The Long View 2004-10-18: Alternative Realities

This bit here about whichever party in the US happens to be out of power pretends that the party that won the last election is doomed and and mired in corruption and scandal has been the pattern since at least 1992. Since politicians often are involved and scandal and corruption, it does have a way of partially coming true every so often.

Alternative Realities

The New York Times endorsed Senator Kerry for president yesterday, and ran some revealing hit-pieces to celebrate the event. The most amusing, though not perhaps for the reasons he intended, was film reviewer Frank Rich's essay, Will We Need a New 'All the President's Men'? The title explains the thesis. Having taken on board the possibility that, through some defect of the electoral system, George Bush might get a second term, Rich has chosen the Nixon Administration as the paradigm for the future. The Left was quite as adamant about denying the legitimacy of the Nixon Administration as the Right was about denying the legitimacy of Clinton's. The difference was that the Left got their man, and the pattern has become an archetype: meta-scandal, not so much about malfeasance as about denying the malfeasance; resignation; a lost war. To a certain kind of mind, the drill is perfectly clear, and we will be hearing much more about it in the coming months and years.

As for a remake of the wonderful old Robert Redford -- Dustin Hoffman film, however, I fear that Rich will be disappointed. He might be better advised to get a digital version of the film and redub parts of it with dialogue that fit his current antipathies. I am still waiting for someone to do that with Fahrenheit 911.

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An altogether creepier offering from the Times was in the Sunday Magazine. In a longish story entitled Without a Doubt, Ron Suskind contrived to present President Bush's religious beliefs as a delusion that drives all his policies:

''Just in the past few months,'' Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . .

Actually, as nasty propaganda lines go, this one is probably not as repugnant as the "lunatic in the White House" campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964, which recruited practicing psychologists to publicly diagnose Goldwater as clinically insane. But note the shriveling of the audience: clinical psychology is public and, at least in principle, can provide the terms of an argument open to everyone, whereas the percentage of the population that regards evangelical Christianity as a damning association for a public figure probably is not much greater than the readership of the Times. This is more futile than preaching to the choir; publications like the Times are now reduced to preaching to choir directors.

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On a somewhat different note: over the weekend, I viewed the film, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Talk about high concept. Anyone can film a story that, like Groundhog Day, involves an ever-repeating sequence of events. This story manages to embrace Nietzsche's Eternal Return.

For those whose undergraduate memories have been erased, recall that the Eternal Return was premised on a somewhat fishy cosmology, in which time is infinite, and all events repeat themselves an infinite number of times. Nietzsche proposed that we embrace the ineradicable past as a dramatic spectacle, including our blunders. That is pretty much what the characters in Eternal Sunshine do, when they realize that they have had their memories of each other clinically erased, and that they will just make the same mistakes with each other again.

The interesting thing is that they are not, like Nietzsche's ideal audience, despairing tyrants who wonder in old age whether they should have executed quite so many people. The characters live in unfashionable parts of Long Island, in cramped and shabby circumstances. I can't recall the last film that showed the rabbit-hutch dimensions of a typical modern medical clinic. There could be no greater irony than if a philosophy intended for supermen became a fashion in popular psychology.

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Perhaps the opposite of the Eternal Return is the notion that the past might be malleable. The series Star Trek: Enterprise used just such an Alternative History premise for its two-part season premier, Storm Front. In those episodes, the crew of Captain Archer's Enterprise are sent back in time to the 1940s, where they find the Nazis occupying New England and the Middle Atlantic states. The Nazis are being aided by marooned time-traveling aliens, who need the Nazis' help to build a machine to send them back to the 29th century.

Probably there are too many moving parts here. Space travel stories and time travel stories don't really mix, at least not in a continuing series of episodes, since the ability to control the past tends to overwhelm all other types of narrative causality. Be that as it may, what really annoyed me about Storm Front was that the point of divergence in the timeline was an assassination of Lenin in 1916. Because of this, we are told, Russia did not become Communist. Hitler therefor did not consider Russia a threat, and so he was able to concentrate on the West.

What do they teach in screenwriter school these days? Hitler did not invade the Soviet Union because he thought it was a threat. He invaded the Soviet Union because he believed it to be inherently weak, and he found that weakness provocative. We know this because he said so. He was also planning on a war with the United States, but that was to take place after the conquest of the East.

The strange thing about AH is that, sometimes, you can settle a question about an alternative timeline by using documentary evidence.

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With all this mendacity in the world, how are we to distinguish truth from falsehood? Perhaps soon we will be able to hire a ringer, if we believe this AP story by Randolph E. Schmid, 'Truth Wizards' Know Lie When They Hear It:

While most folks don't notice those flickers of falsehood, psychology professor Maureen O'Sullivan has found a few who can find the fibbers nearly every time.

Of 13,000 people tested for the ability to detect deception, "[psychology professor Maureen O'Sullivan of the University of San Francisco and her colleagues] found 31, who we call wizards, who are usually able to tell whether the person is lying, whether the lie is about an opinion, how someone is feeling or about a theft," she said... Asked whether the wizards could be used in real-life situations, she said that has been suggested but there are no formal programs to use them currently. And she cautioned that even the best of them is not 100 percent accurate.

In Frank Herbert's Dune, I did not mind the superluminal travel, or the prescience, and I positively warmed to the giant worms. The one thing that did strike me as implausible was the Truthsayers. Go figure.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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