Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Otherers Part 2: Lessons

    “A very smart man once said that imagination is more important than knowledge.” Redmond guided the truck out of the parking lot and onto NY 231. “It was an overstatement, and context-free to boot. Still, he had an important point in mind. He wasn’t the first to make it, either. What is an outline, Todd?”
    The conversational swerve jarred Todd into a curious state. His thoughts seemed to drift free of mundane reality. He struggled to discipline them.
    “The boundary around an object?”
    “Have you seen any outlines lately?”
    “Huh? I don’t...hm.”
    “In the world outside our heads.” Redmond piloted the truck smoothly down Kettle Knoll. “Did you see anything you could point to and say ‘there’s an outline,’ at any time recently?”
    “I don’t think so.”
    “And why is that? Every object has a boundary, so it must have an outline, right?”
    Todd was overwhelmed by the sense that he was being introduced to a higher realm of thought, a sphere of concepts and relations whose existence he hadn’t suspected.
    He’s way beyond me.
    He fought down his distaste at the admission.
    If I’m going to learn anything more from him, I have to accept it.
    “Outlines are imaginary, then?”
    Redmond pulled into the Iversons’ driveway, stopped, and set the parking brake. “Not quite. It depends on whether you’d say an image—a picture of the world you have in your brain—is imaginary. When we look at the world, we see...things. Objects we take to be bounded and separate from one another. Most of us view the world that way, most of the time. We have to. It makes organized thought possible. And it’s what moved a great writer to write that ‘wise men see outlines, and therefore draw them.’”
    “Who was that?”
    “William Blake. A poet of the late Enlightenment.” Redmond’s eyes twinkled. “He wrote something a bit different a few years later, though.”
    Todd waited.
    “‘Mad men see outlines, and therefore draw them.’”
    Redmond held up a hand for patience. “It was an important insight, centuries ahead of its time. Modern physics tells us that there are no absolute boundaries between things, that boundaries and outlines are only tools of thought.” The engineer’s smooth, solemn face seemed to acquire the weight of centuries. “They exist, whatever that means, only as long as we insist on them. And there are subjects where we can’t make any progress at all unless we refuse to see them.”

[From this story.]

Some of my most important lessons to myself arise in the process of writing fiction. The one above isn't a wholly original insight, though it does have a bit of my flavor in it.

In his landmark book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig delves into perhaps the most important of all ratiocinative processes: the separation of a complex entity into smaller modules, to facilitate comprehension. This is often for purposes of diagnosis. It's supremely difficult to diagnose and repair most problems in modern technological artifacts without disassembling them, conceptually at least.

Yet Pirsig understood that this is an act of imaginative intellectual imposition: the enforcement of a structure on objective reality, for the practical purposes of the moment, which only "exists," whatever that term means, for as long as we need it. Pirsig called this an "analytical knife:" the mental division of a large entity into smaller pieces in hope of moving toward a particular end. Yet it's quite as valid to conceive of the engine / computer / television / spaceship / what-have-you as a gemlike unity, without any internal divisions; it's just not the intellectual structure best suited to the purpose of repair. After all, that's what it is functionally: should we remove any of its "parts," the thing would refuse to do what it was built for.

I made use of the denial of this analytical-imaginative procedure in Freedom's Scion:

    “The mechanism you see via this viewscreen,” Efthis said, “occupies most of the volume of this station. It generates a high-intensity muon flux that permeates the galactic disk for two hundred light-years around. It’s powered by our sun, it’s self-repairing, and it cannot be turned off. Alone of all the children of Earth, you have learned how to negate the effects of that flux and relax the so-called speed-of-light limitation. But since you passed within the cometary belt, the flux has been far too intense for your ship’s superluminal drive to countervail. Nor will it avail you to exit our system on your reaction drive alone, for the suppressor has already infiltrated and taken command of your drive. You will not achieve interstellar velocities again unless I permit it.”
    Althea gazed in silence at the huge, faintly humming machine that held her prisoner.
    I never thought I’d find a machine that’s an abomination, all by itself, just because of what it can do.
    She closed her eyes, set her viewpoint free of her body, and sped it into the vast machine.
    The thing was complex beyond Althea's understanding. It possessed hundreds of interlinked subsystems, only a few of which resembled anything she knew. She thought she could identify radiation sources and targets, direct-and-deflect conduits, baffles for stray emissions and sinks for excess heat. But far more assemblages were completely opaque to her comprehension. Some of them, though they appeared to be as unitary as gemstones, possessed internal structures of bewildering intricacy. She could not even be certain where any component began and ended. The whole hinted at properties of space-time and modes of matter-energy interaction beyond her attainments.

Althea could not find a component in the vast machine that she could be certain would disable the whole irremediably. To escape her captor, she had to reduce the entire station to molten slag -- which she did.

Anyone, including your humble blogmeister, who dares to comment on "what's wrong" with a nation, a society, a polity, or a culture must apply his analytical knife to it before he can even begin...but in this case, the thing being imaginatively disassembled for diagnostic operations might be even more gemlike than the evil machine of Freedom's Scion.

The "othering" tactic I spoke of here goes a step beyond the analytical knife spoken of in the above. It not only fractionates our society for its own purposes; it insists that others accept that fractionation willy-nilly. Indeed, if others refuse to accept it, it will have none of the desired sociopolitical effects. That's at the core of the power-seeker's vision of the nation: he must contrive to impose his Us versus Them landscape not only on his followers but also on all the rest of America.

This is only feasible when those in "Us" are easily identified by some generally perceptible characteristic: gender, skin color, distinctive dress or habits; unusual wealth or poverty; or the like. For a counterexample, imagine trying to promote left-handers as an "Us" group. How would we tell them from the rest, except under special circumstances and under close examination?

That points to a potential vulnerability in such groupings: the existence of margins along which the differentiating characteristic becomes questionable. How poor is poor enough to mark a man as one of "the poor?" No matter where such a boundary is set, it will be arbitrary and open to dispute, which opens the significance of the "Us" group to attack. Charles Murray made a point of this in Losing Ground, his discussion of American welfare policies. The more aggressive power-seekers will attempt to exploit that vulnerability to expand the "Us" group, though that approach carries hazards of its own.

Analysts disinclined toward power are equally encumbered by this aspect of the matter. When we look critically at American society or culture, we strain to see its "components," in the hope that isolating and manipulating some of them (or the incentives that apply to them) will correct some deficiency of interest. Our boundaries are as arbitrary as those of the power-seekers, and as open to dispute. Yet social analysis practically compels us to an approach of this sort.

This Roger Kimball essay at The New Criterion provides some very toothsome food for thought. I was particularly struck by Kimball's dissent from a key aspect of World War I historiography:

It is often said that the primary existential or spiritual effect of the war was disillusionment. Barbara Tuchman, for example, notes in one of her classic studies of the Great War that the war had many results but that the dominant one was “disillusion.” She quotes D. H. Lawrence, who observed that “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation.” Honor, Nobility, Valor, Patriotism, Sacrifice, Beauty: Who could still take such abstractions seriously after the wholesale slaughter of the war?....

Second, on the matter of culture, it is worth noting that most of the primary innovations in form and sensibility that we associate with that spirit of disillusionment predated the war. Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, ushering in decades of ugliness and assaults on the human form. We haven’t recovered yet. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, with its gleeful “smear of madness” and its giddy “war-is-beautiful” apotheosis of speed, technology, and violence, appeared in 1909. “We want no part of it, the past,” he shouted, giving voice to an entire movement that was sick and tired of bourgeois stability. Stravinsky’s primitivist extravaganza, Le Sacre du Printemps—he had thought of calling it “The Victim”—was first performed in Paris to Diaghilev’s carefully staged pseudo-riots in 1913.

There was a fair amount of posturing involved all around. Recalling Roger Fry’s exhibition of some post-Impressionist paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery, Virginia Woolf famously said that “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” That made the punters sit up and take notice. Was it true? It would be impolite to ask.

If there was a shift in artistic sensibility because of the war, I suspect that it had more to do with mood, with the quantum of braggadocio involved, than any formal innovation. Picasso, Marinetti, and early Stravinsky were brash gatecrashers. After the war the brashness evaporated, the energy turned rancid. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T. S. Eliot wrote at the end of The Waste Land, a poem whose title and suspended splinters of a shattered civilization seemed to epitomize the somber flirtation with nihilism, impotence, and polysyllabic despair that the Great War left in its wake.

Kimball's data points don't completely undo Tuchman's "disillusion" thesis. They do, however, anchor the germs of European cultural decay before the war, making it seem less generative and more of an amplifying force. Is it possible that the same is true of the cultural influences that correlate with the ongoing disintegration of American society -- that rather than being relatively new "components," attributable to malign forces currently in our sights, they go back decades further and originated in the minds of persons to whom we of today give little thought?

I do have a target in mind. I've just been circling it in my usual manner.

American participation in World War I might well have been the worst mistake our political class has ever made. It was a slogan of Woodrow Wilson's re-election campaign that "he kept us out of war." Though that was superficially true, American engagement with Britain, in the provision of essential supplies for Britain's war effort, significantly predated our official entry into the flying-lead party. Wilson and his key advisor, Colonel Edward House, were determined that the United States involve itself deeply in the affairs of the Old World. For House, it was probably a purely practical matter. For Wilson, animated by Presbyterian convictions about predestination and a personal conviction of moral superiority, it was about God's will and Europe's need for "moral guidance."

After the war and the peace negotiations were past, there arose a seemingly new force in American politics: the American collectivist. The American Communist Party, Norman Thomas's Socialist Party, and other, less well defined forces such as the IWW, strove mightily to pull America's "Overton Window" sharply to the left. Indeed, they succeeded to such a degree that Milton Friedman himself deemed the most successful political force of the Twentieth Century to have been the Socialist Party.

Yet these were not the progenitors of American collectivism. That goes back decades further: to the Benthamite utilitarians; to Edward Bellamy and Looking Backward; and to John Stuart Mill and his essays "On Liberty" and "On Socialism." The essential authoritarian-collectivist thesis was taken up by the organized forces of post-Great-War America; they did not originate them.

The core ideas that united those progenitors and their propositions were simple and stunning:

  • That the proper end of politics is "the greatest good for the greatest number;"
  • That this can only be achieved by centralizing essentially all human enterprise and centrally apportioning its benefits;
  • Therefore, that such centralization is morally mandatory;
  • Furthermore, individuals, who act to to maximize their own good rather than that of "the greatest number," cannot be trusted with freedom;
  • Therefore, individuals must be controlled to bring about that end.
  • That there exists in any society a "wise minority" intellectually and morally qualified to do so, which should be trusted with all the necessary authority to do it.

In other words, those proto-Progressives posited superior intellectual and moral qualities for themselves, that others don't share and are not capable of appreciating. Their later inheritors perpetuated that postulate without explicitly saying it...and they continue to do so to this day.

We have reached the pinnacle of "othering:" the level at which the "otherer" arrogates to himself the privilege of wielding force to compel others to bend to his will and his standards. That we tolerate the existence of such a level of privileges is in direct contradiction to the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the elaborate protections for individual liberty embedded in the Constitution. Yet it is upon us today.

Lesser "otherers" seek admission to that level. As is usually the case with such persons, it's either the thing they want most or the only thing they want. They view all of society as Orwell described it:

Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world: the High, the Middle, and the Low.... The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High.

To become the High -- the power wielders -- is their ultimate aim. The justification for outsiders' consumption is the presumed status of "intellectual and moral superiority" that they claim qualifies them to wield unbounded power. But "morally superior" in a power-wielding context implies exemption from the moral limits that bind others. It's a species of moral difference.

"Morally different" is synonymous with evil.

Unfortunately, the practical value of the above is slightly obscured by its abstract nature. It arises from the age of the core ideas. Here in the United States they're more than a century old; beyond these shores their roots reach to the beginnings of recorded history, when rulers were held to have been chosen by the gods -- or by God.

With all the fear of Islamic terrorism and of the creeping advance of shari'a over the West, let us not forget that that set of Seventh Century horrors is premised on the very same ideas as the actions of our domestic power-mongers. ISIS and American "progressives" both regard themselves as morally superior to you. And you cannot reason them out of their positions.

Therein lies the full significance of the movement for individual liberty. Its assertion of freedom as the natural right of every individual, fixed in the laws of the universe, compels us to deny the power-mongers' presumptions. It also implies what we must do to secure that right:

"We are not seeking power. We are seeking the end of power!" -- Ursula Leguin, the Dispossessed.


Boon Vickerson is out there said...

To be or not to be, free that is, is not only the question, but the defining boundaries, or lack of them, of the day.
It is mind blowingly profound, that just little ol' me, with my rifle, my will, my determination, my perseverance, my self determination, I am a source of power a tyrant, progressive, mandarin, what have you, can only imagine.
For, and for such self appointed intelligentsia, they are not very smart or enlightened. They kind of miss the whole point. Liberty that is. They don't even understand it, they can't, they are part of a hive. To them liberty is something that must be controlled, meddled with and molded into the hives equation of perfection.
Liberty to them is dirty chaos, it is barbarian, fit only for the unclean and even then a pandemic that must be eradicated by all and every means.
All that is left for men of liberty is to make their own 5000 year leap, jump the breathtaking chasm between being left alone, and killing the bastards.
Big leap there.
Because this is where it all is heading. Killing time. We are seeing the first true but tentative ventures into that inevitable realm of tyrants and their tyranny once they grow their power beyond a certain point and their hubris is like the ring of power, it rules them unto all else.
Me I suspect two motivating undercurrents, driving forces at this juncture of great effect, one is frustration in failure to rule with impunity after decades of agenda, and second, guns in the hands of freemen.

neal said...

Modern Art, a creation of Intelligence Agencies.
In that world, information is fungible. Truth gets buried, simulations get traded.

No Absolutes. Goes back a long way. Working for the Lie seems to be a good trade for the Truth, in that world.

The Flood, the Second Coming. Now that is some blowback, and judgement. Those Agents must know from what is being done that they cannot trade the buried Truth with the Source.

I tried to tell them, a few times. Lost everything that does not matter, in the process. Good trade.

Sandy Beach said...

Dear Fran,
pretty serious shit here, if you haven't, you may want to read this. The thought police are using SciFi writers as beta subjects.


Reg T said...

The one notion that too many of us have yet to internalize is your statement: "And you cannot reason them out of their positions."

Until a sufficient number of us have accepted that fact, we will remain essentially powerless.

Good work, Fran.