[Paleopsych] Gregory Benford & Michael Rose: The Old Future

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Gregory Benford & Michael Rose: The Old Future

[Joel Garreau's new book, _Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of 
Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies--and What It Means to be Human_ (NY: 
Doubleday, 2005) has just arrived. I am signed up to review it for _The 
Journal of Evolution and Technology_ and commenced reading it at once. 
Accordingly, I have stopped grabbing articles to forward until I have 
written my review *and* have caught up on my reading, this last going on 
for how many ever weeks it takes. I have a backlog of articles to send and 
will exhaust them by the end of the year. After that, I have a big batch 
of journal articles I downloaded on my annual visit to the University of 
Virginia and will dole our conversions from PDF to TXT at the rate of one 
a day. I'll also participate in discussions and do up and occasional 
meme. But you'll be on your own in analyzing the news. I hope I have given 
you some of the tools to do so.]

    The Old Future

    No, our time is not the end of history, just the end of old illusions
    about our journey through history. What we had thought of as our
    future did not arrive with the dawn of a new millennium. Whether
    religious, ideological, or merely pragmatic, all the old systems of
    futurist thought have become irrelevant, disposable, confusing more
    than helpful, Procrustean more than enlightening.

    Some have reacted with vicious negation to this loss of illusion, from
    Islamic radicals to Biblical fundamentalists to neo-Marxist academics.
    For such people, clinging to a fossilized set of beliefs is crucial to
    their psychological health.

    We can feel sorry for them, while fending off their assaults on our
    cities, our universities, and our culture with a steadfastness that
    should grow more obdurate as the obvious futility of their cause
    becomes clear. They are the cultural dinosaurs of our time, still
    destructive in their death throes, but as irrelevant to our future as
    Jove was in the early centuries of the first millennium A.D. Islamic
    radicals will be killing people by the thousands well into the 21st
    century. Our new future is too much for them.

    In OECD countries, most people have simply given up on ideology. They
    are bombarded with the fading rhetoric of the media, the edicts of
    bureaucrats, the spittle of Texas preachers, and the fulminations of
    antique radicals from Ralph Nader to Noam Chomsky. College students
    swim in the fetid sewage of political correctness during the day, but
    at night they will dance to misogynist hip-hop, play gratuitously
    violent video games, and get ripped on alcohol or drugs before
    fumbling toward ill-considered sex. They party to forget the day.

    Given the confusions and irrelevance of their professors, it is hard
    to criticize their opportunistic alternation between careerism and
    hedonism. Their parents have generally given up on all but the small
    satisfactions of middle-age, having lost the hormonal surges of youth
    and the need or ability to prove themselves in new careers. Their
    world is adrift.

    It wasn't supposed to be like this, "In the future," as we always used
    to say. In the future, we would all wear the same clothes and have
    some mythic figure to lead us, whether benign or malign, a new Gandhi
    or another Big Brother. The future, as imagined from 1848 to 1989, was
    supposed to be some kind of collective transcendence.

    The paragon of the collectivist vision was the brief Khmer Rouge rule
    of Cambodia from 1975 to 1980. In that brief spasm, Rousseau, Thoreau,
    and Marx received their ultimate homage in the creation of a society
    that lacked almost any trace of freedom, civilization, or humanity.
    The Khmer Rouge suppressed education, destroyed medical care,
    demolished transportation infrastructure, and banished currency.
    Instead, they sent everyone to countryside collectives to lead lives
    uncorrupted by capitalism-- lives of starvation, indoctrination,
    malaria, torture, and dysentery. Everyone who could have contributed
    medical or technological expertise they killed outright.

    All to escape modernity, to escape from freedom. Soviet-style
    communism was thin gruel compared to this grand celebration of the
    pernicious ideologies that descended from Rousseau and Marx. So it was
    natural that another scorpion in the bottle of post-American southeast
    Asia, Vietnam, destroyed the Khmer Rouge. The Maoist killers of
    Cambodia were too perfect to last. As the French intellectuals
    (particularly Sartre) announced in 1975, the revolution supplied by
    the Khmer Rouge was the purest of all communist revolutions.

    The moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Left is now complete.
    Only university faculty in Europe or the United States have the
    fatuity to believe in that ideological nightmare.

    While for many on the Right this collapse seems to make way for the
    triumph of the God-fearing faithful, their collective vision too is
    but an ugly echo of history. The most successful theocracy of modern
    times is that of Iran, where the mullahs wield ultimate power. There
    we have religious thought-police and dress codes. Yet the younger
    people, some of them now in middle-age, lead lives of sexual
    promiscuity and drug abuse. Once the great mass of the Iranian people
    was delighted with their religious leaders. Certainly they were in
    1980. Now they are mostly weary and cynical.

    The only thing that keeps the Religious Right in the United States
    from the same fate is the fact that they don't get to run the country
    in quite the manner that they want, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, and
    the Patriot Act notwithstanding. We can all thank James Madison's
    Constitution for that.

    Ironically, even science fiction perpetuated the old myth of the
    future, the utopian vision. From Ursula K. LeGuin's anarchist fantasy
    in The Dispossessed to Aldous Huxley's dystopian Brave New World, the
    future of science fiction often involved collectives of one kind or
    another. There might be a few renegades bravely fighting against the
    collective machinery of society, but that collective machinery was
    usually there. The shadows of Rousseau, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, and Mao
    have been too long, blocking out the vision even of the writers who
    were professional visionaries.

    Cracks in the Edifice

    No matter how many people the revolutionaries of the Left or the Right
    kill, no matter how mightily the politically-correct universities and
    publishers suppress the news about the new world being born, the Old
    Future is dead.

    Life at the start of the 21st Century is messy. People want the
    freedom to consume what they like, to sell their services at the
    highest price they can get, to say what they like in private, and to
    brandish their opinions on the internet. Regardless of the
    fascinations and fashions of religious fanatics, academics,
    journalists, or commercial writers, the lives of ordinary people have
    pursued similar goals throughout history. Most people want a happy
    family life, material comfort, and the opportunity to do what they

    These goals often conflict, most obviously for the indulged youth of
    the West and the Middle East For them, choice and its conflicts often
    confuse. In turn this provokes the comforting abdication of freedom
    that political or religious zealotry provides. It feels so good to
    stop thinking, choosing, deciding!

    Notably, alienated youth often become pragmatic parents and retirees.
    An exception is university faculty--among the most temperamentally
    youthful, not to say petulant and self-indulgent, of the middle-aged.

    None of the pragmatism of the 'silent majority' should be confused
    with virtue, civic or otherwise. The heroic and the altruistic appear
    in large human populations, but they are exceptional. For every
    gentile who harbored Jews at the peak of the Third Reich, there were
    hundreds and thousands who did not. Many disapproved of Hitler's
    holocaust, but were unwilling to risk their lives, families, or
    position to save even a few of the millions destined for
    extermination. We do not wish to idealize everyday pragmatism; it can
    be frighteningly callous.

    But fierce ideologies and intemperate faiths do not purchase the
    loyalty of the great mass for very long. Perhaps the most obvious sign
    of the decay of ideology is that most people are now tired of it. They
    only want peace, affluence, and fun.

    While Marxism is still the state religion of the People's Republic of
    China, just as Shiite Islam is the monolithic doctrine of
    revolutionary Iran, the Shanghai appartchiks and Tehran mullahs are
    cutting deals on the side. Not only do most Chinese and Iranians just
    want to be better off, the cynicism of their rulers is also palpable.

    Only North Korea remains as a monumental Inferno of ideology. If it
    weren't for the risks inherent in its acquisition of atomic weapons
    and the vast suffering of its victims, it might be worth preserving it
    as a museum exhibit of the follies of collectivism. Not the least of
    its charms lies in its conversion to monarchical despotism, with the
    son of the previous ruler inheriting absolute power.

    Journalists deplore the corrupt leaders of such regimes, missing the
    point that corruption is one of the most positive features of such
    societies. Violation of rigid ideals can mitigate the intimidation of
    the absolute state. The Khmer people of Cambodia knew that their
    rulers had feet of clay when the Khmer Rouge elite started to wear
    Rolex watches and fine silk scarves along with their revolutionary
    black garb. At that point, the fall of the Khmer Rouge from power was
    only months away.

    But now these small cracks have widened, bringing down (in the case of
    the Soviet Empire) or radically compromising (in the case of the PRC)
    most of the significant collectivist regimes. The sullen demeanor of
    ideologues, East and West, is now palpable. Perhaps the only
    substantial redoubt of insanely absolute faith is among Islamic

    Ironically, their tradition of assassination and religious bloodshed
    is entirely authentic, dating back before the Christian Crusades. The
    term assassin itself is Arab in it origins, alluding to crazed
    fanatics who purportedly used hashish to fuel their deadly work. [A
    dubious notion, given the pacifying effects of hashish, but
    inappropriate derivation is common in etymology.]

    Whether modern nation-states will have to continue killing these
    people, or educational reform will cause them to wither away, is not
    decidable at present. Islamic terrorists seem to aspire to become the
    most rabid vermin of modern civilization, so perhaps they deserve
    little more than extermination. In any case, they hardly have the
    cachet that communists and anarchists had on the Left Bank or in
    faculty clubs, where morally bankrupt intellectuals used to sing the
    praises of one or another collectivist monster in order to impress,
    and often to bed, the young and impressionable.

    The Countervailing Tradition

    There is a thoughtful tradition that has long opposed the powerful and
    the ideological. It is associated with Socrates, although it should be
    remembered that Socrates accepted the judgment of an intolerant
    Athens. Then his foremost student, Plato, only perpetuated Greek
    tendencies to absolutism. Aristotle, Plato's abandoned protégé, is
    perhaps a better candidate as a progenitor of the opposition to
    collectivism, though more in his generally empirical curiosity than
    his specific political proposals.

    George Orwell was the 20th Century's most generally accepted
    intellectual opponent of totalitarianism, particularly in 1984 and
    Animal Farm. Still, he harbored some collectivist ideas. After all,
    Orwell was a man of the Left, and fought alongside the communists and
    anarchists in the Spanish civil war.

    Our view is that the clearest, and historically most important,
    expression of this tradition came out of the Scottish Enlightenment:
    David Hume, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, among others. This tradition
    emphasizes indirect effects, the futility of government attempts to
    control markets and international trade, the value of enterprise, and
    the limits to the benign effects of concerted action.

    This tradition had its most visible success with James Madison's
    Constitution for the new American republic, the vastly successful
    state that replaced the loose confederation of colonies who started
    the American rebellion against the English Crown. Madison was perhaps
    the greatest practical student of the Scottish Enlightenment, and
    certainly the person who most effectively set about implementing its
    precepts. His design for the new state was one exquisitely, and indeed
    laboriously designed - see his Notes on the Constitutional Convention,
    contrived to prevent the imposition of domestic despotism on the
    American people. [Of course George Washington preeminently guaranteed
    the American freedom from external despotism, but that is another
    story.] The United States of America has since shown both the value
    and the limitations of political and economic freedom for modern
    civilization. It certainly produces economic creativity and debate,
    with the crass and the tawdry as perhaps inevitable accompaniments.

    In the 20th Century, the themes of the Scottish Enlightenment were
    taken up again by such figures as Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper,
    and Michael Oakeshott, some of the most reviled authors in late 20th
    Century British and American universities. Their books, such as The
    Road to Serfdom, The Open Society and Its Enemies, and Rationalism in
    Politics, respectively, are among the foundation stones of an
    alternative tradition within the humanities and social sciences. Of
    course this tradition enjoys the marked hostility of the dominant
    traditions of contemporary critical theory, structuralism,
    deconstructionism, and the other nihilistic systems of thought in
    modern Western universities and colleges. For this reason, the very
    names of these titanic figures are often known among young people as
    little more than targets for passing abuse. Their names serve to wind
    up their professors in the advanced seminars that these pillars of
    mediocrity give to their benighted acolytes.

    In the natural sciences and related fields the thinking of Aristotle,
    Hume, and Popper has enjoyed the greatest influence. Indeed, one might
    point to the entire edifice of modern technology as the fruition of
    this tradition of thought. Its empiricism and cautious speculation
    provide the cultural matrix for much of Western science. Charles
    Darwin, for example, can be seen as a child of this tradition, and
    indeed much of his thinking is an overt use (in his use of Malthus) or
    implicit appropriation (employing Hume's careful materialistic
    reasoning, for example) of themes and methods from the Scottish

    From Darwin, 20th Century biology derived almost all of its
    intellectually cogent framework, which then enabled Anglo-American,
    reductionist, molecular and cell biologists to pursue the details of
    biological mechanism untrammeled by religious, idealist, or Hegelian

    What are we about here?

    We wish to recruit new adherents. Our agenda is simply the view that
    solutions to political and cultural difficulties can be found in the
    deliberate cultivation of the empirical, individualistic, skeptical
    Western tradition.

    Put another way: We wish to drive a stake through the heart of the
    dominant cultural traditions of piety, correctness, ideology, and
    faith. Then we would like to dance on their graves.

    Western civilization used to be palpably great. Now it is too often
    mediocre, with enclaves of greatness: the military, the computer
    business, and scientific research. We're sure that you have your
    favorites. But it is more notable that we have been failing regularly
    in areas we used to dominate: spying, making cars, education, economic
    growth--pick your debacle.

    We want the West to have another resurgence of greatness, to be seen
    once again as the standard against which all other societies can be
    judged. We make no apology for ethnocentrism: "the West" is a cultural
    ideal, not a form of genetic differentiation.

    The cellist Yo-yo Ma is a paragon of Western civilization as much as
    Mikhail Rostropovich, the great Japanese geneticist Motoo Kimura as
    much as Gregor Mendel. And by this standard, Adolf Hitler chose to be
    as much an enemy of the West as Cambodia's Pol Pot did.

    "The West" is an idea, a cultural tradition, an aspiration. It has
    survived through good and bad times since Periclean Athens. It has
    been the best hope for the entire species in our known history.

    Let us hope that we do not lose it as we stumble out of the dark
    charnel house that was the 20th Century, into the light of our new
    future. For we have a great future, if we will but seize it.

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