Wednesday, June 22, 2016

In Praise of the Reprehensible

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.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Retrotopia: Diminishing Returns

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?

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

They Died of Progress

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 Retrotopia narrative, 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.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Retrotopia: The Far Side of Progress

I got lunch at the little café across 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.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Against Cultural Senility

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.