AODA Blog

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.

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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.

The Dawn of the Cthulhucene: A Retrospective

Wed, 2016-05-04 17:59
"This year’s Earth Day in Ashland, Oregon, where I live, featured an interfaith service at the local Unitarian church, and I wasn’t too surprised to get a call inviting me to be one of the presenters.”
That was the opening sentence of the first post ever to appear on The Archdruid Report, Real Druids, which went up ten years ago this Friday. When I typed those words, I had no clear idea of what I was going to do with the blog I’d just started. The end of the publishing industry I wrote for in those days was just then waking up to the marketing potential of author blogs; I was also in the third year of my unpaid day job as head of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), a small and old-fashioned Druid order distinctly out of step with the pop-culture Neopaganism of the time, and hoped to use a blog to bring the order to the attention of anyone out there who might be interested in something so unfashionable.
So I sat down at the computer, logged into my Blogger account, clicked on the button marked new post, and stared blankly at it for a while before I started to type. That, as they say, is how it all began.
In terms of the perspectives with which this blog deals—the grand sweep of human history, and the much vaster sweep of geological and evolutionary deep time—ten years is less than an eyeblink. In terms of a single human life, though, it’s a considerable span. Over that period I’ve moved from Ashland to Cumberland, Maryland, the red-brick mill town in the north central Appalachians where I now live. My writing career has burgeoned since then, too, helped along considerably by the two novels and nine nonfiction books that started out as sequences of blog posts.
My other career, the unpaid one mentioned above, also went through plenty of changes—if any of my readers ever have the opportunity to become the presiding officer of a nearly defunct Druid order and help it get back on its feet, I certainly recommend the experience! Still, twelve years in the hot seat was enough, and at the winter solstice just past I stepped down as Grand Archdruid of AODA with a sigh of relief, and handed the management of the order over to my successor Gordon Cooper.
There have been plenty of other changes over the last ten years, of course, and quite a few of them also affected The Archdruid Report. One that had a particularly significant impact was the rise, fall, and resurgence of the peak oil scene. Most of a decade before that first post, a handful of people—most of them petroleum geologists and the like—noticed that oil was being pumped much more quickly than new oilfields were being discovered. Now of course this turn of events had been predicted in quite a bit of detail well before then; back in the 1970s, in particular, when the phrase “limits to growth” hadn’t yet become taboo in polite company, plenty of people noticed that trying to extract an infinite supply of oil from a finite planet was guaranteed to end badly. 
That awareness didn’t survive the coming of the Reagan counterrevolution. More precisely, it survived only on the far fringes of the collective conversation of our time, where the few of us who refused to drink Ronnie’s koolaid spent most of two decades trying to figure out how to live in a civilization that, for all intents and purposes, seemed to have succumbed to a collective death wish. Still, our time in exile didn’t last forever.  It was 1998, as I recall, when I found the original Running On Empty email list—one of the first online meeting places for people concerned about peak oil—and I stayed with the movement thereafter as it slowly grew, and the rising tide of data made the case for imminent peak oil harder and harder to dismiss out of hand. 
Two books published in the early 2000s—Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over and James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency—helped launch the peak oil movement into public awareness. Not incidentally, those were also the books that convinced me that it might just be possible to talk frankly about the predicament of industrial society: not just peak oil, but the broader collision between the economic ideology of limitless growth and the hard realities of a fragile planet. The Archdruid Report came out of that recognition, though I thought at first that its audience would be limited to the Druid community; I figured that people who had embraced Druid nature spirituality might be more open to the kind of intellectual heresy I had in mind. The blog turned out to have a much broader audience than that, but it took me quite a while to realize that, and longer still to recognize its implications.
Meanwhile the peak oil movement hit its own peak between 2008 and 2010, and began skidding down the far side of its own Hubbert curve. That’s standard for movements for social change, though it was probably worsened by the premature triumphalism that convinced many peakniks that once they’d proved their case, governments had to do something about the impending crisis, and that also led some large peak oil organizations to spend money they didn’t have trying to run with the big dogs. At this point, as the fracking bubble falters and the economy misbehaves in ways that conventional economic theory can’t account for but peak oil theory can, the bottom has likely been reached, and a much shorter period of exile is duly ending.  Talk about peak oil in the media and the political sphere is picking up again, and will accelerate as the consequences of another decade of malign neglect bear down with increasing force on the industrial world.
One of the things I find most interesting about this trajectory is that it didn’t impact The Archdruid Report in the way I would have expected. During the years when the peak oil movement was all over large portions of the internet, my monthly page views and other site stats remained fairly modest. It wasn’t until 2010, when the peak oil scene was beginning to falter, that my stats started to climb steadily; my first breakout all-over-the-internet post came in 2011, and thereafter readership has remained high, wobbling up and down around an average of a quarter million page views a month. All ten of my top ten posts, in terms of total unique page views, appeared between 2011 and this year. On the off chance my readers are interested, here they are:
1. Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush, June 30, 20122. Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment, January 20, 20163. How It Could Happen, Part One: Hubris, October 3, 20124. How Not to Play the Game, June 29, 20115. An Elegy for the Age of Space, August 24, 20116. The Next Ten Billion Years, September 4, 20137. Into an Unknown Country, January 2, 20138. Fascism and the Future, Part Three: Weimar America, February 26, 20149. The Recovery of the Human, February 1, 201210. The Death of the Internet: A Pre-Mortem, April 29, 2015
(I discovered in the process of making this list, by the way, that the Blogger gizmo for tracking all time top posts doesn’t actually do what it’s supposed to do. Like so much of the internet, it provides the illusion of exact data but not the reality, and I had to go back over the raw numbers to get an accurate list. My readers may draw their own conclusions about the future of a society that increasingly relies on internet-filtered information as a source of guidance.)
None of these posts are only about peak oil, or even about peak energy.  You’ll find references to the hard physical and geological limits of the energy resources available to our species in most of them, to be sure, and quite a few detailed discussions of those limits and their implications among the other 489 posts that have appeared here in the last decade. That said, those limits aren’t quite central to this blog’s project. They derive, like the other common themes here, from something else.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted that his treatise The World as Will and Representation, massive though it is, was simply the working out of a single idea in all its ramifications. The same is true of this blog, though I’m an essayist and novelist rather than an analytical philosopher, and thus my pursuit of the idea I’m trying to pin down has been somewhat more discursive and rambling than his. (I make no apologies for that fact; I write the way I like to write, for those who like to read it.) Not all ideas can be summed up in a few words or a snappy slogan.  In particular, the more thoroughly an idea challenges our basic preconceptions about the nature of things, and the more stark the gap between its implications and those of the conventional wisdom, the more thoroughly and patiently it must be explored if it’s going to be understood at all.
Even so, there are times when an unexpected turn of phrase can be used, if not to sum up a challenging idea, at least to point in its direction forcefully enough to break through some of the barriers to understanding. Thanks to one of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Mgalimba—I encountered such a turn of phrase last week. That came via a 2014 talk by cutting-edge thinker Donna Haraway, in which she challenged a currently popular label for the geological period we’re entering, the Anthropocene, and proposed her own coinage: the Cthulhucene.
She had specific reasons for the proposal, and I’d encourage my readers to see what she had to say about those, but I have somewhat different reasons for adopting the term. H.P. Lovecraft, who invented the squid-faced, dragon-winged, monster-clawed devil-god Cthulhu for one of his best stories, used that being and the other tentacled horrors of his imaginary pantheon to represent a concept as alien to the conventional thought of industrial society as the Great Old Ones themselves. The term Lovecraft used for that concept was “indifferentism”—the recognition that the universe is utterly indifferent to human beings, not sympathetic, not hostile, not anything, and that it’s really rather silly of us, all things considered, to expect it to conform to our wishes, expectations, or sense of entitlement.
Does this seem embarrassingly obvious? The irony, and it’s a rich one, is that most people nowadays who insist that the universe is indifferent to humanity turn around and make claims about the future that presuppose exactly the opposite. I’ve long since lost track of the number of committed atheists I’ve met, for example, who readily agreed that the universe is indifferent to our desires, but then insisted there has to be some other energy resource out there at least as cheap, concentrated, and abundant as the ones we’re currently using up. That claim only makes sense if you assume that the supplies of matter and energy in the cosmos have somehow been arranged for our benefit; otherwise, no, there doesn’t have to be any other resource out there. We could simply use up what we’ve got, and then have to get by without concentrated energy sources for the rest of the time our species happens to exist.
That’s far from the only example of stealth anthropocentrism I’ve encountered in the same context. I’ve also long since lost track of the number of committed atheists who reject the idea of a caring cosmos out of hand, but then go on to claim that technological progress of the kind we’ve made is irreversible. That claim only makes sense if you assume that history is somehow arranged for our benefit, so that we don’t have to worry about sliding back down the long slope we climbed so laboriously over the last five centuries or so.  If history is indifferent to our preferences, by contrast, the way down is just as easy as the way up, and decline and fall waits for us as it did for all those dead civilizations in the past.
Then there’s the most embarrassing claim of all, the devout insistence that humanity’s destiny lies out there in space. “Destiny” is a theological concept, and it’s frankly risible to find it being tossed around so freely by people who insist they’ve rejected theology, but let’s go a step further here. If the universe is in fact indifferent to our wishes and desires, the mere fact that a certain number of people have gotten worked up over science-fiction visions of zooming off toward the stars does not oblige the universe to make space travel a viable option for our species. There are in fact very good reasons to think that it’s not a viable option, but you won’t get many people to admit that these days. We (or, rather, some of us) dream of going to the stars, therefore it must be possible for us to go to the stars—and before you claim that human beings can achieve anything they can imagine, dear reader, I encourage you to read up on the long history of attempts to build a working perpetual motion machine.
I’ve picked on atheists in these three examples, and to some extent that’s unfair. It’s true that most of the really flagrant examples of stealth anthropocentrism I’ve encountered over the last ten years came from people who made quite a point of their atheism, but of course there’s no shortage of overt toxic anthropocentrism over on the religious side of things—I’m thinking here of those Christian fundamentalists who claim that Christ is coming soon and therefore it doesn’t matter how savagely we lay waste a world they themselves claim that God made and called good. I’ve met atheists, to be fair, who recognize that their belief in the absence of purpose in the cosmos implies that no providence will protect us from the consequences of our own stupidity. I’ve also met religious people who recognize that the universe defined by their beliefs is theocentric, not anthropocentric, and that human beings might therefore want to cultivate the virtue of humility and attend to the purposes that God or the gods might have in mind, rather than assuming in blithe arrogance that whatever humanity thinks it wants, it ought to get.
The dawn of the Cthulhucene represents the arrival of a geological period in which those latter ways of understanding the world will be impossible to ignore any longer. We are beginning to learn no matter how hard we scrunch our eyes shut and plug our ears and shout “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” to the rest of the universe, the universe is not going to give us what we want just because we want it:  that the resources we waste so cluelessly will not be replaced for our benefit, and we will have to face every one of the consequences of the damage we do to the planetary biosphere that keeps us alive. In place of the megalomaniacal fantasy of Man the Conqueror of Nature, striding boldly from star to star in search of new worlds to plunder, we are beginning to see a vast and alien shape rising before us out of the mists of the future, a shape we might as well call Cthulhu: winged, scaled, tentacled, clawed, like a summary of life on earth, regarding us with utterly indifferent eyes.
In those eyes, we balding social primates are of no more importance in the great scheme of things than the trilobites or the dinosaurs, or for that matter the countless species—intelligent or otherwise—that will come into being long after the last human being has gone to join the trilobites and dinosaurs in Earth’s library of fossil beds.  The sooner we grasp that, the easier it will be for us to drop the misguided anthropocentric delusions that blind us to our situation, wake up to the mess we’ve made of things, and get to work trying to save as many of the best achievements of the last three hundred years or so before the long night of the deindustrial dark ages closes in around us.
Given that the universe is simply not interested in pandering to the fantasies of omnipotence currently fashionable among influential members of our species—given that no special providence is going to rescue us from the consequences of our assorted stupidities, no resource fairy is going to give us a shiny new energy source to make up for the resources we now squander so recklessly, and the laws of nature are already sending the results of our frankly brainless maltreatment of the biosphere back in our faces with an utter lack of concern for our feelings and interests—how should we then live? That’s the theme that I’ve been trying to explore, in one way or another, since this blog got under way. It’s a vast theme, and one that I haven’t even begun to exhaust yet. I have no idea if I’m still going to be blogging here ten years from now, but if not, it won’t be due to lack of things to talk about.
One more thing deserves to be said here, though. All along the journey that brought me from that first tentative post to this week’s retrospective, one of the things that’s made the way easier and a good deal more enjoyable has been the enthusiasm, understanding, and critical insight that’s been shown by so many of my readers. Time after time, faced with the choice of backing away from a controversial subject or plunging ahead, I’ve taken the plunge, and discovered that my readers were more than ready to jump with me. Time after time, too, when I’ve offered a rough sketch of some part of the landscape I’m trying to explore, my readers have asked questions and posed challenges that helped me immeasurably in clarifying my thinking and discarding approximations that didn’t work. As this blog begins its eleventh year, I’d like to thank everyone who’s made a comment here—and also everyone who’s made a donation to the tip jar and thus helped me afford the hours each week that go into these blog posts. My gratitude goes with each of you; I hope you’ve found the journey so far as rewarding as I have.

Where On The Titanic Would You Like Your Deck Chair, Ma’am?

Wed, 2016-04-27 19:30
Last week I had the enticing experience of being denounced as a racist on one blog and castigated as a social justice warrior on another. As my regular readers know, such entertainments have been anything but rare since I launched The Archdruid Report just under ten years ago. The odd belief that there are only two possible ways to think about any issue pervades modern American society; contradict that habit of thought, break with the conventional wisdom, and propose a third alternative, and you can count on both sides insisting that you belong to whichever point of view they like least.
If this week’s post fields a similar response, I won’t be surprised. Over the last month, we’ve been talking about the convoluted landscape of privilege in American society, and the way that the preferred rhetoric of both ends of the acceptable political spectrum falsifies the actual complexities of privilege that exist in contemporary American life. Some of my readers have wondered aloud, though, what that theme has to do with the broader issues at the heart of this blog’s project—the increasingly bleak future that modern industrial society is building for itself, the particular shape that future is taking in the United States, and the possibilities for constructive action that are still available this late in the day.
In this week’s post, I propose to start tying those threads back together.
One of the things that’s determined by privilege, after all, is which members of a society have a voice in making that society’s collective decisions. When George W. Bush sent American troops surging over the Iraqi border in 2003 and plunged the Middle East into its current state of chaos, for example, that decision was not made by all Americans equally. A small group of ideologues in the inner circles of the Bush administration made that decision, and got it rubberstamped by the President.  A larger circle of politicians, representing an assortment of power centers toward the upper end of the nation’s political and economic hierarchy, either supported the move or chose not to oppose it.
The few million Americans whose wealth and influence give them the ability to make themselves heard by the political system, in turn, either went along with the plan, or contented themselves with the kind of pro forma protests that the establishment has learned it can safely ignore. The rest of the American people, to say nothing of the people in Iraq and elsewhere who ended up bearing the brunt of the Bush regime’s squeaky-voiced machismo, had nothing to say in the matter.
This is normal. Every human society without exception gives some members more say in making decisions than others.  Since human beings are what they are, in turn, every human society without exception hands out those decision-making roles in ways that can reasonably be called unfair. That’s true of all other species of social primates, too, so odds are it’s as thoroughly hardwired into our behavioral repertoire as, say, sex.
I mentioned a little earlier the common American habit of insisting that there are two and only two ways to think about any issue. This is another example. The conventional wisdom on the Left holds that it’s not only possible but mandatory to create a society with no inequality at all, where everyone has the same privileges as affluent American liberals have today. The conventional wisdom on the right holds that existing inequalities are good and right and proper, and reflect the actual worth of the more or less privileged. Both of them are wrong, but they’re wrong in different ways.
The Left’s faith in the possibility of a society of perfect equality, where no one is more or less privileged than anybody else, has deep roots. Christian heretics in the Middle Ages roughed out the idea of a society in which perfect love would erase social divisions and everyone would share freely in all of life’s blessings; most had the great good sense to place this utopian vision on the far side of the Second Coming, when divine omnipotence could be counted on to take care of the practical difficulties of such a system. With the waning of Christian faith, Enlightenment philosophes such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau transposed the old vision into a new key, but lacked the perspicacity to find some existential barrier to shield the dream of a world of perfect equality from the fraught realities of human nature.
The result has been a long string of societies that proclaimed that they had abolished all privilege and made everyone equal. In every case, without exception, what happened instead was that an overt system of privilege was destroyed, and promptly replaced with a covert system of privilege—and since this latter was covert, it was much less subject to checks and balances. That’s why, from the Terror of revolutionary France to the killing fields of Cambodia, utopias of perfect equality quite reliably end up awash in rivers of blood. The American left, though, remains immune to the lessons of history, and once you get beyond the affluent end of the left, you can readily find utopian fantasies of the same kind that drove Robespierre, Stalin, and Pol Pot to their destinies being loudly proclaimed as the next great step in human history.
On the affluent end of the American left, by contrast, the blindness to history takes on a different shape. From the standpoint of the privileged liberal, the only reason everyone in today’s America isn’t equal is the machinations of the Evil Ists—that is, racists, sexists, fascists, and the like, who hold down all of American society’s underprivileged groups out of sheer evil evilness.  Theirs is the logic of the Rescue Game discussed in an earlier post this month; the idea that privilege is structural and systemic, and that they’ve benefited from it all their lives without having to take an active role in the process is right outside their grasp of the world. Suggest it, and they’ll assume that you must mean that they’re Evil Ists and leap up in outrage shouting, "No, no, we’re the good guys!"
Of course there’s another massive problem with the particular form that the dream of a perfectly equal society has taken on the contemporary American left. Most versions of that dream imagine dragging the privileged down to the level of the poor; the current American version, as already noted, dreams of bringing everyone else up to the level of the affluent. It’s a more generous vision but also a far more clueless one, because the privileges, perquisites, and comforts that make the life of an affluent American what it is today are made possible, first, by the breakneck consumption of irreplaceable natural resources at wildly unsustainable rates, and second, by a distorted global economic system that until very recently allowed the five per cent or so of humanity that lives in the United States to consume around a third of the products of the global economy.
I’ve already discussed at length, here and in several of my books as well, the impossibility of keeping America’s affluent in the style to which they have become accustomed. (The short form was summed up memorably by Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”)  Factor in the cost of giving everyone else those  lifestyles and the impossibility factor soars to Himalayan heights. Understandably, a great many affluent American liberals don’t want to hear this, but facts of this kind are like cats—the more strictly you ignore them, the more they persist in wreathing around your ankles and jumping up into your lap.
The Right’s faith in the fairness of existing inequalities has more flexible roots, as shifts in intellectual fashion have sent the rhetoric of privilege careening all over a broad landscape of ideas. Back in the Middle Ages, the usual argument was that God had assigned each person his or her station in life, and asking questions about privilege was tantamount to questioning God’s good intentions. The collapse of Christian faith in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sent the apologists of privilege scrambling for other options; theories of racial superiority and Social Darwinism put fake biology in place of religion. More recently, the insistence that modern industrial societies are meritocracies, where each person naturally gravitates to a place consistent with his or her abilities, fill the same dubious role.
That said, the American right remains just as closed to the lessons of history as their equal and opposite counterparts on the left. Track the individuals and families that populate the upper reaches of privilege in any modern industrial society, and you’ll see something that resembles nothing so much as a pot of spaghetti sauce at a slow rolling boil. Individuals and families rise up from lower in the pot, linger on the upper surface for a while, and sink back into the depths. No one formula explains the churning; for every person who climbs into the upper ranks of privilege on the basis of talent, there’s at least one who bullied and bluffed his way there and another who got there by sheer dumb luck—and there are many others just as talented who never succeeded in climbing the social ladder as far, or at all.
The way down is a little more predictable than the way up, not least because it used to be a favorite theme for novelists. I’m thinking here among many others of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which follows a wealthy German family from the zenith of privilege through decline and extinction over the course of the nineteenth century. The lesson to be learned here is that a life of privilege doesn’t foster the habits that conduce to the preservation of privilege. Within a few generations, the descendants of the talented, the blustering, and the just plain lucky who clawed their way to the top become clueless and cosseted, unable to deal with the ordinary hurly-burly of life outside their bubble of privilege, and when something disrupts that bubble, down they go.
In ordinary times, as the spaghetti-sauce metaphor suggests, the turnover in the privileged classes is relatively steady and goes on without causing any particular disruption to the pot as a whole. To extend the metaphor, though, there are times when history turns up the heat suddenly under the sauce, a great bubble of steam rises to the surface, and the entire upper surface of the sauce is replaced in a single convulsive blorp. When that happens with spaghetti sauce, the result is usually quite a mess, and the same is just as true of the social phenomenon.
Here a different novel by Thomas Mann is a useful guide—the most famous of his works, The Magic Mountain. What it’s about, if I may sum up an extraordinarily multilayered tale far too crudely, is the world of European privilege in the years just before the First World War. There were plenty of novels written about that theme in the 1920s, when the memory of that vanished era was still fresh enough to be painful, but Mann went about telling his story in a typically unorthodox way. The slice of prewar life he chose, half metaphor and half microcosm, was a tuberculosis sanitarium in the Swiss Alps.
Back before the development of effective treatments, tuberculosis was a death sentence for the poor. Those who didn’t have to work for a living, though, could seek a cure in sanitariums in mountainous regions, where the clear dry air might give their immune systems enough of an edge to overcome the infection. There, with nothing to distract them but conversation and romance, the patients go round the narrow circles of their well-ordered lives, their every need taken care of by swarms of servants. Far below the magic mountain, on the crowded plains of Europe, things were happening and pressures were building toward an explosion, but the feckless viewpoint character Hans Castorp and his fellow-patients—Lodovico Settembrini, Clavdia Chauchat, and the rest—drift aimlessly along until the explosion arrives, the trance shatters, and Castorp is flung, or flings himself, down from the magic mountain and onto the killing fields of the First World War.
It’s a heck of a read and I recommend it to anyone who has the patience—not that common these days—to take in a long, thoughtful, and richly ironic novel. That said, Mann’s take also places the current state of affairs in the United States and the rest of the industrial world in mordant focus. History paid Mann an elegant compliment, because the Swiss town where the International Sanitarium Berghof was located in Mann’s novel is famous today for a slightly different gathering of the coddled and cosseted rich. Yes, that would be Davos, where the self-proclaimed masters of the world gather every year to take in speeches by movers, shakers, and tame intellectuals, and issue oh-so-serious  rehashes of whatever vacuous brand of conventional wisdom is in fashion just then. Look at pictures of the the last few Davos gatherings, and I’m quite sure that you’ll be able to spot Hans Castorp among the crowd, blinking owlishly at the camera. 
Castorp’s vague cluelessness, certainly, is much on display these days, and not merely at Davos. I’ve discussed a great many aspects of that cluelessness in previous posts, but the one that’s relevant here is the way that people high up on America’s social ladder understand their own privilege. By and large, as already noted, the affluent on the leftward end don’t think they have any privilege at all, while their counterparts on the rightward end think that their privilege is a straightforward reflection of their own superior talent, intelligence, and so on.
Here again, the reality is a bit different. The affluent classes in America, as already noted, have the privileges, the benefits, and the comforts they have for two reasons.  The first is that the world’s industrial societies are consuming irreplaceable natural resources at unsustainable rates in order to keep the global economy churning out the goods and services needed to prop up the lifestyles of the affluent. The second is that wildly unbalanced patterns of exchange concentrate the lion’s share of the benefits of that orgy of environmental destruction in the hands of a small percentage of our species. If you want to talk about the 1%, I’m fine with that, so long as it’s applied globally: to the top 1% by income of Homo sapiens. If you live in America and have an annual household income above $38,000 or so, in case you were wondering, you belong to that category.
This is the magic mountain of our era—a mountain of privilege whose inmates either have no idea that they’re privileged, or have convinced themselves that they deserve whatever they have and that those who don’t have the same things don’t deserve them. Far below the magic mountain, in the rest of the world, things are happening and pressures are building toward an explosion, but most of those up there in the heights haven’t noticed. It does not occur to them that there’s anything unusual about their lives, much less that some sudden turn of events could fling them down from the mountain and into a chaotic future for which most of them have made no preparations at all.
What they don’t see, in brief, is that both of the pillars propping up their lives—the breakneck exploitation of finite natural resources and the arrangements that funnel an oversized share of the proceeds to a small minority—are running up against hard limits right now. In upcoming posts I’ll be going into much more detail about how that’s playing out. For the time being, I want to talk about what this means for the structures of privilege we’ve been discussing for the last month.
Let’s take the two pillars one at a time.  A nation that supports itself by exploiting the rest of the world has a very different economic structure from a nation that supports itself by its own efforts. In the latter, the economy tends to be dominated by productive labor, on the one hand, and investment on the other, and the sort of conflict that Karl Marx liked to talk about—in terms of the analysis I’ve been using in these essays, the conflict between the wage class and the investment class—determines the distribution of wealth and privilege in society. In the former, by contrast, it makes more economic sense to offshore the production of goods and services to other countries, and to use the profits of global exploitation rather than domestic savings to provide capital for industry; thus the wage class and the investment class both suffer, while the salary class—the class of managers, marketers, bankers, bureaucrats, and corporate flunkies, all those professions that make their livings by manipulating the wealth produced by others—prospers as never before.
The transition from an economy focused on domestic production to an economy focused on global exploitation takes plenty of time.  In the case of the United States, it took a hundred years, from the first wave of American imperial expansion in 1898 to the temporary triumph of globalization in the 1980s.  The transition the other way, though, happens a good deal more quickly, as a faltering hegemon generally gets shoved aside by rising powers rather than being allowed to decay slowly in peace. The aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse is a good working model here: once the Soviet system imploded, Russia suddenly had to do without the large subsidies it received from the rest of the Eastern bloc, and most of a decade of raw economic chaos followed as the Russian economy struggled to adapt to the task of meeting its own needs domestically. Soviet Russia, it bears noting, was much less dependent on overseas imports for goods and services than today’s America, so the post-Soviet experience should be considered a lower bound for what we’re in for.
The other pillar has similar implications. An economy based on the breakneck consumption of natural resources tends to concentrate influence in the hands of those who control resource flows directly or indirectly, and in today’s America, once again, these tend to be disproportionately members of the salary class. An economy based on the conservation of natural resources tends to concentrate influence instead in the hands of those who own sustainable resources such as land, or those who work directly with those resources; again, the conflict between owners and laborers determines the distribution of wealth and privilege in such societies. Transitioning from a conserver economy to a consumer economy takes plenty of time—in the case of the United States, the better part of two hundred years—while the transition the other way tends, once more, to be much more rapid once the resources run short.
It’s in this context, finally, that we can understand the unexpected revolt of the wage class that’s having so dramatic a role in shaping this years US presidential race. Hillary Clinton, like her already-forgotten Republican equivalents, is a perfect salary class candidate; she speaks for the privileged, and her entire campaign consists of waving around sound bites that signal to the privileged that they don’t need to worry about significant change if she moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders, are appealing instead to the wage class. I doubt either one expected to get anything like as far as he has, but both seem perfectly willing to ride the wave of popular discontent just as far as it will take them—and in Trump’s case, it seems likely to take him straight to the White House this autumn.
That is to say, what was supposed to be an ordinary contest among the champions of the affluent has suddenly taken on a very different shape. To shift metaphors a bit, the affluent are beginning to notice that their jockeying for position resembles nothing so much as bickering over the arrangement of deck chairs aboard the Titanic. The revolt of the wage class shows that the structure of power and privilege in today’s America is already beginning to shift, and two weeks from now we’ll take a hard look at some of the ways that shift is unfolding and some of the factors that are driving it.
First, though, comes something a little different. Next week marks the tenth anniversary of The Archdruid Report, and I plan on a bit of retrospective—and a bit of celebration. After that’s done, we can roll up our sleeves and get in under the hood of a society and a civilization in terminal disarray.

Starhawking the Privilege Game

Wed, 2016-04-20 16:00
The last two posts here on The Archdruid Report, with their focus on America’s class system and the dysfunctional narratives that support it, fielded an intriguing response from readers. I expected a fair number to be uncomfortable with the subject I was discussing; I didn’t expect them to post comments and emails asking me, in so many words, to please talk about something else instead.
Straight talk about uncomfortable subjects has been this blog’s bread and butter since I first started posting just shy of ten years ago, so I’ve had some experience with the way that blog readers squirm. Normally, when I touch on a hot-button issue, readers who find that subject too uncomfortable go out of their way to act as though I haven’t mentioned it at all. I’m thinking here especially, but not only, of the times I’ve noted that the future of the internet depends on whether it can pay for itself, not on whether it’s technically feasible.  Whenever I’ve done this, I’ve gotten comments that rabbited on endlessly about technical feasibility as a way to avoid talking about the economic reasons why the internet won’t be able to cover its own operating costs in the future of resource depletion and environmental blowback we’re busy making for ourselves.
It’s not just hard questions about the future of the internet that attracts that strategy of avoidance, mind you. I’ve learned to expect it whenever some post of mine touches on any topic that contradicts the conventional wisdom of our time. That’s why the different response I got to the last two posts was so fascinating. The fact that people who were made uncomfortable by a frank discussion of class privilege actually admitted that, rather than trying to pretend that no subject so shocking had been mentioned at all, says to me that we may be approaching a historical inflection point of some importance.
Mind you, frank discussion of class privilege still gets plenty of avoidance maneuvers outside the fringe territory where archdruids lurk. I’m thinking here, of course, of the way that affluent liberals right now are responding to Donald Trump’s straightforward talk about class issues by yelling that he and his followers must be motivated by racism and nothing else. That’s partly a standard bit of liberal rhetoric—I’ve discussed the way that the word “racist,” when uttered by the privileged, normally functions as a dog whistle for “wage class”—but it’s also an attempt to drag the conversation away from what policies that benefit the affluent have done to everyone else in this country.
In some parts of the current Neopagan community, that evasive maneuver has acquired a helpful moniker: “Starhawking.”  With apologies to those of my readers who may find the behavior of one of America’s smaller minority religious communities uninteresting, I’d like to recount the story behind the label.  Here as so often, a small example helps clarify things; the reduced scale of a social microcosm makes it easier to observe patterns that can be harder to see at a glance on the macrocosmic scale.
Those who haven’t had any contact with the Neopagan scene may not know that it isn’t one religion, or even a group of closely related religions; rather, it’s a grab-bag of profoundly diverse faiths, some of which have less in common with one another than Christianity has with Shinto.  Their association in a common subculture comes not from shared beliefs or practices, but solely from a shared history of exclusion from the religious and cultural mainstream of American society.  These days, something like half of American Neopagans participate in some flavor of eclectic Paganism, which emerged out of the older British traditional witchcraft in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Most of the rest fall into two broad categories: one consists of older initiatiory traditions such as the British traditional witchcraft just named, while the other consists of recently revived polytheist faiths worshipping the gods and goddesses of various historic pantheons—Norse, Greek, Egyptian, and so on.
There’s a great deal of talk about inclusiveness in the Neopagan scene, but those of my readers who know their way around small American subcultures will have no trouble figuring out that what this means is that eclectic Paganism is the default option almost everywhere, and people from other traditions are welcome to show up and participate, on terms defined by eclectic Paganism, so long as they don’t offend the sensibilities of the eclectic Pagan majority. For a variety of reasons, most of which are more relevant to my other blog than this one, those sensibilities seem to be getting more easily offended of late, and people from the minority traditions have responded in a variety of ways.  Some have simply walked away from the Neopagan scene, while others have tried, in an assortment of forums, to start a conversation about what has been awkwardly termed “Wiccanate privilege.”
One such discussion was under way at a large San Francisco-area Neopagan event in 2014 when Starhawk put in a belated appearance. For those who aren’t familiar with her, she’s one of the few genuine celebrities to come out of the US Neopagan scene, the author of The Spiral Dance, one of the two books that basically launched eclectic Paganism—the other is Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon—and a notable political figure over on the leftward end of the spectrum. According to people I know who were there, she proceeded to insist that the conversation should not even be happening, because all Pagans need to unite to save the Earth.
Mind you, there were plenty of other conversations going on at that event that had nothing to do with saving the Earth, and neither she nor anyone else seemed to feel any need to try to silence those conversations—just the conversation about privilege.  That’s Starhawking: the rhetorical tactic of insisting that some other issue is so important that the privilege of the speaker must not be discussed. To be fair to Starhawk, she didn’t invent it; it’s all over contemporary discourse in America, quite often in contexts where the stakes are considerably higher than they will ever be in the Neopagan scene. 
Madeleine Albright’s recent insistence that every woman in America should vote for Hillary Clinton or fry in hell comes out of exactly the same logic. Issue A in this case is the so-called “glass ceiling,” the habit of excluding women of the privileged classes from the upper reaches of power and wealth. Issue B in this case is the fact that putting Hillary Clinton into the White House will only benefit those women who belong to the top end of America’s class structure, since the policies Clinton has supported throughout her political life have brought impoverishment and immiseration to the vast majority of American women, i.e., those who belong to the wage class and the lower half or so of the salary class.
When Starhawking comes from the leftward end of the affluent class, it’s almost always framed in terms of another kind of bias—racism, sexism, or what have you—which can be used, along the lines detailed last week, to blame the sufferings of one underprivileged group on another underprivileged group. When it takes place on the other end of the political spectrum, as of course it does all the time, other issues are used to drown out any discussion of privilege; among the favorites are crime, Christian moral theology, and the alleged laziness and greed of people on public assistance. The excuse differs but the rhetorical gimmick is the same.
One of the things that makes that gimmick viable is the ambiguous nature of the language that’s used to talk about the various candidates for Issue A. “Crime,” for example, is a nice vague abstraction that everyone can agree to oppose. Once that agreement has been obtained, on the other hand, it descends from the airy realm of abstraction into some very questionable specifics—to note a relevant example, none of the politicians who boast about being “tough on crime” have shown any interest in locking up the kleptomaniacs of Wall Street, whose billion-dollar swindles have done far more damage to the nation than any number of muggings on the mean streets of our inner cities.
In the same way, words like “racism” and “sexism” are abstractions with a great deal of ambiguity built into them. There are at least three things conflated in labels of this kind. I’d like to unpack those for a moment, in the hope of getting a clearer view of the convoluted landscape of American inequality.
The things I want to pull out of these portmanteau words, and others like them, are privilege, prejudice, and acts of injustice. Let’s start with the last. Police officers in America, for example, routinely gun down black teenagers in response to actions that do not get white teenagers shot; a woman who gets hired for a job in the US today can expect to get, on average, roughly three-quarters the pay that a man can expect to get for doing exactly the same job; two people who love each other and want to get married have to run a gauntlet of difficulties if they happen to be the same gender that they would not face if they were different genders. Those are acts of injustice.
Prejudice is a matter of attitudes rather than actions. The word literally means pre-judgments, the judgments we all make about people and situations before we encounter them. Everybody has them, every culture teaches them, but some people are more prejudiced—more committed to their pre-judgments, and less willing to reassess them in the face of disconfirming evidence—and some are less so.  Acts of injustice are usually motivated by prejudice, and prejudice very often results in acts of injustice, but neither of these equations are exact. I’ve known people who were profoundly prejudiced but refused to act on their prejudices because some other belief or commitment forbade that; I’ve also known people who participated repeatedly in acts of injustice, who were just following orders or going along with friends, and didn’t care in the least one way or the other.
Then there’s privilege. Where prejudice and acts of injustice are individual, privilege is collective; you have privilege, or don’t have it, because of the categories you belong to, not because of what you do or don’t do. I’ll use myself as a source of examples here. I can walk through the well-to-do neighborhoods of the town where I live, for instance, without being hassled by the police; black people don’t have that privilege. I can publish controversial essays like this one without being bombarded with rape and death threats by trolls; women don’t have that privilege. I can kiss my spouse in public without having some moron yell insults at me out of the window of a passing car; gay people don’t have that privilege.
I could fill the next ten posts on this blog with a listing of similar privileges I have, and not even come close to running out of examples. It’s important, though, to recognize that my condition of privilege isn’t assigned to me for any one reason. It’s not just that I’m white, or male, or heterosexual, or grew up in a family on the lower end of the salary class, or was born able-bodied, or what have you; it’s all of these things and a great many more, taken together, that assign me my place in the hierarchy of privilege. This is equally true of you, dear reader, and of everyone else. What differentiates my position from yours, and yours from everyone else’s, is that every station on the ladder has a different proportion between the number of people above it and the number of people below.  There are, for example, plenty of people in today’s America who have more privilege than I do, but there are vastly more people who have much, much less.
Note also that I don’t have to do anything to get the privileges I have, nor can I get rid of them.  As a white heterosexual man from a salary class background, and the rest of it, I got assigned nearly all of my privileges the moment I was born, and no matter what I do or don’t do, I’ll keep the vast majority of them until I die. Ths is also true of you, dear reader, and of everyone else: the vast majority of what places you on whatever rung you occupy in the long ladder of privilege is yours simply for being born. Thus you’re not responsible for the fact that you have whatever level of privilege you do—though you are responsible, of course, for what you choose to do with it.
You can, after all, convince yourself that you deserve your privilege, and the people who don’t share your privilege deserve their inferior status—that is to say, you can choose to be prejudiced.  You can exploit your privilege to benefit yourself at the expense of the less privileged—that is to say, you can engage in acts of injustice. The more privilege you have, the more your prejudices affect other people’s lives and the more powerful your acts of injustice become. Thus advocates for the less privileged are quite correct to point out that the prejudices and injustices of the privileged matter more than those of the unprivileged.
On the other hand, privilege does not automatically equate to prejudice, or to acts of injustice. It’s entirely possible for the privileged—who, as already noted, did not choose their privilege and can’t get rid of it—to refuse to exploit their privilege in this way. It’s even possible, crashingly unfashionable as the concept is these days, for them to take up the old principle of noblesse oblige: the concept, widely accepted (though not always acted on) in eras where privilege was more openly recognized, that those who are born to privilege also inherit definite responsibilities toward the less privileged. I suppose it’s even possible that they might do this and not expect lavish praise for it, though that’s kind of a stretch, American culture today being what it is.
These days, though, most white heterosexual men from salary class backgrounds don’t think of themselves as privileged, and don’t see the things I enumerated earlier as privileges. This is one of the most crucial points about privilege in today’s America: to the privileged, privilege is invisible. That’s not just a matter of personal cluelessness, or of personal isolation from the less privileged, though these can of course be involved. It’s a matter of enculturation. The mass media and every other aspect of mainstream American culture constantly present the experience of privileged people as normal, and just as constantly feed any departure from that experience through an utterly predictable set of filters.
First, of course, the experience of the unprivileged is erased—“That sort of thing doesn’t actually happen.” When that fails, it’s dismissed as unimportant—”Well, maybe it does happen, but it’s no big deal.” When it becomes clear that it is a big deal to those who have to cope with it, it’s treated as an occasional anomaly—“You can’t generalize from one or two bad examples.” When that breaks down, finally, the experience of the unprivileged is blamed on the unprivileged—“It’s their own fault that they get treated like that.”  If you know your way around America’s collective nonconversation about privilege, in the mass media or in everyday conversation, you’ve seen each one of these filters deployed a thousand times or more.
What makes this interesting is that the invisibility of privilege in modern America isn’t shared by that many other human societies. There are plenty of cultures, past and present, in which privilege is right out there in the open, written into laws, and openly discussed by the privileged as well as the unprivileged. The United States used to be like that as recently as the 1950s. It wasn’t just that there were Jim Crow laws in those days formally assigning black Americans the status of second-class citizens, and laws in many states that gave women second-class status when it came to a galaxy of legal and financial rights; it was all over the media and popular culture, too. Open any daily newspaper, and the society pages splashed around the difference in privilege between those people who belonged to the elite and those who didn’t.
For a complex series of reasons rooted in the cultural convulsions of the Sixties, though, frank talk about privilege stopped being socially acceptable in America over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. That didn’t make privilege go away, of course. It did mean that certain formal expressions of privilege, such as the Jim Crow laws just mentioned, had to be scrapped, and in that process, some real injustices did get fixed. The downside was the rise of a culture of doubletalk in which the very real disparities in privilege in American society got fed repeatedly through the filters described above, and one of the most important sources of those disparities—class differences—were shoved completely out of the collective conversation of our time.
The habit of Starhawking is one of the major rhetorical tools by which open discussion of privilege, and above all of class privilege, got thrust out of sight. It’s been used with equal verve at all points along the political spectrum from the far left straight across to the far right. Whether it’s affluent liberals insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege in order to get on with the task of saving the Earth, affluent conservatives insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege in order to get on with the task of returning America to its Christian roots, or—and this is increasingly the standard line—affluent people on both sides insisting that everyone else has to ignore their privilege because fighting those horrible people on the other side of the political spectrum is the only thing that matters, what all these utterances mean in practice is “don’t talk about my privilege.”
That sort of evasion is what I expected to field from readers when I started talking about issues surrounding class privilege earlier this year. I got a certain amount of it, to be sure, but as already mentioned, I also got comments by people who acknowledged that they were uncomfortable with the discussion and wanted me to stop. What this says to me is that the wall of denial and doubletalk that has closed down open discussion of privilege in today’s America—and especially of class privilege—may be cracking at last. Granted, The Archdruid Report is well out there on the cultural fringes of American society, but it’s very often the fringes that show signs of major social changes well before the mainstream ever hears about them.
If it’s true that the suppression of talk about privilege in general, and class privilege in particular, is in the process of breaking down, it’s not a minute too soon. The United States just now stands in the path of a tidal wave of drastic change, and current patterns of privilege are among the many things that bid fair to be upended once it hits. We’ll talk about that next week.

American Narratives: The Rescue Game

Wed, 2016-04-13 15:38
Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, with its analysis of the way that affluent white liberals use accusations of racism as a dog whistle for their own bigotry toward wage-earning Americans, got a flurry of emails and attempted comments trying to push the discussion back into the officially approved narrative of race in the United States. That came as no surprise, at least to me. Every society has a set of acceptable narratives that frame public discourse on any controversial subject, and trying to get past the narrow confines of any such narrative inevitably brings some form of pushback.
Depending on the society and the era, the pushback can quite readily include such entertainments as being burnt at the stake for heresy, so I don’t feel any need to complain about the really rather mild response I got. At the same time, though, I don’t propose to back down. Every society, as just noted, has a set of narratives that confine discourse on controversial subjects to approved channels, but tolerably often those approved channels exclude crucial details and head off necessary questions. In today’s United States, in particular, the facts concerning nearly every significant crisis we face can be divided up neatly into two entirely separate categories. The facts that most Americans are willing to talk about belong to one of these categories; the facts that matter most belong to the other.
Thus one of the things I plan on doing over the months ahead is talking about some of the narratives that keep most people in today’s America from discussing, or for that matter noticing, the most crucial forces dragging this country down to ruin. Such an examination could as well start with any of those narratives—as Charles Fort pointed out, one traces a circle starting anywhere—but given the response to last week’s post, we might as well start with the accepted narrative about race.
It’s probably necessary to reiterate that this discussion is about narratives, not about the things that the narratives are supposed to describe. If you want to hear about the realities of racial privilege, racial prejudice, and racial injustice in the United States, you need to talk to the people of color who have to deal with those things day in and day out, not to a middle-aged white intellectual like me, who’s by and large been sheltered from that dimension of the American experience. People of color, on the other hand, have had very little influence on the officially approved narrative of race in the United States.  Like most of the narratives that shape our collective discourse, that’s been crafted primarily by middle-aged white intellectuals with college educations and salary-class backgrounds: that is, people like me. If I sing you some of the songs of my people, in other words, I hope you won’t mind.
I’m going to approach the opening notes of this first song by what may seem like a roundabout route. There’s a school of psychology called transactional analysis, which focuses on interactions between people rather than the vagaries of the individual psyche. Transactional analysis covers a lot of ground, but I want to focus on just one of its themes here: the theory of interpersonal games.
An interpersonal game, like most other games, has a set of rules and some kind of prizes for winners. In a healthy interpersonal game, the rules and the prizes are overt: that is, if you ask the players what they are, you can pretty much count on an honest answer. As this stops being true—as more of the rules and prizes become covert—the game becomes more and more dysfunctional. At the far end of the spectrum are those wholly dysfunctional games in which straight talk about the rules and payoffs is utterly taboo.
The accepted mainstream narrative about race in America today can best be described as one of those latter category of wholly dysfunctional games. Fortunately, it’s a game that was explored in quite a bit of detail by transactional analysts in the 1960s and 1970s, so it won’t be particularly difficult to break the taboo and speak about the unspeakable. Its name?  The Rescue Game.
Here’s how it works. Each group of players is assigned one of three roles: Victim, Persecutor, or Rescuer. The first two roles are allowed one move each: the Victim’s move is to suffer, and the Persecutor’s move is to make the Victim suffer. The Rescuer is allowed two moves: to sympathize with the Victim and to punish the Persecutor. No other moves are allowed, and no player is allowed to make a move that belongs to a different role.
That may seem unduly limited. It’s not, because when a group of people is assigned a role, all their actions are redefined as the move or moves allotted to that role.  In the Rescue Game, in other words, whatever a Victim does must be interpreted as a cry of pain. Whatever a Persecutor does is treated as something that’s intended to cause pain to a Victim, and whatever a Rescuer does, by definition, either expresses sympathy for a Victim or inflicts well-deserved punishment on a Persecutor. This is true even when the actions performed by the three people in question happen to be identical. In a well-played Rescue Game, quite a bit of ingenuity can go into assigning every action its proper meaning as a move.
What’s more, the roles are collective, not individual. Each Victim is equal to every other Victim, and is expected to feel and resent all the suffering ever inflicted on every other Victim in the same game. Each Persecutor is equal to every other Persecutor, and so is personally to blame for every suffering inflicted by every other Persecutor in the same game. Each Rescuer, in turn, is equal to every other Rescuer, and so may take personal credit for the actions of every other Rescuer in the same game. This allows the range of potential moves to expand to infinity without ever leaving the narrow confines of the game.
There’s one other rule: the game must go on forever. The Victim must continue to suffer, the Persecutor must continue to persecute, and the Rescuer must continue to sympathize and punish. Anything that might end the game—for example, any actual change in the condition of the Victim, or any actual change in the behavior of the Persecutor—is therefore out of bounds. The Rescuer also functions as a referee, and so it’s primarily his or her job to see that nothing gets in the way of the continuation of the game, but all players are expected to help out if that should be necessary.
Got it? Now we’ll go to an example—and no, it’s not the one you’re thinking of. The example I have in mind is the standard narrative of race in the deep South for the century or so after the Civil War.
The players were rich white people, poor white people, and black people—this latter category, in the jargon of the time, included anyone with any publicly admitted trace of African ancestry.  The roles were assigned as follows: poor white people were Victims, black people were Persecutors, and rich white people were Rescuers. The rest of the game followed from there.
Anything that poor white people did to black people was thus justified, under the rules of the game, as a cry of pain elicited by their suffering at the hands of Yankees, carpetbaggers, former slaves, etc., etc. etc.  Anything rich white people did to black people was justified by their assigned role as Rescuers. Meanwhile, anything and everything that was done, or not done, by black people was defined as a persecution—if black people pursued an education, for example, they were trying to steal jobs from white folk, while if they didn’t, that just proved that they were an inferior element corrupting the South by their very presence, and so on through all the classic doublebinds of bigotry.
A variant of that game still goes on in the pseudoconservative end of American politics. When Hillary Clinton went out of her way to characterize African-American youth as “superpredators” not that many years ago, she was playing a version of that same game, in which law-abiding white citizens were the Victims, black youth were the Persecutors, and white politicians were the Rescuers. On the other end of the political spectrum, of course, the roles are reversed; in games played on that field, people of color are the Victims, working class white people are the Persecutors, and affluent white liberals are the Rescuers. The players have changed places but the game’s otherwise identical.
Yes, I’m aware that people of color on the one hand, and working class white people on the other, occupy radically different places in the hierarchy of privilege in today’s America. More precisely, members of each of these heterogeneous groups occupy a range of sharply differing positions in that hierarchy, and these two ranges have very little overlap. What’s come to be called intersectionality—the way that social divisions according to gender, race, class, ethnicity, physical disability, and a bubbling cauldron of other factors, intersect with one another to produce the convoluted landscape of American inequality—is a massive factor all through contemporary life in the United States. So is the wretchedly common human habit of “paying it downwards,” in which an abused and exploited group responds by seeking some other group to abuse and exploit in turn.
All these considerations, though, belong to the real world. They are excluded from the artificial world of the Rescue Game, and from the officially approved narrative about race that derives from that game. In the Rescue Game, all members of the group assigned the role of Victim are always, only, and equally Victims, all members of the group assigned the role of Persecutor are always, only, and equally Persecutors, and the maltreatment of the Victims by the Persecutors is the only thing that matters. If anyone tries to bring anyone else’s treatment of anyone else into the game, it’s either dismissed as an irrelevance or denounced as a deliberate, malicious attempt to distract attention from the maltreatment of the Victims by the Persecutors.
The assignment of roles to different categories of people takes place in the opening phase of the Rescue Game. Like most games, this one has an opening phase, a middle period of play, and an endgame, and the opening phase is called “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor.” In this initial phase, teams of Victims bid for the attention of Rescuers by displaying their suffering and denouncing their Persecutors, and the winners are those who attract enough Rescuers to make up a full team. In today’s America, this phase of the game is ongoing, and a great deal of rivalry tends to spring up between teams of Victims who compete for the attention of the same Rescuers. When that rivalry breaks out into open hostilities, as it often does, the result has been called the Oppression Olympics—the bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred struggle over which group of people gets to have its sufferings privileged over everyone else’s.
Once the roles have been assigned and an adequate team of Rescuers attracted, the game moves into its central phase, which is called “Show Trial.” This has two requirements, which are not always met. The first is an audience willing to applaud the Victims, shout catcalls at the Persecutors, and cheer for the Rescuers on cue. The second is a supply of Persecutors who can be convinced or coerced into showing up to play the game. A Rescue Game in which the Persecutors don’t show quickly enters the endgame, with disadvantages that will be described shortly, and so getting the Persecutors to appear is crucial.
This can be done in several ways. If the game is being played with live ammunition—for example, Stalin’s Russia or the deep South after the Civil War—people who have been assigned the role of Persecutors can simply be rounded up at gunpoint and forced to participate. If the people playing the game have some less drastic form of institutional power—for example, in American universities today—participation in the game can be enforced by incentives such as curriculum requirements. Lacking these options, the usual strategies these days are to invite the Persecutors to a supposedly honest dialogue, on the one hand, and to taunt them until they show up to defend themselves, on the other.
However their presence is arranged, once the Persecutors arrive, the action of the game is stereotyped. The Victims accuse the Persecutors of maltreating them, the Persecutors try to defend themselves, and then the Victims and the Rescuers get to bully the Persecutors into silence, using whatever means are allowed by local law and custom. If the game is being played with live ammunition, each round ends with the messy death of one or more Persecutors; the surviving players take a break of varying length, and then the next Persecutor or group of Persecutors is brought in. In less gory forms of the game, the Persecutors are shouted down rather than shot down, but the emotional tone is much the same.
This phase of the game continues until there are no more Persecutors willing or able to act out their assigned role, or until the audience gets bored and wanders away. At this point the action shifts to the endgame, which is called “Circular Firing Squad.” In this final phase of the game, the need for a steady supply of Persecutors is met by identifying individual Victims or Rescuers as covert Persecutors. Since players thus accused typically try to defend themselves against the accusation, the game can go on as before—the Victims bring their accusations, the newly identified Persecutors defend themselves, and then the Victims and Rescuers get to bully them into silence.
The one difficulty with this phase is that each round of the game diminishes the supply of players and makes continuing the game harder and harder. Toward the end, in order to keep the game going, the players commonly make heroic attempts to convince or coerce more people into joining the game, so that they can be “outed” as Persecutors, and the range of things used to identify covert Persecutors can become impressively baroque.  The difficulty, of course, is that very few people are interested in playing a game in which the only role open to them is being accused of violating a code of rules that becomes steadily more subtle, elaborate, and covert with each round of the game, and getting bullied into silence thereafter. Once word gets out, as a result, the game usually grinds to a halt in short order due to a shortage of players. At that point, it’s back to “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor,” and on we go.
There’s plenty more that could be said here about the details of the Rescue Game and the narrative of race derived from it, but at this point I’d like to consider three broader issues. The first is the relation between the game and the narrative, on the one hand, and the realities of racism in today’s America. I don’t doubt that some readers of this essay will insist that by questioning the narrative, I’m trying to erase the reality.  Not so. Racial privilege, racial prejudice, and racial injustice are pervasive factors in American life today.  The fact that the approved narrative of race in today’s America is deceptive and dysfunctional doesn’t make racism any less real; on the other hand, the fact that American racism is a stark reality doesn’t make the narrative any less deceptive and dysfunctional.
The second issue I’d like to consider is whether the same game is played on other playing fields, and the answer is yes. I first encountered the concept of the Rescue Game, in fact, by way of a pamphlet lent to my wife by her therapist sister-in-law, which used it as the basis for an edgy analysis of class conflicts within the lesbian community. From there to the literature on transactional analysis was a short step, and of course it didn’t hurt that I lived in Seattle in those years, where every conceivable form of the Rescue Game could be found in full swing. (The most lively games of “Circular Firing Squad” in town were in the Marxist splinter parties, which I followed via their monthly newspapers; the sheer wallowing in ideological minutiae that went into identifying this or that party member as a deviationist would have impressed the stuffing out of medieval scholastic theologians.)
With impressive inevitability, in fact, every question concerning privilege in today’s America gets turned into a game of “Pin the Tail on the Persecutor,” in which one underprivileged group is blamed for the problems affecting another underprivileged group, and some group of affluent white people show up to claim the Rescuer’s role.  That, in turn, leads to the third issue I want to consider here, which is the question of who benefits most from the habit of forcing all discussion of privilege in today’s America into the straitjacket of the Rescue Game.
It’s only fair to note that each of the three roles gets certain benefits, though these are distributed in a very unequal fashion. The only thing the people who are assigned the role of Persecutor get out of it is plenty of negative attention. Sometimes that’s enough—it’s a curious fact that hating and being hated can function as an intoxicant for some people—but this is rarely enough of an incentive to keep those assigned the Persecutor’s role willing to play the game for long.
The benefits that go to people who are assigned the role of Victim are somewhat more substantial. Victims get to air their grievances in public, which is a rare event for the underprivileged, and they also get to engage in socially sanctioned bullying of people they don’t like, which is an equally rare treat. That’s all they get, though. In particular, despite reams of the usual rhetoric about redressing injustices and the like, the Victims are not supposed to do anything, or to expect the Rescuers to do anything, to change the conditions under which they live. The opportunities to air grievances and bully others are substitutes for substantive change, not—as they’re usually billed—steps toward substantive change.
The vast majority of the benefits of the game, rather, go to the Rescuers. They’re the ones who decide which team of Victims will get enough attention from Rescuers to be able to start a game.  They’re the ones who enforce the rules, and thus see to it that Victims keep on being victimized and Persecutors keep on persecuting.  Nor is it accidental that in every Rescue Game, the people who get the role of Rescuers are considerably higher on the ladder of social privilege than the people who get given the roles of Victims and Persecutors.
Step back and look at the whole picture, and it’s not hard to see why this should be so. At any given time, after all, there are many different Rescue Games in play, with affluent white people always in the role of Rescuers and an assortment of less privileged groups alternating in the roles of Victims and Persecutors. Perhaps, dear reader, you find it hard to imagine why affluent white people would want to keep everyone else so busy fighting one another that they never notice who benefits most from that state of affairs. Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to you that giving the underprivileged the chance to air their grievances and engage in a little socially sanctioned bullying is a great deal less inconvenient for the affluent than actually taking action to improve the lives of the underprivileged would be. Such thoughts seemingly never enter the minds of most Americans; I’ll leave it to you to figure out why.
**************On an unrelated note, I’m pleased to announce that the latest After Oil anthology, After Oil 4: The Future’s Distant Shores, is now available for sale. Like previous volumes in the series, this one’s packed with first-rate stories about the postpetroleum future, written by Archdruid Report readers; the one wrinkle this time around is that all the stories are set at least one thousand years in the future.
Founders House Publishing is also offering the e-book edition of the first volume in the series, After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future, for $2.99 just now. Those of my readers who haven’t yet read the original anthology, and like e-books, might want to give this one a try; if you haven’t read it yet, you’re in for a treat.

The End of Ordinary Politics

Wed, 2016-04-06 11:07
Archdruids may take vacations but politics never sleeps, and during the month that’s elapsed since the last post here on The Archdruid Report, quite a number of things relevant to this blog’s project have gone spinning past the startled eyes of those who pay attention to the US political scene. I’ll get to some of the others in upcoming weeks; the one that caught my attention most forcefully, for reasons I trust my readers will find understandable, was the reaction to a post of mine from a few months back titled Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment.
It’s not uncommon for a post of mine on a controversial subject to get picked up by other blogs and attract a fair amount of discussion and commentary. On the other hand, when something I write takes not much more than a week to become the most-read post in the history of The Archdruid Report, goes on to attract more than half again as many page views as the nearest runner-up, and gets nearly twice as many comments as the most comment-heavy previous post, it’s fair to say that something remarkable has happened. When a follow-up post, The Decline and Fall of Hillary Clinton, promptly became the second most-read post in this blog’s history and attracted even more comments—well, here again, it seems tolerably clear that I managed to hit an exquisitely sensitive nerve.
It may not be an accident, either, that starting about a week after that first post went up, two things relevant to it have started to percolate through the mass media. The first, and to my mind the most promising, is that a few journalists have managed to get past the usual crass stereotypes, and talk about the actual reasons why so many voters have decided to back Donald Trump’s aspirations this year. I was startled to see a thoughtful article by Peggy Noonan along those lines in the Wall Street Journal, and even more astonished to see pieces making similar points in other media outlets—here’s an example,, and here’s another.
Mind you, none of the articles that I saw quite managed to grapple with the raw reality of the situation that’s driving so many wage-earning Americans to place their last remaining hopes for the future on Donald Trump. Even Noonan’s piece, though it’s better than most and makes an important point we’ll examine later, falls short.  In her analysis, what’s wrong is that a privileged subset of Americans have been protected from the impacts of the last few decades of public policy, while the rest of us haven’t had that luxury.  This is true, of course, but it considerably understates things. The class she’s talking about—the more affluent half or so of the salary class, to use the taxonomy I suggested in my post—hasn’t simply been protected from the troubles affecting other Americans.  They’ve profited, directly and indirectly, from the policies that have plunged much of the wage class into impoverishment and misery, and their reliable response to any attempt to discuss that awkward detail shows tolerably clearly that a good many of them are well aware of it.
I’m thinking here, among many other examples along the same lines, of a revealing article earlier this year from a reporter who attended a feminist conference on sexism in the workplace. All the talk there was about how women in the salary class could improve their own prospects for promotion and the like. It so happened that the reporter’s sister works in a wage-class job, and she quite sensibly inquired whether the conference might spare a little time to discuss ways to improve prospects for women who don’t happen to belong to the salary class. Those of my readers who have seen discussions of this kind know exactly what happened next: a bit of visible discomfort, a few vaguely approving comments, and then a resumption of the previous subjects as though no one had made so embarrassing a suggestion.
It’s typical of the taboo that surrounds class prejudice in today’s industrial nations that not even the reporter mentioned the two most obvious points about this interchange. The first, of course, is that the line the feminists at the event drew between those women whose troubles with sexism were of interest to them, and those whose problems didn’t concern them in the least, was a class line. The second is that the women at the event had perfectly valid, if perfectly selfish, reasons for drawing that line. In order to improve the conditions of workers in those wage class industries that employ large numbers of women, after all, the women at the conference would themselves have had to pay more each month for daycare, hairstyling, fashionable clothing, and the like. Sisterhood may be powerful, as the slogans of an earlier era liked to claim, but it’s clearly not powerful enough to convince women in the salary class to inconvenience themselves for the benefit of women who don’t happen to share their privileged status.
To give the women at the conference credit, though, at least they didn’t start shouting about some other hot-button issue in the hope of distracting attention from an awkward question. That was the second thing relevant to my post that started happening the week after it went up. All at once, much of the American left responded to the rise of Donald Trump by insisting at the top of their lungs that the only reason, the only possible reason, that anyone at all supports the Trump campaign is that Trump is a racist and so are all his supporters.
It’s probably necessary to start by unpacking the dubious logic here, so that we can get past that and see what’s actually being said. Does Trump have racial prejudices? No doubt; most white Americans do. Do his followers share these same prejudices? Again, no doubt some of them do—not all his followers are white, after all, a point that the leftward end of the media has been desperately trying to obscure in recent weeks. Let’s assume for the sake of argument, though, that Trump and his followers do indeed share an assortment of racial bigotries. Does that fact, if it is a fact, prove that racism must by definition be the only thing that makes Trump appeal to his followers?
Of course it proves nothing of the kind. You could use the same flagrant illogic to insist that since Trump enjoys steak, and many of his followers share that taste, the people who follow him must be entirely motivated by hatred for vegetarians. Something that white Americans generally don’t discuss, though I’m told that most people of color are acutely aware of it, is that racial issues simply aren’t that important to white people in this country nowadays.  The frantic and passionate defense of racial bigotry that typified the Jim Crow era is rare these days outside of the white-supremacist fringe.  What has replaced it, by and large, are habits of thought and action that most white people consider to be no big deal—and you don’t get a mass movement going in the teeth of the political establishment by appealing to attitudes that the people who hold them consider to be no big deal.
Behind the shouts of “Racist!” directed at the Trump campaign by a great many affluent white liberals, rather, lies a rather different reality. Accusations of racism play a great many roles in contemporary American discourse—and of course the identification of actual racism is among these. When affluent white liberals make that accusation, on the other hand, far more often than not, it’s a dog whistle.
I should probably explain that last phrase for the benefit of those of my readers who don’t speak fluent Internet. A dog whistle, in online jargon, is a turn of phrase or a trope that expresses some form of bigotry while giving the bigot plausible deniability. During the civil rights movement, for example, the phrase “states’ rights” was a classic dog whistle; the rights actually under discussion amounted to the right of white Southerners to impose racial discrimination on their black neighbors, but the White Citizens Council spokesmen who waxed rhapsodic about states’ rights never had to say that in so many words. That there were, and are, serious issues about the balance of power between states and the federal government that have nothing do with race, and thus got roundly ignored by both sides of the struggle, is just one more irony in a situation that had no shortage of them already.
In the same way, the word “racist” in the mouths of the pundits and politicians who have been applying it so liberally to the Trump campaign is a dog whistle for something they don’t want to talk about in so many words. What they mean by it, of course, is “wage class American.”
That’s extremely common. Consider the recent standoff in Oregon between militia members and federal officials. While that was ongoing, wags in the blogosphere and the hip end of the media started referring to the militia members as “Y’all-Qaeda.” Attentive readers may have noted that none of the militia members came from the South—the only part of the United States where “y’all” is the usual second person plural pronoun. To the best of my knowledge, all of them came from the dryland West, where “y’all” is no more common than it is on the streets of Manhattan or Vancouver. Why, then, did the label catch on so quickly and get the predictable sneering laughter of the salary class?
It spread so quickly and got that laugh because most members of the salary class in the United States love to apply a specific stereotype to the entire American wage class. You know that stereotype as well as I do, dear reader. It’s a fat, pink-faced, gap-toothed Southern good ol’ boy in jeans and a greasy T-shirt, watching a NASCAR race on television from a broken-down sofa, with one hand stuffed elbow deep into a bag of Cheez Doodles, the other fondling a shotgun, a Confederate flag patch on his baseball cap and a Klan outfit in the bedroom closet. As a description of wage-earning Americans in general, that stereotype is as crass, as bigoted, and as politically motivated as any of the racial and sexual stereotypes that so many people these days are ready to denounce—but if you mention this, the kind of affluent white liberals who would sooner impale themselves on their own designer corkscrews than mention African-Americans and watermelons in the same paragraph will insist at the top of their lungs that it’s not a stereotype, it’s the way “those people” really are.
Those of my readers who don’t happen to know any people from the salary class, and so haven’t had the opportunity to hear the kind of hate speech they like to use for the wage class, might want to pick up the latest edition of the National Review, and read a really remarkable diatribe by Kevin Williamson—it’s behind a paywall, but here’s a sample.  The motive force behind this tantrum was the fact that many people in the Republican party’s grassroots base are voting in their own best interests, and thus for Trump, rather than falling into line and doing what they’re told by their soi-disant betters. The very idea!  It’s a fine display of over-the-top classist bigotry, as well as a first-rate example of the way that so many people in the salary class like to insist that poverty is always and only the fault of the poor.
May I please be frank? The reason that millions of Americans have had their standard of living hammered for forty years, while the most affluent twenty per cent have become even more affluent, is no mystery. What happened was that corporate interests in this country, aided and abetted by a bipartisan consensus in government and cheered on by the great majority of the salary class, stripped the US economy of living wage jobs by offshoring most of America’s industrial economy, on the one hand, and flooding the domestic job market with millions of legal and illegal immigrants on the other.
That’s why a family living on one average full-time wage in 1966 could afford a home, a car, three square meals a day, and the other necessities and comforts of an ordinary American lifestyle, while a family with one average full time wage in most US cities today is living on the street. None of that happened by accident; no acts of God were responsible; no inexplicable moral collapse swept over the American wage class and made them incapable of embracing all those imaginary opportunities that salary class pundits like to babble about. That change was brought about, rather, by specific, easily identifiable policies. As a result, all things considered, blaming the American poor for the poverty that has been imposed on them by policies promoted by the affluent is the precise economic equivalent of blaming rape victims for the actions of rapists.
In both cases, please note, blaming the victim makes a convenient substitute for talking about who’s actually responsible, who benefits from the current state of affairs, and what the real issues are. When that conversation is one that people who have a privileged role in shaping public discourse desperately don’t want to have, blaming the victim is an effective diversionary tactic, and accordingly it gets much use in the US media these days. There are, after all, plenty of things that the people who shape public discourse in today’s America don’t want to talk about. The fact that the policies pushed by those same shapers of opinion have driven millions of American families into poverty and misery isn’t the most unmentionable of these things, as it happens. The most unmentionable of the things that don’t get discussed is the fact that those policies have failed.
It really is as simple as that. The policies we’re talking about—lavish handouts for corporations and the rich, punitive austerity schemes for the poor, endless wars in the Middle East and elsewhere, malign neglect of domestic infrastructure, and deer-in-the-headlights blank looks or vacuous sound bites in response to climate change and the other consequences of our frankly moronic maltreatment of the biosphere that keeps us all alive—were supposed to bring prosperity to the United States and its allies and stability to the world. They haven’t done that, they won’t do that, and with whatever respect is due to the supporters of Hillary Clinton, four more years of those same policies won’t change that fact. The difficulty here is simply that no one in the political establishment, and precious few in the salary class in general, are willing to recognize that failure, much less learn its obvious lessons or notice the ghastly burdens that those policies have imposed on the majorities who have been forced to carry the costs.
Here, though, we’re in territory that has been well mapped out in advance by one of the historians who have helped guide the project of this blog since its inception. In his magisterial twelve-volume A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee explored in unforgiving detail the processes by which societies fail. Some civilizations, he notes, are overwhelmed by forces outside their control, but this isn’t the usual cause of death marked on history’s obituaries. Far more often than not, rather, societies that go skidding down the well-worn route marked “Decline and Fall” still have plenty of resources available to meet the crises that overwhelm them and plenty of options that could have saved the day—but those resources aren’t put to constructive use and those options never get considered.
This happens, in turn, because the political elites of those failed societies lose the ability to notice that the policies they want to follow don’t happen to work. The leadership of a rising civilization pays close attention to the outcomes of its policies and discards those that don’t work.  The leadership of a falling civilization prefers to redefine “success” as “following the approved policies” rather than “yielding the preferred outcomes,” and concentrates on insulating itself from the consequences of its mistakes rather than recognizing the mistakes and dealing with their consequences. The lessons of failure are never learned, and so the costs of failure mount up until they can no longer be ignored.
This is where Peggy Noonan’s division of the current population into “protected” and “unprotected” classes has something useful to offer. Members of the protected class—in today’s America, as already noted, this is above all the more affluent half or so of the salary class—live within a bubble that screens them from any contact with the increasingly impoverished and immiserated majority. As far as they can see, everything’s fine; all their friends are prospering, and so are they; spin-doctored news stories and carefully massaged statistics churned out by government offices insist that nothing could possibly be wrong. They go from gated residential community to office tower to exclusive restaurant to high-end resort and back again, and the thought that it might be useful once in a while to step outside the bubble and go see what conditions are like in the rest of the country would scare the bejesus out of them if it ever occurred to them at all.
In a rising civilization, as Toynbee points out, the political elite wins the loyalty and respect of the rest of the population by recognizing problems and then solving them. In a falling civilization, by contrast, the political elite forfeits the loyalty and respect of the rest of the population by creating problems and then ignoring them. That’s what lies behind the crisis of legitimacy that occurs so often in the twilight years of a society in decline—and that, in turn, is the deeper phenomenon that lies behind the meteoric rise of Donald Trump.  If a society’s officially sanctioned leaders can’t lead, won’t follow, and aren’t willing to get out of the way, sooner or later people are going to start looking for a way to shove them through history’s exit turnstile, by whatever means turn out to be necessary.
Thus if Trump loses the election in November, that doesn’t mean that the threat to the status quo is over—far from it.  If Hillary Clinton becomes president, we can count on four more years of the same failed and feckless policies, which she’s backed to the hilt throughout her political career, and thus four more years in which millions of Americans outside the narrow circle of affluence will be driven deeper into poverty and misery, while being told by the grinning scarecrows of officialdom that everything is just fine. That’s not a recipe for social stability; those who make peaceful change impossible, it’s been pointed out, make violent change inevitable. What’s more, Trump has already shown every ambitious demagogue in the country exactly how to build a mass following, and he’s also shown a great many wage-earning Americans that there can be alternatives to an intolerable status quo.
No matter how loudly today’s establishment insists that the policies it favors are the only thinkable options, the spiraling failure of those policies, and the appalling costs they impose on people outside the bubble of privilege, guarantee that sooner or later the unthinkable will become the inescapable. That’s the real news of this election season:  the end of ordinary politics, and the first stirrings of an era of convulsive change that will leave little of today’s conventional wisdom intact.
**********************On a not unrelated theme, I’m delighted to announce that my next book from New Society Publishers, Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead, is now available for preorder. Readers who favor the sort of feel-good pablum for the overprivileged marketed by Yes! Magazine and its equivalents will want to give this one a pass. (It’s been suggested to me more than once that if I ran a magazine, it would have to be titled Probably Not! Magazine: A Journal of Realistic Futures.) On the other hand, those who are looking for a sober assessment of the mess into which we’ve collectively backed ourselves, and the likely consequences of that mess over the next five centuries or so, may find it just their cup of astringent tea.