Nov 28

Today’s treason of the intellectuals

The longest-term stakes in the war against terror are not just human lives, but whether Western civilization will surrender to fundamentalist Islam and shari’a law. More generally, the overt confrontation between Western civilization and Islamist barbarism that began on September 11th of 2001 has also made overt a fault line in Western civilization itself — a fault line that divides the intellectual defenders of our civilization from intellectuals whose desire is to surrender it to political or religious absolutism.

This fault line was clearly limned in Julien Benda’s 1927 essay Le trahison des clercs: English “The treason of the intellectuals”. I couldn’t find a copy of Benda’s essay on the Web. but there is an excellent commentary on it that repays reading. Ignore the reflexive endorsement of religious faith at the end; the source was a conservative Catholic magazine in which such gestures are obligatory. Benda’s message, untainted by Catholic or Christian partisanship, is even more resonant today than it was in 1927.

The first of the totalitarian genocides (the Soviet-engineered Ukrainian famine of 1922-1923, which killed around two million people) had already taken place. Hitler’s “Final Solution” was about fifteen years in the future. Neither atrocity became general knowledge until later, but Benda in 1927 would not have been surprised; he foresaw the horrors that would result when intellectuals abetted the rise of the vast tyrannizing ideologies of the 20th century,

Changes in the transport, communications, and weapons technologies of the 20th century made the death camps and the gulags possible. But it was currents in human thought that made them fact — ideas that both motivated and rationalized the thuggery of the Hitlers and Stalins of the world.

Benda indicted the intellectuals of his time for abandoning the program of the Enlightenment — abdicating the search for disinterested truth and universal human values. Benda charged that in
abandoning universalism in favor of racism, classism, and political particularism, intellectuals were committing treason against the humanity that looked to them for guidance — prostituting themselves to creeds that would do great ill.

And what are the sequelae of this treason? Most diagnostically, mass murder and genocide. Its lesser consequences are subject to debate, equivocation, interpretation — but when we contemplate the atrocities at the Katyn Forest or the Sari nightclub there can beno doubt that we confront radical evils. Nor can we disregard the report of the perpetrators that that those evils were motivated by ideologies, nor that the ideologies were shaped and enabled and apologized for by identifiable factions among intellectuals in the West.

An intellectual commits treason against humanity when he or she propagandizes for ideas which lend themselves to the use of tyrants and terrorists.

In Benda’s time, the principal problem was what I shall call “treason of the first kind” or revolutionary absolutism: intellectuals signing on to a transformative revolutionary ideology in the belief that if the right people just got enough political power, they could fix everything that was wrong with the world. The “right people”, of course, would be the intellectuals themselves — or, at any rate, politicians who would consent to be guided by the intellectuals. If a few kulaks or Jews had to die for the revolution, well, the greater good and all that…the important thing was that violence wielded by Smart People with the Correct Ideas would eventually make things right.

The Nazi version of this disease was essentially wiped out by WWII. But the most deadly and persistent form of treason of the first kind, which both gave birth to intellectual Naziism and long outlived it, was intellectual Marxism. (It bears remembering that ‘Nazi’ stood for “National Socialist”, and that before the 1934 purge of the Strasserites the Nazi party was explicitly socialist in ideology.)

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1992 broke the back of intellectual Marxism. It may be that the great slaughters of the 20th century have had at least one good effect, in teaching the West a lesson about the perils of revolutionary absolutism written in letters of human blood too large for even the most naive intellectual idealist to ignore. Treason of the first kind is no longer common.

But Benda also indicted what I shall call “treason of the second kind”, or revolutionary relativism — the position that there are no moral claims or universal values that can trump the particularisms of particular ethnicities, political movements, or religions. In particular, relativists maintain that that the ideas of reason and human rights that emerged from the Enlightenment have no stronger claim on us than tribal prejudices.

Today, the leading form of treason of the second kind is postmodernism — the ideology that all value systems are equivalent, merely the instrumental creations of people who seek power and other unworthy ends. Thus, according to the postmodernists, when fanatical Islamists murder 3,000 people and the West makes war against the murderers and their accomplices, there is nothing to choose between these actions. There is only struggle between contending agendas. The very idea that there might be a universal ethical standard by which one is `better’ than the other is pooh-poohed as retrogressive, as evidence that one is a paid-up member of the Party of Dead White Males (a hegemonic conspiracy more malign than any terrorist organization).

Treason of the first kind wants everyone to sign up for the violence of redemption (everyone, that is, other than the Jews and capitalists and individualists that have been declared un-persons in advance). Treason of the second kind is subtler; it denounces our will to fight terrorists and tyrants, telling us we are no better than they, and even that the atrocities they commit against us are no more than requital for our past sins.

Marxism may be dead, but revolutionary absolutism is not; it flourishes in the Third World. Since 9/11, the West has faced an Islamo-fascist axis formed by al-Qaeda, Palestinian groups including the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the rogue state of Iraq, and the theocratic government of Iran. These groups do not have unitary leadership, and their objectives are not identical; notably, the PA
and Iraq are secularist, while al-Qaeda and Hamas and the Iranians and the Taliban are theocrats. Iran is Shi’a Islamic; the other theocratic groups are Sunni. But all these groups exchange intelligence and weapons, and they sometimes loan each other personnel. They hate America and the West, and they have used terror against us in an undeclared war that goes back to the early 1970s. The objectives of these groups, whether they are secular Arab nationalism or Jihad, require killing a lot of people. Especially a lot of Westerners.

Today’s treason of the intellectuals consists of equating suicide bombings deliberately targeting Israeli women and children with Israeli military operations so restrained that Palestinian children throw rocks at Israeli soldiers without fearing their guns. Today’s treason of the intellectuals tells us that because the U.S. occasionally propped up allied but corrupt governments during the
Cold War, we have no right to object to airliners being flown into the World Trade Center. Today’s treason of the intellectuals consists of telling us we should do nothing but stand by, wringing our hands, while at least one of the groups in the Islamo-fascist axis acquires nuclear weapons with which terrorists could repeat their mass murders in New York City and Bali on an immensely larger scale.

Behind both kinds of treason there lurks an ugly fact: second-rate intellectuals, feeling themselves powerless, tend to worship power. The Marxist intellectuals who shilled for Stalin and the postmodernists who shill for Osama bin Laden are one of a kind — they identify with a tyrant’s or terrorist’s vision of transformingthe world through violence because they know they are incapable of making any difference themselves. This is why you find academic apologists disproportionately in the humanities departments and the soft sciences; physicists and engineers and the like have more constructive ways of engaging the world.

It may be that 9/11 will discredit revolutionary relativism as throughly as the history of the Nazis and Soviets discredited revolutionary absolutism. There are hopeful signs; the postmodernists and multiculturalists have a lot more trouble justifying their treason to non-intellectuals when its consequences include the agonizing deaths of thousands caught on videotape.

It’s not a game anymore. Ideas have consequences; postmodernism and multiculturalism are no longer just instruments in the West’s intramural games of one-upmanship. They have become an apologetic for barbarians who, quite literally, want to kill or enslave us all. Those ideas — and the people who promulgate them — should be judged accordingly.

Nov 26

When to shoot a policeman

A policeman was
premeditatedly shot dead today.

Now, I don’t regard shooting a policeman as the worst possible
crime — indeed, I can easily imagine circumstances under which I
would do it myself. If he were committing illegal violence — or
even officially legal violence during the enforcement of an unjust
law. Supposing a policeman were criminally threatening someone’s
life, say. Or suppose that he had been ordered under an act of
government to round up all the Jews in the neighborhood, or confiscate
all the pornography or computers or guns. Under those circumstances,
it would be not merely my right but my duty to shoot the
policeman.

But this policeman was harming nobody. He was shot down in
cold blood as he was refueling his cruiser. His murderer subsequently
announced the act on a public website.

The murderer said he was “protesting police-state tactics”. If
that were his goal, however, then the correct and appropriate
expression of it would have been to kill a BATF thug in the process of
invading his home, or an airport security screener, or some other
person who was actively and at the time of the protest implementing
police-state tactics.

Killings of policemen in those circumstances are a defensible
social good, pour encourager les autres. It is right and proper
that the police and military should fear for their lives when they
trespass on the liberty of honest citizens; that is part of the
balance of power that maintains a free society, and the very reason
our Constitution has a Second Amendment.

But this policeman was refueling his car. Nothing in the
shooter’s justification carried any suggestion that the shooter’s
civil rights had ever been violated by the victim, or that the
murderer had standing to act for any other individual person whose
rights had been violated by the victim. This killing was not
self-defense.

There are circumstances under which general warfare against the
police would be justified. In his indymedia post The
Declaration of a Renewed American Independence
the shooter utters
a scathing, and (it must be said) largely justified indictment of
police abuses. If the political system had broken down sufficiently
that there were no reasonable hope of rectifying those abuses, then I
would be among the first to cry havoc.

Under those circumstances, it would be my duty as a free human
being under the U.S. Constitution not merely to shoot individual
policemen, but to make revolutionary war on the police. As Abraham Lincoln
said, “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people
who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing
government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending
it or their revolutionary right to dismember it or overthrow
it.”

But the United States of America has not yet reached the point at
which the political mechanisms for the defense of freedom have broken
down. This judgment is not a matter of theory but one of practice.
There are not yet police at our door with legal orders to round up the
Jews, or confiscate pornography or computers or guns.

Civil society has not yet been fatally vitiated by tyranny. Under
these circumstances, the only possible reaction is to condemn. This
was a crime. This was murder. And I would cheerfully shoot not the
policeman but the murderer dead. (There would be no question
of guilt or due process, since the murderer publicly boasted of his
crime.)

But that this shooter was wrong does not mean that
everyone who shoots a policeman in the future will also be wrong. A
single Andrew McCrae, at this time, is a criminal and should be
condemned as a criminal. But his case against the police and the
system behind them is not without merit. Therefore let him be a
warning as well.

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Nov 21

What a responsible American Left would look like

The congressional Democrats have made Nancy Pelosi their leader.
Whether or not this is conscious strategy, it means they’re going to
run to the left. And very likely get slaughtered in 2004.

It’s truly odd how self-destructive the American Left has become.
They’re like that famous line about the Palestinians, never missing an
opportunity to miss an opportunity. And there are so many
opportunities! So many good things Republican conservatives can
never do because they’re captive to their voter base.

Herewith, then, my humble offering of a program for the American
Left. This is not sarcasm and I’m not trying to score points here,
these are issues where the Left could take a stand and gain back some
of the moral capital it has squandered so recklessly since the
days of the civil rights movement.

  • Support war on Iraq, but insist on nation-building
    afterwards.
    Saddam Hussein is a genocidal fascist tyrant, exactly the
    sort of monster the Left ought to be against. Support deposing him
    — then be the conscience of the U.S., insisting on our duty to
    help rebuild Iraq as a free country afterwards. Push us to win the
    peace, not just the war.
  • Derail the Homeland Security Act and other intrusions on
    civil liberties.
    The left hates John Ashcroft. So why don’t
    we see more Left opposition to the law-enforcement power grab that’s
    going on right now, or to the gutting of the Freedom of Information
    Act? Many Americans would respond well to this.
  • Stop the War on (Some) Drugs. This is a civil-rights
    issue. Blacks and other minorities are disproportionately victims
    both of drug prosecution and of the criminal violence created by drug
    laws. It’s a civil-liberties issue for many reasons too obvious to
    need listing — how can any self-respecting liberal countenance
    no-knock warrants and asset forfeiture? For too long the Left has
    gone along with conservative anti-drug hysteria out of a craven fear
    of being dismissed as a bunch of dope-loving ex-hippies. Time to
    stand up and be counted.
  • Support school vouchers. Another civil-rights issue
    — it’s precisely minorities and the poor who most need to escape
    the trap that the public-school system has become, and black parents
    know this. Yes, it will be hard to take on the teachers’ unions
    — but you’re in serious danger of losing the black vote over
    this issue, so switching would be not just the right thing but a
    way to shore up your base as well.
  • Speak up for science. Religious conservatives are up to a
    lot of anti-scientific mischief — banning stem-cell research,
    excising evolutionary theory from textbooks. Make a principled stand
    for science, secularism, and the anti-Establishment clause. Remind
    the world that the U.S. is not a Christian nation, and seek to have
    the tax exemption for religious organizations ended because it puts the
    U.S. government in the position of deciding what’s a religion and
    what is not.
  • Stop the RIAA/MPAA from trashing consumers’ fair-use rights.
    The Left claims to be on the side of consumers and against corporate
    power elites. So where was the Left when the DMCA passed? If the
    RIAA and MPAA have their way, personal computers will be crippled
    and consumers will go to jail for the `crime’ of copying DVDs they
    have bought for their personal use. Young people, who are trending
    conservative these days, care deeply about the RIAA attack on
    file sharing. Wouldn’t you like to have them back?

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Nov 14

Conspiracy and prospiracy

One of the problems we face in the war against terror is that al-Qaeda is not quite a conspiracy in the traditional sense. It’s something else that is more difficult to characterize and target.

(I wrote what follows three years before 9/11.)

Political and occult conspiracy theories can make for good propaganda and excellent satire (vide Illuminatus! or any of half a dozen other examples). As guides to action, however, they are generally dangerously misleading.

Misleading, because they assume more capacity for large groups to keep secrets and maintain absolutely unitary conscious policies than human beings in groups actually seem to possess. The history of documented “conspiracies” and failed attempts at same is very revealing in this regard — above a certain fairly small size, somebody always blows the gaff. This is why successful terrorist organizations are invariably quite small.

Dangerously misleading because conspiracy theories, offering the easy drama of a small group of conscious villains, distract our attention from a subtler but much more pervasive phenomenon — one I shall label the “prospiracy”.

What distinguishes prospiracies from conspiracies is that the members don’t necessarily know they are members, nor are they fully conscious of what binds them together. Prospiracies are not created through oaths sworn by guttering torchlight, but by shared ideology or institutional culture. In many cases, members accept the prospiracy’s goals and values without thinking through their consequences as fully as they might if the process of joining were formal and initiatory.

What makes a prospiracy like a conspiracy and distinguishes it from a mere subcultural group? The presence of a “secret doctrine” or shared goals which its core members admit among themselves but not to perceived outsiders; commonly, a goal which is stronger than the publicly declared purpose of the group, or irrelevant to that declared purpose but associated with it in some contingent (usually historical) way.

On the other hand, a prospiracy is unlike a conspiracy in that it lacks well-defined lines of authority. Its leaders wield influence over the other members, but seldom actual power. It also lacks a clear-cut distinction between “ins” and “outs”.

Prospiracy scales better than conspiracy, and thus can be far more dangerous. Because anyone can join simply by buying the “secret” doctrine, people frequently recruit themselves. Because the “secret” isn’t written on stone tablets in an inner sanctum, it’s totally deniable. In fact, members sometimes deny it to themselves (not that that ultimately matters). What keeps a prospiracy together is not conscious commitment but the memetic logic of its positions.

As an exercise (and to avoid any appearance of axe-grinding), I’ll leave the reader to apply this model for his or herself. There are plenty of juicy examples out there. I’m a “member” of at least two of them myself.

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Nov 13

The Charms and Terrors of Military SF

I took some heat recently for describing some of Jerry Pournelle’s
SF as “conservative/militarist power fantasies”. Pournelle uttered a
rather sniffy comment about this on his blog; the only substance I
could extract from it was that Pournelle thought his lifelong friend
Robert Heinlein was caught between a developing libertarian philosophy
and his patriotic instincts. I can hardly argue that point, since I
completely agree with it; that tension is a central issue in almost
eveything Heinlein ever wrote.

The differences between Heinlein’s and Pournelle’s military SF are
not trivial — they are both esthetically and morally important.
More generally, the soldiers in military SF express a wide range
of different theories about the relationship between soldier,
society, and citizen. These theories reward some examination.

First, let’s consider representative examples: Jerry Pournelle’s
novels of Falkenberg’s Legion, on the one hand, and Heinlein’s
Starship Troopers on the other.

The difference between Heinlein and Pournelle starts with the fact
that Pournelle could write about a cold-blooded mass murder of human
beings by human beings, performed in the name of political order,
approvingly — and did.

But the massacre was only possible because Falkenberg’s Legion and
Heinlein’s Mobile Infantry have very different relationships with the
society around them. Heinlein’s troops are integrated with the society
in which they live. They study history and moral philosophy; they are
citizen-soldiers. Johnnie Rico has doubts, hesitations, humanity.
One can’t imagine giving him orders to open fire on a stadium-full of
civilians as does Falkenberg.

Pournelle’s soldiers, on the other hand, have no society but their
unit and no moral direction other than that of the men on horseback
who lead them. Falkenberg is a perfect embodiment of military
Fuhrerprinzip, remote even from his own men, a creepy and
opaque character who is not successfully humanized by an implausible
romance near the end of the sequence. The Falkenberg books end with
his men elevating an emperor, Prince Lysander who we are all supposed
to trust because he is such a beau ideal. Two thousand years of
hard-won lessons about the maintenance of liberty are thrown away
like so much trash.

In fact, the underlying message here is pretty close to that of
classical fascism. It, too, responds to social decay with a cult of
the redeeming absolute leader. To be fair, the Falkenberg novels
probably do not depict Pournelle’s idea of an ideal society, but they
are hardly less damning if we consider them as a cautionary tale.
“Straighten up, kids, or the hero-soldiers in Nemourlon are going to
have to get medieval on your buttocks and install a Glorious Leader.”
Pournelle’s values are revealed by the way that he repeatedly posits
situations in which the truncheon of authority is the only solution.
All tyrants plead necessity.

Even so, Falkenberg’s men are paragons compared to the soldiers in
David Drake’s military fiction. In the Hammer’s Slammers
books and elsewhere we get violence with no politico-ethical nuances
attached to it all. “Carnography” is the word for this stuff,
pure-quill violence porn that goes straight for the thalamus. There’s
boatloads of it out there, too; the Starfist sequence by
Sherman and Cragg is a recent example. Jim Baen sells a lot of it
(and, thankfully, uses the profits to subsidize reprinting the Golden
Age midlist).

The best-written military SF, on the other hand, tends to be more
like Heinlein’s — the fact that it addresses ethical questions
about organized violence (and tries to come up with answers one might
actually be more willing to live with than Pournelle’s quasi-fascism
or Drake’s brutal anomie) is part of its appeal. Often (as in
Heinlein’s Space Cadet or the early volumes in Lois
Bujold’s superb Miles Vorkosigan novels) such stories include elements
of bildungsroman.

The Sten sequence by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch was
both a loving tribute to and (in the end) a brutal deconstruction of
this kind of story. It’s full of the building-character-at-boot-camp
scenes that are a staple of the subgenre; Sten’s career is carefully
designed to rationalize as many of these as possible. But the Eternal
Emperor, originally a benevolent if quirky paternal figure who earns
Sten’s loyalty, goes genocidally mad. In the end, soldier Sten must
rebel against the system that made him what he is.

Cole & Bunch tip their hand in an afterword to the last book,
not that any reader with more perception than a brick could have
missed it. They wrote Sten to show where fascism leads
and as a protest against SF’s fascination with absolute power and the
simplifications of military life. Bujold winds up making the same
point in a subtler way; the temptations of power and arrogance are a
constant, soul-draining strain on Miles’s father Aral, and Miles
eventually destroys his own career through one of those
temptations

Heinlein, a U.S naval officer who loved the military and seems to
have always remembered his time at Annapolis as the best years of his
life, fully understood that the highest duty of a soldier may be not
merely to give his life but to reject all the claims of military
culture and loyalty. His elegiac The Long Watch makes
this point very clear. You’ll seek an equivalent in vain anywhere in
Pournelle or Drake or their many imitators — but consider
Bujold’s The Vor Game, in which Miles’s resistance to
General Metzov’s orders for a massacre is the pivotal moment at which
he becomes a man.

Bujold’s point is stronger because, unlike Ezra Dahlquist in
The Long Watch or the citizen-soldiers in Starship
Troopers
, Miles is not a civilian serving a hitch. He is the
Emperor’s cousin, a member of a military caste; his place in
Barrayaran society is defined by the expectations of military
service. What gives his moment of decision its power is that in refusing
to commit an atrocity, he is not merely risking his life but giving up
his dreams.

Falkenberg and Admiral Lermontov have a dream, too. The difference
is that where Ezra Dahlquist and Miles Vorkosigan sacrifice themselves
for what they believe, Pournelle’s “heroes” sacrifice others. Miles’s
and Dahlquist’s futures are defined by refusal of an order to do evil,
Falkenberg’s by the slaughter of untermenschen.

This is a difference that makes a difference.

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Nov 09

My Very First Fisk

Ta-daa! In ritual obeisance to the customs of the blogosphere, I now
perform my very first fisking. Of Der Fisk himself, in his 8 Nov 2002 column
“Bush fights for another clean shot in his war”.

“A clean shot” was The Washington Post’s revolting description of the
murder of the al-Qa’ida leaders in Yemen by a US “Predator” unmanned
aircraft. With grovelling approval, the US press used Israel’s own
mendacious description of such murders as a “targeted killing”
— and shame on the BBC for parroting the same words on Wednesday.

One wonders which word in the phrase “targeted killing” Mr. Fisk is
having problems with. Since he avers that the phrase “targeted killing”
is “mendacious”, we can deduce that he believes either the word “killing”
or the word “targeted” to be false descriptions.

We must therefore conclude that in Mr. Fisk’s universe, either (a)
members of al-Qaeda can be reduced to patch of carbonized char without
the event properly qualifying as a “killing”, or (b) the drone
operators weren’t targeting that vehicle at all — they unleashed
a Hellfire on a random patch of the Hadrahamaut that just happened
to have a half-dozen known terrorists moseying through it at at the moment
of impact.

How about a little journalistic freedom here? Like asking why this
important al-Qa’ida leader could not have been arrested. Or tried
before an open court. Or, at the least, taken to Guantanamo Bay for
interrogation.

One imagines Mr. Fisk during World War II, exclaiming in horror
because the Allies neglected to capture entire divisions of the Waffen-SS
intact and subject each Aryan superman to individual criminal trials.

Mr. Fisk’s difficulty with grasping the concept of “warfare” and
“enemy combatant” is truly remarkable. Or perhaps not so remarkable,
considering his apparent failure to grasp the terms “targeted” and
“killing”.

Instead, the Americans release a clutch of Guantanamo “suspects”, one
of whom — having been held for 11 months in solitary confinement —
turns out to be around 100 years old and so senile that he can’t
string a sentence together. And this is the “war on terror”?

Yes, Mr. Fisk, it is. It’s a war in which our soldiers gives
individual enemy combatants food, shelter, and medical care for 11
months while their terrorists continue mass-murdering innocent
civilian women and children.

But a “clean shot” is what President Bush appears to want to take at
the United Nations. First, he wants to force it to adopt a resolution
about which the Security Council has the gravest reservations. Then he
warns that he might destroy the UN’s integrity by ignoring it
altogether. In other words, he wants to destroy the UN. Does George
Bush realise that the United States was the prime creator of this
institution, just as it was of the League of Nations under President
Woodrow Wilson?

Interesting that Mr. Fisk should mention the League of Nations. This
would be the same League of Nations that collapsed after 1938 due to its
utter failure to prevent clear-cut aggression by Nazi Germany? One wonders
how Mr. Fisk supposes the U.N. can possibly escape the League’s fate
if it fails to sponsor effective action against a genocidal, murdering tyrant
who has stated for the record that he models himself on Hitler.

I congratulate Mr. Fisk — the phrase “destroy the U.N.’s
integrity”; it is very entertaining. In other news, George Bush is
plotting to destroy Messalina’s chastity, William Jefferson Clinton’s
truthfulness, and Robert Fisk’s grasp on reality.

Supposing that the U.S. was the prime creator of the U.N., and
supposing that was a mistake, is Mr. Fisk proposing that we should not
have the integrity to shoot our own dog?

“Targeted killing” — courtesy of the Bush administration —
is now what the Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon can call
“legitimate warfare”. And Vladimir Putin, too. Now the Russians
— I kid thee not, as Captain Queeg said in the Caine Mutiny
— are talking about “targeted killing” in their renewed war on
Chechnya. After the disastrous “rescue” of the Moscow theatre hostages
by the so-called “elite” Russian Alpha Special forces (beware, oh
reader, any rescue by “elite” forces, should you be taken hostage),
Putin is supported by Bush and Tony Blair in his renewed onslaught
against the broken Muslim people of Chechnya.

We note for the record that should Mr. Fisk be captured by
terrorists, he would prefer to be rescued by non-elite forces; perhaps
a troop of Girl Scouts waving copies of The Guardian
would satisfy him. I would defer to Mr. Fisk evident belief that “non-elite”
rescuers would increase his chances of surviving the experience, were
it not that I dislike the sight of dying Girl Scouts.

I’m a cynical critic of the US media, but last month Newsweek ran a
brave and brilliant and terrifying report on the Chechen war. In a
deeply moving account of Russian cruelty in Chechnya, it recounted a
Russian army raid on an unprotected Muslim village. Russian soldiers
broke into a civilian home and shot all inside. One of the victims was
a Chechen girl. As she lay dying of her wounds, a Russian soldier
began to rape her. “Hurry up Kolya,” his friend shouted, “while she’s
still warm.”

In other words, Russian soldiers behaved like al-Qaeda terrorists, and
this is a bad thing. Excellent, Mr. Fisk; you appear to be showing some sign
of an actual moral sense here.

Now, I have a question. If you or I was that girl’s husband or lover
or brother or father, would we not be prepared to take hostages in a
Moscow theatre — Even if this meant — as it did —
that, asphyxiated by Russian gas, we would be executed with a bullet
in the head, as the Chechen women hostage-takers were — But no
matter. The “war on terror” means that Kolya and the boys will be back
in action soon, courtesy of Messrs Putin, Bush and Blair.

Ahh. So, Mr. Fisk is taking the position that the Russians’ atrocious
behavior in Chechnya justifies hostage-taking and the cold-blooded murder of
hostages in a Moscow theater. Very interesting.

Let’s follow the logic of just retribution here. If the rape of a dying
girl in Chechnya by Russian soldiers justifies terrorizing and murdering
hostages in a Moscow theater, then what sort of behavior might the murder of
3000 innocent civilians in Manhattan justify?

We gather that Mr. Fisk thinks it does not justify whacking half a
dozen known terrorists, including the organizer of the U.S.S. Cole
bombing, in the Yemeni desert. We conclude that Mr. Fisk concedes the
righteousness of retribution, all right, but values the life of each
al-Qaeda terrorist more than those of five hundred unsuspecting
victims of al-Qaeda terrorism.

Let me quote that very brave Israeli, Mordechai Vanunu, the man who
tried to warn the West of Israel’s massive nuclear war technology,
imprisoned for 12 years of solitary confinement — and betrayed,
so it appears, by one Robert Maxwell. In a poem he wrote in
confinement, Vanunu said: “I am the clerk, the technician, the
mechanic, the driver. They said, Do this, do that, don’t look left or
right, don’t read the text. Don’t look at the whole machine. You are
only responsible for this one bolt, this one rubber stamp.”

Mr. Fisk apparently believes that Mr. Vanunu had no responsibility
to betray his country’s defensive capabilities in the presence of
enemies bent on its utter destruction. Or did I somehow miss the
incident in which Israel aggressively atom-bombed a neighbor?

Kolya would have understood that. So would the US Air Force officer
“flying” the drone which murdered the al-Qa’ida men in Yemen. So would
the Israeli pilot who bombed an apartment block in Gaza, killing nine
small children as well as well as his Hamas target, an “operation”
— that was the description, for God’s sake — which Ariel
Sharon described as “a great success”.

Mr. Fisk, whose love for legalism and international due process
commends giving al-Qaeda terrorists individual criminal trials, seems
curiously unaware of that portion of the Geneva Convention relating to
the use of non-combatants as human shields.

One wonders if he would be persuaded by the Geneva Convention
language assigning responsibility for these deaths not to Israel, but
to Hamas.

One suspects not. In Mr. Fisk’s universe, it’s clear that there is
one set of rules for Israelis and another for terrorists. Hamas
terrorists committing atrocities are justified by Israeli actions,
while Israelis committing what Mr. Fisk prefers to consider atrocities
are evil and the behavior of Hamas completely irrelevant.

But we know, from Mr. Fisk’s famous report of his beating in Afghanistan,
what his actual rule is: hating Americans justifies anything.

These days, we all believe in “clean shots”. I wish that George Bush
could read history. Not just Britain’s colonial history, in which we
contrived to use gas against the recalcitrant Kurds of Iraq in the
1930s. Not just his own country’s support for Saddam Hussein
throughout his war with Iran.

This would be the same Iran that belligerantly and unlawfully seized
the U.S. Embassy in 1979, correct? And held Americans hostage for 120
days, committing an act of war under the international law Mr. Fisk
claims to so scrupulously respect?

It would be entertaining to watch Mr. Fisk argue that Saddam Hussein
was not then fit to be an ally of the U.S. against its enemies, but is now
— after twenty years of atrocities aggressive warfare — such
an upstanding citizen of the international community that we should
stand idly by while he arms himself with nuclear weapons.

The Iranians once produced a devastating book of coloured photographs
of the gas blisters sustained by their soldiers in that war. I looked
at them again this week. If you were these men, you would want to
die. They all did. I wish someone could remind George Bush of the
words of Lawrence of Arabia, that “making war or rebellion is messy,
like eating soup off a knife.”

I wonder if Mr. Fisk can point to any instance in which George Bush ever
stated that he expected the war with al-Qaeda to be “clean”? If I recall
correctly. “clean shot” was the Washington Post’s phrase.

Can Mr. Fisk fail to be aware that the Post’s editorial board is
run by ideological enemies of George Bush, persons who would, outside
of wartime, hew rather closer to Mr. Fisk’s positions than George
Bush’s?

Mr. Fisk, I don’t think any American policymaker doubts that war is hell.
Nor that terrorism is even worse.

And I suppose I would like Americans to remember the arrogance of
colonial power.

We have quite vivid historical memories of the arrogance of Mr. Fisk’s
particular colonial power, in fact. We recall fighting a revolution to
deal with it.

If Mr. Fisk could point out any American colonies in Iraq, or Iran, or
Palestine, or Chechnya, we would be greatly educated.

Here, for example, is the last French executioner in Algeria during
the 1956-62 war of independence, Fernand Meysonnier, boasting only
last month of his prowess at the guillotine. “You must never give the
guy the time to think. Because if you do he starts moving his head
around and that’s when you have the mess-ups. The blade comes through
his jaw, and you have to use a butcher’s knife to finish it off. It is
an exorbitant power — to kill one’s fellow man.”
So perished the brave Muslims of the Algerian fight for freedom.

Ah. Did I miss the part where American were using guillotines as a method
of execution, then?

No, I hope we will not commit war crimes in Iraq — there will be
plenty of them for us to watch — but I would like to think that
the United Nations can restrain George Bush and Vladimir Putin and, I
suppose, Tony Blair. But one thing is sure. Kolya will be with them.

Mr. Fisk’s surety that American troops will while away their time
in Baghdad raping dying Iraqi girls appears to come from the same
eccentric brain circuitry that supposes U.S. to be a “colonial” power and to
be in imminent danger of performing botched executions with guillotines
and butcher knives.

Mr. Fisk neglects an important difference between U.S. soldiers and
al-Qaeda terrorists.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, U.S. soldiers found
guilty of such behavior can be — and, on the rare occasions it
has occurred, frequently have been — court-martialed and shot.
Not that it seems Mr. Fisk would be likely to acknowledge the
existence of this law, or that it is ever applies.

To Mr. Fisk’s inability to grasp the terms “targeted” and “killing”
we may therefore add an inability to grasp the terms “barbarism” and
“civilization”.

Blogspot comments

Nov 09

Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance

(There is an extended and improved version of this essay, A Political
History of SF
.)

When I started reading SF in the late Sixties and early Seventies,
the field was in pretty bad shape — not that I understood this
at the time. The death of the pulp-zines in the 1950s had pretty much
killed off the SF short-fiction market, and the post-Star-Wars boom
that would make SF the second most successful genre after romance
fiction was still years in the future. The core writers of the first
“Golden Age”, the people who invented modern science fiction after
John Campbell took the helm at Astounding in 1938, were
beginning to get long in the tooth; Robert Heinlein, the greatest of
them all, passed his peak after 1967.

These objective problems combined with, or perhaps led to, an insurgency
within the field. The “New Wave”, an attempt to import the techniques and
imagery of literary fiction into SF, upset many of the field’s certainties.
Before it, everyone took for granted that the center of Campbellian SF was
“hard SF” — stories, frequently written by engineers and scientists,
which trafficked in plausible and relatively rigorous extrapolations of
science.

Hard SF was an art form that made stringent demands on both author
and reader. Stories could be, and were, mercilessly slammed because the
author had calculated an orbit or gotten a detail of physics or biology
wrong. The Campbellian demand was that SF work both as story and
as science, with only a bare minimum of McGuffins like FTL star drives
permitted; hard SF demanded that the science be consistent both
internally and with known science about the real world.

The New Wave rejected all this for reasons that were partly
aesthetic and partly political. For there was a political tradition
that went with the hard-SF style, one exemplified by its chief
theoretician (Campbell himself) and his right-hand man Robert
Heinlein, the inventor of modern SF’s characteristic technique of
exposition by indirection. That tradition was of ornery and insistant
individualism, veneration of the competent man, an instinctive
distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism
that that valued knowing how things work and treated all political
ideologizing with suspicion.

At the time, this very American position was generally thought of
by both allies and opponents as a conservative or right-wing one. But
the SF community’s version was never conservative in the strict sense
of venerating past social norms — how could it be, when SF
literature cheerfully contemplated radical changes in social
arrangements? SF’s insistent individualism also led it to reject
racism and feature strong female characters long before the rise of
political correctness ritualized these behaviors in other forms
of art.

After 1971, the implicit politics of Campbellian hard SF was
reinvented, radicalized and intellectualized as libertarianism.
Libertarians, in fact, would draw inspiration from Golden Age SF;
Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, H. Beam Piper’s
Lone Star Planet, and Poul Anderson’s No Truce With
Kings
(among many others) would come to be seen retrospectively
as proto-libertarian arguments not just by the readers but by the
authors themselves.

The New Wave was both a stylistic revolt and a political one. Its
inventors (notably Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss)
were British socialists and Marxists who rejected individualism,
linear exposition, happy endings, scientific rigor and the U.S.’s
cultural hegemony over the SF field in one fell swoop. The New Wave’s
later American exponents were strongly associated with the New Left
and opposition to the Vietnam War, leading to some rancorous public
disputes in which politics was tangled together with definitional
questions about the nature of SF and the direction of the field.

But the New Wave was not, in fact, the first revolt against hard SF.
In the 1950s, a group of young writers centered around Frederik Pohl
and the Futurians fan club in New York had invented sociological S.F.
(exemplified by the Pohl/Kornbluth collaboration The Space
Merchants
). Not until decades later did the participants admit
that many of the key Futurians were then ideological Communists or
fellow travellers, but their work was half-understood at the time to
be strong criticism of the consumer capitalism and smugness of the
post-World-War-II era.

The Futurian revolt was half-hearted, semi-covert, and easily
absorbed by the Campbellian mainstream of the SF field; by the
mid-1960s, sociological extrapolation had become a standard part of
the toolkit even for the old-school Golden Agers, and it never
challenged the centrality of hard SF. But the New Wave, after 1965,
was not so easily dismissed or assimilated. Amidst a great deal of
self-indulgent crap and drug-fueled psychedelizing, there shone a few
jewels — Phillp José Farmer’s Riders of the Purple
Wage
, some of Harlan Ellison’s work, Brian Aldiss’s
Hothouse stories, and Langdon Jones’s The Great
Clock
stand out as examples.

As with the Futurians, the larger SF field did absorb some New Wave
techniques and concerns. Notably, the New Wavers broke the SF taboo
on writing about sex in any but the most cryptically coded ways, a
stricture previously so rigid that only Heinlein himself had had the
stature to really break it, in his 1961 Stranger In A Strange
Land
.

The New Wave also exacerbated long-standing critical arguments
about the definition and scope of of science fiction, and briefly
threatened to displace hard SF from the center of the field. Brian
Aldiss’s 1969 dismissal of space exploration as “an old-fashioned
diversion conducted with infertile phallic symbols” was typical New
Wave rhetoric, and looked like it might have some legs at the
time.

As a politico-cultural revolt against the American vision of SF,
however, the New Wave eventually failed just as completely as the
Futurians had. Its writers were already running out of steam in 1977
when Star Wars took the imagery of pre-Campbellian space
opera to the mainstream culture. The half-decade following (my
college years, as it happened) was a period of drift and confusion
only ended by the publication of David Brin’s Startide
Rising
in 1982.

Brin, and his collegues in the group that came to be known as the
“Killer Bs” (Greg Bear and Gregory Benford), reasserted the primacy of
hard SF done in the grand Campbellian manner. Campbell himself had
died in 1971 right at the high-water mark of the New Wave, but
Heinlein and Anderson and the other surviving luminaries of the
Campbellian era had no trouble recognizing their inheritors. To
everyone’s surprise, the New Old Wave proved to be not just
artistically successful but commercially popular as as well, with its
writers becoming the first new stars of the post-1980 boom in SF
publishing.

The new hard SF of the 1980s returned to Golden Age themes and images, if
not quite with the linear simplicity of Golden Age technique. It also
reverted to the libertarian/individualist values traditional in the
field. This time around, with libertarian thinking twenty years more
developed, the split between order-worshiping conservatism and the
libertarian impulse was more explicit. At one extreme, some SF (such
as that of L. Neil Smith) assumed the character of radical libertarian
propaganda. At the other extreme, a subgenre of SF that could fairly
be described as conservative/militarist power fantasies emerged,
notably in the writing of Jerry Pournelle and David Drake.

Tension between these groups sometimes flared into public
animosity. Both laid claims to Robert Heinlein’s legacy. Heinlein
himself maintained friendly relationships with conservatives but
counted himself a libertarian for more than a decade before his death
in 1988.

Heinlein’s evolution from Goldwater conservative to anti-statist
radical both led and reflected larger trends. By 1989 depictions of
explicitly anarcho-libertarian future societies were beginning to
filter into mainstream SF work like Joe Haldeman’s Buying
Time
. Haldeman’s Conch Republic and Novysibirsk were all
the more convincing for not being subjects of polemic.

Before the 1980s changes in U.S. law that reversed the tax status
of inventories and killed off the SF midlist as a side effect, a lot
of Golden Age and New Wave era SF was pretty continuously in print
(though in sharply limited quntities and hard to find). I still own a
lot of it in my personal collection of around 3,000 SF paperbacks and
magazines, many dating back to the ’50s and ’60s and now long out of
print. I read it all; pre-Campbellian space opera, the Campbellian
classics of the Golden Age, the Futurians, the New Wave ferment, and
the reinvention of hard SF in the 1980s.

In some respects, it took me thirty years to understand what I was
seeing. I’m one of Heinlein’s children, one of the libertarians that
science fiction made. Because that’s so, it was difficult for me to
separate my own world-view from the assumptions of the field. In
grokking the politics of SF, I was in the position of a fish trying to
understand water.

Eventually, however, a sufficiently intelligent fish could start to
get it about hydrodynamics — especially when the water’s behavior is
disturbed by storms and becomes visibly turbulent. I got to look back
through the midlist at the Futurian ripples. I lived through the New
Wave storm and the pre-Startide-Rising doldrums. By the time cyberpunk
came around, I was beginning to get some conscious perspective.

Cyberpunk was the third failed revolution against Campbellian SF.
William Gibson, who is generally credited with launching this subgenre
in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, was not a political
writer. But Bruce Sterling, who promoted Gibson and became the chief
ideologue of anti-Cambellianism in the late 1980s, called it “the
Movement” in a self-conscious reference to the heady era of 1960s
student radicalism. The cyberpunks positioned themselves particularly
against the carnographic conservative military SF of David Drake,
Jerry Pournelle, and lower-rent imitators — not exactly a hard
target.

Despite such posturing, the cyberpunks were neither as
stylistically innovative nor as politically challenging as the New
Wave had been. Gibson’s prose has aptly been described as Raymond
Chandler in mirror-shades. Cyberpunk themes (virtual reality,
pervasive computing, cyborging and biosculpture, corporate feudalism)
had been anticipated in earlier works like Vernor Vinge’s 1978 hard-SF
classic True Names, and even further back in The
Space Merchants
. Cyberpunk imagery (decayed urban landscapes,
buzzcuts, chrome and black leather) quickly became a cliche replicated
in dozens of computer games.

Neal Stephenson wrote a satirical finis to the cyberpunk genre in
1992′s Snow Crash, which (with Bruce Sterling’s
Schismatrix and Walter John Williams’s
Hardwired) was very close to being the only work to meet
the standard set by Neuromancer. While most cyberpunk
took for granted a background in which late capitalism had decayed
into an oppressive corporate feudalism under which most individuals
could be nothing but alienated and powerless, the future of Snow
Crash
was a tellingly libertarian one. The bedrock
individualism of classical SF reasserted itself with a smartass
grin.

By the time cyberpunk fizzled out, most fans had been enjoying the
hard-SF renaissance for a decade; the New Wave was long gone, and
cyberpunk had attracted more notice outside the SF field than within
it. The leaders of SF’s tiny in-house critical establishment, however
(figures like Samuel Delany and David Hartwell), remained fascinated
on New Wave relics like Thomas Disch and Philip K. Dick, or
anti-Campbellian fringe figures like Suzette Hadin Elgin and Octavia
Butler. While this was going on, the readers voted with their Hugo
ballots largely for writers that were squarely within the Campbellian
tradition — Golden age survivors, the killer Bs, and newer
writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Greg Egan (whose 1998 work
Diaspora may just be the single most audacious and
brilliant hard-SF novel in the entire history of the field).

In 1994, critical thinking within the SF field belatedly caught up
with reality. Credit for this goes to David Hartwell and Cathryn
Cramer, whose analysis in the anthology The Ascent of
Wonder
finally acknowledged what should have been obvious all
along. Hard SF is the vital heart of the field, the radiant core from
which ideas and prototype worlds diffuse outwards to be appropriated
by writers of lesser world-building skill but perhaps greater
stylistic and literary sophistication. While there are other modes
of SF that have their place, they remain essentially derivations of or
reactions against hard SF, and cannot even be properly understood
without reference to its tropes, conventions, and imagery.

Furthermore, Gregory Benford’s essay in The Ascent of Wonder
on the meaning of SF offered a characterization of the genre which may well
prove final. He located the core of SF in the experience of “sense of wonder”,
not merely as a thalamic thrill but as the affirmation that the universe
has a knowable order that is discoverable through reason and science.

I think I can go further than Hartwell or Cramer or Benford in
defining the relationship between hard SF and the rest of the field.
To do this, I need to introduce the concept linguist George Lakoff calls
“radial category”, one that is not defined by any one logical
predicate, but by a central prototype and a set of permissible or
customary variations. As a simple example, in English the category
“fruit” does not correspond to any uniformity of structure that a
botanist could recognize. Rather, the category has a prototype
“apple”, and things are recognized as fruits to the extent that they
are either (a) like an apple, or (b) like something that has already
been sorted into the “like an apple” category.

Radial categories have central members (“apple”, “pear”, “orange”)
whose membership is certain, and peripheral members (“coconut”,
“avocado”) whose membership is tenuous. Membership is graded
by the distance from the central prototype — roughly, the
number of traits that have to mutate to get one from being like
the prototype to like the instance in question. Some traits
are important and tend to be conserved across the entire
radial category (strong flavor including sweetness) while
some are only weakly bound (color).

In most radial categories, it is possible to point out members that
are counterexamples to any single intensional (“logical”) definition,
but traits that are common to the core prototypes nevertheless tend to
be strongly bound. Thus, “coconut” is a counterexample to the
strongly-bound trait that fruits have soft skins, but it is sorted as
“fruit” because (like the prototype members) it has an easily-chewable
interior with a sweet flavor.

SF is a radial category in which the prototypes are certain
classics of hard SF. This is true whether you are mapping individual
works by affinity or subgenres like space opera, technology-of-magic
story, eutopian/dystopian extrapolation, etc. So in discussing the
traits of SF as a whole, the relevant question is not “which traits
are universal” but “which traits are strongly bound” — or,
almost equivalently, “what are the shared traits of the core (hard-SF)
prototypes”.

The strong binding between hard SF and libertarian politics
continues to be a fact of life in the field. It it is telling that
the only form of politically-inspired award presented
annually at the World Science Fiction Convention is the Libertarian
Futurist Society’s “Prometheus”. There is no socialist, liberal,
moderate, conservative or fascist equivalent of the class of
libertarian SF writers including L. Neil Smith, F. Paul Wilson, Brad
Linaweaver, or J. Neil Schulman; their books, even when they are
shrill and indifferently-written political tracts, actually
sell — and sell astonishingly well — to SF
fans.

Of course, there are people in the SF field who find this deeply
uncomfortable. Since the centrality of hard SF has become inescapable,
resistance now takes the form of attempts to divorce hard SF from
libertarianism — to preserve the methods and conceptual apparatus
of hard SF while repudiating its political aura. Hartwell
& Cramer’s 2002 followup to The Ascent of Wonder,
The Hard SF Renaissance, takes up this argument in its
introduction and explanatory notes.

The Hard SF Renaissance presents itself as a dialogue
between old-school Campbellian hard SF and an attempt to construct a
“Radical Hard SF” that is not in thrall to right-wing tendencies.
It is clear that the editors’ sympathies lie with the “Radicals”, not
least from the very fact that they identify libertarianism as a right-wing
phenomenon. This is an error characteristic of left-leaning thinkers,
who tend to assume that anything not “left” is “right” and that approving
of free markets somehow implies social conservatism.

All the history rehearsed so far has been intended to lead up to
the following question: is the “Radical Hard SF” program possible?
More generally, is the symbiotic relationship between libertarian
political thought and SF a mere historical accident, or is there an
intrinsic connection?

I think I know what John Campbell’s answer would be, if he had not
died the year that the founders of libertarianism broke with
conservatism. I know what Robert Heinlein’s was. They’re the same as
mine, a resounding yes — that there is a connection, and that
the connection is indeed deep and intrinsic. But I am a proud
libertarian partisan, and conviction is not proof. Cultural history
is littered with the corpses of zealots who attempted to yoke art to
ideology with shallow arguments, only to be exposed as fools when the
art became obsolescent before the ideology or (more often)
vice-versa.

In the remainder of this essay I will nevertheless attempt to prove
this point. My argument will center around the implications of a
concept best known from First Amendment law: the “marketplace of
ideas”. I am going to argue specifically from the characteristics
of hard SF, the prototypes of the radial category of SF.

Science fiction, as a literature, embraces the possibility of
radical transformations of the human condition brought about through
knowledge. Technological immortality, star drives, cyborging —
all these SFnal tropes are situated within a knowable universe, one in
which scientific inquiry is both the precondition and the principal
instrument of creating new futures.

SF is, broadly, optimistic about these futures. This is so for the
simple reason that SF is fiction bought with peoples’ entertainment
budgets and people, in general, prefer happy endings to sad ones. But
even when SF is not optimistic, its dystopias and cautionary tales
tend to affirm the power of reasoned choices made in a knowable
universe; they tell us that it is not through chance or the whim of
angry gods that we fail, but through our failure to be
intelligent, our failure to use the power of reason and science
and engineering prudently.

At bottom, the central assumption of SF is that applied science is
our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants
to which we are all heir. Even when scientists and engineers are not
the visible heroes of the story, they are the invisible heroes that
make the story notionally possible in the first place, the creators of
possibility, the people who liberate the future to become a different
place than the present.

SF both satisfies and stimulates a sort of lust for possibility
compounded of simple escapism and a complex intellectual delight in
anticipating the future. SF readers and writers want to believe that
the future not only can be different but can be different in many,
many weird and wonderful ways, all of which are worth exploring.

All the traits (embrace of radical transformation, optimism,
applied science as our best hope, the lust for possibilities) are
weakly characteristic of SF in general — but they are
powerfully characteristic of hard SF. Strongly bound, in the
terminology of radial categories.

Therefore, hard SF has a bias towards valuing the human traits and
social conditions that best support scientific inquiry and permit it
to result in transformative changes to both individuals and societies.
Also, of social equilibria which allow individuals the greatest scope
for choice, for satisfying that lust for possibilities. And it is is
here that we begin to get the first hints that the strongly-bound
traits of SF imply a political stance — because not all
political conditions are equally favorable to scientific inquiry and
the changes it may bring. Nor to individual choice.

The power to suppress free inquiry, to limit the choices and thwart
the disruptive creativity of individuals, is the power to strangle
the bright transcendant futures of optimistic SF. Tyrants, static
societies, and power elites fear change above all else — their
natural tendency is to suppress science, or seek to distort it for
ideological ends (as, for example, Stalin did with Lysekoism). In the
narratives at the center of SF, political power is the natural enemy
of the future.

SF fans and writers have always instinctively understood this.
Thus the genre’s long celebration of individualist anti-politics; thus
its fondness for voluntarism and markets over state action, and for
storylines in which (as in Heinlein’s archetypal The Man Who
Sold The Moon
) scientific breakthrough and and free-enterprise
economics blend into a seemless whole. These stances are not
historical accidents, they are structural imperatives that follow from
the lust for possibility. Ideological fashions come and go, and the
field inevitably rediscovers itself afterwards as a literature of
freedom.

This analysis should put permanently to rest the notion that hard SF
is a conservative literature in any sense. It is, in fact, deeply and
fundamentally radical — the literature that celebrates not merely
science but science as a permanent revolution, as the final and most
inexorable foe of all fixed power relationships everywhere.

Earlier, I cited the following traits of SF’s libertarian
tradition: ornery and insistant individualism, veneration of the
competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and
a rock-ribbed objectivism that values knowing how things work and
treats all political ideologizing with suspicion. All should now be
readily explicable. These are the traits that mark the enemies of the
enemies of the future.

The partisans of “Radical Hard SF” are thus victims of a category
error, an inability to see beyond their own political maps. By
jamming SF’s native libertarianism into a box labeled “right wing” or
“conservative” they doom themselves to misunderstanding the deepest
imperatives of the genre.

The SF genre and libertarianism will both survive this mistake
quite handily. They were symbiotic before libertarianism defined
itself as a distinct political stance and they have co-evolved ever
since. If four failed revolutions against Campbellian SF have not
already demonstrated the futility of attempting to divorce them, I’m
certain the future will.

Blogspot comments

Nov 06

Post-postmodern politics

The Democratic Party fell off a cliff last night. Never mind their
shiny new governorships — the `smart’ money pre-election was on
them picking up an absolute majority of governor’s seats, and at the
Congressional level they took a shellacking nearly as bad as 1994′s.
The races Terry McAuliffe targeted as most critical — notably
the Florida governorship — were all lost. And the big Democrat
losses bucked historical trends — the mid-term election and the
weak economy should have helped them.

We’re going to hear a lot of gloating from Republicans and
soul-searching from Democrats in the aftermath. The easy explanation
is that 9/11 did the Democrats in; that American elected to get behind
a president who seems to be handling the terror war with decisiveness,
prudence, and strategic acumen.

I think this conventional wisdom is wrong. I think 9/11 merely
exposed a longer-term weakness in the Democratic position, which is
this: the Democrats have forgotten how to do politics that is about
anything but politics itself. They’re a post-modern political party,
endlessly recycling texts that have little or no referent outside
the discourse of politics itself.

The disgusting spectacle they made of Paul Wellstone’s funeral
is diagnostic. We were treated to trumpet calls about honoring
Wellstone’s legacy without any discussion beyond the most superficial
cliches of what that legacy was. All the ritual invocations of
time-honored Democratic shibboleths had a tired, shopworn, unreal
and self-referential feel to them — politics as the literature
of exhaustion.

The preconditions for paralysis had been building up for a long
time; arguably, ever since the New Left beat out the Dixiecrats for
control of the party apparat in 1968-1972. Caught between the
blame-America-first, hard-left instincts of its most zealous cadres
and the bland dishwater centrism recently exemplified by the DLC, the
Democrats found it more and more difficult to be about anything at
all. The trend was self-reinforcing; as Democratic strategy drifted,
the party became ever more dependent on cooperation between dozens of
fractious pressure groups (feminists, gays, race-baiters, the AARP,
the teachers’ and public-employee unions), which made the long-term
drift worse.

Bill Clinton was the perfect master of political postmodernism and
James Carville his prophet. For eight years they were able to
disguise the paralysis and vacuum at the heart of Democratic thinking,
centering party strategy on a cult of personality and an
anything-but-Republicanism that was cunning but merely reactive. The
Republicans cooperated with this strategy with all the naive eagerness
of Charlie Brown running up to kick Lucy’s football, perpetually
surprised when it was snatched away at the last second, repeatedly
taking pratfalls eagerly magnified by a Democratic-leaning national
media.

But Bill Clinton was also a borderline sociopath and a liar, a man
whose superficial charm, anything-to-get-elected energy, and utter
lack of principle perfectly mirrored the abyss at the heart of the
Democratic party. The greedy, glittery, soulless Wellstone-funeral
fiasco was the last hurrah of Clintonism, and it cost Walter Mondale
his last election fight.

Reality had to intrude sometime. The destruction of the WTC
reduced all the politics-about-politics rhetoric of the Democrats to
irrelevance. They stood mute in the face of the worst atrocity on
American soil since Pearl Harbor, arguably the worst in U.S. history.
The superficial reason was that their anti-terror policy was hostage
to the party’s left wing, but the deeper problem was that they long
ago lost the ability to rise above petty interest-group jockying
on any issue of principle at all. The most relevant adjective is not
`wrong’, or `evil’, it’s `feckless’.

Republicans, by contrast, forged a workable consensus during
the Reagan years and never quite lost it. They’ve often been wrong,
frequently been obnoxious as hell, and have their own loony fringe
(abortion-clinic bombers, neo-fascists like Pat Buchanan, and
the Christian Coalition) to cope with. But when Osama bin Laden
demonstrated a clear and present danger to the United States of
America they were able to respond.

They were able to respond not merely with reaction, but by taking
a moral position against terrorism that could serve as the basis of
an effective national strategy. Quarrel with “Homeland Security” all
you like — but then imagine Al Gore in charge of defeating
Al-Qaeda and shudder. He would actually have had to take the likes of
Cynthia McKinney and Maxine Waters seriously.

I think these 2002 elections are going to turn out to have been much
more of a turning point than the aborted `Republican Revolution’ of
1994. Unless Bush’s war strategy completely screws the pooch, he is
going to completely walk over the Democratic candidate in 2004. The
Democrats show no sign of developing a foreign-policy doctrine that can
cope with the post-9/11 world, and their domestic-policy agenda is
tired and retrogressive. Their voter base is aging, and their national
leadership couldn’t rummage up a better Wellstone replacement than
Walter “What decade is this, anyway?” Mondale. The Democratic
party could end up disintegrating within the decade.

This is not a prospect that fills me with uncomplicated glee.
Right-wing statism is not an improvement on left-wing statism; a smug
and dominant GOP could easily become captive to theocrats and
know-nothings, a very bad thing for our nation and the world. And,
unfortunately, the Libertarian Party has courted self-destruction by
choosing to respond to 9/11 with an isolationism every bit as vapid
and mindless as the left’s “No War for Oil!” chanting.

Welcome to post-postmodern politics. Meaning is back, but
the uncertainties are greater than ever.

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Nov 03

That bad old-time religion

It’s official. The anti-war movement is a Communist
front.

No, I’m not kidding — go read the story. Investigative reporter
David Corn digs into last Saturday’s D.C. antiwar rally and finds it
was covertly masterminded by a Communist Party splinter originally
founded in support of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. For good
later, he further digs up the fact that one if the principal
organizers of the inane “Mot In Our Name” petion is a revolutionary
Maoist.

Words almost fail me. There are just too many levels of delicious,
deadly irony here.

For starters, the U.S. revolutionary Communist movement has been
reduced to organizing demonstrations in support of a fascist dictator
with a history of brutally suppressing and murdering Communists in
Iraq. OK, so there’s precedent for this; the CPUSA organized
anti-war demonstrations in the U.S. during the Nazi-Soviet
nonaggression pact of 1939-41. It’s still bleakly funny.

More generally the American Left seems bent on fulfilling every
red-meat right-winger’s most perfervid fantasies about it. All those
earnest anti-war demonstrators were actual communist dupes! Oh,
mama. Somewhere. Tailgunner Joe McCarthy is smiling. Who was it who
said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the
second as farce?

Farce because, of course, Communism as an ideology capable of
motivating mass revolutions is stone-dead. (Well, everywhere outside
of Pyongyang and the humanities departments of U.S. universities,
anyway.) At this point one can contemplate vestigial organs of
Stalinism like the Revolutionary Communist Party with a sort of
revolted pity, like portions of a vampire corpse still twitching
because they haven’t yet gotten the message about that stake through
the heart.

If I were a conservative, I’d go into a roaring, vein-popping rant
at this point. And, secretly I’d be damn glad for them Commies. They
simplify things so much. Because there will be more stories like this
one. All the Communists can accomplish by organizing the anti-war
movement is to thoroughly discredit it — a fact our reporter
(quite typical of U.S. journalists in that he both leans left and
is too ignorant to notice how much of his world-view is Communism with
the serial numbers filed off) notes with poorly-veiled regret.

So, by supporting a militarist fascist in Iraq, them commies are
very likely to wind up increasing the influence of precisely the
`reactionary’ element in U.S. politics that they most abominate.
Congratulations, comrades! Welcome to the International
Capitalist Conspiracy!

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Nov 02

The capsaicinization of American food

Consider spicy-hot food — and consider how recent it is as a
mainstream phenomenon in the U.S. In 2002 many of us cheerfully chow
down on Szechuan and Thai, habaneros and rellenos, nam pla and sambal
ulek. Salsa outsells ketchup. But it wasn’t always that way.

In fact it wasn’t that way until quite recently, historically
speaking. I’ve enjoyed capsaicin-loaded food since I was a pre-teen
boy in the late 1960s; I acquired the taste from my father, who picked
it up in South America. In those days our predilection was the
peculiar trait of a minority of travelers and a few immigrant
populations. The progression by which spicy-hot food went from there
to the U.S. mainstream makes a perfect type case of cultural
assimilation, and the role and meaning that the stuff has acquired on
the way is interesting too.

(Oh. And for those of you who don’t understand the appeal? It’s
all about endorphin rush, like a runner’s high. Pepper-heads like me
have developed a conditioned reflex whereby the burning sensation
stimulates the release of opiate-like chemicals from the brainstem,
inducing a euphoria not unlike a heroin buzz. Yes, this theory has
been clinically verified.)

Baseline: Thirty years ago. The early 1970s. I’m a teenager, just
back in the U.S. from years spent overseas. Spicy-hot food is pretty
rare in American cuisine. Maybe you’d have heard of five-alarm chili
if you’d lived in Texas, but chances are you’d never have actually
eaten the stuff. If you’re from Louisiana, you might have put Tabasco
sauce on your morning eggs. Aside from that, you wouldn’t have
tasted hot peppers outside of a big-city Chinatown.

It’s actually a little difficult to remember how different American
cooking was then. Those were the years when Kool-Whip was cool and
the casserole was king, an era of relentless blandness well-skewered
by James Lileks’s
Gallery of Regrettable Food
. Mom didn’t know any better. Well,
most moms didn’t, anyway; mine had acquired a few clues overseas.

But most Americans of that day inherited the pale hues of British
and German cooking. What zip there was in our cuisine came from
immigrants, especially (at that time) Italians. Thai, Vietnamese
and Ethiopian had not gained a foothold. Chinese was on educated
peoples’ radar but only eaten in restaurants; nobody owned a wok
yet.

Indeed, Chinese food had already caught on in a few leading-edge
subcultures by the mid-1970s: science-fiction fans, computer hackers,
the people who would start to call themselves `geeks’ fifteen years
later. But most of what was available was Americanized versions of
the blander Shanghainese and Cantonese varieties; restaurants that
made a point of authenticity and advertised Szechuan and Hunan cooking
to round-eyes were not yet common.

This all began to change in the early 1980s. The yuppies did it to
us; experimentation with exotic and ethnic foods became a signature
behavior of the young, upwardly mobile urban elite, and the variety of
restaurants increased tremendously in a way that both met that demand
and stimulated it. More importantly, cooking techniques and
ingredients that hadn’t been traditional in European cuisine started
to influence home cooking — white people started buying
woks. And Szechuan fire oil.

The first vogue for Cajun cooking around 1984 was, as I recall,
something of a turning point. Chinese cooking was popular but still
marked as `foreign’; Cajun was not. Spicy-hot gumbo joined five-alarm
chili on the roster of all-American foods that were not only expected
but required to deliver a hefty dose of capsaicin zap. I
remember thinking the world was changing when, in 1987 or ’88, I
first saw spicy Cajun dishes on the menu of a white-bread roadside
diner. In Delaware.

This diner was never going to show up in Michelin’s or Zagat’s; in
fact, it was the next thing to a truck stop. Something else was going
on in the 1980s besides yuppies buying woks — and that was the
embrace of spicy-hot food by the small-town and rural working class,
and its coding as a specifically masculine pleasure.

This probably evolved out of the tradition, going back at least to
the late 1940s, of defining barbecue and chili as what an
anthropologist would call a “men’s mystery”. Despite the existence of
male professional chefs and men who can cook, most kinds of domestic
cooking are indisputably a female thing — women are expected to
be interested in it and expected to be good at it, and a man who
acquires skill is crossing into women’s country. But for a handful of
dishes culturally coded as “men’s food”, the reverse is true.
Barbecue and chili top that list, and have since long before spicy-hot
food went mainstream.

For people who drive pickup trucks, spicy-hot food went from being
a marked minority taste to being something like a central men’s
mystery in the decade after 1985. I first realized this in the early
1990s when I saw a rack of 101 hot-pepper sauces on display at a
gun-and-knife show, in between the premium tobacco and the jerked
meat. There’s a sight you won’t see at a flower show, or anywhere else
in women’s country.

The packaging and marketing of hot sauces tells the same
story. From the top-shelf varieties like Melinda’s XXX (my favorite!)
to novelty items like “Scorned Woman” and “Hot Buns”, much of the
imagery is cheeky sexiness clearly designed to appeal to men.

Nor is it hard to understand why the association got made in the
first place. It’s considered masculine to enjoy physical risk, even
mostly trivial physical risks like burning yourself on a sauce hotter
than you can handle. Men who like hot peppers swap capsaicin-zap
stories; I myself am perhaps unreasonably proud of having outlasted
a tableful of Mexican college students one night in Monterrey,
watching them fall out one by one as a plate of sauteed habaneros
was passed repeatedly around the table.

There’s a sneaky element of female complicity in all this. Women
chuckle at our capsaicin-zap stories the same way they laugh at other
forms of laddish posturing, but then (as my wife eloquently puts it)
“What good is a man if you rip off his balls?” They leave us capsaicin
and barbecue and other men’s mysteries because they instinctively grok
that a certain amount of testosterone-driven male-primate behavior is
essential for the health of Y-chromosome types — and best it
should be over something harmless.

This gastronomic pincer movement — Yuppies pushing spicy food
downmarket, truckers and rednecks pushing it upmarket —
coincided with the rise in cultural influence of Hispanics with a
native tradition of spicy-hot food. In retrospect, it’s interesting that
what mainstream America naturalized was jalapenos rather than
Chinese-style fire oil. Tex-Mex assimilated more readily than
Szechuan, as it turned out.

We can conveniently date that mainstreaming from the year salsa
first passed ketchup in sales volume, 1996. Perhaps not by
coincidence, that’s the first year I got gifted with a jar of
homegrown habaneros. They came to me from an Irish ex-biker, a
take-no-shit ZZ-Top lookalike who runs a tire dealership in the next
town over. He’d be a great guy to have with you in a bar fight, but
nobody who would ever be accused of avant-garde tastes. I guess
that was when I realized spicy-hot food had become as all-American
as apple pie.

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