This is topic David Brin's New Posts on Modernism in forum General Comments at The Ornery American Forum.

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Posted by WarrsawPact (Member # 1275) on :
He's doing a series, I don't know how many parts.

So far he's released six and is indicating a seventh is on its way. Unfortunately, I hadn't fonud them for a while because he put them on his blog but not on his regular site.

Here they are. The full thing is pretty long for some of you. Others I know are Brin readers.

The Radical Notion Of Modernism
I've been rather suprised by the traffic generated by this blog... and a bit ashamed of neglecting it. But trying to keep my head above water and get back to writing novels.

So, what I think I'll do is use this space to try out - in serialized segments - my next article. It's on a topic very closely related to my articles about Tolkien and Star Wars. (see: Only those dealt with romanticism vs enlightenment thinking in the arts and in storytelling.

The new piece is more general. It is about the whole notion called modernism, which is the natural outgrowth of Ben Franklin's wing of the Enlightenment. I'll post it here in small chunks. Comments are welcome. Especially examples or counter examples. (e.g. I cannot recall the name of the urban planner whose misguided "modernist" notions made such a mish mash of urban renewal in NYC in the 60s.)

Anyway, here goes:


The Radical Notion Of Modernism:
Is it relevant for the Twenty-First Century?

by David Brin (First Draft: 12/04 limited circulation for feedback only)

After 40 years in decline, modernism appears to be at a nadir, perhaps even suffering a fatal rout.

Even its supporters seem abjectly apologetic, that is, if you can find anyone who will admit using the word at all. The term is now largely associated with some outmoded and rather ugly architectural styles, far more than with its former meaning -- an over-arching dream of ambitiously making a better world through human creativity and will.

First, let me shrug aside “modernism” in the sense of an artistic or fancy intellectual movement. Grandiose theories serve largely to promote elitist snobbery and to undermine a worldview that is - at-heart - based upon gritty pragmatism.

Indeed, by anchoring the word to specific styles and decades, the opposing postmodernist movement has been able to call itself the rightful successor to something that is archaic, passe, even dead.

Modernism, to me, is about something much more fundamental than some trendy fads and formalisms. At its root, the movement has always been an expression of human confidence.

Confidence that rising knowledge, skill and creativity - propelled by both competition and cooperation - can empower each generation to confront a myriad challenges that their parents found daunting. A confidence that is easily ridiculed as either naive or arrogant, but that - in fact - grows out of the enthusiasm children often express, when they declare eagerness to “be something” when they grow up. To become something important. To do something meaningful.

This eagerness is all-too often punished by sneers on the playground, and later by dour scoffers in the world of adults. Nevertheless, it endures. Modernism is the grownup expression of our childhood dream to significantly change the world.

Modernism: Part 2.

Despite cynical diagnoses that modernism is all-but dead, it clearly remains a vital force in the world. Even taking into account the inevitable mistakes, tragic blunders and unanticipated outcomes that accompany any bold endeavor, it would seem obvious that scientists, engineers, teachers, entrepreneurs, economists, civil rights activists, environmentalists and social reformers have a better track record at confronting age-old human problems and injustices than all of the kings, wizards and priests from past eras, combined.

Moreover, modernism suggests that bold measures - moderated by the accountability of open criticism - may even improve upon humanity itself. Perhaps not through garish means, like genetic engineering, that deserve healthy skepticism. But certainly in the incremental sense that we see as one generation after another achieves higher levels of educationand, yes, higher IQ scores.

The core belief - and one that most-riles the opponents of modernism - is that children can - at times - learn somewhat from the mistakes of their parents, and thus not repeat them. Change is not only seen as inevitable, but potentially beneficial. Moreover, the crucial difference between harm and benefit may be determined by ingenuity, hard work and good will among human beings who actively grip the tiller of change.

Modernism expresses fealty to the notion of human-generated progress.

Of course, most societies would have punished even minimal expressions of such confidence as heretical hubris. Today, that same loathing bubbles and froths from countless wellsprings spanning every spectrum, from left to right, from academia to the ill-educated,from religious to secular. The major common theme, shared among scoffers in almost every quarter, appears to be a deep distrust toward the can-do spirit of Enlightenment pragmatism.

Elsewhere ( I talk about how this reaction has manifested in the arts. Using as core examples JRR Tolkien’s popular Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Star Wars series, I discuss how romanticism systematically rejects a complete range of Enlightenment values and beliefs, as if from a checklist. (Even Communism and Capitalism do not glare at each other across such a complete catalogue of opposites.) This systematic rejection includes the promulgation of a cliched truism, so widely accepted that even believers in progress nod, sadly, when hearing it.

Isn’t it a shame that wisdom has not advanced at the same pace as our technology?

Accepted without question or demurral, it is one of the most insidious bits of propaganda currently in circulation, denying all of the evidence that fills our cities,schools and airwaves. Evidence supporting the notion of human improvability where it matters most. In our hearts.

In another article, I comment on this same rejection of progress in political terms. ( Across a broad front, from art to philosophy to politics and social policy, [the] very notion of a confident future is under heavy assault.

Here I’ll take a different perspective, looking not at the enemies of modernism, but at modernism itself.

Modernism Part 3: the Era of Can-Do

I perceive several phases to this movement that might be called modernism, starting with the classic Enlightenment of the 18th Century, a time before romantics turned their backs on tomorrow, when you even saw a few characters like Thomas Jefferson, in whom romanticism and enlightenment seem quite joyfully mixed.

Of course, Benjamin Franklin was the archetypal modernist of that era, setting tone for the American wing of the Enlightenment. A tone of pragmatism combined with a deep suspicion of generalities and ideologies. A view that human beings are all self-deceivers and potential tyrants -- but that a system of living might be designed in order to maximize opportunities for our better natures to thrive, while minimizing opportunities for people to oppress each other. A notion that competition between human beings may be both moral and beneficial, so long as it is fair.

It seems a simple enough concept. Alas, as Pericles discovered much earlier, it is devilishly hard to implement in practice.

Ironically, the one who best appraised this era was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. While the Enlightenment in France veered off-course, beguiled into a quasi-mystical belief in abstractions - in Platonist essences, logic and philosophical “reason” - de Tocqueville seemed thrilled by the no nonsense practicality of the Anglo-American Enlightenment, manifested in the US Constitution, and through town meetings that took place in vibrant little villages across the land.

(F.A. Hayek and Karl Popper both zeroed in on this rift within the Enlightenment. One wing - the “constructivist rationalism” of Rousseau, Hegel, Marx and postmodernism - hewed closely to Plato’s prescribed methodology, gathering pure but untestable declarations formulated by a self-chosen intellectual elite. In contrast, the “critical rationalist” tradition of Aristotle, Locke, Burke, Franklin, Kant, and de Tocqueville, emphasized falsifiable propositions and the accumulation of gritty practical knowledge in an environment of experimentation and reciprocal accountability.)

In this pragmatic approach lay the core belief of modernism, that humans are improvable. And if humans can improve, it means that even the finest ideologies, no matter how persuasive, are at best only approximations crafted by imperfect and confused ancestors. They should only be used as general suggestions, not as quasi religious tracts. Because the next generation of smarter, more knowing people will surely be better judges of what’s right and wrong than we are. (Indeed, why should they not also be more ethical and spiritually worthy?) And their children will be wiser still.

This is why the underlying pretext of modernism so deeply offends ideologues - of every stripe and persuasion. If our descendants do become vastly better people, then of what value is any particular static preaching? We have no business prescribing beliefs for such people, other than those core values that are most general, moral and useful.

If human beings are improvable, then our towering concern must be to improve them, by any means that is both decent and practical. Our children will then be far better equipped than we are to make their own decisions about (for example) balancing market and social forces, competition and cooperation, personal property and specifics of ethical behavior. Whenever a platonist (from Hegel to Marx to St. Paul to Leo Strauss) calls for purity of doctrine and faithfulness to essential Truth, the real claim is “I know better than our descendants ever will.”

The modernist call for incremental human improvement has taken many forms - some of them deeply spiritual (as in the case of anti-slavery abolitionism). Still, in America the core belief in human improvability stayed generally on course through the early days of the republic, while the promise seemed fulfilled as levels of health and education improved among average americans.

The Second Phase Of Modernism
Before going on with part 4, let me answer one commentor. I was reluctant to start using the term "modernism" as an antithesis to romantic-nostalgism and fanatical idealism. Elsewhere I call it Romanticism vs the traditions of the Enlightenment. If you want to see this antithesis laid out pretty clearly, as it applies to literature and the arts, go to

In literature the contrast is not only huge, it is remarkably consistent and pure. If an author posits a past golden age, he or she nearly always ALSO follows the rest of an exact recipe of romantic tropes. I use Tolkien and Star Wars to illustrate this, but the best example is the stark and diametrically opposite moral values portrayed by two movies in the same universe, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan vs Star Trek III: Search for Spock.

In any event, I decided that modernism seemed a more useful term than "the enlightenment". Let's now turn to continuing with my draft article about modernism.

The Second Phase Of Modernism

The second phase of modernism was its era of golden ambitions. During the long stretch from the American Civil War until the First World War, an alliance of tinkerers and capitalists became ever-more convinced that nothing lay beyond reach.

True, the robber barons cheated like mad, stole everything they could grab, and flaunted wealth to such a garish degree that it became known as a Gilded Age. But there was also a cheerfully egalitarian-meritocratic feel to it all. Fortunes were won and lost in a spirit of easy-come, easy-go and few resented the poor boy who - encouraged by all those Horatio Alger tales - turned pluck, inventiveness and good fortune into a mighty bonanza.

Driven by can-do individualism, by free-wheeling markets, by a roughshod, stoic willingness to endure periods of bad luck - and spiced with Wild West machismo - they took their social Darwinism with several shots of whiskey and several thousand grains of salt. Even those immigrants who slaved in sweatshops for low wages mostly believed, and mostly succeeded in their one-generation programs to uplift happier and better-educated kids. You and I might envision people of that era lacking compassion. But you and I are a whole lot richer and have much higher standards for one reason. We stand on their broad shoulders.

Oh, and one more point about the Second Age of Modernism. We like to think that WE are experiencing rapid and disrupting change. But imagine that you live in 1910 and have just witnessed the arrival, in rapid succession, of wireless telegraphy, commercial radio, refrigerators, women politicians, telephones, washing machines, automobiles, airplanes, community colleges, zeppelins, electric lighting, gas cooking, elevators, science fiction stories, skyscrapers, reliable indoor plumbing... and all of these newfangled things moving down the social ladder, transforming rapidly from extravagances for the rich to normal accoutrements of a burgeoning middle class.

Could anybody, witnessing all this, NOT believe in modernism?

Well, in fact, many people were deeply disturbed by it. They waxed eloquent about how much better things had been in former times, when children respected their elders, when women weren’t uppity, when citified interdependence had not usurped self-reliance and yeoman farmers stood by their old-time religion. But while uneasiness and nostalgia won many social and political battles, the rejectors seemed helpless to prevail in any long term war against modernism and change, which had captured the imagination of their children.

Then came the first great setback.


In 1894, philanthropist John Jacob Astor wrote a best-selling novel about the year 2001 -- a future transformed by science, enterprise and human good will. Keeping with the can-do spirit of his era, when men used rails and canals to subdue continents, Astor foresaw progress vanquishing inequity, reducing poverty to vestiges, conquering ignorance and offering average folk privileges undreamt-of by his millionaire peers. And all of it happening under the leadership of a fluid but responsible entrepreneurial class.

Why not? At the end of the 19th Century, waves of immigrants shared those hopes, eager to feed, educate and advance their children as never before. Projecting this momentum to a time of future plenty seemed credible, not arrogant or silly.

Astor died with a famed flourish of noblesse oblige aboard the sinking Titanic -- the first of many garish calamities that began quenching this naive zeal for progress.

In his book "Europe's Last Summer" (2004), David Fromkin speaks of the decade just before calamity struck. “A panoramic view of Europe in the years 1900 to 1914 would show prominently that the continent was racing ahead in a scientific, technological and industrial revolution — powered by almost limitless energy — that was transforming almost everything.” Alas, it was not to go on. “What Europe was building up toward was not a better world, but a giant smashup, as — in the first 20th century war among modern industrial societies — the accumulated explosive power that advanced science had developed was concentrated on the goal of mass destruction. “

Soon, world war taught millions a brutal lesson -- the first use of new technology is often its horrid mis-use. Suddenly it wasn’t just conservative preachers railing against modernity, but some of society’s very brightest. Survivors of Flanders battlefields returned disenchanted with the Machine Age. Intellectuals, from Tolkien and Lewis to Eliot, veered toward romantic nostalgia while writers of the Lost Generation prescribed a compulsory literary template. Blend stylish cynicism with brooding suspicion of tomorrow. Never show enthusiasm, or admit hope for progress.

Indeed, that attitude seemed accurate. The 20th Century spent its first half wallowing in horror - the second teetering at an abyss. Radio, and later television, brought countless tragedies right into our homes. Vague Sunday sermons about apocalypse were replaced by hourly talk of a civilization, a species, a planet imperiled by our cleverness, doomed by our own skilled hands.

Not only in war, but also perhaps by establishing some permanent tyranny, far worse than brutal kingships of old, because the next wave of ruthless overlords would be empowered by terrifying technologies. While Fritz Lang and George Orwell disagreed over which aristocracy might achieve perpetual despotism - a capitalist elite or a communist party nomenklatura - both Metropolis and Nineteen Eighty-Four showed chilling futures in which a few could look down upon the many, like gods.

Modernism had spokesmen, too. Although he kept swinging from optimism to pessimism and back again, H.G. Wells never ceased fighting back, in the name of progress. His oft-excerpted review of Metropolis held that Lang’s dark warning was based, ultimately, on contempt. People, according to Wells, will not let themselves be made into sheep. Not in the long run.

6: Modernism Overcomes Setbacks
Here's part 6.... though maybe the lack of comments suggests I am posting into emptiness...

Part 6: Despite setbacks, Modernism thrives

What is significant is that the First World War did not kill modernism. For a while, the rebellion against it seemed limited largely to religion and the arts.

(Ironically, both decadent artists - pushing the limits with prurient content - and the prudish conservatives who rail against them, are allies at a deeper level, united against any notion that the future might be a good and desirable destination, subject to intelligent design. It is an alliance we see today, between anti-science fanatics of both left and right. Between those who rage in order to offend conventional normality and those obsessed with defending it. What they share is a detestation of calm, rational, and inexorable reform.)

Despite rumblings among the intellectual elite and from ten thousand pulpits, even the Great Depression did little to dampen the belief of millions that human sagacity and problem solving could get to the heart of matters and make things better. Only now, in the Third Age of modernism, there was more cynicism. The blithe trust that Astor and others gave to a monied aristocracy - belief in top-down entrepreneurial innovation managed by capitalists - had been rocked first by war profiteering and then Depression mismanagement.

After the Treaty of Versailles, modernist thinking swung away from faith in entrepreneurs, turning instead to ideological prescriptions for how the modernist efforts should be organized. Variations on Marxism were attractive to millions, offering incantations that sounded oh-so scientific. But other schemes also flowed from ten thousand pens, presses and fervid imaginations. To many, it seemed obvious that socialism offered a better, more rationally-planned approach, than tossing greedy capitalists into a market stewpot with seething, angry workers and hoping for the best.

Of course, the nastiest version of this turn toward socialist-modernism was German Nazism. But the Grand Deceit of Stalin’s Soviet Union - masking horrors while pushing newsreels of glorious dams - also fooled millions in the West, for some time.

In America, the extravagant ideologies of Marx and Hitler never took hold, but a less ideological social-modernism did tickle the public’s fancy. In 1932 the Technocracy Movement got attention in magazines and on radio. It was the brainchild of Howard Scott, who suggested that engineers be given a chance to do things right. Replace capital with brains. Give the smartest a chance to do the allocating, for a change. Trust the people best equipped to apportion resources fairly and well. Move goods from where they are glutted to where they will do the most good on a supply-need basis. Give all citizens shares in USA Inc. and then simply do whatever is pragmatically needed. Socialism without ideology or oppression. A similar approach is illustrated by H. G. Wells in his novel Things to Come.

Fortunately, technocracy was never fully implemented, or modernism would not have survived the inevitable miscalculations, disasters and disenchantment. As we learned from the collapse of “Japan Inc.” during the late 1980s, nobody knows how to allocate a society’s bewildering array of talents and resources from a plan. Certainly not in a complex peacetime economy. To even imagine that it’s possible is romantic mythology. In this sense, the believers in market magic proved right, after all. (There are other ways in which they appear to be wrong.)

FDR’s more tepid approach to modernist stimulation did help ease the Depression and restored some public confidence. It featured many projects that expressed can do in ways that did incremental good, without plunging into a weird, ideological experiment.

Still, it took war -- a time when technocratic allocation works pretty well, because it is applied toward a simple, ferocious end -- for a version of Scott’s idea to achieve real magic. (That is, a war backed by a unified public, by moral consensus, and an aristocracy willing to help pay for it.) And while a war economy is not a good model for a general economy, it certainly mobilized everyone to defeat fascism.

It was a war both fought and won under principles of modernism, implemented by George Marshall, the greatest pragmatist since Franklin. And, inarguably, the nation that emerged from WWII was vastly stronger than the one that entered.

I'll update this as he posts more.

Any thoughts on this? It's a theme with Brin.
Posted by A. Alzabo (Member # 1197) on :
Any thoughts on this? It's a theme with Brin.
I hope that "modernism" takes off. David Brin's essays are often very close to my own positions on many issues. He's libertarian, but reasonable.
Posted by flydye45 (Member # 2004) on :
I actually agree with most of what he says with a few quibbles.

I have a suspicion that "modernism" is codeword for "progressive". However, he is seeking a word to seperate his thoughts from the "progressive" label both due to the "PC" baggage joined to the term, and due to the deep flaws the movement has brought to the term (opposing welfare reform, not wishing improvements due to hurting "interest groups", PC censorship etc).

I think he overemphasises the impact on ideologies and underemphasises the impacts of technology. For example, mass media, the horse collar, and the steam engine all combined to made it economically viable to get rid of slavery. Ideologically, there have always been arguments and reasons to discredit the institution from Classical times.

As he pointed out, WWI showed that mere material wealth was not equivilant to social modernism. While he tends to equate the two as inevitable, this showed it isn't necessarily true.

In fact, the entire Middle East shows that even the demonstrable superiority of many Western ideas and institutions over current practices are all trumped by isolationism, oligarchies, and hatred. He forgets that cultures have Choice, and like many people, sometimes they choose wrong. China has been "socially" stagnant (as he is using the idea) for millenia.

My last quibble is that the "new" ideology he touts is not very new at all. "When Adam hewed and Eve spanned, who then was the gentleman?" was an old saying of John Ball (13th cent). Various doctrines of socialism are as old as the New Testament, as was the doctrine of human uniqueness and value.

It is with the increase of wealth and awareness that we are able to apply these values first to families, then tribes, states and thus reach (kind of) global awareness of human value. So a 9th century farmer saw people a village away as scary strangers, while Westerners here and now send millions to Muslim tsunami victims who wear Osama t-shirts. What has China and the Mid East sent?
Posted by RickyB (Member # 1464) on :
Very little, and I've read that there's criticism about that in the Arab press.

However, you know who is pitching in there in a very visible way? Radical Islam. I've read that our aid workers practically have have to rub shoulders with AQ types in some of the villages in Aceh and elsewhere. But our people are there, and I think that will advance our cause much more than the equally valiant and tough job being done by many people in Iraq.
Posted by flydye45 (Member # 2004) on :
While that is an attractive view, it ignores all of the results of our other aid to Arabs and Muslims, Somolia, Bosnia, Kuwait, Egypt et al.

Partly it is a press problem. As poor a job as I consider most media in America does in covering our intentions and results of our actions, it is light years ahead of Al Jazeera, which Gobbels would be proud to call his own.

Partly it is a culture thing: "When I am weak, I will beg mercy from you in keeping with your beliefs. When I am strong, I will oppress you in keeping with my beliefs." Language is strong and the " Dar Al Islam/ Dar Al Harb" (House of Peace/ House of War) will taint reactions from that culture just as strongly or more so then "crusading" is to Westerners.

But let's not hijack his thread.

Where do you agree and disagree with Brin?
Posted by WarrsawPact (Member # 1275) on :
One place I agree with Brin is that strange unspoken truth that optimism tends to be the correct viewpoint. Just saying it out loud got my attention and I kept reading his stuff. Turns out I like a lot of what he says. Where we disagree is where he applies his worldview to the present. His famous optimism hits the whirlwind of current events and becomes a little more hit and miss -- but where he hits he hits really well and where he misses he misses wide.

The idea of having faith in our ability to outsmart previous generations -- and that future generatinos will continue to do the same -- and still fighting to make damn sure that happens... well, it makes sense to me. It seems like a practical way to go about viewing the world, judging it against history. Keep the next generation free and it will not likely disappoint.

The background on Brin's viewpoint is certainly attractive so long as you're not too wary of what he identifies as "modernist."

Finally, I just *adored* how he mentioned George Marshall. Marshall was indeed the Man of the Century as Brin claimed when the Times issue was coming together. Check that out here:
A Quiet Adult: My Candidate for Man of the Century
A teaser:
Naturally, I have an opinion. But I'm not hopeful that Time's editors will pick my candidate, a man whose name many readers may not recognize, even though they owe him a great deal.

The poll figures at the Time Magazine web site show, if nothing else, the power of organized write-in campaigns. Heading the list are Yitzhak Rabin, Elvis Presley, and Billy Graham. In slots number six through eight we have Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King and Gordon B. Hinckley, Chairman of the Mormon Church. People also tend to pick "favorite" figures, hence the prominent appearance in the top 20 of John Lennon, Madonna and Princess Diana.

A large number of rather dour folks seem to have concluded (reluctantly, I hope) that Adolf Hitler was the most significant figure of this century, because he caused the biggest ruckus and slaughtered lots of people. This faction is large enough to win him the number four slot.

Only a handful of the top twenty made a decisively positive difference to world history, instigating profound and universally recognized changes for the better. People like Dr. King, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Henry Ford certainly deserve mention. But in my opinion, none of the flamboyant top candidates altered the course of human civilization as much as one quiet man who was never an entertainer, religious figure, or chief of state.

His name was George Marshall. Let me explain.

Check it out.

And whiel you're at it, visit his blog at and post comments. He's desperately looking for some to reassure him that his posting is worth the effort (and it is, wouldn't you agree?). It's only fitting that comments should come from people who also happen to be debating culture and history and politics and philosophy at another sci-fi author's site.
Posted by flydye45 (Member # 2004) on :
It is not debatable that we are better people then a lot of (not all) of our ancestors. But our ancestors were Westerners. I cannot see how a Saudi man is much different from his 14th century ancestor. Actually, I am wrong. Todays bedrock Muslims are LESS diverse, cosmopolitan, and open minded then his ancestors of old. But then they were winning.

Optimism is a good thing. But watchful optimism. There are still cultural competitors out there. For example, China has this huge monolithic culture which changes very slowly and does not look outside itself for any new ideas. A Chinese hegemony would be a disaster for modernists because they reject parts of the tenants that they respect. I need not discuss the Islamic hegemony.

Part of the divide between red and blue staters seems to be the passive view that blues have regarding our ascension. China in the 13th century was technologically advanced, a cultural behemoth, with a huge population. They had wealth, power and sophistication. A wall 1,300 miles long protected their northern border.

And yet a few tens of thousands of aggressive yak herders took the whole thing down in a few decades...because the Chinese couldn't believe that it could be done. There is a lesson there for modernists.
Posted by flydye45 (Member # 2004) on :
One additional similarity. The Mongols stole the technology from the Chinese to breach the wall. The similarities of then and now are kind of scary. Do we fight or indulge in hubris?
Posted by Mike_W (Member # 202) on :
"Do we fight or indulge in hubris?"

Seems to me you are doing both. Do you honestly think that the folks that disagree with you think that the best thing to do is sit on "our" hands and do nothing? The choices are not between inaction and action, but between different sorts of action. You can disagree with reasobable people about the wisdom of certain actions.

The answer to your question is "fight wisely".
Posted by Mike_W (Member # 202) on :
Another thought. I was watching an interview with Gwynn Dyer the other day, and he made a point which I thought bears repeating. The word is a whole lot safer post 9/11 than it was 25 years ago. Then, the concern was nuclear sterilization of the planet. The "foe" today simply isn't capable of doing that much damage. This is not to say that fundamentalist Islam should be ignored. It is a threat to peace and stability. But, frankly, the reality doesn't live up to the hype.

A couple of years ago, Redskull and I were having a debate about appropriate policy and my point was that you need to treat this threat a little like Communism. You are fighting an ideology, not a noation state. My position was that to win, you need to take the long view. Rather than thinking one can solve this problem by unleashing the dogs of war on the middle east, you need to look to the Cold War as an example.

Use containment, subtlty, nuance, and the odd hot war while demonsrating the superioprity of your ideology. Jerry Pounelle uses the term "cultural weapons of mass destruction" when referring to western pop culture - MTV maybe be one of the most effective weapons in the arsenal.
Posted by flydye45 (Member # 2004) on :
What was the stock leftist line? Sanctions, you got Afganistan, ignore Iraq, try to be more understanding of people who hate us because of what we are.

Iraq could be a vast cultural weapon of mass distruction. Right now the mullahs can say "We are all poor because of the West. They are our oppressors. We are your only alternative to powerlessness and poverty. We give you charity and a chance to fight back."

But Iraq, even with some distubance shows "Hmm, get shot romantically or get a job and maybe marry..." If we can get a semi-free Iraq, with a semi-secular regime with prosperity, then the message of the mullahs will be a tougher sell.

Iraq could be our West Germany. But you have a point. We need a "Voice of America" to talk us up over there. I am less sanguine about student visas, but give 10,000 free vacations a year to rank and file Arabs over here. Let them see the difference. Then ship them home. Student visas to aristocrats who are part of the power structure doesn't help.

And yes, I think the Left would rather sit on their hands then allow a Republican president have a victorious war. And then they wonder why they lose elections.
Posted by Mike_W (Member # 202) on :
Who is this "stock leftist" that has you so tied in knots? It doesn't seem to resonate with any of the people I know that have differing opinions on the Iraq adventure.

There is no monolithic "Left". There is an heterogenous mass of people with diverse opinions that are to the left of the right (that makes no sense, but neither does the over-reliance on the left/right metaphor). Their biggest failure, as far as I can see, is allowing some people on the right to dictate terms and language for US political discourse for the last 2 decades - "stock leftist line" indeed!
Posted by flydye45 (Member # 2004) on :
When one speaks of a "heterogenous mass of people with diverse opinions that are to the left" one must of necessity speak with reasonably broad strokes. If you looks for common themes, you can probably find them. For example, this diverse group of Leftists you know, how many were FOR the Iraq war? Were MOST against it? I am sure that they all had their little pet reasons for their opposition, but in the end, the same conclusions. But that doesn't imply any commonality that I can infer. [Roll Eyes]

But we are supposed to be talking about Modernism. Another minor problem I have with Brin's assumption is that we don't start at zero with every new human being. For example, an advancing society would not ever spawn another like Ghengis Khan, because we have left that behind us socially. As Stalin, Mao and Hitler have shown, such is not the case. The arguments to indulge in their barbarism become more sophisticated, but not the goals. Thus the philosophy of Modernism a fragile thing, with advances every generation, but also requiring reinforcement.
Posted by Mike_W (Member # 202) on :
I don't see anywhere in Brin's essay where he makes this claim or even comes close to implying it. He's not Karl Marx, babbling about determinism and "perpetual upward thrust".

Rather, he sees modernism as that worldview that says we CAN, rather than inexorably must, learn from our past and through that learning, intelligence, and hard work make a better future.
Posted by Snowden (Member # 407) on :
Posted by flydye45 (Member # 2004) on :
Granted. Most Americans subscribe to this world view. I am less certain about the melancholy Europeans.

I am cautioning that it is a small step (taken by many of all political stripes) to think it is inevitable.

My little historical reference was about an intelligent sophisticated culture which did not value soldiers (good steel is not made into nails; good men not made into soldiers, chinese proverb) who thought sufficient diplomacy and tribute was enough to establish peace. It didn't work out that way. There are always barbarians at the gate. The example should be a cautionary tale for the limits of diplomacy and danegeld and the frailty of civilization.

My attitude seems to me to be the opposite of hubris. It won't take much for reactionary government or barbarian infidels to ruin our civilization. I am acknowledging that fact. Or are you accusing me of hubris for something else?
Posted by Mike_W (Member # 202) on :
I believe the neocon / PNAC view that the application of military power can somehow magically transform the middle east into peaceful democracy is hubris at it's finest.

One must not squander the blood of the legions - there's a whole lot of cautionary tales about that one.

As for your personal view, I don't know. It is not clear. If vigilance is what you propose, then no, I don't think that smacks of hubris.

Majority of Americans? You'd need some pretty strong research to back that up, and the subsequent dig at the Euros.

The danger that Brin posits is that many Americans do not subscribe to a modernist worldview, preferring to pattern their behaviour and ideologies on romanitc visions of a golden past.
Posted by Adjudicator (Member # 724) on :
I think that Brin's big error is that he doesn't recognize the fact that it is not contradictory to hold both a modernist/humanist worldview AND a romanticist one. Heck, all of the American institutions Brin is so fond of pointing out were founded by religious societies (the same folks he accuses as being the worst "golden agers") e.g. Anerican-style town meetings & resulting democratic government (Puritans), American egalitarianism (Quakers) and so on.
Posted by Mike_W (Member # 202) on :
Might be something to bring up with him on his blog. As I read it, Brin admits to being a bit of a romantic himself at times (check some of the essays on his web site). And I don't think he necessarily suggests that religion is incompatible with modernism. However, some expressions of religion, for example "end of timers", most certainly are.

I'd also challenge American egalitarianism as descending primarily from Quakers. It could be called an influence, to be sure, but much of America's philosophical underpinnings come from the enlightenment.

I anxiously await the part where we get to solutions and paths forward. It is always easier to talk about the context and the problem, than figure out how to fix it.
Posted by Adjudicator (Member # 724) on :
I'd also challenge American egalitarianism as descending primarily from Quakers. It could be called an influence, to be sure, but much of America's philosophical underpinnings come from the enlightenment.
I agree that the philosophical underpinnings come from the enlightenment, but I am not sure what you mean by separating the philosophical movement from those who implemented it (such as the Quakers). The founder of the Quakers was at the heart of the enlightenment inasmuch as it involved a new way of viewing old cultural developments, especially religion. When I say that the Quakers were at the heart of American Egalitarianism I mean that the impact they had through the founding of the Pennsylvania colony and the effect Pennsylvania subsequently exerted on the other colonies should not be underestimated.

[ January 25, 2005, 10:54 AM: Message edited by: Adjudicator ]
Posted by Richard Dey (Member # 1727) on :
I prefer the UnNatural Selection terms X, Y, and Z; they're psychosociologically dynamic -- and they're quicker to reference:

X = the mother-child bond, i.e., premodernism refers to collective domination of individualism, the church as parent, or the parent as church -- the world view of the Jewish Testament, etc. What purveyor of propriety isn't playing parent?

Y = the adolescent world of banding, i.e., a modernism for Apollonianism: the individual battling against reactionary parentalism, the tyranny of the mob, prefabricated mores, the inherited overlords of propriety, et al. Subsets are Cartesianism, Unitarianism, Rationalism, and the Humanism of the Enlightment, but it is also Greco-Roman culture versus Judaeo-Christian culture because the Renaissance is not the rebirth of Judaic culture (X) but classical Greek culture (Y).

Y is, as Brin puts it, "Confidence that rising knowledge, skill and creativity - propelled by both competition and cooperation - can empower each generation to confront a myriad [of] challenges that their parents found daunting."

This Y stage of human psychosociological development inevitably tends to hubris, sabre-rattling, and, well, war -- but it is the fuel of unnatural development.

Z = Dissolution, i.e., postmodernism is the dissembling of Y (including modernism) by losers (in the combat to define individuality); therefore, exmodernists are dissemblers and trashers. Z postmodernism is anarchism with the inevitable twist that it is led by a cabala controlled by a tyrant -- David Koresh, David Halperin, Ayatollah Khomeini, most any would-be dictator.

Postmodernism in its early stages ultimately wants to return to premodernist parent-child relationships in culture (so magnificently explicated by the Jewish Testament) because it is a failed Y culture that wants to crawl back under the covers to safety. The patriarchs of Z cultures are really matriarchs of X culture -- in drag (by some arguments, Jehovah being such a character). Jewish, Christian, and Islamic reactionaries are very Z-->X; they are dissemblers because they are failures. Postmodernism in its later stages winds up praying for a merciful death and crying for its mama.

What Brin is unnaturally arguing, thus, is X-->Y<--Z, whereas the natural progression is X-->Y-->Z, alpha to omega.
Posted by WarrsawPact (Member # 1275) on :
He's released a few more parts:

Modernism Part 7: Post WWII Caution/Confidence


In a rich irony, America came out of WWII both chastened by the terrors of technology and filled with can-do spirit. Never before had a nation taken on so many challenges successfully. And never before did a generation find itself rocked by the very image of oblivion - in the terrifying mushroom cloud of an atom bomb.

Now, doomsday was no longer a Sunday sermon. It lay within the grasp of human hands.

And yet, the war’s toll in actual human suffering and loss had been minimal to most Americans. The machine gun had done more to the psyche and confidence of their parents, after WWI, than the abstract terror of Hiroshima and Bikini did to US citizens in the fifties. Despite brushes with McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, the nation seemed willing to take on challenges as never before. And not only challenges of industrial technology - like providing a fully functioning house to every family in the middle class - but also much harder tasks in the social arena. For example, shattering class boundaries with measures like the GI Bill. And then, ambitiously, confronting demons that had benighted countless generations, like racism.

I perceive the high point of Fourth Age Modernism in the can-do Congress of 1964 - swept to office in the emotional outpouring that followed the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Spurred by newly re-elected President Lyndon Johnson, it passed the Civil Rights Act and War on Poverty, put environmental laws into motion, and boosted the NASA budget on trajectory toward landings on the Moon. Nor were Republicans wholly out of the picture. While Barry Goldwater expressed the skepticism of classic conservatives, Nelson Rockefeller led a large wing of the GOP that was just as gung-ho on progressive reform and Big Projects as Johnson.

University-building and scholarships got their biggest boost since the GI Bill. Post Sputnik endeavors in science education were kicked into high gear. Whole swathes of New York and other cities were bulldozed in grand Urban Renewal experiments. Throw in nuclear power plants, bikinis, transistor radios, early internet experiments, the Peace Corps and the happiest days of rock n’ roll. Wowzer.

And yes, this list of ambitious endeavors would seem to overlap with another word that's now in disrepute -- “liberalism.” At the time, there wouldn't have been a razor’s width of difference between liberal and modernist viewpoints. One word stood for an acute sensitivity to injustice and social need. The other denoted a can do willingness to take on any challenge.

Modernism Part 8: The Price of Hubris


Of course, all that hubris and overweening can-do pride led to trouble, as it had to. Political rebellion in the Old South. Social disorientation and a generation gap. Pent-up frustration in the ghetto, suddenly released by hope, flash-boiled into race riots. Modernist architecture proved devastatingly wrongheaded as high-rise “projects” for the poor exacerbated every social ill, instead of helping to ease them. Few superhighways were built to allow for growth or flexibility. Many best-laid schemes spawned unintended consequences.

Likewise, a well-meaning but ill-designed welfare system systematically destroyed families, undermined work and dissolved personal responsibility -- proving that Barry Goldwater could be right-on when it came to detailed criticism, even if he was dead wrong about the dire need to do something vigorous about poverty.

Alas, by that point modernist meddlers were too far gone down the road of arrogant sureness -- so full of their own certainty of what was right that they were incapable of even tweaking or adjusting their plans under intelligent criticism. Le Corbusier in Brasilia and _________ in New York City showed how far architectural pomposity and insolence had gone. When taken to its ultimate extreme, by arrogant geniuses like Frank Lloyd Wright, architectural modernism lost every trace of egalitarian pragmatism and became yet another excuse for bullying by a new class or "wizards". Human occupants were no longer even consulted over their needs, but simply told what those needs were.

(For more on flaws of technological arrogance, see Edward Tenner’s Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Also Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn.)

Then, of course, came the ultimate hubris, brought to us under the aegis of that quintessential modernist, Robert MacNamara. Believing we could do anything and everything... or, as JFK put it - “pay any price, bear any burden”... America embarked upon an insane land war in Asia -- exactly what old Ike warned us never to do. (Never let JFK off the hook for this. He expressed modernism in its fullness and pride, all the good and all the bad.) Vietnam reamed much of the spirit out of American society, deeply wounded its economy, and gravely injured belief in our ability as a nation.

(Ask yourself what some enemy would think, looking at America and wondering how to harm us. Is the answer to topple a couple of high rise buildings? Or would you look acorss 50 years for the one mistake that nearly tore apart this nation? How about an unpopular-quagmire, ill-run land war in Asia?)

There are eerie parallels between the MacNamara-JFK brain trust -- on the one hand -- and today’s leading neoconservatives. In both groups we see the same arrogance, elitism, pride, foreign adventurism, and utter, unquestioning belief in the proficient mastery of a core group. Like Alcibiades, during the era when Periclean Athens went off the deep end, their pride is limitless, while their willingness to endure criticism resembles a cranky four-year old.

And yet, despite these common traits, the sixties modernists were completely different than today’s imperious neocons, who exude all of the same hubris while offering none of the modernists’ vision. All of the conceit, accompanied by none of the kindness. The same level of overweening ambition, but all of it funneled into benefiting a narrow kleptocracy, instead of a vast nation and world whose pain and shackled hopes should always inspire eagerness for change.

Modernism Part 9:

Oh, there are plenty of reasons for modernism to have lost its gloss. Just one piece of visual art -- the image of the atom bomb -- seared away much of the can-do aplomb from men and women on the street, warning that ambitious plans might lead us all off a precipice.

The other great 20th century work of visual art -- that Apollo 8 photo of Earth floating as a fragile oasis in the desert of space -- preached a similar message about the importance of caution and remembering what’s at risk.

Still, isn't that the point? We didn't go off the precipice of nuclear war. In many ways, the bomb -- or at least its searing image -- may have been the very thing that saved a generation from the next world war. And that picture of our oasis planet stirred environmentalism as no verbal argument ever could. Both works of visual art were sermons about maturity and responsibility.

And both sermons - deeply moral visual lessons - were created by engineers, by scientists. By modernism itself.

Above all, those sixties modernists can say this. Their mistakes were - in the long run - dwarfed by towering accomplishments. Take civil rights, womens’ rights, and the beginnings of environmentalism.

Take the quadrupling of attendance at those new universities, or the blatant success of anti-poverty programs in places like Appalachia and the New South. Or weather and communication satellites.

Both "right-handed" and "left-handed" modernists have plenty to crow about. Business innovations brought us the internet and cell phones. State endeavors spread immunization and prenatal care. Or look at examples of give-take like Los Angeles, where ten times as many cars make one tenth as much pollution -- a mixed and congested blessing but one that still attracts millions.

Take any of these things and you have proof, positive, that modernism could work, if supplemented with common sense. And proof that we're best off when BOTH "hands" are used instead of obsessing on Left vs Right, either-or dichotomies.

Now, at the very time when we are finding out what the left hand of social action and the right hand of competitive enterprise do well... NOW we should continue listening to fanatics who rail that we should amputate one hand or the other? That is exactly what romantic ideologues - socialists and market mystics - prescribe that we should do.

But that's not the way of pragmatists who still hold out hope for modernism.

Posted by flydye45 (Member # 2004) on :
He seems to miss the key dodge of the "left hand" of modernism. No matter how failed or devestating the policy, the screed of "lack of sufficient funding" excuses all. So the left hand lacks self analysis just as much as the right.

And I think his politics drive his analysis. Suddenly there are five arab leaders who are serious about their oppression of terrorists. Suddenly there are not one, not two, not three, but four groundbreaking elections in Muslim extremist nations. But that is just a fanatical front. Can't work out because it isn't part of his "modernist" agenda. As a French diplomat is quoted "It may work in fact, but does it work in theory?"

The fact that Brin is grown up enough to actually factually analyze the negative consequences of the Left puts him head and shoulders above many of that political flavor.
Posted by WarrsawPact (Member # 1275) on :
Brin is actually generally a Libertarian...

He simply sees allies in places not everyone is accustomed to finding them.

Anyway, Brin has published a lot more of his modernism series. He conitunes to "lay in to" the Left... and the Right too.

10. How Liberalism has Betrayed Modernity

Now you liberals should be warned. After laying into neoconservatives for quite some time, it is time to show faults on the other side. The Left-Right political axis has been a chief tool that romantic anti-modernists use to distract us from the real struggle.

Between future and past.

Part 10. Modernism gets a bad rap from the Left.

The irony is that everybody wants to accept the fruits of the LAST generation's modernist endeavors, while romantics of both left and right want to prevent anything new. I mean, would even the neocons want to go back to segregation? Would the most anti-tech lefty give up cell phones and recent medical advances? And who could complain about that music? All that incredible music.

Still, it is not the fruits of modernity that upset romantics. It is the conceptual underpinnings. The whole personality that they find offensive.

Counter-reaction had already set in before the can-do Congress of 1964 went cold. There had always been romantics on both the left and right who hated modernism. They found justification in Vietnam and urban riots. In Three Mile Island and the Exxon Valdez, and a long list of costly errors.

On the left, dogma-driven romantics warped the natural American suspicion of authority (SOA) into a never-ending list of political axes to grind. The fight for civil rights was such a heady and successful thing - overcoming ages of stereotypes and reflex discrimination - that soon every rock had to be turned over, seeking the next and then the next intolerance to expose, amid a drug-high of indignant fury. Make no mistake, it was a good thing to extend this trend to gays, the handicapped and even to Wiccan tree-worshippers. But along the way it became less and less about equalizing basic opportunity and ever-more about creating and stoking a movement. A movement that came equipped with ideologies, litmus tests, enemies lists, and long catalogues of forbidden words. Forbidden topics of conversation.

And forbidden technologies, forbidden projects, forbidden ideas. Former allies found themselves ejected from a liberalism that was fast becoming a dogmatic faith, led by an elite priesthood.

First to go were spaceflight and nuclear power, though both had done wonders for the planet and its people.

Then the military, although its desegregation under Harry Truman and George Marshall had been the event that gave civil rights irresistible momentum.

Then polite dissent became a crime within a thousand academic departments that veered toward doctrinal purity, purging any unacceptable deviation.

Next to be ejected from an ever-narrowing liberalism were the nation’s churches, forgetting how men and women of faith had helped to combat slavery, then to promote civil rights, then to resist the moral error of Vietnam. (Thus, they reject one of the greatest modernists of all, Martin Luther King.) And with the churches banished, so were traditional notions of parental guidance during childhood. Finally, that quintessential hippie, Jesus, got the boot from a movement that he probably would have helped to establish, at Woodstock.

Liberalism began reflexively assuming that everything white, rural or suburban, bourgeois, American, or socially demure was automatically suspect, until people with those traits began responding with hostility of their own. The very word “liberal” became a weapon in the hands of its enemies. And when this happened, the movement’s elites only made things worse by diagnosing that the common citizens had been brainwashed by propaganda. Contempt for the masses, invigorating and satisfying, thereupon displayed its deadly side-effect -- political suicide.

(Contempt is ultimately lethal, once the voting masses find out how you feel. We can hope this will be the comeuppance of the haughty neocons, before they do too much more harm.)

But the biggest break was between liberalism and modernism. Every ill-conceived or ill-executed error of the ambitious modernists came under scrutiny. Not for its pragmatic success-failure ratio, but for whether it met the Left’s growing catalogue of litmus standards. Engineers became reviled enemies. The very nerds and technologists who had been at the core of liberal-modernism’s can-do spirit were progressively alienated, until you can hardly find one who will even talk to a liberal anymore.

Modernism Part 11: Under Assault from All Sides

In Part 10 I talked about the slow but steady alienation that has grown between two former allies, the liberal left and progressive modernism. This chasm is not as total and devastating (yet) as the one on the other side. The Democratic Party is still marginally led by modernist pragmatists. But the selection of Howard Dean as party chairman shows which way the wind is blowing. Soon, not a single national political institution will remain un-radicalized by one form or another of romanticism.

Of course we have seen extreme examples on the left, who at times make Jerry Falwell sound like a believer in tolerance and science! The latest poster boy for the"Romantic Che" complex is Ward Churchil, who compared denizens of the Twin Towers to Eichman. The neocons love guys like this because they serve as wonderful strawmen-bogeymen, helping to consolidate their hypnotic hold over decent, conservative Americans who might otherwise notice their leaders' monstrous habits.

In Part 10 I spoke of how the growing romanticism of the left began banishing former allies - space, nuclear power, engineers, the military, the churches. And then... "Liberalism began reflexively assuming that everything white, rural or suburban, bourgeois, American, or socially demure was automatically suspect, until people with those traits began responding with hostility of their own. The very word “liberal” became a weapon in the hands of its enemies. And when this happened, the movement’s elites only made things worse by diagnosing that the common citizens had been brainwashed by propaganda. Contempt for the masses, invigorating and satisfying, thereupon displayed its deadly side-effect -- political suicide."

Meanwhile, scientists were being driven off by conservatism. For that movement, too, had been taken over by dogmatists. By a triple alliance of groups who actively hate science and all that it represents.

By a clique of aristocratic kleptocrats who do not believe in economics.

By apocalyptic sects that reject geology and biology.

By neoconservative imperialists who repudiate climatology, ecology, chemistry, pharmacology and... ultimately... history.

Why has nobody commented on this? The Left has nothing but contempt for engineers, spurning can-do projects in favor of a single party line prescription for saving the world. Puritanical conservation. We must quickly abandon our cars and shiver in the dark. (Political suicide, but boy does it feel virtuous.)

Meanwhile, the Right - while willing to pay engineers for near-term guns and toys - will have no truck with ambitious research into technologies that might save a planet through assertive conservation -- vastly improved efficiency standards and sustainable energy supplies.

Neoconservatives smile and shrug at petitions signed by scores of Nobel Prize winners, since egghead boffins obviously cannot possess any common sense. The neocons’ oft-expressed contempt for objective reality -- as opposed to a subjective/ideological model of the world -- mimics that of the postmodernist left with eerie perfection. (Foucault or Leo Strauss? The common theme is a belief that elites can redefine reality however they like, as a matter of magical will.)

(As they have redefined "freedom." And now they are talking themselves into redefining IRAN....)

While rejecting science, both movements are infested with romantic nostalgia for a better past-that-never-was. The future cannot be a realm of promise and opportunity.

Oh, there are differences. The Left is certainly sincere in fretting about tomorrow’s dangers. But meanwhile, no one seems to notice how closely their dark forebodings of ecological collapse resemble the apocalyptic visions of right-wingers who confidently expect an imminent end to this world, amid a reckoning foretold in the Book of Revelations.

These gloomy visions are not only eerily similar, they are chillingly compatible.

I'll post the rest in a bit.
Posted by A. Alzabo (Member # 1197) on :
But along the way it became less and less about equalizing basic opportunity and ever-more about creating and stoking a movement. A movement that came equipped with ideologies, litmus tests, enemies lists, and long catalogues of forbidden words. Forbidden topics of conversation.

I would go even farther and say that there are elements on the left (the right, too, but different) that want to lose over and over again. There are entire movements and philosophies predicated on being the underdog, on fighting "the man," or some othe Sisyphean struggle. By never actually effecting change, the "struggle" never ends. They are caught up in the means, and have little thought for the ends.
Posted by Richard Dey (Member # 1727) on :
Is the missing name Robert Moses? In Boston it was Ed Logue.

"Modernist architecture proved devastatingly wrongheaded as high-rise “projects” for the poor exacerbated every social ill ...". The motivation for cheap housing and the interstates was nothing more or less than the kleptocracy's greed; contract bidders did NOT sit down and philosophize about it.


'There are entire movements and philosophies predicated on being the underdog, on fighting "the man," or some othe Sisyphean struggle. By never actually effecting change, the "struggle" never ends. They are caught up in the means, and have little thought for the ends.'

You brilliantly sum up the 'After Israel' thread! There's lots of money to be made on losing propositions!
Posted by WarrsawPact (Member # 1275) on :
Here are more posts...

Part 12 on Modernism:


I began examining the harsh divide between modernism and its enemies in a much narrower context.

The field wherein I've made much of my living, Speculative Fiction - or SF - consists largely of novels and stories that are not set in a standard, contemporary setting or time. (Of course that includes historical fiction, but that type is treated separately.) Most people see SF consisting of two main branches - science fiction and fantasy.

A lot of argument roils around defining what either separates or unites these two genres that are lumped together in most book stores. Superficially, one branch features swords and magic spells while the other uses spaceships and lasers. But that kind of superficial dismiaal heeds only pop imagery, ignoring deeper issues.

I don't perceive the division as a matter of tools and furniture at all. It is really all about the author's attitude toward change and the improvability of humankind.

Through a series of controversial essays that ran in Salon Magazine, I tried to show how supposedly high-tech space operas like Star Wars ( and The Matrix ( are in fact deeply anti-science fantasy stories that hew to an ancient storytelling tradition that abhors progress or change, casting doubt upon the whole process of open advancement using tools of science.

It is a tradition made explicit by Joseph Campbell in his series of books and television interviews, e.g. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. While Campbell emphasized some deeply moving aspects to this tradition, he glossed over its darker side -- for example the way that fantasy tales nearly always extoll feudalism, mysticism, mystery cults, secrecy, and inherited social position, even when they are set in "the future" or in outer space.

Above all, they promote the notion of a static social order - the kind that most of our ancestors toiled under for most of the last six thousand years. As if following a long and eerily consistent checklist, fantasy tales nearly always choose sides, preferring:

- tradition over innovation
- the pastoral over the urban
- craftsmanship over production
- apprenticeships over universities
- the subjective over the objective
- incantation over skill in the physical arts
- secret knowledge hoarded by a suitably chosen elite
- heroes who are destined for greatness because of inner qualities rather than relying upon social mobility among diverse and resilient citizens
- villains who are evil by their basic nature as a type, rather than by individual choice
- inherited hierarchies over democratic institutions
- the notion of a lost-lamented golden age, over ambitions to build a new one.

In another Salon article I extended this appraisal to include a fantasy series that I actually quite admire, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Trilogy. As nostalgist romantics go, Tolkien was among the most erudite, sincere, deep-thinking and - above all - honest. His characters, images and stories resonate with the romantic in each of us, including myself.

And yet, if I must choose sides (and during this era, I contend that we all must) then the woldview pushed by Tolkien is one that I must respectfully oppose. (

Because - like every modernist - I have to believe that it is possible for human beings to improve through science, reason and goodwill, and thereupon to make a better world.

Modernism Part 13: Michael Crichton vs Science

Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood:
The far-left and far-right,
united vs modern science

In the last section I discussed a schism within speculative fiction, a gulf between fantasy and science fiction. I suggested that it really isn't about magic vs. spaceships. Rather, it is much more about whether or not the author believes that progress - however unlikely - is possible.

Ah, but not everybody visits the "science fiction and fantasy" section of the local book store. So shall I illustrate this divide by shining light outside the genre ghetto? At writers who are vastly more famous than I (a miserable sci fi scribbler) ever will be.

Let me choose two authors who have gone to sometimes frantic lengths in order not to let their books be labeled science fiction. Two "mainstream" writers who engage in relentless, passionate polemic, both on the pages of their novels and in public life, using fantastic fictional extrapolations to preach about the real world.

One of them sermonizes from the "left" and the other from the "right". And yet, their boiled-down messages are strikingly similar. Both authors express white-hot loathing of the modernist agenda, as well as any thought of human-wrought improvability.

In January 2003, Michael Crichton, author of famous book/movies ranging from The Andromeda Strain to Jurassic Park visited Caltech, one of the world’s pinnacle scientific institutions - (and my alma mater) - to deliver a speech deriding the condition of modern science.

In “Aliens Cause Global Warming” ( the author of WestWorld and Timeline proceeded to lay out what has become his standard address -- an indictment against the credibility of researchers who spread scientific “myths and superstitions.” His favorite example is the widespread consensus among a large majority of prestigious working scientists that we should be worried about environmental degradation and global climate change.

“In my lifetime, science has largely fulfilled its promise. Science has been the great intellectual adventure of our age, and a great hope for our troubled and restless world. But I did not expect science merely to extend lifespan, feed the hungry, cure disease, and shrink the world with jets and cell phones. I also expected science to banish the evils of human thought---prejudice and superstition, irrational beliefs and false fears. I expected science to be, in Carl Sagan's memorable phrase, "a candle in a demon haunted world." And here, I am not so pleased with the impact of science. Rather than serving as a cleansing force, science has in some instances been seduced by the more ancient lures of politics and publicity. Some of the demons that haunt our world in recent years are invented by scientists. The world has not benefitted from permitting these demons to escape free. “

Crichton goes on also to berate astronomers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project for foisting upon a gullible public the so-called “Drake Equation” -- a way of making back-of-the-envelope estimates about the possible number of detectable, technology-using civilizations in our galaxy.

“This serious-looking equation gave SETI an serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated.”

In fact, I quite agree with Crichton about the Drake Equation, having criticized it extensively elsewhere. But where I see it as a flawed but harmless bit of speculative fluff, with some fine pedagogical uses, Crichton portrays the vagueness of this “equation” as some kind of scientific Original Sin. Without pointing to a single way that the Drake Equation has actually harmed science, Crichton seems to be saying that scientists can never let their hair down, have a couple of beers and indulge in some fun, arm-waving conjecture.

Of course, this is very odd, since Michael Crichton made his living by performing entertaining, science-fictional gedankenexperiments. True, his novels are properly labeled as novels and the Drake Equation has too-often been treated with more reverence than a what-if thought experiment deserves. Still, Crichton’s double standard is showing.

Crichton’s examples of bad science range from second-hand smoke to Nuclear Winter and world deforestation. Since all of his examples are chosen from a list of enemies-of-the-right, it might have been honest to avow his political agenda openly at the start. His core argument could be re-stated: that science in general has been polluted, even taken-over, by malignant memes of the left.

(For more on Crichton and climate change:
and )

Ironically, left-wing activists would gladly compile an equally lengthy list of erroneous or biased ‘scientific studies’ that have leaned the other way, at behest of corporate or aristocratic or neoconservative interests.

If you try, it’s trivial to pick and choose anecdotes and examples of dogma-driven excess, from any perspective. Given what may be at stake -- either billions of dollars or else a perceived world-in-peril -- it would be surprising if human subjectivity and bias did not sometimes bias outcomes.

This is, in fact the critical discovery of science. That we often perceive what we expect or want to perceive, often at variance with what is objectively true. The Cro Magnon genius of trumping objective evidence with subjective belief. The original and only true form of magic.

How has science dealt with this quandary? By encouraging open enquiry and vigorous reciprocal accountability. And by enticing younger researchers to take risks and challenge portions of the edifice that may be weak, with substantial status awaiting those who do succeed in toppling a paradigm, some time.

I have generalized this with a catchy acronym-aphorism - CITOKATE ... or... Criticism is the Only Known Antidote to Error. A practicing scientist knows this, in his or her bones, even as the Cro Magnon ego inevitably tugs in the other direction, murmuring to each of us that we are 100% correct and that critics are all vile fools. Yes, that tug is overwhelming. Which makes even the partial success of scientific training - at making some egotists welcome criticism - all the more wondrous, almost a miracle.

The lesson for everyday life? If none of us are likely to catch our own mistakes, we can hope that others will catch them for us. And yes, even when eagerly rebellious, snotty graduate students do the catching. (Even Nobelists relearn this lesson, the hard way. There is no privileged safety from criticism, in science, though some Cro Magnon professors and laureates certainly do try.)

Anyone notice another Libertarian acronym?
Heinlein had TANSTAAFL.
David Brin has CITOKATE.
When will the madness stop?

Modernism Part 14: more on Crichton vs science
Let me preface the following installment with this - I met Michael Crichton only once, when we were on a television program together. He seemed a thoroughly nice fellow and my impression was of someone who cared sincerely about human success in a dangerous era.

Moreover, as you may read in other essays, I have no problem with people writing dire warning stories, about potential failure modes, or ways that technology might go awry. Indeed, the highest form of science fiction is arguably the self preventing prophecy, which causes enough thoughtful discussion that a particular worst-path is avoided. Best example? Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, though one could make similar cases for The China Syndrome, Soylent Green, and Silent Spring.

Certainly, if we ever do build robot or dinosaur theme parks, I am sure MC will get credit for warning us not to do it in the stupidest imaginable way.

But none of this has anything to do with my key point here, which concerns the bitter war for survival that modernism must now fight against enemies on all sides - romantics who cannot bear the fundamental assumptions of the Enlightenment. Especially that openness, pragmatism, accountability and rising human maturity may make us worthy - using good will and our own skilled hands - to remake a better world.

Moreover, while I respect the storytelling skills and breadth of interests shown by Michael Crichton... much as I respect the intellect and honesty of the late JRR Tolkien... there is simply no question which side of this struggle they both consistently chose.

Onward to part 14, taking up where we left off....

14: The agenda of the new-right does not want interference from Nobel-winning boffins...

If criticism is the only known antidote to error, that means we are certainly behooved to listen when intelligent and articulate critics like Michael Crichton - or his left-wing, postmodernist counterparts - assail what may be faulty or premature conclusions, accepted too readily by “consensus science.”

The beauty and magic of criticism is that it can be right at the level of details, even if the overall argument is inane.

For example, I have elsewhere said things similar to what Crichton says about the excessively dramatic environmental jeremiads of Paul Ehrlich and Carl Sagan who, for example, cut corners and did inaccurate science while predicting imminent mass starvation and/or nuclear winter by the century’s turn. (Other examples chosen by Crichton are singled-out unfairly.)

(For more on achieving a balanced and vigorously pragmatic view toward environmental crises, see: and Or, of course, my novel Earth.)

But while potshotting easy targets, Crichton makes no effort to actually do what he recommends -- engage in the dispassionate and careful scientific work of proving his own case. For example, he is rich enough to fund a panel of neutral experts to statistically appraise how many politically tendentious or biased studies there are, compared to the surrounding sea-tide of accumulating human knowledge that is the general process of worldwide science. Or whether the biases of left and right counterbalance in some reasonably pragmatic corrective process.

He might even have suggested methods of appraisal that would catch sophistries perpetrated by paid-off scientists of both the left and right. Many such methods have been contemplated, for example "science courts" that would expose controversial notions to harsh criticism and cautiously evaluate their credibility. Elsewhere ( I describe why this notion is unnecessary and potentially harmful. But Crichton should certainly have discussed a range of possible ways to fix the problem he describes. After all, he surficially claims to revere science, while bemoaning its fallen state.

Alas, he is not interested in such processes or potential solutions, especially any that would enhance the validity and influence of science in public affairs. In fact, by cherry-picking anecdotal bad-examples - and misquoting those sources that he does cite - he demonstrates that his real aim is to besmirch the entire vast community of science, doing quite-blatantly the very thing that he derides.

The political agenda is very clear, of course. With a vast and growing scientific consensus building over the issue of Climate Change, and letters appearing in the press signed by scores of Nobel Prize winners, the deniers of global warming and other environmental threats face a deepening credibility gap. They must discredit the very notion of "scientific consensus" at a basic level, so that - no matter how many respected experts sign on to a petition - they can be prevented from influencing policy.

One of the commentors on Part 13 put it this way: Crichton says: "Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough. Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way." I contend that this is exactly how scientists would speak IF the distance to the sun or the energy equivalent of a kg were being disputed by non-scientists with a political agenda. This is precisely what is happening with Darwinian Evolution, which biologists regard as being on as solid a footing as Relativity or Orbital Mechanics, and their response is to invoke consensus.

In effect, by disdaining "consensus science", and offering no alternative, this branch of an obstinate aristocratic clade is - through Crichton - telling civilization's finest minds to return to their labs and tend their own business. As "boffins" they should stick to test tubes and leave policy to whichever self-chosen elite of aristocrats, politicos and/or philosopher kings happens to sit at the pinnacle of government and finance.

But then, look at Crichton’s novels, most of which follow a startlingly consistent plot outline.

First, a gosh-wow technological breakthrough is pursued by some cryptic entity (government agency, corporate lab, mad scientist or, lately, eco-fanatics) in total secrecy, evading the corrective effects of criticism. Errors are made due to a combination of hubris, profound stupidity, overweening pride and the utter absence of oversight by an obtuse civilization. And then (of course) hubris is compounded by more hubris. These errors very nearly lead to calamity while a solitary goodguy demigod berates the team efforts and the entire ignoramus culture that brought us to the brink.

Alas, not one of these lecturing heroes ever mentions the one corrective prescription that might actually work - general openness. The way we have often managed to get so many advances without hubristic calamities. (The almost perfect correlation between secrecy and catastrophe is a major point in The Transparent Society.)

Amid all the lectures in each Crichton novel, the plot - punctuated by gruesome deaths - does often build a lovely, reckless and heartpounding pace, hurtling toward a precipice of man-wrought doom...

...whereupon (more often than not) a miraculous salvation not only nullifies the error but then puts everything and everybody (except the dead) back where they came from, restoring a comfortable (but worried) status quo.

Try watching Jurassic Park again. Then murmur to both the hubristic strawman of a Disney-mogul and the smarmy-lectury-romantic mathematician -- "Duh... let's start out by making only herbivores!" Crichton’s dire warnings about misused science would go away in nearly every novel, but for an assumption of venal stupidity compounded by unnecessary (if convenient) secrecy.

Let there be no mistake, this plot outline is not modernist. It is romantic at every level that I describe elsewhere. ( ) Despite Crichton’s speech before a meeting of the AAAS (http://www.crichton, claiming “I am not anti-science!” -- he most definitely is. You can see it clearly in the following statement from his lecture at Caltech.

“In recent years, much has been said about the post modernist claims about science to the effect that science is just another form of raw power, tricked out in special claims for truth seeking and objectivity that really have no basis in fact. Science, we are told, is no better than any other undertaking. These ideas anger many scientists, and they anger me. But recent events have made me wonder if they are correct. “

Of course he does. As I alluded earlier, every foe of the Enlightenment must eventually converge on the same destination.

No specific scientific error is really at issue, since those can be fixed with tools of science, especially open and reciprocal accountability. No, the deep agenda and aim is to generally discredit the smartest members of our civilization, so that nothing they say can be used against other elites who have decidedly LESS respect for objective evidence than scientists do.

Modernism Part 15: Modernism & Science are assaulted from all sides...

Monsters to the Left of Us...

After Part 14, which discussed the obsessive neoconservative campaign against science and modernity, can we take it that the Enlightenment is principally under attack from the "right"?

Far from it! Let's take another example of this all-out reactionary frenzy, this time from the political "left."

Michael Crichton's apparent polar opposite would seem to be Margaret Atwood, the doyen of feminist fiction and well-known for her attacks on the white-male-financier power structure, in both fiction and polemical nonfiction. The Oryx and the Crake, Atwood's latest novel, portrays yet another world devastated by human greed, incompetence, and brutish oppression, this time nearly denuded of human life by scientific innovations gone awry.

Of course this is a familiar premise and one that I have used myself. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with some vivid extrapolative exaggeration in trying to make a point. The greatest 'self-preventing prophecies' have done it by showing how much we'd lose "if this goes on."

And yet, this motif can also become hackneyed, cliched, even a crutch. For example, nearly all feminist science fiction tales seem to begin with a scenario based on some (literally) manmade catastrophe. One can easily see why. The End of the World is such a bad thing - the very worst thing - that it offers a moral excuse for any author to pour opprobrium upon whole types who might be assigned blanket group-culpability. A neat trick, since you aren't really supposed to judge people in straw-man type-categories.

But that's what romantics inherently do, whether their particular ire is aimed left or right, at all commies or all capitalists or at all males. (See Romanticism is about one side being pure and good while the opposition is all-bad. And the attraction of this way of thinking is clear. Indignation feels good! It's lovely to disdain your opponents as-a class that is inherently immoral.

But even when your worldview officially promotes poilitically-correct hypertolerance? One way around this bind is to portray the enemy class (males, plutocrats, whatever) as all-powerful, and determined to bring about the end of the world.

As part of this tradition, The Oryx and the Crake doesn't hold back. One of the book's key themes is the corrupting influence of commerce on science. When business interests dominate "you enter a skewed universe where science can no longer operate as science," Atwood says.

The book takes this to extremes. For example, biotech company HelthWyzer puts "hostile bioforms" into vitamin pills while at the same time marketing antidotes. "The best diseases, from a business point of view," the author writes with irony, "would be those that cause a lingering illness."

And it all goes to hell from there. Talk about a penalty for man's arrogance! The destruction of all art, all love, all hope. This is portrayed as the ultimate and likely outcome if we continue plunging forward with our insolent program of meddling with Nature's wisdom.

The crux: science cannot be trusted. Not while money or competition or self-interest are involved. (In other words, not while we are human.) Not anywhere as well as certain self-appointed artistic-elite guardians of Truth.

In effect, this is exactly the same lesson as that preached by Michael Crichton. Except replace "artistic" with "aristocratic." (The words even sound similar.)

Till now, I'd wager very few critics have even typed the names Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood in the same article, let alone calling them allies and co belligerents in the same cause. And yet, having come this far in a lengthy essay, the reader can now see why I present them, side-by-side. True, they have probably never supported the same politicians, and never will. Their particular choice of villains will always be surficially different; so will their heroes and heroines. But those are superficialities and distractions.

Indeed, this pair of authors show countless eerie parallels. Both claim relentlessly, and rather defensively, to be pro-science. Crichton avows a scientific education while Atwood often refers to her father and brother, biologists of some prominence. Both Crichton and Atwood mourn that modern science is relentlessly corrupted by corrupt interests that destroy its credibility. Even the unscrupulous conspiracies are remarkably similar, differing only in the cosmetic surfaces that distinguish left-wing authoritarian bogeymen from right-wing authoritarian bogeymen.

Both offer doomsday scenarios that arise almost entirely because of secrecy that stifles the natural corrective, error-prevention of open accountability in a free, democratic and scientific society.

And yet they never call secrecy the culprit, per se.

No, it is always hubris.

Dig down, and you will find that these authors, and a myriad others like them, tap the mythic current described by Joseph Campbell. A river of tradition, nostalgia and fear of the future that watered nearly all of the great literature in our tortured past, from Homer and Murusaki to Joyce. A despairing sense of loss. A belief in eternal verities and traditional values under threat. The rightful superiority of a wise or all-knowing class. A sense that the past knew better and that today's citizens cannot be trusted with bold new tools to "improve" the world. To improve their children and themselves.

Don't be distracted by minor differences. While lefty postmodernists express contempt for money-polluted, power-driven science in principle, Crichton and his neoconservative friends rail against what they perceive as a liberal-activist tilt on the part of the modern scientific community in practice, proclaiming that humanity's smartest and best trained minds -- the entire vast and amorphous marketplace of skilled scientific competitors -- have been polluted and discredited by outrageously unprofessional mysticism and consensual bias.

These two positions are seldom laid side-by-side. The common aim of antimodernists - both neoconservative and ultraliberal - is to discredit the process and credibility of science itself, a process that benefits from relentless criticism of specifics, but that is undermined by broadbrush general condemnations, hurled without supporting analysis from fanatical extremes of both left and right.

The last few I'll post later.
Posted by RickyB (Member # 1464) on :
I agree with the vast majority of what Brin says. You seem to really like what he has to say as well, WP.

So how is it that while I can honestly say that to me Atwood, for example, is a raving fringe loon in many cases, whereas you seem to be very happy with the current administration (which is on the other side of the equation, along with Crichton)?
Posted by canadian (Member # 1809) on :
While I love Brin's books and essays, I have to say that I doubt he even READ Atwood's book. To begin with, the title is not The Oryx and the Crake but simply: Oryx and Crake.

The next item is the fact that the book is written "sans" judgement. Does anyone feel that Blade Runner was rife with moral superiority? Sure, it explored some interesting issues, but it left judgement out. This is probably why it is a sci-fi geek favorite.

The same could be said for Atwood's book of exceptional sci-fi.

The last issue I have with Brin's interpretation is his feeling that Atwood is anti-science with a Campbellian bent. I think (from reading her book) that it is clear she is against the marriage of corporate thinking and science. She is against the idea that science must be driven by profit margins. As a scientist himself, I am surprised Brin didn't seem to catch this. And if he did, I am surprised that he wouldn't agree with this stance on at least some level.

So, I can draw only one conclusion, he simply didn't read the book.

Too bad. It's fascinating. I didn't sleep for two days while reading it, and I couldn't sleep for two days after finishing it!

Despite Brin's fear that this is a novel that is 'anti-modern', I would recommend it heartily. The only people I know who didn't like it are also in that strange subset of folks who don't like good science fiction.

edited to add:

as for 'raving fringe loon', I guess that tells you all you need to know about Canada. Here's a quick list of her writing accolades up to 2002:

Awards and Honorary Degrees

2002 Shortlisted for the 2002 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, The Blind Assassin
2001 Shortlisted for the Orange Prize,
The Blind Assassin
International Association of Crime Writers’ Dashiell Hammett Award, The Blind Assassin
Inducted to Canada’s Walk of Fame
Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award, People’s Choice, The Blind Assassin
2000 The Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin,
2000 Best Local Author, NOW Magazine Readers’ Poll
1999 London Literature Award
Best Local Author, NOW Magazine Readers’ Poll
1997 National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature
Premio Mondello for Alias Grace
Best Local Author, NOW Magazine Readers' Poll
Salon Magazine Best Fiction of 1997 for
Alias Grace
1996 Norwegian Order of Literary Merit
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Alias Grace
Best Local Author, NOW Magazine Readers' Poll
The Giller Prize for Alias Grace
Canadian Booksellers Association Author
of the Year
1995 Swedish Humour Association's International Humourous Writer Award
Best Local Author, NOW Magazine Readers' Poll
Trillium Award for Excellence in Ontario Writing, Morning in the Burned House
1994 Trillium Award for Excellence in Ontario Writing, The Robber Bride
Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Canadian and Caribbean Region, The Robber Bride
Government of France's Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence, (London, U.K.)
1993 Canadian Authors' Association Novel of the Year, The Robber Bride
1992 Trillium Award for Excellence in Ontario writing, for Wilderness Tips
John Hughes Prize, from the Welsh Development Board
Book of the Year Award from the Periodical Marketers of Canada, for Wilderness Tips
Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation
1990 Order of Ontario
Centennial Medal, Harvard University
1989 Torgi Talking Book (CNIB), Cat's Eye
City of Toronto Book Award, Cat's Eye
Coles Book of the Year, Cat's Eye
Canadian Booksellers Association Author of the Year, Cat's Eye
Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters in conjunction with the Periodical Marketers of Canada Book of the Year, Cat'sEye
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize,
Cat's Eye, (England)
1988 YWCA Women of Distinction Award
National Magazine Award for Environmental Journalism, First Prize
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Foreign Honourary Member, Literature
1987 Shortlisted for the Booker Prize (England)
Shortlisted for the Ritz Hemingway
Prize (Paris)
Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction
Commonwealth Literary Prize,
Regional winner
Council for Advancement and Support of Education, Silver Medal, Best Article
of the Year
Humanist of the Year Award
Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada
1986 Ida Nudel Humanitarian Award
Toronto Arts Award
Governor General's Award, The Handmaid's Tale
Los Angeles Times Fiction Award
Ms. Magazine, Woman of the Year
1983 Periodical Distributors of Canada and the Foundation for The Advancement of Canadian Letters Book of the Year Award
1982 Welsh Arts Council International Writer's Prize
1981 Molson Award
Guggenheim Fellowship
Companion of the Order of Canada
1980 Radcliffe Graduate medal
1978 St. Lawrence Award for Fiction
1977 The City of Toronto Book Award
The Canadian Bookseller's Association Award
Periodical Distributors of Canada Short Fiction
1974 The Bess Hoskins Prize, Poetry (Chicago)
1969 Union Poetry Prize, Poetry (Chicago)
1967 Centennial Commission Poetry
Competition, First
1966 Governor General's Award, Circle Game
1965 President's Medal, University of Western Ontario
1961 E.J. Pratt Medal

[ March 18, 2005, 12:38 PM: Message edited by: canadian ]
Posted by A. Alzabo (Member # 1197) on :
*****Spoilers for "Oryx and Crake" *****

The same could be said for Atwood's book of exceptional sci-fi.

The last issue I have with Brin's interpretation is his feeling that Atwood is anti-science with a Campbellian bent. I think (from reading her book) that it is clear she is against the marriage of corporate thinking and science. She is against the idea that science must be driven by profit margins. As a scientist himself, I am surprised Brin didn't seem to catch this. And if he did, I am surprised that he wouldn't agree with this stance on at least some level.

So, I can draw only one conclusion, he simply didn't read the book.

I have to agree with you on this one. I usually agree with what Brin says, but "Oryx and Crake" seems like a poor choice to illustrate his point. He could have chosen any number of books by, say, Sherri S. Tepper.

I didn't really get "hubris" from reading Atwood's book. What I got was that the profit motive really, really screwed up the decison-making process about what desireable and acceptable from a science perspective and from a social perspective once it became divorced from anything else.

And it wasn't "mankind" that destroyed itself (even if it had created an unpleasant existence) -- it was one guy who wouldn't have been able to if he hadn't been able to work the system so well.

On a side note, the Crake character kinda reminds me of WarrsawPact...

[ March 18, 2005, 01:05 PM: Message edited by: A. Alzabo ]
Posted by Mike_W (Member # 202) on :
Just don't let Peggy catch you calling her book "sci fi"...she has a bit of an attitude about that...
Posted by Mike_W (Member # 202) on :
And, although it might be too late because the discussion has moved on, Brin actually answers some criticisms on his you could take it up with the source.

Pretty cool that he's doing that I figure.
Posted by A. Alzabo (Member # 1197) on :
And, although it might be too late because the discussion has moved on, Brin actually answers some criticisms on his you could take it up with the source.

I actually agree with his conclusions about the need for openness (which kind of dovetails into the whole "The Wisdom of Crowds" discussion. I just think that the problems he finds with Atwood and Crighton aren't so much idealogical as stylistic ideosyncracies of thos authors.
Posted by RickyB (Member # 1464) on :
I actually like Atwood as a writer (Handmaid's Tale is phenomenal) but from what I recall, her politics are very extreme.

Maybe it wasn't a good idea for me to latch on to Brin's singling out of Atwood. My point is that I can easily denounce the fringe loons who are, for instance, against all and any kinds of genetic research and engineering. But Bush lovers can't admit that his admin's attitude to science is just as wrongheaded.
Posted by WarrsawPact (Member # 1275) on :
A. Alzabo -
On a side note, the Crake character kinda reminds me of WarrsawPact...
I'm flattered.
Thanks for that.
Posted by javelin (Member # 1284) on :
I love the phrase "Bush Lovers" [Wink]
Posted by A. Alzabo (Member # 1197) on :
I'm flattered.
Thanks for that.

Did you read the book? Crake wasn't all bad. Just unwaveringly sure of his correctness, and brilliant enough to achieve his ends.
Posted by WarrsawPact (Member # 1275) on :
Haven't read it, but I've heard about him.

Every time I feel too sure of my own correctness, I read a critique of my beliefs. I debate people to learn, not to win.

Brilliant enough to achieve his ends?
Well, we'll see if the same is true of me. I feel smart, but not brilliant.
Posted by Kent (Member # 832) on :
Thanks for keeping this thread going. I've spent an hour enthralled (finding this thread for the first time) and evaluating my own disposition. I'm thinking that I am sadly a post-modernist romantic, believing that only through Jesus' return (the return of the king if you will) will most world problems have hope of changing. Isn't that the message of Revelation? That Jesus comes to put an end to man's destruction of the planet and each other? On a micro level though, I think that most Christians are all for social justice and spreading opportunity through science and social planning. I just think that they are concerned with "relying on the arm of the flesh" rather than on divine direction for saving the planet.

By the way, how does one differentiate between Humanism and Modernism?
Posted by canadian (Member # 1809) on :

Do you ever throw around the idea that Jesus won't return for another few centuries?

I'm just curious because I have some Christian friends who couldn't give a rat's ass about environmental, ecological, or economic responsibility because Jesus is going to come and fix it all up.
Posted by WarrsawPact (Member # 1275) on :
A "secular Modern Humanist" is in most aspects a Modernist. But there are several different types of humanists.
Modernism isn't really about philosophical humanism, Christian humanism, or religious humanism.
It tends to focus on Enlightenment values more than Humanism (which is more often about Renaissance values), and specifically decries Romantic values.

Humanism is much more likely to fall back on the ancient Greek and Roman spirit, or, conversely, old-style Catholicism.

Modernism tends to take the spirit of the Enlightenment and just look forward, forward, forward. It's more closely connected than Humanism with Futurism (except for the violent, fascist parts from early futurism).

Modernism is fairly humanist, to be sure. Good call.

(Side note: there are a lot of crazy people on the internet. I just looked up humanism, futurism, transhumanism, modernism, postmodernism, structuralism and post-structuralism, and something called Singularity... I'm now firmly convinced there are too many "isms")
Posted by WarrsawPact (Member # 1275) on :
Here are the next parts, for your reading pleasure.

Modernism Part 16: It goes beyond the arts...

16. Putting it all in context.

In part 15, I compared author Michael Crichton to one of his left-wing counterparts, Margaret Atwood, revealing underlying agendas that are remarkably similar, despite superficial differences of politics, heroes and villains. Relentlessly and point by-point, they reject the modernist notion that we can and should improve both humanity and the world through calmly-negotiated, pragmatic advancement in realms of commerce, society and science, in an era of openly shared knowledge.

Of course, each of them would deny this, since both claim to be "progressive" and scientific in their own ways. But I contend that a long checklist of traits argues otherwise. For example, they seldom, if ever, show either society or science utilizing sophisticated enlightenment processes for error-discovery and correction. While praising diversity in principle, they never show diverse competing interests actually engaging in a mature process of reciprocal accountability or negotiation.

True, a good fiction tale can thrive upon situations when such mature processes fail. Exciting drama may revolve around a few heroes opposing terrible errors or oppressive opponents. But these errors and opponents are portrayed by romantic authors in simplistic, polemical fashion, demonizing straw-man villain groups for the purpose of making a political point. Never to illustrate mature processes in action.

In almost every case, the fictional failure mode seems to arise out of secrecy that prevented society and science from functioning properly. And yet, secrecy itself is never shown to be a core mistake! Rather, hubris is the classic character flaw that these authors bemoan. With typical elitism, they cast unalloyed dread toward the possibility that common citizens may seize new powers to remake society, their own lives, and even the lives of their children.

You can find the same loathing all across the arts, from fantasy novels that despise democracy and extol feudalism to rock videos that foster egotism as a primary human virtue.

Of course, the situation is not as simple as I've described so far. Dichotomies are inherently untrustworthy, (a decidedly modernist position, by the way.) Indeed, romantic polemics conveyed via the arts can often overlap with messages of the Enlightenment. They may even agree over specific or surface issues.

This shouldn't be surprising. Romantics and modernists were once allies, after all. Two centuries ago, until a great rift tore apart these worldviews, they briefly stood shoulder-to-shoulder through the American and French Revolutions -- before spilling apart in violent fraternal dispute. (Thomas Jefferson would seem to be the perfect blending of modernism and romanticism.)

For example, both movements claim credit for what seems to be the universal propaganda message, pervading nearly all recent movies and dramas. That message is Suspicion of Authority or SOA. (Name a popular film you've enjoyed in the last 30 years that does not feature it.) Both also claim to champion tolerance and admiration of human eccentricity/diversity.

Only with a key difference. Modernism calls for mild suspicion toward all centers of authority, including any that include you or me. An omni directional accountability, enforced by open and freely-accessible knowledge.

Romanticism nearly always manifests SOA as fervid hatred of some particular authoritarianism... while making excuses for its polar opposite. Romantics seldom see anything wrong with unaccountable power in the hands of their favorite authorities. Indeed, they make many excuses for why the masses cannot be trusted to take care of themselves.

And yet, after all this going on and on about romanticism in the arts, it may surprise you to learn that I find such artistic expression to be the least bothersome aspect of an ancient worldview. Indeed, the romantic impulse is deeply and naturally human. I exploit and foster it in myself, when writing a dramatic scene in one my own novels -- though I try to do so with open eyes and some awareness of the inevitable tradeoffs.

Even within the arts, romanticism has long waged war on the nerdy, cautious, cooperative and reasonable, in favor of extravagance, emotion, lusts and love-at first-sight. Indeed, can you even begin to count the number of times that films or novels have posed a dichotomy between logic and love? Between passion and reason? Between calculated risk and that bold roll of the dice? And how often has passionate illogic been portrayed as wrong? The nearly universal reflex does seem to indicate something driven, consistent, like a concerted campaign.

And I don't really mind. Again, we all grew up with this relentless romantic propaganda in the arts, and it sure has its good side. Certainly we will never abandon the richly emotional and voluptuous power that romantic posturing can offer through the arts, from Shelley, screaming at the heavens with lighting flashing all around, to Slim Pickens riding a hydrogen bomb like a bucking bronco, in Dr. Strangelove. The arts are where romanticism thrives and feeds us. In art, it can inspire and stir or replenish the soul.

Unfortunately, it goes far beyond fiction and the arts. If you look across six thousand years of recorded history, nearly all cultures were led by romantic thinking in their centers of policy and power. And that's where inestimable damage has been done.

Oh, there are more than enough superficial differences that allow anti-modernists of "left" and "right" to pontificate and rage at each other... while colluding over a deeper agenda. Certainly the left has been more direct and honest in its intellectually assault, fostering an entire movement called postmodernism, implying that their foe (modernism) is already finished off, a relic, even dead.

It should be no surprise that many of the leading figures in postmodernism, such as Derrida, Lacan and Foucault, emerged from the French wing of the Enlightenment... the wing that got suckered away from pragmatism and back into the arms of Plantoic mysticism.

Proclaiming that nothing is objectively true - that only subjective texts matter - they preach (in-effect) for a return to the era of persuasive magical incantations. By claiming that science is just another incantory system, they hope to downgrade its authority, denying this era's masters of wisdom any authority to "prove or disprove" anything at all. (More on this, in part 18.)

The hostility of rightwing intellectuals can be much more cryptic, and yet easy to understand. The retro-romantic impulse of the neoconservatives is not to restore the authority of magicians, but rather to re-empower aristocratic lords and priests.

Modernism 16b: An Aside About "Human Nature"

Before continuing with my overall points about Modernism and its enemies, let me suggest that we should always drop back now and then and contemplate that minefield topic: "human nature".

All ideologues - and indeed all modernist-pragmatists - base their arguments and agendas upon assumptions about human nature, often explicitly stated, but far too often not. A worst-case example was Karl Marx, whose marvelously ingenious just so stories about destiny and society began with excellent foundation in contemporary economics... then marched right off a cliff of Tex Avery ditziness an teleological determinism that ignored any reference to evolution or real science.

Ayn Rand is just as bad, doing exactly the same things that Marx did, casting romantic incantations without ever offering falsifiable statements or opening her ornate reasoning to CITOKATE.

WHen it comes to "human nature", I am skeptical of all explanations of human nature that leave out the neolithic.

By far a majority of human generations took place, strove, endured hardship and evolved during that long epoch. We may have adapted and developed a lot of sophisticated culture since then, but the UNDERLYING genetic predispositions nearly all arose in a context of migratory hunters gatherers, chipping clever stone tools and singing by camp fires, interacting with each other at a level similar to LORD OF THE FLIES.

Neolithic people had very sophisticated minds and tremendous strengths. They had minds basically as good as ours. But they almost certainly lived all that time in systems of power and interaction that were not democratic. Our knowledge of more recent tribal societies suggests that we are internally wired for some degree of fealty to chiefs and shamans. A distressting image, but sobering.

I do believe that we are genetically different from neolithic people is a few ways. The discovery of beer probably unleashed a very rapid culling of drunks, resulting in the astoundingly high percentage (at least 2/3) of humans who can "just say no". (This glass-half-full way of looking at human addiction is rare, but worth pondering.) Likewise, the effectiveness of kings at utilizing harems has been shown to have had a notable genetic effect. (8% of Chinese people are descended from Ghengiz Khan, apparently.)

(If interested in how culture may continue evolution, see CHILDREN OF PROMETHEUS, by Chris Wills.)

Still, most of our proclivities arise out of neolithic people who were almost genetically the same as us. Leaving me amazed at how MUCH democracy and enlightenment and science we actually turn out to be capable of! The paramount trait of those neolithtic folks seems to have been adaptability.

In the end, though, we are foolish to ignore the fact that we still carry buttons that can be pushed, often cynically, to get us reacting to tribal totemic images and threats etc.

Chiefdoms became feudal societies because that transition is an easy extrapolation, while democracy (as the Athenians found) is hard. Really hard.

Modernism and the enlightenment are hard. They do not come easy. Today there are many, left and-right, who are busy pushing neolothic buttons to try and end the modernist experiment.

Example: I think one reason for the anti-modernists' hostility is the fact that our current high priests and shamans don't behave as mysteriously and in the domineering but reassuring way that they used to (and that they are depicted doing in fantasy: e.g. Gandalf and that horrible demon, Yoda.) Many people do not like the way today's high priests of knowledge fizz and pop on PBS about our steadily growing knowledge & power, eager to share it with all, unlike every other priestly class.

Far deeper inside us is the expectation that priests should keep secrets, domineer, and cast incantations. Very authoritative and convincing. Far more than watching some TV physicist gush "we don't know! Ain't it great?"

Finally, let me correct a notion that anti-modernists never look forward in time. As described by Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic: "Utopianism is back. We are exhorted from all sides to believe in happy endings. Russell Jacoby has just written Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti Utopian Age, a woozy and peculiarly unpolitical volume in which he demands that the old liberal anxiety about the consequences of the belief in the perfectibility of the human world be retired." ( Another example is The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, by Jeffrey Sachs, in which he calls for "ending poverty in our time"- specifically, "by the year 2025." This is also the goal set in a report released last month by the United Nations Millennium Project, led by Sachs. Both modernists and anti-modernists can share GOALS, and even short term political desires.

The difference (and culture war) lies deeper down.


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