[Paleopsych] Gregory Benford & Michael Rose: The Old Future
checker at panix.com
Thu Dec 29 02:37:54 UTC 2005
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
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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