling, crappy direction and limp drama to appraise the film on its own, intended merits. On what it tried to be. A work of polemical persuasion.

== The Core Polemical Purpose ==

rand-societyATLAS SHRUGGED is, after all, an indictment of modernist, enlightenment, Smithian-liberal civilization. To Rand, this "great experiment" has all been one big mistake, doomed to expire from its own internal contradictions.

I use that Marxian expression deliberately. For, in significant dialectical ways, Ayn Rand was deeply influenced by Karl Marx -- virtually an acolyte, in fact. She kept essentially intact Marx's scenario of bourgeois decadence, guild protection, capital formation, conspiratorial competition-suppression, class-narrowing business cycles and teleologically inevitable divergence between the worker and owner castes.*

The chief difference is that Rand - a Russian emigre - stops short at the penultimate phase of Karl's projection - the moment of pinnacle capitalist consolidation - freezes it and calls it good. Tearing out and throwing away all hints of the next and final stage prophesied by Marx.

That's it, actually. Rand, in a nutshell. You might grasp the stunning parallels at once... if anyone my age or younger had ever bothered to actually read and understand both Rand and Marx. Well enough to draw obvious conclusions. Alas, our grandparents were far, far better-read than we hyper-opinionated moderns. (See what happens - in an ingenious interpretation - when Rand and Marx recombine.)

ayn-rand-societyHence, Ayn Rand shows us society making one dismal choice after another -- an endless chain of socialist or bourgeois-oligarchic or meddlesome-statist outrages against individual initiative. Endearingly, Ayn Rand despised all three of those centers of villainy equally, portraying them uniting to pass laws that punish or seize companies who "compete too well."

Indeed, if I ever witnessed our nation enacting the kind of insane bills that are reported in this film (piled one-after-another, every five minutes), heck, I'd be looking for John Galt myself!

Yes, I'm enough of a libertarian to know that foolish things do happen! Witness Europe, mired in nanny-state entitlements, eight week vacations and a "right to retire" as young as 55.  Self-defeating regulations prevent companies from firing workers, with the consequence that they seldom hire new ones. As for the movie's heroine, Ayn Rand chose a railroad heiress for good reasons. The old Interstate Commerce Commission (dissolved by the democrats in the late 1970s, but still a horror when she wrote) was the classic exemplar of a government bureaucracy "captured" by lordly oligarchs and used as a tool to squelch competition.

In other words, the endless litany of "leveling" crimes against creative enterprise that roll across the page/screen in ATLAS SHRUGGED aren't entirely without real-world analogues. Her fictional betrayals of creative enterprise are based on a genuine complaint... that Randites regularly exaggerate more than 100-fold, alas, into caricatures and absurd over-generalizations.

To see this danger expressed far better - and more succinctly - than Rand ever managed, read the terrific Kurt Vonnegut story: Harrison Bergeron. Other expressions of legitimate libertarian worry can be seen in the fiction of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. They have a point.

Okay, the core concern is a valid one and somebody in society should keep warning us! Though ideally, someone with common sense and proportion, alas.

I mean, gee whiz. Ayn Rand railed against the ICC... and it was eliminated. Canceled, rubbed out, utterly erased - along with the grotesque Civil Aeronautics Board - by the very same democratic processes that she and her followers despised. Competition among railroads was restored and it was done by a mix of pressure from a savvy public and resolution by genuinely reform-minded politicians. If Ayn Rand were writing the book today, a railroad would not have been her chosen archetype.

I wonder: did anyone making the film ever ponder this? Did any Randians notice at all?

== A Remarkable Chain of Ironies ==

I guess I sound pretty harsh. Only now, let me do one of my famous contrary swerves and openly avow something that Ayn Rand gets right. Despite gross exaggeration, she pretty much nails the basic problem!

Almost every time the book or film depict some betrayal of human competitive ingenuity, it happens like this:

A conspiracy of "old money" oligarchs gathers in conniving secrecy, exerts undue political influence and misuses government power for their own, in-group self-aggrandizement. Except for a few, pathetic union stewards, the ruination of market forces is stage managed from the top. The squelching of entrepreneurial enterprise and the corruption of trade is always executed by villainous old-guard capitalists. Moguls who don't want any rivalry from rambunctious newcomers.

Now think about that. Socialists do come under derision from Rand, but mostly as ninnie, do-gooder tools of the scrooge-oligarchs!  In fact, this is where her followers get things right.  Anyone who considers the long, lamentable epic of human history will recognize this as the ancient pattern, pervasive across 99% of cultures -- with the most prevalent sub-version being feudalism.

randianWhat Randians never explain is how getting rid of constitutional-enlightenment government will prevent this ancient curse from recurring. (Were the oligarchs stymied in ancient China, Babylon or Rome, where liberal constitutions were absent?) Indeed, enlightenment governments are the only force that ever kept the feudal sickness partially in check. Exactly as prescribed by Adam Smith.

(Name another society that ever made more libertarians, hm?)

In other words, by her very own premise, the answer isn't for creative people to "go on strike." It is to fix the tool (government) by yanking it out of the hands of conspiratorial criminals who have improperly seized it.  You do that with transparency, with light (as Hayek prescribed). Not by blaming the tool and throwing it away.

== You Are Getting Very Sleeeeepy... ==

Oh, but more ironies abound! Here you have a polemic about individualism, that portrays one accomplished CEO after another "gone missing"... dropping out of sight after each one listens to a solitary pitchman from a utopian community, who croons "Come. Follow me and joiiiin usssss."

Um, let's see. When have we heard that before? Drop everything. All your past loyalties and the companies you've built. Stop fighting for your family or country. Listen to this incantation and follow our charismatic leader to the special society he has built, just for the exclusive elect, like you.

Good lord, does she have to make the hypnotism-cult thing quite so explicit? So very much like Jim Jones and David Koresh? Did you know that Rand-followers who recite her catechisms light up exactly the same parts of the brain as other true-believers pronouncing passages from the Bible or Koran or Hindu Sutras? And these are not the corners of cortex used by scientists while performing analytical or "objective" reasoning.

But you don't need any of that to conclude we're dealing with a cult. Just follow the recruitment process used by John Galt. Who surreptitiously sabotages successful companies in order to drive their owners into his arms! Who then deliberately vandalizes and cripples the nation's ability to feed itself or engage in commerce that he doesn't control, in order to wreck any possible competition with his elite enclave. Oh, criminy.

Yes, I'll admit that Ayn Rand at least portrays technology as good. That gives her points over the dismal Tea Partiers, or Fox, or the equally dismal (though less-numerous) science haters of a ditzy-fringe far left.  Alas though, she treats technology like something magical. Lone inventors weave a spell and suddenly there's a new metal or new motor. The vast intricacy of collaboration, development, supplier networks, and infrastructure is both a topic to Rand and an excuse for incantatory over-simplification.

But it is science that truly gets short shrift. Ayn Rand's lack of any reference to scientific research that might support or falsify her assertions about human nature should send alarm bells clanging. Her ignorance of Darwin or human biology, for example, is almost identical to Marx, but much less excusable, given when she lived.

Nowhere, either in Atlas Shrugged or subsequent libertarian cant, is there acknowledgment of the immense stimulative role of U.S. government financed R&D, especially in fields of pure science that would never have attracted investments from anyone looking to a "return horizon."  Indeed, I have long yearned for a second national debt clock to be set up, this one showing what the public debt would be now, if only the taxpayer had received normal levels of royalties from rockets, satellites, communications, fiber optics, computers, pharmaceuticals, and the internet. Well? Wouldn't that be fair and businesslike? Tellingly, while many scientists have a fiercely competitive libertarian streak, almost none who are in the top ranks ever hold any truck with Ayn Rand.

The analog to Rand is not the scientist Darwin, but the rhetorician Plato. Sure, she claims to prefer Aristotle. But in both verbal process and incantatory reasoning style, she is Plato's truest heir.

==Ayn Rand on Privacy==

All right, veering briefly aside from Atlas Shrugged, let's see what Rand says about privacy, a topic I happen to know a lot about:

"Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men." 

Of course, there is a level at which Rand is simply stating the obvious. That autonomy and long lives arose as our technology and civilized complexity improved. When food surpluses were meager, only a tiny aristocracy could be subsidized and unchained from the land. But a mixture of science and continental peace mixed with our ability to trade goods and services till even science fiction authors can now pretend we are producers of a primary product, worthy of being fed by farmers.

As for the quote itself: as usual, Ayn Rand mixes some core truths of the Enlightenment with mystical teleology.  The rise of the individual - never steady or even - has been a core theme of the West, ever since the Renaissance, and especially the Enlightenment. But this progression isn't fated, ordained or even natural.

Rand looks at a couple of hundred years and one quarter of the planet, and assumes the trend is unstoppable. But Huxley and Orwell - backed up by Malthus and Darwin - showed us what's "natural."  The diamond-shaped social structure that we take for granted can all-too easily slump back into the oligarch-dominated pyramid.

Only Enlightenment methods ever offered an alternative hope. Rand followers take it for granted. Indeed, they assume that we can dismantle the processes and structures that Adam Smith prescribed, that made the Enlightenment work in the first place.

They bear a burden of proof that we would not just slump back into the condition that prevailed, for thousands of years, before Smith and his colleagues came along.  In America, that slump is already well underway.

== The Posterity Problem ==

rand-anthemI saved the best for last, hoping that at least a few libertarians - those most-favored with our greatest human trait - curiosity - have hung with us to this point.

(Are any of you still present?)

Elsewhere, I've revealed the biggest and most telling red flag about Ayn Rand - one that I've not seen mentioned elsewhere. It is that none of her uber role-model characters, at any level or in any way, ever indulge in the most basic human project --

--  bearing and raising and loving and teaching children.

Out of 1000 pages, just one of them glances briefly at a mother - a baker, an enlightened and awakened proletarian who is not a member of the elite caste. She gives a short riff about preferring Randite education methods in Galt's Gulch over public schools. That is it for procreation. As for the New Lords - several dozen of them, all dynamic Rand-heroes of the future - not even one of them bothers to pass his or her genes forward in time. Nor do any of them take responsibility for, or even mention, this essential investment in time. And this from the "life-centered" philosophy.

There is a reason that Rand consistently avoided any mention of procreation among her new-lord caste -- because writing-in even one member of a next-generation would shine searing light upon the biggest flaw of her hypnotic spell, revealing that her "fresh" tale is actually the oldest one in the human saga.

Let me explain.  It is glaringly simple.

We all know this about aristocracy -- that it seldom breeds true. In the past, royal or aristocratic houses would grow fat, lazy and decadent. England's Plantagenets managed to stay virile for 400 years but most lines devolved much quicker. Oligarchs had to make inheritance-of-privilege state policy. They gave top priority to quashing open markets, science, democracy or equal justice - because any of these liberal processes might engender new competitors to rise, afresh, from below, exposing the spoiled grandkids to dangerous rivals.

Yet, even so, there was some churn! A violent form of social mobility.  Inevitably those decadent houses got toppled by new, fresh blood. By vibrant competitors who grew lean and tough in exile. Who trained and gathered their forces in the woods, then swooped in to storm the castle.  And thereupon established a new lordly line.

we-livingDeep below her superficial adherence to Marxist teleology lies this ancient cycle, far older than the enlightenment, or even writing. It is the very essence of what Ayn Rand stands for.  Her characters are the brash, virile, sturdy, innovative barbarians, born free and ready to seize destiny in their own two hands, ripping fortune out of the clutches of pathetic old-fart lords who are spent and bereft of cleverness or might. It's the oldest story, writ-new and draped with modernist garments. Even in her portrayals of sex, the closest parallel is a godlike Viking who kicks down the door and takes what he desires. Because he is the grandest thing in all directions. And because he can.

It is an ancient mythos that resonates deeply in our bones and especially within pasty-skinned, pencil-necked nerds, who picture themselves as Achilles, as John Wayne, as Ender Wiggin, as Harry Potter or some other demigod. An old, old formula that was mined by A. E. Van Vogt and L. Ron Hubbard and Orson Scott Card and so many others.

But therein lies a problem!  It's the romantic Phase One of this old cycle that Rand admires - the rise of a self-made buccaneer who seizes lordship from decadent, inbred fools.

Phase Two - what happens next - she never talks about. She averts her eyes and the reader's attention.

Why do none of Rand's characters ever have kids? Because theose kids'll inherit the olympian status wrested by Howard Roark or by Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Sons and daughters of demigods, they will assume privileges and power that they never earned through fair competition. They will take lordship for granted as a right of blood, and use it to squelch new competitors from rising to face them on a level playing field. Until their own decadent line has to be toppled, amid war and waste and pain.

It's what happened in 99% of human societies. Ayn Rand faces a steep burden of proof that "this time it'll be different." A burden she never picks up. Rather, she shrugs it off.

If there are offspring, then the reader might become consciously aware of this inevitable outcome. and realize: "Hey, I've seen this before. It's the same old boring-human pattern, and nothing new, after all."

== The Problem Is People... ==

ayn-rand-selfishnessOh, but maybe I am reading too much into this aversion toward kids. After all, as the recent film reminds us, Ayn Rand was pretty much an equal opportunity hater of people, in general. (As evidenced by her passionately-admiring defense of the horrific murderer William Edward Hickman.)

Just look at how brothers are portrayed in ATLAS SHRUGGED.  Always treacherous, small-minded, parasitical and craven. Clearly, Rand is no Nazi, no believer in the paramountcy of blood. Sons, daughters, brothers and sisters? Neighbors? Strangers? Spouses? Co-workers? Civilization? Bah, who needs em. Who needs anybody?

Well? I said she ignores Darwin and this is consistent! Reproductive success? Fie and feh!

Her ubermensch demigods are less like "lords" - obsessed with establishing an inherited clan of privilege - than they are pirates - superior in boldness and in mind, going wherever they like, taking what they deserve by the very essence of what they are.

And hey, doesn't everybody love a pirate?

Yoho. That's the life for me.


*Followup notes:

ayn-rand-market1) Someone pointed out a more powerful example of de-regulatory goodwill on the part of the US government, which was, till around 1990, the principal owner, developer and subsidizer of the Internet. Picture the moment when a few dozen government guys - and advisor/consultant outsiders - sat down and decided to BACK OFF... to simply give the Internet to the world, instead of clutching-close this potential source of vast power. It was one of the greatest episodes of voluntary de-regulation in the history of the world. (I was living in France, using the French "minitel" alternative to the Internet, so I know how that might have gone.)

And yes, re-coalescence of top-down control over the Internet remains constantly a danger, from malignant efforts like SOPA. But the key lesson of the Internet - plus the dissolving of the ICC & CAB and Barack Obama's recent commercialization of the US space launch system - is that freedom-oriented policies can be negotiated within the institutions of a vast and overwhelmingly successful continental democracy. (And generally, the ones most willing to negotiate are democrats.) The demonization of those institutions, first by Rand and now by Culture War, portraying them as inherently incapable of reason or pro-freedom redesign, is illogical and a churlish example of flat-out ingratitude. 

Worse, from a Randian perspective, it is refusal to pay legitimate debts.

2) Hold the presses! I just thought of another major deviance that Rand took, separating her from Marx in a quirky ironic way...beyond her belief in Nietzschian ubermenscen and her denial of Marx's final teleological phase. There's also her approach to the Labor Theory of Value (LTV). Oh, she bought into LTV, hook, line and sinker! But in ways the Master would find utterly heretical. 

Now, here I am going to give Ayn Rand some cred, because clearly, she recognized what Marx did not, that LTV is complete crap when it comes to all labor hours being equally valuable. That's baloney and one of Marx's most glaring mistakes. Only then, like many converted heretics, she plunged to the opposite extreme, while staying on the same axis! Positing that some peoples' time and labor must be deemed almost infinitely more valuable, not just in a market scarcity sense but in pure, platonic essence. It is a third major departure from Marx... 

...but let's not get carried away. Because her scenario is still entirely based on LTV! Think about it. The great crime of the dire-enemies who are called "looters" is to steal labor value from the good guys in order to maintain society's capital base - precisely the same situation described by Marx! Only in her story, the theft is not from proletariat workers but from geniuses, necessitating their own revolution to reclaim that value! Sure, she turned 180 degrees the cast of characters who are the heroes. But the underlying principle and scenario - LTV theft from the productive caste, followed by revolution against the thieves and their recovery of stolen capital - is utterly the same. That is utterly pure Karl Marx.

It is the master's tale... with an M. Night Shamalayan twist! Oh, my.

Unknown-13) Yes I gave short shrift to one aspect of Atlas Shrugged that Rand probably considered paramount, That is the book's keynote role as a philosophical and psychological polemic. She blames wrong action on wrong thinking, attributing to all of Galt's enemies an addiction to "death-loving" drives. All those who disagree with Galt (and Rand) are, in effect, dismissed as psychopaths who are fixated on achieving death. Note how this makes them inherently evil and unworthy of negotiation, by virtue of of their core platonic essence. (There's Plato again!) There's nothing human about such people.

What's fascinating is where this take us in regards Ayn Rand the Marxist. I describe how her chief departure from her mentor is where she excises what comes next. After portraying Marx's ultimate capitalist consolidation and finalization of capital formation with great fidelity, she omits entirely his final step - revolution of the skilled proletariat.  But how? Now vastly outnumbering the owners, with no middle class left to sap dissent, and with both state and church neutered, what's to stop them?

Well, replace the old church with a new one! Rand posits that the New Lords will not only be brilliant inventors and terrific managers, but also vastly enlightening priests. They will correct wrong thinking and replace it with right-thinking. With a philosophy that encourages life (even though there are no kids.) At which point the prols will not rebel, because their faith is now pure. Yes, it is a Randian faith - in themselves and in a system that challenges them to 'strive for life!' Nevertheless, it truly is awesome to see that her rejection of her mentor, Karl Marx, consists entirely of thwarting his final stage by enthralling the masses with a stunningly-persuasive incantation... or opiate... of uniform thought. A catechism of pure, unchanging and permanent Truth



Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pining for Feudalism as an Antidote for Modernity

I promised a cogent and careful review of Ayn Rand's ATLAS SHRUGGED: The Motion Picture. And I'll get to it soon.  But first, may I unleash an informal screed? One scribbled in rapid response to a manifesto that was posted online a few days ago - one that I found intellectually offensive.

It's an unbelievable essay, Not Last Long, Even as Slaves,  written - in apparent sincerity - by my colleague John C. Wright (a pretty good author (The Golden Age), by the way), in which he asserts that the long darkness called feudalism was admirable, and that - by dismal contrast - we now live in an age that is benighted by crudely materialistic modernity and a shabby shallowness of the soul.

Commenting on the specific stretch of abject misery and ignorance known as the European Dark Ages, Wright redefines it -- "or, as historians call it, ‘Late Antiquity’ or, as we Catholics call it, the ‘Lost, Glorious, Honorable, Ancient and Most Chivalric Golden Age of High Christendom...’"

He goes on:

"No one wants to die at thirty, half a mile from where he was born, unless of course he likes his home, and any patient would prefer antibiotics to leeches, I grant you. But man does not live by bread alone, or even by jet travel and space age medicine. We paid the price to enjoy the mixed blessings of the modern day, and something beyond the price we paid was lost, something precious.

"To look at mankind, who so clearly yearns for some sort of communion or reunion with nature that the pagans people the woods with nymphs and satyrs, or the nursery tales or Aesop fables with talking animals, and conclude the only possible relation between man and elf is mutual genocide is a Darwinian rather than sacramental view of life: it is simply blind to what in man, weak though it may be, is not devout to totalitarian modernism and ideas of total war. It is the world view of Fran├žois de Robespierre, who guillotined the aristocracy of France like vermin, not the view of Francis of Assisi, who saluted the verminous wolf as his brother."

Woof. Naturally, I am torn.  I love a good contrarian!  And Wright clearly envisions himself in that role, leveling his lance to charge against the giant, clanking, soul-grinding mill called modernity...

...even though a mere glance at the last 6000 years shows which human phenomenon is standard fare - feudalism, serving the darwinian reproductive success of brutal men - and which type of society (modernity) is the brash upstart, with all odds stacked against it.

Okay, I love a contrarian. And yet, those who have read my denunciations of romantic nostalgia - (respectful denunciation, when I speak of the honest romantic Tolkien, but disdainful when it comes to the cosmic ingrate, George Lucas) - won't be surprised to learn that another part of me has no patience for this utter, counterfactual drivel.

Man, oh man. Where to start on this sophistry?? As if the pagan forest-lovers weren't vastly worse-off in the era Wright idolizes? Hounded and burned at the stake by medieval catholic bishops? (OMG, which era produced copious numbers of wistful, pastoral-loving fantasy novels?)

As if the aristocracy of 1790 France were prime examples of humanity, wisdom and charity, instead of monstrous persecutors who stupidly hand-crafted their own fates? Or as if 99% of the noble-born Assisi's peers were anything other than drooling-evil horrors, who only paused in their relentless reciprocal treachery long enough to join forces in a grand overall program of oppressing the serf-masses, cauterizing every low-born child's dreams?

Zoom in upon Wright's claim that those who criticize nostalgist romanticism "...conclude the only possible relation between man and elf is mutual genocide is a Darwinian rather than sacramental view of life: it is simply blind to what in man, weak though it may be, is not devout to totalitarian modernism and ideas of total war."

Oh cripes.  Where to begin.  First.  We owe absolutely nothing to $%#! elfs or wizards who clutch secret "wisdom" (what we moderns call "useful information about the world") to themselves for thousands of years, leaving men and women to flounder in miserable ignorance, when they might have opened a college in Lothlorien Forest, so we'd have flush toilets and palantirs on every desktop. Oh, thank God such creatures are mythological, because Tolkien himself opined that they were - in truth - the enemies of humankind.

Evidently, Wright swallows the romantic turd-wallow that things are better when knowledge is mysterious.  Or, as the wise authors of BORED OF THE RINGS put it:

                                          "Rings go better with hocus pocus."

(All right, you have to be over 50 to get that joke.  But trust me: Bored of the Rings is every bit as sagacious and insightful as the tome that it satirizes!)

Total war?  Oh man, John, you dare to lecture us about TOTAL WAR? Sorry, I do like you and you write well, but anyone who thinks we've gotten worse in our brutal savagery is simply a historical ignoramus.  I mean an ignoramus of historical proportions, who knows nothing of what the Assyrians did to the lost ten tribes of Israel, or the Romans to Judea, or the Mongols to Poland, or the Spanish to every native population they encountered. Or the Polynesians to each other, every year. Do you doubt that I could go on with this list? All day and all week? Can you cite counter-examples? Sure, but not many.

better-angels-of-our-nature By comparison, ever since the heroes of the democratic enlightenment conquered Mordor... I mean toppled Hitler's Nazi uber-romantics, who Tolkien himself diagnosed as super-examples of the nostalgic way... ever since George Marshall's brave men of the west pounded those monsters into dust, the per capita rate of violence on planet Earth has plummeted every single decade

Don't believe it? Watch this: Stephen Pinker on the Myth of Violence. Then ponder the most marvelous irony: that you think modernity is more violent and cruel only because modernity has succeeded in raising our standards of decent behavior, making us more self-critical about the travesties that remain.  Crimes that are so much milder than our ancestors commited routinely, without a twinge.

Oh, oh, the irony! Only... it gets richer:

"But we all know, or should all know, that modern society for all its hard and metallic glories and all its cold and soaring skyscrapers, and for the miracles of moonshots and penicillin shots, and the blessings of good plumbing and the opium of twenty-four-hour television, has lost something. Anyone who does not sense or suspect that modernity is missing something, something important, has no heart and no taste for High Fantasy."

No heart. What miserable donkey-hockey! John Wright suggests that everybody, across those dark  millennia, spent their time - while hunkering in frigid huts - thinking noble thoughts and experiencing wondrous insights of soul-expanding wisdom, instead of grunting like beasts and knifing each other for scraps.  What a reach! Based on what evidence?  Just because one priest per generation scribbled something poetical by candle light?

Good lord! Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. Show us how grinding poverty and ignorance have ever elevated great numbers of human souls.  Ever.  And I mean ever. You don't have to prove it, just show us any correlation. Any at all!

Let's see. Who wrote - during those long, awful centuries - the fine, poetically wise things that John Wright admires?  From Augustine to Aquinas to Assisi... to Maimonides, Lao Tze and Buddha?  Aristocrats, all!  Men who had free time and plenty of food and access to every scrap of "media" available during their era.  And yes, the low-brow media too, that Aristotle and Archimedes and Socrates all enjoyed, attending every bawdy play they possibly could.  As did Shakespeare, Goethe and Voltaire.

So... because there is vastly more media crap around today, that means we should ignore how much more good stuff we also have at-hand? Every glimmer of wisdom that survived the burning of the Alexandrine Library or being hidden in wizard grimoires is now available.  And those who choose to explore it all now can.

Um, instead of proclaiming that poverty and ignorance made our ancestors wise... perhaps... might one venture to suggest an alternative, vastly more realistic hypothesis? That as we increase the percentage of humanity who have surfeited bellies and disposable incomes and free time, then perhaps we might also see a commensurate increase in the percentage who feel the stirring of God's Second Greatest Gift? 

What gift am I talking about? One that comes in close-behind compassionate love?  The attribute that comes nearest to making us just like God....

The gift called curiosity.

Oh, sure, the fraction who engage in wonder, while trawling today's internet, is far from a majority.  Perhaps it always will be. But to deny that the number who actually ponder and wonder and who compassionately care about the suffering of those who dwell very far away is vastly, profoundly, overwhelmingly greater than it used to be, during epochs of tooth-and-claw, is just plain pathetic.

Is there more diversity in their glimpses of the sublime? Do these millions who are liberated by modernity contemplate -- and argue over -- a wider range of marvelous thoughts than just the virgin birth? Sure! Does that make us lesser beings, as John Wright presumes? Or does it perhaps make us incrementally more like the God who conceives an entire cosmos, filled with marvelous contradictions? The latter, you betcha.

Lost something? John are you serious?  Trotting out the old "lost something" cliche?

John Wright beckons us with the sweet-sick smugness of the Zero Sum Game.  The notion that we cannot gain the treasures of modernity without giving away something precious in return.  A sourpuss idee fixee that was well-distilled by Walt Whitman in his despicable poem: "When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer." As if the man of science does not also stare skyward, in wonder. Take it from this "learn'd astronomer": you can scrutinize the cosmos and stare at it in aesthetic joy. You can do both.

Pause. visit this brief symphony, this aria to science

It is this rejection of the Enlightenment's Positive Sum Game that makes an ingrate of John Wright.  And ingratitude -- toward the generations who strove so hard to lift their children, one rung at a time, to better and more sagacious lives -- is the most churlish human habit. This is not reverence of our ancestors, but the most atrocious way to insult them!

In contrast, I am the one here who honors the men and women of the middle ages, along with all the brutal centuries that both preceded and followed.  I honor them because I admit and avow that, amid all of that horror, some of them built more than they tore down, That - amid terror and ignorance - they succeeded at a grand and noble project. To conceive and labor and give birth - generation by slow generation - to a marvel. To a miracle.  To us.

We are the crowning glory - so far - of their hard strivings. Moreover, the geas that this lays upon us - to raise kids who are better still - is the greatest duty and burden we could possibly take upon our backs. It's what we owe them.

Oh, sure, I recognize this snarky grouchiness as what it is... part of today's viciously treasonous phenomenon called "culture war." It all fits into a tsunami of know-nothing rage expressed by the Murdochians, their anti-science, anti-progress rejection of all possibility of human improvability. Their hatred of this spectacular civilization that Ben Franklin and George Marshall and so many other heroes helped us build with our own hands. Their blatant putsch to re-establish feudalism.

But let me make plain that this is not a matter of mere politics alone. Indeed, there are anti-tech, pastoral-mystical troglodytes on the left, as well!

No, it goes far beyond mere politics. This fever is an immune response against modernity, by a portion of our genes that arose out of the harems of feudal lords. The dank, pitiable part of our human soul that yearns for hierarchy and prim order and mystically secretive gate-keepers of knowledge.  A spiteful grudge against modernity's level playing field and wide-open frontier of opportunity.

If I might borrow and adapt a metaphor from H.G. Wells -- although today's major villains are the murdochs, there is plenty of the same sickness among our eloi friends on the other side. This isn't left-versus-right. It is about personality.

The crime, the betrayal of hope, is identical at both extremes. It lies in their cultish mystifying and worshipping - without a scintilla's evidence or proof - a golden past that irrefutably wasn't, and a cruel darkness that only now is parting from before our eyes.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Farewell to Two Amazing Women

Two fantastic women departed from our sight on Earth last week, leaving it more barren than before.

Anne McCaffrey was my friend and colleague -- a wonderful writer, deeply devoted to her craft, her fans, her civilization, and delivering wonder to millions.

I barely knew Lynn Margulis, who was no less gifted and no less a gift, having prodigious impact on the world of ideas and the advancement of science. Both were fascinating people, cultural icons and role models.

==Lynn Margulis==

Professor Lynn Margulis was instrumental in developing "endosymbiotic theory"... the incredible theory that our very cells derived out of the unification of many separate species that learned, through the harsh selective process of evolution, to work together for their common benefit.

Once a radical idea, it's now widely accepted that the mitochondria inhabiting - and providing power to - the cells of eukaryotic metazoans like fish and mammals are descended from bacteria-like creatures that once lived independently, but somehow united through a process of symbiosis that became Margulis's lifelong theme.  Other cellular organelles have since been proposed or accepted as having joined us through a process of incorporation that took a billion years.

This theme was taken to new levels when Margulis extended the early "Gaia Hypothesis" of James Lovelock... the notion that Earth's biosphere shares many traits of a living organism, such as self-correcting feedback loops, synergistic behavior and overall optimization, as if it were in effect a living being.

That's the "weak Gaia Hypothesis." The strong version, which Margulis never proclaimed, would remove from my previous paragraph the words "if it were in effect."

I made extensive use of Margulis ideas, performing riffs in my own work. Heart of the Comet explored possible implications of endosymbiotic theory. And it was impossible to avoid having great fun with both weak and strong versions of the Gaia Hypothesis in my novel Earth.  Both themes reappear in my forthcoming book, Existence.

What I admired most about Lynn Margulis was her bold willingness to always take a step back in order to encompass the wider context, the bigger picture.  Then an even bigger context, and so on.

==Anne McCaffrey==

Anne was a sweet lady who showed me great kindness whenever I visited her impossibly green farm in County Wicklow, Ireland.

I could reminisce further, but that would just be pointless bragging. So I'll pay tribute to the colleague and writer who entertained and influenced millions.  One thing Anne did for me was to help distill what is the essence of my profession.  It happened one day when we were both being interviewed by a reporter, who referred to the famous McCaffrey "Dragons of Pern" books as "fantasy novels."

Oh, how Anne bristled! With clenched restraint, she corrected the reporter:

"I don't write fantasy. I am a science fiction author.

Now, a great many people have tried to define the difference between fantasy and SF.  Some try to explain it as a matter of past or future, or setting, or gimmicks and tools  (e.g. swords vs spaceships), or even the vast moral distinction between magic and science. And sure, one can grasp how some folks make lazy assumptions.  If it's got dragons, well then, it must belong in the same category as Tolkien, right?

Anne dealt with that part of it swiftly. "My dragons were genetically engineered. Scientists designed them to help colonists save themselves from a terrible environmental threat."

Hm, well. It's not just the dragons. Most of Anne's tales are filled with colorful things like tapestries and great stone castle holds, with much talk of weaving and herbal lore and fathom-deep traditions. There are duels and nobles and bards and songs and brave knights that are standard fare in your typical fantasy.  If you're going to judge by superficialities, like the furniture, then it's easy to see why some people make the mistake.

But here's the real difference and it goes to the heart. The characters in the Pern stories dwell in a feudal setting, all right.  But unlike the endlessly repeated trope-protagonists in all those Tolkien-clone universes most of them don't want to!

And they don't intend to. Not for any longer than they must.

In the course of Anne McCaffrey's fictional universe -- as the stories unfold -- people discover that things weren't always this way - with peasant-serfs tied to the rocky land, wracked by filth, pestilence and arbitrary rule by hereditary lords, staring in occasional wonder at the great dragon-riders who protect them from raining death. Sure, their condition is eased by a myriad lovely traditions and crafts, reflecting the makeshift creativity of brave folk, improvising - making the best of things across centuries of darkness.

But during the span of many novels, they come to discover a core truth: that things could be better. That their civilization fell from a height so great that people once voyaged between stars, cured disease, pondered secrets of the universe... and even made dragons. And, as soon as they realize this, they start wanting to get all of those things back.

Anne's characters know there's something better than living in grimy ignorance and violence, even lightened by clever medieval arts. It will be a long climb back, but they itch to get their hands on flush toilets, movable type, computers, democracy. And one thing is certain - they are going to quit being feudal, just as soon as they can.

Oh, sure. Feudalism tugs at something deep within us. Those images of lords and secretive mages and so on resonate, because we're all descended from the harems of guys who managed to pull off that trick! Anne -- lately in collaboration with her most-excellent son, Todd -- certainly made good use of those themes, and more power to them both! 

But the McCaffrey notion of the time flow of wisdom was always aimed forward, rooted in a love and belief in progress, in our ability to raise better generations, in a hope that better days will come.

Anne McCaffrey was a science fiction author. One of the best. And I'm proud to say she was my friend.


My condolences to Dorion Sagan, and to my esteemed colleague Todd McCaffrey, and to their families. Soar on.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Snips of Science, Tech and Politics

Occupy the skies!

Think I'm kidding about "sousveillance" and people-power vision? Now citizen protesters have drones!

This video shows the view from a Polish RoboKopter with video camera. Getting an aerial view is the next step in compelling DIY citizen video.

== Antimatter and FTL Neutrinos? ==
The world's largest atom smasher, designed as a portal to a new view of physics, has produced its first peek at the unexpected: bits of matter that don't mirror the behavior of their antimatter counterparts.  This could alter our understanding of matter and anti-matter...or provide a clue to why our cosmos is only made (largely) of one kind.

And yes, there’s been a lot of interest in the recent neutrino experiments in Italy. Does a recent result that replicates the “faster-than-light finding” actually prove it??

Well, I remain skeptical.

1- this new result comes from the same pair of facilities in the alps and Italy; it's not a confirmation.

2- it's very hard to synch the clocks.  Show me you’ve done that and measured the distance properly.

3-  if neutrinos traveled FTL with any consistency they would have arrived months before the light from supernova 1987a, instead of right on time. A hundred thousand light-year journey. Any systematic exceeding of the speed of light would be noticed!

One suggestion that would explain the 1987a results, yet allow something anomalous over the very short, initial distance from Switzerland to Italy? It’s been suggested that perhaps some neutrinos bump out of our "brane" just after being made, then settle back in and travel normally. Very sci fi-ish idea.

== Tax Evasion and the IRS ==

secrecy-3dThe IRS has opened new enforcement offices overseas, beefed up staffing and expanded cooperation with foreign governments. A similar disclosure program in 2009 has so far netted $2.2 billion in back taxes, penalties and fines, from people with accounts in 140 countries.

Between the two disclosure programs, a total of 30,000 tax cheats have come clean. "The world has clearly changed," IRS Commissioner Shulman said. "We have pierced international bank secrecy laws, and we're making a serious dent in offshore tax evasion... Unlike a few years ago, it's very clear now that there's a real price to be paid for people who think they can hide offshore and not pay their taxes."

You’ll be hearing the “class war” refrain for years. Gather some capsule, one-sentence answers:

* Across 6000 years, 99% of human cultures were pyramid-shaped, and the owner-lords were the ones who oppressed both freedom and competitive markets. Try reading Adam Smith!  So why this effort to demonize every elite EXCEPT the lords?

* Only one generation of human beings did not know “class warfare” - the Post-World War II generation that lived in the miracle that FDR built - a vigorous capitalist-entrepreneurial market and booming middle class... amid the flattest non-pyramidal social order ever seen. The first time ever that self-made millionaires outnumbered the inheritance brats.

Sure, some FDR regulations were excessive. But just try to argue with those results.  The crux: as the anti-FDR cult grew ever-more vituperative and bitter toward America's most popular president ever, it tore down everything he built... all three of those vital metrics of US national health have diametrically reversed.  And this is good for America... how?

Why are people who make grand pronouncements so unwilling to let their opinions change, when shown the failure of their predictions?

* Ask your "ostrich" friends: "Tell us how to avoid “class war” now that 400 families own a greater share of our wealth than 50% of Americans. Is there some disparity that would finally make you worry? When they own more than 75%...Perhaps more than 90%? WHEN will you admit that we’ve returned to the normal condition that reigned in 99% of human cultures? Then will you admit that Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t Satan, or that our parents in the "greatest generation" weren't complete idiots, after all?"

All right, some of that sounds “liberal.” I guess I’ll be accused of that leaning even more, after my next posting about Ayn Rand.  But I promise, I’ll skewer some on the other side, soon!

Also remember this. Libertarians - especially Ayn Rand followers - are not "right-wingers." They have their own perspective and I'll show that it is a very close cousin of ... Marxism.

== The Abortion fight ... and the Bible ==

Mississippi voters recently defeated a ballot initiative proclaiming that life begins at conception. Here's an eye-opening letter in the LA Times by Sandy Smith... and one wonders why this wasn't brought up till now!

"I don't know what Bible the folks in Mississippi are reading, but it's not one I'm familiar with. The New Testament has no references at all to a fetus, but the Old Testament is very specific. If a man kills another man, he must pay with his life; if he kills an animal, he must offer restitution. But, according to Exodus 21:22: "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows." A fetus was considered potential property."

I say again, the whole and entire purpose of the anti-abortion crusade was to give the right a "moral high ground" against foes who seem much more giving and Jesus-like. It lets them say "saving babies trumps all other things that would've made that hippie Jesus side with the left! That one issue makes Jesus side with us!"  An extremely effective polemical trick.

See more in my posting: Abortion and the "Jesus Effect."

== A Bit of History ==

An interesting word introduced to our comments section blogmunity by a new member: Seisachtheia was a set of laws instituted by the Athenian lawmaker Solon (c. 638 BC–558 BC) in order to rectify the widespread serfdom and slaves that had run rampant in Athens by the 6th century BC, by debit relief.

Under the pre-existing legal status, according to the account of the Constitution of the Athenians attributed to Aristotle, debtors unable to repay their creditors would surrender their land to them, then becoming hektemoroi, i.e. serfs who cultivated what used to be their own land and gave one sixth of produce to their creditors. Should the debt exceed the perceived value of debtor's total assets, then the debtor and his family would become the creditor's slaves as well. The same would result if a man defaulted on a debt whose collateral was the debtor's personal freedom.

Solon's law changed all that.  Forbidding slavery due to debt and freeing those who had been so enslaved.  Athenian slavery still existed, but under terms more gentle than Sparta, by far.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Looking Upward!

Last time, in reaction to Frank Miller's horrendous slur at kids trying to rediscover activism, I dissected Miller’s travesty book and film "300" showing that its outright lies about Greek history reflected a deeply anti-freedom and anti-American agenda.

That stirred  a lot of reaction! But not as much as I’ll get from my next couple of postings about popular culture. Soon I plan to do a critical dissection of the film version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Then I promise to get to that long-awaited piece about James Cameron's beautiful but misguided movie, Avatar.

At which point I’ll have aimed barbs in all three directions! Right, left and libertarian. Contrary Brin indeed!

This time? Let’s clean the palate with something lighter.  A little potpourri.

First, an announcement: Watch the Prophets of Science Fiction! An episode about Philip K. Dick airs this Wednesday, 10pm on the Discovery Science Channel. Along with other interviewees, I offer a few insights about this great writer. Future episodes will cover greats like Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Heinlein and so on. 

And see my recommended reading list of sci fi for young adults, reinterpreted visually by Worlds Without End. More generally, Worlds Without End has extensive coverage of science fiction, fantasy and horror novels, with links to authors, as well as complete listings of major awards, including Hugo, Nebula, Locus, John W. Campbell, Philip K. Dick and World Fantasy Awards. Also forums to discuss your favorite novels and authors.

== Worrisome ... ==

A new copyright bill, Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, intends to shut down rogue websites suspected of intellectual property violations. But it may go too far toward censorship, infringing upon free speech--it is opposed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. On Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow writes that this new law "would give government and corporations the power to block sites like BoingBoing over infringing links on at least one webpage posted by their users....The only thing that is going to stop Hollywood from owning the Internet and everything we do, is if there is a big surprise Internet backlash starting right now.” Have a look and learn about SOPA. And consider joining the resistance.

Fellow writer Charlie Stross has very cogent points to make about “evil social networks.” Pointing out that basic human psychological, social and commercial forces will make them drift toward a core business model:

"So the ideal social network (from an investor's point of view) is one that presents itself as being free-to-use, is highly addictive, uses you as bait to trap your friends, tracks you everywhere you go on the internet, sells your personal information to the highest bidder, and is impossible to opt out of. Sounds like a cross between your friendly neighborhood heroin pusher, Amway, and a really creepy stalker, doesn't it?"

His focus is on Klout... but the warning applies to all.

== Strangeness! ==

New photos have appeared in Google Maps showing unidentified titanic structures in the middle of the Chinese desert. Bizarre, science-fictional (or nightmare) constructions... some of them featuring the blasted remains of planes and other vehicles.  Some sort of targeting array for space weaponry?  Gee!

Less disturbing and far more inspiring HD images from space!  See this Time Lapse from Space.

Starship Sofa’s latest anthology is way cool. Look it up! (The last story is one of my quirkier self indulgences.)

New super-slippery substance: One fan wrote in recently with a suggested “hit” for my predictions registry: “This was on Slashdot 11/15/11.  It reminded me of the lubricant found in the tracks the wagons slid within in The Practice Effect... My question is, if it's soo slippery, how do they get it to stick to anything?”

This is simply wonderfully beautiful... a murmuration of starlings.

== Some political grist - with a sci fi twist ==

To a Keynsian (or anyone sensible) the economic stimulus wasn't enough to get out of a nosedive economic downturn caused by Wall Street and gross negligence. How to bootstrap out of it? Inspired by the economic boom-example of World War II, Nobel Prize winner (and huge Asimov fan) Paul Krugman suggests that we might fake an alien invasion...

Moving from science fictional riffs on economics to our current, threatened enlightenment.... More evidence that class war is being waged top-down.  The top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s income over the last three decades, this article said. And there’s tons more. Gee Whiz, read this thing.

Millionaires are receiving billions in taxpayer-funded support every year that helps them pay for everything from child care to bad debts to boats and vacation homes, according to a report by Sen. Tom Coburn. People who individually earned more than a million dollars in 2009 even managed to collect a total of nearly $21 million in unemployment insurance. "From tax write-offs for gambling losses, vacation homes, and luxury yachts to subsidies for their ranches and estates, the government is subsidizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous," wrote Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican.  Always thought he was one of the smarter-saner ones.

Some of it is unfair to remove completely, like $9 billion in retirement checks. Look, a deal is a deal. On the other hand. dig these two: $21 billion in gambling losses and $28 billion in mortgage breaks for mansions, vacation homes and yachts.  Choke, gurrgle groan...

Professor Max Boykoff has a very interesting new book out entitled Who Speaks for the Climate? Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change.

Heard from a person who lectures on deception for the NSA notes, "illusion, misdirection, ridicule" these three - the legs of the stool of deception. But the greatest of these is ridicule."

== Finally... lefties... grow up! ==

As one who despises the left-right axis and who believes that certain variants of conservatism and libertarianism have real value, I have spent most of the last political decade trying to get “ostriches” in those realms to wake up to how those potentially respectable movements have been hijacked by monsters.  If enough ostriches lift their heads... if we can regain a conservatism that is about intellect and curiosity and joyful argument, in the spirit of Goldwater and Buckley, and a libertarianism in the pragmatic tradition of Heinlein and Adam Smith...

...then all moderate Americans could gather at a table and negotiate mixed solutions to problems, yet again.  That would end Phase Three of the American Civil War.

But I do aim barbs leftward!  You folks know I have no truck for the rare but noisome flakes on that side.  Above all, we should only have contempt for those who might feel tempted by a self-righteous insurrection against their somewhat limp, but generally well-meaning president.

Oh, sure, he’s got the wrong personality for these times. But to see what’s at stake (you liberals out there) please read this New York Times article about the U.S. Supreme Court: The Court and the Next President.

Hold your nose and learn to be practical people.  Better yet, grow up.