Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A River Runs Through the Aliens

And the flood shall set you free... Reading this editorial over at Pajamas Media (which I'm not a fan of, by the way -- I moniter PJ only as a barometer) I was struck by how poorly and with such lack of insight the author (someone named Barry Rubin) attempted to illuminate us with a metaphor based on a story by Philip K. Dick:
Now, tell me if you think Dick predicted his future, our present. Here’s the plot: The aliens on Ganymede want to invade and conquer the Earth. They have a clever plan for softening up the target. The main character, an Earth Customs Service investigator, is called in for an important assignment.Ganymede... wants to export three toys to earth. of them — they don’t know which — is a deadly weapon. But Earth people are crazy for Ganymede novelties...
Yes, indeed. Those novelties. I have to condense -- in his enthusiasm for space aliens, the author breaks loose his tether and drifts out of orbit.  But his point is
One toy is a virtual reality set — pretty clever of Dick to imagine that in 1959 — so that a child can wear goggles and equipment to believe, for example, that he’s a cowboy. The second toy is a set of toy soldiers and a castle... The final toy is a board game, like Monopoly.  ...the game has become a best-seller. The problem is that the way to win the game is by going bankrupt. The worse the trades you make, the better you do in the game. ...Ganymede is planning to bankrupt the Earth through indoctrination and easily take it over.
You get it.  The river here is neither wide nor deep, and runs somewhere through the asteroid belt.  But  Rubin drinks deeply while taking a meteor shower and draws this conclusion:
So the moral is that the ultimate threat is not military — the toy soldiers — but ideological.
This is what is known as the fallacy of post hoc, ergo, propter hiccup.  Or perhaps an example of sitting a monkey at a typewriter to pound out Les Miserable -- the statement is true, even if the reasoning is founded on one crucial step in our evolutionary development -- Piltdown Man.
How does this story parallel the contemporary West’s situation? Do you have to ask? Because Americans and Europeans are being indoctrinated to think that the weaker, less religious and patriotic, more deeply in debt, and wallowing in guilt their societies are, the better. The first one to go bankrupt — in every sense of the word — wins.
Inquiring minds do have to ask--if you can deduce the missing link between his major premise and his conclusion, you're better than me.

There are certainly much more prescient books if one wants to ruminate on the ideological causes of our decline.  AKA, Atlas Shrugged. And if you want the post-apocalyptic version, Anthem.

But the more important point that Rubin almost touched on was Ayn Rand's view that philosophy -- the ideas men embrace about reality, intellectuality and morality -- is the prime mover of history. This is what made her books such accurate predictors of our future. Surprisingly, I've found far too many of her own admirers who don't grasp this.

But let's keep this lighter for a moment. If you want a science fiction story that more presciently predicts our decline, don't go to P.K. Dick -- go to E.M. Forster, and read The Machine Stops, about a civilization that has buried itself underground, where no one ever leaves their rooms, and they all spend every waking minute watching viewing screens that they use for all communication and information.

Remarkably, The Machine Stops was written in 1909. It could have been written in 2011.

I've commented on it in a distant post, not because it's a great story, but because it's relevant, so let's re-visit.  It is a story about a civilization completely out of touch with reality -- until the machine stops. The machine that keeps them alive. Everyone. The machine that powers their viewing screens, provides all light and heat and comfort and entertainment. (If you live in Chicago you may get this point very well, but then, we're all Chicagoans now.)

In this story, people do occasionally come up for air to travel on high-speed "air-ships", but mostly they fear the light on the surface, and largely they are a people out of touch with reality, counting on the machine to just keep chugging along and providing them the necessities of life. And when it doesn't -- civilization collapses.
...They wept for humanity, those two, not for themselves. They could not bear that this should be the end. Ere silence was completed their hearts were opened, and they knew what had been important on the Earth. Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven...

"Is there any hope, Kuno?"

"None for us."

"Where are you?"

She crawled over the bodies of the dead. His blood spurted over her hands.

"Quicker," he gasped, "I am dying - but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine."

"...But Kuno, is it true? Are there still men on the surface of the Earth?  Is this - tunnel, this poisoned darkness - really not the end?"

"Never," said Kuno, "never.  Humanity has learnt its lesson."

As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An air-ship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.
I won't trouble you too much with the metaphors here, but if you can't figure it out, you'd better, because the solution isn't to hide underground and escape reality with more unreality. The "garments we've woven" are the ideas we've come to worship as a culture which are destroying us -- post-modernism, socialism, communism, statism, fascism, unbridled democracy, un-principled pragmatism, subjectivism, dogmatic skepticism, fanatical religious mysticism, obscurantist anti-technological environmentalism, unlimited "tolerance" of any openly irrational notion -- you fill in the blanks, there's plenty of examples in all our universities and churches and government offices, and even in our boardrooms.

But above all we have become a culture that worships the idea of sacrifice--of everything good to everything evil, especially reason and the individual in the name of faith and the Collective--on the altars of tradition, compromise, novelty, nihilism and unbridled emotionalism.

The solution isn't more sacrifice. The solution is to value (the antithesis of sacrifice) the ideas that built our civilization--reason, individual rights, facts, principles, absolute truths, and intellectual honesty in all things.

Forster's story is far from perfect, and you can always twist metaphors to fit your purpose--but you'd better not. Ideas are the prime movers of history, if you only take the time to look a little deeper than the last war, the latest election results, or the river bottoms of the New York Times and the Drudge Report.

1 comment:

  1. I read Rubin’s piece too on PJ, and my first thought was, when I finished it, was: Here’s a guy who thinks that saving civilization is a matter of humbling oneself, doing the Kantian “right thing,” being selfless, and working for those “higher ideals” that (purportedly) sustain civilized life. I think the “missing link” in Rubin’s religious Neoconservatism. Neoconservatives and conservatives alike – Malkin, Limbaugh, Coulter, Horowitz, the whole outraged and sadly often to-the-point gang, which fools or sidelines a lot of people – argue for values that are actually necessary for civilized life, but keep making stupendous leaps from those to the ethereal Platonic forms or other “otherless” forms.
    When you boil a conservative in the same pot with a leftist-liberal-Marxist, you wind up with the same indistinguishable sludge: one part altruism and one part collectivism, with a teeny residue of “service” running through it like barber pole stripes. I don’t think you’d get anything much different by boiling a liberal and a neocon together, either. It is also important and profitable to keep in mind that the most notorious conservatives – the Republicans – made their pact with the Progressive devil long ago before WWI, when they patronized the Progressives by saying, “on principle”: Me, Too! I’m all for better working conditions in the slaughter houses and railroads and sweatshops and for guaranteed pensions and education open to all comers, etc., but not to such “extremes”!

    So, yes, ideas have consequences, but some of our politicians deny that truism while others know damned well that they’re the heirs and beneficiaries of percolating ideas that were implanted in the culture one and a half centuries ago and never critically challenged and refuted until some Russian émigré escaped to our shores and set the record straight for all time. They also know that they’re the end of the line. And the end of the line is a precipice overlooking a straight drop to hell. Call it “A Streetcar Named Suicide.” And they want to take all of us with them.



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