AODA Blog

Learning From Failure: A Modest Introduction

Wed, 2016-08-24 17:50
The other day, one of the readers over at the other blog asked a question as sensible as it is timely: why do so many sane people start foaming at the mouth when the subject of this year’s US presidential election comes up? It’s a fair question.  Even by the embarrassing standards of political discourse that apply to the United States these days, the blend of sheer paralogic, parroted sound bites, and white-hot rage that can be heard from the supporters of both major party candidates is out of the ordinary. I spent some time mulling over the question, and I think I know the answer: cognitive dissonance.

That can be explained by a simple thought experiment.  Let’s imagine, dear reader, that you were to go into a Starbuck’s in a hip neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, and ask the people there—dyed-in-the-wool Democrats to a man, woman, gender-nonspecific individual, and child—to describe their nightmare presidential candidate, the person they’d least like to see in the White House next January.
They’d tell you that it would be a political insider openly in bed with banks and big business who spent years in public service pandering to the rich, who is also a neoconservative who pursued regime-change operations against Third World countries and was committed to military confrontation with the Russians. The candidate would have a track record supporting the kind of trade agreements that allow corporations to overturn environmental laws, and would also be dogged by embarrassingly detailed allegations of corruption on a stunningly blatant scale. The candidate would insist that everything was just fine with America, and anyone who disagreed was just being negative. Oh, and it would help if the candidate had engaged in race-baiting behavior, and had insisted that a woman’s claim that she was raped wasn’t to be taken seriously if it was directed at a member of the candidate’s own family.
That is to say, the rank and file Democrats’ idea of the worst possible President is Hillary Clinton.
Now let’s imagine that you were to hop on a Greyhound, get off in Bowling Green, Kentucky, head for the nearest Southern Baptist church social, and ask the people there—dyed-in-the-wool Republicans down to the very last lady, gentleman, and well-scrubbed child—to describe their nightmare presidential candidate, the person they’d least like to see in the White House come January.
They’d tell you that of course it would be a Yankee from New York City, which still edges out Los Angeles in the minds of many of the godly as the ultimate cesspit of evil in North America. The candidate would be a profiteer who made a pile of money exploiting vice, a wheeler-dealer who repeatedly declared bankruptcy to get out from under inconvenient debts. The candidate would be vulgar—you have no idea of the force of this word until you’ve heard it uttered in tones of total disdain by an elderly woman who’s a downwardly mobile descendant of Southern planters—and a hypocrite in religious matters, mouthing only such Christian catchphrases as might help win the election. Such a candidate would of course be on a second or third or fourth marriage, have fathered a child out of wedlock, and would fail to show any trace of pious horror toward gays, lesbians, transexuals, and the like. Finally, such a candidate would claim that America is no longer the greatest nation on Earth and has to make sweeping changes to become great again.
That is to say, the rank and file Republicans’ idea of the worst possible President is Donald Trump.
I suppose its probably too late in the game for both of the parties to do the right thing and swap candidates, so that the Republicans can go back to running a corrupt establishment neoconservative and the Democrats can field a libertine populist demagogue. Lacking such a sensible move, it’s not at all surprising that so many people have basically gone gaga, as Democratic and Republican voters try to convince themselves that they really do want to vote for someone who’s literally everything they least want in the Oval Office. That degree of cognitive dissonance does not make for calm discussions, rational decisions, or sane politics.
We can therefore expect any number of bizarre outbursts as the current race settles which of the two most detested persons in American public life gets the dubious benefit of putting a hand on the Bible next January, and becoming the notional leader of a bitterly divided nation in the throes of accelerating political, economic, and social decline. While that plays out, though, there are other dimensions of politics that deserve discussion, and some of them surfaced in a big way in response to my post last month talking about the failure of climate change activism to achieve any of its goals.
That post attracted quite a few hostile comments and no shortage of furious denunciations. A very large number of these focused on one detail in the post:  the comparison I drew between climate change activism and the campaign for the right to same-sex marriage here in the United States, in that both faced a well-funded opposition that pursued a scurrilous campaign of disinformation against them. The campaign for same-sex marriage, I pointed out, triumphed anyway, so the defeat of climate change activism couldn’t be blamed on the opposition alone; the reasons why climate change activism had failed, while the right to same-sex marriage was now the law of the land, had to be taken into account.
This, however, a remarkably large number of my readers were unwilling to do. They insisted that the goal of the campaign for same-sex marriage rights was a simple, straightforward change in laws that affected very few people, while the goal of climate change activism was a comprehensive overturn of every aspect of contemporary life. Some of them got rhetorical on the grand scale, painting the sheer overwhelming difficulty of doing anything about climate change in such daunting colors that I don’t think all the climate denialists on the planet, backed by a grant from Exxon, could have equalled it. It seems never to have occurred to them to ask whether there was a way to reframe their goal into something more like same-sex marriage—something, that is, that they might be able to accomplish.
More generally, the core of the hostile response was an absolute rejection of the idea that the climate change movement should learn anything from its failure. That’s a surrender more total than anything Exxon’s board of directors could have hoped for in their fondest dreams. Movements for social change that want to win always take each temporary defeat as a learning experience, draw lessons from the failure, and change their tactics, strategy, and framing of the issue based on those lessons, then fling themselves back into the struggle with a better chance at victory. They also look at other movements that succeed and ask themselves, “How can we do the same thing with our cause?” Movements for social change that respond to failure by reaching for excuses and trying to convince themselves and everyone else that the battle could never have been won in the first place, on the other hand, get a shallow grave and a water-color epitaph.
For what it’s worth, I think there’s something even more important to be learned from the insistence that the lessons of the movement for same-sex marriage rights can’t possibly be applied to climate change activism. The same-sex marriage movement was notable among recent initiatives on the leftward end of the political spectrum for two distinctive features. The first was that it went out of its way to violate the conventional wisdom that’s governed activism in the US since the early 1980s. The second is that it won. These two things are by no means unrelated.  In fact, I’d like to suggest that certain habits, which have been de rigueur for social change movements for the last thirty years, have been responsible for their near-total failure to accomplish their goals over that period.
Let’s take a look at those habits one at a time.
1. Piggybacking
This is the insistence that any movement for social change has to make room on its agenda for all the other currently popular movements for social change, and has to divert some of its time, labor, and resources to each of these other movements. Start a movement for any one purpose, and you can count on being swarmed by activists who insist they want to be your allies.  Some insist that they’re eager to help you so long as you’re willing to help them, some insist that you can best pursue your goal by helping them pursue theirs, some insist that theirs is so much more important than yours that if you’re a decent person you should drop your cause and join them, but it all amounts to a demand that you divert some of your money, time, labor, and other resources from your cause to theirs.
Behind the facade of solidarity, that is, the social-change scene is a Darwinian environment in which movements compete for access to people, money, and enthusiasm. Piggybacking is one of the standard competitive strategies, and it really goes into overdrive as soon as your movement comes up with a plan to do something concrete about the problem you’re trying to solve. At this point, your allies can be counted on to insist that your plan isn’t acceptable unless it also does something to benefit their cause. You can’t just fix A, in other words; you’ve also got to do something about B, C, D, and so on to Z—and long before you get there, your plan has stopped being workable, because no possible set of actions can solve all the world’s problems at once.
One of the things that set the campaign for same-sex marriage rights apart from other movements for social change, in turn, is that it refused to fall for piggybacking. It kept its focus on its actual goal—getting same-sex couples the right to marry—and refused to listen to the many voices that insisted that it was unrealistic to pursue this goal all by itself, and they should get in line, join the grand movement for social change, and wait their turn. If they’d listened, they’d still be waiting. Instead, they succeeded.
2. The Partisan Trap
The Democratic Party is the place where environmental causes go to die. To some extent, today’s US partisan politics is the ultimate example of piggybacking; movements on the leftward end of things have been talked into believing that they should put their energy into getting Democratic candidates elected, rather than pursuing their own agendas, and as a result Democratic candidates get elected but the movements for social change find that their own causes go nowhere.
This isn’t accidental. Both US parties have perfected the art of reducing once-independent movements for social change into captive constituencies, which keep on working to elect candidates for one or the other party, while getting essentially nothing in return. The Democratic party establisnment has no more interest in seeing climate change activism succeed than their Republican opposite numbers have in seeing the antiabortion movement succeed; in both cases, that would cause the movements to fade away, as movements do when they triumph, and important captive constituencies would be lost to the parties that own them. It’s much more profitable to the party apparatchiks to toss occasional crumbs to their captive constituencies, blame the other party for the failure of the captive constituencies to achieve any of their goals, and insist every four years that their captive constituencies have to vote the way they’re told, because the other party is so much worse.
The campaign for same-sex marriage rights managed to break out of that trap despite the strenuous efforts of both parties to keep it in its assigned place. It so happens that there are a significant number of gay and lesbian people who are Republicans—who vote for GOP candidates, donate to GOP campaigns, and take part in party activities—and they bombarded their Republican legislators with letters demanding that the GOP do what it claims it wants to do, and get government off people’s backs. This played a significant role in bringing about the collapse of GOP opposition to same-sex marriage, and thus to the success of the movement.
3. Purity Politics
The creation of a movement that included Republican as well as Democratic gays, lesbians, and sympathetic straight people also violated another commandment of contemporary left-wing activism, which is that movements for social change must exclude everyone who fails any of a battery of tests of ideological purity. It’s been pointed out, and truly, that the Right looks for allies to attract while the Left looks for heretics to expel; this is one of the reasons that for the last forty years, the Right has been so much more successful than the Left.
To some extent, purity politics is simply the flipside of piggybacking. If your movement also has to support every other movement on the leftward end of things, the only people who will be attracted to your movement are those few who also agree with the agendas of every one of the other movements on the list. Still, there’s more going on here than that. I’ve written in a previous post here about the way that narratives about race in America have been transformed into a dysfunctional game in which bullying an assortment of real and imagined persecutors has taken the place of doing anything to better the lives of those affected by racial injustice. Purity politics rises out of the same dynamic, and it’s played a large role in taking any number of potentially successful movements and reducing them to five or six people in an empty room, each of them glaring suspiciously at all the others, constantly on the lookout for any sign of deviant thinking.
One of the reasons the movement for same-sex marriage rights triumphed, in turn, was precisely that it refused to get into purity politics. All that mattered, in large parts of the movement, was that you were in favor of giving same-sex couples the right to marry, and a great many people who weren’t in favor of the whole gamut of social-change movements were in fact perfectly willing to let gay and lesbian couples tie the knot. That capacity to bridge ideological divides and find common ground on a single issue isn’t a guarantee of victory, but refusing to do so is almost always a guarantee of defeat.
4. Pandering to the Privileged
No one ever built a mass movement by appealing to an affluent minority. That’s one of the major reasons why so few movements for social change these days show the least sign of becoming mass movements. Since the early 1980s, most activists have framed their appeals and their campaigns as though the only audience that mattered consisted of affluent liberals, and as often as not went out of their way to ignore or even insult the great majority of Americans—you know, the people who would have had to be on their side if their cause was going to achieve any kind of lasting victory.
I’ve discussed in other posts on this blog the extent to which class issues have become a taboo subject in contemporary politics, precisely during the decades in which the once-prosperous American working classes have been destroyed. In our collective conversation about politics, you can talk about race, you can talk about gender, you can even talk about the very rich, but if you talk about another very important divide—the divide between the people who earn salaries and have done very well for themselves, and the people who earn wages and have been driven into poverty and misery by easily identifiable policies supported across the board by the people who earn salaries—you can count on being shouted down. (One of the many advantages of having this conversation on the fringes where archdruids lurk is that the shouting is slightly muffled out here.)
A great many soi-disant radicals have thus ended up trotting meekly along after the privileged classes, begging for scraps from the tables of the affluent rather than risking so much as a raised eyebrow of disapproval from them. Real change will come to the United States when others learn, as Donald Trump already has, that the exclusion of the needs, interests, and viewpoints of wage-earning Americans from our national politics and public discourse has shattered their once-robust faith in the status quo and made them ripe for political mobilization. That change need not be for the better; if the mainstream parties continue to act as though only the affluent matter, the next person who finds a following among the wage class may have a taste for armbands and jackboots, or for that matter, for roadside bombs and guerrilla warfare; but change will come.
The movement for same-sex marriage rights had a great advantage here, in that the policy changes it wanted to put in place were just as advantageous for wage-earning same-sex couples in Bowling Green and Omaha as for salary-class same-sex couples in Seattle and Boston. (If you don’t think there are wage-earning same-sex couples in Bowling Green and Omaha, by the way, you need to get out more.)  That gave their movement a mass following that, even if court rulings hadn’t made the point moot, had already begun to win votes on a state-by-state basis and would have won a great many more.
And the movement against anthropogenic climate change? If you’ve been following along, dear reader, you’ll already have noticed that it fell victim to all four of the bad habits just enumerated—the four horsepersons, if you will, of the apocalyptic failure of radicalism in our time. It allowed itself to be distracted from its core purpose by a flurry of piggybacking interests; it got turned into a captive constituency of the Democratic Party; it suffers from a bad case of purity politics, in which (to raise a point I’ve made before) anyone who questions the capacity of renewable resources to replace fossil fuels, without conservation taking up much of the slack, is denounced as a denialist; and it has consistently pandered to the privileged, pursuing policies that benefit the well-to-do at the expense of the working poor.  Those bad habits helped foster the specific mistakes I enumerated in my earlier post-mortem on climate change activism, and led the movement to crushing defeat.
That wasn’t necessary, nor is any future climate change activism required to make the same mistakes all over again. In an upcoming post, I plan on sketching out how a future movement to stop treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer and start mitigating the ecological impact of our idiocy to date might proceed. The specific suggestions I’ll offer will be tentative, but the lessons taught by the success of the campaign for same-sex marriage rights will be incorporated in them—and so will the equally important lessons taught over and over again by the failure of other movements for social change in our time.

Retrotopia: Dinner, Drinks, and Hard Questions

Wed, 2016-08-17 17:02
This is the twenty-second installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator has dinner with Melanie Berger, tells her about his change of mind, and has to confront the hard choices ahead of him. 
 
***********We’d settled on a Greek restaurant close by, a place I’d been for lunch already.  I passed that onto the driver as soon as we got into the cab, and slumped back against the leather seat as the driver climbed up onto the seat up front, snapped the reins, and got the horses moving. Neither Melanie nor I said anything. The lights of Toledo rolled by, and I wondered how many people behind the windows we passed were worrying about the war down south, the way I was.
It was maybe five minutes, if that, when the cab rolled to a stop, and the cabby swung down from his seat and popped open the door. I climbed down, paid him, reached out a hand for Melanie; she took it gratefully, got down onto the sidewalk. “Thank you,” she said, when the cabbie was driving off. “For a few minutes of silence, especially.”
“We don’t have to talk over dinner,” I said as we headed toward the door.
“Don’t worry about it. You won’t be screaming at me in a Texas accent for an hour straight.”
I gave her a questioning look, but by then we were inside and the greeter was headed our way.  Once we were comfortably settled in a booth over to one side, and the waitress had handed us menus and taken our drinks order to the bar, I said, “Seriously?”
“Seriously. The Texan ambassador wanted to see President Meeker right now, and no, she didn’t care that he was in a cabinet meeting and that she was going to be the first to see him afterwards. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever wished that diplomatic courtesies included the right to slap someone hard enough to send teeth flying.”
I choked, then pasted on a respectable expression while the waitress came back with our martinis and took our order. “I take it Texas doesn’t put professionals in its embassies.”
“Only the important ones, and we’re not one of those. Velma Streiber’s a Houston society matron who has good friends in the Bulford administration and wanted a fancy title.” She shook her head.
“I hope you didn’t have to deal with the Confederate ambassador too,” I said.
“I did, but that was easy. John Bayard MacElroy is your basic Confederate gentleman.  He might shoot you dead in cold blood and feed your corpse to his hound dogs, but he’ll be the very soul of politeness while he does it.”
I choked again. Then, still laughing, I shook my head and picked up my martini. She gave me a startled look. “That doesn’t look much like what you were drinking Friday night.”
“It isn’t,” I admitted. “I decided to try a Lakeland style martini Saturday, and liked it.”
That got me a long, considering look, and then a nod. “But that was my day—that and dealing with just about every other embassy in Toledo by phone or in person, scheduling meetings with Meeker, setting up briefings like the one you went to, attending a couple of briefings myself. Oh, and helping out two delegations—I won’t say which ones—that lost their satellite links with home and have no idea how to get by without hardware in orbit.”
That interested me. “How do your embassies phone home?”
“Shortwave radio, of course—the way everybody did before satellites took over. I had to explain that to both delegations.” With a sly smile: “When the Atlantic Embassy loses its satellite links, have them give me a call; I can recommend a good radio firm that won’t even put bugs in the hardware.”
I gave her a dubious look, and she laughed. “I hope the briefing you got was worthwhile, by the way.”
“Even more so than I’d expected.  Turns out you’re not the only people interested in freight transit through the Erie Canal.”
“Now surprise me.” She sipped her drink. “Missouri, East Canada, and who?”
“Chicago.”
“Oh, of course. That’s good to know; I’ll talk to Hank Barker with the Missouri delegation and see if we can coordinate shipping with them. We do a lot of trade with Missouri these days; the wool your suit is made of almost certainly came from their flocks, and possibly from their fabric mills.”
“Barker mentioned that,” I said. “Wool and leather.”
Two bowls of avgolemono soup came, and neither of us said anything until the waitress was gone. “I’m going to risk mentioning a potentially uncomfortable subject,” Melanie said. “The Missouri Republic is the one neighbor we’ve got that’s shown any interest in in learning from our experience. They haven’t gone nearly as far as we have—you still see bioplastic clothing there, and they’ve still got a metanet, though it’s pretty ramshackle these days—but the World Bank doesn’t like them much any more.” She shook her head, laughed. “I’ve been told that people from the World Bank threatened them with trade sanctions two years ago, after they refused a loan, and President Applegate told them, ‘Didn’t hurt Lakeland much, did it?’ That shut them up.”
I laughed, because I’d met Hannah Applegate at a reception in Philadelphia, and it took no effort at all to imagine her saying those words in her lazy Western drawl. Then the implications sank in. “They turned down a World Bank loan?”
“Of course. You know as well as I do that the only reason the World Bank makes those is to force countries to stay plugged into the global economy, so they can get the hard currency they need to make  payments on the loan. The Missouri government knows that, too, and they’re sick of it. Since we’re Missouri’s number one trading partner these days, we’ve both got the necessary arrangements to handle trade and investment in each other’s currencies, and a fair amount of private investment from our side heads over there these days, they decided it was time to take the risk.”
“Good timing on their part,” I said, thinking of the war.
“And on ours.” In response to my questioning look: “They produce things we need and buy things we produce. The last thing we want is to see them bled dry.”
“The way my country will be,” I said. She glanced at me, said nothing, and concentrated for a while on her bowl of soup.
The waitress showed up conveniently a moment later, served us our entrees, made a little friendly conversation—Melanie was a regular, I gathered—and then headed off to another table. “As I said,” Melanie said then, “it’s a potentially uncomfortable subject.”
“The fact that your country is set up to weather this latest mess in fairly good shape, and mine might just end up as a failed state.”
Her face tensed, and after a moment she nodded. “If that happens, and you can make it to our border, have the border guards contact Meeker’s office. Shouldn’t be too hard to expedite your entry. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but...” She let the sentence trickle off.
“Thank you. I hope it doesn’t either.” Then: “To the extent that you can tell me, how bad do your analysts expect it to get?”
She considered that. “I can tell you a few things. It’s nothing you won’t hear from your own intelligence people once you get back home—the NIS, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “What do you call your spook shop here in Lakeland?”
“We’ve got three of them: the Office of Political Intelligence in the State Department, the Office of Economic Intelligence in Trade, and the Office of Military Intelligence in Defense. Keeping it broken up like that helps prevent groupthink.”
I motioned with my fork, granting the point, and she went on. “What OPI says is that Texas and the Confederacy were both in deep trouble even before this whole thing blew up in their faces. They both depend heavily on oil revenue to balance their budgets, they’ve both had declining production for years now, and you know as well as I do how badly they’ve been clobbered by volatility in the oil markets. That’s ultimately what’s behind this war—neither of them can afford to compromise because they both need every drop of oil they can possibly get—but this is going to take a lot of wells out of production until the fighting’s over.”
“Or permanently,” I said. In response to her questioning look: “I was told off the record that so much of both sides’ offshore fields are stripper wells that a lot of the destroyed platforms won’t produce enough oil in the future to be worth the cost of rebuilding.”
She nodded. “That’s OEI’s bailiwick and I haven’t talked to them yet, so thanks for the heads up.Even without that, though, both countries are going to be hit hard even if the war ends in a few days—and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end in a few days.”
I nodded. “Military intelligence?”
“Got it.”
I didn’t ask for details; she’d told me as much as she was cleared to pass on, and there are lines you don’t cross in our business. Pretty clearly she’d attended a classified military briefing and gotten the latest information about the war, and I could think of at least a dozen signs that would warn the Lakeland government that neither Texas nor the Confederacy was going to back down any time soon. In a couple of days I’d be back in Philadelphia, and I could ask people I knew in Ellen Montrose’s transition team for a summary.
“And if it drags on?” I asked.
She gave me an unhappy look. “Best case scenario is both countries end up economic basket cases, with per capita GDPs lower than the midrange for sub-Saharan Africa, but they both manage to hold together and begin to recover in about a decade. Worst case scenario is that one or both go failed-state on us. Either way we’re looking at a big refugee problem, and a long-term economic headache if the Mississippi stays closed. We can deal with it, no question—it’s just going to take some work. It’s the people down south, in both countries, I feel sorry for”
We both concentrated on our meals for a minute or two.
“And the thing is,” she burst out then, “this whole business is so unnecessary. If both countries weren’t stuck on a treadmill trying to—” She stopped cold, catching herself.
“Trying to progress,” I finished the sentence.
Another unhappy look. “I really don’t think we should go there,” she said.
“I think we should,” I replied “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the things you said Friday evening, and you were right.”
She was so surprised she dropped her fork. After a moment: “I’m sorry. I’m not sure I believe I just heard you say that.”
“You were right,” I repeated. “I spent all Saturday trying to find holes in your logic, and I couldn’t find any.” I shrugged. “I have no idea where to go with that yet, but there it is.” Which was not quite true, but there were things I wasn’t going to say in a restaurant that close to Embassy Row.
She considered me for a long moment, pretty obviously shaken good and hard, and I said, “Come on, I can’t be the only person from outside who’s told you that.”
“It happens,” she said then. “Once in a blue moon, maybe. No, that’s not fair—working class people get it in a heartbeat, more often than not. They look at the way factory workers and store clerks live here, compared to how they live outside, they ask a few questions about why we do what we do, and they have no trouble at all figuring out the rest for themselves.”
I thought about the family of immigrants I’d seen on the train from Pittsburgh, and the conversation I’d had with the father of the family. “But people who are well off, well educated, part of the system.”
“The minority that still gets some benefit out of progress,” she said.
That stung, but I knew she was right. “Yes.”
“Once in a blue moon.”
Neither of us said anything for a while. Our plates got empty and our drinks got refilled; a couple of dishes of baklava came out for dessert, and when we started talking again it was about uncontroversial things, the Toledo Opera’s future plans, funny stories about trade negotiations, that sort of thing. I guessed that she was still trying to process what I’d said, which was reasonable; so was I.
Finally the meal ended. She was looking really tired by that point—no surprises there—so we settled pretty much right away that nobody was going to end up in anybody else’s bed that night.  I gave her a kiss, helped her into her coat, and got her onto a taxi headed for her place. My hotel wasn’t too many blocks away, so I waited until the taxi had turned the corner and set off on foot.
The sky was still clear and a rising wind swept down the streets, hissing in the bare branches of streetside trees. Overhead the stars glittered, and now and then something bright shot across some portion of the sky and burnt out, one more fragment of business as usual falling out of the place we’d stuck it and thought it would stay forever.
In less than forty-eight hours I’d be back in the Atlantic Republic:  on my way home to Philadelphia, where three decades of effective one-party rule by the Dem-Reps had just gone out the window in a landslide and taken the status quo with it.  The new administration would have to scramble to find its feet in a world gone topsy-turvy, where there were too many hard questions and nothing like enough straightforward answers. For that matter. I was going to be facing some hard questions of my own, and I was far from sure I had any straightforward answers, either.
Another chunk of dead satellite traced a streak of light across the sky, dissolved in a flurry of sparks. I kept on walking.
***************In other fiction-related news, two magazines with links to this blog have something to report. Into the Ruins, the recently started deindustrial SF quarterly edited by Joel Caris, has just released its second issue. I’m delighted to say that it’s a worthy successor to the first issue, with a lively mix of short stories and a letters to the editor column that’s really starting to pick up. Fans may also want to know that this issue includes the first installment of a regular column by yours truly, "Deindustrial Futures Past," reviewing older works of science fiction set in the aftermath of industrial civilization.
Mythic, the new science fiction and fantasy quarterly by the publisher of the After Oil anthologies, is also moving toward its first issue. I’m eager to see this take off, and am contributing a short story, “The Phantom of the Dust,” set in the same fictive world as my novel The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth. I’ve been told by publisher Shaun Kilgore that he’s gotten a good initial response to his call for fiction submissions but would like to see more, and he’s also very much interested in book reviews, essays, and other nonfiction pieces related to science fiction and fantasy. More details? You’ll find ‘em here. This is a paying gig, folks; let your writer friends know.

The Emperor's New Art: A Parable

Wed, 2016-08-10 14:17
Last week’s episode of the Retrotopia narrative ended up launching, rather to my surprise, an extensive discussion about the nature of art. The spark that set off this unexpected blaze was a passing comment on the part of the story’s protagonist, who described the abstract paintings on the walls of the Atlantic Republic embassy in Toledo in somewhat rude language. That was meant as a throwaway line, one more display of the way the protagonist’s views had changed during his visit to my imaginary Lakeland Republic—but it fielded me a minor flurry of denunciation from people who couldn’t stand the fact that a character of mine had expressed a lack of appreciation for one variety of modern art. 
Those of my readers who’ve come in for bullying from the art crowd know exactly what sort of thing those tirades included. Those who’ve evaded that experience so far—well, I was told that I had no right to have an opinion on the subject, that I don’t know anything about art, that I obviously prefer Norman Rockwell, that I’m offended by intellectual challenges, that I’m offended by new techniques and media, that I feel threatened by modern art, that I’m in favor of censorship, and that I’d change my mind if I just stood in front of an abstract expressionist canvas and tried to understand my reactions.
It’s worth noting that none of these claims happens to be true, but let’s set that aside for a moment and take a look at what happened. I had a character in a story express an opinion about art—an opinion, by the way, that was relevant to the story and also to the character—and that was enough to send some of my readers into a fair imitation of a Donald Duck splutterfest. This isn’t the first time, or the hundred and first time, that I’ve watched that same sequence unfold.  Across the spectrum of contemporary art, if you display a lack of enthusiasm for anything produced by someone whose claim to the status of “artist” is accepted by the art scene, you can expect to field something of the kind.
That can be highly entertaining—I certainly found the latest round of it a source of wry amusement—but it’s also relevant to the subject of the current series of posts on education for the deindustrial era. One of the core things you should expect to get from any education worth the name is the ability to sort out gold from garbage: to recognize, in the fields of learning and creativity, the differences between genuine insight, recycled cliché, and pretentious noise. To get that ability, it’s crucial to recognize that there are two kinds of bad practice in the arts, sciences, and scholarship.
The first of them can be called, without too much distortion, lowbrow trash. What defines lowbrow trash is that it rehashes the overfamiliar. It deploys stereotyped effects in stereotyped ways to evoke stereotyped sentiment. It tends to be popular among the poor, because people who have to bear the brutal insecurities every complex society inflicts on its more vulnerable members desperately need the reassurance of the familiar, and if black velvet paintings of dogs playing poker are what’s available to meet that need, then that’s what will go on their walls. (There are better options, but these days those generally aren’t available to the poor.) The apotheosis of lowbrow trash is kitsch, which wallows so enthusiastically in rehashed sentiment that it achieves unintentional self-parody.

There is also, as it happens, lowbrow trash in scholarship and science. Here you find the histories that regurgitate every currently accepted stereotype about this or that corner of the past, the scientific papers that “prove” some bit of conventional wisdom by excluding contradictory data—this is easy to do if you know your way around experimental design—and so on. These also have their own forms of kitsch, though you often need a little more specialized education to catch the unintentional self-parody.
That said, lowbrow trash is only one side of the picture. There’s another side, and since this entire discussion started with a bit of fiction, I don’t think it’s out of line to ask my readers to gather around old Father Goose for a few minutes and listen to a story called “The Emperor’s New Art.”
This all happened right after the events of “The Emperor’s New Clothes;” any of my readers who don’t happen to know that tale can find a pleasant online version here. The two fraudulent tailors who’d sold the emperor a suit of nonexistent clothes were marched to the nearest border and thrown out of the empire with a warning never to return. They had very little money and knew better to try the same scam on the ruler of the next empire over, since even in those days, news traveled fast. So there they sat on a stone fence, trying to figure out what they were going to do.
“I know,” said the taller of the two. “The emperor of this land is an art lover. We can become painters.”

“But neither of us knows the first thing about painting!” the shorter tailor replied.

“Neither of us knows the first thing about making clothing, either,” the taller one reminded him. “Let’s see if we have enough money between us to buy some art supplies.”

Now since this is a fairy tale, there was an art supply store waiting just down the road, and the two found they had just enough money between them to buy a canvas, some brushes, a set of paints in flimsy tubes, and a spray bottle of fixative. That didn’t leave them enough money to rent a studio, or even a room for the night, and the day was almost over, so they found a dry place under some trees and went to sleep with their art supplies safe, as they thought, between them.

Late that night a stray dog came trotting by. He was not too bright, and to him, the tubes of paint looked like puppy treats. He sneaked up between the two tailors and gobbled up the paint tubes in three quick gulps, breaking them open with his teeth in the process. Before he could trot away, though, the first mouthful of paint hit his stomach and made it lurch. The second mouthful made it lurch again, and the third—well, to make a long and somewhat anatomical story short, he proceeded to throw up the paint, along with everything else he’d eaten that evening, right onto the canvas. He then backed away, and ran off to find some tasty grass to settle his stomach.

The two tailors woke at sunrise to find their paint tubes gone and a great deal of technicolor dog barf all over their one canvas. “Oh, no!” cried the shorter tailor. “Our art supplies are spoiled and we have no money to buy more. We’ll never become famous painters now!”

“Nonsense,” said the taller one. “You never did have enough imagination.” He carefully dried the canvas in the sun and sprayed fixative over it. “Here is our first masterpiece.”
So they proceeded to the palace of the emperor. On the way they grew beards and let their hair get long, and they stole an assortment of ill-fitting clothing from clotheslines along the way so they could look eccentric and bohemian. So attired, they presented themselves to the imperial art committee and said, “We are great artists, so brilliant, so avant-garde, and so tormented by our talent that our work can only be understood by the truly sophisticated. Ordinary people—well! Ordinary people look at our paintings and say, ‘That looks like dog barf,’ but that simply shows how pedestrian their tastes are, how little they understand the true sublimity of which art is capable. But you, ladies and gentlemen, you are persons of refined taste and deep aesthetic sensitivity. We know that you will appreciate—” He held up the canvas on which the dog had thrown up. “—the first great work of the Borborygmist school of art!”

Now of course the first thought of every member of the imperial art committee was, “That looks like dog barf.” As soon as that thought entered their minds, though, every one of them thought, “Oh, no! Does that mean that my tastes are pedestrian and I don’t understand the true sublimity of which art is capable?” So none of them said anything at first. Then one, who felt a little more insecure than the others and felt he had to prove that he didn’t have pedestrian tastes, said, “This is indeed a great work of art.” All the others thought, “He must have refined taste and deep aesthetic sensitivity.” So they all began to praise the painting, and the more they looked at it, the more they succeeded in convincing themselves that it couldn’t be what it obviously was, that is, a canvas on which a dog had thrown up.
So the two artists sold the painting to the Emperor for a tidy sum. The Emperor didn’t actually think much of it—his first thought on seeing it was, “That looks like dog barf”—but since all the members of the imperial art committee insisted that it was a great masterpiece and only people with pedestrian tastes thought it looked like dog barf, he kept his mouth shut and tried to convince himself that it really was a masterpiece. One day, though, when the painting had been put on display for the public, and the artists and the members of the art committee and the Emperor himself were standing there beaming, a little child came up, took one look at the painting, and said, “That looks like dog barf.”
The artists, the committee members, and the Emperor all looked down their noses at the child and said, “Child, you obviously know nothing about art.” So the child went away, and the artists lived happily ever after—and that, my children, is most of what you need to know about the history of modern art.
That is to say, lowbrow trash is not the only kind of trash that needs to be recognized as such by the educated person. There is also highbrow trash. Where lowbrow trash communicates overfamiliar sentiments in overfamiliar ways, highbrow trash avoids communication by saying nothing that can be interpreted outside of a narrow circle of cognoscenti. It’s meant to exclude, so that its purveyors and connoisseurs can feel superior to those who those who don’t get it. As lowbrow trash appeals to the poor, who need the comforts of familiarity in an insecure world, highbrow trash appeals to the affluent, who tend to be sheltered from adversity and so get bored easily, and who also tend to flock to anything that will allow them to parade their supposed superiority to the poor.
There’s plenty of highbrow trash in the realms of scholarship and the sciences, just as there’s plenty of lowbrow trash there. As with lowbrow trash, too, there’s a far end to the spectrum, a point at which it achieves self-parody and becomes unintentionally funny. There is unfortunately no common word for this latter, no equivalent word to kitsch, so one needs to be coined; the term I have in mind is “warhol.”

This is not to express any lack of respect for Andy Warhol, whose name provides that label. Quite the contrary, I admire the man immensely. He was arguably the twentieth century’s greatest satirist, a comic genius so versatile and so subtle that some of the butts of his humor haven’t yet realized that the joke was on them. This was the man who meticulously copied a supermarket box of Brillo pads and sold that as a work of art. No less a philosopher than Arthur Danto spent a good fraction of his career trying to come up with an aesthetic philosophy and a definition of art that would allow Warhol’s Brillo box to keep its status as an artwork, and never seems to have gotten the joke.
There is, as it happens, precisely one theory of art that justifies the claim that Warhol’s Brillo box is art. It’s the theory that there are certain very, very special people called “artists” who are so tremendously creative, so overwhelmingly sensitive, so dripping with sheer aesthetic oomph, that anything they treat as art is, ipse dixit, art. If an eight-year-old boy hangs a urinal on a nail on the wall for people to see, that’s a prank, but if Marcel Duchamp does it, it’s a great work of art. Why? Because art oozes out of every pore of his body, that’s why, and there's a puddle of it on the urinal to this day. It’s understandable that artists should find this way of defining art congenial to their egos, but it’s just as understandable that Andy Warhol’s wicked sense of humor would zero in on so comically arrogant a claim, and push it past its logical extreme into rank absurdity.
Let us please get real: a urinal does not become a work of art because an artist sticks it on a wall, nor does a Brillo box become a work of art because Andy Warhol decides to pull the art world’s collective leg. Plenty of other examples could be added—there’s no shortage of highbrow trash these days, and no shortage of warhol, either—and an important part of education is developing a strong enough personal sense of aesthetic and intellectual taste that when a couple of former tailors come along with dog barf on a canvas and insist that this is the first great masterpiece of the Borborygmist school of art, the educated person is confident enough to say, “No, that’s dog barf.”

How do you develop that kind of personal sense? There’s a very simple, straightforward way; it’s been standard practice in every literate society for thousands of years, and the current intellectual climate in today’s United States treats it as three steps lower than evil incarnate.

That is to say, you have a canon. 
A canon is a set of works in any given field that are generally accepted as masterpieces. In a healthy culture, pretty much every educated person has encountered and studied the works that belong to the canon of that culture. The word “canon” literally means “measure,” and that’s what a canon does: it gives you something to measure other works of the same kind. Let’s take literature as an example. There are, in every literature and every branch of literature, certain works that stand head and shoulders above the rest, and an important part of education consists of reading those works, thinking about them, studying them, figuring out what makes them great (and also where they stumble), and developing a personal sense of literary taste by exposure to them. Is the canon the only thing you read? Of course not—what’s the use of a means of measuring if you don’t use it to measure something other than itself?
 
A canon, by the way, is always contested, it’s always in flux, and it’s always unfair. Different works rise up into the canon and drift back out of it in response to the vagaries of taste. There have been times when Shakespeare’s plays were cast out from the canon as too vulgar, and novels most people now find insufferably stuffy were considered marvels of literary genius. That’s inevitable, because a canon is always and only a summary of the collective aesthetic and intellectual taste of an age, and inevitably suffers from the blind spots of the age. If there’s some kind of absolute ideal of beauty or sublimity out there, of the sort Plato imagined, it’s not accessible to mere human beings. All we have to work with is our own, hopefully more or less educated reactions to works of art, science, and scholarship.

So each culture in each age, with rare exceptions, adapts the canon of arts, sciences, and scholarship that it considers important, adding some works and deleting others, on the basis of its own inevitably flawed perceptions, and proceeds to use that as a basis for education. The exceptions are periods like the present, when the schism in society anatomized by Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History shatters the sense of shared values that binds a society together, and you end up with a polarized mess in which the dominant minority and the internal proletariat glare at each other across a wasteland of smoking ruins. At such times, the dominant minority plunges with gusto into highbrow trash, the internal proletariat plunges with equal verve into lowbrow trash, and both sides pretend that those are the only two possible options—that those who don’t like abstract expressionism must therefore love Norman Rockwell, and vice versa.

That’s not good for art, or for that matter science or scholarship. One of the things that individuals who care about any of these things can contribute to their welfare is to cast aside the dubious enticements of both kinds of trash, try to construct some approximation of a canon in the fields that matter to them, and educate themselves in the time-honored method of repeated exposure to, and reflection on, really first-rate works. It’s from such efforts, once the schism in society completes its trajectory, that a new canon emerges, and the heritage of the past gets handed on to guide the creative minds of the future.

A couple of additional notes may be useful here. First, just because you’ve identified something as trash, highbrow or lowbrow, doesn’t mean you have to avoid it. Trash can be fun. I inherit from my misspent youth, for example, an amused delight in really bad fantasy fiction, the kind of thing that Poul Anderson anatomized brilliantly in his essay “On Thud and Blunder,” and there are books I keep on hand when I want to wallow in that sort of thing. For all I know, there are people who have a similar reaction to abstract expressionist paintings, though I admit I’ve never met one. 
Second, just because you know it’s good doesn’t mean you have to like it. I don’t happen to like Italian opera, for example. I know that it contains a good selection of world-class masterpieces, but they’re not to my taste, and so I leave them to those who delight in them. I have a similar reaction to rap music, and to a variety of other art genres. My wife has a BFA in art history, and we routinely visit art museums when we travel, but our tastes differ somewhat—she’s gaga for the Impressionists, who I find pleasant but not the overwhelming experience they are for her; our roles reverse when it comes to the French Symbolists; by mutual consent, we avoid the modern art wing altogether and make a beeline for the Japanese gallery and the medieval and Renaissance European collections. Meanwhile, other people are making their own choices, and so should you.

Finally, laughter is an appropriate response to art. It’s an even more appropriate response to highbrow or lowbrow trash, and of course it’s all but inescapable when you encounter kitsch or warhol. If the reaction you have when you stand in front of a canvas covered with dog barf is hysterical giggling, by all means giggle. It’s a salutary corrective to the cult of humorlessness that so often obsesses the purveyors and connoisseurs of highbrow trash.
With that in mind, we can proceed to...

*********************Homework Assignment #3

As previously noted, since this sequence of posts is on education, there’s going to be homework. Your homework for the next month or so is to find three works in one field of art, science, or scholarship. One should be a work of lowbrow trash, one should be a work of highbrow trash, and the third should be a classic. All of them should be in the same genre—for example, you might choose three science fiction novels, or three paintings, or three operas, or three historical essays, or three books on physics.

The highbrow trash will probably be hardest to find, as this goes into and out of style in various genres, while lowbrow trash is eternal. If you happen to choose science fiction, for example, most of the over-the-top highbrow trash appeared in the New Wave era of the 1970s, when a good many writers decided to prove that SF was High Literature, and got pompous, humorless, and dull in the usual way. Lowbrow trash? Any bookstore or public library will have it by the yard; look for clichés that were already dated when the original Star Trek premiered. Classics? By and large, old Hugo Award winners qualify.

Put some time into all three works. Notice the difference in your responses to them. Also notice the objective differences in them. Don’t hesitate to laugh where appropriate.

*********************
Finally, I'm pleased to say that sales of the limited edition of the first of my Weird of Hali novels, Innsmouth, are going well. One implication is that if you want a complete set of the hardback edition, you have a limited amount of time left...and the second and third novels in the series, Kingsport and Chorazin, are already written. Copies can be purchased here.

Retrotopia: Unnoticed Resources

Wed, 2016-08-03 18:11
This is the twenty-first installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator discovers that the differences between the Lakeland Republic and his own country include a sharp variance in vulnerability to sudden political and economic shocks...
  ***********The briefing finally wound up a little before one o’clock, and Stuart Macallan invited all of us to lunch in one of the formal dining rooms downstairs. I gathered that the ambassadors were having lunch with Meeker in the president’s private dining room one floor up, but the meal was nothing to complain about: sandwiches on croissants, French onion soup, pear slices, Brie, and choice of beverages. You could tell something about each of the diplomats by watching the latter—the ones who downed strong coffee to deal with too little sleep, the ones who tipped back a local beer to be social, and the ones who got something stronger than beer to keep from having to think about just how bad this mess could get.
I sat with Hank Barker from the Missouri Republic delegation, and a couple of other people from the trade end of things—Jonathan Two Hawks, also from Missouri, Vera McTavish from East Canada, and one of the familiar faces in the room, Lashonda Marvell from the Free City of Chicago—I’d taken part in rough-draft negotiations on a trade-in-services agreement with Chicago six years back, and she’d been on the other side of that. Two Hawks and McTavish were coffee drinkers, Marvell and I ordered beer, and Barker got bourbon straight, downed it, and then ordered another.
They were all interested in access to the Erie Canal, of course. It had never really occurred to me how big a resource that was.  People in the Atlantic Republic government treat it as a relic, but with the Mississippi closed to ship traffic by a shooting war, it had suddenly become the one way around the potential bottleneck of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. While I wasn’t an official envoy, they all knew perfectly well that Montrose’s landslide election win meant that the current embassy staff might not have the same clout in Philadelphia they once did, and they wanted to make nice with the new team.
I was perfectly willing to play that game, for that matter. Transit fees on international shipments down the Erie Canal would bring in hard currency at a time when we could really use that, and if the whole business was handled right, it would leave the other nations involved owing the Atlantic Republic favors that could be called in later on. So, between bites of sandwich, I sketched out the kind of terms we’d want—I modeled them shamelessly on the draft agreement I’d worked out with the Lakeland Republic, of course—and they tossed back questions and counteroffers. It was a good lively discussion, the fun part of trade negotiations, and I think we really made some progress toward a set of agreements that would be win-win for everybody.
The official Atlantic Republic delegation sat pretty much by themselves over on the other side of the room, and gave me flat unreadable looks now and then. They knew perfectly well what I was doing, and what the people from the other delegations were doing. They were all Barfield’s people, most of them would be out of a job in January, and since I wasn’t here in an official capacity, I hadn’t bothered them and they’d returned the favor. Still, that was before this morning. Once the lunch broke up and people started heading out, I shook hands with everyone at my table, made sure they had my contact info back in Philadelphia, and headed over to the handful of Atlantic people still sitting at theirs.
One of them was a guy I knew from back when I was in business, and I went up to him and shook his hand. “Hi, Frank.”
“Hi, Peter,” he said. “Hell of a situation.”
“I won’t argue.”
He eyed my clothes, and said, “Gone native, I see.”
I laughed. “When in Rome. I got tired of people looking at me like a two-headed calf.”
“Whatever floats your boat,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“What’s official policy on sending a message to the President-elect via diplomatic links?”
He gave me a bleak look. “‘All reasonable accommodation,’” he quoted. “You guys pounded us fair and square, and it’s your baby now.” With a sudden edged smile: “Frankly, now that this new thing’s blown up, I’m glad I’ll be out the door in two months.”
“I bet,” I said. We talked about the details, and the upshot was that the two of us took a taxi to the Atlantic embassy six blocks away on Lakeland’s Embassy Row. From the outside, it was a nice stone building of typical Lakeland design, like the other embassies, and the Atlantic flag, navy-white-navy with a gold anchor in the middle and a gold star in the upper left, whipped back and forth in a raw wind. Go through the door and everything’s brushed aluminum and black plastic, with the kind of abstract art on the walls that looks like an overenthusiastic dog gobbled an artist’s paint tubes and then threw up. I’d spent most of my adult life in settings like that, and gotten used to thinking of them as modern, cutting-edge, and so on. For the first time it really sank in just how incredibly ugly it all was.
Still, I followed Frank to the communications center down in the basement, got handed over to the comm manager and shown to a desk with a veescreen terminal. For the first time since I’d crossed the border, I had the once-familiar sensation of an image field projected into my visual cortex, and was surprised by how intrusive it felt. Still, I had work to do. I typed out something to Meg Amberger, the transition team’s trade-policy person, letting her know about the potential shipping agreements with Missouri, East Canada, and Chicago, and asked her to tell the boss that the negotiations with Lakeland had gone well—I figured she could use the good news. I added four words that I knew Meg wouldn’t understand, but would pass on anyway, and then hit the SEND button. A moment later that was on its way; I thanked the manager and left the comm center.
Frank was waiting for me outside the door. “Normally I’d invite you to come around and check your veemail here, but we’re down to essential traffic only.”
It took me a moment to realize what he was saying. “Satellite trouble?”
“Yeah. One more thing on top of everything else we’re having to deal with.”
I eyed him, considered the options. “Can I buy you a drink?”
He paused, then nodded. “Sure.”
He knew exactly what I was asking, of course. We went outside again, and he waved down a taxi and gave the driver an address I recognized, over on the other end of downtown. All the bars and restaurants close to Embassy Row are wired for sound by somebody or other.  If you’re embassy staff or intelligence, you know where your people have mikes, so you can take contacts there when you want something recorded, and you usually know where at least some of the other countries have mikes, so you can feed them true or false information as the situation requires. If you want to talk off the record, though, you go somewhere well away from Embassy Row, and never the same place twice, so it’s harder for anybody else’s spooks to try to listen in.
So we rolled through the streets of Toledo behind the amiable clop-clop-clop of the horse, Frank looking glum and uncomfortable in his bioplastic suit, me being glad that old-fashioned wool suiting keeps out the chill. Neither of us said much of anything until we got out of the taxi. We were in front of the Harbor Club, the place where I’d listened to Sam Capoferro and his Frogtown Five and talked to Fred Vanich. It was open and surprisingly busy for three in the afternoon, but we had no trouble getting a table over to one side, across from the piano Sam had played. A spry old lady with silver hair and dark brown skin sat there now, playing Chopin with an ease that showed she’d had her fingers on a keyboard since she was six or so.
The waiter came over as soon as we were settled.  I ordered a martini, and Frank gave me a sidelong look and ordered a double shot of vodka, straight. The bartender didn’t waste any time, either.
“So,” I said, once the drinks arrived. “Satellite trouble, and everything else.”
“You know we lease satellite services from a Chinese firm, right?” Fred took a slug of his drink “We’re supposed to have four high-speed channels. Right now we’ve got one, and it’s high speed only if you give that phrase a really broad definition. Rumor has it that at least two embassies have no realtime comm links home at all, though nobody’s admitting it, and it won’t many more fender benders in orbit before our provider calls force majeure and we’re shut out completely. Everybody’s trying to figure out some way to get satellite service back, but it’s going to be a while.”
“A long while,” I said. “How did embassies phone home before there were satellites?”
It seemed like an obvious question, but Frank looked at me as though I’d sprouted a spare head. “I have no idea,” he said. “Who cares?  Anyway, our provider’s trying to see if there’s a way to get armored satellites out to the Moon’s Lagrange points or something, but that may be years out.
“But that’s just one more mess on top of the others. You know the Philly stock market’s down hard.”
“Along with everyone else’s,” I said.
“Worse.” He gestured with his drink, which was getting toward half empty.  “We had a lot more foreign investment than anybody realized—it was all through shell corporations, you know the drill—and when telecom stocks started dragging the market down, you had the usual flight to safety. The Department of Finance stepped in, of course, and propped things up with hard currency loans, but they’ve only got so much on hand and the World Bank isn’t handing over any more. So even before this damn war broke out, we were looking at a major economic crisis—and now this. I honestly don’t know how we’re going to make it.”
“We’ve had economic crises before,” I said.
“It’s different this time. Finance is running in circles like a bunch of robot tanks with a defective program, and everybody else is trying to get as much money out of the markets as they can without making too much noise, and when the hard currency runs short the bottom’s going to drop right out. I hope your boss has something up her sleeve, or we’re going to be in for it.”
I motioned for him to go on, and he said, “And now the war. This stays off the record.” I nodded, and he went on. “Our NIS people here talked with their opposite numbers back home.” NIS was National Intelligence Service, our spook shop in Philadelphia. “They’ve got sources down south. Word is that along with the drilling platforms, at least eighteen Confederate production platforms got blown to scrap, and fourteen of them were running stripper well farms.”
“Meaning?”
“Meaning that there’s not enough output to pay for replacing the platforms once the fighting’s over. A lot of the Gulf oil industry works legacy fields, right? If the situation’s similar on the Texas side, and that’s the current best guess, a big fraction of Gulf oil production is g, o, n, e,  gone, for good. That means another price spike, and maybe worse.” He gave me an uneasy look; I gestured for him to continue, and he said, “Actual shortages. As in ‘No, we don’t have any at all’ shortages. How do you deal with something like that?”
“There’ve been oil shortages before,” I reminded him. “How did people deal with those?”
“I don’t have the least idea,” he said. “That was then, this is now.  But the people back in Philly are just aghast. They’re trying to game possible responses and coming up blank. I don’t know if there’s any option that will work at all.” He finished his drink, waved down a waiter and ordered a refill.
I nodded and said something to keep him talking, and for the next two hours or so got an increasingly detailed account of just how screwed the Atlantic Republic was going to be without viable satellite services, economic stability, or a reliable source of petroleum—we used less of that latter than most of the other North American republics, and a lot less than anybody thought of using back before the Second Civil War, but it was still something we couldn’t give up without landing in a world of hurt. All the while, though, I was trying to fit my head around the way he’d blown off my questions.
The penny didn’t drop until I got him onto a taxi—he was pretty wobbly by then, so I paid his fare and told the driver where to take him—and stood there on the sidewalk watching the back of the thing pull away. Two weeks ago, I realized, I’d have done exactly the same thing. That was then, this is now, it’s different this time, that’s history, we need to be thinking ahead of the times, not behind them: how many times had I mouthed those same catchphrases?
I’d meant to flag down another cab, but turned and started walking instead taking the distant pale shape of the unfinished Capitol dome as my guide. Around me, Toledo went about its business as though this was just another day. The sky had cleared off, the wind was brisk but not too raw, and people were out on the sidewalks, shopping or heading for swing shift jobs or just taking in some fresh air. The crisis that had the Atlantic Republic tottering was just another piece of news to them. It was interesting news; a paperboy came trotting along the street shouting “Extra! Latest news on the war down south!” and found plety of customers. Still, they didn’t have to care.  It wasn’t something that was going to throw them out of work and shred the fabric of their daily lives. And the reason was—
The reason was that they had stopped saying “It’s different this time,” and treated the past as a resource rather than an irrelevance.
I kept walking. Everything I saw around me—the horsedrawn cabs, the streetcars, the comfortable and attractive brick buildings, the clothing on the people—had been quarried out of the past and refitted for use in the present, because they worked better than the alternatives. The insight that had come crashing into my thoughts in the middle of Parsifalreturned: for us, for people in the North American republics and elsewhere in the industrial world, the period of exploration was over, the period of performance had arrived, and we had plenty of data about what worked and what didn’t, if only we chose to use it.
A streetcar went by, packed with workers on their way home from the day shift; the conductor’s bell went ding-di-ding ding, the way conductors’ bells went on those same streets a hundred and fifty years before. I knew perfectly well why nobody in Philadelphia had considered putting streetcars back on the streets of the Atlantic Republic’s cities, to do a job they did better, and for much less money, than the shiny high-tech modern equivalents. I’d been in the middle of the groupthink that made progress look like the only option even when progress was half a century into negative returns.  Everyone I knew was well aware that “newer” had stopped meaning “better” a long time ago, that every upgrade meant more problems and fewer benefits, that the latest must-have technologies did less and cost more than the last round, but nobody seemed to be able to draw the obvious conclusion.
I shook my head and kept walking, while those ideas circled in my head.
It must have been most of an hour later when I realized I’d overshot my hotel by a good six blocks.  The Capitol dome was something like a dozen blocks behind me, and I’d strayed into an upscale neighborhood of row houses with little shops at the street corners. I turned around, headed back toward the dome. By the time I got there, it must have been past five o’clock, and people were trickling out of the Capitol entrance, heading toward the street and the line of cabs that waited there for fares. I recognized one of them at a glance; fortunately, she saw me and turned up the sidewalk to meet me.
“Hello, Melanie,” I said.
That got a tired smile. “Hello, Peter. Hell of a day.”
“I won’t argue.” I considered the options. “Up for dinner?”
“About that.”
I gestured to one of the cabs; she smiled again, and the cabby bounded down from his seat and opened the door for us.

**************
In other fiction-related news, I'm pleased to announce that Founders House, the publishing firm of the After Oil anthologies, is launching a new magazine of science fiction and fantasy, titled Mythic. They're soliciting stories for the first issue right now. Publisher Shaun Kilgore is looking for science fiction and fantasy that moves past the stereotypes of the genre -- science fiction that isn't all about spaceships and rayguns, and fantasy that isn't infested with dragons and elves -- and he's indicated to me that submissions of deindustrial SF will be welcome. Check out the website here.

Climate Change Activism: A Post-Mortem

Wed, 2016-07-27 15:03
As I write these words, much of North America is sweltering under near-tropical heat and humidity. Parts of the Middle East have set all-time high temperatures for the Old World, coming within a few degrees of Death Valley’s global record. The melting of the Greenland ice cap has tripled in recent years, and reports from the arctic coast of Siberia describe vast swathes of tundra bubbling with methane as the permafrost underneath them melts in 80°F weather. Far to the south, seawater pours through the streets of Miami Beach whenever a high tide coincides with an onshore wind; the slowing of the Gulf Stream, as the ocean’s deep water circulation slows to a crawl, is causing seawater to pile up off the Atlantic coast of the US, amplifying the effect of sea level rise.

All these things are harbingers of a profoundly troubled future. All of them were predicted, some in extensive detail, in the print and online literature of climate change activism over the last few decades. Not that long ago, huge protest marches and well-funded advocacy organizations demanded changes that would prevent these things  from happening, and politicians mouthed slogans about stopping global warming in its tracks. Somehow, though, the marchers went off to do something else with their spare time, the advocacy organizations ended up preaching to a dwindling choir, and the politicians started using other slogans to distract the electorate.
The last gasp of climate change activism, the COP-21 conference in Paris late last year, resulted in a toothless agreement that binds no nation anywhere on earth to cut back on the torrents of greenhouse gases they’re currently pumping into the atmosphere. The only commitments any nation was willing to make amounted to slowing, at some undetermined point in the future, the rate at which the production of greenhouse gas pollutants is increasing. In the real world, meanwhile, enough greenhouse gases have already been dumped into the atmosphere to send the world’s climate reeling; sharp cuts in greenhouse gas output, leading to zero net increase in atmospheric CO2and methane by 2050 or so, would still not have been enough to stop extensive flooding of coastal cities worldwide and drastic unpredictable changes in the rain belts that support agriculture and keep all seven billion of us alive. The outcome of COP-21 simply means that we’re speeding toward even more severe climatic disasters with the pedal pressed not quite all the way to the floor.
Thus it’s not inappropriate to ask what happened to all the apparent political momentum the climate change movement had ten or fifteen years ago, and why a movement so apparently well organized, well funded, and backed by so large a scientific consensus failed so completely.
In my experience, at least, if you raise this question among climate change activists, the answer you’ll get is that there was a well-funded campaign that deployed disinformation against them. So? Every movement for social change in human history has been confronted by well-funded vested interests that deployed disinformation against them. Consider the struggle for same-sex marriage, which triumped during the same years that saw climate change activism go down to defeat.  The disinformation deployed against same-sex marriage was epic in its scale as well as its raw dishonesty—do you recall the claims that ministers would be forced to perform gay weddings, and that letting same-sex couples marry would cause society to fall apart?  I do—and yet the movement for same-sex marriage brushed that aside and achieved its goal.
Blaming the failure of climate change activism entirely on the opposition, in other words, is a copout. It’s also a way to avoid learning the lessons of failure—and here as elsewhere, those who ignore their history are condemned to repeat it. Other movements for social change faced comparable opposition and overcame it, while climate change activism failed to do so; that’s the difference that needs to be discussed, and it leads inexorably to a consideration of the mistakes that were made by the movement.
The most important mistakes, to my mind, are these:
First, the climate change movement was largely led and directed by scientists, and as discussed here two weeks ago, people with a scientific education suck at politics. Over and over again, the leaders of the climate change movement waved around their credentials and told everyone else what to do, in the fond delusion that that’s an adequate way to bring about political change. Not so; too many people outside the scientific community have watched scientific opinion whirl around like a weathercock on too many issues; too many products labeled safe and effective by qualified scientists have been put on the market, and then turned out to be ineffective and unsafe; too many people simply don’t trust the guys in the white lab coats any more—and some of them have valid reasons for that lack of trust. Thus a movement that based its entire political strategy on the prestige of science was hamstrung from the start.
Second, the climate change movement made the same mistake that the Remain side made in the recent Brexit vote in the UK, and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign seems to be making on this side of the pond: it formulated its campaign in purely negative terms. David Cameron failed because he couldn’t talk about anything except how dreadful it would be if Britain left the EU, and Clinton’s campaign is failing because her supporters can’t talk about anything but the awfulness of Donald Trump. In exactly the same way, the climate change movement spent all its time harping about the global catastrophes that were going to happen if they didn’t get their way, and never really got around to talking about anything else—and so it failed, too.
I’m not sure why this sort of strategy has become such a broken record in contemporary political life, because it simply doesn’t work. People have heard it so many times, if all you can talk about is how awful this or that or the other thing is, they will roll their eyes and walk away. To win their interest, their enthusiasm, and their votes, you have to offer them something to look forward to. That doesn’t mean you have to promise rainbows and jellybeans; you can promise them blood, toil, tears, and sweat; you can warn them of a long struggle ahead and call them to shared sacrifice, and they’ll eat it up—but there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel, something that doesn’t just amount to the indefinite continuation of a miserably unsatisfactory status quo.
The climate change movement never noticed that, and so people quickly got tired of the big bass drum going “doom, doom, doom,” all the time, and wandered away. It didn’t have to be like that; the climate change movement could have front-and-centered the vision of a grand new era of green industry, with millions of new working-class jobs blossoming as America leapt ahead of the oh-so-twentieth-century fossil-fueled economies of other nations, but it apparently never occurred to anyone to do that. Instead, the climate change movement did a really fine impression of a crowd of officious busybodies trotting out round after round of doleful jeremiads about the awful future that would swallow us up if we didn’t do what they said, and that did about as much good as it usually does.
Third, the climate change movement inflicted a disastrous own goal on itself by insisting that nobody with scientific credentials ever claimed that an ice age was imminent, when anybody over fifty whose memory is intact knows that that’s simply not true. Any of my readers who are minded to debate this point should get and read the following books from the 1970s and 1980s:  The Weather Machine by Nigel Calder, After the Ice by E.C. Pielou, and Ice Ages by Windsor Chorlton and the editors of Time Life Books. These were very popular in their time, and they’re all available on the used book market for a few bucks each, as the links I’ve just given demonstrate. Nigel Calder was a respected science writer; E.C. Pielou is still the doyenne of Canadian field ecologists, and the third book was part of Time Life Book’s Planet Earth series, each volume of which was supervised by scientific experts in the relevant fields. All three books discuss the coming of a new ice age as the most likely future state of Earth’s climate.
While you’re at it, you might also pick up a couple of really good science fiction novels, The Winter of the World by Poul Anderson and The Time of the Great Freeze by Robert Silverberg. Anderson and Silverberg were major SF authors in the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when success in the genre depended on close attention to scientific fact, and both authors drew on what were then considered credible forecasts of an approaching ice age to ground their stories about the future. If you’re going to insist, along the lines of George Orwell’s 1984, that Oceania has never been allied with Eurasia, you’d better make sure that nobody’s in a position to check. If they can, and they discover that you’re lying, your chance to convince them to trust you about anything else has just gone out the window once and for all. That’s how a great many people responded to the climate change movement’s attempt to rewrite history and erase the ice age scare of the 1970s and 1980s.
Every time I’ve brought up this issue among climate change activists, they’ve responded by insisting that I must be a climate change denialist. That’s the fourth factor that’s contributed mightily to the crumpling of the climate change movement: the rise within that movement of a culture of intolerance in which dissent is demonized and asking questions about tactics and strategy is equated with disloyalty. I’m thinking here especially, though not only, of an embarrassing screed by climate change activist Naomi Oreskes, which insisted with a straight face that asking questions about whether renewables can replace fossil fuels is “a new form of climate denialism”. As it happens, there are serious practical questions about whether anything—renewable or otherwise—can replace fossil fuels and still allow the inmates of today’s industrial societies to maintain their current lifestyles, but Oreskes doesn’t want to hear it: for her, loyalty to the cause demands blindness to the facts. As a way to alienate potential allies and drive away existing supporters, that attitude’s hard to beat.
Stunning political naïveté, a purely negative campaign, a disastrous own goal through a constantly repeated and easily detected falsehood, and an internal culture of intolerance and demonization: those four factors would have been a heavy burden for any movement for social change, and any two of them would most likely have caused the failure of climate change activism all by themselves. There was, however, another factor at work, and to my mind it was the most important of all.
To understand that fifth factor, it’s useful to return to a distinction I made here two weeks ago between facts, values, and interests. Facts are simply statements of what happened, what’s happening, and what will happen given X set of conditions—the things, in other words, that science is supposed to be about. Whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are causing the global climate to spin out of control, whether or not books published in the 1970s and 1980s by reputable scientists and science writers predicted a coming ice age, whether or not the project of replacing fossil fuels with renewable resources faces serious difficulties—these are questions of fact.
Facts by themselves simply state a case. Values determine what we should do about them. Consider the factual statement “unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for an ongoing increase in weather-related disasters.” If the rate of weather-related disasters doesn’t concern you, that fact doesn’t require any action from you; it’s when you factor in “weather-related disasters ought to be minimized where possible,” which is a value judgment, that you can go on to “therefore we should cut greenhouse gas emissions.” Not all value judgments are as uncontroversial as the one just named, but we can let that pass for now, because it’s the third element that’s at issue in the present case.
Beyond facts and values are interests: who benefits and who loses from any given public policy. If, let’s say, we decide that greenhouse gas emissions should be cut, the next step takes us squarely into the realm of interests.  Whose pocketbook gets raided to pay for the cuts? Whose lifestyle choices are inconvenienced by them? Whose jobs are eliminated because of them? The climate change movement has by and large treated these as irrelevant details, but they’re nothing of the kind. Politics is always about interests. If you want your facts to be accepted and your values taken seriously, you need to be able to respond to people’s interests—to offer an arrangement whereby everybody gets something they need out of the deal, and no one side has to carry all the costs.
That, in turn, is exactly what the climate change movement has never gotten around to doing.
I’d like to suggest a thought experiment here, to show just how the costs and benefits offered by the climate change movement stacked up. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that there’s an industry in today’s industrial nations that churns out colossal amounts of greenhouse gases every single day. It doesn’t produce anything necessary for human life or well-being; it’s simply a convenience, and one that, not that many decades ago, most people in the industrial world did without and never thought they’d need. If it were to be shut down, sure, a certain number of people would lose their jobs, but most of the steps that have been urged by climate change activists would have that effect; other than that, and a certain amount of inconvenience for its current users, the only result would be a sharp decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide and certain other greenhouse gases being dumped into the atmosphere. That being the case, shouldn’t climate change activists get to work right now to shut down that industry, and shouldn’t they start off by boycotting it themselves?
The industry in question actually exists. It’s the commercial air travel industry.
You may have noticed, dear reader, that nobody in the climate change movement has been out there protesting commercial air travel, and precious few of them are even willing to cut back on their flying time, even though commercial air travel a massive contributor to the problems the movement claims to be fighting. I know of two scientists researching climate change who have pointed out that there’s something just a little bit hypocritical about flying all over the world on jetliners to attend conferences discussing how we all have to decrease our carbon footprint! Their colleagues, needless to say, haven’t listened. Neither has the rest of the climate change movement; like Al Gore, who might as well be their poster child, they keep on racking up their frequent flyer miles.
On the other hand, climate change activists are eager to shut down coal mining. What’s the most significant difference between coal mining and commercial air travel? Coal mining provides wages for the working poor; commercial air travel provides amenities for the affluent.
The difference isn’t accidental, either. Across the board, the climate change movement has pushed for changes that will penalize people in what I’ve called the wage class, the majority of Americans who depend on an hourly wage for their income. The movement has gone out of its way to avoid pushing for changes that will penalize people in what I’ve called the salary class, the affluent minority of Americans who bring home a monthly salary. That isn’t a minor point. There’s the hard fact that, on average, the more money you make, the bigger your carbon footprint is—but there’s also a political issue, and it goes to the heart of the failure of the climate change movement.
I’ve had any number of well-meaning climate change activists ask me, in tones of baffled despair, why they can’t get ordinary Americans to take climate change seriously. My answer is not one they want to hear, because I tell them that it’s because well-meaning climate change activists don’t take climate change seriously. If you don’t care enough about the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere to accept some inconveniences to your own lifestyle, how much do you actually care about it? That’s the kind of logic that ordinary Americans use all the time to judge whether someone is serious about a cause or simply grandstanding, and by and large, climate change activism fails that sniff test.
Ordinary Americans, furthermore, are all too used to seeing grandiose rhetoric deployed by the affluent to load yet another round of burdens onto ordinary Americans. It’s not the affluent, after all, who have been inconvenienced by the last thirty years of environmental regulations, trade treaties, or what have you. To wage class Americans, anthropogenic climate change is just more of the same, another excuse to take jobs away from the working poor while sedulously avoiding anything that would inconvenience the middle and upper middle classes. The only way climate change activists could have evaded that response from wage class Americans would have been to demonstrate that they were willing to carry some of the costs themselves—and that was exactly what they weren’t willing to do.
The bitter irony in all this, of course, is that the climate change movement was right about two very important things all along: treating the atmosphere as a gaseous sewer in which to dump wastes from our smokestacks and tailpipes was a really dumb idea, and the blowback from that idiocy is going to cost us—all of us—in blood. Right now all three of the earth’s major ice caps—the Greenland, West Antarctic, and East Antarctic ice sheets—have tipped over into instability; climate belts are lurching drunkenly north and south, putting agriculture at risk in far more places than a crowded, hungry planet can afford; drought-kindled wildfires in the American and Canadian west and in Siberia are burning out of control...and unless something significant changes, it’s just going to keep on getting worse, year after year, decade after decade, until every coastal city on the planet is under water, the western half of North America is as dry as the Sahara, glaciers and snowfall are distant memories, and famine, war, and disease have left the human population of the planet a good deal smaller than it is today.
That didn’t have to happen. It might still be possible to avoid the worst of it, if enough people who are concerned about climate change stop pretending that their own lifestyles aren’t part of the problem, stop saying “personal change isn’t enough” and pretending that this means personal change isn’t necessary, stop trying to push all the costs of change onto people who’ve taken it in the teeth for decades already, and show the only kind of leadership that actually counts—yes, that’s leadership by example. It would probably help, too, if they stopped leaning so hard on the broken prestige of science, found a positive vision of the future to talk about now and then, backed away from trying to rewrite the recent past, and dropped the habit of demonizing honest disagreement. Still, to my mind, the crucial thing is that the affluent liberals who dominate the climate change movement are going to have to demonstrate that they’re willing to take one for the team.
Will they? I’d love to be proved wrong, but I doubt it—and in that case we’re in for a very rough road in the centuries ahead.
*******************On a less dismal note, I’m pleased to report that the print edition of The Archdruid Report is up and running, and copies of the first monthly issue will be heading out soon. There’s still time to subscribe, if you like getting these posts in a less high-tech and more durable form; please visit the Stone Circle Press website.

Retrotopia: The Far Off Sound of Guns

Wed, 2016-07-20 20:31
This is the twentieth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator is forced to rethink his ideas about progress even further, as the Lakeland Republic and the other nations of post-US North America are confronted by a sudden crisis with all too familiar roots...
***********A phone rang in the darkness. For a moment I had no idea where I was, but then the bed shifted, footsteps whispered across the floor, and Melanie’s voice said, “Hello.” I blinked, and tried to guess what time it was. It felt as though we hadn’t been sleeping for long.
“Okay,” she said then, in a completely different tone. I finished waking up in a hurry. You don’t hear someone speak like that unless something’s gone very, very wrong. “Okay,” she said again. “I’ll be in as soon as I can. ‘Bye.” The handset clicked into its cradle, and Melanie said, “Peter?”
“What’s up?”
“Trouble.  Texas and the Confederacy are at war.”
I sat up and said something unprintable.
“Pretty much,” she agreed, and turned on a light. She was as naked as I was, of course, but the look on her face wasn’t particularly alluring.
“Any details?” I asked.
“Just a few. Texan ships attacked three Confederate drilling platforms around one o’clock; no word on damage yet. The Confederate navy came out, and there’s fighting going on in the Gulf right now.”
“That’s bad.”
“There’s worse.  The Confederate Army’s crossed into Texas territory between Shreveport and Texarkana. Our people down there think there’s division-strength units involved.”
I gave her a blank stare for a long moment. “Okay,” I said, getting out of bed. “You’re going in right away, of course.”
“Yes. Not the way I’d have chosen to end a really pleasant evening.”
I took her in my arms and kissed her. “No argument there,” I said when the kiss was done. “Give me a call when you get some free time.”
“I’ll do that,” she said, with a smile. “If you can stand it, stay close to your phone. I may be able to arrange something for you.”
I promised I would, and then she headed for the shower, and I pulled my clothes on, called a cab, and let myself out. She was right, it was a hell of a way to end a really pleasant evening, but if you’re in politics you get used to that kind of thing. I knew that, and so did Melanie; if things worked out, we’d find some time to spend together before I took the train back to Philadelphia, and one way or another—
I stopped the thought in its tracks. Later, I told myself. Later, when a couple of really hard decisions are over and done with.
The sky was still pitch black when I left the apartment building, stood on the curb waiting for the cab. The clop-clop of horse’s hooves announced its arrival a couple of blocks in advance. Moments later I was inside, watching the city of Toledo in its sleep. Here and there a light shone in a window, or a lone figure hurried down the street. It seemed hard to believe that not much more than a thousand miles away, robot tanks, assault drones, and long files of young men with guns were streaming through the pine woods of northeast Texas.
The cab got me to the hotel promptly enough, and I paid the cabby, said good morning to the tired-eyed desk clerk, and headed up to my room. I didn’t really expect to get more sleep, but decided to give it a try, and blinked awake four hours later with the pale gray light of morning coming in through the window. The clock said quarter past eight; I hurried through a shower, got myself shaved and dressed, weighed the odds that Melanie might call if I took the time to run to Kaufer’s News to get the morning Blade, and decided to call the concierge instead. Not five minutes later a bellhop knocked on the door with a copy. “We got a stack of ‘em down at the desk,” he told me. “Half the guests are gonna want one as soon as they wake up.”  I thanked him and gave him a good-sized tip, and he grinned and made off.
The paper didn’t have much more information on the current state of affairs than I’d gotten from Melanie, but the reporters had done their background research; the inside of the front section had big articles sketching out the history of the quarrel, running through both sides’ military assets, quoting a couple of experts from Toledo University on the potential outcomes of the war, that sort of thing. Tucked away toward the end was a terse little article about two moresatellites being taken out by debris.  I was maybe halfway through that last article when the phone rang.
“Peter? It’s Melanie. Can you get to the Capitol by nine-thirty?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
“There’s a courtesy briefing for the North American diplomatic community—the ambassadors will be meeting with Meeker; this is for attachés and staff.  I’ve arranged to get you in as a special envoy from Ellen Montrose’s staff.”
“No kidding. Thank you, Melanie.”
“Sure thing.” She gave me the details, we said our goodbyes and away I went.
The city was wide awake as I walked the four blocks to the Capitol. Newspapers and conversations in low voices were everywhere. The streetcars, horsedrawn cabs, and occasional cars still rolled down the streets; lamps shone in windows, contending with the gray winter light; nothing visible had changed since the morning before, and everything had. I remembered stories some of my older relatives used to tell about the first days of the Second Civil War—carefully sanitized stories coming over the mass media, wild rumors carried by blogs and private emails, and everywhere the sense that something had changed or shifted or broken once and for all, and the world would never be quite the same afterwards.
Somehow, the morning around me felt like that. I told myself not to be silly; there had been other wars since Partition—the three-way scramble between Texas, the Confederacy, and the Missouri Republic in ‘37, the Confederate-Brazilian invasion of the Lakeland Republic in ‘49, and the ongoing civil war in California—but this felt different.
“Extra!” shouted a paperboy on the sidewalk in front of the Capitol, where people were streaming by. “Richmond’s declared war.” He was selling copies nearly as fast as he could hand them out, but I managed to get one before his canvas bag was empty. I wasn’t the only purchaser to turn toward the Capitol’s big front entrance, either. We filed in the doors, and then some of us turned right toward the Senate end of the building, went down the first big staircase we found, and ended up in front of a big door flanked by two guards in uniform and a man in a wool suit.  I recognized him after a moment: Stuart Macallan, the Lakeland Republic’s assistant secretary of state for North American affairs.
“Mr. Carr,” he said, shaking my hand. “Good to see you again.Yes, you’ve been cleared—favor to the incoming administration in Philadelphia.” He winked, and I laughed and went on to the coatroom, where I shed hat and coat before going further.
The room inside was a big comfortable space with a podium up front and rows of tables and chairs facing it, the kind of place where important press conferences and public hearings get held. All the usual impedimenta of a high-end briefing were there—pitchers of ice water on each table, and so on—and something I hadn’t expected:  a notebook and pen in front of each place. Of course I understood the moment I saw them: lacking veepads, how else were the attendees going to take notes? Even so, that reminded me how many details of life in the Lakeland Republic I still hadn’t seen.
I sat down and opened the paper. The Confederate Congress had voted to declare war, as the boy said; the Texan legislature was expected to return the favor shortly. In the meantime, the naval battle in the Gulf was ongoing, with people along the coast reporting distant explosions and smoke plumes visible on the horizon. Nobody was sure yet what was happening on the land front; the entire region from Shreveport and Texarkana west to the suburbs of Dallas was closed to journalists, and the entire highway system was off limits to anybody but government and military, but long lines of army-green trucks were streaming east across Texas toward the war zone, and a reporter who’d gotten as far north as Henderson before being turned back by military police reported that he could hear artillery rolling in the northern distance like summer thunder.
Someone sat down at the chair next to mine, and I did the polite thing and turned to greet him. “Hank Barker,” he said as we shook hands, “with the Missouri Republic delegation.” I introduced myself, and he brightened. “You’re Ellen Montrose’s envoy here, aren’t you?  Once this is over, if you’ve got a minute to talk, that’d be real welcome.”
“Sure,” I said. It wasn’t until then that I noticed that he was dressed the way I was, in typical Lakeland business wear. Most of the other people filing into the room wore bioplastic, though we weren’t the only ones in wool. “Got tired of bioplastic, I see,” I commented.
He nodded. “Yep. You see this sort of thing more and more often these days, out our way. ‘Course a lot of the wool and leather Lakeland uses comes from our side of the Mississippi, so it stands to reason.”
I glanced at him, wondered whether any other Lakeland Republic customs had found a foothold across the Mississippi. The Missouri Republic’s big, reaching from the river to the crest of the Rockies and from what used to be Kansas and the northwestern two-thirds of Missouri to the border of West Canada, but a lot of it’s desert these days; it’s pretty much landlocked—its only ports are river towns on the Mississippi and Duluth on Lake Superior—and if they were paying off World Bank loans and coping with the same economic pressures we were in the Atlantic Republic, they’d have to be in a world of hurt. Before I could figure out how to ask the question that was on my mind, though, the last of the attendees had taken their seats and a familiar figure rolled his wheelchair across the low stage to one side of the podium.
“I’d like to thank you all for coming,” Tom Pappas said. “We’re still waiting for more details from the war zone—”
“Like everyone else,” said a voice with a French accent close to the front of the room.
“I’m not arguing,” Pappas said, with a broad grin. “But we’ve got a basic idea what’s going on, and we can also fill you in on our government’s response.”
An aide, a young woman in Lakeland army uniform, came up onto the stage, went to the back wall and pulled on a cord. Down came a big, brightly colored map of the eastern half of the Republic of Texas and parts of the Confederacy adjacent to it.  Pappas thanked her, took a long pointer from behind the podium, and wheeled over to the map.
“The three drilling platforms the Texans attacked last night are here.” The pointer tapped a patch of blue water in the Gulf. “Those are the ones Bullard claimed were using horizontal drilling to poach Texan oil. Based on what information we’ve gotten at this point, all three platforms were destroyed. The Confederates counterattacked less than an hour later, and both sides suffered significant losses—they’ve both got decent antiship missiles, and you know how that goes.”
A murmur spread through the room. “The thing is, the Confederates didn’t just fire on the Texan ships,” Pappas went on. “They used long range missiles to target Texan offshore oil assets. We’re not sure how many were targeted and how badly they were hit, but it doesn’t look good.
“Right now there’s still fighting going on, and both sides are bringing in naval assets from outside the area. Texas has a short term advantage there.  The Confederates have a lot of their ships on the Atlantic coast, and it’s going to take a while to get them around the south Florida shoals and bring them into action, but once those arrive, the Texan navy’s going to be in deep—trouble.”
That got a laugh. “Okay,” he said, and moved the pointer up to tap on the area between Shreveport and Texarkana. “That’s a sideshow. Here’s the show that matters. As far as we can tell, the Confederacy’s thrown three divisions into the ground assault:  one armored division, two infantry. More are being brought up as fast as the transport grid will carry them. The Texans are throwing everything they’ve got on hand into the fighting. It’s anyone’s guess whether they can get enough of their army into play before the Confederates reach Dallas; I’m guessing they will. Meanwhile Texan drones and land based missiles have been hitting military targets as far as the Mississippi, and the Confederacy’s doing the same thing—we’ve had reports of missile strikes as far west as Waco.
“And this is where it gets ugly. Both sides have allies overseas. The Confederates have already asked Brazil to intervene; no word from Brasilia yet, but given their track record in the past, it’s probably a safe bet that they’ll get Brazilian munitions and advisers, and maybe more. Texas has a mutual-aid pact with China, and after the business in Peru two years ago, the Chinese have got to be itching for an opportunity to take Brazil down a peg or two; a proxy war would be one way to do that. So we could be facing a long and ugly war.
“That’s the military situation. Stuart, you want to fill them in on our response?”
Stuart Macallan climbed up onto the stage. “Sure. Point number one is that we’re staying out of it. We’ve declared ourselves neutral, and President Meeker is working with the other North American governments right now to draft a joint declaration of neutrality and an appeal to the combatants to accept an immediate ceasefire and settle this at the negotiating table, using the mechanisms set up in the Treaty of Richmond.
“Point number two is that we’ve ordered a defensive mobilization all along the southern border, just in case. Those of you who know anything about our military know that this isn’t a threat to anybody, unless they decide to invade. If you’re not familiar with our system, Colonel Pappas here can fill you in on the details after we finish.
“Point number three is that we’re going to look for every possible way to expedite trade agreements with the other North American republics. Half our exports go via the Mississippi, and I know some of our neighbors are in the same boat—so to speak. We’re prepared to help the other North American republics keep their economies intact, to the extent that we can, and we’d welcome any help you can give us along the same lines.
“Finally, there’s the petroleum situation. For all practical purposes, the Gulf oil fields, onshore and offshore, have just dropped off the face of the Earth, and they’re going to stay that way until this whole business gets resolved. That’s a big enough fraction of world oil production to send markets into a tizzy. It won’t particularly affect us, as you know,. but it’s going to be a problem for pretty much everyone else in North America. We’re going to look at agreements with each of your countries to try to cushion the economic hit, but whatever you’re paying for fuel these days—our best estimate is that it’s going to double, maybe triple, maybe more, if you can get it. The way so much oil production is locked up in long term contracts, some of you probably won’t be able to get it at all.”
Hank Barker, sitting next to me, shook his head. Under his breath: “We are so screwed.”

****************Back here in 2016, I'm delighted to announce the impending publication of David Fleming's astonishing book Lean Logic, an encyclopedic guide to the principles and practice of life in a deindustrializing world. Fleming was a central figure in the British sustainability movement for decades, and played an important role in the founding of the UK Green Party, the Transition Town Movement, and the New Economics Foundation; he spent some thirty years assembling Lean Logic as a comprehensive book on the ways of thinking and acting we're going to need to get through the mess ahead. (I'm quite sure it's still in print in the Lakeland Republic in 2065!) The hardback edition is now available for preorder here.

Scientific Education as a Cause of Political Stupidity

Wed, 2016-07-13 17:59
While we’re discussing education, the theme of the current series of posts here on The Archdruid Report, it’s necessary to point out that there are downsides as well as upsides to take into account. The savant so saturated in abstractions that he’s hopelessly inept at the business of everyday life has been a figure of fun in literature for many centuries now, not least because examples of the type are so easy to find in every age.
That said, certain kinds of education have more tightly focused downsides. It so happens, for example, that engineers have contributed rather more to crackpot literature than most other professions. Hollow-earth theories, ancient-astronaut speculations, treatises arguing that the lost continent of Atlantis is located nearly anywhere on Earth except where Plato said it was—well, I could go on; engineers have written a really impressive share of the gaudier works in such fields. In my misspent youth, I used to collect such books as a source of imaginative entertainment, and when the jacket claimed the author was some kind of engineer, I knew I was in for a treat.
I treated that as an interesting coincidence until I spent a couple of years working for a microfilming company in Seattle that was owned by a retired Boeing engineer. He was also a devout fundamentalist Christian and a young-Earth creationist; he’d written quite a bit of creationist literature, though I never heard that any of it was published except as densely typed photocopied handouts—and all of it displayed a very specific logic: given that the Earth was created by God on October 23, 4004 BCE, at 9:00 in the morning, how can we explain the things we find on Earth today?
That is to say, he approached it as an engineering problem.
Engineers are trained to figure out what works. Give them a problem, and they’ll beaver away until they find a solution—that’s their job, and the engineering profession has been around long enough, and had enough opportunities to refine its methods of education, that a training in engineering does a fine job of teaching you how to work from a problem to a solution. What it doesn’t teach you is how to question the problem. That’s why, to turn to another example, you get entire books that start from the assumption that the book of Ezekiel was about a UFO sighting and proceed to work out, in impressive detail, exactly what the UFO must have looked like, how it was powered, and so on. “But how do we know it was a UFO sighting in the first place?” is the one question that never really gets addressed.
It’s occurred to me recently that another specific blindness seems to be hardwired into another mode of education, one that’s both prestigious and popular these days: a scientific education—that is to say, a technical education in the theory and practice of one of the hard sciences.  The downside to such an education, I’d like to suggest, is that it makes you stupid about politics. Plenty of examples come to mind, and I’ll be addressing some of the others shortly, but the one I want to start with is classic in its simplicity, not to mention its simple-mindedness. This is the recent proposal by astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, which I quote in full:
Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) June 29, 2016
That might be dismissed as just another example of the thought-curtailing properties of Twitter’s 140-character limit—if a potter makes pots, what does Twitter make?—except that Tyson didn’t say, “here’s the principle behind the constitution, details to follow.” That’s his proposed constitution in its entirety.
More precisely, that’s his sound bite masquerading as a constitution. An actual constitution, as anyone knows who has actually read one, doesn’t just engage in a bit of abstract handwaving about how decisions are to be made. It sets out in detail who makes the decisions, how the decision-makers are selected, what checks and balances are meant to keep the decision-makers from abusing their positions, and so on. If Donald Trump, say, gave a speech saying, “We need a new scientific method that consists solely of finding the right answer,” he’d be mocked for not knowing the first thing about science. A similar response is appropriate here.
That said, Tyson’s proposal embodies another dimension of cluelessness about politics. Insisting that political decisions ought to be made exclusively on the basis of evidence sounds great, until you try to apply it to actual politics. Take that latter step, and what you’ll discover is that evidence is only tangentially relevant to most political decisions.
Consider the recent British referendum over whether to leave the European Union. That decision could not have been made on the basis of evidence, because all sides, as far as I know, agreed on the facts.  Those were that Britain had joined the European Economic Community (as it then was) in 1973, that its membership involved ceding certain elements of national sovereignty to EU bureaucracies, and that EU policies benefited certain people in Britain while disadvantaging others. None of those points were at issue. The points that were at issue were values on the one hand, and interests on the other.
By values I mean judgments, by individuals and communities, about what matters and what doesn’t, what’s desirable and what isn’t, what can be tolerated and what can’t. These can’t be reduced to mere questions of evidence. A statement such as “the free movement of people across national borders is good and important” can’t be proved or disproved by any number of double-blind controlled studies. It’s a value that some people hold and others don’t, as is the statement “the right of people to self-determination must be protected from the encroachments of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.” Those values are in conflict with each other, and it was in large part over such values that the Brexit election was fought out and decided.
By interests I mean the relative distribution of costs and benefits. Any political decision, about any but the most trivial subject, brings benefits and has costs, and far more often than not the people who get the benefits and the people who carry the costs are not the same. EU membership for Britain was a case in point. By and large, the affluent got the majority of the benefits—they were the ones who could send their children to German universities and count on border-free travel to holidays in Spain—and the working poor carried the majority of the costs—they were the ones who had to compete for jobs against a rising tide of immigrants, while the number of available jobs declined due to EU policies that encouraged offshoring of industry to lower-wage countries.
What made the Brexit referendum fascinating, at least to me, was the way that so many of the pro-EU affluent tried to insist that the choice was purely about values, and that any talk about the interests of the working poor was driven purely by racism and xenophobia—that is to say, values.  As I’ve noted here in numerous posts, the affluent classes in the industrial world have spent the last four decades or so throwing the working poor under the bus and then rolling the wheels back and forth over them, while insisting at the top of their lungs that they’re doing nothing of the kind.
Wage earners, and the millions who would be happy to earn a wage if they could find work, know better.  Here in America, for example, most people outside the echo chambers of the affluent remember perfectly well that forty years ago, a family with one working class income could afford a house, a car, and the other amenities of life, while today, a family with one working class income is probably living on the street. Shouting down open discussion of interests by insisting that all political decisions have to do solely with values has been a common strategy on the part of the affluent; the outcome of the Brexit referendum is one of several signs that this strategy is near the end of its shelf life.
In the real world—the world where politics has to function—interests come first. Whether you or I are benefited or harmed, enriched or impoverished by some set of government policies is the bedrock of political reality. Evidence plays a role: yes, this policy will benefit these people; no, these other people won’t share in those benefits—those are questions of fact, but settling them doesn’t settle the broader question. Values also play a role, but there are always competing values affecting any political decision worth the name; the pursuit of liberty conflicts with the pursuit of equality, justice and mercy pull in different directions, and so on.
To make a political decision, you sort through the evidence to find the facts that are most relevant to the issue—and “relevant,” please note, is a value judgement, not a simple matter of fact. Using the relevant evidence as a framework, you weigh competing values against one another—this also involves a value judgment—and then you weigh competing interests against one another, and look for a compromise on which most of the contending parties can more or less agree. If no such compromise can be found, in a democratic society, you put it to a vote and do what the majority says. That’s how politics is done; we might even call it the political method.
That’s not how science is done, though. The scientific method is a way of finding out which statements about nature are false and discarding them, under the not unreasonable assumption that you’ll be left with a set of statements about nature that are as close as possible to the truth. That process rules out compromise. If you’re Lavoisier and you’re trying to figure out how combustion works, you don’t say, hey, here’s the oxygenation theory and there’s the phlogiston theory, let’s agree that half of combustion happens one way and the other half the other; you work out an experiment that will disprove one of them, and accept its verdict. What’s inadmissible in science, though, is the heart of competent politics.
In science, furthermore, interests are entirely irrelevant in theory. (In practice—well, we’ll get to that in a bit.)  Decisions about values are transferred from the individual scientist to the scientific community via such practices as peer review, which make and enforce value judgments about what counts as good, relevant, and important research in each field. The point of these habits is to give scientists as much room as possible to focus purely on the evidence, so that facts can be known as facts, without interference from values or interests. It’s precisely the habits of mind that exclude values and interests from questions of fact in scientific research that make modern science one of the great intellectual achievements of human history, on a par with the invention of logic by the ancient Greeks.
One of the great intellectual crises of the ancient world, in turn, was the discovery that logic was not the solution to every human problem. A similar crisis hangs over the modern world, as claims that science can solve all human problems prove increasingly hard to defend, and the shrill insistence by figures such as Tyson that it just ain’t so should be read as evidence for the imminence of real trouble. Tyson himself has demonstrated clearly enough that a first-rate grasp of astronomy does not prevent the kind of elementary mistake that gets you an F in Political Science 101. He’s hardly alone in displaying the limits of a scientific education; Richard Dawkins is a thoroughly brilliant biologist, but whenever he opens his mouth about religion, he makes the kind of crass generalizations and jawdropping non sequiturs that college sophomores used to find embarrassingly crude.
None of this is helped by the habit, increasingly common in the scientific community, of demanding that questions having to do with values and interests should be decided, not on the evidence, but purely on the social prestige of science. I’m thinking here of the furious open letter signed by a bunch of Nobel laureates, assailing Greenpeace for opposing the testing and sale of genetically engineered rice. It’s a complicated issue, as we’ll see in a moment, but you won’t find that reflected in the open letter. Its argument is simple: we’re scientists, you’re not, and therefore you should shut up and do as we say.
Let’s take this apart a step at a time. To begin with, the decision to allow or prohibit the testing and sale of genetically engineered rice is inherently  political rather than scientific. Scientific research, as noted above, deals with facts as facts, without reference to values or interests. “If you do X, then Y will happen”—that’s a scientific statement, and if it’s backed by adequate research and replicable testing, it’s useful as a way of framing decisions. The decisions, though, will inevitably be made on the basis of values and interests. “Y is a good thing, therefore you should do X” is a value judgment; “Y will cost me and benefit you, therefore you’re going to have to give me something to get me to agree to X” is a statement of interest—and any political decision that claims to ignore values and interests is either incompetent or dishonest.
There are, as it happens, serious questions of value and interest surrounding the genetically engineered rice under discussion. It’s been modified so that it produces vitamin A, which other strains of rice don’t have, and thus will help prevent certain kinds of blindness—that’s one side of the conflict of values. On the other side, most seed rice in the Third World is saved from the previous year’s crop, not purchased from seed suppliers, and the marketing of the GMO rice thus represents yet another means for a big multinational corporation to pump money out of the pockets of some of the poorest people on earth to enrich stockholders in the industrial world. There are many other ways to get vitamin A to people in the Third World, but you won’t find those being discussed by Nobel laureates—nor, of course, are any of the open letter’s signatories leading a campaign to raise enough money to buy the patent for the GMO rice and donate it to the United Nations, let’s say, so poor Third World farmers can benefit from the rice without having to spend money they don’t have in order to pay for it.
These are the issues that have been raised by Greenpeace among others. To respond to that with a straightforward display of the logical fallacy called argumentum ad auctoritatem—“I’m an authority in the field, therefore whatever I say is true”—is bad reasoning, but far more significantly, it’s inept politics. You can only get away with that trick a certain number of times, unless what you say actually does turn out to be true, and institutional science these days has had way too many misses to be able to lean so hard on its prestige. I’ve noted in previous posts here the way that institutional science has blinded itself to the view from outside its walls, ignoring the growing impact of the vagaries of scientific opinion in fields such as human nutrition, the straightforward transformation of research into marketing in the medical and pharmaceutical industry, and the ever-widening chasm between the promises of safety and efficacy brandished by scientists and the increasingly unsafe and ineffective drugs, technologies, and policy decisions that burden the lives of ordinary people.
There are plenty of problems with that, but the most important of them is political. People make political decisions on the basis of their values and their perceived interests, within a frame provided by accepted facts. When the people whose job it is to present and interpret the facts start to behave in ways that bring their own impartiality into question, the “accepted facts” stop being accepted—and when scientists make a habit of insisting that the values and interests of most people don’t matter when those conflict, let’s say, with the interests of big multinational corporations that employ lots of scientists, it’s only a matter of time before whatever scientists say is dismissed out of hand as simply an attempt to advance their interests at the expense of others.
That, I’m convinced, is one of the major forces behind the widening failure of climate change activism, and environmental activism in general, to find any foothold among the general public. These days, when a scientist like Tyson gets up on a podium to make a statement, a very large percentage of the listeners don’t respond to his words by thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” They respond by thinking, “I wonder who’s paying him to say that?” That would be bad enough if it was completely unjustified, but in many fields of science—especially, as noted earlier, medicine and pharmacology—it’s become a necessary caveat, as failures to replicate mount up, blatant manipulation of research data comes to light, and more and more products that were touted as safe and effective by the best scientific authorities turn out to be anything but.
Factor that spreading crisis of legitimacy into the history of climate change activism and it’s not hard to see the intersection. Fifteen years ago, the movement to stop anthropogenic climate change was a juggernaut; today it’s a dead letter, given lip service or ignored completely in national politics, and reduced to a theater of the abusrd by heavily publicized international agreements that commit no one to actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the rhetoric of climate change activism fell into the same politically incompetent language already sketched out—“We’re scientists, you’re not, so shut up and do as you’re told”—and the mere fact that they were right, and that anthropogenic climate change is visibly spinning out of control around us right now, doesn’t change the fact that such language alienated far more people than it attracted, and thus helped guarantee the failure of the movement.
Of course there was a broader issue tangled up in this, and it’s the same one that’s dogging scientific pronouncements generally these days: the issue of interests. Specifically, who was expected to pay the costs of preventing anthropogenic climate change, and who was exempted from those costs? That’s not a question that’s gotten anything like the kind of attention it deserves—not, at least, in the acceptable discourse of the political mainstream. We’ll be talking about it two weeks from now.

******************
In other news, I'm pleased to report that the print edition of The Archdruid Report is now open for subscribers. Stone Circle Press, appropriately enough, will be publishing the Report monthly as a zine. Their sales website, still very basic as yet, is here.

Retrotopia: You See It Is Not So

Wed, 2016-07-06 15:42
This is the nineteenth installment* of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator apologizes for an almost-quarrel, spends an evening on the town, and gets a sudden insight into the nature of the Lakeland Republic’s achievement from a seemingly unlikely source...
*(The actual nineteenth; the last one was misnumbered.)
  ***********I felt a little worse for wear the next morning, but not too bad, and so when the alarm on the wind-up clock next to the bed went off at eight-thirty I mumbled something unprintable and got up. It was Sunday, of course, and I planned to go to the Atheist Assembly again, so I got to work making myself presentable. My electric razor did its usual halfhearted job on my stubble, and I shook my head and wondered what men used in the Lakeland Republic to keep their chins smooth when they didn’t let the barber take care of it. Probably some antique technology that works better than ours, I thought sourly.
To say I was in a rotten mood was a bit of an understatement, but it was my own doing. I’d decided on the cab ride back from the Harbor Club that I needed to call Melanie Berger sometime the next day and apologize. That’s not something I enjoy at all, and I also knew perfectly well that it might be wasted effort, but there it was. Partly, the professional in me wasn’t willing to lose a useful contact in the Lakeland government just because the two of us had both been too tired to be tactful; partly I felt  embarrassed that I’d handled the whole thing so clumsily, and partly there was the chemistry I’d sensed between the two of us. There may have been more than that, too, but that was enough.
So I’d decided to call her early in the afternoon, after I got back from Assembly and had lunch. I was brooding over that while I shaved and showered and got dressed, and I was still brooding over it at nine-fifteen as I got my tie settled. Just then the phone rang, and wouldn’t you know it, it was none other than Melanie Berger.
“Peter? I hope I’m not calling too early.”
“Not a bit,” I said. “I was just getting ready to go to Assembly. What’s up?”
She paused for a moment, in exactly the way I would have, and said, “I wanted to apologize for the way things went Friday night.”
“I was going to call you later today and say the same thing,” I told her.  A moment of silence passed, and then we both started talking at the same time; we both stopped, and then she laughed, and so did I.
“Okay,” I said, still laughing. “I’ll gladly accept your apology if you’ll accept mine. Deal?”
“Deal,” said Melanie. “The thing is, I’d like to make it up to you. Are you free this evening?”
“Sure.” That sounded promising.  “What do you have in mind?”
“You mentioned that you’d wanted to see the Toledo Opera production of Parsifal. Jaya and Ramaraj Patel have season tickets, and I heard from them last night—they both came down with the same flu you got, and they’re not going anywhere tonight—so I thought I’d find out if I could interest you in a night at the opera.”
“I’d be delighted,” I said, “on one condition.”
“Oh?”
“That you let me take you out to dinner first.”
“You’re on,” she said. We got the details sorted out and said goodbye, and I got out of the room and down to the street just in time to catch the streetcar to the Capitol Atheist Assembly.
The meeting was pleasant but not particularly memorable, though Sam Capoferro was up to his usual standard on the piano, playing Handel and Bach with understated elegance, and everyone I met greeted me as though I was already an old friend. The reading was a rousing bit of Bertrand Russell, and the talk was about telling the difference between reason and the habits of thought that people confuse with reason, which was edgier than anything I’d heard in the Philadelphia Assembly for a good long time. Afterwards we sat around in the social hall over coffee and cookies, and talked.
The tensions between Texas and the Confederacy got a good share of the talk, and I listened closely when Senator Chenkin sketched out the situation to a couple of friends who hadn’t been following it closely. “Both countries would go broke without the income from their petroleum industries,” she said, “and they’ve both had production declines for the last half dozen years, so neither side is in any position to back down. This could get really bad.”
“How bad?” one of her friends asked her. She didn’t answer, just shook her head, but I could see the answer in her eyes, and it wasn’t anything I wanted to think about.
So I filed that away and caught the streetcar back to the hotel not long thereafter. Once I was there I talked to the concierge about what you wear to an opera in the Lakeland Republic—I’d wondered whether they’d gone back to opera capes and top hats, and was relieved to find out that ordinary evening wear would do—and then went out to see if the barber I’d visited my first day in Toledo had Sunday hours. Fortunately he did, and he was just finishing up a shave and trim on another customer when I got there. When it was my turn, he greeted me effusively and said, “You got a special evening planned, I bet,” and laughed when I asked him how he’d guessed. “Of course you do.  Any guy comes in here midway through a weekend day for a shave and trim, dollars’ll get you doughnuts that’s what’s on the schedule. Don’t you worry, I’ll get your face smoother than a baby’s butt.”
He did, too. I left there looking ready for an evening out. A pleasant lunch in the hotel café, a talk with the concierge about restaurants, and a couple of leisurely hours reading the Sunday paper and getting caught up on the news: that filled the rest of the time before I caught a cab over to Melanie Berger’s, picked her up, and headed for a top-end restaurant not quite two blocks from the Toledo opera house.
We had a great time. The food was really good and the wine was better, and both of us had the common sense to keep the conversation well away from progress or anything related to it. Of course we talked about politics—get two people who work in any line of business together, even for a social evening, and they’re going to talk shop—but that wasn’t the only subject of conversation by a long shot. One of the others was the performance we were about to take in. The Toledo Opera had a homegrown bass, a young guy named Michael Bickerstaff, who would be singing the part of Gurnemanz.  He’d done a stellar job the year before in his first major role as Sarastro in The Magic Flute, but of course Wagner’s much harder on singers than Mozart ever dreamed of being.
“They say he’s really good,” Melanie said. “Good enough that a couple of European opera companies are interested in him, and some people here are talking about what kind of a Wotan he’d make.”
That impressed me. “Are they planning on doing the Ring cycle here?”
“Jaya tells me there’s been some tentative discussions with the Minneapolis Opera about a joint production,” she said. “They’ve got some really solid singers—tonight’s Kundry is one of theirs.”
Dinner wound down pleasantly, and in due time we headed for the opera house.  Like most of Toledo, it was new construction but old-fashioned design, with a spacious lobby and comfortable seats. Ours were about halfway toward the left wall on the first balcony. We got settled, and of course then had to stand up a couple of times while latecomers made their apologies and edged past to their own seats. Our conversation wound up, the lights went down, the conductor got up on his podium and the first bars of the Prelude sounded in the dim light.
When the curtains slid open, I admit I braced myself. In Wagner’s operas, there’s really only room for one monumental ego, and it’s his, but you get directors who don’t get that and try to make a production original by pulling some visual stunt or other. I’ve seen Wagnerian operas where all the singers were in Old West outfits, or superhero costumes, or bulbous yellow things that made them look like a flock of rubber duckies—I never did find out what those were supposed to be about. Apparently the Toledo Opera had managed to escape that bad habit. The set was abstract to the point of starkness, with fabric veils and shafts of light providing most of the decor; you could tell the designer had taken a close and thoughtful look at Bayreuth productions from the middle of the last century. The costumes looked more or less the way you’d expect a bunch of Grail Knights to look, which was a pleasant surprise.
Then Gurnemanz got up from under the abstract tree where he’d supposedly been sleeping, and broke into his first lines—He, ho, Waldhüter ihr!—and I knew right away that we were in for a treat.
Most of the singers were, in the strict sense of the word, second-rate: one notch below first-rate, which is still good enough to enjoy.  The soprano who sang Kundry, Maria Vargas Ruz, was better than that; she didn’t have the absolute purity of tone you need for the most demanding soprano roles, but the role she was singing actually goes better with a little roughness in the voice.
Then there was Michael Bickerstaff. He wasn’t just first-rate, he was world-class, a big barrel-chested young man with one of the best bass voices I’d heard in years. The role of Gurnemanz, the old Grail Knight, is the backbone of Parsifal; a good Gurnemanz can make a mediocre production enjoyable, while an unimpressive one drags like a lead weight on a performance that might otherwise be worth hearing. Bickerstaff was stunningly good; he more or less picked up the show and carried it on his shoulders, and I enjoyed the result tremendously.
The first act flowed past, and the second; Parsifal vanquished the self-castrated sorcerer Klingsor and recovered the Holy Spear; the third act got well under way, and Parsifal, Gurnemanz, and Kundry were on stage, surrounded by a tolerably good suggestion of a field of flowers. The passage that’s called der Karfreitagszauber, the Good Friday Enchantment, started up, Bickerstaff sang Du siehst, das ist nicht so— “You see it is not so”—and that’s when it hit me.
You know how sometimes you can brood over some problem for hours and get nowhere with it, and then when you go do something else for a while and you’re not thinking about it at all, the answer basically downloads itself into your brain? That’s what happened. I’d spent most of the day thinking of just about anything but the paradox Melanie Berger had dropped on me two nights before, and right then I realized that it wasn’t a paradox at all. I managed to drag my attention back to the performance before Bickerstaff was more than a few words further on, and kept the realization I’d just had at arm’s length for the rest of the evening, but it wasn’t going anywhere and I knew it.
Here’s what I figured out. As you might expect, it begins with opera.
These days, nobody listens to twentieth-century opera. That’s not accidental, either—it’s either painfully derivative or it’s impossible to sit through. Once I went to see a revival of one of Benjamin Britten’s pieces, I forget which one, and what I mostly remember was the audience gamely trying to pretend that they were appreciating something that was about as enjoyable as listening to a chorus of dental drills. The standard joke in opera circles these days is that opera companies put on twentieth century works when they’re tired of the inconvenience of performing in front of an audience.
One of my Philadelphia friends, who’s a much more serious opera buff than I’ll ever be, explains it like this. Any art form has a certain amount of notional space to it, and each work done in that space fills up part of it. Before you’ve filled up the space, innovation works more often than not, but after the space is full, innovation just generates noise. That’s why the history of every art gets sorted out into a period of exploration, when you succeed by trying new things, and a period of performance, when you succeed by doing old things very, very well. If you keep on trying to innovate when the notional space is full, the results are either going to be derivative or unbearable, and either way they’re not going to be any good, because the good options have already been taken.
You know that an art is getting close to the edges of its notional space when innovation involves a lot of risk. Wagner was right up against the edges of opera’s notional space, which is why his late operas are so exhilarating—you can watch him tiptoeing right up to the edge of noise and balancing there—but they don’t have the easy grace of operas written a couple of generations before his time. You see the same thing in jazz, starting in the second half of the twentieth century: people like Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck were self-consciously testing the boundaries, figuring out just how far they could go without falling over the edge into noise. Another generation or two, and you get the kind of jazz that nobody bothers to play any more, because by and large it’s just pretentious doodling.
The thing is, it’s not just true of art. Nobody’s pushing brand new alphabets any more, because that notional space got filled in a long time ago. Nobody’s inventing new can openers or bathtubs, and nearly all of what passes for innovation these days in cars, say, is just gimmickry aimed at getting the clueless to shell out money. I knew all that, but it never occurred to me that technological progress followed the same trajectory:  it had its period of exploration and then crossed over into its period of performance, but nobody noticed, and so everyone just kept on buying into the latest innovations, even though most of those had fewer benefits and worse downsides than the things they replaced.
I’d missed that completely.  I’d been wandering around the Lakeland Republic, noticing that the way they did things had better outcomes, lower costs, and fewer downsides than the way people do things everywhere else, and I still didn’t get it. It was as though I’d been listening to an opera by Mozart or Verdi and thinking that the poor people in the audience must be feeling horribly deprived because they weren’t getting Benjamin Britten. Du siehst, sang Gurnemanz, das ist nicht so.
Writing it all out like that, it sounds all clear and straightforward. It wasn’t. There was the first sudden realization while Bickerstaff was singing, and then other details—many more than I’ve written out—came dropping into my mind over the next couple of hours. All the while I was mostly paying attention to other things, such as a really solid performance of an opera I love, and the attractive woman I was seeing it with, and certain other things I’ll mention in a moment, and the things I’ve written were tumbling around in the back of my head. It wasn’t until I was in the cab headed back to my hotel the next morning that I finally sat back and let the whole thing come together into a coherent argument. Long before that happened, though, I’d stumbled straight through the door into a different world.
But again, there was an opera to take in. After the final minutes of the music, when it always feels to me as though the opera house has shaken off gravity and gone soaring into the sky; after the applause—we were all on our feet, and when Michael Bickerstaff bowed I’m surprised the roar didn’t cause structural damage to the building; after the house lights came up at last, and people started filing out, Melanie said, “Season tickets get us into the reception, and there’s someone there I’d like you to meet.”
So we filed out and went down a side corridor; Melanie showed our passes to an usher out in front of an unmarked double door, and in we went. The room on the other side was big and airy, with a mural of scenes from famous operas on one wall, and a bank of tables along the other with champagne and finger food. It wasn’t too crowded yet, and I gathered that the person Melanie wanted me to meet hadn’t arrvied, so we got a couple of glasses and sipped bubbly for a few minutes while more people filed in. Finally, when the room was getting good and packed, Melanie led me through the crowd.
“Janice,” she said, “this is Peter Carr, from Philadelphia—one of Ellen Montrose’s people.” With an impish smile: “And a limited partner of yours. Peter, Janice Mikkelson.”
Mikkelson was maybe sixty, with short straight hair the color of steel wool and a pantsuit that looked plain at first glance but probably cost as much as any of the fancy dresses in the room. She gave me an assessing look as we shook hands, and I said, “To the extent of one share of Mikkelson LLC.”
She laughed. “Not exactly a vote of confidence, but I’m pleased to meet you anyway.” I got introduced to her wife Sharon, a gorgeous Asian woman maybe fifteen years her junior, and we stood chatting for a while about the performance. Mikkelson turned to me, then, and said, “Any chance you have time in your schedule to talk? I’m interested in the possibility of doing business in the Atlantic Republic.”
“I can do that,” I said. “Also, if you don’t mind, I’d be interested in getting your perspective on things here in Lakeland.” She nodded, we both checked our notebooks, and scheduled something for Tuesday afternoon. “Come up to my place,” Mikkelson said. “Some drinks, some conversation, some business—I think it’ll be productive.”
We chatted a little more, and then moved on in the usual way. Not much later Melanie and I were on our way down the long ramp to the lobby and then out to the street, where cabs lined up waiting for easy fares. We took one to her place, a brick row house a dozen blocks from the Capitol, and I walked her to her door. I had a pretty good idea by then of how the evening was going to end, and so it wasn’t any kind of surprise when she gave me the kind of raised-eyebrow smile that means exactly one thing. I went to pay the cab fare, came back to her, took her hand and followed her inside.
***********In other fiction-related news, the anthology of deindustrial-SF stories set in the future outlined in my novel Star’s Reach is finally, after an unconscionable delay, coming together. I’d like to ask everyone who submitted a story to that project to visit the Meriga Project website—I’ve got a new post up and need some data from contributors. Many thanks!

Outside the Hall of Mirrors

Wed, 2016-06-29 15:55
The outcome of last week’s vote concerning Britain’s membership in the European Union has set off  anguished cries and handwaving across much of the internet and the mass media. The unexpected defeat of the pro-EU camp, though, has important lessons to offer, and not just for those of my readers who live in Britain; the core issues underlying the Brexit referendum are also massive realities in many other countries right now, and will likely play a very large role—quite probably a decisive one—in this year’s presidential race here in the United States.
Now of course part of the outcome has to be put down to the really quite impressive incompetence of the Remain campaign. The first rule of political campaigning is that if something isn’t working, it’s time to try something else, but apparently that never occurred to anybody on the pro-EU side. From the beginning of the campaign to its end, very nearly the only coherent arguments that came out the mouths of Remain supporters were threats about this or that awful thing that was going to happen if Britain left the EU. Weeks before the election, as a result, faux headlines yelling BREXIT WILL GIVE YOU CANCER, EXPERTS WARN and the like had already become a common topic of internet humor.
That was bad enough—when the central theme of your campaign becomes a punch line, you’re doing something wrong—but there was another point that everyone in the pro-EU camp seems to have missed. Soon-to-be-former Prime Minister David Cameron spent much of the campaign insisting that if Britain left the EU, there would be harsh budget cuts in the National Health Service and other programs that benefit ordinary Britons. The difficulty here was of course that Cameron’s government had already inflicted harsh budget cuts in the National Health Service and other programs that benefit ordinary Britons, and showed every sign of doing more of the same—and “Brexit Will Do What We’re Doing Anyway” somehow didn’t have the clout that Cameron apparently expected it to have.
More generally, Remain supporters never got around to offering positive reasons for Britain’s EU membership that would convince those who weren’t already on their side. Instead, they simply insisted that “any thinking person” would vote Remain, and anyone who disagreed had to be a xenophobic Nazi moron. Their behavior in the wake of defeat has by and large been the same, alternating between furious statements that the 52% of Britons who voted to leave the EU must all be drooling fascist bigots, and the plaintive insistence that people couldn’t possibly have intended to vote the way they did, and can we please have the vote all over again?
Absent from the entire Remain repertory, before as well as after the vote, was any sense that the question of continued EU membership for Britain involved substantive issues about which it was possible to have reasoned disagreement. It should have been obvious that telling people that their concerns don’t matter, and berating them with schoolyard insults when they demur, was not going to convince them to change their vote. That this was not obvious to the pro-EU camp, and shows little evidence of becoming any more obvious even in the wake of defeat, hints that the issues in question are things that the pro-EU camp is utterly unwilling to see discussed at all.
I suggest that this is exactly what’s going on, and a glance back across the last century or so of British political history may help point out the unspoken realities behind the shouting.
A hundred years ago, two parties dominated the British political landscape: the Conservatives (aka Tories) and the Liberals. Both parties were run by and for the affluent. While a series of electoral reform bills over the course of the nineteenth century brought more and more British men into the electorate—British women got the vote in two stages, with wealthy women over 30 admitted to the electorate in 1918 and all adult women in 1929—both parties readily learned the trick of dangling meaningless favors in front of the poor to get them to vote in the interest of their soi-disant betters.
The rise of the Independent Labour Movement, the forerunner of the Labour Party, was a masterly counterstroke to this kind of political gamesmanship. Instead of letting themselves be led about by the nose for the benefit of the affluent minority, the ILM and then the Labour Party put the interests of working people and the poor at the forefront of their agenda, and refused to be bought off with scraps from the tables of the rich. By 1945, as a direct result, the Liberal party had been reduced to irrelevance and the Labour Party became one of the two major parties in British politics.
In Britain as well as America, the pendulum started swinging the other way in the last quarter of the century. The triumph of Margaret Thatcher in the 1978 general election had the same role there as Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 did over here: a new, more aggressive conservatism took up the Left’s rhetoric of class warfare with a vengeance and inverted it, ushering in an era in which the rich rebelled against the poor. The Labour Party under Tony Blair, in turn, responded to that shift the same way that the Democrats did under Bill Clinton: both parties quietly dropped their previous commitments to the working class and the poor, and focused instead on issues that appealed to affluent liberals.  They gambled that the working class and the poor would keep voting for them out of habit and misplaced loyalty—and over the short term, that gamble paid off.
The result in both countries was a political climate in which the only policies up for discussion were those that favored the interests of the affluent at the expense of the working classes and the poor. That point has been muddied so often, and in so many highly imaginative ways, that it’s probably necessary to detail it here. Rising real estate prices, for example, benefit those who own real estate, since their properties end up worth more, but it penalizes those who must rent their homes, since they have to pay more of their income for rent. Similarly, cutting social-welfare benefits for the disabled favors those who pay taxes at the expense of those who need those benefits to survive.
In the same way, encouraging unrestricted immigration into a country that already has millions of people permanently out of work, and encouraging the offshoring of industrial jobs so that the jobless are left to compete for an ever-shrinking pool of jobs, benefit the affluent at the expense of everyone else. The law of supply and demand applies to labor just as it does to everything else:  increase the supply of workers and decrease the demand for their services, and wages will be driven down. The affluent benefit from this, since they pay less for the services they want, but the working poor and the jobless are harmed by it, since they receive less income if they can find jobs at all. It’s standard for this straightforward logic to be obfuscated by claims that immigration benefits the economy as a whole—but who receives the bulk of the benefits, and who carries most of the costs?  That’s not something anybody in British or American public life has been willing to discuss for the last thirty years.
The problem with this kind of government of the affluent, by the affluent, and for the affluent was outlined in uncompromising detail many years ago in the pages of Arnold Toynbee’s monumental A Study of History. Societies in decline, he pointed out, schism into two unequal parts: a dominant minority that monopolizes the political system and its payoffs, and an internal proletariat that carries most of the costs of the existing order of things and is denied access to most of its benefits. As the schism develops, the dominant minority loses track of the fundamental law of politics—the masses will only remain loyal to their leaders if the leaders remain loyal to them—and the internal proletariat responds by rejecting not only the dominant minority’s leadership but its values and ideals as well.
The enduring symbol of the resulting disconnect is the famous Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, where the last three French kings before the Revolution secluded themselves from an increasingly troubled and impoverished nation in order to gaze admiringly at their own resplendent reflections. While Marie Antoinette apparently never said the famous sentence attributed to her—“Let them eat cake”—the cluelessness about the realities of life outside the Hall of Mirrors that utterance suggests was certainly present as France stumbled toward ruin, and a growing number of ordinary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen turned their backs on their supposed leaders and went looking for new options.
That’s what has happened in Britain in recent decades, and the last few elections show it. In the general election of 2010, voters blindsided pollsters and pundits alike by flocking to the Liberal Democratic party, until then a fringe party. That was an obvious demand for change, and if the Lib-Dems had stuck to their guns, it might have resulted in the eclipse of the Labour party within a few more years, but the Lib-Dems chose instead to cash in their ideals and form a coalition with the Tories. In the 2015 general election, as a direct result, the Lib-Dems were flung back out onto the fringes.
2015 had an even more significant result, though. In an attempt to head off the UK Independence Party (UKIP), another fringe party showing worrisome gains, Tory PM David Cameron pledged that if his party won, the UK would hold a referendum on EU membership. Polls claimed that Parliament would again be split three ways between Conservatives, Lib-Dems, and Labour. The pollsters and the pundits were blindsided again; apparently a good many people who claimed they were going to vote for Labour or the Lib-Dems got into the privacy of the voting booth and cast their vote for their local Tory instead. Why? Thursday’s vote suggests that it was precisely because they wanted a chance to say no to the EU.
Fast forward to the Brexit campaign. In polite society in today’s Britain, any attempt to point out the massive problems with allowing unrestricted immigration onto an already overcrowded island, which can’t provide adequate jobs, housing, or social services for the people it’s got already, is dismissed out of hand as racism. Thus it’s not surprising that quite a few Britons, many of them nominally Labour voters, mumbled the approved sound bites in public and voted for Brexit in private—and again, the pollsters and the pundits were blindsided. That’s one of the downsides of the schism between the dominant minority and the internal proletariat; once the dominant minority loses the loyalty of the masses by failing to deal with the needs of those outside the circles of affluence and privilege, sullen outward conformity and secret revolt replace the mutual trust that’s needed to make a society function.
The EU, in turn, made a perfect target for disaffected voters among the working class and the poor because it’s entirely a creature of the same consensus of the affluent as the Labour party after Tony Blair and the Democratic Party after Bill Clinton. Its economic policies are guided from top to bottom by the neoliberal economics that came into power with Thatcher and Reagan; its unwavering support of unrestricted immigration and capital movement is calculated to force down wages and move jobs away from countries such as Britain; its subsidies inevitably end up in the pockets of big corporations and the well-to-do, while its regulatory burdens land heaviest on small businesses and local economies.
This isn’t particularly hard find out—in fact, it takes an effort to avoid noticing it.  Listen to people bemoaning the consequences of Brexit in the latest reports from the British media, and you’ll hear a long list of privileges mostly relevant to the affluent that the speakers worry will be taken from them.  Aside from a few fringe figures, those who voted for it generally aren’t talking, since they’ve learned from bitter experience that they’ll simply be shouted down with the usual shopworn accusations of racism et al..  If they were willing to talk, though, I suspect you’d hear a long list of burdens that have mostly landed on the ordinary working people so many of the affluent so obviously despise.
It’s probably necessary to note here that of course there are racists and xenophobes who voted for Brexit. Equally, there are people who have copulated with dead pigs who voted for Remain—I’m sure my British readers can name at least one—but that doesn’t mean that everyone who voted for Remain has copulated with a dead pig.  Nor, crucially, does it prove that necrosuophiliac cravings are the only possible reason to vote for Remain. One common way to define hate speech is “the use of a demeaning and derogatory stereotype to describe every member of a group.” By that definition, the people who insist that everyone who voted for Brexit is a bigoted moron are engaged in hate speech—and it’s a source of bleak amusement to watch people who are normally quick to denounce hate speech indulging in it to their heart’s desire in this one case. 
Let’s look deeper, though. There are, in fact, a significant number of poor and working-class Britons who hold deeply prejudiced attitudes toward foreign immigrants. Why? A large part of the reason is the fact that the affluent, for decades now, have equated racial tolerance with exactly those policies of unrestricted immigration that have plunged millions of the British working class into destitution and misery. In the same way, a great many poor and working class Britons couldn’t care less about the environment, and a large part of the reason is that the terms of debate about environmental issues have been defined so that the lifestyles of the affluent are never open to discussion, and the costs of environmental protection cascade down the social ladder while the benefits flow up. As Toynbee noted, when society splits into a dominant minority and an internal proletariat, the masses reject not only the leadership but also the ideals and values of their self-proclaimed betters.  It happens tolerably often that some of those ideals and values really are important, but when they’ve been used over and over again to justify the policies of the privileged, the masses can’t afford to care.
Those Britons who are insisting that the majority doesn’t matter, and their country must stay in the EU no matter what the voters think, have clearly not thought through the implications of last Thursday’s election. Party loyalties have become very fluid just now, and the same 52% of British voters that passed the Brexit referendum could quite readily, with equal disdain for the tender sensibilities of the privileged minority, put a UKIP majority into the House of Commons and send Nigel Farage straight to 10 Downing Stree. If the British establishment succeeds in convincing the working classes and the poor that voting for UKIP is the only way they can make their voices heard, that’s what will happen. It’s a very unwise move, after all, to antagonize people who have nothing to lose.
Meanwhile, a very similar revolt is under way in the United States, with Donald Trump as the beneficiary. As I noted in an earlier post here, Trump’s meteoric rise from long-shot fringe candidate to Republican nominee was fueled entirely by his willingness to put himself in opposition to the consensus of the affluent described earlier. Where all the acceptable candidates were on board with the neoliberal economics and neoconservative politics of the last thirty years—lavish handouts for the rich, punitive austerity for the poor, malign neglect of our infrastructure at home and a monomaniacal pursuit of military confrontation overseas—he broke with that, and the more stridently the pundits and politicians denounced him, the more states he won and the faster his poll numbers rose.
At this point he’s doing the sensible thing, biding his time, preparing for the general election, and floating the occasional trial balloon to see how various arguments against Hillary Clinton will be received. I expect the kind of all-out war that flattened his Republican rivals to begin around the first of September. Nor is Hillary Clinton particularly well positioned to face such an onslaught. It’s not merely that she’s dogged by embarrassingly detailed allegations of corruption on a scale that would be considered unusually florid in a Third World kleptocracy, nor is it simply that her career as Secretary of State was notable mostly for a cascade of foreign policy disasters from which she seems to have learned nothing. It’s not even that on most economic, political, and military issues, Hillary Clinton is well to the right of Donald Trump, advocating positions indistinguishable from those of George W. Bush—you know, the guy the Democrats claimed to hate not too many years back.
No, what makes a Trump victory in November considerably more likely than not is that Clinton has cast herself as the candidate of the status quo. All the positions she’s taken amount to the continued pursuit of policies that, in the United States as in Britain, have benefited the affluent at the expense of everyone else. That was a safe choice back when her husband was President, and both parties were competing mostly over which one could do a better job of comforting the comfortable and afflicting the already afflicted. It’s not a safe choice now, when Trump has thrown away the covert rulebook of modern American politics, and is offering, to people who’ve gotten the short end of the stick for more than thirty years, a set of policy changes that could actually improve their lives.
Now of course that’s not what the politicians, the pundits, and the officially respectable thinkers of today’s consensus of the affluent are willing to talk about. The same dreary rhetoric applied to the pro-Brexit majority in Britain is thus being applied to Trump voters here in the United States. “Racist,” “fascist,” “moron”—all the shopworn, sneering tropes that the privileged use to dismiss the concerns of the rest of the population of today’s America are present and accounted for.
The passion with which these words are being flung about just now should not be underestimated. I had an old friend hang up on me in midsentence because I expressed a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton; we haven’t spoken since, and I have no idea if we ever will. Other people I know have had comparable experiences when they tried to discuss the upcoming election in terms more nuanced than today’s conventional wisdom is willing to permit. One of the most powerful and most unmentionable forces in American public life—class prejudice—pervades the shouting matches that result. To side with Clinton is to identify yourself with the privileged, the “good people,” the affluent circles gazing admiringly at themselves in the Hall of Mirrors. To speak of Trump in any terms other than cheap schoolboy insults, or even to hint that Trump’s supporters might be motivated by concerns other than racism and sheer stupidity, is to be flung unceremoniously outside the gates where the canaille are beginning to gather.
It has apparently not occurred to those who parade up and down the Hall of Mirrors that there are many more people outside those gates than there are within. It has seemingly not entered their darkest dreams that shouting down an inconvenient point of view, and flinging insults at anyone who pauses to consider it, is not an effective way of convincing anyone not already on their side. Maybe the outcome of the Brexit vote will be enough to jar America’s chattering classes out of their stupor, and force them to notice that the people who’ve been hurt by the policies they prefer have finally lost patience with the endless droning insistence that no other policies are thinkable.  Maybe—but I doubt it.
Outside the Hall of Mirrors, the sky is black with birds coming home to roost. Some of them have already settled on the rooftops of London. More of them are hovering above an assortment of European capitals, and many more are wheeling above the marble domes and pediments of Washington DC. When they land, their impact will shake the world.

In Praise of the Reprehensible

Wed, 2016-06-22 17:45
Last month’s post here on cultural senility and its antidotes discussed the way that modern education erases the past in order to defend today’s ideologies against the lessons of history. While that post focused on the leftward end of the political spectrum—the end that currently dominates what we still jokingly call “higher education” in today’s America—the erasure of the past is just as common on the other end of things. Between the political correctness of the left and the patriotic correctness of the right, it’s hardly surprising that so many Americans stumble blindly toward the future in a fog of manufactured ignorance, sedulously shielded from the historical insights that could give them a clue about the troubled landscape about them or the looming disasters ahead.
This week I’d like to discuss another aspect of that erasure of the past. I’ll be concentrating again on the way it’s done on the leftward end of things, because that’s the side that’s doing the most to deform American education just at the moment, but I’d encourage my readers to keep in mind that the issue I have in mind is a blade that has two edges and cuts both ways. That issue? The censoring of literature from the past in order to make it conform to the moral notions of the present.
It so happens, for example, that quite a few works of American literature talk about people of color in terms that many people today find extremely offensive. Now of course just as many works of American literature discuss women, sexual minorities, and just about any other group of people you care to name, other than well-to-do, college-educated, white male heterosexual Anglo-Saxon Protestants, in highly insulting terms, but let’s focus on racism for the moment. In American universities these days, it’s fashionable to insist that such works should either be tossed into the dumpster, on the one hand, or reissued in new editions from which all the offensive material has been expurgated.
The justifications for these projects are appropriately diverse. On the one hand, there’s the claim that members of groups that have been subject to racial oppression should not be required to read books containing language or ideas that justify the oppression they’ve experienced. On the other hand, there’s the claim that people who don’t belong to those groups should not be allowed to read such books, so that they don’t adopt the language or ideas in question. Off in the distance lies the utopian vision of a society free of racism, and eliminating the language and ideas that were once used to justify racism is proclaimed as a step toward that goal.
Fair enough. What does history have to say about projects of this sort?
As it happens, it has quite a bit to say about the results of censoring the literature of the past to support the moral crusades of the present, and in that connection I’d like to introduce you to a gentleman who was once quite famous in his way, though nothing more than his last name survives in our collective imagination these days. His name was Dr. Thomas Bowdler; he was an English physician who lived from 1754 to 1825, and in his retirement he put together a new edition of Shakespeare’s plays, “in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions were omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” Yes, he’s the guy who inspired the verb “to bowdlerize.”
He was on the cutting edge of one of the great cultural projects of the 19th-century English-speaking world, the quest to eliminate every reference to sex from public discourse. The era that would take its enduring name from Britain’s Queen Victoria reacted against the relatively freewheeling sexuality of the preceding Regency era by embracing a more than Puritan horror of sex.  This wasn’t simply a pose; people in Victorian society were profoundly sickened and offended by human sexuality and anything even distantly related to it. The result was an era in which the legs—excuse me, “limbs”—of pianos in respectable English homes had little starched cotton skirts put on them to cover their overly erotic curves; in which the British ambassador bullied the Florentine authorities into putting pantaloons on Michelangelo’s David, so that lady tourists from the British Isles would not be scandalized by his state of undress; and in which we all started referring to the male of the domestic fowl by the newly minted term “rooster,” because what had previously been its normal English name, “cock,” had the same genital connotations then that it does now.
The Victorian rejection of sexuality achieved the level of cultural unanimity that today’s advocates of political correctness hope to achieve for their rejection of racism. All through the public sphere, rigid censorship of sexual content and strenuous denunciation of improprieties were universal; reputations were ruined and careers ended by incautious utterances or, in many cases, so much as a rumor of the same; across the English-speaking world, public figures spoke approvingly of the triumph of modern morality over the disgusting habits of the past, in much the same tones of self-satisfaction you’ll hear these days at the American university of your choice.
There’s our comparable historical example. How well did it work?
That’s where things get interesting. Human cultures are governed by something not too different from Isaac Newton’s famous third law of motion:  “every action produces an equal and opposite reaction.” The Victorian moral crusade against sexuality thus generated its inevitable countermovement, and for most of a century—from the 1890s until the late 20th century—just about every avant-garde literary, artistic, and cultural movement in the English-speaking world went out of its way to reject Victorian sexual morality and glorify casual sex. In the mid-20th century, that same reaction burst into popular literature; some of my readers may remember the torrent of science fiction novels from the 1960s—Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is probably the most famous of them—that proclaimed uninhibited orgiastic abandon as the next glorious step in human evolution.
The difficulty that Thomas Bowdler and his many equivalents had not foreseen was that erasing sex from literature and popular culture doesn’t make people innocent and pure, it just makes them clueless.  Growing up in respectable Victorian society, young people were kept ignorant of every attitude toward sexuality except the one hammered into them day after day by all the officially approved voices of their society, and the result was that they had never learned to think critically about the ethics of sex. If you raise lab rats in an environment completely free of pathogens, and then turn them loose, quite often they’ll drop dead from common diseases that a normally raised rat will shrug off with ease, because they’ve never acquired resistance.  Keep young people ignorant of sexuality, and the resulting lack of resistance may not be as lethal but it’s every bit as dramatic.
If the partisans of political correctness in today’s world achieve their goals, in other words, one very likely outcome is a period up to a century in length, starting some decades after political correctness becomes the conventional wisdom of society, in which every avant-garde literary, artistic, and cultural movement in Europe and North America will go out of its way to reject political correctness and glorify racial prejudice. I doubt that the professors who are advocating the political bowdlerization of literature realize that this is where their efforts are leading, but then history has a nasty sense of humor, and seems to delight in playing such tricks on those who don’t pay attention to the lessons she has to offer.
Let’s go deeper, though. The strategy of bowdlerization assumes that the best way, or even the only way, to discourage undesirable expressions and ideas is to keep people ignorant of them. The history of previous attempts at moral censorship shows that exactly the opposite is the case: since it’s never yet been possible to get rid of every expression of an undesirable idea, making people ignorant of that idea simply means that they’ll react to it uncritically when they do finally encounter it—and while some of those reactions will amount to uncritical rejection, there will also be cases of uncritical acceptance.
What’s the alternative? The capacity for critical thinking about whatever issue is in question—and that’s a capacity that can’t be produced without exposing people to the whole spectrum of ideas that relate to the issue, even those that happen to be offensive to modern sensibilities. For reasons we’ll be exploring further on, and in future posts as well, literature is particularly well suited to this kind of examination, and it’s precisely the literature that modern politically (or patriotically) correct thinkers find reprehensible that’s most valuable in this context.
A specific example will be more useful here than any number of generalities, so let’s take a look at a writer who’s come in for quite a bit of condemnation along the lines just sketched out: the American horror-fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft.  Was Lovecraft a racist? You bet; he proudly described himself using exactly that term in at least one of his letters. (You could get away with saying that in America between the wars.  A significant fraction of Americans described themselves as racists in that era, before Auschwitz et al. made it too uncomfortably clear what kind of results then-popular notions about racial superiority could have when put into practice. I mentioned history’s nasty sense of humor earlier; one solid example is the fact that the single most enduring impact the career of Adolf Hitler had on Western culture was to make overt racism and antisemitism unfashionable in many circles.)
Lovecraft’s racism wasn’t simply a privately held opinion, either. He put racist tropes into many of his stories. With very few exceptions, the people of color who appear in his fiction fall into a handful of classic stereotypes—the deferential drudges who “know their place,” the mindless masses who can do nothing right, the sinister and swarthy figures who deliberately serve the Wrong Side—if you know the pop culture of the time, you’ve met them all. Multiracial people tend to get even worse press at Lovecraft’s hands, with all the usual tropes present and accounted for; in particular, when you find out that a group of people in a Lovecraft story are multiracial, you can pretty much take it for granted that they’re in league with the tentacled horrors who are out to devour mankind.
Now it’s entirely possible to make a case that Lovecraft deserves to be read despite these unpleasant habits. That case has been made by a range of gifted writers, who point out that Lovecraft is among the greatest figures in 20th century horror fiction, and that the imaginative depth and the extraordinary richness of the philosophical issues with which he deals justify keeping him out of the dumpster to which politically correct opinion would consign him. I think there’s a lot to be said for that case, but it’s not the case I propose to make here. Rather, I’d like to suggest that if you want to get a clear sense of the underlying psychology of American racism—an understanding of the sort that will make it impossible for you to take racist notions seriously ever again—a close reading of the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft is a very good place to start.
Let’s start by noting something that hasn’t always been given its due in studies of Lovecraft: people of color weren’t the only people who came in for abuse at his hands. His attitudes toward poor rural white people, as set out in such stories as “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” and “The Lurking Fear,” were just as bigoted. In Lovecraft, with few exceptions, if you’re not a well-to-do, college-educated white male heterosexual Anglo-Saxon Protestant, you’re probably being demeaned. 
For that matter, what gave the nonhuman critters at the heart of his most famous stories their frisson of horror in his eyes wasn’t so much that they’re hostile, as that they have the effrontery to exist at all. Consider “Dagon,” usually considered the first of Lovecraft’s mature stories, in which the narrator witnesses a huge, vaguely humanoid, vaguely froggy-fishy creature worshipping at a monolith that’s been thrust up out of the ocean by an earthquake. This sight drives the narrator to drug himself with morphine, and when his cash runs out, to fling himself out the window to a certain death.
Why? The froggy-fishy thing isn’t overtly hostile; it doesn’t even appear to notice the narrator, much less resent the intrusion on its religious practices; but the mere fact that there’s another intelligent species on the planet, one with its own religious and artistic traditions, is apparently enough to unhinge the narrator’s mind so deeply that suicide is the only way out. “I cannot think of the deep sea,” Lovecraft has his narrator say, “without shuddering at the nameless things that may be at this very moment be crawling and floundering in its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite.”  Would he have felt better if the nameless things were worshipping our idols and carving our detestable likenesses?
With one extremely important exception, in fact, Lovecraft’s whole approach to horror centers on trying to make questions of the sort I’ve just posed impossible to ask. The unhuman creatures at the heart of his most famous stories are dim incomprehensible shapes seen only at a distance, revealed to the narrator of a story by a babbling, frantic description uttered by some half-reliable figure unsure of what he’s seeing. Thus the closest the reader gets to the mighty devil-god Cthulhu in Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is a narrative written by one man and summarized briefly in a narrative written by another—and that’s why the story works. Get any closer to Cthulhu and you start to wonder what things look like from his perspective, and then the whole thing falls to bits.
Lovecraft’s tentacled monsters and sinister cultists have been accused of being two-dimensional, but that misses the point entirely. They work as figures of horror precisely and only because they’re two-dimensional. Give them a third dimension, an inner life, a name and a perspective of their own, and they lose much of their capacity to terrify. If you’re going to project your own fears onto something, one might say, the recipient of the projection needs to be treated as a flat screen—a point that has more than a little relevance to the prejudices that Lovecraft himself embraced.
The one time in his fiction that Lovecraft deliberately broke with the approach just described is the exception that proves the rule. At the Mountains of Madness, one of his three novels, features a team of Antarctic explorers who discover archaic life forms, apparently long dead, in a cavern beneath the ice. Shortly thereafter, radio contact is lost, and when other members of the expedition go looking they find that the team and their sled dogs have been torn to bits; the camp has been destroyed, and the critters are gone. It’s classic horror—except that as the story progresses and two members of the expedition follow the trail of the critters, it slowly sinks in to the reader that the critters’ actions are precisely what a group of human explorers, suddenly awakened in the far future and assaulted by bizarre alien creatures, would have done.
It’s a stunning reversal of perspective that adds tremendous force to the story, but Lovecraft can only maintain the horror by bringing in another, even more ghastly monster, whose perspective is excluded from the story by the usual means. It was also, if I may insert a personal note, one inspiration behind my new novel The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth, which stands Lovecraft on his head by placing the tentacled Great Old Ones and their multiracial worshippers at center stage, and letting them speak for themselves.
There is, though, another way in which the monster’s-eye view enters Lovecraft’s fiction, and it’s deeply revealing. Over and over again in his fiction—in “The Outsider,” “Arthur Jermyn,” “The Rats in the Walls,” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” to name only the best examples—the revelation that brings the story to a close is the discovery that the main character belongs to the monsters’ side of the equation after all. The connection’s nearly always via an ancestress who wasn’t what she appeared to be—this theme recurs so obsessively in Lovecraft’s fiction that I frankly wonder if Lovecraft himself knew or suspected that someone on the distaff side of his ancestry was merely passing as white.
That sort of skeleton in the mental closet is far from uncommon among racists, by the way. I’m thinking here, among many other things, of a book I read years ago about the neo-Nazi scene in the United States. The author commented in his introduction that practically every one of the neo-Nazi leaders he interviewed claimed that some other neo-Nazi leader was really gay, Jewish, or not entirely white. The author went on to note that in a good many cases, those allegations turned out to be true. I hope I don’t have to remind my readers, along similar lines, of the number of gay-bashing preachers who turned out to have boyfriends on the side. Jung’s cogent discussions of the habit of projecting the shadow are relevant here: we hate most what we can’t tolerate seeing in ourselves, and our most savage denunciations are always directed, in one sense or another, at a mirror.
You can hear that said in so many words, and it might or might not sink in. Watch H.P. Lovecraft doing it, and if you read him closely and pay attention to what he’s doing, it’s impossible to miss. He took his own frantic terror of other races, blended it with the ethnic, cultural, and economic divisions of a troubled time, and turned that bubbling mix of status panic into some of the twentieth century’s most iconic horror fiction. In the process, like all great writers—and I would argue that despite his problems, Lovecraft was a great writer—he took his own idiosyncratic experience of the world and universalized it, creating literature’s most unsparing portrayal of the hatred and terror of the Other that every human being feels at one time or another: a hatred and terror that is always directed at some part of ourselves.
Grasp that—and a close reading of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, again, is a good place to start grasping it—and you’ll never be able to listen to racist cant again without instantly recognizing that the racists are projecting onto the blank screen of another human life something they find intolerable in themselves. For that matter, plenty of other modes of denunciatory cant stop being plausible once you grasp the lesson Lovecraft unintentionally teaches—and a good many of those modes of cant, dear reader, are to be found on the leftward rather than the rightward end of the spectrum. That’s what literature can do, when it’s not gutted of its power by bowdlerization.  That, in turn, is why reading literature that upsets you, written from points of view with which you disagree, is a crucial element in the kind of education that might just get some of us through the profoundly troubled times to come.
*********************Homework Assignment #2
As previously noted, since this sequence of posts is on education, there’s going to be homework. Your homework for the next month, let’s say, is to read a work of literature that offends you. The choice of book is up to you; if there’s an issue that’s too emotionally traumatic for you to tackle just now, read something on another topic instead, but don’t go too easy on yourself without good reason. You’re not expected to agree with the author—that would defeat the purpose of the assignment—but rather to understand why the world looks the way it does to the author and some of his or her readers. The same rule that governs the creation of good villains in fiction applies here: you aren’t there yet until you can imagine some set of circumstances in which you would have ended up doing the same thing.

Retrotopia: Diminishing Returns

Wed, 2016-06-15 15:55
This is the nineteenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator, forced to grapple with the cognitive dissonance between everything he believes about progress and the facts of life in the Lakeland Republic, tries to evade the issue for an evening—and ends up even deeper in perplexity...
***********The next day was Saturday, and for a change, I didn’t have anything planned. The marathon sessions of negotiation with President Meeker’s staff, exhausting though they’d been, had taken up less of my time in Toledo than I’d expected; even if I sat on my rump in my room until it was time to catch the train home Wednesday, I’d still get back to Philadelphia with everything taken care of that I’d officially been asked to do. That was comforting—or it should have been.
As it was, I woke up in a foul mood, and things didn’t get any better as I went through my morning routine and then stared at the window, trying to decide what to do with the day. Partly, I was annoyed at the way the evening had gone, annoyed with myself for almost getting into a fight with Melanie Berger, and with her for almost getting into a fight with me. The worst of it, though, was the bizarre logic she’d used to brush aside my concerns about the Lakeland Republic’s survival. Her notion that progress had somehow turned into the enemy of prosperity and the source of most of the world’s problems—I could barely frame the idea in my mind without shaking my head and laughing, it was so obviously wrong.
The difficulty was that I couldn’t come up with a straightforward argument against it. You know the kind of paradox that looks simple and turns out to be diabolically complicated once you start trying to poke holes in it? This was the same sort of thing. I started by trying to come up with a mental list of new technologies that obviously had more benefits than drawbacks, but that turned into a tangled mess, because I’d spent enough time in the private sector to know that most of the costs of any new technology get swept under the rug in one way or another and most of the benefits the public gets told about are basically made up by somebody’s marketing department.
For that matter, most of the new technologies that I’d seen hitting the market—bioplastics, veepads, the metanet, and so on—actually offered fewer benefits than the things they replaced, and I knew damn well that the publicly admitted costs weren’t the only ones there were. Technologies come onto the market because somebody thinks they can make a profit off them, period, end of sentence. You can spend your entire life in corporate boardrooms and one thing I can promise you you’ll never hear is someone asking, “But is it actually better?” 
I tried half a dozen other gambits and got absolutely nowhere. Finally I decided to go for a walk and check out the latest news. I was tired enough after the last few days that I’d slept in late, and it was past ten in the morning before I went out the front door and headed for Kaufer’s News. The day was brisk and blustery, with torn scraps of gray cloud rushing past overhead, and the blue and green Lakeland Republic flag out in front of the Capitol snapped and billowed in a cold wind.
There was a crowd around Kaufer’s. I wondered what that meant, until I got close enough to hear the woman who ran it saying, in a loud voice:  “Ladies, gentlemen, listen up. I’m out of today’s Blade, but there’s more on the way. No, I don’t know how soon—depends on traffic. Hang on and it’ll be here.”
I’d figured out by the time she started talking that something important must have happened, but I didn’t want to stand there, so I walked the five blocks to the public library. I thought I remembered that they had newspapers, though if the big story was big enough I guessed there might be a line there too. They did, and there was, but there were half a dozen copies of the Blade and one copy each of a dozen daily papers from nearby cities, and they all had the same thing on the top headline. Since I didn’t care which paper I got, it took just a couple of minutes before I got handed a copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and settled down on a chair to read the news.
The short version was that the business between Texas and the Confederacy was getting ugly in a hurry. Right around the time Melanie Berger and I were trying not to quarrel, the president of Texas gave a speech in Houston claiming that Confederate oil companies, with Richmond’s covert backing, were using horizontal drilling to poach oil from offshore fields on the Texan side of the treaty line—and he said he had hard data to prove it. The Confederate secretary of energy held a press conference an hour later calling the claims an attempt to cover up Texan mismanagement of offshore oil reserves. President Bulford was right back on the podium fifteen minutes later warning of “consequences” if he didn’t get a satisfactory response; Richmond responded by putting its armed forces on alert.
The Plain Dealer had the sort of detailed situation report you basically have to belong to government to get in the Atlantic Republic. Of course there were photos of President Bulford, his face red and angry under the mandatory Stetson, and Secretary Lyall, with the icy expression that Confederate gentlefolk use the way rattlesnakes use their rattles, to warn you that someone’s about to die. The pages further in, though, gave all kinds of hard data: a map of the treaty line off the Gulf coast with drilling platforms marked in, a sidebar talking about the quarrels over the Gulf boundary before the Treaty of Richmond, one long article about the Texan accusations and the Confederate response, another long article about the troubled history of the Gulf oil fields, a third trying to gauge international reaction.
I read the whole thing carefully, because it wouldn’t take much to turn the situation into a world-class headache for the Atlantic Republic. There were still a few wells pumping in Pennsylvania, but most of the oil that kept things running back home was bought from the Confederacy, and there wasn’t enough spare capacity elsewhere to make up the difference if the Confederate and Texan oilfields were shut in. That meant yet another spike in oil prices, more turmoil on stock markets worldwide, and a messy balance-of-payments problem for the new administration in Philadelphia to deal with.
The most annoying thing about it all, though, was that it brought me right back up against Melanie Berger’s paradox about progress. The one country in North America that had absolutely nothing to lose if the Confederacy and Texas started lobbing ordnance at each other was the Lakeland Republic. While the rest of the continent was going to be flailing around trying to keep their transport networks from coming unglued, the Lakelanders didn’t have to care; their trains, streetcars, canals, horsedrawn buggies, and the rest of it would keep on running. It frankly seemed unfair.
By the time I was finished with the Plain Dealer it was getting on for lunchtime. I found a pleasant little Greek place a couple of blocks past the library, had lunch, and then headed back to the hotel to regroup. Right out front was a kid with a canvas bag of rolled newspapers. He was calling out, “Extra! Latest news on the mess down south!” That sounded worth another buck and a quarter. I had to dig in my wallet for a one, though, and in the process a card went fluttering to the ground. The kid scooped it up and handed it back to me, so I tipped him an extra quarter. The card turned out to be the one the musician handed to me my first day in Toledo, the one advertising Sam Capoferro and His Frogtown Five; I glanced at it, pocketed it, took my paper and headed up to my room.
I’d seen newsboys shouting “Extra! Extra!” in old vids, but didn’t have a clue what they were yelling about. Now I knew, and I also knew one of the ways that people in the Lakeland Republic got news about fast-breaking stories. The extra issue was a single thick section, all about “the mess down south;” they’d apparently thrown every reporter in town at the story, gotten plenty of quotes from Lakeland officials and assorted experts, not to mention the Confederate and Texan embassies in Toledo, and a couple of stringers down on the Gulf coast. I ended up putting in a good chunk of the afternoon reading and taking notes. Wednesday night I’d be back in Philly, and unless this blew over fast I was going to be in Ellen Montrose’s office Thursday morning and I needed to have proposals ready.
All the while, though, my mind kept circling back around to Berger’s wretched paradox. She’d claim—I could hear her say it—that the Atlantic Republic was being held hostage by its own technologies, that it was less stable and more vulnerable because it chose to run its transport network on imported oil and made itself dependent on complex systems reaching out past its borders. She’d point to that as one more example of the way that progress cost more than it was worth. Absurd as that generalization was, I couldn’t think of a cogent argument to refute it, and that irritated me.
I actually ended up spending the better part of a couple of hours, when I could have been doing something useful, standing at my window staring out at the streetscape and trying to make sense of the whole business. When I finally noticed how much time I’d wasted, I grumbled something I won’t write down, and decided to go out somewhere and chase the circling thoughts out of my head. I thought of Sam Capoferro’s card; a jazz club sounded like a good choice, and with the help of the hotel concierge, I was sitting on a streetcar fifteen minutes later as it rattled its way down toward the waterfront district.
The Harbor Club was in a big square brick building with tall windows that spilled lamplight onto the sidewalks. The guy at the door was big and tough enough to double as the bouncer, but he took a good look at the card I handed him, nodded, and waved me past the desk where other patrons were paying the cover charge. The band was tuning up, and people were standing in groups on the dance floor talking and flirting, waiting for things to get started. Me, I got settled on one side of a little two-person table, waited for a waitress, asked about a menu—they had food service, I’d seen coming in, and not just bar snacks—and, on a whim, ordered the same sort of Lakeland-style martini Melanie Berger got the previous night, just gin, vermouth, and an olive.
I honestly had no idea how it would taste. Every martini I’d ever had back home had stuff thrown in to flavor it—crème de cacao, crème de menthe, grenadine syrup, maple syrup, clam juice, carrot juice, butterscotch ice cream, sriracha-flavored mayonnaise, or what have you—and I’d always thought that’s what a martini was: gin or vodka, and anything up to half a dozen sticky things to beat up your taste buds. The drink the waitress set on my table a few minutes later was a different creature entirely. I looked at it and sniffed it, and then took a sip.
It was delicious. I blinked, set the glass down for a moment, considered the taste, and then picked it up again and took another sip. It was just as good the second time. I sat back, let the alcohol smooth down the rough edges of my nerves, ordered dinner and waited for the band to start.
Meal and music arrived within thirty seconds of each other, and both were just as satisfactory as the drink. The food was tasty in that unobtrusive way that doesn’t call attention to itself. The band was something else again. I’d guessed, the first time I’d heard him on the piano, that Sam Capoferro could play a hell of a jazz number, and he was as good as I’d thought, playing stride piano like a reincarnated Fats Waller. The other players ranged from common or garden variety competent up to really good, and their notes danced and spun on top of Capoferro’s driving rhythms. The playlist was mostly familiar jazz standards, with a couple of pieces I didn’t recognize—if they were new, though, they’d been composed by someone who knew all the nuances of classic jazz, and was more interested in crafting a good tune than in trying to be original.
By the time the first set was over, the bad mood I’d had earlier had packed its bags and caught a train to somewhere else. I was on my second martini by then, which didn’t hurt. The band finished up the last notes of “The Joint is Jumpin’” and the crowd clapped and roared. Half the people on the dance floor headed for tables and the other half clumped up to talk and flirt; a busboy came by and scooped up my empty plate; and maybe five minutes later, I saw a half-familiar face moving through the crowd, pretty clearly looking for somewhere to sit.
I don’t think he saw me, but he passed close enough that I could call out, “Mr. Vanich.”

He turned, quick as a cat, and spotted me then. I hadn’t been mistaken—it was the quiet man with the improbably forgettable face and voice. “Good evening, Mr. Carr.”

“You look like you need a seat.” I motioned to the one facing mine.
“Here by yourself?” When I nodded: “Then please, and thank you.” He settled onto the chair; the waitress came over, took his drink order, headed off into the crowd.

We chatted for a little while about little things, what I’d seen in Toledo and so on, and then I decided to take a calculated risk. “If you don’t mind my asking, what do you do in government?”
“I work for the state department.” He sipped his drink. “Foreign technology assessment—thus I tend to come along when somebody from State or the President’s staff meets a foreign dignitary, since I know what technologies they’re used to using and can translate, so to speak.”

I gave him a surprised look. “If I’d placed a bet, I’d have lost it. I had you pegged as intelligence.”

He laughed. “Good, Mr. Carr. Very good. You’re not the only one who’s come to that conclusion, but—” He shrugged. “I look far too much like a spy to make a competent one.”

I nodded after a moment. “Foreign technology assessment. That’s got to be an interesting gig—tracking the capabilities that other countries have that yours doesn’t.”

“True.” He sipped his drink—something brown called an Old Fashioned. “But that’s only part of my job. The other part, which is far and away the larger one, is tracking the vulnerabilities they have that we don’t.”

And there I was, face to face with Berger’s wretched paradox again. I must have looked completely blank for a moment, because Vanich went on. “Almost always nowadays, Mr. Carr, when a country adopts the latest technology, the costs outweigh the benefits—but the costs aren’t necessarily obvious. In many cases they’re not public knowledge at all. One of my main jobs is figuring out what the costs are, where they’re likely to show up, and how heavily they’re likely to strain political, economic, and military institutions.”

I covered my confusion with another swallow of martini. “Okay,” I said. “But I’m not sure I’d agree with your claim that the costs always outweigh the benefits—”

“Almost always,” he noted with a bland smile.
“Okay, almost always. That still seems kind of extreme.”

“Not at all, Mr. Carr. You’re familiar with the law of diminishing returns, I imagine.”

“Of course.”

“That applies to technology as much as it does to anything else.”

“Granted, it applies to individual technologies—” I started, and then saw his look. It was the classic Lakeland you-don’t-get-it look I’d seen so many times before.
“Not just to individual technologies,” he said. “To technology as a whole, just as it applies to every other human activity.” He indicated my drink. “One martini is a very good thing. Three or four? Still good, but with certain drawbacks. Ten? You’re kissing lampposts and walking on your knees. Twenty? You’re in the hospital, or worse. We agree on that—but to claim that technology is exempt from the law of diminishing returns, it’s as though you insisted that when you’ve already had four martinis, you can have four Manhattans, and then four scotch and sodas, and then four Old Fashioneds, and then four gin and tonics, and you’ll be just fine.”

I literally couldn’t think of anything to say. A moment later, the band spared me the necessity of coming up with a response, launching into a good lively performance of “All That Meat and No Potatoes.” The waitress came around, and I ordered a third martini and tried, with some success, to lose myself in the music. When that set was over, I changed the subject, and we chatted about something I honestly don’t remember in the least; by the time the third and final set was over, I’d remembered that I’d planned to go to the Atheist Assembly the next morning, said my goodbyes, paid my bill, and headed out onto the street to catch a cab back to the hotel.
While I waited, Vanich’s words circled in my head: Technology, as a whole, subject to the law of diminishing returns. That couldn’t possibly be true.
Could it?

They Died of Progress

Wed, 2016-06-08 17:08
I'd intended this week’s post here on The Archdruid Report to continue the discussion of education that got started two weeks ago, but that’s going to have to wait a bit. As my readers have doubtless learned over the last ten years, whichever muse guides these essays is a lady of very irregular habits, and it happens tolerably often that what she has to say isn’t what I had in mind. This is one of those times.
In last month’s installment of my ongoing Retrotopianarrative, one of the characters summed up her position in a bit of intellectual heresy that left the viewpoint character flummoxed. Her argument was that progress has become the enemy of prosperity. That’s something you can’t even suggest in today’s society; the response of the viewpoint character— “With all due respect, that’s crazy”—is mild compared to the sort of reactions I’ve routinely fielded whenever I’ve suggested that progress, like everything else in the real world, is subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Nonetheless, the unspeakable has become the inescapable in today’s world. It’s become a running joke on the internet that the word “upgrade” inevitably means poorer service, fewer benefits, and more annoyances for those who have to deal with the new and allegedly improved product. The same logic can be applied equally well across the entire landscape of modern technology.  What’s new, innovative, revolutionary, game-changing, and so on through the usual litany of overheated adjectives, isn’t necessarily an improvement. It can be, and very often is, a disaster. Examples could be drawn from an astonishingly broad range of contemporary sources, but I have a particular set of examples in mind.
To make sense of those examples, it’s going to be necessary to talk about military affairs. As with most things in today’s America, the collective conversation of our time provides two and only two acceptable ways to discuss those, and neither of them have anything actually useful to say. The first of them, common among the current crop of American pseudoconservatives, consists of mindless cheerleading; the second, common among the current crop of pseudoliberals all over the industrial world, consists of moralizing platitudes.  I don’t particularly want to address the moralizing platitudes just now, other than to say that yes, war is ghastly; no, it’s not going away; and it’s not particularly edifying to watch members of the privileged classes in the countries currently on top of the international order insist piously that war ought to be abandoned forever, just in time to keep their own nations from being displaced from positions they won and kept at gunpoint not that many decades ago.
The cheerleading is another matter, and requires a more detailed analysis. It’s common among the pseudoconservative right these days to insist that the United States is by definition the world’s most powerful nation, with so overwhelming a preponderance of military might that every other nation will inevitably have to bow to our will or get steamrollered. That sort of thinking backstops the mania for foreign intervention that guides neoconservatives such as Hillary Clinton on their merry way, overthrowing governments and destabilizing nations under the fond delusion that the blowback from these little adventures can never actually touch the United States.
In America these days, a great deal of this sort of cheerleading focuses on high-tech weapons systems—inevitably, since so much of contemporary American pop culture has become gizmocentric to the point of self-parody. Visit a website that deals with public affairs from a right-of-center viewpoint, and odds are you’ll find a flurry of articles praising the glories of this or that military technology with the sort of moist-palmed rapture that teenage boys used to direct to girlie-mag centerfolds. The identical attitude can be found in a dizzying array of venues these days, very much including Pentagon press releases and the bombastic speeches of politicians who are safely insulated from the realities of war.
There’s only one small difficulty here, which is that much of the hardware in question doesn’t work.
The poster child here is the F-35 Lightning II fighter. It so happens that I’ve faced a certain amount of recent embarrassment with regard to this plane, for a curious reason.  Back in 2013 and 2014, when I was writing my novelTwilight’s Last Gleaming, I worked out what I thought was a reasonable estimate of the F-35’s performance in combat against Chinese J-20 and J-31 fighters. That estimate wasn’t exactly in accord with the dewy-eyed accounts just mentioned; the F-35—called the Lardbucket by Air Force pilots in my novel, due to its short range and sluggish performance in the air—came out decidedly second-best, suffering three losses for every two Chinese planes shot down.
As it turns out, though, my guess at the F-35’s performance was far too optimistic. The more data slips past the Scylla of Lockheed’s publicity flacks and the Charybdis of their equal and opposite numbers in the Air Force, the clearer it becomes that the Lardbucket is an utter dog of a plane, so grossly underpowered and so overloaded with poorly functioning gimmickry that nearly every other fighter in current service can outperform it with ease. For example, if the F-35’s stealth features are to work, the plane can only carry two air-to-air missiles and two bombs—a quarter the firepower of similar planes in other air forces.
Persistent reports, hotly denied by Lockheed and the Pentagon but still not yet disproved by the simple demonstration that would be necessary, claim that the vertical takeoff version of the plane has so little thrust that it can’t even get off the ground with a full fuel tank. Mind you, this embarrassing object is the most expensive military procurement program in history, scheduled to cost the Pentagon some $1.5 trillion by the time purchases are completed. Meanwhile, the Russians and Chinese are fielding fast, heavily armed, maneuverable long-range fighters for a fraction of the F-35’s hefty price tag, and those fighters are going into service while the F-35 lumbers through one production delay after another.
Some of my readers may be wondering if this is simply one bad apple out of an otherwise sound barrel. Not so.  The Navy has an equal embarrassment on its hands right now, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), another high-tech, high-priced failure. The LCS costs $37 billion a pop, and has been marketed as the be-all and end-all of coastal warfare craft. If this sounds reminiscent of the praise lavished on the F-35, it should—and the results are comparable
Like the F-35, the LCS is packed to the gunwales with high-tech gimmickry that doesn’t work as advertised, and it’s so finicky to run that after a minor maintenance error, one of the few LCSs in service has been laid up for five months at a dock in Singapore while technicians try to figure out whether there’s any way to repair it short of towing it back across the Pacific to the shipyard. Meanwhile, the Chinese are fielding a new fleet of fast, heavily armed littoral combat ships for a small fraction of the cost.
Two bad apples? Consider the SBX missile defense system, which was supposed to track incoming ICBMs and knock them out of the sky. It’s a $10 billion dollar flop; none of its array of high-tech gizmos—the flying lasers, the antimissile rockets, the gargantuan seaborne radar—does what it’s supposed to do. Consider the Air Force’s Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECCS), a computer system designed to handle logistics for overseas deployments, which ate a billion dollars and seven years before being cancelled as a complete failure. Consider, for that matter, the Army’s new pixellated camouflage uniform, $5 billion in the making, which had to be scrapped when it turned out that it sticks out like a sore thumb against every environment on Earth.
I could go on. These programs, and many others, were sold to politicians and public with lavish claims about their ability to perform every imaginable military mission. As it turned out, they were well designed to carry out devastating raids on the US Treasury, and that’s about it. The US military is certainly the most expensive military in the world, and it’s equipped with a gaudier assortment of high-tech trinkets than any other, but it’s not actually that well prepared to carry out its ostensible purpose—that is to say, warfare. The results can be seen with painful clarity in the last three-quarters of a century of US military history. Ask yourself this, dear reader: since the end of the Second World War, how many wars has the United States actually won?
There are two factors at work here, and both of them unfold from broader patterns in American society. The first is the descent of the United States into overt kleptocracy on a scale that makes Third World dictators drool with envy.  In today’s America, a very large number of government and corporate officials alike overtly treat their positions as opportunities for plunder. Consider the stock-buyback programs that are standard among Fortune 500 corporations these days. The corporation spends its money buying shares of stock to inflate stock prices, boosting the net worth of corporate insiders, who get hige blocks of shares as part of their compensation packages. The expenditure of business funds for the personal benefit of influential insiders used to be prosecuted as embezzlement; now it’s business as usual—and don’t even get me started about the absurd salaries and bonuses currently shoveled into the laps of CEOs and other overpriced office fauna.
On the other side of the coin we have government officials who serve in various positions where they can benefit corporate interests, and then leave their jobs and are hired by the corporations they used to deal with as, ahem, consultants, pulling in very high salaries for very little apparent labor. Corruption? I see no reason to give it any more polite name, and it’s played a major role in providing the US armed forces with fighters that can’t fight, camouflage that doesn’t camouflage, and so on, through the long catalogue of military-procurement failures that have equipped America’s soldiers, sailors, and pilots with embarrassingly substandard gear.
Still, there’s something else going on here. All the most egregious examples of military-procurement failure in recent years have had something in common: they were supposed to be revolutionary new breakthroughs using exciting new technology, and so on drearily through the most overused rhetoric of our age. The cascading failures of the F-35 can be traced straight to that sort of thinking; its designers apparently believed with all their hearts that every innovation must be an improvement, and so came up with a plane that fails in the most innovative ways you care to imagine. The LCS, the SBX, the ECCS, the pixellated camo uniforms, all fell victim to the same trap—their designers were so busy making them revolutionary that they forgot to make them work.
Compare this with the very different approach of another major power—Russia—and it’s not hard to see the flaws in that dubious logic. The Russian approach to military technology has been evolutionary, not revolutionary.  Where the US set out to create an antiballistic missile defense system from scratch, Russia took the incremental approach. They started with the S-300 air defense system, a sturdy piece of Soviet-era equipment designed to shoot down airplanes, cruise missiles, and the like, and built on that foundation in a cautious, step-by-step fashion.
The S-300 thus gave way in due time to the S-400, which had a variety of solidly tested incremental improvements, and then to the S-500, scheduled for deployment this year, which adds in the ability to target incoming ballistic missiles in near space. The Russian logic was as straightforward as it was irrefutable: if you want something to destroy lots of very fast objects at high altitude, start with something that can destroy a more modest number of slower objects at lower altitudes, and then tinker carefully from there. That approach works; ours doesn’t.
What makes the American obsession with revolutionary breakthroughs so dysfunctional isn’t just that it so often yields substandard results; it's that it’s being paid for at the expense of essential military needs.  Here’s an example.  The US Marine Corps has, on paper, a substantial fleet of F/A-18 fighter-bombers—276 of them. In fact, though, less than a third of them can fly. The Marines are so short of spare parts that their mechanics are having to decide which planes to keep airworthy and which ones to strip for parts. The helicopters the Marines use to ferry forces from ship to shore are in the same condition, with 105 of 147 Super Stallion copters more or less permanently grounded. There are plenty of other examples; right now, between high-tech flops that don’t work and working technologies that have been starved of maintenance and spare parts, the US military is in appalling condition
The exception that proves the rule is the nuclear arm, which has been steadfastly ignoring high-end gimmickry for decades. It turns out, for example, that the launch systems for America’s nuclear-armed ICBMs still use8 inch floppy disks to store the launch codes. Those ICBMs, by the way, are Minuteman IIIs, which were introduced in 1970—the missile that was supposed to replace the Minuteman, the MX Peacekeeper, was deployed in the 1980s but turned out to be yet another of the Pentagon’s overpriced white elephants, and was quietly decommissioned between 2003 and 2005.
The other two legs of the so-called nuclear tripod are just as elderly. The Trident nuclear submarine is another 1980s technology, still chugging away sedately at its mission, while the airborne leg still relies on the geriatric B-52, a 1950s design with modest incremental improvements tacked on. There were two attempts to replace the B-52; the B-1, which turned out to be a lousy plane and mostly does ground attack duties these days, and the B-2 stealth bomber, which was so expensive that only 12 of them are in service, and is no longer invisible to state-of-the-art air defense systems. Since nuclear weapons are the one US military asset that must always be ready to function, no matter what, it’s telling that the Pentagon’s planners have quietly allowed old but sturdy technologies to remain in service there—though it’s anyone’s guess how well maintained those technologies are at this point.
That strategy probably won’t be viable in the long term.  Military procurement fraud is as old as war, and overinvestment in the latest fashionable gimmick is tolerably common as far back as historical records reach. Every nation’s political and military establishment has to contend with both, and most manage to keep them within the bounds necessary to ensure national survival. Those nations that don’t restrict them in this manner normally go under, and this mode of failure is particularly common in the declining years of great powers.
Those of my readers who’ve read up on the last years of vanished empires—the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, Romanov Russia or Habsburg Spain, and so on down the list of history’s obituaries—know the results already: the imperial state reduced to a massive but fragile shell, invincible in appearance but shockingly vulnerable in reality, resting ever more unsteadily on a crumbling foundation of ineffective or broken weapons, decaying or abandoned facilities; a political leadership blithely unaware of the gap between its fantasies of invincibility and the reality of accelerating systemic failure; a high command too busy feathering its own nest and playing political games to notice the widening cracks; and a dwindling corps of servicepeople, overworked, underpaid, and demoralized, who nonetheless keep on struggling to prop up the whole brittle mess until the inevitable disaster sweeps their efforts aside once and for all.
All this is standard. What’s different in the present situation, though, is the all but universal conviction in American society, from top to bottom, that the lessons being taught so insistently by the F-35 and its fellow embarrassments cannot and must not be learned. Yet another round of innovative, revolutionary, breakthrough technologies is not going to solve America’s military problems, since those problems were caused or worsened by previous rounds of innovative, revolutionary, breakthrough technologies. Nonetheless, that’s the conventional wisdom in today’s United States, and in an embarrassingly large number of its allies—and history offers no encouragement at all to those who want to believe that this can end well.

Retrotopia: The Far Side of Progress

Wed, 2016-06-01 17:00
I got lunch at the little caféacross the street from the Capitol, and then went to talk to Melanie Berger and a dozen other people from Meeker’s staff. We had a lot of ground to cover and I’d lost two and a half days to the flu, so we buckled down to work and kept at it until we were all good and tired. It was eight o’clock, I think, before we finally broke for dinner and headed for a steak place, and after that I went back to my hotel and slept hard for ten hours straight.
The next morning we were back at it again. Ellen Montrose wanted a draft trade agreement, a draft memorandum on border security, and at least a rough draft of a treaty allowing inland-waterway transport from our territory down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and points south, and she wanted them before her inauguration, so she could hit the ground running once her term began. I figured she also meant to announce them in her inauguration speech and throw the Dem-Reps onto the defensive immediately, so they’d be too busy trying to block her agenda to come up with an agenda of their own.
The Lakelanders knew about the proposals—they’d been briefed while my trip was still in the planning stage—and they were willing to meet her halfway, but they had a shopping list of their own.  The trade agreement in particular required a lot of finagling, so the Restos wouldn’t shoot it down when it came up for ratification by the legislature, and I had to weigh everything against what Montrose’s people and the legislature in Philadelphia would be willing to tolerate. Fortunately the Lakelanders were just as clear on the political realities as I was; everybody approached the negotiations with “how do we make this work?” as the first priority, and we got a lot done.
By lunchtime we’d gotten the framework of the trade agreement settled—there would be plenty of fiddling once the formal negotiations got started, but the basic arrangements looked good—and the memorandum on border security was a piece of cake, the way it usually is when neither side is looking for an excuse to start a fight. The inland-waterway treaty was another matter. We wanted access to the Mississippi, with an eye toward markets in the Missouri Republic, the Gulf, and points further south; they wanted to be able to ship goods to the Atlantic via the Erie Canal, to keep Québec from getting expansive ideas about transit fees on the St. Lawrence Seaway. In principle, those were both workable, but the details were tenanted with more than the usual quota of devils.
So we got lunch in the dining room downstairs in the Capitol, sat over in a corner, and kept on hashing out details between bites of sandwich and spoonsful of bean soup. Once lunch was over, we trooped back up to the conference room downstairs from Meeker’s office and kept going. The one big question we still had to tackle by that point was how to handle the difference in technology—our tugs and barges rely on high-tech gear that the Lakeland waterways aren’t set up for, and theirs don’t have the equipment our regulations require—and we talked through I don’t know how many different ways to handle that, before finally agreeing that each side’s tugs would stay on their own side of the border,  their barges would rent portable computer rigs when they were on our side, and our barges would hire extra crew to do the same work on theirs.
Once that was out of the way, the rest of it came together quickly enough, but by then the sun was down and we were all pretty tired. It was a Friday night, so the only people left in the Capitol besides us by then were janitors and security guards, and most of the others had someplace or other to go and somebody to meet. In the end, it was just me and Melanie Berger who walked two blocks north to the Indian place we’d been earlier that week.
We got settled in a little booth, ordered drinks and dinner, sat there for a few minutes without saying much. She looked as tired as I felt. Drinks and a basket of onion naan put in an appearance, though, and took the edge off two very long days.
“Well, that was a marathon,” Berger said, sipping at something that was supposed to be a martini—I’d never heard of one that just had gin, vermouth, and an olive in it, but I figured it was a local habit. “Still, no regrets.” With a sudden smile: “I bet Fred Vanich that we could get the three agreements roughed out before you left for Philadelphia, and this time I get to collect.”
I laughed. “Glad to oblige.”
We busied ourselves with the naan for a bit. “You’re leaving Wednesday, right?” she said then. When I nodded:  “I admit I’m wondering what you think about—” Her gesture took in the restaurant, the other patrons in their old-fahioned clothing, the streetcar rolling purposefully past on the street outside, the unfinished dome of the Capitol rising above the buildings on the other side of the street. “You’ve been here long enough to get over the initial shock, and I’d be interested in hearing what all this looks like from an outsider’s perspective.”
Looking back on it all, it probably would have been more professional to fob her off with a few trivial comments, but I didn’t do that. Partly I was tired enough that I wasn’t thinking clearly, partly I’d been wishing for days that I could talk to someone intelligent about the insight I’d had on the way back from Defiance County, and it probably didn’t help that there was some chemistry between me and Melanie Berger, which seemed to be mutual. So I got stupid and said, “My reaction’s kind of complex.”
She motioned for me to go on, but just then the waiter came back with our entrees, noted our empty glasses, and returned promptly from the bar with another round of drinks. I waited until he’d gone sailing smoothly over to another table before continuing.
“On the one hand,” I said, “you’ve played a weak hand astonishingly well. No, it’s more than that—you’ve taken what I’d have considered crushing disadvantages and turned them into advantages. I’d be willing to bet that the World Bank and the IMF figured that after a couple of years shut out of global credit markets and foreign trade, you’d crawl on your knees over broken glass to be let back in.”
Berger nodded. “I’ve heard that they told President Moffit something like that to his face.”
“But you took every lemon they threw at you and made lemonade out of it. No foreign trade? You used that as an opportunity to build up an industrial plant aimed at local markets. No access to credit? You made banking a public utility and launched what looks like a thriving stock market. No technology imports? You rebuilt your economy to use human labor and local resources instead—and it hasn’t escaped my attention how enthusiastic your population is about all three of those moves.”
“You can hardly blame them,” she said. “Plenty of jobs at decent pay, and banks that pay a decent rate of interest and don’t go belly up—what’s not to like?”
“I’m not arguing. And here’s the thing—so far, it’s insulated you from a lot of trouble. This satellite business is a good example.” I gestured with my fork. “The last three days have been a complete mess in the rest of the world. Stock markets are down hard, and everybody from military planners to weather forecasters are trying to figure out what the hell they’re going to do without satellite data. Here? I know exactly how much time Tom Pappas is going to spend worrying about getting by without satellites—”
She burst into laughter. “Just under zero seconds.”
“If that,” I said, laughing with her. “And the Toledo stock market had three decent days. I don’t even want to think about how my other investments are doing, but here I made two dollars and fifty cents.”
That got me a surprised look. “I didn’t know you had money invested here.”
“One share of Mikkelson Industries. It was a good way to see the market in action.”
She laughed again. “I’ll have to tell Janice that the next time I see her. She’ll be tickled.”  Then:  “But there’s another side to your reaction.”
“Yes, there is.” All of a sudden I wished I didn’t have to go on, but I’d backed myself into a corner good and proper. “The downside is that it can’t last. You’re going one way but the rest of the world is going the other, and all it’s going to take is one round too many of technological innovation out there and you’ll be left twisting in the wind. Right now, what you’ve got looks pretty good compared to what’s on the other side of the borders, but when the global economy finally gets straightened out and the next big wave of innovation and growth hits, what then? Regime change using technologies you can’t counter, maybe, or maybe just the sort of slow collapse that happens to a country that’s tried to stay stuck in the past a little too long.”
She was smiling when I finished. “I was wondering if you’d bring that up.”
That stopped me cold.  I used a forkful of tandoori chicken as a distraction, then said, “I take it you’ve heard someone else mention it.”
“Fairly often. When someone from outside gets past the initial shock, and actually thinks about what we’ve done here—and of course quite a few of them never get around to that—that’s usually the next point they bring up.”
I considered that. “And I suppose you have an answer for it.”
“Well, yes.” She jabbed at the palak paneer. “When the global economy finally gets straightened out, when the next big wave of innovation and growth hits. Are you sure those are going to happen?”
I put down my fork and stared at her. “It’s got to happen sooner or later.”
“Why?”
I tried to think of something to say, and couldn’t.
“The Second Civil War ended thirty-two years ago,” she pointed out.  “The Sino-Japanese war was over twenty-seven years ago. Ever since then, economists everywhere outside our borders have been insisting that things would turn up any day now, and they haven’t. You know as well as I do that real global GDP has been flat to negative twenty-six of the last thirty years, and the last decade’s shown zero improvement—quite the contrary. That’s not going to change, either, because every other country in the world is chasing a policy goal that’s actively making things worse.”
“And that is?”
“Progress,” she said.
Once again, I was left speechless.
“Here are some examples.” She held up one finger. “The consumer sector of your economy has been in the tank ever since Partition. Why? Because you’ve got really bad maldistribution of income.”
“There’s more to it than that,” I protested.
“Yes, but that’s the core of it—if consumers don’t have money to spend, they’re not going to be able to buy consumer goods, and your consumer sector is going to suffer accordingly. Why don’t they have money to spend? Because you’ve automated most working class jobs out of existence, and if you want to tell me that technology creates more jobs than it eliminates, you’re going to have to argue with some very hard figures. You’ve got appalling rates of permanent unemployment and underemployment, and yet everybody on your side of the border seems to think that a problem that was caused by automation is going to be solved by even more automation.”
She raised a second finger. “That’s one example. Here’s another. As technology gets more complex and interconnected, you’re guaranteed to see more situations where a problem in one system loads costs on other systems.  Look at the satellite situation—it’s because so many economic sectors rely on satellite technology that that’s going to be such an economic headache. That’s an obvious example, but there are plenty of others; our estimate is that cascading problems driven by excess technological interaction knocked a good eight per cent off global GDP last year, and it’s getting worse, because everybody outside seems to believe that the problems of complexity can only be fixed by adding more complexity.
“A third.” Another finger went up. “Resource costs. The more complex your technology gets, the more it costs to build it, maintain it, power it, and so on. Any time an analysis says otherwise, some of the costs are being pushed under the rug—and that rug’s getting very lumpy nowadays. Direct and indirect resource costs of technology are like a tax on all other economic activity, and since most of what you do with complex tech used to be done in less resource-intensive ways already, the economic return on tech doesn’t make up for the resource costs. Try telling that to a World Bank economist sometime, though—it’s quite entertaining to watch.
“And here’s a fourth.” She raised another finger. “Systemic malinvestment. Since each generation of tech costs more on a whole system basis than the one before, tech eats up more and more of your GDP each year, and everything else gets to fight over the scraps. After the Second Civil War, your country and mine were pretty much equally leveled. We put our investment into basic infrastructure; you put yours into high technology. We got rebuilt cities and towns, canals, railways, schools, libraries, and the rest of it. You got a domestic infrastructure so far in decay I’m amazed you put up with it, because the money that could have fixed your roads and bridges and housing stock went down a collection of high tech ratholes instead. Sure, you’ve got the metanet; does that make up for everything you do without?
“I could go on. There was a time when progress meant prosperity, but we passed that point in the late twentieth century, and since then, every further increment of progress has cost more than it’s worth—and yet the ideology stays stuck in place. Until that changes, the global economy isn’t going to straighten out and the next big boom is going to turn into one more bust; it’s not going to change until someone else notices that progress has become the enemy of prosperity.”
I was shaking my head by the time she was finished. “With all due respect,” I said, “that’s crazy.”
It was a clumsy thing to say and I regretted saying it the moment the words were out. “That attitude,” she snapped back, “is why we don’t have to worry about technological innovation and the rest of it. One more round of innovation, one more economic boom and bust, and the rest of the world is going to progress itself straight into the ground.”
I opened my mouth to reply, and then shut it again. One more word, and we would have had a quarrel right there in the restaurant, but I wasn’t going to let that happen, and neither was she. So we finished dinner in silence, didn’t get another round of drinks, paid up and went to the door.
She flagged down a taxi. “I’ll have someone contact you Monday,” she said, looking away from me. “Good night.”
I wished her a good night, stood there while the clop-clop of the horse faded into the other street noises, and then started walking back to my hotel. The things she’d said chased each other around and around in my mind. None of it made any sort of sense—except that it did, in a bizarre sort of way, and when I tried to tease out the holes in her logic I had a hard time finding any. I figured that I was just too tired, and—let’s be honest—too upset.
Progress as the enemy of prosperity, I thought, shaking my head. What a bizarre idea.
Something very bright streaked across the sky above me, and I looked up. A little uneven shape of brilliant light with a long streaming tail behind it went tumbling across the stars, faster than a jet. As I watched, it broke in two, and then the two pieces disintegrated one after another into sprays of tiny glowing points that flared and went dark. I tried to tell myself that it was just a meteor, but I knew better.

Against Cultural Senility

Wed, 2016-05-25 16:16
For the connoisseur of sociopolitical absurdity, the last few weeks’ worth of news cycles very nearly defines the phrase “target-rich environment.” I note, for example, that arch-neoconservative Robert Kagan—the founder of the Project for a New American Century and principal architect of this nation’s idiotically bloodthirsty Middle East policies, a man who never met a body bag he didn’t like—has jumped party lines to endorse Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions.
Under other conditions I’d wonder if Kagan had decided to sandbag Clinton’s hopes, using a lethal dose of deadpan satire to point out that her policy stances are indistinguishable from those of George W. Bush: you know, the guy that so many Democrats denounced as evil incarnate just eight short years ago. Unfortunately, nothing so clever seems to be in the works. Kagan seems to be quite sincere in his adulation for Clinton. What’s more, his wife Victoria Nuland, a Hillary Clinton protegé in the State Department and a major player in the Obama administration’s pursuit of Cold War brinksmanship against Russia, is now being rumored as Clinton’s most likely pick for Secretary of State.
For unintended satire, that one’s hard to beat Still, I’d say it has been outdone by another recent story, which noted that the students at Brown University, one of this nation’s Ivy League universities, are upset. Turns out they’re so busy protesting for social justice these days that they don’t have enough time to keep up with their classwork, and yet heir professors are still expecting papers to be turned in on time—a demand that strikes the students as grossly unfair. A savage parody off some right-wing website? Nope; the story appeared in the Brown University student paper earlier this month.
To be fair to the students, they’re not the only ones who have redefined the purpose of a university education in a way that, for the sake of politeness, we’ll call “quirky.” Radical faculty members, who encourage this reenactment of their vanished youth as a political equivalent of Münchausen syndrome by proxy, are doing much the same thing. Then, of course, you’ve got corporations who think that universities are places where prospective employees go to pay for their own job training, university bureaucrats who bubble marketing-firm sewage about offering students the “university experience,” and so on through an entire galaxy of self-regarding and self-important cant. The one thing that finds no place among all these competing redefinitions is, predictably enough, learning.

I’ve mentioned before on this blog the need to devise new opportunities for learning, and in particular a new structure for adult education that isn’t subservient to the increasingly blatant political and financial interests of the academic industry. More broadly, the concept of learning has been a core theme of this blog since it began—partly because modern industrial society’s stunning inability to learn the lessons of repeated failure looms so large in public life today, partly because learning ways to make sense of the world and practical skills for dealing with the converging crises of our time ranks high on the to-do list for anyone who takes the future seriously. I think, therefore, that it’s time to move that discussion to center stage, and talk about learning and education in the context of the Long Descent.
We could start that discussion in many different places, but the whinefest under way at Brown just now makes as good a springboard as any. We can, I think, presume that universities don’t exist for the sake of giving privileged youth a place to play at changing the world, before they settle down to a lifetime of propping up the status quo in corporate and government careers. Nor do they exist for any of the other dubious purposes mentioned above. What, then, is a university for?
That’s best approached by looking at the other two legs of the institutional tripod that once supported American education. In the long-gone days when the United States still had an educational system that worked, that system sorted itself out into three broad categories of schools: public schools, trade schools, and universities. Public schools existed for the purpose of providing the basic intellectual skills that would allow young people to participate in society as productive citizens. Trade schools existed for the purpose of teaching the technical skills that would allow graduates to find steady work in the skilled trades. In the trade school category, we can also include medical schools and the few law schools that existed then—most lawyers got their legal training through apprenticeship until well into the twentieth century—and other institutions meant to turn out trained professionals, such as divinity schools.
Then there were the universities. The grand old American habit of highfalutin’ obfuscation that used to double the length of commencement addresses and Congressional speeches alike makes it a bit difficult to tease out, from the rhetoric of the day, the intended purpose of a university education, but attending to what was actually taught there in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries makes the point tolerably clear: universities existed to launch students into a full-on, face-first encounter with that foreign country we call the past. That’s why the university curriculum back then focused on such subjects as history, classics, literature, and the like—and why the word “literature” in an academic setting generally excluded anything written within living memory.
This was of course exactly the thing the educational revolutions of our time targeted and, for the most part, destroyed. Under the banner of “relevance,” reformers across the American academic scene in the 1960s and 1970s pushed for the replacement of the traditional curriculum with something more up-to-date, modern, progressive—in a word, fashionable. Alongside the great crusade for relevance came the proliferation of new departments and degree programs. Thereafter, what was left of the old curriculum was assailed by proponents of various flavors of postmodernism, and after that came what’s known in the academic biz as “critical theory”—that is, ideologies of condemnation and exclusion that focus on race, gender, and other markers of privilege and disprivilege in society.
All of these changes, among their other impacts, had the effect of distancing students from the collision with the past that was central to the older approach to university education. The crusade for relevance and the mass production of new departments and degree programs did this in a straightforward fashion, by redirecting attention from the past to the present—it’s not accidental that the great majority of the new departments and degree programs focused on one or another aspect of modernity, or that by “relevant” the educational radicals of the Sixties generally meant “written within our lifetimes.” The other two movements just named did the same thing, though, albeit in a somewhat subtler way.
The common theme shared by the various movements lumped together as “postmodernism” was the imposition of a thick layer of interpretive theory between the student and the text. The postmodernists liked to claim that their apparatus of theory enabled them to leap nimbly into and out of texts from every place and time while understanding them all, but that was precisely what the theory didn’t do. Instead, if you’ll excuse the metaphor, it functioned as a sort of intellectual condom, meant to prevent students from conceiving any unexpected ideas as a result of their intercourse with the past. Those of my readers who encountered the sort of scholarly publication that resulted will recall any number of “conversations with the text” written along these lines, which sedulously kept the text from getting a word in edgewise, while quoting Derrida et al. at dreary length in every second or third paragraph.
If postmodernism claimed to engage in a conversation with the text, though, critical theory—still the rage in many American universities these days—subjects it to a fair equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition: one by one, texts are hauled before a tribunal, tortured with an assortment of critical instruments until they confess, suffer condemnation for their purported errors, and are then dragged off by a yelling mob to be burnt at the stake. The erasure of the past here has two aspects. On the one hand, critical-theory proponents are fond of insisting that students should never be required to read any text that has been so condemned; on the other, one very effective way of learning nothing from the past is to be too busy preening oneself over one’s moral superiority to one’s ancestors to learn from anything they might have had to say.
Popular though these moves were in the academic industry, I’d like to suggest that they were disastrously misguided at best, and have played a large role in helping to generate a widespread, and seriously destructive condition in our collective life. I’ll give a suggestive name to that condition a little later on. First, I want to talk about why the suppression of the past is as problematic as it is.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe liked to point out that a person who knows only one language doesn’t actually know any languages at all. He was quite right, too. Only when you learn a second language do you begin to discover how many things you thought were true about the universe are merely artifacts of the grammatical and semantic structure of your first language. Where that language is vague, so are your thoughts; where that language runs several distinct meanings together in a single word, so do you; where that language imposes arbitrary structures on the complexities of experience—why, unless you have some experience with another way of assembling the world into linguistic patterns, it’s a safe bet that you’ll do the same thing even when you’re not talking or even thinking in words.
Here’s an example. People who only speak English tend to think in terms of linear cause-and-effect relationships. Listen to Americans try to understand anything, and you’ll see that habit in full flower. If something happens, they want to know what one thing caused it, and what one thing will result from it. In the real world, it almost never happens that just one cause sets just one process in motion and has just one effect; in the real world, wildly complex, tangled chains of interaction go into even the simplest event, and spin out from there to infinity—but that’s not the way Americans like to think.

Why? Because the normal sentence structure in English has a subject—someone who causes an action—followed by a verb—the action of the subject—and then usually by an object—the thing on which the action has an effect. That’s our usual grammar, and so that’s the usual pattern of our thoughts.
There are, as it happens, plenty of languages that don’t have the same structure. In modern Welsh, for example, most sentences begin with a form of the verb “to be.” Where an English speaker would say “The children are playing in the yard,” a Welsh speaker would say “Mae’r plant yn chwarae yn yr ardd,” literally “It is the children at play in the yard.” Most English sentences imply a cause-and-effect relationship (the cause “children” have the effect “playing”), that is, while most Welsh sentences imply a complex condition of being (the current state of things includes the phenomena “children” in the condition of “playing”). If you know both languages well enough to think in both, you won’t default to either option—and you won’t necessarily be stuck with just those two options, either, because once you get used to switching from one to another, you can easily conceive of other alternatives.
What’s true of language, I’d like to suggest, is also true—and may in fact be even more true—of the ideas and preconceptions of an era: if you only know one, you don’t actually know one at all. Just as the person who knows only one language remains trapped in the grammatical and semantic habits of that language, the person who has only encountered the thought of one era remains trapped in the presuppositions, habitual notions, and unexamined assumptions of that era. 
I’ve used the word “trapped,” but that choice of phrasing misstates one very important aspect of the phenomenon: the condition that results is very comfortable. Most of the big questions have easy answers, and those that are still open—well, everyone’s secure in the knowledge that once those are solved, by some linear extrapolation of the current methods of inquiry, the answers will by definition fit easily into the framework that’s already been established for them. Debates about what’s right and wrong, what’s true and false, what’s sane and stark staring crazy all take place within the limits of a universally accepted structure of ideas that are all the more powerful because nobody discusses them and most people don’t even consciously notice that they’re there.
The supposed openness to innovation and diversity that’s said to characterize modern industrial society does precisely nothing to counteract that effect. The vagaries of intellectual and cultural trends, and the antics of dissident subcultures in art, religion, and politics, all take place within the narrow limits of a conventional wisdom which, again, is not so much believed as tacitly assumed. Watch any avant-garde movement closely, and it’s not hard to notice that its idea of rebelling against the status quo amounts to taking the conventional wisdom just a little further than anyone else has gotten around to going recently—and when that loses its charm, you can bet that in a generation or so, some new movement will come along and do it all over again, and convince themselves that they’re being revolutionary in doing something their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents did in their day.
Thus, for example, public masturbation as a form of performance art has been invented at intervals of thirty to forty years since the late nineteenth century. It’s happened so far, that I know of, in the 1890s, the 1920s, the 1950s, and the 1980s, and we can probably expect a new round any time now. Each of the self-proclaimed cutting-edge artistic movements that went in for this not especially interesting habit framed it as a revolutionary act, using whatever kind of grandiose rhetoric was popular just then; and then the crowds got bored, and three decades later the next generation was at it again.
The history of the flying car, which has been invented at regular intervals since the 1920s, follows exactly the same rhythm, and displays exactly the same total subservience to the conventional wisdom of modern industrial culture. (A case could probably be made that there’s no shortage of masturbatory features in our collective obsession with flying cars, but that’s a discussion for another time.) For the purposes of our present discussion, the flying car is a particularly useful example, because it points to the chief problem with unthinking subservience to the predigested thought of an era: people in that condition lose the ability to learn from their mistakes.
There are a galaxy of good reasons why we don’t have flying cars, after all. One of the most important is that the engineering demands of aircraft design and automobile design are almost exactly opposed to one another—the lighter an airplane is, the better it flies, while a car needs a fair amount of weight to have good traction; aircraft engines need to be optimized for speed, while car engines need to be optimized for torque, and so on through a whole series of contrasts. A flying car is thus by definition going to be mediocre both as a car and as a plane, and due to the added complexities needed to switch from one mode of travel to the other, it’s going to cost so much that for the same price you can get a good car and a good plane, with enough left over to pay hangar rental for quite some time.
None of this is particularly hard to figure out. What’s more, it’s been demonstrated over and over again by the flying cars that have been invented, patented, and tested repeatedly down through the years. That being the case, why do audiences at TED Talks still clap frantically when someone tells them that they can expect flying cars on the market any day now? Because the presuppositions of modern industrial society deny the existence of limits and inescapable tradeoffs, and when the lessons of failure point up the reality of these things, those lessons remain unlearnt.
I wish that all the consequences of subservience to unnoticed presuppositions were that harmless. Take any of the rising spiral of crises that are building up around modern industrial society these days; in every single case, the reason that the obviously necessary steps aren’t being done is that the conventional wisdom of our time forbids thinking about those steps, and the reason that the lessons of repeated failure aren’t being learned is that the conventional wisdom of our time denies that any such failures can happen. We live in an era of cultural senility, in which the vast majority of people stare blankly at an unwelcome future and keep on doing all the things that are bringing that future on.
The erasure of the past from the curriculum of American universities is far from the only factor that’s brought about that catastrophic reality, but I suspect its role in that process has been significant. The era of cultural senility came in when the generation of the Sixties, the generation that insisted on excising the past from its university education, hit its thirties and rose into positions of influence, and it’s gotten steadily worse since that time. The inability of our society to learn from its mistakes or question its preconceptions has thus become a massive political fact—and a massive political liability.
None of the consequences of that inability are particularly original. It so happens, for example, that a little less than 2500 years ago, influential voices in another rich and powerful democratic society embraced the same policies that Robert Kagan and his fellow neoconservatives have been promoting in our time. The backers of this Project for a New Athenian Century believed that these policies would confirm Athens’ hegemony over the ancient Greek world; what happened instead was a nightmare of imperial overstretch, war, and economic and political collapse, from which Athens, and Greece as a whole, never recovered. You can read all about it in the writings of Thucydides, one of the supposedly irrelevant authors that most educated people read before the 1960s and next to nobody reads today.
That’s an obvious benefit of reading Thucycides. Less obvious and even more important is the subtler insight that you can get from Thucydides, or for that matter from any long-dead author. Thucydides was not a modern politically correct American liberal, or for that matter a modern patriotically correct American neoconservative. His basic assumptions about the world differ drastically from those of any modern reader, and those assumptions will jar, over and over again, against the very different notions that form the automatic substructure of thought in the modern mind.
If Thucydides doesn’t offend you, in fact, you’re probably not paying attention—but that’s precisely the point. If you exercise the very modest amount of intellectual courage that’s needed to get past being offended, and try to understand why the world looked the way it did when seen through Thucydides’ view of the world and yours, your knowledge of your preconceptions and your ability to make sense of the world when it doesn’t happen to fit those preconceptions will both expand. Both those gains are well worth having as our society hurtles down its current trajectory toward an unwelcome future.
**********
Homework Assignment #1

Since this series of posts is on education, yes, there’s going to be homework. Your assignment for the next two weeks consists of choosing a book-length work of fiction that (a) you haven’t previously read, and (b) was written before 1900, and reading it. It can be anything that fits these capacious limits: Little Women, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Scarlet Letter, The Tale of Genji, or something else entirely—take your pick. Whatever book you choose, read it cover to cover, and pay attention to the places where the author’s assumptions about the world differ from yours. Don’t pass judgment on the differences; just notice them, and think about what it would have been like to see the world the way the author did.

Retrotopia: A Distant Scent of Blood

Wed, 2016-05-18 13:57
This is the sixteenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator, having recovered from a bout of the flu, goes for a walk, meets someone he’s encountered before, and begins to understand why the Lakeland Republic took the path it did...
***********The next morning I felt pretty good, all things considered, and got up not too much later than usual. It was bright and clear, as nice an autumn day as you could ask for. I knew I had two days to make up and a lot of discussions and negotiations with the Lakeland Republic government still waited, but I’d been stuck in my room for two days and wanted to stretch my legs a bit before I headed back into another conference room at the Capitol. I compromised by calling Melanie Berger and arranging to meet with her and some other people from Meeker’s staff after lunch. That done, once I’d finished my morning routine, I headed down the stairs and out onto the street.
I didn’t have any particular destination in mind, just fresh air and a bit of exercise, and two or three random turns brought me within sight of the Capitol. That sent half a dozen trains of thought scurrying off in a bunch of directions, and one of them reminded me that I hadn’t seen a scrap of news for better than two days. Another couple of blocks and I got to Kaufer’s News, where the same scruffy-looking woman was sitting on the same wooden stool, surrounded by the same snowstorm of newspapers and magazines. I bought that day’s Toledo Blade, and since it was still way too early to put anything into my stomach, I crossed the street, found a park bench in front of the Capitol that had sunlight all over it, sat down and started reading.
There was plenty of news.  The president of Texas had just denounced the Confederacy for drilling for natural gas too close to the Texas border, and the Confederate government had issued the kind of curt response that might mean nothing and might mean trouble.  The latest word from the Antarctic melting season was worse than before; Wilkes Land had chucked up a huge jokulhlaup—yeah, I had to look the word up the first time I saw it, too; it means a flood of meltwater from underneath a glacier—that tore loose maybe two thousand square miles of ice and had half the southern Indian Ocean full of bergs.
There was another report out on the lithium crisis, from another bunch of experts who pointed out yet again that the world was going to run out of lithium for batteries in another half dozen years and all the alternatives were much more expensive; I knew better than to think that the report would get any more action than the last half dozen had.  Back home, meanwhile, the leaders of the Dem-Reps had a laundry list of demands for the new administration, most of which involved Montrose ditching her platform and adopting theirs instead.  There’d been no response from the Montrose transition team, which was probably just as well. I knew what Ellen would say to that and it wasn’t fit to print.
Still, the thing I read first was an article on the satellite situation. There was a squib on the front page about that, and a big article with illustrations on pages four and five. It was as bad as I’d feared. The weather satellite that got hit on Friday had thrown big chunks of itself all over, and two more satellites had already been hit.  The chain reaction was under way, and in a year or so putting a satellite into the midrange orbits would be a waste of money—a few days, a week at most, and some chunk of scrap metal will come whipping out of nowhere at twenty thousand miles an hour and turn your umpty-billion-yuan investment into a cloud of debris ready to share the love with anything else in orbit.
That reality was already hitting stock markets around the world—telecoms were plunging, and so was every other economic sector that depended too much on satellites. Most of the Chinese manufacturing sector was freaking out, too, because a lot of their exports go by way of the Indian Ocean, and satellite data’s the only thing that keeps container ships out of the way of icebergs. Economists were trying to rough out the probable hit to global GDP, and though estimates were all over the map, none of them was pretty.  The short version was that everybody was running around screaming.
Everybody outside the Lakeland Republic, that is. The satellite crisis was an academic concern there. I mean that literally; the paper quoted a professor of astronomy from Toledo University, a Dr. Marjorie Vanich, about the work she and her grad students were doing on the mathematics of orbital collisions, and that was the only consequence the whole mess was having inside the Lakeland borders. I shook my head. Progress was going to win out eventually, I told myself, but the Republic’s retro policies certainly seemed to deflect a good many hassles in the short term.
I finished the first section, set down the paper. Sitting there in the sunlight of a clear autumn day, with a horsedrawn cab going clip-clop on the street in front of me, schoolchildren piling out of a streetcar and heading toward the Capitol for a field trip, pedestrians ducking into Kaufer’s News or the little hole-in-the-wall café half a block from it, and the green-and-blue Lakeland Republic flag flapping leisurely above the whole scene, all the crises and commotions in the newspaper I’d just read might as well have been on the far side of the Moon. For the first time I found myself wishing that the Lakeland Republic could find some way to survive over the long term after all.  The thought that there could be someplace on the planet where all those crises just didn’t matter much was really rather comforting.
I got up, stuck the paper into one of the big patch pockets of my trench coat, and started walking, going nowhere in particular. A clock on the corner of a nearby building told me I still had better than an hour to kill before lunch. I looked around, and decided to walk all the way around the Capitol, checking out the big green park that surrounded it and the businesses and government offices nearby. I thought of the Legislative Building back home in Philadelphia, with its walls of glass and metal and its perpetually leaky roof; I thought of the Presidential Mansion twelve blocks away, another ultramodern eyesore, where one set of movers hauling Bill Barfield’s stuff out would be crossing paths just then with another set of movers hauling Ellen Montrose’s stuff in; I thought of the huge bleak office blocks sprawling west and south from there, where people I knew were busy trying to figure out how to cope with a rising tide of challenges that didn’t look as though it was ever going to ebb.
I got to one end of the park, turned the corner. A little in from the far corner was what looked like a monument of some sort, a big slab of dark red stone up on end, with something written on it. Shrubs formed a rough ring around it, and a couple of trees looked on from nearby. I wondered what it was commemorating, started walking that way. When I got closer, I noticed that there was a ring of park benches inside the circle of shrubs, and one person sitting on one of the benches; it wasn’t until I was weaving through the gap between two shrubs that I realized it was the same Senator Mary Chenkin I’d met at the Atheist Assembly the previous Sunday. By the time I’d noticed that, she’d spotted me and got to her feet, and so I went over and did and said the polite thing, and we got to talking.
The writing on the monument didn’t enlighten me much. It had a date on it—29 APRIL 2024—and nothing else. I’d just about decided to ask Chenkin about it when she said, “I bet they didn’t brief you about this little memento of ours—and they probably should have, if you’re going to make any kind of sense of what we’ve done here in the Lakeland Republic. Do you have a few minutes?”
“Most of an hour,” I said. “If you’ve got the time—”
“I should be at a committee meeting later on, but there should be plenty of time.” She waved me to the bench and then perched on the front of it, facing me.
“You probably know about DM-386 corn, Mr. Carr,” she said. “The stuff that had genes from poisonous starfish spliced into it.”
“Yeah.” Ugly memories stirred.  “I would have had a kid brother if it wasn’t for that.”
“You and a lot of others.” She shook her head.  “Gemotek, the corporation that made it, used to have its regional headquarters right here.” She gestured across the park toward the Capitol. “A big silver glass and steel skyscraper complex, with a plaza facing this way.  It got torn down right after the war, the steel went to make rails for the Toledo streetcar system, and the site—well, you’ll understand a little further on why we chose to put our Capitol there.
“But it was 2020, as I recall, when Gemotek scientists held a press conference right here to announce that DM-386 was going to save the world from hunger.” Another shake of her head dismissed the words. “Did they plant much of it up where your family lived?”
“Not to speak of.  We were in what used to be upstate New York, and corn wasn’t a big crop.”
“Well, there you are. Here, we’re the buckle on the corn belt:  the old states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and across into Iowa and Nebraska. Gemotek marketed DM-386 heavily via exclusive contracts with local seed stores, and it was literally everywhere. They insisted it was safe, the government insisted it was safe, the experts said the same thing—but nobody bothered to test it on pregnant women.”
“I remember,” I said.
“And down here, it wasn’t just in the food supply.  The pollen had the toxin in it, and that was in the air every spring.  After the first year’s crop, what’s more, it got into the water table in a lot of places. So there were some counties where the live birth rate dropped by half over a two year period.”
She leaned toward me. “And here’s the thing. Gemotek kept insisting that it couldn’t possibly be their corn, and the government backed them. They brought in one highly paid expert after another to tell us that some new virus or other was causing the epidemic of stillbirths. It all sounded plausible, until you found out that the only countries in the world that had this supposed virus were countries that allowed DM-386 corn to cross their borders. The media wouldn’t mention that, and if you said something about it on the old internet, or any other public venue, Gemotek would slap you with a libel suit. They’d win, too—they had all the expert opinion on their side that money could buy. All the farmers and the other  people of the corn belt had on their side was unbiased epidemiology and too many dead infants.
“So by the fall and winter of 2023, the entire Midwest was a powderkeg. A lot of farmers stopped planting DM-386, even though Gemotek had a clause in the sales agreement that let them sue you for breach of contract if you did that. Seed stores that stocked it got burnt to the ground, and Gemotek sales staff who went out into farm country didn’t always come back. There were federal troops here by then—not just Homeland Security, also regular Army with tanks and helicopters they’d brought up from the South after the trouble in Knoxville and Chattanooga the year before—and you had armed bands of young people and military vets springing up all over the countryside. It was pretty bad.
“By April, it was pretty clear that next to nobody in the region was planting Gemotek seeds—not just DM-386, anything from that company. Farmers were letting their farms go fallow if they couldn’t get seed they thought was safe. That’s when Michael Yates, who was the CEO of Gemotek, said he was going to come to Toledo and talk some sense into the idiots who thought there was something wrong with his product. By all accounts, yes, that’s what he said.”
All of a sudden I remembered how the story ended, but didn’t say anything.
“So he came here—right where we’re sitting now.  The company made a big fuss in the media, put up a platform out in front of the building, put half a dozen security guards around it, and thought that would do the job. Yates was a celebrity CEO—” Unexpectedly, she laughed. “That phrase sounds so strange nowadays. Still, there were a lot of them before the Second Civil War: flashy, outspoken, hungry for publicity. He was like that. He flew in, and came out here, and started mouthing the same canned talking points Gemotek flacks had been rehashing since the first wave of stillbirths hit the media.
“I think he even believed them.” She shrugged. “He wasn’t an epidemiologist or even a geneticist, just a glorified salesman who thought his big paycheck made him smarter than anyone else, and he lived the sort of bicoastal lifestyle the rich favored in those days.  If he’d ever set foot in the ‘flyover states’ before then, I never heard of it. But of course the crowd wasn’t having any of it. Something like nine thousand people showed up.  They were shouting at him, and he was trying to make himself heard, and somebody lunged for the platform and a security guard panicked and opened fire, and the crowd mobbed the platform. It was all over in maybe five minutes. As I recall, two of the guards survived. The other four were trampled and beaten to death, and nineteen people were shot—and Michael Yates was quite literally torn to shreds. There was hardly enough left of him to bury.
“So that’s what happened on April 29th, 2024. The crowd scattered as soon as it was all over, before Homeland Security troops could get here from their barracks; the feds declared a state of emergency and shut Toledo down, and then two days later the riots started down in Birmingham and the National Guard units sent to stop them joined the rioters. Your historians probably say that that’s where and when the Second Civil War started, and they’re right—but this is where the seed that grew into the Lakeland Republic got planted.”
“Hell of a seed,” I said, for want of anything better.
“I won’t argue. But this—”  Her gesture indicated the monument, and the shadow of a vanished building.  “—this is a big part of why the whole Midwest went up like a rocket once the Birmingham riots turned serious, and why nothing the federal government did to get people to lay down their arms did a bit of good. Every family I knew back in those days had either lost a child or knew someone who had—but it wasn’t just that. There had been plenty of other cases where the old government put the financial interests of big corporations ahead of the welfare of its people—hundreds of them, really—but this thing was that one straw too many.
“And then, when the fighting was over, the constitutional convention was meeting, and people from the World Bank and the IMF flew in to offer us big loans for reconstruction, care to guess what one of their very first conditions was?”
I didn’t have to answer; she saw on my face that I knew the story. “Exactly, Mr. Carr. The provisional government had already passed a law banning genetically modified organisms until adequate safety tests could be done, and the World Bank demanded that we repeal it.  To them it was just a trade barrier. Of course all of us in the provisional government knew perfectly well that if we agreed to that, we’d be facing Michael Yates’ fate in short order, so we called for a referendum.”
She shook her head, laughed reminiscently. “The World Bank people went ballistic. I had one of their economists with his face six inches from mine, shouting threats for fifteen minutes in half-coherent English without a break. But we held the referendum, the no vote came in at 89%, we told the IMF and the World Bank to pack their bags and go home, and the rest of our history unfolded as you’ve seen—and a lot of it was because of a pavement streaked with blood, right here.”
Something in her voice just then made me consider her face closely, and read something in her expression that I don’t think she’d intended me to see. “You were there, weren’t you?” I asked.
She glanced up at me, looked away, and after a long moment nodded.
A long moment passed. The clop-clop of a horsedrawn taxi came close, passed on into the distance.  “Here’s the thing,” she said finally.  “All of us who were alive then—well, those who didn’t help tear Michael Yates to pieces helped tear the United States of America to pieces.  It was the same in both cases:  people who had been hurt and deceived and cheated until they couldn’t bear it any longer, who finally lashed out in blind rage and then looked down and saw the blood on their hands.  After something like that, you have to come to terms with the fact that what’s done can never be undone, and try to figure out what you can do that will make it turn out to be worthwhile after all.”
She took a watch out of her purse, then, glanced at it, and said, “Oh dear. They’ve been waiting for me in the committee room for five minutes now. Thank you for listening, Mr. Carr—will I see you at the Assembly next Sunday?”
“That’s the plan,” I told her. She got up, we made the usual polite noises, and she hurried away toward the Capitol. Maybe she was late for her meeting, and maybe she’d said more than she’d intended to say and wanted to end the conversation. I didn’t greatly care, as I wanted a little solitude myself just then.
I’d known about DM-386 corn, of course, and my family wasn’t the only one I knew that lost a kid to the fatal lung defects the starfish stuff caused if the mother got exposed to it in the wrong trimester. For that matter, plenty of other miracle products have turned out to have side effects nasty enough to rack up a fair-sized body count. No, it was thinking of the pleasant old lady I’d just been sitting with as a young woman with blood dripping from her hands.
Every nation starts that way. The Atlantic Republic certainly did—I knew people back home who’d been guerrillas in the Adirondacks and the Alleghenies, and they’d talk sometimes about things they’d seen and done that made my blood run cold.  The old United States got its start the same way, two and a half centuries further back. I knew that, but I hadn’t been thinking about it when I’d sat on the park bench musing about how calm the Lakeland Republic seemed in the middle of all the consternation outside its borders. It hadn’t occurred to me what had gone into making that calm happen.
The breeze whispering past the stone monument seemed just then to have a distant scent of blood on it. I turned and walked away.

A Few Notes on Burkean Conservatism

Wed, 2016-05-11 17:15
Several times recently, in posts on this blog discussing the vagaries of current American politics, I’ve had occasion to reference my own political philosophy by name. This has caused a certain amount of confusion and curiosity, because the moniker I mentioned—“moderate Burkean conservative”—falls nowhere on the narrow range of political opinions allowed into our collective discourse these days.
Now of course a good part of the confusion arises because the word “conservative” no longer means what it once meant—that is to say, a person who wants to conserve something. In today’s America, conservatives who actually want to conserve are as rare as liberals who actually want to liberate.  The once-significant language of an earlier era has had the meaning sucked right out of it, the better to serve as camouflage for a kleptocratic feeding frenzy in which both establishment parties participate with equal abandon. Putting meaning back into the words can be a risky proposition, in turn, because so many Americans are used to waving them about as arbitrary noises linked to an assortment of vague emotions, the common currency of what passes for thought in so much of modern American life.
Nonetheless, I think the risk is worth taking, if only because a genuine conservatism—that is, a point of view oriented toward finding things worth conserving, and then doing something to conserve them—is one of the few options that offer any workable strategies for the future as the United States accelerates along the overfamiliar trajectory of a democracy in terminal crisis.
Let’s start with the least familiar of the terms I mentioned above, “Burkean.” The reference is to the Anglo-Irish writer, philosopher, and politician Edmund Burke (1729-1797), generally considered the founder of the Anglo-American conservative tradition. This is all the more interesting in that Burke himself was none of the things that gets labeled “conservative” in today’s America. For example, while he was himself an Anglican Christian, he defended the rights of Catholics to freedom of worship at a time when this was a very unpopular stance—roughly on a par with defending the rights of Satanists in today’s America—and lent his own home to a group of Hindus traveling in Britain who had been refused any other place to celebrate one of their religious holidays.
He was also an outspoken supporter of the American colonists in their attempts to seek redress against the British government’s predatory and punitive trade policies, and maintained his support even when all peaceful options had been exhausted and the colonists rose in rebellion. Yet this was the man who, toward the end of his life, penned Reflections on the Revolution in France, which critiqued the French revolutionaries in incisive terms, and which has much the same place in the history of Anglo-American conservatism that The Communist Manifesto has in the history of the modern radical left.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that Burkean conservatives quote Burke’s writings the way Marxists quote Marx or Objectivists quote Ayn Rand. Like other human beings, Burke was a blend of strengths and weaknesses, principles and pragmatism, and the political culture of his time and place accepted behavior that most people nowadays consider very dubious indeed.  Those of my readers who want to hear what Burke had to say can find Reflections on the Revolution in Franceonline, or in any decent used book store; those who want to engage in ad hominem argument can find plenty of ammunition in any biography of Burke they care to consult. What I propose to do here is something a bit different—to take Burke’s core ideas and set them out in a frame many of my readers will recognize at once.
The foundation of Burkean conservatism is the recognition that human beings aren’t half as smart as they like to think they are. One implication of this recognition is that when human beings insist that the tangled realities of politics and history can be reduced to some set of abstract principles simple enough for the human mind to understand, they’re wrong. Another is that when human beings try to set up a system of government based on abstract principles, rather than allowing it to take shape organically out of historical experience, the results will pretty reliably be disastrous.
What these imply, in turn, is that social change is not necessarily a good thing. It’s always possible that a given change, however well-intentioned, will result in consequences that are worse than the problems that the change is supposed to fix. In fact, if social change is pursued in a sufficiently clueless fashion, the consequences can cascade out of control, plunging a nation into failed-state conditions, handing it over to a tyrant, or having some other equally unwanted result. What’s more, the more firmly the eyes of would-be reformers are fixed on appealing abstractions, and the less attention they pay to the lessons of history, the more catastrophic the outcome will generally be.
That, in Burke’s view, was what went wrong in the French Revolution. His thinking differed sharply from continental European conservatives, in that he saw no reason to object to the right of the French people to change a system of government that was as incompetent as it was despotic. It was, the way they went about it—tearing down the existing system of government root and branch, and replacing it with a shiny new system based on fashionable abstractions—that was problematic. What made that problematic, in turn, was that it simply didn’t work  Instead of establishing an ideal republic of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the wholesale reforms pushed through by the National Assembly plunged France into chaos, handed the nation over to a pack of homicidal fanatics, and then dropped it into the waiting hands of an egomaniacal warlord named Napoleon Bonaparte.
Two specific bad ideas founded in abstractions helped feed the collapse of revolutionary France into chaos, massacre, tyranny, and pan-European war. The first was the conviction, all but universal among the philosopheswhose ideas guided the revolution, that human nature is entirely a product of the social order. According to this belief, the only reason people don’t act like angels is that they live in an unjust society, and once that is replaced by a just society, why, everybody would behave the way the moral notions of the philosophes insisted they should. Because they held this belief, in turn, the National Assembly did nothing to protect their shiny up-to-date system against such old-fashioned vices as lust for power and partisan hatred, with results that made the streets of Paris run with blood.
The second bad idea had the same effect as the first. This was the conviction, also all but universal among the philosophes, that history moved inevitably in the direction they wanted: from superstition to reason, from tyranny to liberty, from privilege to equality, and so on. According to this belief, all the revolution had to do to bring liberty, equality, and fraternity was to get rid of the old order, and voila—liberty, equality, and fraternity would pop up on cue. Once again, things didn’t work that way. Where the philosophes insisted that history moves ever upward toward a golden age in the future, and the European conservatives who opposed them argued that history slides ever downward from a golden age in the past, Burke’s thesis—and the evidence of history—implies that history has no direction at all.
The existing laws and institutions of a society, Burke proposed, grow organically out of that society’s history and experience, and embody a great deal of practical wisdom. They also have one feature that the abstraction-laden fantasies of world-reformers don’t have, which is that they have been proven to work. Any proposed change in laws and institutions thus needs to start by showing, first, that there’s a need for change; second, that the proposed change will solve the problem it claims to solve; and third, that the benefits of the change will outweigh its costs. Far more often than not, when these questions are asked, the best way to redress any problem with the existing order of things turns out to be the option that causes as little disruption as possible, so that what works can keep on working.
That is to say, Burkean conservatism can be summed up simply as the application of the precautionary principle to the political sphere.
The precautionary principle? That’s the common-sense rule that before you do anything, you need to figure out whether it’s going to do more good than harm. We don’t do things that way in the modern industrial world. We dump pesticides into the biosphere, carbon dioxide into the air, and inadequately tested drugs into our bodies, and then figure out from the results what kind of harm they’re going to cause. That’s a thoroughly stupid way of going about things, and the vast majority of the preventable catastrophes that are dragging modern industrial society down to ruin result directly from that custom.
Behind it, in turn, lies one of the bad ideas cited above—the notion that history moves inevitably in the direction we want. Yes, that’s the myth of progress, the bizarre but embarrassingly widespread notion that history is marching ever onward and upward, and so anything new is better just because it’s new, which keeps so many people from asking obvious questions about where our civilization is headed and whether any sane person would want to go there. I’ve discussed this in quite a few earlier posts here, as well as in my book After Progress; I mention it here to point out one of the ways that the political views I’m explaining just now interface with the other ideas I’ve discussed here and elsewhere.
The way that a moderate Burkean conservatism works in practice will be easiest to explain by way of a specific example. With this in mind, I’m going to go out of my way to offend everyone, by presenting a thoroughly conservative argument—in the original, Burkean sense of that word “conservative,” of course—in favor of the right to same-sex marriage.
We’ll have to pause first for a moment, though, to talk about that word “right.” This is necessary because by and large, when Americans hear the word “right,” their brains melt into a puddle of goo. The assumption these days seems to be that there’s some indefinite number of abstract rights hovering out there in notional space, and all of them are absolute and incontrovertible, so that all you have to say is “I have a right to [whatever]!” and everybody is supposed to give you whatever it is right away. Of course everybody doesn’t, and the next step is the kind of shrill shouting match that makes up so much of American political nonconversation these days, in which partisans of the right to X and partisans of the right to Y yell denunciations at each other for trying to deprive each other of their rights.
If you happen to be a religious person, and believe in a religion that teaches that God or the gods handed down a set of rules by which humans are supposed to live, then it probably does make sense to talk like this, because you believe that rights exist in the mind of the deity or deities in question. If you’re not a religious person, and claim to have a right that other people don’t recognize, you’ll have a very interesting time answering questions like these: in what way does this supposed right exist? How do you “have it”—and how do the rest of us tell the difference between this right you claim to have and, say, an overdeveloped sense of entitlement on your part?
All these confusions come from the attempt to claim that rights have some kind of abstract existence of their own. To the Burkean conservative, this is utter nonsense. A right, from the Burkean point of view, is an agreement among the members of a community to allow some sort of behavior. That’s what it is, and that’s all it is. The right to vote, say, exists because the people of a given nation, acting through political institutions, confers it on a certain class of persons—say, all adult citizens.
What if you don’t have a right, and believe that you should have it? That’s called “having an opinion.” There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion, but it doesn’t confer a right. If you want to have the right you think you should have, your job is to get your community to confer it on you. In a perfect world, there would no doubt be some instant, foolproof way to establish a right, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where the slow, awkward tools of representative democracy and judicial review, backed up by public debate, are the least easily abused options we’ve yet found to accomplish this task. (That doesn’t mean, please note, that they can’t be abused; it means that they’re not quite as prone to abuse as, say, the institutions of theocracy or military dictatorship.)
With that in mind, we can proceed to the right to same-sex marriage. The first question to ask is whether government has any business getting involved in the issue at all. That’s not a minor question. The notion that legislation is the solution to every problem has produced a vast number of avoidable disasters. In this case, though, what prevented same-sex couples from marrying was governmental regulations. Changing those regulations requires governmental action.
The second question to ask is whether government has any compelling interest in the existing state of affairs. History shows that letting government interfere in people’s private lives is a very risky thing to do, and while it can be necessary, there has to be a compelling interest to justify it—for example, in the case of laws prohibiting child abuse, the compelling interest of protecting children against violence. No such compelling interest justifies government interference in the marital decisions of legally competent, consenting adults; as noted further on, “Ewww, gross!” does not count as a compelling interest.
The third question to ask is whether the people who will be affected by the change actually want the change. That’s not a minor question, either; history is full of grand projects, supposedly meant to help some group of people, that were rejected by the people who were to be “helped,” and those inevitably turn out badly. In this case, though, there were plenty of same-sex couples who wanted to get married and couldn’t. Notice also that the proposed change was permissive rather than mandatory—that is, same-sex couples could get married, but they could also stay unmarried. As a general rule of thumb, permissive regulations don’t require the same level of suspicion as mandatory regulations.
The fourth question to ask is whether anyone would be harmed by the change. Here it’s important to keep in mind that “harmed” does not mean “offended;” nor, for that matter, are you harmed by being kept from forcing others to do what you want them to do. One of the eternal annoyances of liberty is that others inevitably use it in ways that you and I find offensive.  We put up with the inconvenience because that’s the price of having liberty ourselves. Claims that this or that person is going to be harmed by a change thus need to evince specific, concrete, measurable harm. In this case, that standard was not met, as there are no Purple Hearts issued for being butthurt.
The fifth question is whether the proposed change is a wholly new right, a significant expansion of an existing right, or the extension of an existing right in its current form to a group of people who did not previously have it. Creating a wholly new right can be a risky endeavor, as it’s hard to figure out in advance how that will interact with existing rights and institutions. A significant expansion of an existing right is less hazardous, but it still needs to be approached with care. Extending an existing right in its current form to people who don’t previously have it, by contrast, tends to be the safest of changes, since it’s easy to figure out what the results will be—all you have to do is see what effect it has had in its more restricted application. In this case, an existing right was to be extended to same-sex couples, who would have the same rights and responsibilities as couples who married under existing law.
The sixth question, given that the right in question is being extended in its current form to a group of people who didn’t previously have it, is whether that right has been extended before. In this case, the answer is yes. Marriage between people of different races used to be illegal in many American states. When extending the right of marriage to mixed-race couples was being debated, the same arguments deployed against same-sex marriage got used, but all of them amounted in practice to someone being offended. Mixed-race marriages were legalized, a lot of mixed-race couples got married, none of the horrible consequences imagined by the opposition ever got around to happening, and that was that.
So, to sum up, we have a group of people who want a permissive regulation granting them a right already held by other people. No actual harm has been demonstrated by those opposed to granting that right, and no compelling interest prevents government from granting that right. The same right has been extended before with no negative consequences, and a very simple change in the wording of existing marriage laws will confer the right. Under these circumstances, there is vastly more justification for granting the right than for refusing it, and it should therefore be granted.
No doubt some people will take offense at so mealy-mouthed an adding up of pros and cons. Where are the ringing affirmations of justice, equality, and other grand abstract principles? That, of course, is exactly the point. In the real world, grand abstract principles count for little. In a society that values liberty—not, please note, as a grand abstract principle, but as a mutual agreement that people can do as they wish so long as that doesn’t infringe on the established rights of others—what matters when someone petitions for redress of a grievance is simply whether that petition can be granted without any such infringement. The questions asked above, and the institutions of representative democracy and judicial review, are there to see to it that this happens. Do they always succeed? Of course not; they just do a marginally better job than any other system. In the real world, that’s justification enough.
What about the religious communities that are opposed to that right? (This is where I’m going to shift gears from offending my readers on the rightward end of things to offending those on the other end of the political spectrum.) Conservative Christian groups are a religious minority in America today, and it’s a well-established rule in American law and custom that reasonable accommodation should be made to religious minorities when this can be done without violating the agreed-upon rights of others. That doesn’t give conservative Christians the right to force other people to follow conservative Christian teachings, any more than it would give Jews the right to forbid the sale of pork in America’s grocery stores. It does mean that conservative Christians should not be forced to participate in activities they consider sinful, any more than Jewish delicatessens should be forced to sell pork.
By and large, businesses that serve the general public are rightly required to serve the general public, rather than picking and choosing who they will or won’t serve, but there are valid exceptions, and religion is one of them. I’m told that in New York State, orthodox Jewish businesses are legally allowed to post signage stating that Jewish religious law applies on the premises, and this exempts them from certain laws governing other businesses; thus, for example, a woman who enters such a business with uncovered hair will not be served.  It would be a reasonable accommodation for conservative Christian businesses that cater to weddings to be able to post signage noting that they only provide services to the kinds of weddings authorized by their own religious laws. That would let same-sex couples take their business elsewhere; it would also let people who support the right of same-sex marriage know which businesses to boycott, just as it would let conservative Christians support their co-religionists.
Again, any number of shiny abstractions could be brandished about to insist that conservative Christian businesses should not have that right, but here again, we’re not dealing with abstractions. We’re dealing with the need to find reasonable accommodation for differing beliefs in a society that, at least in theory, values liberty.  Claims that this or that person will be harmed by letting a religious minority practice its faith on privately owned business premises, again, have to evince specific, concrete, measurable harm. Being offended doesn’t count here, either, nor does whatever suffering comes your way from being denied the power to make other people do what you think they ought to do.
My readers may have noticed that, given the arrangements just outlined, nobody in the debate over same-sex marriages would get everything they want. That’s at least as offensive as anything else I’ve suggested in this post, but it’s the foundation of Burkean conservatism, and of democratic politics in general. In the messy, gritty world of actual politics, nobody can ever count on getting everything they want—even if they shout at the top of their lungs that they have a right to it—and the best that can be expected is that each side in any controversy will get the things they most need. That’s the kind of resolution that allows a society to function, instead of freezing up into permanent polarization the way America has done in recent years—and it’s the kind of resolution that might just possibly get some semblance of representative democracy intact through the era of crisis looming ahead of us just now.
*******Two other things. First, I’m frankly astounded by the outpouring of congratulations—not to mention tip jar contributions—that came in response to last week’s post on the tenth anniversary of The Archdruid Report. On the off chance that anyone didn’t get thanked sufficiently, please know that the lapse wasn’t intentional! I’m more grateful than I can say for the support and encouragement I’ve received from the community of readers that’s emerged around this blog.
Second, I’m delighted to announce that the first issue of Into the Ruins, as far as I know the first-ever magazine of deindustrial science fiction, is now in print. This is the periodical equivalent of the After Oil anthologies, chockfull of new stories selected by editor Joel Caris; those who like compelling stories about the future we’re actually likely to get won’t want to miss it. Subscribers should be getting their copies shortly if those haven’t arrived already; as for the rest of you—well, what are you waiting for? ;-) You can order copies or buy a subscription at this website.