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Saturday, November 09, 2002
My first fisking:
Ta-daa! In ritual obeisance to the customs of the blogosphere, I now perform my very first fisking. Of Der Fisk himself, in his 8 Nov 2002 column "Bush fights for another clean shot in his war".
"A clean shot" was The Washington Post's revolting description of the murder of the al-Qa'ida leaders in Yemen by a US "Predator" unmanned aircraft. With grovelling approval, the US press used Israel's own mendacious description of such murders as a "targeted killing" — and shame on the BBC for parroting the same words on Wednesday.
One wonders which word in the phrase "targeted killing" Mr. Fisk is having problems with. Since he avers that the phrase "targeted killing" is "mendacious", we can deduce that he believes either the word "killing" or the word "targeted" to be false descriptions.
We must therefore conclude that in Mr. Fisk's universe, either (a) members of al-Qaeda can be reduced to patch of carbonized char without the event properly qualifying as a "killing", or (b) the drone operators weren't targeting that vehicle at all — they unleashed a Hellfire on a random patch of the Hadrahamaut that just happened to have a half-dozen known terrorists moseying through it at at the moment of impact.
How about a little journalistic freedom here? Like asking why this important al-Qa'ida leader could not have been arrested. Or tried before an open court. Or, at the least, taken to Guantanamo Bay for interrogation.
One imagines Mr. Fisk during World War II, exclaiming in horror because the Allies neglected to capture entire divisions of the Waffen-SS intact and subject each Aryan superman to individual criminal trials.
Mr. Fisk's difficulty with grasping the concept of "warfare" and "enemy combatant" is truly remarkable. Or perhaps not so remarkable, considering his apparent failure to grasp the terms "targeted" and "killing".
Instead, the Americans release a clutch of Guantanamo "suspects", one of whom — having been held for 11 months in solitary confinement — turns out to be around 100 years old and so senile that he can't string a sentence together. And this is the "war on terror"?
Yes, Mr. Fisk, it is. It's a war in which our soldiers gives individual enemy combatants food, shelter, and medical care for 11 months while their terrorists continue mass-murdering innocent civilian women and children.
But a "clean shot" is what President Bush appears to want to take at the United Nations. First, he wants to force it to adopt a resolution about which the Security Council has the gravest reservations. Then he warns that he might destroy the UN's integrity by ignoring it altogether. In other words, he wants to destroy the UN. Does George Bush realise that the United States was the prime creator of this institution, just as it was of the League of Nations under President Woodrow Wilson?
Interesting that Mr. Fisk should mention the League of Nations. This would be the same League of Nations that collapsed after 1938 due to its utter failure to prevent clear-cut aggression by Nazi Germany? One wonders how Mr. Fisk supposes the U.N. can possibly escape the League's fate if it fails to sponsor effective action against a genocidal, murdering tyrant who has stated for the record that he models himself on Hitler.
I congratulate Mr. Fisk on 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's 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 four hundred 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 and aggressive warfare — such an upstanding citizen of the international community that we should stand idly by while he arms himself with nuclear weapons.
The Iranians once produced a devastating book of coloured photographs of the gas blisters sustained by their soldiers in that war. I looked at them again this week. If you were these men, you would want to die. They all did. I wish someone could remind George Bush of the words of Lawrence of Arabia, that "making war or rebellion is messy, like eating soup off a knife."
I wonder if Mr. Fisk can point to any instance in which George Bush ever stated that he expected the war with al-Qaeda to be "clean"? If I recall correctly. "clean shot" was the Washington Post's phrase.
Can Mr. Fisk fail to be aware that the Post's editorial board is run by ideological enemies of George Bush, persons who would, outside of wartime, hew rather closer to Mr. Fisk's positions than George Bush's?
Mr. Fisk, I don't think any American policymaker doubts that war is hell. Nor that terrorism is even worse.
And I suppose I would like Americans to remember the arrogance of colonial power.
We have quite vivid historical memories of the arrogance of Mr. Fisk's particular colonial power, in fact. We recall fighting a revolution to deal with it.
If Mr. Fisk could point out any American colonies in Iraq, or Iran, or Palestine, or Chechnya, we would be greatly educated.
Here, for example, is the last French executioner in Algeria during the 1956-62 war of independence, Fernand Meysonnier, boasting only last month of his prowess at the guillotine. "You must never give the guy the time to think. Because if you do he starts moving his head around and that's when you have the mess-ups. The blade comes through his jaw, and you have to use a butcher's knife to finish it off. It is an exorbitant power — to kill one's fellow man." So perished the brave Muslims of the Algerian fight for freedom.
Ah. Did I miss the part where Americans were using guillotines as a method of execution, then?
No, I hope we will not commit war crimes in Iraq — there will be plenty of them for us to watch — but I would like to think that the United Nations can restrain George Bush and Vladimir Putin and, I suppose, Tony Blair. But one thing is sure. Kolya will be with them.
Mr. Fisk's surety that American troops will while away their time in Baghdad raping dying Iraqi girls appears to come from the same eccentric brain circuitry that supposes U.S. to be a "colonial" power and to be in imminent danger of performing botched executions with guillotines and butcher knives.
Mr. Fisk neglects an important difference between U.S. soldiers and al-Qaeda terrorists.
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, U.S. soldiers found guilty of such behavior can be — and, on the rare occasions it has occurred, frequently have been — court-martialed and shot. Not that it seems Mr. Fisk would be likely to acknowledge the existence of this law, or that it is ever applies.
To Mr. Fisk's inability to grasp the terms "targeted" and "killing" we may therefore add an inability to grasp the terms "barbarism" and "civilization".
posted by Eric at 12:10 PM
Libertarianism and the Hard SF Renaissance:
When I started reading SF in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the field was in pretty bad shape — not that I understood this at the time. The death of the pulp-zines in the 1950s had pretty much killed off the SF short-fiction market, and the post-Star-Wars boom that would make SF the second most successful genre after romance fiction was still years in the future. The core writers of the first "Golden Age", the people who invented modern science fiction after John Campbell took the helm at Astounding in 1938, were beginning to get long in the tooth; Robert Heinlein, the greatest of them all, passed his peak after 1967.
These objective problems combined with, or perhaps led to, an insurgency within the field. The "New Wave", an attempt to import the techniques and imagery of literary fiction into SF, upset many of the field's certainties. Before it, everyone took for granted that the center of Campbellian SF was "hard SF" — stories, frequently written by engineers and scientists, which trafficked in plausible and relatively rigorous extrapolations of science.
Hard SF was an art form that made stringent demands on both author and reader. Stories could be, and were, mercilessly slammed because the author had calculated an orbit or gotten a detail of physics or biology wrong. The Campbellian demand was that SF work both as story and as science, with only a bare minimum of McGuffins like FTL star drives permitted; hard SF demanded that the science be consistent both internally and with known science about the real world.
The New Wave rejected all this for reasons that were partly aesthetic and partly political. For there was a political tradition that went with the hard-SF style, one exemplified by its chief theoretician (Campbell himself) and his right-hand man Robert Heinlein, the inventor of modern SF's characteristic technique of exposition by indirection. That tradition was of ornery and insistant individualism, veneration of the competent man, an instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that that valued knowing how things work and treated all political ideologizing with suspicion.
At the time, this very American position was generally thought of by both allies and opponents as a conservative or right-wing one. But the SF community's version was never conservative in the strict sense of venerating past social norms — how could it be, when SF literature cheerfully contemplated radical changes in social arrangements? SF's insistent individualism also led it to reject racism and feature strong female characters long before the rise of political correctness ritualized these behaviors in other forms of art.
After 1971, the implicit politics of Campbellian hard SF was reinvented, radicalized and intellectualized as libertarianism. Libertarians, in fact, would draw inspiration from Golden Age SF; Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, H. Beam Piper's Lone Star Planet, and Poul Anderson's No Truce With Kings (among many others) would come to be seen retrospectively as proto-libertarian arguments not just by the readers but by the authors themselves.
The New Wave was both a stylistic revolt and a political one. Its inventors (notably Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss) were British socialists and Marxists who rejected individualism, linear exposition, happy endings, scientific rigor and the U.S.'s cultural hegemony over the SF field in one fell swoop. The New Wave's later American exponents were strongly associated with the New Left and opposition to the Vietnam War, leading to some rancorous public disputes in which politics was tangled together with definitional questions about the nature of SF and the direction of the field.
But the New Wave was not, in fact, the first revolt against hard SF. In the 1950s, a group of young writers centered around Frederik Pohl and the Futurians fan club in New York had invented sociological S.F. (exemplified by the Pohl/Kornbluth collaboration The Space Merchants). Not until decades later did the participants admit that many of the key Futurians were then ideological Communists or fellow travellers, but their work was half-understood at the time to be strong criticism of the consumer capitalism and smugness of the post-World-War-II era.
The Futurian revolt was half-hearted, semi-covert, and easily absorbed by the Campbellian mainstream of the SF field; by the mid-1960s, sociological extrapolation had become a standard part of the toolkit even for the old-school Golden Agers, and it never challenged the centrality of hard SF. But the New Wave, after 1965, was not so easily dismissed or assimilated. Amidst a great deal of self-indulgent crap and drug-fueled psychedelizing, there shone a few jewels — Phillp José Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage, some of Harlan Ellison's work, Brian Aldiss's Hothouse stories, and Langdon Jones's The Great Clock stand out as examples.
As with the Futurians, the larger SF field did absorb some New Wave techniques and concerns. Notably, the New Wavers broke the SF taboo on writing about sex in any but the most cryptically coded ways, a stricture previously so rigid that only Heinlein himself had had the stature to really break it, in his 1961 Stranger In A Strange Land.
The New Wave also exacerbated long-standing critical arguments about the definition and scope of of science fiction, and briefly threatened to displace hard SF from the center of the field. Brian Aldiss's 1969 dismissal of space exploration as "an old-fashioned diversion conducted with infertile phallic symbols" was typical New Wave rhetoric, and looked like it might have some legs at the time.
As a politico-cultural revolt against the American vision of SF, however, the New Wave eventually failed just as completely as the Futurians had. Its writers were already running out of steam in 1977 when Star Wars took the imagery of pre-Campbellian space opera to the mainstream culture. The half-decade following (my college years, as it happened) was a period of drift and confusion only ended by the publication of David Brin's Startide Rising in 1982.
Brin, and his collegues in the group that came to be known as the "Killer Bs" (Greg Bear and Gregory Benford), reasserted the primacy of hard SF done in the grand Campbellian manner. Campbell himself had died in 1971 right at the high-water mark of the New Wave, but Heinlein and Anderson and the other surviving luminaries of the Campbellian era had no trouble recognizing their inheritors. To everyone's surprise, the New Old Wave proved to be not just artistically successful but commercially popular as as well, with its writers becoming the first new stars of the post-1980 boom in SF publishing.
The new hard SF of the 1980s returned to Golden Age themes and images, if not quite with the linear simplicity of Golden Age technique. It also reverted to the libertarian/individualist values traditional in the field. This time around, with libertarian thinking twenty years more developed, the split between order-worshiping conservatism and the libertarian impulse was more explicit. At one extreme, some SF (such as that of L. Neil Smith) assumed the character of radical libertarian propaganda. At the other extreme, a subgenre of SF that could fairly be described as conservative/militarist power fantasies emerged, notably in the writing of Jerry Pournelle and David Drake.
Tension between these groups sometimes flared into public animosity. Both laid claims to Robert Heinlein's legacy. Heinlein himself maintained friendly relationships with conservatives but counted himself a libertarian for more than a decade before his death in 1988.
Heinlein's evolution from Goldwater conservative to anti-statist radical both led and reflected larger trends. By 1989 depictions of explicitly anarcho-libertarian future societies were beginning to filter into mainstream SF work like Joe Haldeman's Buying Time. Haldeman's Conch Republic and Novysibirsk were all the more convincing for not being subjects of polemic.
Before the 1980s changes in U.S. law that reversed the tax status of inventories and killed off the SF midlist as a side effect, a lot of Golden Age and New Wave era SF was pretty continuously in print (though in sharply limited quntities and hard to find). I still own a lot of it in my personal collection of around 3,000 SF paperbacks and magazines, many dating back to the '50s and '60s and now long out of print. I read it all; pre-Campbellian space opera, the Campbellian classics of the Golden Age, the Futurians, the New Wave ferment, and the reinvention of hard SF in the 1980s.
In some respects, it took me thirty years to understand what I was seeing. I'm one of Heinlein's children, one of the libertarians that science fiction made. Because that's so, it was difficult for me to separate my own world-view from the assumptions of the field. In grokking the politics of SF, I was in the position of a fish trying to understand water.
Eventually, however, a sufficiently intelligent fish could start to get it about hydrodynamics — especially when the water's behavior is disturbed by storms and becomes visibly turbulent. I got to look back through the midlist at the Futurian ripples. I lived through the New Wave storm and the pre-Startide-Rising doldrums. By the time cyberpunk came around, I was beginning to get some conscious perspective.
Cyberpunk was the third failed revolution against Campbellian SF. William Gibson, who is generally credited with launching this subgenre in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, was not a political writer. But Bruce Sterling, who promoted Gibson and became the chief ideologue of anti-Cambellianism in the late 1980s, called it "the Movement" in a self-conscious reference to the heady era of 1960s student radicalism. The cyberpunks positioned themselves particularly against the carnographic conservative military SF of David Drake, Jerry Pournelle, and lower-rent imitators — not exactly a hard target.
Despite such posturing, the cyberpunks were neither as stylistically innovative nor as politically challenging as the New Wave had been. Gibson's prose has aptly been described as Raymond Chandler in mirror-shades. Cyberpunk themes (virtual reality, pervasive computing, cyborging and biosculpture, corporate feudalism) had been anticipated in earlier works like Vernor Vinge's 1978 hard-SF classic True Names, and even further back in The Space Merchants. Cyberpunk imagery (decayed urban landscapes, buzzcuts, chrome and black leather) quickly became a cliche replicated in dozens of computer games.
Neal Stephenson wrote a satirical finis to the cyberpunk genre in 1992's Snow Crash, which (with Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix and Walter John Williams's Hardwired) was very close to being the only work to meet the standard set by Neuromancer. While most cyberpunk took for granted a background in which late capitalism had decayed into an oppressive corporate feudalism under which most individuals could be nothing but alienated and powerless, the future of Snow Crash was a tellingly libertarian one. The bedrock individualism of classical SF reasserted itself with a smartass grin.
By the time cyberpunk fizzled out, most fans had been enjoying the hard-SF renaissance for a decade; the New Wave was long gone, and cyberpunk had attracted more notice outside the SF field than within it. The leaders of SF's tiny in-house critical establishment, however (figures like Samuel Delany and David Hartwell), remained fascinated on New Wave relics like Thomas Disch and Philip K. Dick, or anti-Campbellian fringe figures like Suzette Hadin Elgin and Octavia Butler. While this was going on, the readers voted with their Hugo ballots largely for writers that were squarely within the Campbellian tradition — Golden age survivors, the killer Bs, and newer writers like Lois McMaster Bujold and Greg Egan (whose 1998 work Diaspora may just be the single most audacious and brilliant hard-SF novel in the entire history of the field).
In 1994, critical thinking within the SF field belatedly caught up with reality. Credit for this goes to David Hartwell and Cathrerine Kramer, whose analysis in the anthology The Ascent of Wonder finally acknowledged what should have been obvious all along. Hard SF is the vital heart of the field, the radiant core from which ideas and prototype worlds diffuse outwards to be appropriated by writers of lesser world-building skill but perhaps greater stylistic and literary sophistication. While there are other modes of SF that have their place, they remain essentially derivations of or reactions against hard SF, and cannot even be properly understood without reference to its tropes, conventions, and imagery.
Furthermore, Gregory Benford's essay in The Ascent of Wonder on the meaning of SF offered a characterization of the genre which may well prove final. He located the core of SF in the experience of "sense of wonder", not merely as a thalamic thrill but as the affirmation that the universe has a knowable order that is discoverable through reason and science.
I think I can go further than Hartwell or Kramer or Benford in defining the relationship between hard SF and the rest of the field. To do this, I need to introduce the concept linguist George Lakoff calls "radial category", one that is not defined by any one logical predicate, but by a central prototype and a set of permissible or customary variations. As a simple example, in English the category "fruit" does not correspond to any uniformity of structure that a botanist could recognize. Rather, the category has a prototype "apple", and things are recognized as fruits to the extent that they are either (a) like an apple, or (b) like something that has already been sorted into the "like an apple" category.
Radial categories have central members ("apple", "pear", "orange") whose membership is certain, and peripheral members ("coconut", "avocado") whose membership is tenuous. Membership is graded by the distance from the central prototype — roughly, the number of traits that have to mutate to get one from being like the prototype to like the instance in question. Some traits are important and tend to be conserved across the entire radial category (strong flavor including sweetness) while some are only weakly bound (color).
In most radial categories, it is possible to point out members that are counterexamples to any single intensional ("logical") definition, but traits that are common to the core prototypes nevertheless tend to be strongly bound. Thus, "coconut" is a counterexample to the strongly-bound trait that fruits have soft skins, but it is sorted as "fruit" because (like the prototype members) it has an easily-chewable interior with a sweet flavor.
SF is a radial category in which the prototypes are certain classics of hard SF. This is true whether you are mapping individual works by affinity or subgenres like space opera, technology-of-magic story, eutopian/dystopian extrapolation, etc. So in discussing the traits of SF as a whole, the relevant question is not "which traits are universal" but "which traits are strongly bound" — or, almost equivalently, "what are the shared traits of the core (hard-SF) prototypes".
The strong binding between hard SF and libertarian politics continues to be a fact of life in the field. It it is telling that the only form of politically-inspired award presented annually at the World Science Fiction Convention is the Libertarian Futurist Society's "Prometheus". There is no socialist, liberal, moderate, conservative or fascist equivalent of the class of libertarian SF writers including L. Neil Smith, F. Paul Wilson, Brad Linaweaver, or J. Neil Schulman; their books, even when they are shrill and indifferently-written political tracts, actually sell — and sell astonishingly well — to SF fans.
Of course, there are people in the SF field who find this deeply uncomfortable. Since the centrality of hard SF has become inescapable, resistance now takes the form of attempts to divorce hard SF from libertarianism — to preserve the methods and conceptual apparatus of hard SF while repudiating its political aura. Hartwell & Kramer's 2002 followup to The Ascent of Wonder, The Hard SF Renaissance, takes up this argument in its introduction and explanatory notes.
The Hard SF Renaissance presents itself as a dialogue between old-school Campbellian hard SF and an attempt to construct a "Radical Hard SF" that is not in thrall to right-wing tendencies. It is clear that the editors' sympathies lie with the "Radicals", not least from the very fact that they identify libertarianism as a right-wing phenomenon. This is an error characteristic of left-leaning thinkers, who tend to assume that anything not "left" is "right" and that approving of free markets somehow implies social conservatism.
All the history rehearsed so far has been intended to lead up to the following question: is the "Radical Hard SF" program possible? More generally, is the symbiotic relationship between libertarian political thought and SF a mere historical accident, or is there an intrinsic connection?
I think I know what John Campbell's answer would be, if he had not died the year that the founders of libertarianism broke with conservatism. I know what Robert Heinlein's was. They're the same as mine, a resounding yes — that there is a connection, and that the connection is indeed deep and intrinsic. But I am a proud libertarian partisan, and conviction is not proof. Cultural history is littered with the corpses of zealots who attempted to yoke art to ideology with shallow arguments, only to be exposed as fools when the art became obsolescent before the ideology or (more often) vice-versa.
In the remainder of this essay I will nevertheless attempt to prove this point. My argument will center around the implications of a concept best known from First Amendment law: the "marketplace of ideas". I am going to argue specifically from the characteristics of hard SF, the prototypes of the radial category of SF.
Science fiction, as a literature, embraces the possibility of radical transformations of the human condition brought about through knowledge. Technological immortality, star drives, cyborging — all these SFnal tropes are situated within a knowable universe, one in which scientific inquiry is both the precondition and the principal instrument of creating new futures.
SF is, broadly, optimistic about these futures. This is so for the simple reason that SF is fiction bought with peoples' entertainment budgets and people, in general, prefer happy endings to sad ones. But even when SF is not optimistic, its dystopias and cautionary tales tend to affirm the power of reasoned choices made in a knowable universe; they tell us that it is not through chance or the whim of angry gods that we fail, but through our failure to be intelligent, our failure to use the power of reason and science and engineering prudently.
At bottom, the central assumption of SF is that applied science is our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants to which we are all heir. Even when scientists and engineers are not the visible heroes of the story, they are the invisible heroes that make the story notionally possible in the first place, the creators of possibility, the people who liberate the future to become a different place than the present.
SF both satisfies and stimulates a sort of lust for possibility compounded of simple escapism and a complex intellectual delight in anrticipating 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 Lysenkoism). 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 seamless whole. These stances are not historical accidents, they are structural imperatives that follow from the lust for possibility. Ideological fashions come and go, and the field inevitably rediscovers itself afterwards as a literature of freedom.
This analysis should put permanently to rest the notion that hard SF is a conservative literature in any sense. It is, in fact, deeply and fundamentally radical — the literature that celebrates not merely science but science as a permanent revolution, as the final and most inexorable foe of all fixed power relationships everywhere.
Earlier, I cited the following traits of SF's libertarian tradition: ornery and insistant individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering and a rock-ribbed objectivism that values knowing how things work and treats all political ideologizing with suspicion. All should now be readily explicable. These are the traits that mark the enemies of the enemies of the future.
The partisans of "Radical Hard SF" are thus victims of a category error, an inability to see beyond their own political maps. By jamming SF's native libertarianism into a box labeled "right wing" or "conservative" they doom themselves to misunderstanding the deepest imperatives of the genre.
The SF genre and libertarianism will both survive this mistake quite handily. They were symbiotic before libertarianism defined itself as a distinct political stance and they have co-evolved ever since. If four failed revolutions against Campbellian SF have not already demonstrated the futility of attempting to divorce them, I'm certain the future will.
posted by Eric at 9:01 AM
Wednesday, November 06, 2002
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. They're a post-modern political party, endlessly recycling texts that have little or no referent outside the discourse of politics itself.
The disgusting spectacle they made of Paul Wellstone's funeral is diagnostic. We were treated to trumpet calls about honoring Wellstone's legacy without any discussion beyond the most superficial cliches of what that legacy was. All the ritual invocations of time-honored Democratic shibboleths had a tired, shopworn, unreal and self-referential feel to them — politics as the literature of exhaustion.
The preconditions for paralysis had been building up for a long time; arguably, ever since the New Left beat out the Dixiecrats for control of the party apparat in 1968-1972. Caught between the blame-America-first, hard-left instincts of its most zealous cadres and the bland dishwater centrism recently exemplified by the DLC, the Democrats found it more and more difficult to be about anything at all. The trend was self-reinforcing; as Democratic strategy drifted, the party became ever more dependent on cooperation between dozens of fractious pressure groups (feminists, gays, race-baiters, the AARP, the teachers' and public-employee unions), which made the long-term drift worse.
Bill Clinton was the perfect master of political postmodernism and James Carville his prophet. For eight years they were able to disguise the paralysis and vacuum at the heart of Democratic thinking, centering party strategy on a cult of personality and an anything-but-Republicanism that was cunning but merely reactive. The Republicans cooperated with this strategy with all the naive eagerness of Charlie Brown running up to kick Lucy's football, perpetually surprised when it was snatched away at the last second, repeatedly taking pratfalls eagerly magnified by a Democratic-leaning national media.
But Bill Clinton was also a borderline sociopath and a liar, a man whose superficial charm, anything-to-get-elected energy, and utter lack of principle perfectly mirrored the abyss at the heart of the Democratic party. The greedy, glittery, soulless Wellstone-funeral fiasco was the last hurrah of Clintonism, and it cost Walter Mondale his last election fight.
Reality had to intrude sometime. The destruction of the WTC reduced all the politics-about-politics rhetoric of the Democrats to irrelevance. They stood mute in the face of the worst atrocity on American soil since Pearl Harbor, arguably the worst in U.S. history. The superficial reason was that their anti-terror policy was hostage to the party's left wing, but the deeper problem was that they long ago lost the ability to rise above petty interest-group jockying on any issue of principle at all. The most relevant adjective is not `wrong', or `evil', it's `feckless'.
Republicans, by contrast, forged a workable consensus during the Reagan years and never quite lost it. They've often been wrong, frequently been obnoxious as hell, and have their own loony fringe (abortion-clinic bombers, neo-fascists like Pat Buchanan, and the Christian Coalition) to cope with. But when Osama bin Laden demonstrated a clear and present danger to the United States of America they were able to respond.
They were able to respond not merely with reaction, but by taking a moral position against terrorism that could serve as the basis of an effective national strategy. Quarrel with "Homeland Security" all you like — but then imagine Al Gore in charge of defeating Al-Qaeda and shudder. He would actually have had to take the likes of Cynthia McKinney and Maxine Waters seriously.
I think these 2002 elections are going to turn out to have been much more of a turning point than the aborted `Republican Revolution' of 1994. Unless Bush's war strategy completely screws the pooch, he is going to completely walk over the Democratic candidate in 2004. The Democrats show no sign of developing a foreign-policy doctrine that can cope with the post-9/11 world, and their domestic-policy agenda is tired and retrogressive. Their voter base is aging, and their national leadership couldn't rummage up a better Wellstone replacement than Walter "What decade is this, anyway?" Mondale. The Democratic party could end up disintegrating within the decade.
This is not a prospect that fills me with uncomplicated glee. Right-wing statism is not an improvement on left-wing statism; a smug and dominant GOP could easily become captive to theocrats and know-nothings, a very bad thing for our nation and the world. And, unfortunately, the Libertarian Party has courted self-destruction by choosing to respond to 9/11 with an isolationism every bit as vapid and mindless as the left's "No War for Oil!" chanting.
Welcome to post-postmodern politics. Meaning is back, but the uncertainties are greater than ever.
posted by Eric at 12:55 PM
Monday, November 04, 2002
The Anti-Idiotarian-Manfesto is officially released:
posted by Eric at 10:27 AM
Sunday, November 03, 2002
That bad old-time religion:
It's official. The anti-war movement is a Communist front.
No, I'm not kidding -- go read the story. Investigative reporter David Corn digs into last Saturday's D.C. antiwar rally and finds it was covertly masterminded by a Communist Party splinter originally founded in support of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. For good later, he further digs up the fact that one if the principal organizers of the inane "Mot In Our Name" petion is a revolutionary Maoist.
Words almost fail me. There are just too many levels of delicious, deadly irony here.
For starters, the U.S. revolutionary Communist movement has been reduced to organizing demonstrations in support of a fascist dictator with a history of brutally suppressing and murdering Communists in Iraq. OK, so there's precedent for this; the CPUSA organized anti-war demonstrations in the U.S. during the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939-41. It's still bleakly funny.
More generally the American Left seems bent on fulfilling every red-meat right-winger's most perfervid fantasies about it. All those earnest anti-war demonstrators were actual communist dupes! Oh, mama. Somewhere. Tailgunner Joe McCarthy is smiling. Who was it who said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second as farce? (Turns out it was Karl Marx...)
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!
posted by Eric at 9:04 PM