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Friday, May 17, 2002

Socialists To The Stars:

Science fiction, because it deals in extrapolated futures, has a long tradition of employment as a vehicle for political argument. More than that, science fiction encourages politically-minded writers to narratize their beliefs in ways that can sometime reveal more than the writers intended about the problems and contradictions in their own theories.

I was powerfully reminded of this fact while reading Ken MacLeod's latest The Sky Road. A reference in the book led me to think about Iain Banks, and from there I flashed on some recent analyses of post-9/11 confusion among the European left. And I realized that MacLeod and Banks between them inadvertently reveal some interesting things about socialism in the post-Soviet world.

Ken MacLeod and Iain Banks are two of the most interesting young writers in science fiction. Both are rooted in Scotland, and both manage the peculiar and somewhat arresting trick of writing rather hard SF from a Marxist political stance. For multiple historical and structural reasons, the dominant strain in the politics of SF has long been individualist, anti-authoritarian, even libertarian in tone -- and this has been most true near the hard-SF heart of the field. MacLeod and Banks, then, are almost unique in proposing SF narratives in which socialism has a heroic future -- and in doing so giving us an SFnal window into how socialists in the post-Soviet world think, and the unrecognized contradictions in their ideas.

Banks is the less explicit of the two. His Culture novels (including Excession, Use of Weapons, The Player Of Games, and Look To Windward are wide-screen space operas in which the good guys are a communist utopia. In the Culture, there is no money and no want and no markets; the economy is run by the vast AIs called Culture Minds, who somehow centrally plan everything so that human beings never have to make unpleasant scarcity choices. It's Marxist eschatology entire, with the withering-away of the state sustained by deus ex machina.

But Banks never refers to communism or capitalism or any feature of present-day politics by name. You get his politics by indirection, mainly by noticing how he thinks economics and history work. In his universe all the non-communist cultures are barbarians waiting to be assimilated by Culture contact expeditions. The cat gets let out of the bag in a historical aside; Banks imagines Earth itself being subsumed. Marx's dialectical imperative having failed us, Banks is imaginatively counting on invasion by superior aliens to sweep capitalism and markets into the dustbin of history.

Banks's Culture is not quite the dreary exercise in correct-think the above description might suggest; in fact, the Culture is a lot of fun to read about. But there is a black hole at the center of Banks's construction. Leaving aside all the tendentious political questions about who gets to use force in the Culture, and when, and for what reasons...the economics can't possibly work. The Culture Minds, if they existed, would run slap-bang into F. A. Hayek's `calculation problem'. In 1936, Hayek showed that a planned economy, deprived of the demand signals generated by markets, will inevitably malinvest its way to collapse. The Soviet Union took less than sixty years to act out Hayek's prediction, and in 2002 there is really no better excuse for an SF writer not understanding this than there would be for getting the physics of a story gimmick wrong.

If Banks narratizes the fundamentalist version of socialism (believe and heaven will take you up), MacLeod gives us something rather weirder and more complex. Unlike Banks, he is economically literate. His characters are staunch old socialists who have figured out that Marxism is a total crock and the Soviet Union was a doomed, murderous failure. In fact MacLeod is an anarchist at heart, and his futures succumb to the inevitability of markets in the absence of state control. And yet, his characters cannot let go of that old-time religion -- they fetishize posters of Che Guevara and hate "imperialism" and sing the Internationale and get all misty-eyed over hammer-and-sickle emblems and even obey orders from the shadowy remnants of the Communist Party.

MacLeod gives us post-Communist Communism, heavy metal irony, socialist camp -- indeed, one of the two viewpoint characters uses the latter phrase to describe the "worker's state" she runs in Central Asia. The program is gone, all that's left is the attitude and the conspiracy and the dreary verbal cliches and the resentment. Including the hatred of capitalism. The results in MacLeod's weiting sometimes have an appealing gritty contrarianism, but more often just the morbid fascination of a bad auto accident. One pities his characters in the way one might pity any gifted obsessive. In fact, one pities MacLeod himself.

Banks's denial-drenched wish-fantasy. MacLeod's self-loathing-tinged politics of resentment, intermittently intelligent but unable to escape the sentimental gravitational pull of the old Soviet evil. Voila! The two poles of the European left after the fall of the Soviet Union, and especially after 9/11. Neither one of them which much sustainability or mass appeal.

Leftist theory has been in a state of accelerating disintegration ever since "real existing socialism" fulfilled the fate Marx predicted for capitalism by collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. Once the European left could no longer seriously propose a Marxist program, it had to settle for a defensive hunker-down around the socialist-inspired institutions of state -- the dole, national health services, and so forth. This is why ever since Margaret Thatcher, most of the dynamism of European political change within countries has come from the right -- and the European Union, always an enterprise of the left, may now be in jeopardy under populist and nationalist pressure.

Pim Fortuyn and Jean-Marie Le Pen (to name the two most ecent upsetters of the Euroleftist applecart) really had very little in common except for having been branded "right-wing" by left-sympathizing journalists. In fact, both their platforms are traditionally left on economic policy. What they did have in common is that they were both shrewd opportunists who stepped into the vacuum created by the ideological collapse of the traditional left.

Nowhere in either Banks's or MacLeod's mythologizations of future socialism is there any hint of an answer for the rising political problems of the present. The failure of multiculturalism as a strategy for preventing inter-ethnic and sectarian strife is the one Fortuyn and Le Pen exploited. There are others; environmental policy, information privacy, biotech. The European left, an increasingly tired anachronism in a capitalist world, no longer has either the energy or the intellectual heft to tackle any of these. The best its parties can hope for is to do as the British Labor party did; shift towards centrist pragmatism while making obeisances to left rhetoric that everyone involved recognizes as increasingly meaningless.

Perhaps it's not surprising that both Banks and MacLeod are creatures of the post-Soviet world. Their fantasies of socialism to the stars may be all the Left has left.

posted by Eric at 9:09 PM          

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Asparagirl has committed a base calumny against me. While it's true she had something to do with me entering the blogosphere, this business about threatening her with a Glock is totally off-base. I would never do anything like that. My carry weapon is a Colt Officer's Model 45 ACP. It's my wife who carries the Glock...

posted by Eric at 11:05 AM          



Minnesota art student Luke Helder has been charged with the recent string of Midwestern mailbox bombings. There doesn't seem to be much doubt that he's the perpetrator.

An art student. Yeah. That fits; the tone of the portentious twaddle in pipe-bomb-boy's manifesto was exactly that of the artist manque, big ideas being handled stupidly by a doofus whose ambition exceeds both his talent and his intellect. He fronted a grunge band called "Apathy", we hear.

You know what? I'd lay long odds the band sucks. And I'm not making that guess out of hostility or contempt, either, but because an artist with any confidence in his own ability would have found it a much better way to achieve his artistic goals than anoymously bombing mailboxes. (Artistic goals, in a guy that age, usually have a lot to do with meeting girls. I was a rock musician in my youth, and am therefore un-foolable on this issue.)

It was inevitable, I suppose, that sooner or later terrorism would become bad performance art. It's easy to condemn pipe-bomb-boy for callously putting people at lethal risk with his toys, but difficult to summon up the kind of personal hatred for this perpetrator that Al-Qaeda's flamboyant fanatic nut-jobs have so richly earned. I think our ire might be more properly directed elsewhere -- at all the people who have cooperated in dumbing down the definition of `art' so completely that Luke Helder actually thought he was doing it.

Once upon a time, art had something to do with achieving a meeting of minds between artist and audience. The artist's job was to rework the symbols and materials of his culture into expressions that affirmed and explored the values of that culture and pleased audiences. Artists operated within interpretive traditions that they shared with the non-artists in the audience. The truly able artist earned the privilege of making his work personal and individual, but only by successfully finding an audience and communicating with it in acceptable conventional terms first.

In the late 19th century Western culture began to admit a new definition of `art' and a new role for artists. Under the influence of modernism and various post-modern movements, artists began to see their job as the systematic subversion of the interpretive traditions they had inherited. "Back to zero!" was the cry. After zero, the new goal could no longer the meeting of minds in a culturally shared commons, but rather that the audience's minds should be invaded by the disruptive brillance of the artist's individual insight.

In the hands of a few early moderns -- Stravinsky, Brancusi, Picasso, Joyce -- the new agenda produced astonishingly fine work. In the hands of too many others, it produced vacuous, narcissistic nonsense. Luke Helder inherited its most vulgar form -- the notion that all the artist is required to do is "make a statement" about the contents of his own muddled mind, and it's the world's job to catch up.

Luke-boy's last art project at school was "a pencil sharpener imbedded in a tree stump that was rigged to illuminate Christmas lights as it sharpened pencils". No comedian could make up such a perfect paradigm of bad art. The pointless artifice, the banal superficial cleverness, the utter lack of respect for materials, and the complete disconnection from the millennia-long cultural conversation that includes all the great art of our civilization. It's really not a long step from this garbage to pipe bombs as `art'. Not a long step at all.

No account of Luke Helder suggests that he's particularly evil. I wonder...suppose he had learned formal prosody, or how to paint in oils, or compose a fugue, or do figurative sculpture. Suppose he had learned artistic forms and media that were situated in history, connected with the world, concerned with beauty. Suppose he had been taught something for art to be about other than the vacancy in his own head. Suppose he had been taught (shocking concept) standards?

Perhaps, then, he would not have required explosives to express himself.

UPDATE: And back in 1996, there were conceptual art bombs in Seattle.

posted by Eric at 2:50 AM          

Tuesday, May 14, 2002


A recent flurry of nearly identical editorials in American newspapers conveys the degree of fluttering endemic in dovecotes everywhere in the wake of the Justice Department's new statement of position on the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The New York Times and Washington Post have viewed with alarm, displaying an almost pathetic degree of panic at the thought that lawmakers might once again have to start taking that pesky "shall not be infringed" language seriously.

The dominant culture of the American national media knows what it believes about guns. Firearms are evil juju that have the power to induce murderous violence in otherwise normal human beings. Firearms owners are all either ghetto drug dealers whose idea of the good life is a drive-by a day, or else tractor-cap-wearing rural sociopaths jes' itchin' to shoot up a schoolyard. Firearms-rights advocates are a tiny nut-fringe of reactionary wackos barely one step from blowing up a federal building. Gun-control boosters are virtuous crusaders animated by selfless love of children and small fuzzy things. There will come a day when all guns are banned, hallelujah, violent crime will plummet, and we can stop being embarrassed for being Americans.

Over the last thirty years this mythology has grown so thick, so armored with smugness, that the dominant media culture is normally incapable of noticing mere facts that happen to contradict it. Gary Kleck's Point Blank: Guns and Violence In America should have put paid the demonization of gun owners back in 1993. John Lott's 1998 book More Guns, Less Crime demonstrated that civilian firearms dramatically reduce crime and violence. And Sanford Levinson's 1989 study The Embarrassing Second Amendment began a wave of legal scholarship that established what is now called the `Standard Model', that the Second Amendment does indeed protect an individual citizen's right to bear arms. The dominant media culture has been very effective at ignoring or denying all this.

But recently that smugness has been shook, badly, by three different events of which the Justice Department's finding is only the most recent. The media panic we're seeing is a cumulative result of all three.

First there was Michael Bellesiles's exposure as a fraud. His book Arming America won the Bancroft prize and gushing encomiums from the dominant media culture when it purported to show that the armed and self-reliant American frontiersman was a myth -- that the gun culture of the U.S. postdates the American Civil War and was alien to the framers of the Constitution.

Alas for the bien pensants of the world that the book turned out to be a tissue of lies, invented but nonexistent evidence, and willful misquotation of existing evidence. A fabrication, in fact, so egregious that it has induced the National Endowment for the Humanities to open its first official fraud investigation in thirty-seven years. Suddenly the fraud claims gun-rights activists had been making for years about other anti-gun scholarship (such as the infamous Kellerman "43:1") study) were no longer so easily dismissible as paranoid ranting.

But worse was to come, on September 11th 2001. Because Al-Qaeda's ability to turns airliners into weapons of mass destruction using nothing but carpet knives illustrated in the most dramatic possible way the folly of believing that a disarmed world is a safe one. All the "security" that kept civilian firearms off airplanes did was make terrorism easier for the determined few who could smuggle weapons on board.

Many tides turned after 9/11, and not the least result of it was a huge groundswell in popular support for civilian self-defense and firearms rights. The Pink Pistols and chapters of the Second Amendment Sisters on college campuses previously known as strongholds of anti-firearms politics became impossible to ignore. The new wave of popular pro-gun agitation could not be forced into the "right-wing kooks" box so beloved of the dominant media culture.

It's no wonder the Justice Department's endorsement of a pro-gun-rights brief in "Emerson vs. U.S." has the mavens of the dominant media culture feeling faint and panicky. One of the pillars of their world-view (up there with the unquestionable sanctity of environmentalists, say, or the importance of `diversity', or the superior virtue of the putatively oppressed) is creaking. Those loony gun nuts might turn out to be (a) right on the facts, (b) overwhelmingly popular, and (c) backed up by the Bill of Rights, the Justice Department, and the Supreme Court, after all!

If the Supreme Court grants certiorati on the Emerson case, we can expect the dominant media culture to get its knickers in a knot so complicated it would baffle an algebraic topologist. Because given the composition of the Court and the tenor of the times, the result might well be a dramatic rollback in the reach of firearms regulation. Gun-rights advocates can hope that laws touching the Second Amendment may in the future have to pass the same strictest level of scrutiny as laws touching the First. A wave of lawsuits successfully striking down state and local gun laws under the doctrine of incorporation could well follow.

The closest historical precedent for what may be about to happen is the rediscovery of the First Amendment in the early 20th century. Before 1919 speech advocating unpopular ideas could be made a punishable offense. Oliver Wendell Holmes created the doctrine, since become sacred to the dominant media culture, that unpopular ideas demand the most constitutional protection, and that the press has a broadly privileged role under that shield.

There is irony in the fact that, having benefited from the reassertion of the first article of the Bill of Rights, the dominant media culture should so be resisting the second.

posted by Eric at 3:00 AM          

Monday, May 13, 2002


Eugene Volokh comments that many of the leading promoters of racial identity politics in the U.S. have begun to lump Asians in with white people, but declines to attempt an interpretation. Actually this development is very easy to understand. All you need to break the code is to know that "white" = "assimilated".

Asians tend to be perceived as "white" not because they have white skin but because they behave as white people are expected to behave -- they pursue prosperity and value education, and seek to blend into the U.S.'s broad middle class rather than creating a defiant, adversarial ghetto or barrio culture. Compare the epithet "acting white", used among urban blacks to sneer at kids with black skin who work at being good students or holding down regular jobs.

This is nothing new. Historically, "whiteness" has never been a purely racial category. As late as the turn of the 20th century, Irish immigrants in the U.S. were sometimes separated from "whites" in speech and writing. Later, Eastern Europeans and Italians had to assimilate to U.S. cultural norms before being considered as "white" as the English, Germans, and Irish who had preceded them. Today, prosperous Asians have edged over that border. In our big cities, Chinese New Year is headed the way of the St. Patrick's Day Parade, becoming as American as apple pie.

So why aren't black people white too? The answer, I suggest, has very little to do with race and a lot to do with class -- specifically, the persistence of the black urban underclass. Not just as a population but as a culture that remains mired in high crime, high rates of single motherhood, high unemployment, and all the other symptoms of high dependency on government largesse. The "Great Society" programs of the 1960s and the race-hustling identity politics that followed stalled out the assimilation process that turned Irish, Italians, and (recently) Asians into whites.

Try to imagine a Korean equivalent of gangsta rap. Or a bunch of Vietnamese high-school students taunting one of their own for "acting white". Or Chinese kids fixating exclusively on Chinese adults as role models. These things don't happen. And that's why Asians are white.

UPDATE: Several Asians have written to tell me that I was doing OK until the last paragraph. There are anti-assimilationists among Asian immigrants, as it turns out; there is, in fact, even Korean gangsta music. However, my sources agree that these phenomena don't persist among American-born Asians. I think it's also significant that Asian anti-assimilationism is not a public phenomenon -- it's visible to other Asians but there are no movies glorifying it nor political organizations trading on it.

posted by Eric at 8:58 PM