Jul 15

The Myth of Man the Killer

(An updated version of this essay lives here.)

One of the most dangerous errors of our time is the belief that human beings are uniquely violent animals, barely restrained from committing atrocities on each other by the constraints of ethics, religion, and the state.

It may seem odd to some to dispute this, given the apparently ceaseless flow of atrocity reports from Bosnia, Somalia, Lebanon and Los Angeles that we suffer every day. But, in fact, a very little study of animal ethology (and some application of ethological methods to human behavior) suffices to show the unbiased mind that human beings are not especially violent animals.

Desmond Morris, in his fascinating book Manwatching’, for example, shows that the instinctive fighting style of human beings seems to be rather carefully optimized to keep us from injuring one another. Films of street scuffles show that “instinctive” fighting consists largely of shoving and overhand blows to the head/shoulders/ribcage area.

It is remarkably difficult to seriously injure a human being this way; the preferred target areas are mostly bone, and the instinctive striking style delivers rather little force for given effort. It is enlightening to compare this fumbling behavior to the focussed soft-tissue strike of a martial artist, who (having learned to override instinct) can easily kill with one blow.

It is also a fact, well-known to military planners, that somewhere around 70% of troops in their first combat-fire situation find themselves frozen, unable to trigger lethal weapons at a live enemy. It takes training and intense re-socialization to make soldiers out of raw recruits. And it is a notable point, to which we shall return later, that said socialization has to concentrate on getting a trainee to obey orders and identify with the group. (Major David Pierson of the U.S. Army wrote an illuminating essay on this topic in the June 1999 Military Review).

Criminal violence is strongly correlated with overcrowding and stress, conditions that any biologist knows can make even a laboratory mouse crazy. To see the contrast clearly, compare an urban riot with post-hurricane or -flood responses in rural areas. Faced with common disaster, it is more typical of humans to pull together than pull apart.

Individual human beings, outside of a tiny minority of sociopaths and psychopaths, are simply not natural killers. Why, then, is the belief in innate human viciousness so pervasive in our culture? And what is this belief costing us?

The historical roots of this belief are not hard to trace. The Judeo-Christian creation story claims that human beings exist in a fallen, sinful state; and Genesis narrates two great acts of revolt against God, the second of which is the first murder. Cain kills Abel, and we inherit the “mark of Cain”, and the myth of Cain — the belief that we are all somehow murderers at bottom.

Until the twentieth century, Judeo-Christianity tended to focus on the first one; the Serpent’s apple, popularly if not theologically equated with the discovery of sexuality. But as sexual taboos have lost their old forbidding force, the “mark of Cain” has become relatively more important in the Judeo-Christian idea of “original sin”. The same churches and synagogues that blessed “just wars” in former centuries have become strongholds
of ideological pacifism.

But there is a second, possibly more important source of the man-as-killer myth in the philosophy of the Enlightenment — Thomas Hobbes’s depiction of the state of nature as a “warre of all against all”, and the reactionary naturism of Rousseau and the post-Enlightenment Romantics. Today these originally opposing worldviews have become fused into a view of nature and humanity that combines the worst (and least factual) of both.

Hobbes, writing a rationalization of the system of absolute monarchy under the Stuart kings of England, constructed an argument that in a state of nature without government the conflicting desires of human beings would pit every man against his neighbor in a bloodbath without end. Hobbes referred to and assumed “wild violence” as the normal state of humans in what anthropologists now call “pre-state” societies; that very term, in fact, reflects the Hobbesian myth,

The obvious flaw in Hobbes’s argument is that he mistook a sufficient condition for suppressing the “warre” (the existence of a strong central state) for a necessary one. He underestimated the innate sociability of human beings. The anthropological and historical record affords numerous examples of “pre-state” societies (even quite large multiethnic/multilingual populations) which, while violent against outsiders, successfully maintained internal peace.

If Hobbes underestimated the sociability of man, Rousseau and his followers overestimated it; or, at least, they overestimated the sociability of primitive man. By contrasting the nobility and tranquility they claimed to see in rural nature and the Noble Savage with the all-too-evident filth, poverty and crowding in the booming cities of the Industrial Revolution, they secularized the Fall of Man. As their spiritual descendants today
still do, they overlooked the fact that the urban poor had unanimously voted with their feet to escape an even nastier rural poverty.

The Rousseauian myth of technological Man as an ugly scab on the face of pristine Nature has become so pervasive in Western culture as to largely drive out the older opposing image of “Nature, red in tooth and claw” from the popular mind. Perhaps this was inevitable as humans achieved more and more control over their environment; protection from famine, plague, foul weather, predators, and other inconveniences of nature encouraged the fond delusion that only human nastiness makes the world a hard place.

Until the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the Rousseauian view of man and nature was a luxury confined to intellectuals and the idle rich. Only as increases in urbanization and average wealth isolated most of society from nature did it become an unarticulated and unexamined basic of popular and academic belief. (In his book “War Before Civilization”, Lawrence Keeley has given us a trenchant analysis of the way in which the Rousseauian myth reduced large swathes of cultural anthropology to uttering blinkered nonsense.)

In reality, Nature is a violent arena of intra- and inter-species competition in which murder for gain is an everyday event and ecological fluctuations commonly lead to mass death. Human societies, outside of wartime, are almost miraculously stable and nonviolent by contrast. But the unconscious prejudice of even educated Westerners today is likely to be that the opposite is true. The Hobbesian view of the “warre of all against all” has survived only as a description of human behavior, not of the wider state of nature. Pop ecology has replaced pop theology; the new myth is of man the killer ape.

Another, darker kind of romanticism is at work as well. To a person who feels fundamentally powerless, the belief that one is somehow intrinsically deadly can be a cherished illusion. Its marketers know full well that violence fantasy sells not to the accomplished, the wealthy and the wise, but rather to working stiffs trapped in dead-end jobs, to frustrated adolescents, to retirees — the marginalized, the lonely and the lost.

To these people, the killer-ape myth is consolation. If all else fails, it offers the dark promise of a final berserkergang, unleashing the mythic murderer inside to express all those aggravations in a gory and vengeful catharsis. But if seven out of ten humans can’t pull the trigger on an enemy they have every reason to believe is trying to kill them, it seems unlikely that ninety-seven out of a hundred could make themselves murder.

And, in fact, less than one half of one percent of the present human population ever kills in peacetime; murders are more than an order of magnitude less common than fatal household accidents. Furthermore, all but a vanishingly small number of murders are performed by males between the ages of 15 and 25, and the overwhelming majority of those by unmarried males. One’s odds of being killed by a human outside that demographic bracket are comparable to one’s chances of being killed by a lightning strike.

War is the great exception, the great legitimizer of murder, the one arena in which ordinary humans routinely become killers. The special prevalence of the killer-ape myth in our time doubtless owes something to the horror and visibility of 20th-century war.

Campaigns of genocide and repressions such as the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin’s engineered famines, the Ankha massacres in Cambodia, and “ethnic cleansing” in Yugoslavia loom even larger in the popular mind than war as support for the myth of man the killer. But they should not; such atrocities are invariably conceived and planned by selected, tiny minorities far fewer than .5% of the population.

We have seen that in normal circumstances, human beings are not killers; and, in fact, most have instincts which make it extremely difficult for them to engage in lethal violence. How do we reconcile this with the continuing pattern of human violence in war? And, to restate to one of our original questions, what is belief in the myth of man the killer doing to us?

We shall soon see that the answers to these two questions are intimately related — because there is a crucial commonality between war and genocide, one not shared with the comparatively negligible lethalities of criminals and the individually insane. Both war and genocide depend, critically, on the habit of
killing on orders
. Pierson observes, tellingly, that atrocities “are generally initiated by overcontrolled personality types in second-in-command positions, not by undercontrolled personality types.” Terrorism, too, depends on the habit of obedience; it is not Osama bin Laden who died in the 9/11 attack but his minions.

This is part of what Hannah Arendt was describing when, after the Nuremberg trials, she penned her unforgettable phrase “the banality of evil”. The instinct that facilitated the atrocities at Belsen-Bergen and Treblinka and Dachau was not a red-handed delight in murder, but rather uncritical submission to the orders of alpha males — even when those orders were for horror and death.

Human beings are social primates with social instincts. One of those instincts is docility, a predisposition to obey the tribe leader and other dominant males. This was originally adaptive; fewer status fights meant more able bodies in the tribe or hunting band. It was especially important that bachelor males, unmarried 15-to-25 year-old men, obey orders even when those orders involved risk and killing. These bachelors were the tribe’s hunters, warriors, scouts, and risk-takers; a band would flourish best if they were both aggressive towards outsiders and amenable to social control.

Over most of human evolutionary history, the multiplier effect of docility was limited by the small size (250 or less, usually much less) of human social units. But when a single alpha male or cooperating group of alpha males could command the aggressive bachelor males of a large city or entire nation, the rules changed. Warfare and genocide became possible.

Actually, neither war nor genocide needs more than a comparative handful of murderers — not much larger a cohort than the half-percent to percent that commits lethal violence in peacetime. Both, however, require the obedience of a large supporting population. Factories must work overtime. Ammunition trucks must be driven where the bullets are needed. People must agree not to see, not to hear, not to notice certain things. Orders must be obeyed.

The experiments described in Stanley Milgram’s 1974 book “The Perils of Obedience” demonstrated how otherwise ethical people could be induced to actively torture another person by the presence of an authority figure commanding and legitimizing the violence. They remain among the most powerful and disturbing results in experimental psychology.

Human beings are not natural killers; very, very few ever learn to enjoy murder or torture. Human beings, however, are sufficiently docile that many can eventually be taught to kill, to support killing, or to consent to killing on the command of an alpha male, entirely dissociating themselves from responsibility for the act. Our original sin is not murderousness — it is obedience.

And this brings us to the final reason for the prevalence of the myth of man the killer; that it encourages obedience and legitimizes social control of the individual. The man who fears Hobbes’s “warre”, who sees every one of his neighbors as a potential murderer, will surrender nearly anything to be protected from them. He will call for a strong hand from above; he will become a willing instrument in the oppression of his fellows. He may even allow himself to be turned into a killer in fact. Society will be atomized into millions of fearful fragments, each reacting to the fear of fantasied individual violence by sponsoring the political conditions for real violence on a large scale.

Even when the fear of violence is less acute, the myth of man the killer well serves power elites of all kinds. To define the central problem of society as the repression of a universal individual tendency to violence is to imply an authoritarian solution; it is to deny without examination the proposition that individual self-interest and voluntary cooperation are sufficient for civil order. (To cite one current example, the myth of man the killer is a major unexamined premise behind the drive for gun control.)

In sum, the myth of man the killer degrades and ultimately disempowers the individual, and unhelpfully deflects attention from the social mechanisms and social instincts that actually underlie virtually all violence. If we are all innately killers, no one is responsible; the sporadic violence of crime and terrorism and the more systematic violence of governments (whether in “state” or “pre-state” societies, and in wartime or otherwise) is as inevitable as sex.

On the other hand, if we recognize that most violence (and all large-scale violence) arises from obedience, and especially from the commission of aggressive violence by bachelor males at the command of alpha male pack leaders, then we can begin to ask more fruitful questions. Like: what can we do, culturally, to disrupt this causal chain?

First, we must recognize the primary locus and scope of the problem. By any measure, the pre-eminent form of aggressive pack violence is violence by governments, in either its explicit form as warfare and genocide or in more or less disguised peacetime versions. Take as one indicator the most pessimistic estimate of the 20th-century death toll from private aggression and set it against the low-end figures for deaths by government-sponsored violence (that is, count only war casualties, deliberate genocides, and extra-legal violence by organs of government; do not count the deaths incurred in the enforcement of even the most dubious and oppressive laws). Even with these assumptions biasing the ratio to the low side, the ratio is clearly 1000:1 or worse.

Readers skeptical of this ratio should reflect tha government-directed genocides alone (excluding warfare entirely) are estimated to have accounted for more than 250,000,000 deaths between the massacre of the Armenians in 1915 and the “ethic cleansings” of Bosnia and Rwanda-Burundi in the late 1990s. Even the 9/11 atrocity and other acts of terrorism, grim as they have been, are mere droplets besides the oceans of blood spilled by state action.

In fact, the domination of total pack violence by government aggression reaches even further than that 1000:1 ratio would indicate. Pack violence by governments serves as a model and a legitimizing excuse not merely for government violence, but for private violence as well. The one thing all tyrants have in common is their belief that in their special cause, aggression is justified; private criminals learn and profit by that example. The contagion of mass violence is spread by the very institutions which ground their legitimacy in the mission of suppressing it — even as they perpetrate most of it.

And that is ultimately why the myth of man the killer ape is most dangerous. Because when we tremble in fear before the specter of individual violence, we excuse or encourage social violence; we feed the authoritarian myths and self-justifications that built the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulags.

There is no near-term hope that we can edit either aggression or docility out of the human genome. And the individual small-scale violence of criminals and the insane is a mere distraction from the horrific and vast reality that is government-sanctioned murder and the government-sanctioned threat of murder.

To address the real problem in an effective way, we must therefore change our cultures so that either alpha males calling themselves “government” cease giving orders to perform aggression, or our bachelor males cease following those orders. Neither Hobbes’s counsel of obedience to the state nor Rousseau’s idolization of the primitive can address the central violence of the modern era — state-sponsored mass death.

To end that scourge, we must get beyond the myth of man the killer and learn to trust and empower the individual conscience once again; to recognize and affirm the individual predisposition to make peaceful choices in the non-sociopathic 97% of the population; and to recognize what Stanley Milgram showed us; that our signpost on the path away from mass violence reads “I shall not obey!”

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Jun 14

Hacking and Refactoring

In 2001, there was a history-making conference of software-engineering
thinkers in Snowbird, Colorado. The product of that meeting was a remarkable
document called the Agile Manifesto,
a call to overturn many of the assumptions of traditional software development.
I was invited to be at Snowbird, but couldn’t make it.

Ever since, though, I’ve been sensing a growing convergence between
agile programming and the open-source movement. I’ve seen agile
concepts and terminology being adopted rapidly and enthusiastically by
my colleagues in open-source-land—especially ideas like
refactoring, unit testing, and design from stories and personas. From
the other side, key agile-movement figures like Kent Beck and Martin
Fowler have expressed strong interest in open source both in published
works and to me personally. Fowler has gone so far as to include
open source on his list of agile-movement schools.

I agree that we belong on that list. But I also agree with
Fowler’s description of of open source as a style, rather than a
process. I think his reservations as to whether open source can be
described as just another agile school are well-founded. There is
something more complicated and interesting going on here. and I
realized when I read Fowler’s description of open source that at some
point I was going to have to do some hard thinking and writing in an
effort to sort it all out.

While doing research for my forthcoming book, The Art of Unix
, I read one particular passage in Fowler’s
Refactoring that finally brought it all home. He

One argument is that refactoring can be an alternative to up-front
design. In this scenario, you don’t do any design at all. You just
code the first approach that comes into your head, get it working, and
then refactor it into shape. Actually, this approach can work. I’ve
seen people do this and come out with a very well-defined piece of
software. Those who support Extreme Programming often are portrayed
as advocating this approach.

I read this, and had one of those moments where everything comes
together in your head with a great ringing crash and the world assumes
a new shape—a moment not unlike the one I had in late 1996
when I got the central insight that turned into The Cathedral
and the Bazaar
. In the remainder of this essay I’m going to
try to articulate what I now think I understand about open source,
agile programming, how they are related, and why the connection should
be interesting even to programmers with no stake in either movement.

Now I need to set a little background here, because I’m going
to need to have to talk about several different categories which are
contingently but not necessarily related.

First, there is Unix programmer. Unix is the operating
system with the longest living tradition of programming and design.
It has an unusually strong and mature technical culture around it, a
culture which originated or popularized many of the core ideas and
tools of modern software design. The Art of Unix
is a concerted attempt to capture the craft wisdom
of this culture, one to which I have successfully enlisted quite a few
of its founding elders.

Second, there is hacker. This is a very complex term, but
more than anything else, it describes an attitude—an
intentional stance that relates hackers to programming and other
disciplines in a particular way. I have described the hacker stance
and its cultural correlates in detail in How To Become A

Third, there is open-source programmer. Open source is a
programming style with strong roots in the Unix tradition and the
hacker culture. I wrote the modern manifesto for it in 1997, The
Cathedral and the Bazaar
, building on earlier thinking by
Richard Stallman and others.

These three categories are historically closely related. It is
significant that a single person (accidentally, me) wrote touchstone
documents for the second and third and is attempting a summum
of the first. That personal coincidence reflects a larger
social reality that in 2003 these categories are becoming increasingly
merged — essentially, the hacker community has become the core
of the open-source community, which is rapidly re-assimilating the
parts of the Unix culture that got away from the hackers during
the ten bad years after the AT&T divestiture in 1984.

But the relationship is not logically entailed; we can imagine
a hacker culture speaking a common tongue other than Unix and C (in
the far past its common tongue was Lisp), and we can imagine an
explicit ideology of open source developing within a cultural and
technical context other than Unix (as indeed nearly happened several
different times).

With this scene-setting done, I can explain that my first take on
Fowler’s statement was to think “Dude, you’ve just described

I mean something specific and powerful by this. Throwing together
a prototype and refactoring it into shape is a rather precise
description of the normal working practice of hackers since that
culture began to self-define in the 1960s. Not a complete one, but it
captures the most salient feature of how hackers relate to code. The
open-source community has inherited and elaborated this practice,
building on similar tendencies within the Unix tradition.

The way Fowler writes about design-by-refactoring has two huge
implications for the relationship between open source and agile

First, Fowler writes as though he didn’t know he was describing
. In the passage, he appears unaware that design by
repeated refactoring is not just a recent practice semi-accidentally
stumbled on by a handful of agile programmers, but one which hundreds
of thousands of hackers have accumulated experience with for over three
decades and have in their bones. There is a substantial folklore, an
entire craft practice, around this!

Second, in that passage Fowler described the practice of hacking
better than hackers themselves have done. Now, admittedly,
the hacker culture has simply not had that many theoreticians, and if
you list the ones that are strongly focused on development methodology
you lose Richard Stallman and are left with, basically, myself and
maybe Larry Wall (author of Perl and occasional funny and illuminating
ruminations on the art of hacking). But the fact that we don’t have a
lot of theoreticians is itself an important datum; we have always
tended to develop our most important wisdoms as unconscious and
unarticulated craft practice.

These two observations imply an enormous mutual potential, a gap
across which an arc of enlightenment may be beginning to blaze. It
implies two things:

First, people who are excited by agile-programming ideas can
look to open source and the Unix tradition and the hackers for the
lessons of experience
. We’ve been doing a lot of the stuff the
agile movement is talking about for a long time. Doing it in a
clumsy, unconscious, learned-by-osmosis way, but doing it
nevertheless. I believe that we have learned things that you agile
guys need to know to give your methodologies groundedness. Things
like (as Fowler himself observes) how to manage communication and
hierarchy issues in distributed teams.

Second, open-source hackers can learn from agile programmers
how to wake up
. The terminology and conceptual framework of
agile programming sharpens and articulates our instincts. Learning to
speak the language of open source, peer review, many eyeballs, and
rapid iterations gave us a tremendous unifying boost in the late
1990s; I think becoming similarly conscious about agile-movement ideas
like refactoring, unit testing, and story-centered design could be
just as important for us in the new century.

I’ve already given an example of what the agile movement has to
teach the hackers, in pointing out that repeated redesign by
refactoring is a precise description of hacking. Another thing we can
stand to learn from agile-movement folks is how to behave so that we
can actually develop requirements and deliver on them when the
customer isn’t, ultimately, ourselves.

For the flip side, consider Fowler’s anecdote on page 68-69, which
ends “Even if you know exactly what is going on in your system,
measure performance, don’t speculate. You’ll learn something, and
nine times out of ten it won’t be that you were right.” The Unix guy
in me wants to respond “Well, duh!“. In my tribe, profiling
before you speculate is DNA; we have a strong tradition of
this that goes back to the 1970s. From the point of view of any old
Unix hand, the fact that Fowler thought he had to write this down is a
sign of severe naivete in either Fowler or his readership or both.

In reading Refactoring, I several times had the
experience of thinking “What!?! That’s obvious!” closely followed
by “But Fowler explains it better than Unix traditions do…” This may
be because he relies less on the very rich shared explanatory context
that Unix provides.

How deep do the similarities run? Let’s take a look at what the
Agile Manifesto says:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools. Yeah,
that sounds like us, all right. Open-source developers will toss out
a process that isn’t working in a nanosecond, and frequently do, and take
gleeful delight in doing so. In fact, the reaction against heavyweight
process has a key part of our self-identification as hackers for
at least the last quarter century, if not longer.

Working software over comprehensive documentation. That’s
us, too. In fact, the radical hacker position is that source code of
a working system is its documentation. We, more than any
other culture of software engineering, emphasize program source code as
human-to-human communication that is expected to bind together
communities of cooperation and understanding distributed through time
and space. In this, too, we build on and amplify Unix tradition.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation. In the
open-source world, the line between “developer” and “customer” blurs
and often disappears. Non-technical end users are represented by
developers who are proxies for their interests—as when, for
example, companies that run large websites second developers to
work on Apache Software Foundation projects.

Responding to change over following a plan. Absolutely.
Our whole development style encourages this. It’s fairly unusual for
any of our projects to have any plan more elaborate than “fix
the current bugs and chase the next shiny thing we see”.

With these as main points, it’s hardly surprising that so many of
the Principles
behind the Agile Manifesto
read like Unix-tradition and hacker
gospel. “Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks
to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
Well, yeah—we pioneered this. Or “Simplicity—the art of
maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.” That’s
Unix-tradition holy writ, there. Or “The best architectures,
requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”

This is stone-obvious stuff to any hacker, and exactly the sort of
subversive thinking that most panics managers attached to big plans,
big budgets, big up-front design, and big rigid command-and-control
structures. Which may, in fact, be a key part of its appeal to
hackers and agile developers—because at least one thing that points
agile-movement and open-source people in the same direction is a drive
to take control of our art back from the suits and get out from under
big dumb management.

The most important difference I see between the hackers and the
agile-movement crowd is this: the hackers are the people who never
surrendered to big dumb management — they either bailed out of the
system or forted up in academia or industrial R&D labs or
technical-specialty areas where pointy-haired bosses weren’t permitted
to do as much damage. The agile crowd, on the other hand, seems to be
composed largely of people who were swallowed into the belly of the
beast (waterfall-model projects, Windows, the entire conventional
corporate-development hell so vividly described in Edward Yourdon’s
books) and have been smart enough not just to claw their way out but
to formulate an ideology to justify not getting sucked back in.

Both groups are in revolt against the same set of organizational
assumptions. And both are winning because those assumptions are
obsolete, yesterday’s adaptations to a world of expensive machines and
expensive communications. But software development doesn’t need big
concentrations of capital and resources anymore, and doesn’t need the
control structures and hierarchies and secrecy and elaborate rituals
that go with managing big capital concentrations either. In fact, in
a world of rapid change, these things are nothing but a drag. Thus
agile techniques. Thus, open source. Converging paths to the same
destination, which is not just software that doesn’t suck but a
software-development process that doesn’t suck.

When I think about how the tribal wisdom of the hackers and the
sharp cut-the-bullshit insights of the agile movement seem to be
coming together, my mind keeps circling back to Phil Greenspun’s brief
but trenchant essay Redefining
Professionalism for Software Engineers
. Greenspun proposes,
provocatively but I think correctly, that the shift towards
open-source development is a key part of the transformation of
software engineering into a mature profession, with the dedication to
excellence and ethos of service that accompanies professionalism. I
have elsewhere suggested that we are seeing a close historical analog
of the transition from alchemy to chemistry. Secrets leak out, but
skill sustains; the necessity to stop relying on craft secrecy is one
of the crises that occupational groups normally face as they attain
professional standing.

I’m beginning to think that from the wreckage of the software
industry big dumb management made, I can see the outline of a mature,
humane discipline of software engineering emerging — and
that it will be in large part a fusion of the responsiveness and
customer focus of the agile movement with the wisdom and groundedness
of the Unix tradition, expressed in open source.


May 13

A Taxonomy of Cognitive Stress

I have been thinking about UI design lately. With some help from my
friend Rob Landley, I’ve come up with a classification schema for the
levels at which users are willing to invest effort to build

The base assumption is that for any given user there is a maximum
cognitive load any given user is willing to accept to use an
interface. I think that there are levels, analogous to Piagetian
developmental thresholds and possibly related to them, in the
trajectory of learning to use software interfaces.

Level 0: I’ll only push one button.

Level 1: I’ll push a sequence of buttons, as long as they’re all visible
and I don’t have to remember anything between presses. These people
can do checklists.

Level 2: I’m willing to push as sequence of buttons in which later ones may
not be visible until earlier ones have been pressed. These people
will follow pull-down menus; it’s OK for the display to change as long
as they can memorize the steps.

Level 3: I’m willing to use folders if they never change while I’m not looking.
There can be hidden unchanging state, but nothing must ever
happen out of sight. These people can handle an incremental replace
with confirmation. They can use macros, but have no capability to
cope with surprises other than by yelling for help.

Level 4: I’m willing to use metaphors to describe magic actions. A folder
can be described by “These are all my local machines” or “these
are all my print jobs” and is allowed to change out of sight in an
unsurprising way. These people can handle global replace, but must
examine the result to maintain confidence. These people will begin
customizing their environment.

Level 5: I’m willing to use categories (generalize about nouns). I’m
to recognize that all .doc files are alike, or all .jpg files are
alike, and I have confidence there are sets of actions I can apply
to a file I have never seen that will work because I know its type.
(Late in this level knowledge begins to become articulate; these
people are willing to give simple instructions over the phone or
by email.)

Level 6: I’m willing to unpack metaphors into procedural steps. People at
this level begin to be able to cope with surprises when the
metaphor breaks, because they have a representation of process.
People at this level are ready to cope with the fact that HTML
documents are made up of tags, and more generally with
simple document markup.

Level 7: I’m willing to move between different representations of
a document or piece of data. People at this level know that
any one view of the data is not the same as the data, and lossless
transformations no longer scare them. Multiple representations
become more useful than confusing. At this level the idea of
structural rather than presentation markup begins to make sense.

Level 8: I’m willing to package simple procedures I already understand.
These people are willing to record a sequence of actions which
they understand into a macro, as long as no decisions (conditionals)
are involved. They begin to get comfortable with report generators.
At advanced level 8 they may start to be willing to deal with
simple SQL.

Level 9: I am willing to package procedures that make decisions, as long
as I already understand them. At his level, people begin to cope
with conditionals and loops, and also to deal with the idea of
programming languages.

Level 10: I am willing to problem-solve at the procedural level, writing
programs for tasks I don’t completely understand before
developing them.

I’m thinking this scale might be useful in classifying interfaces and
developing guidelines for not exceeding the pain threshold of an
audience if we have some model of what their notion of acceptable
cognitive load is.

(This is a spinoff from my book-in-progress, “The Art of Unix
Programming”, but I don’t plan to put it in the book.)

Comments, reactions, and refinements welcome.

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May 05

The Delusion of Expertise

I learned something this weekend about the high cost of the subtle delusion that creative technical problem-solving is the preserve of a priesthood of experts, using powers and perceptions beyond the ken of ordinary human beings.

Terry Pratchett is the author of the Discworld series of satirical fantasies. He is — and I don’t say this lightly, or without having given the matter thought and study — quite probably the most consistently excellent writer of intelligent humor in the last century in English. One has to go back as far as P.G. Wodehouse or Mark Twain to find an obvious equal in consistent quality, volume, and sly wisdom.

I’ve been a fan of Terry’s since before his first Discworld novel; I’m one of the few people who remembers Strata, his 1981 first experiment with the disc-world concept. The man has been something like a long-term acquaintance of mine for ten years — one of those people you’d like to call a friend, and who you think would like to call you a friend, if the two of you ever arranged enough concentrated hang time to get that close. But we’re both damn busy people, and live five thousand miles apart.

This weekend, Terry and I were both guests of honor at a hybrid SF convention and Linux conference called Penguicon held in Warren, Michigan. We finally got our hang time. Among other things, I taught Terry how to shoot pistols. He loves shooter games, but as a British resident his opportunities to play with real firearms are strictly limited. (I can report that Terry handled my .45 semi with remarkable competence and steadiness for a first-timer. I can also report that this surprised me not at all.)

During Terry’s Guest-of-Honor speech, he revealed his past as (he thought) a failed hacker. It turns out that back in the 1970s Terry used to wire up elaborate computerized gadgets from Timex Sinclair computers. One of his projects used a primitive memory chip that had light-sensitive gates to build a sort of perceptron that could actually see the difference between a circle and a cross. His magnum opus was a weather station that would log readings of temperature and barometric pressure overnight and deliver weather reports through a voice synthesizer.

But the most astonishing part of the speech was the followup in which Terry told us that despite his keen interest and elaborate homebrewing, he didn’t become a programmer or a hardware tech because he thought techies had to know mathematics, which he thought he had no talent for. He then revealed that he thought of his projects as a sort of bad imitation of programming, because his hardware and software designs were total lash-ups and he never really knew what he was doing.

I couldn’t stand it. “And you think it was any different for us?” I called out. The audience laughed and Terry passed off the remark with a quip. But I was just boggled. Because I know that almost all really bright techies start out that way, as compulsive tinkerers who blundered around learning by experience before they acquired systematic knowledge. “Oh ye gods and little fishes”, I thought to myself, “Terry is a hacker!”

Yes, I thought ‘is’ — even if Terry hasn’t actually tinkered any computer software or hardware in a quarter-century. Being a hacker is expressed through skills and projects, but it’s really a kind of attitude or mental stance that, once acquired, is never really lost. It’s a kind of intense, omnivorous playfulness that tends to color everything a person does.

So it burst upon me that Terry Pratchett has the hacker nature. Which, actually, explains something that has mildly puzzled me for years. Terry has a huge following in the hacker community — knowing his books is something close to basic cultural literacy for Internet geeks. One is actually hard-put to think of any other writer for whom this is as true. The question this has aways raised for me is: why Terry, rather than some hard-SF writer whose work explicitly celebrates the technologies we play with?

The answer now seems clear. Terry’s hackerness has leaked into his writing somehow, modulating the quality of the humor. Behind the drollery, I and my peers worldwide have accurately scented a mind like our own.

I said some of this the following day, when I ran into Terry surrounded by about fifty eager fans in a hallway. The nature of the conference was such that about three-quarters of them were hackers, many faces I recognized. I brought up the topic again, emphasizing that the sort of playful improvisation he’d been describing was very normal for us, and that I thought it was kind of sad he’d been blocked by the belief that hackers need to know mathematics, because about all we ever use is some pieces of set theory, graph theory, combinatorics, and Boolean algebra. No calculus at all.

Terry then admitted that he had at one point independently re-invented Boolean algebra. I didn’t find this surprising — I did that myself when I was about fifteen; I didn’t mention this, though, because the moment was about Terry’s mind and not mine. I think reinventing Boolean algebra is probably something a lot of bright proto-hackers do.

“Terry,” I said, fully conscious of the peculiar authority I wield on this point as the custodian of the Jargon File, the how-to on How To Become A Hacker and several other related documents, “you are a hacker!

The crowd agreed enthusiastically. Somebody handed Terry one of the “Geek” badge ribbons the convention had made for attendees who wanted to identify themselves as coming from the Linux/programming side. Much laughter ensued when it was discovered that the stickum on the ribbon had lost its virtue, and a nearby hacker had to ceremonially affix the thing to Terry’s badge holder with a piece of duct tape.

Terry actually choked up a little while this was going on, and I don’t think there was anyone there who didn’t understand why. To the kind of teenager and young man he must have been — bright, curious, creative, proud of his own ability — it must have been very painful to conclude that he would never cut it as the techie he so obviously wanted to be. He ended up doing public-relations work for the British nuclear-power industry instead.

The whole sequence of events left me feeling delighted that I and my friends could deliver the affirmation Terry had deserved so long ago. But also — and here we come to the real point of this essay — I felt very angry at the system that had fed the young Terry such a huge load of cobblers about the nature of what programmers and hardware designers do.

I’m not referring to the obvious garbage about needing a brain-bending amount of mathematics. No; they fed Terry something much subtler and more crippling, a belief that real techies actually know what they’re doing. The delusion of expertise.

The truth is that programmers only know what they’re doing when the job is not very interesting. When you’re breaking new ground in any technical field, exploration and improvisation is the nature of the game. Your designs are going to be lash-ups because you don’t yet know any better and neither does anyone else. Systematization comes later, with the second system, during the re-write and the re-think. Einstein had it right; imagination is more valuable than knowledge, and people like Terry with a demonstrated ability to creatively wing it make far better hackers than analytically smart but unimaginative people who can only follow procedures.

The thought that Terry may have spent thirty years of working days grinding out press releases for the Central Electricity Generating Board because he didn’t know this, rather than following his dreams into astronomy or programming or hardware design, bothers the crap out of me. If Terry was bright enough to invent Boolean algebra, he was bright enough to cut it in any of these fields. The educational system failed him by putting artificial requirements in his way and making him believe they were natural ones. It failed him even more fundamentally by teaching him a falsehood about the nature of expertise.

In doing this, it failed all of us. How many bright kids with first-class minds, I wonder, end up under-employed because of crap like this? How much creative potential are we losing?

OK, some might answer, so we got the Discworld fantasies instead…that ain’t exactly chopped liver. The thing is, I’m not sure that was actually a trade-off. I’m enough of a writer myself to believe that you can’t block a writing talent like Terry’s merely by dropping him into a more demanding day job. It will come out.

On the other hand, one thing I am sure of is that you don’t need intelligence or talents like Terry’s just to do PR. One way or another, this man was going to do something with more lasting effects than soothing British farmers about radiation leaks. Inventing one of the funniest alternate worlds of the last hundred years during your free time is nice, and I devoutly hope he will get to keep doing it for decades to come — but in a society that valued and nurtured genius properly, I think Terry might have helped re-imagine the real world just as radically during his day job.

But he didn’t. Tot it up to the cost of taking creativity too seriously, of undervaluing improvisation and play and imagination. And wonder how much else that error has cost us.

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Apr 22

Fascism Is Not Dead

Fascism is not dead. The revelations now coming out of Iraq about Baathist atrocities lend this observation particular point; Saddam Hussein was able to successfully imitate Hitler for three decades. Baathists using similar methods still run Syria, and elsewhere in the Islamic world there are militarist/authoritarian tendencies that run uncomfortably close to fascism.

Recent events — including the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime and Glenn Reynolds blogging on Pio Moa’s The Myths of the Civil War have inspired me to dust off some research and writing I did a while back on the history of fascism. Some of the following essay is about the Spanish Civil War annd Francisco Franco, but much of it is about the history and structure of fascism.

Pio Moa’s thesis is that the Spanish Civil War was not a usurping revolt against a functioning government, but a belated attempt to restore order to a country that had already collapsed into violent chaos five years before the Fascists landed in 1936.

I’ve studied the history of the Spanish Civil War enough to know that Moa’s contrarian interpretation is not obviously crazy. I had an unusual angle; I’m an anarchist, and wanted to grasp the ideas and role of the Spanish anarchist communes. My conclusions were not pleasant. In short, there were no good guys in the Spanish Civil War.

First, the non-anarchist Left in Spain really was pretty completely Stalin’s creature. The volunteers of the International Brigade were (in Lenin’s timeless phrase) useful idiots, an exact analogue of the foreign Arabs who fought on in Baghdad after Iraqi resistance collapsed (and were despised for it by the Iraqis). They deserve neither our pity nor our respect. Insofar as Moa’s thesis is that most scholarship about the war is severely distorted by a desire to make heroes out of these idiots, he is correct.

Second, the Spanish anarchists were by and large an exceedingly nasty bunch, all resentment and nihilism with no idea how to rebuild after destroying. Wiping them out (via his Communist proxies) may have been one of Stalin’s few good deeds.

Third, the Fascists were a pretty nasty bunch too. But, on the whole, probably not as nasty as their opponents. Perceptions of them tend to be distorted by the casual equation of Fascist with Nazi — but this is not appropriate. Spanish Fascism was unlike Communism or Italian and German Fascism in that it was genuinely a conservative movement, rather than a attempt to reinvent society in the image of a revolutionary doctrine about the perfected State.

Historians and political scientists use the terms “fascist” and “fascism” quite precisely, for a group of political movements that were active between about 1890 and about 1975. The original and prototypical example was Italian fascism, the best-known and most virulent strain was Naziism, and the longest-lasting was the Spanish nationalist fascism of Francisco Franco. The militarist nationalism of Japan is often also described as “fascist” .

The shared label reflects the fact that these four ideologies influenced each other; Naziism began as a German imitation of Italian fascism, only to remake Italian (and to some extent Spanish) fascism in its own image during WWII. The militarist Japanese fascists took their cues from European fascists as well as an indigenous tradition of absolutism with very similar structural and psychological features

The shared label also reflects substantially similar theories of political economics, power, governance, and national purpose. Also similar histories and symbolisms. Here are some of the commonalities especially relevant to the all too common abuse of the term.

Fascist political economics is a corrupt form of Leninist socialism. In fascist theory (as in Communism) the State owns all; in practice, fascists are willing to co-opt and use big capitalists rather than immediately killing them.

Fascism mythologizes the professional military, but never trusts it. (And rightly so; consider the Von Stauffenberg plot…) One of the signatures of the fascist state is the formation of elite units (the SA and SS in Germany, the Guardia Civil in Spain, the Republican Guard and Fedayeen in Iraq) loyal to the fascist party and outside the military chain of command.

Fascism is not (as the example of Franco’s Spain shows) necessarily aggressive or expansionist per se. In all but one case, fascist wars were triggered not by ideologically-motivated aggression but by revanchist nationalism (that is, the nation’s claims on areas lost to the victors of previous wars, or inhabited by members of the nationality agitating for annexation). No, the one exception was not Nazi Germany; it was Japan (the rape of Manchuria). The Nazi wars of aggression and Hussein’s grab at Kuwait were both revanchist in origin.

Fascism is generally born by revolution out of the collapse of monarchism. Fascism’s theory of power is organized around the `Fuehrerprinzip’, the absolute leader regarded as the incarnation of the national will.

But…and this is a big but…there were important difference between revolutionary Fascism (the Italo/German/Baathist variety) and the more reactionary sort native to Spain and Japan.

The Italo/German/Baathist varieties were radical, modernist ideologies and not (as commonly assumed) conservative or traditionalist ones; in fact, all three of these examples faced serious early threats from cultural-conservative monarchists (or in Baathism’s case, from theocrats).

But Japanese and Spanish Fascism were a bit different; they were actually pro-monarchist, conservative in essence, aimed at reasserting the power relationships of premodern Spain and Japan. In fact, Spanish Fascism was mostly about Francisco Franco’s reactionary instincts.

After the fall of the Second Republic in 1931 Francisco Franco had rather better reason than Hitler ever did to regard the Communist-inspired left as a mortal threat to his country; a wave of `revolutionary’ expropriations, massacres, and chaos (unlike the opera-bouffe capitulation of the Italian monarchy or the relatively bloodless collapse of Germany’s Weimar Republic) followed. Obedient to what remained of central authority, Franco sat out the undeclared civil war for five years before invading from Morocco with Italian and German help. His belief that he was acting to restore a pre-1931 order of which he was the last legitimate representative appears to have been genuine — perhaps even justified.

The declared portion of the Spanish Civil War lasted from 1936 to 1939. It has passed into legend among Western leftists as a heroic struggle between the Communist-backed Republican government and Nazi-backed Franco, one that the good guys lost. The truth seems rather darker; the war was fought by two collections of squabbling, atrocity-prone factions, each backed by one of the two most evil totalitarianisms in human history. They intrigued, massacred, wrecked, and looted fairly indiscriminately until one side collapsed from exhaustion. Franco was the last man left standing.

Franco had no aspirations to conquer or reinvent the world, or to found a dynasty. His greatest achievements were the things that didn’t happen. He prevented the Stalinist coup that would certainly have followed a Republican victory. He then kept Spain out of World War II against heavy German pressure to join the Axis.

Domestically, Spain could have suffered worse. Spanish Fascism was quite brutal against its direct political enemies, but never developed the expansionism or racist doctrines of the Italian or German model. In fact it had almost no ideology beyond freezing the power relationships of pre-Republican Spain in place. Thus, there were no massacres even remotely comparable to Hussein’s nerve-gassing of Kurds and Shi’as, Hitler’s Final Solution or Stalin’s far bloodier though less-known liquidation of the kulaks.

Francisco Franco remained a monarchist all his life, and named the heir to the Spanish throne as his successor. The later `fascist’ regimes of South and Central America resembled the Francoite, conservative model more than they did the Italo/German/Baathist revolutionary variety.

One historian put it well. “Hitler was a fascist pretending to be a conservative. Franco was a conservative pretending to be a fascist.” (One might add that Hussein was not really pretending to be about anything but the raw will to power; perhaps this is progress, of a sort.) On those terms Franco was rather successful. If he had died shortly after WWII, rather than lingering for thirty years while presiding over an increasingly stultified and backward Spain, he might even have been remembered as a hero of his country.

As it is, the best that can be said is that (unlike the truly major tyrants of his day, or Saddam Hussein in ours) Franco was not a particularly evil man, and was probably less bad for his country than his opponents would have been.


Dec 17

Some Christmas cheer

Some deeply warped Christmas humor here . Now,
this Santa might get me the presents I really want. Like,
say, a custom-tuned Baer .45 semiauto. Or Liv Tyler, fetchingly
attired in nothing but a pair of Arwen ears.

I actually did get a really peculiar Christmas present from a
stranger this morning. It was a gourmet frying pan with a
Tux-the-Linux-Penguin on it. And
an earnest cover letter explaining that it is #8 of a special limited
edition of 1024. Made by a German cookwares company that has
gotten good service out of Linux and decided to commemmorate
the fact.


Dec 04

Sneering at Courage

One of the overdue lessons of 9/11 is that we can’t afford to sneer
at physical courage any more. The willingness of New York firemen,
Special Forces troops in Afghanistan, and the passengers of Flight 93
to put their lives on the line has given us most of the bright spots
we’ve had in the war against terror. We are learning, once again,
that all that stands between us and the night of barbarism is the
willingness of men to both risk their lives and take the awful
responsibility of using lethal force in our defense.

(And, usually, it is men who do the risking. I mean no disrespect
to our sisters; the kind of courage I am talking about is not an
exclusive male monopoly. But it has been predominently the job of
men in every human culture since Olduvai Gorge, and still is today.
I’ll return to this point later in the essay.)

The rediscovery of courage visibly upsets a large class of bien
in our culture. Many of the elite molders of opinion in
the U.S and Europe do not like or trust physical courage in men. They
have spent decades training us to consider it regressive, consigning
it to fantasy, sneering at it — trying to persuade us all that
it’s at best an adolescent or brute virtue, perhaps even a vice.

If this seems too strong an indictment, consider carefully all the
connotations of the phrase “testosterone poisoning”. Ask yourself
when you first heard it, and where, and from whom. Then ask yourself
if you have slid into the habit of writing off as bluster any man’s
declaration that he is willing to risk his life, willing to fight for
what he believes in. When some ordinary man says he is willing to
take on the likes of the 9/11 hijackers or the D.C. sniper — or
even ordinary criminals — them, do you praise his determination
or consign him, too, to the category of blowhard or barbarian?

Like all virtues, courage thrives on social support. If we mock
our would-be warriors, writing them off as brutes or rednecks or
simpletons, we’ll find courage in short supply when we need it. If we
make the more subtle error of sponsoring courage only in uniformed men
— cops, soldiers, firemen — we’ll find that we have
trouble growing the quantity or quality we need in a crisis. Worse:
our brave men could come to see themselves apart from us, distrusted
and despised by the very people for whom they risk their lives, and
entitled to take their due when it is not freely given. More than one
culture that made that mistake has fallen to its own guardians.

Before 9/11, we were in serious danger of forgetting that courage
is a functional virtue in ordinary men. But Todd Beamer reminded us of
that — and now, awkwardly, we are rediscovering some of the
forms that humans have always used to nurture and reward male courage.
Remember that rash of news stories from New York about Upper-East-Side
socialites cruising firemen’s bars? Biology tells; medals and
tickertape parades and bounties have their place, but the hero’s most
natural and strongest reward is willing women.

Manifestations like this absolutely appall and disgust the sort of
people who think that the destruction of the World Trade Center was a
judgment on American sins; — the multiculturalists, the
postmodernists, the transnational progressives, radical feminists, the
academic political-correctness brigades, the Bush-is-a-moron elitists,
and the plain old-fashioned loony left. By and large these people
never liked or trusted physical courage, and it’s worth taking a hard
look at why that is.

Feminists distrust physical courage because it’s a male virtue.
Women can and do have it, but it is gender-linked to masculinity just
as surely as nurturance is to femininity. This has always been
understood even in cultures like the Scythians, Teutons, Japanese, and
modern Israelis that successfully made places for women warriors. If
one’s world-view is organized around distrusting or despising men and
maleness, male courage is threatening and social support for it is

For multi-culti and po-mo types, male physical courage is suspect
because it’s psychologically linked to moral certitude — and
moral certitude is a bad thing, nigh-indistinguishable from
intolerance and bigotry. Men who believe in anything enough to fight
for it are automatically suspect of would-be imperialism &mdash,
unless, of course, they’re tribesmen or Third Worlders, in which
fanaticism is a praiseworthy sign of authenticity.

Elite opinions about male physical courage have also had more
than a touch of class warfare about them. Every upper crust
that is not directly a military caste — including our own
— tends to dismiss physical courage as a trait of peasants
and proles and the lesser orders, acceptable only when they
know their place is to be guided by their betters.

For transnational progressives and the left in general, male
physical courage is a problem in the lesser orders because it’s an
individualizing virtue, one that leads to wrong-think about
autonomy and the proper limits of social power. A man who develops in
himself the grit that it takes to face death and stare it down is less
likely to behave meekly towards bureacrats, meddlers, and taxmen who
have not passed that same test. Brave men who have learned to fight
for their own concept of virtue — independently of
social approval or the party line — are especially threatening
to any sort of collectivist.

The multiculturalist’s and the collectivist’s suspicions are
backhanded tributes to an important fact. There is a continuity among
self-respect, physical courage and ethical/moral courage. These virtues are
the soil of individualism, and are found at their strongest only in
individualists. They do not flourish in isolation from one another.
They reinforce each other, and the social measures we take to reward
any of them tend to increase all of them.

After 1945 we tried to separate these virtues. We tried to teach
boys moral steadfastness while also telling them that civilized men
are expected to avoid confrontation and leave coping with danger to
specialists. We preached the virtue of `self-esteem’ to adolescents
while gradually abolishing almost all the challenges and ordeals that
might have enabled them to acquire genuine self-respect. Meanwhile,
our entertainments increasingly turned on anti-heros or celebrated
physical bravery of a completely mindless and morally vacuous kind.
We taught individualism without responsibility, denying the unpleasant
truth that freedom has to be earned and kept with struggle and blood.
And we denied the legitimacy of self-defense.

Rudyard Kipling would have known better, and Robert Heinlein did.
But they were written off as reactionaries — and many of us were
foolish enough to be surprised when the new thinking produced a bumper
crop of brutes, narcissists, overgrown boys, and bewildered hollow men
apt to fold under pressure. We became, in Jeffrey Snyder’s famous
diagnosis, a nation
of cowards
; the cost could be measured in the explosion in crime
rates after 1960, a phenomenon primarily of males between 15 and 35.

But this was a cost which, during the long chill of the Cold War,
we could afford. Such conflicts as there were stayed far away from
the home country, warfare was a game between nations, and nuclear
weapons seemed to make individual bravery irrelevant. So it remained
until al-Qaeda and the men of Flight 93 reminded us otherwise.

Now we have need of courage. Al-Qaeda’s war has come to us. There
is a geopolitical aspect to it, and one of the fronts we must pursue
is to smash state sponsors of terrorism. But this war is not
primarily a chess-game between nations — it’s a street-level
brawl in which the attackers are individuals and small terrorist cells
often having no connection to the leadership of groups like al-Qaeda
other than by sympathy of ideas.

Defense against this kind of war will have to be decentralized and
citizen-centered, because the military and police simply cannot be
everywhere that terrorists might strike. John F. Kennedy said this during
the Cold War, but it is far truer now:

“Today, we need a nation of Minutemen, citizens who are not only prepared to
take arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as the basic
purpose of their daily life and who are willing to consciously work and
sacrifice for that freedom.”

The linked virtues of physical courage, moral courage, and
self-respect are even more essential to a Minuteman’s readiness than
his weapons. So the next time you see a man claim the role
of defender, don’t sneer — cheer. Don’t write him off with some
pseudo-profound crack about macho idiocy, support him. He’s trying to
tool up for the job two million years of evolution designed him for,
fighting off predators so the women and children can sleep safe.

Whether he’s in uniform or not, young or old, fit or flabby
— we need that courage now.

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Dec 04

Social Security and the Demography Bomb

A friend of mine, Russ Cage aka Engineer-Poet, comments on my essay
and the Dustbin of History

People used to have children to take care of them in their old age.
Social Security took care of this by socializing the benefits, but all
of the costs still fell to individuals; worse, taking time out of the
workforce to raise kids reduces your Social Security benefits.
Rational actors will stop having kids to have a good retirement.

He’s right, and this applies to all public pension schemes.
It’s a very simple, very powerful mechanism. When you subsidize old
age, you depress birthrates. The more you subsidize old age, the more
you depress birthrates. Eventually…crash!

It’s not just Euro-socialism that’s going to get trashed by
demographics, it’s the U.S’s own welfare state. It might take longer
here because our population is still rising, but it will happen.

Now that the effects of income transfer on demography are no longer
masked by the Long Boom, this is going to become one of the principal
constraints on public policy.

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Dec 04

Demographics and the Dustbin of History

Karl Zinsmeister’s essay Old and In The Way presents a startling — but all too plausible — forecast of Europe’s future. To the now-familiar evidence of European insularity, reflexive anti-Americanism, muddle, and geopolitical impotence, Zinsmeister adds a hard look at European demographic trends.

What Zinsmeister sees coming is not pretty. European populations are not having children at replacement levels. The population of Europe is headed for collapse, and for an age profile heavily skewed towards older people and retirees. Europe’s Gross Domestic Product per capita (roughly, the amount of wealth the average person produces) is already only two-thirds of America’s, and the ratio is going to fall, not rise.

Meanwhile, the U.S population continues to rise — and the U.S. economy is growing three times as fast as Europe’s even though the U.S. is in the middle of a bust! Since 1970 the U.S. has been more than ten times as successful at creating new jobs. But most importantly, the U.S.’s population is still growing even as Europe’s is shrinking — which means the gap in population, productivity, and economic output is going to increase. By 2030, the U.S will have a larger population than all of Europe — and the median age in the U.S. will be 30, but the median age in Europe will be over 50.

Steven den Beste is probably correct to diagnose the steady weakening of Europe as the underlying cause of the increasing rift the U.S. and Europe’s elites noted in Robert Kagan’s essay Power and Weakness (also recommended reading). But Kagan (focusing on diplomacy and geopolitics), Zinsmeister (focusing on demographic and economic decline) and den Beste (focusing on the lassitude of Europe’s technology sector and the resulting brain drain to the U.S.) all miss something more fundamental.

Zinsmeister comes near it when he writes “Europe’s disinterest in childbearing is a crisis of confidence and optimism.”. Europeans are demonstrating in their behavior that they don’t believe the future will be good for children.

Back to that in a bit, but first a look on what the demographic collapse will mean for European domestic politics. Zinsmeister makes the following pertinent observations:

  1. Percentage of GDP represented by government spending is also diverging. In the U.S. it is roughly 19% and falling. In the EU countries it is 30-40% and rising.
  2. The ratio of state clients to wealth-generating workers is also rising. By 2030, Zinsmeister notes, every single worker in the EU will have his own elderly person 65 or older to provide for through the public pension system.
  3. Chronic unemployment is at 9-10% (twice the U.S.’s) and rising.
  4. Long-term unemployment and drone status is far more common in Europe than here. In Europe, 40% of unemployed have been out of work for over a year. Un the U.S. the corresponding figure is 6%.

Zinsmeister doesn’t state the obvious conclusion; Euro-socialism is unsustainable. It’s headed for the dustbin of history.

Forget ideological collapse; the numbers don’t work. The statistics above actually understate the magnitude of the problem, because as more and more of the population become wards of the state, a larger percentage of the able will be occupied simply with running the income-redistribution system. The rules they make will depress per-capita productivity further (for a recent example see France’s mandated 35-hour workweek).

Unless several of the key trends undergo a rapid and extreme reversal, rather soon (as in 20 years at the outside) there won’t be enough productive people left to keep the gears of the income-redistribution machine turning. Economic strains sufficient to destroy the political system will become apparent much sooner. We may be seeing the beginnings of the destruction now as Chancellor Schröder’s legitimacy evaporates in Germany, burned away by the dismal economic news.

We know what this future will probably look like, because we’ve seen the same dismal combination of economic/demographic collapse play out in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s. Progressively more impotent governments losing their popular legitimacy, increasing corruption, redistributionism sliding into gangsterism. Slow-motion collapse.

But there are worse possibilities that are quite plausible. The EU hase two major advantages the Soviets did not — a better tech and infrastructure base, and a functioning civil society (e.g. one in which wealth and information flow through a lot of legal grassroots connections and voluntary organizations). But they have one major disadvantage — large, angry, totally unassimilated immigrant populations that are reproducing faster than the natives. This is an especially severe problem in France, where housing developments in the ring zones around all the major cities have become places the police dare not go without heavy weapons.

We’ve already gotten a foretaste of what that might mean for European domestic politics. At its most benign, we get Pim Fortuyn in Holland. But Jörg Haider in Austria is a more ominous indicator, and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s startling success in the last French presidential elections was downright frightening. Far-right populism with a racialist/nativist/anti-Semitic tinge is on the rise, an inevitable consequence of the demographic collapse of native populations.

As if that isn’t bad enough, al-Qaeda and other Islamist organizations are suspected on strong evidence to be recruiting heavily among the North African, Turkish, and Levantine populations that now predominate in European immigrant quarters. The legions of rootless, causeless, unemployed and angry young men among Muslim immigrants may in fact actually be on their way to reifying the worst nightmares of native-European racists.

One way or another, the cozy Euro-socialist welfare state is doomed by the demographic collapse. Best case: it will grind to a shambolic halt as the ratio of worker bees to drones goes below critical. Worst case: it will blow itself apart in a welter of sectarian, ethnic, and class violence. Watch the frequency trend curve of synagogue-trashings and anti-Jewish hate crimes; that’s bound to be a leading indicator.

The only possible way for Europe to avoid one of these fates would be for it to reverse either the decline in per-capita productivity or its population decline. And reversing the per-capita productivity decline would only be a temporary fix unless it could be made to rise faster than the drone-to-worker ratio — forever.

Was this foredoomed? Can it be that all national populations lose their will to have children when they get sufficiently comfortable? Do economies inevitably grow old and sclerotic? Is Europe simply aging into the end stages of a natural civilizational senescence?

That theory would be appealing to a lot of big-picture historians, and to religious anti-materialists like al-Qaeda. And if we didn’t have the U.S.’s counterexample to look at, we might be tempted to conclude that this trap is bound to claim any industrial society past a certain stage of development.

But that won’t wash. The U.S. is wealthier, both in aggregate and per-capita, than Europe. A pro-market political party in Sweden recently pointed out that by American standards of purchasing power, most Swedes now live in what U.S. citizens would consider poverty. If wealth caused decline, the U.S. would be further down the tubes than the EU right now. But we’re still growing.

A clue to the real problem lies in the differing degrees to which social stability depends on income transfer. In the U.S., redistributionism is on the decline; we abolished federal welfare nearly a decade ago, national health insurance was defeated, and new entitlements are an increasingly tough political sell to a population that has broadly bought into conservative arguments against them. In fact, one of the major disputes everyone knows won’t be avoidable much longer is over privatizing Social Security — and opponents are on the defensive.

In Europe, on the other hand, merely failing to raise state pensions on schedule can cause nationwide riots. The dependent population there is much larger, much longer-term, and has much stronger claims on the other players in the political system. The 5%/10% difference in structural unemployment — and, even more, the 6%/40% difference in permanant unemployment — tells the story.

So what happened?

Essentially, Euro-socialism told the people that the State would buy as much poverty and dependency as they cared to produce. Then it made wealth creation difficult by keeping capital expensive, business formation difficult, and labor markets rigid and regulated. Finally, it taxed the bejesus out of the people who stayed off the dole and made it through the redistributionist rat-maze, and used the proceeds to buy more poverty and alienation.

Europeans responded to this set of incentives by not having children. This isn’t surprising. The same thing happened in Soviet Russia, much sooner. There’s a reason Stalin handed out medals to women who raised big families.

Human birth rates rise under two circumstances. One is when people think they need to have a lot of kids for any of them to survive. The other is when human beings think their children will have it better than they do. (The reasons for this pattern should be obvious; if they aren’t, go read about evolutionary biology until you get it.)

Europe’s experiment with redistributionism has been running for about a hundred and fifty years now (the beginnings of the modern welfare state date to Prussian state-pension schemes in the 1840s). Until recently, it was sustained by the long-term population and productivity boom that followed the Industrial Revolution. There were always more employed young people than old people and unemployed people and sick people and indigents, so subsidizing the latter was economically possible.

Until fairly recently, Euro-socialist governments couldn’t suck wealth out of the productive economy and into the redistribution network fast enough to counter the effects of the long boom. Peoples’ estimate of the prospects for their children kept improving and they kept breeding. In France they now call the late end of that period les trentes glorieuses, the thirty glorious years from 1945 to 1975. But as the productivity gains from industrialization tailed off, the demographic collapse began, not just in France but Europe-wide.

Meanwhile, the U.S. was not only rejecting socialism, but domestic politics actually moved away from redistributionism and economic intervention after Nixon’s wage/price control experiment failed in 1971. The U.S, famously had its period of “malaise” in the 1970s after the oil-price shock ended our trentes glorieuses— but while in Europe the socialists consolidated their grip on public thinking during those years, our “democratic socialists” didn’t — and never recovered from Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency after 1980.

The fall of the Soviet Union happened fifteen years after the critical branch point. Until then, Westerners had no way to know that the Soviets, too, had been in demographic decline for some time. Communist myth successfully portrayed the Soviet Union as an industrial and military powerhouse, but the reality was a hollow shell with a failing population — a third-world pesthole with a space program. Had that been clearer thirty years sooner, perhaps Europe might have avoided the trap.

Now the millennium has turned and it looks like the experiment will finally have to end. It won’t be philosophy or rhetoric or the march of armies that kills it, but rather the accumulated poisons of redistributionism necrotizing not just the economy but the demographics of Europe. Euro-socialism, in a quite Marxian turn of events, will have been destroyed by its own internal contradictions.

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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

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

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

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

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
    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

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
, 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

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

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

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

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

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
(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
). 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
, some of Harlan Ellison’s work, Brian Aldiss’s
Hothouse stories, and Langdon Jones’s The Great
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

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

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
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

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
. 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

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
was a tellingly libertarian one. The bedrock
individualism of classical SF reasserted itself with a smartass

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
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)

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

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)

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

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.

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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

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

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

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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