The Long View 2008-03-13: Mamet & Hobbes; Decanting the Future; Basic Plots; Burleigh's Trilogy; Enceladus or Bust


John J. Reilly wrote some fascinating science fiction about gas giant moons, but it is rather unlikely that we would find life there, as there is very little energy available, even if there is liquid water and suitable chemicals.

I like that story more for the Toynbee-style macrohistory.

Mamet & Hobbes; Decanting the Future; Basic Plots; Burleigh's Trilogy; Enceladus or Bust

The eminent playwright David Mamet explained recently (in The Village Voice, no less) Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal.' There he explains:

I'd observed that lust, greed, envy, sloth, and their pals are giving the world a good run for its money, but that nonetheless, people in general seem to get from day to day; and that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances–that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired–in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.

For the Constitution, rather than suggesting that all behave in a godlike manner, recognizes that, to the contrary, people are swine and will take any opportunity to subvert any agreement in order to pursue what they consider to be their proper interests.

I would qualify this by noting that the Constitution does not assume total human depravity. That was Hobbes's view, the logical result of which is absolute monarchy. (The idea is that, yes, a tyrannical monarch can make a nuisance of himself, but at least there is only one of him.) The Constitution is predicated on Locke's view that people are sort of okay, if you don't expect too much.

I recognized that I held those two views of America (politics, government, corporations, the military). One was of a state where everything was magically wrong and must be immediately corrected at any cost; and the other–the world in which I actually functioned day to day–was made up of people, most of whom were reasonably trying to maximize their comfort by getting along with each other (in the workplace, the marketplace, the jury room, on the freeway, even at the school-board meeting).

And I realized that the time had come for me to avow my participation in that America in which I chose to live, and that that country was not a schoolroom teaching values, but a marketplace.

Okay, but we should note that the country is not just a marketplace. This gets us back to Hobbes and Locke. Hobbes thought Leviathan necessary because he thought the political behavior of people was impervious to education. Locke, in contrast, thought that it was possible for societies to learn from experience, so that a political culture of negotiation and restraint could evolve that would make Leviathan unnecessary.

To paraphrase Hocking, the state assumes a morale that it cannot create. The preservation of that morale, however, cannot be a matter of public indifference.

* * *

Reader's will recall Kathryn Joyce's stunning expose' of the international pro-natalist conspiracy, Missing: The "Right" Babies, which appeared in The Nation a few weeks ago. My own comments on the piece are here. Now, however, comes the chief conspirator, Steven W. Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, who has the temerity to attempt to defend himself in First Things. In effect, we get the initial briefing he gave her that she spent several thousand words in her article conscientiously not repeating. Again, it seems to me that all demographic projections are finger-play shadow animals projected onto a wall. However, the anti-natalist campaign that became a nearly global public policy a little after the middle of the 20th century was based on no better numbers than Steven Mosher's. Certainly it is time to turn the campaign machinery off.

No doubt I have said this before, but let me repeat: there is an answer to the pro-natalists, even accepting their own assumptions. You can have Brave New World, provided you have the whole nine yards, which includes artificial reproduction. The penny has not dropped on this for the Planned Parenthood types yet. Do not expect, though, that they will all die out before it does.

* * *

"Controlling the Narrative" is a term we often hear in a political context, where it means something like "articulating a biography for your candidate with a storyline that would make the candidate's election a really good ending." Narrative is important in many other areas of life and thought. The I Ching is essentially an aid to figuring out what story you are in. That is as close as you can come to foreseeing the future. So, readers may be interested in this handy summary of the eight (or nine) Basic Plots, plus the 36 Dramatic Situations.

At some point, if you are interested in these questions, you will also have to read Northrop Frye. There's no helping it. Sorry.

* * *

Speaking of well-worn tales, readers of the book reviews on my site will have noted a very long review of Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers, which deals with the emergence of political religions in the 19th century. Now comes Daniel J. Mahoney, professor of political science at Assumption College in Massachusetts, with an even longer review that covers not just Earthly Powers, but also Burleigh's The Third Reich: A New History (2000) and his Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror (2007). At the end of the review, we get this summary of what the trilogy, and modernity itself, are all about:

In Michael Burleigh the political religions have found a historian who resists the "demoralization" of the age, the tendency to write history as if moral evaluation and the imperatives of conscience do not matter. His work is a powerful challenge to the "antifascist" vulgate which confuses authority with authoritarianism, and which downplays the essential affinities between totalitarianism of the Left and the Right..... A democratic civilization that has truly absorbed this lesson [that men are not gods] will have already begun the ascent from the most problematic assumptions of theoretical modernity.

Actually, I think what we really need is a coherent restatement of progress in light of Matthew 13: 24 - 29, but what do I know?

* * *

Speaking of liminal if not quite eschatological projects, the Cassini spacecraft is still at work in the neighborhood of Saturn, and yesterday it flew by Enceladus. Indeed, it flew through the ice-crystal plumes whose discovery has put Enceladus on the "must see" list for would-be exobiologists in search of a subject:

Cassini's cameras will take a back seat on this flyby as the main focus turns to the spacecraft's particle analyzers that will study the composition of the plumes. The cameras will image Enceladus on the way in and out, between the observations of the particle analyzers.

Images will reveal northern regions of the moon previously not captured by Cassini. The analyzers will "sniff and taste" the plume. Information on the density, size, composition and speed of the gas and the particles will be collected.

"There are two types of particles coming from Enceladus, one pure water-ice, the other water-ice mixed with other stuff," said Sascha Kempf, deputy principal investigator for Cassini's Cosmic Dust Analyzer at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany.

It's the "other stuff" that excites the most interest.

Here's a question: if positive signs of biology were discovered on Mars (and they yet may be), there would be a land-rush to get there, both with manned and robotic explorers. But what if that nosy Cassini finds that Enceladus is packed with thermophilic microorganisms? There would be much scientific interest, but much less call to adventure.

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