Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Retrotopia: The View from Ottawa Hills

This is the twenty-third installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. On his last full day in the Lakeland Republic, our narrator pays a visit to industrial magnate Janice Mikkelson and gets a different perspective on the Republic and the lessons of its history...

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The next morning I was up early, and walked to Kaufer’s News while the sky was still that vague gray color that won’t tell you yet whether it’s clear or overcast. The Blade had done the smart thing and printed extra copies of the morning paper—the stack in the bin was almost as tall as I was—and I watched three other people buy copies as I walked up the street to the newsstand. The Lakeland Republic flag snapped in a brisk wind from the flagpole out in front of the Capitol, and lights already burned in the windows. The Republic’s government had a long day ahead of it, and so did I.

Back in the hotel, I settled down in a chair and spent a few minutes checking the news. Most of the front section was about the war down south, of course; both sides’ naval forces were still duking it out with long-range missiles, and the Confederate advance toward Dallas-Fort Worth had begun to slow as Texan forces reached the war zone and flung themselves into the struggle. The presidents of Missouri and New England and the prime ministers of East and West Canada and Quebec had joined Meeker in calling for an immediate ceasefire and a negotiated settlement of the dispute over the Gulf oil fields; back home, outgoing President Barfield and president-elect Montrose would be holding a joint press conference later that day to announce something of the same sort. That last story made my eyebrows go up. The Dem-Reps had been sore losers in a big way since their landslide defeat a few weeks back; if Barfield had loosened up enough to appear on a stage with his replacement, things might have shifted, and not in a bad way.

There was more—another attempt at a ceasefire in the Californian civil war, another report by an international panel on the worsening phosphate shortage, another recap of the satellite situation that ran through a roster of collisions, and estimated that the world had less than three months left before all satellite services in the midrange orbits were out of commission for the next dozen centuries or so—but I folded the paper after a glance at each of those and tossed it on the desk. I had a little over a day left to spend in the Lakeland Republic before catching the train back home, and part of that would be spent with Janice Mikkelson. In the meantime, I had decisions to make that would affect the lives of a lot of people I’d never meet.

You learn to get used to that if you’re in politics, but if you get too used to it you land in trouble really fast. Half the reason the Dem-Reps had been clobbered in our elections a few weeks back is that they’d gotten into the habit of thinking that the only people who mattered politically were the people who had the money and connections to show up at fundraisers and get their interests represented by lobbyists—and much more than half the reason why Montrose’s New Alliance swept the legislative races and put her into the presidency with the strongest mandate in a generation was that she’d had the sense to look past the lobbyists and fundraising dinners, and reach out to everyone whose interests had been ignored for the last thirty years. I’d played a certain part in that strategy, and the choices ahead of me might also play a certain part in determining whether Montrose’s victory would turn out to be a long-term gamechanger or a flash in the pan.

So I sat there in my room for what seemed like a very long time, listening to the faint clop-clop of horsedrawn taxis and the clatter-and-hum of electric streetcars on the street outside, sometimes paging through my notes, and sometimes staring at nothing in particular while following a train of thought right out to its end. Finally I happened to glance at the clock, and saw that I had just about enough time to grab something to eat for lunch before I caught a taxi for Ottawa Hills, where Mikkelson lived.

So I made sure I was presentable, headed downstairs to the hotel restaurant, and got soup, sandwich, and a cup of chicory coffee. Sam Capoferro was playing his usual lunch gig on the piano, and he gave me a nod and a grin when I came in and another one when I went out. Half an hour after leaving my room I was tucked into the cab of a two-wheel taxi, heading northwest from the Capitol district through  one mostly residential neighborhood after another. I’d gotten used to Lakeland habits by then, and so it didn’t surprise me that the houses looked sturdy and old-fashioned, with flower beds out front that would be blazing with colors come spring; that trees were everywhere; that there were little retail districts at intervals, close enough that people could walk to do most of their everyday shopping; that the schools didn’t look like prisons, the libraries didn’t look like prisons—in fact, I passed something I’m pretty sure was the county jail and even that didn’t look like a prison.

The houses got bigger as we went up out of the Maumee River valley into the hills beyond. None of the trees looked more than thirty years old—I recalled from some half-forgotten history vid that there was a major battle west of Toledo during the Second Civil War—and all the houses looked better than a century older than that, even though I knew they were all recent construction. Finally the taxi turned off a winding road onto a circular driveway, and brought me up to the door of a genuine mansion.

The place was the sort of big half-timbered pile that makes you think of ivy-covered English aristocrats and nineteenth-century New York robber baron industrialists. I gave it a slightly glazed look, then paid the cabby and went to the door, and I kid you not, it opened right as I got there. The doorman asked my name and business in the sort of utterly polite tone that sounds ever so slightly snotty, which amused me, and then handed me over to some other category of flunkey in formal wear, who took me up one of the grandest grand staircases I’ve ever seen, down a corridor lined with the kind of old-fashioned oil paintings that actually looked like something, and into a big windowed room with a grand piano near one wall, an assortment of tastefully overpriced furniture, and Janice Mikkelson.

We shook hands, she asked about my preferred drink, and then sent the flunkey off to get a couple of martinis while we walked over to the windows. Down below was a formal garden, with a crew of gardeners doing whatever it is that gardeners do in late November; further off were the roofs of other houses not quite as fancy as the one I was in; further still was the Toledo city skyline, with the half-finished Capitol dome rising up over everything else, the bridges over the river beyond that, and green and brown landscape stretching off to the east.

“Quite a place,” I said.

She chuckled. “Thank you. I try to set an example.”

I gave her a startled look, but just then the flunkey came back in with the martinis. Mikkelson thanked him, which was another surprise, and then we took our drinks and waited while he vanished.

“I’d like to talk business first, if you don’t mind,” she said then. I’m not in the habit of arguing with the very rich, and so I agreed and we spent half an hour discussing the prospects of selling Mikkelson locomotives, rolling stock, and streetcar systems to the Atlantic Republic.

“I’ve got one requirement,” she said, emphasizing the number with a sharp gesture. “If other transport modes get a subsidy, rail and streetcars get an equal subsidy. If rail and streetcars don’t get subsidized, neither does anything else. Are you at all familiar with the way they handled funding for different transport modes back in the old Union?”
“Not to speak of,” I admitted.

“Roads, highways and airports got huge subsidies from federal, state, and local governments, and so did car and airplane manufacturers. Rail? Pennies on the hundred-dollar bill, and then the politicians yelled that rail was a waste of public funds and should get its subsidies cut even further. I won’t enter a market that’s run on those terms—it’s like gambling in a crooked casino. Equal subsidies for all modes, or no subsidies for any, I’m fine with that.”

“Do you do a lot of export on those terms?”

“A fair amount.  Missouri’s gone to a no-subsidies system, the same as we have, and they’re buying my locomotives and rolling stock as funds permit. Quebec treats urban transit as a public utility, which works for me—I’ve sold three streetcar systems there since the borders opened, and my people and theirs are negotiating two more. East Canada? The car manufacturers still have too much clout to allow parity for rail, so no dice. The Confederacy’s still sore about the way the ‘49 war went, so they buy from Brazil.” She shrugged. “Their loss. Our products are better.”

“I don’t happen to know about the subsidy regime back home,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it. You’ve got some highway and airport subsidies and a lot of public funding for roads, but no domestic auto or aircraft industries and no subsidies for buying those from overseas. If Montrose’s people are willing to negotiate, we can work something out—and from what I hear, your urban transit is a disaster area, so her administration could get even more popular than it is by getting streetcar systems up and running in half a dozen of your big cities.”

All in all, it wasn’t exactly hard for me to figure out why she was the richest person in the Lakeland Republic; we talked over the possibilities, I agreed to discuss the matter with Ellen Montrose when I got back home, and the conversation strayed elsewhere.

When we got to the third martini each, I asked, “You said you try to set an example. I’m still trying to parse that.”

That got me an assessing look: “I was the first of our homegrown millionaires here in the Lakeland Republic—there’s a good dozen of us now, and there’ll be more in due time, but I was first through that particular gate.”  She gestured around at the mansion. “Quite a place, as you said.  During the Second Civil War, my brother and I—we were the only two of our family who survived the bombing of Toledo in 2025—we lived in the basement of a wrecked house in a suburb thirty miles south of here. We ate a lot of rat, and were glad to get it, and so I decided then and there that if I survived, I was going to live in the biggest house in the state of Ohio, and all I’d have to do is snap my fingers and somebody would bring me a roast turkey, just like that.” She laughed reminiscently. “I got so sick of roast turkey.”

I laughed along with her, but I knew that she meant it.  ‘Did your brother survive the war?”

“Fortunately, yes—he’s younger than I am, and wasn’t old enough to be drafted by either side until the war was over. He’s a professor of political science at Milwaukee these days—he came out of the whole business wanting to know why it is that nations do dumb things. Me, I just wanted to get rich.” She sipped her martini. “And fortunately I learned an important lesson on how to do that and survive. Do you mind hearing an ugly story?”

“Not at all,” I said, wondering what she had in mind.

“This was right after the war, when I was working any job I could get, trying to put aside enough cash to start my first business. I got hired as day labor to do salvage on what was left of a gated community, west of here a ways. It was one of the really high-end places, where the very rich planned to hole up when things came crashing down; it had its own private security force, airstrip, power plant, farms, the whole nine yards.

“Now here’s the thing. There were sixty big houses for the families that lived there, and every single one of them was full of what’s left when you leave dead people lying around for four years. As far as we could tell, right after the old federal government lost control of the Midwest, the security guards turned off the alarm systems one night and went from house to house. They shot everyone but the domestic staff, took all the gold and goodies they could carry, and headed off somewhere else. That wasn’t the only place that happened, either.”

“I heard some really ugly stories from the Hamptons back in the day,” I said.

“I bet you did. The thing that really made an impression on me at the time, though, is that they didn’t shoot the domestic staff. All the skeletons were up in the family quarters. That told me that it wasn’t just about the money. There was a grudge involved—and if you know how the rich used to treat everyone else in the old Union, you know why.” She sipped more booze. “Rich people only exist because the rest of society tolerates us, you know. Have you ever considered why they do that?”

I shook my head, and she went on. “Part of it’s because we give them a place to anchor their unused dreams. Poeple here daydream about the rich the way that people in Britain follow the doings of their royal family. They’ll put up with the most astonishing things from the people they idolize, the people they allow to get rich and stay rich, so long as the rich keep their side of the deal. I could get by with a quarter of the staff I have here; I could get by without the four-star dinners with a big tip for everyone right down to the dishwashers, the big donations to every charitable cause in sight, the private railroad car with its own fulltime chef, for God’s sake—but that’s my side of the bargain.”

“It gives everyone else something to dream about,” I guessed.

“Yes, and it also pays one hell of a lot of wages and salaries.”

I took that in.

“They tolerate me because I live out their dreams for them,” Mikkelson said. “They can afford to tolerate me because I don’t let myself become too expensive a luxury, and they want to tolerate me because their sister’s best friend got a hundred-buck tip the last time I had dinner at the restaurant where she waits tables, and their cousin’s husband works in the garden down there for a good wage and a big bonus come Christmas, and a guy they know from high school just got promoted off the shop floor at the Mikkelson factory and is getting a degree in engineering on my nickel.”

“As I recall,” I said, “You get some pretty fair tax benefits from that last one.”

“Of course.” She smiled. “And I lobbied like you wouldn’t believe to get that into the tax code. Partly because I don’t mind being paid to do the right thing, and partly because I knew it would keep my work force happy.  Half the reason Mikkelson products are better quality than anybody else’s is that all my people know that if the company wins, they win. There’s a stock ownership plan, bonuses based on the  annual profit, plenty of opportunity to move from the shop floor to better-paying jobs.  All of it gets me a break on taxes, but it also means that I and all my limited partners do better in the long run, and so do my employees and the union.”

I gave her a puzzled look. “I didn’t know you still had unions here.”

“Couldn’t get by without them. Of course we have binding arbitration on contracts—if my people and the union can’t reach an agreement, the Department of Labor sends in an arbitration team and they decide what the new contract will be—but the union does a lot of the day-to-day management of the work force. When I need to sort something out with my factory employees, I can pick up a phone and call the local president here in Toledo, say, and settle it in ten minutes or less. They know their jobs depend on the company making a profit, and the union funds have a big stake in Mikkelson stock and seats on the board, so it’s in our interest to work together.”

She turned toward the windows, looked out over the Toledo skyline. “That was what nobody seemed to be able to figure out in the old Union,” she said. “You can cooperate and compromise, share the gains, and keep things going for the long term, or you can try to grab everything for yourself and shove the poor and the weak to the wall, and watch it all come crashing down. In world politics, the United States tried to grab everything; in domestic politics, the executive branch tried to grab everything; in the economy, the rich tried to grab everything—and down it came.” She glanced back at me over her shoulder. “I wonder if anyone thinks about that in Philadelphia.”

It was a hell of a good question, and I didn’t have an answer for it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Learning From Failure: A Modest Introduction

The other day, one of the readers over at the other blog asked a question as sensible as it is timely: why do so many sane people start foaming at the mouth when the subject of this year’s US presidential election comes up? It’s a fair question.  Even by the embarrassing standards of political discourse that apply to the United States these days, the blend of sheer paralogic, parroted sound bites, and white-hot rage that can be heard from the supporters of both major party candidates is out of the ordinary. I spent some time mulling over the question, and I think I know the answer: cognitive dissonance.

That can be explained by a simple thought experiment.  Let’s imagine, dear reader, that you were to go into a Starbuck’s in a hip neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, and ask the people there—dyed-in-the-wool Democrats to a man, woman, gender-nonspecific individual, and child—to describe their nightmare presidential candidate, the person they’d least like to see in the White House next January.

They’d tell you that it would be a political insider openly in bed with banks and big business who spent years in public service pandering to the rich, who is also a neoconservative who pursued regime-change operations against Third World countries and was committed to military confrontation with the Russians. The candidate would have a track record supporting the kind of trade agreements that allow corporations to overturn environmental laws, and would also be dogged by embarrassingly detailed allegations of corruption on a stunningly blatant scale. The candidate would insist that everything was just fine with America, and anyone who disagreed was just being negative. Oh, and it would help if the candidate had engaged in race-baiting behavior, and had insisted that a woman’s claim that she was raped wasn’t to be taken seriously if it was directed at a member of the candidate’s own family.

That is to say, the rank and file Democrats’ idea of the worst possible President is Hillary Clinton.

Now let’s imagine that you were to hop on a Greyhound, get off in Bowling Green, Kentucky, head for the nearest Southern Baptist church social, and ask the people there—dyed-in-the-wool Republicans down to the very last lady, gentleman, and well-scrubbed child—to describe their nightmare presidential candidate, the person they’d least like to see in the White House come January.

They’d tell you that of course it would be a Yankee from New York City, which still edges out Los Angeles in the minds of many of the godly as the ultimate cesspit of evil in North America. The candidate would be a profiteer who made a pile of money exploiting vice, a wheeler-dealer who repeatedly declared bankruptcy to get out from under inconvenient debts. The candidate would be vulgar—you have no idea of the force of this word until you’ve heard it uttered in tones of total disdain by an elderly woman who’s a downwardly mobile descendant of Southern planters—and a hypocrite in religious matters, mouthing only such Christian catchphrases as might help win the election. Such a candidate would of course be on a second or third or fourth marriage, have fathered a child out of wedlock, and would fail to show any trace of pious horror toward gays, lesbians, transexuals, and the like. Finally, such a candidate would claim that America is no longer the greatest nation on Earth and has to make sweeping changes to become great again.

That is to say, the rank and file Republicans’ idea of the worst possible President is Donald Trump.

I suppose its probably too late in the game for both of the parties to do the right thing and swap candidates, so that the Republicans can go back to running a corrupt establishment neoconservative and the Democrats can field a libertine populist demagogue. Lacking such a sensible move, it’s not at all surprising that so many people have basically gone gaga, as Democratic and Republican voters try to convince themselves that they really do want to vote for someone who’s literally everything they least want in the Oval Office. That degree of cognitive dissonance does not make for calm discussions, rational decisions, or sane politics.

We can therefore expect any number of bizarre outbursts as the current race settles which of the two most detested persons in American public life gets the dubious benefit of putting a hand on the Bible next January, and becoming the notional leader of a bitterly divided nation in the throes of accelerating political, economic, and social decline. While that plays out, though, there are other dimensions of politics that deserve discussion, and some of them surfaced in a big way in response to my post last month talking about the failure of climate change activism to achieve any of its goals.

That post attracted quite a few hostile comments and no shortage of furious denunciations. A very large number of these focused on one detail in the post:  the comparison I drew between climate change activism and the campaign for the right to same-sex marriage here in the United States, in that both faced a well-funded opposition that pursued a scurrilous campaign of disinformation against them. The campaign for same-sex marriage, I pointed out, triumphed anyway, so the defeat of climate change activism couldn’t be blamed on the opposition alone; the reasons why climate change activism had failed, while the right to same-sex marriage was now the law of the land, had to be taken into account.

This, however, a remarkably large number of my readers were unwilling to do. They insisted that the goal of the campaign for same-sex marriage rights was a simple, straightforward change in laws that affected very few people, while the goal of climate change activism was a comprehensive overturn of every aspect of contemporary life. Some of them got rhetorical on the grand scale, painting the sheer overwhelming difficulty of doing anything about climate change in such daunting colors that I don’t think all the climate denialists on the planet, backed by a grant from Exxon, could have equalled it. It seems never to have occurred to them to ask whether there was a way to reframe their goal into something more like same-sex marriage—something, that is, that they might be able to accomplish.

More generally, the core of the hostile response was an absolute rejection of the idea that the climate change movement should learn anything from its failure. That’s a surrender more total than anything Exxon’s board of directors could have hoped for in their fondest dreams. Movements for social change that want to win always take each temporary defeat as a learning experience, draw lessons from the failure, and change their tactics, strategy, and framing of the issue based on those lessons, then fling themselves back into the struggle with a better chance at victory. They also look at other movements that succeed and ask themselves, “How can we do the same thing with our cause?” Movements for social change that respond to failure by reaching for excuses and trying to convince themselves and everyone else that the battle could never have been won in the first place, on the other hand, get a shallow grave and a water-color epitaph.

For what it’s worth, I think there’s something even more important to be learned from the insistence that the lessons of the movement for same-sex marriage rights can’t possibly be applied to climate change activism. The same-sex marriage movement was notable among recent initiatives on the leftward end of the political spectrum for two distinctive features. The first was that it went out of its way to violate the conventional wisdom that’s governed activism in the US since the early 1980s. The second is that it won. These two things are by no means unrelated.  In fact, I’d like to suggest that certain habits, which have been de rigueur for social change movements for the last thirty years, have been responsible for their near-total failure to accomplish their goals over that period.

Let’s take a look at those habits one at a time.

1. Piggybacking

This is the insistence that any movement for social change has to make room on its agenda for all the other currently popular movements for social change, and has to divert some of its time, labor, and resources to each of these other movements. Start a movement for any one purpose, and you can count on being swarmed by activists who insist they want to be your allies.  Some insist that they’re eager to help you so long as you’re willing to help them, some insist that you can best pursue your goal by helping them pursue theirs, some insist that theirs is so much more important than yours that if you’re a decent person you should drop your cause and join them, but it all amounts to a demand that you divert some of your money, time, labor, and other resources from your cause to theirs.

Behind the facade of solidarity, that is, the social-change scene is a Darwinian environment in which movements compete for access to people, money, and enthusiasm. Piggybacking is one of the standard competitive strategies, and it really goes into overdrive as soon as your movement comes up with a plan to do something concrete about the problem you’re trying to solve. At this point, your allies can be counted on to insist that your plan isn’t acceptable unless it also does something to benefit their cause. You can’t just fix A, in other words; you’ve also got to do something about B, C, D, and so on to Z—and long before you get there, your plan has stopped being workable, because no possible set of actions can solve all the world’s problems at once.

One of the things that set the campaign for same-sex marriage rights apart from other movements for social change, in turn, is that it refused to fall for piggybacking. It kept its focus on its actual goal—getting same-sex couples the right to marry—and refused to listen to the many voices that insisted that it was unrealistic to pursue this goal all by itself, and they should get in line, join the grand movement for social change, and wait their turn. If they’d listened, they’d still be waiting. Instead, they succeeded.

2. The Partisan Trap

The Democratic Party is the place where environmental causes go to die. To some extent, today’s US partisan politics is the ultimate example of piggybacking; movements on the leftward end of things have been talked into believing that they should put their energy into getting Democratic candidates elected, rather than pursuing their own agendas, and as a result Democratic candidates get elected but the movements for social change find that their own causes go nowhere.

This isn’t accidental. Both US parties have perfected the art of reducing once-independent movements for social change into captive constituencies, which keep on working to elect candidates for one or the other party, while getting essentially nothing in return. The Democratic party establisnment has no more interest in seeing climate change activism succeed than their Republican opposite numbers have in seeing the antiabortion movement succeed; in both cases, that would cause the movements to fade away, as movements do when they triumph, and important captive constituencies would be lost to the parties that own them. It’s much more profitable to the party apparatchiks to toss occasional crumbs to their captive constituencies, blame the other party for the failure of the captive constituencies to achieve any of their goals, and insist every four years that their captive constituencies have to vote the way they’re told, because the other party is so much worse.

The campaign for same-sex marriage rights managed to break out of that trap despite the strenuous efforts of both parties to keep it in its assigned place. It so happens that there are a significant number of gay and lesbian people who are Republicans—who vote for GOP candidates, donate to GOP campaigns, and take part in party activities—and they bombarded their Republican legislators with letters demanding that the GOP do what it claims it wants to do, and get government off people’s backs. This played a significant role in bringing about the collapse of GOP opposition to same-sex marriage, and thus to the success of the movement.

3. Purity Politics

The creation of a movement that included Republican as well as Democratic gays, lesbians, and sympathetic straight people also violated another commandment of contemporary left-wing activism, which is that movements for social change must exclude everyone who fails any of a battery of tests of ideological purity. It’s been pointed out, and truly, that the Right looks for allies to attract while the Left looks for heretics to expel; this is one of the reasons that for the last forty years, the Right has been so much more successful than the Left.

To some extent, purity politics is simply the flipside of piggybacking. If your movement also has to support every other movement on the leftward end of things, the only people who will be attracted to your movement are those few who also agree with the agendas of every one of the other movements on the list. Still, there’s more going on here than that. I’ve written in a previous post here about the way that narratives about race in America have been transformed into a dysfunctional game in which bullying an assortment of real and imagined persecutors has taken the place of doing anything to better the lives of those affected by racial injustice. Purity politics rises out of the same dynamic, and it’s played a large role in taking any number of potentially successful movements and reducing them to five or six people in an empty room, each of them glaring suspiciously at all the others, constantly on the lookout for any sign of deviant thinking.

One of the reasons the movement for same-sex marriage rights triumphed, in turn, was precisely that it refused to get into purity politics. All that mattered, in large parts of the movement, was that you were in favor of giving same-sex couples the right to marry, and a great many people who weren’t in favor of the whole gamut of social-change movements were in fact perfectly willing to let gay and lesbian couples tie the knot. That capacity to bridge ideological divides and find common ground on a single issue isn’t a guarantee of victory, but refusing to do so is almost always a guarantee of defeat.

4. Pandering to the Privileged

No one ever built a mass movement by appealing to an affluent minority. That’s one of the major reasons why so few movements for social change these days show the least sign of becoming mass movements. Since the early 1980s, most activists have framed their appeals and their campaigns as though the only audience that mattered consisted of affluent liberals, and as often as not went out of their way to ignore or even insult the great majority of Americans—you know, the people who would have had to be on their side if their cause was going to achieve any kind of lasting victory.

I’ve discussed in other posts on this blog the extent to which class issues have become a taboo subject in contemporary politics, precisely during the decades in which the once-prosperous American working classes have been destroyed. In our collective conversation about politics, you can talk about race, you can talk about gender, you can even talk about the very rich, but if you talk about another very important divide—the divide between the people who earn salaries and have done very well for themselves, and the people who earn wages and have been driven into poverty and misery by easily identifiable policies supported across the board by the people who earn salaries—you can count on being shouted down. (One of the many advantages of having this conversation on the fringes where archdruids lurk is that the shouting is slightly muffled out here.)

A great many soi-disant radicals have thus ended up trotting meekly along after the privileged classes, begging for scraps from the tables of the affluent rather than risking so much as a raised eyebrow of disapproval from them. Real change will come to the United States when others learn, as Donald Trump already has, that the exclusion of the needs, interests, and viewpoints of wage-earning Americans from our national politics and public discourse has shattered their once-robust faith in the status quo and made them ripe for political mobilization. That change need not be for the better; if the mainstream parties continue to act as though only the affluent matter, the next person who finds a following among the wage class may have a taste for armbands and jackboots, or for that matter, for roadside bombs and guerrilla warfare; but change will come.

The movement for same-sex marriage rights had a great advantage here, in that the policy changes it wanted to put in place were just as advantageous for wage-earning same-sex couples in Bowling Green and Omaha as for salary-class same-sex couples in Seattle and Boston. (If you don’t think there are wage-earning same-sex couples in Bowling Green and Omaha, by the way, you need to get out more.)  That gave their movement a mass following that, even if court rulings hadn’t made the point moot, had already begun to win votes on a state-by-state basis and would have won a great many more.

And the movement against anthropogenic climate change? If you’ve been following along, dear reader, you’ll already have noticed that it fell victim to all four of the bad habits just enumerated—the four horsepersons, if you will, of the apocalyptic failure of radicalism in our time. It allowed itself to be distracted from its core purpose by a flurry of piggybacking interests; it got turned into a captive constituency of the Democratic Party; it suffers from a bad case of purity politics, in which (to raise a point I’ve made before) anyone who questions the capacity of renewable resources to replace fossil fuels, without conservation taking up much of the slack, is denounced as a denialist; and it has consistently pandered to the privileged, pursuing policies that benefit the well-to-do at the expense of the working poor.  Those bad habits helped foster the specific mistakes I enumerated in my earlier post-mortem on climate change activism, and led the movement to crushing defeat.

That wasn’t necessary, nor is any future climate change activism required to make the same mistakes all over again. In an upcoming post, I plan on sketching out how a future movement to stop treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer and start mitigating the ecological impact of our idiocy to date might proceed. The specific suggestions I’ll offer will be tentative, but the lessons taught by the success of the campaign for same-sex marriage rights will be incorporated in them—and so will the equally important lessons taught over and over again by the failure of other movements for social change in our time.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Retrotopia: Dinner, Drinks, and Hard Questions

This is the twenty-second installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator has dinner with Melanie Berger, tells her about his change of mind, and has to confront the hard choices ahead of him. 
 
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We’d settled on a Greek restaurant close by, a place I’d been for lunch already.  I passed that onto the driver as soon as we got into the cab, and slumped back against the leather seat as the driver climbed up onto the seat up front, snapped the reins, and got the horses moving. Neither Melanie nor I said anything. The lights of Toledo rolled by, and I wondered how many people behind the windows we passed were worrying about the war down south, the way I was.

It was maybe five minutes, if that, when the cab rolled to a stop, and the cabby swung down from his seat and popped open the door. I climbed down, paid him, reached out a hand for Melanie; she took it gratefully, got down onto the sidewalk. “Thank you,” she said, when the cabbie was driving off. “For a few minutes of silence, especially.”

“We don’t have to talk over dinner,” I said as we headed toward the door.

“Don’t worry about it. You won’t be screaming at me in a Texas accent for an hour straight.”

I gave her a questioning look, but by then we were inside and the greeter was headed our way.  Once we were comfortably settled in a booth over to one side, and the waitress had handed us menus and taken our drinks order to the bar, I said, “Seriously?”

“Seriously. The Texan ambassador wanted to see President Meeker right now, and no, she didn’t care that he was in a cabinet meeting and that she was going to be the first to see him afterwards. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever wished that diplomatic courtesies included the right to slap someone hard enough to send teeth flying.”

I choked, then pasted on a respectable expression while the waitress came back with our martinis and took our order. “I take it Texas doesn’t put professionals in its embassies.”

“Only the important ones, and we’re not one of those. Velma Streiber’s a Houston society matron who has good friends in the Bulford administration and wanted a fancy title.” She shook her head.

“I hope you didn’t have to deal with the Confederate ambassador too,” I said.

“I did, but that was easy. John Bayard MacElroy is your basic Confederate gentleman.  He might shoot you dead in cold blood and feed your corpse to his hound dogs, but he’ll be the very soul of politeness while he does it.”

I choked again. Then, still laughing, I shook my head and picked up my martini. She gave me a startled look. “That doesn’t look much like what you were drinking Friday night.”

“It isn’t,” I admitted. “I decided to try a Lakeland style martini Saturday, and liked it.”

That got me a long, considering look, and then a nod. “But that was my day—that and dealing with just about every other embassy in Toledo by phone or in person, scheduling meetings with Meeker, setting up briefings like the one you went to, attending a couple of briefings myself. Oh, and helping out two delegations—I won’t say which ones—that lost their satellite links with home and have no idea how to get by without hardware in orbit.”

That interested me. “How do your embassies phone home?”

“Shortwave radio, of course—the way everybody did before satellites took over. I had to explain that to both delegations.” With a sly smile: “When the Atlantic Embassy loses its satellite links, have them give me a call; I can recommend a good radio firm that won’t even put bugs in the hardware.”

I gave her a dubious look, and she laughed. “I hope the briefing you got was worthwhile, by the way.”

“Even more so than I’d expected.  Turns out you’re not the only people interested in freight transit through the Erie Canal.”

“Now surprise me.” She sipped her drink. “Missouri, East Canada, and who?”

“Chicago.”

“Oh, of course. That’s good to know; I’ll talk to Hank Barker with the Missouri delegation and see if we can coordinate shipping with them. We do a lot of trade with Missouri these days; the wool your suit is made of almost certainly came from their flocks, and possibly from their fabric mills.”

“Barker mentioned that,” I said. “Wool and leather.”

Two bowls of avgolemono soup came, and neither of us said anything until the waitress was gone. “I’m going to risk mentioning a potentially uncomfortable subject,” Melanie said. “The Missouri Republic is the one neighbor we’ve got that’s shown any interest in in learning from our experience. They haven’t gone nearly as far as we have—you still see bioplastic clothing there, and they’ve still got a metanet, though it’s pretty ramshackle these days—but the World Bank doesn’t like them much any more.” She shook her head, laughed. “I’ve been told that people from the World Bank threatened them with trade sanctions two years ago, after they refused a loan, and President Applegate told them, ‘Didn’t hurt Lakeland much, did it?’ That shut them up.”

I laughed, because I’d met Hannah Applegate at a reception in Philadelphia, and it took no effort at all to imagine her saying those words in her lazy Western drawl. Then the implications sank in. “They turned down a World Bank loan?”

“Of course. You know as well as I do that the only reason the World Bank makes those is to force countries to stay plugged into the global economy, so they can get the hard currency they need to make  payments on the loan. The Missouri government knows that, too, and they’re sick of it. Since we’re Missouri’s number one trading partner these days, we’ve both got the necessary arrangements to handle trade and investment in each other’s currencies, and a fair amount of private investment from our side heads over there these days, they decided it was time to take the risk.”

“Good timing on their part,” I said, thinking of the war.

“And on ours.” In response to my questioning look: “They produce things we need and buy things we produce. The last thing we want is to see them bled dry.”

“The way my country will be,” I said. She glanced at me, said nothing, and concentrated for a while on her bowl of soup.

The waitress showed up conveniently a moment later, served us our entrees, made a little friendly conversation—Melanie was a regular, I gathered—and then headed off to another table. “As I said,” Melanie said then, “it’s a potentially uncomfortable subject.”

“The fact that your country is set up to weather this latest mess in fairly good shape, and mine might just end up as a failed state.”

Her face tensed, and after a moment she nodded. “If that happens, and you can make it to our border, have the border guards contact Meeker’s office. Shouldn’t be too hard to expedite your entry. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but...” She let the sentence trickle off.

“Thank you. I hope it doesn’t either.” Then: “To the extent that you can tell me, how bad do your analysts expect it to get?”

She considered that. “I can tell you a few things. It’s nothing you won’t hear from your own intelligence people once you get back home—the NIS, isn’t it?”

I nodded. “What do you call your spook shop here in Lakeland?”

“We’ve got three of them: the Office of Political Intelligence in the State Department, the Office of Economic Intelligence in Trade, and the Office of Military Intelligence in Defense. Keeping it broken up like that helps prevent groupthink.”

I motioned with my fork, granting the point, and she went on. “What OPI says is that Texas and the Confederacy were both in deep trouble even before this whole thing blew up in their faces. They both depend heavily on oil revenue to balance their budgets, they’ve both had declining production for years now, and you know as well as I do how badly they’ve been clobbered by volatility in the oil markets. That’s ultimately what’s behind this war—neither of them can afford to compromise because they both need every drop of oil they can possibly get—but this is going to take a lot of wells out of production until the fighting’s over.”

“Or permanently,” I said. In response to her questioning look: “I was told off the record that so much of both sides’ offshore fields are stripper wells that a lot of the destroyed platforms won’t produce enough oil in the future to be worth the cost of rebuilding.”

She nodded. “That’s OEI’s bailiwick and I haven’t talked to them yet, so thanks for the heads up.Even without that, though, both countries are going to be hit hard even if the war ends in a few days—and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end in a few days.”

I nodded. “Military intelligence?”

“Got it.”

I didn’t ask for details; she’d told me as much as she was cleared to pass on, and there are lines you don’t cross in our business. Pretty clearly she’d attended a classified military briefing and gotten the latest information about the war, and I could think of at least a dozen signs that would warn the Lakeland government that neither Texas nor the Confederacy was going to back down any time soon. In a couple of days I’d be back in Philadelphia, and I could ask people I knew in Ellen Montrose’s transition team for a summary.

“And if it drags on?” I asked.

She gave me an unhappy look. “Best case scenario is both countries end up economic basket cases, with per capita GDPs lower than the midrange for sub-Saharan Africa, but they both manage to hold together and begin to recover in about a decade. Worst case scenario is that one or both go failed-state on us. Either way we’re looking at a big refugee problem, and a long-term economic headache if the Mississippi stays closed. We can deal with it, no question—it’s just going to take some work. It’s the people down south, in both countries, I feel sorry for”

We both concentrated on our meals for a minute or two.

“And the thing is,” she burst out then, “this whole business is so unnecessary. If both countries weren’t stuck on a treadmill trying to—” She stopped cold, catching herself.

“Trying to progress,” I finished the sentence.

Another unhappy look. “I really don’t think we should go there,” she said.

“I think we should,” I replied “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the things you said Friday evening, and you were right.”

She was so surprised she dropped her fork. After a moment: “I’m sorry. I’m not sure I believe I just heard you say that.”

“You were right,” I repeated. “I spent all Saturday trying to find holes in your logic, and I couldn’t find any.” I shrugged. “I have no idea where to go with that yet, but there it is.” Which was not quite true, but there were things I wasn’t going to say in a restaurant that close to Embassy Row.

She considered me for a long moment, pretty obviously shaken good and hard, and I said, “Come on, I can’t be the only person from outside who’s told you that.”

“It happens,” she said then. “Once in a blue moon, maybe. No, that’s not fair—working class people get it in a heartbeat, more often than not. They look at the way factory workers and store clerks live here, compared to how they live outside, they ask a few questions about why we do what we do, and they have no trouble at all figuring out the rest for themselves.”

I thought about the family of immigrants I’d seen on the train from Pittsburgh, and the conversation I’d had with the father of the family. “But people who are well off, well educated, part of the system.”

“The minority that still gets some benefit out of progress,” she said.

That stung, but I knew she was right. “Yes.”

“Once in a blue moon.”

Neither of us said anything for a while. Our plates got empty and our drinks got refilled; a couple of dishes of baklava came out for dessert, and when we started talking again it was about uncontroversial things, the Toledo Opera’s future plans, funny stories about trade negotiations, that sort of thing. I guessed that she was still trying to process what I’d said, which was reasonable; so was I.

Finally the meal ended. She was looking really tired by that point—no surprises there—so we settled pretty much right away that nobody was going to end up in anybody else’s bed that night.  I gave her a kiss, helped her into her coat, and got her onto a taxi headed for her place. My hotel wasn’t too many blocks away, so I waited until the taxi had turned the corner and set off on foot.

The sky was still clear and a rising wind swept down the streets, hissing in the bare branches of streetside trees. Overhead the stars glittered, and now and then something bright shot across some portion of the sky and burnt out, one more fragment of business as usual falling out of the place we’d stuck it and thought it would stay forever.

In less than forty-eight hours I’d be back in the Atlantic Republic:  on my way home to Philadelphia, where three decades of effective one-party rule by the Dem-Reps had just gone out the window in a landslide and taken the status quo with it.  The new administration would have to scramble to find its feet in a world gone topsy-turvy, where there were too many hard questions and nothing like enough straightforward answers. For that matter. I was going to be facing some hard questions of my own, and I was far from sure I had any straightforward answers, either.

Another chunk of dead satellite traced a streak of light across the sky, dissolved in a flurry of sparks. I kept on walking.

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In other fiction-related news, two magazines with links to this blog have something to report. Into the Ruins, the recently started deindustrial SF quarterly edited by Joel Caris, has just released its second issue. I’m delighted to say that it’s a worthy successor to the first issue, with a lively mix of short stories and a letters to the editor column that’s really starting to pick up. Fans may also want to know that this issue includes the first installment of a regular column by yours truly, "Deindustrial Futures Past," reviewing older works of science fiction set in the aftermath of industrial civilization.

Mythic, the new science fiction and fantasy quarterly by the publisher of the After Oil anthologies, is also moving toward its first issue. I’m eager to see this take off, and am contributing a short story, “The Phantom of the Dust,” set in the same fictive world as my novel The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth. I’ve been told by publisher Shaun Kilgore that he’s gotten a good initial response to his call for fiction submissions but would like to see more, and he’s also very much interested in book reviews, essays, and other nonfiction pieces related to science fiction and fantasy. More details? You’ll find ‘em here. This is a paying gig, folks; let your writer friends know.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Emperor's New Art: A Parable

Last week’s episode of the Retrotopia narrative ended up launching, rather to my surprise, an extensive discussion about the nature of art. The spark that set off this unexpected blaze was a passing comment on the part of the story’s protagonist, who described the abstract paintings on the walls of the Atlantic Republic embassy in Toledo in somewhat rude language. That was meant as a throwaway line, one more display of the way the protagonist’s views had changed during his visit to my imaginary Lakeland Republic—but it fielded me a minor flurry of denunciation from people who couldn’t stand the fact that a character of mine had expressed a lack of appreciation for one variety of modern art. 

Those of my readers who’ve come in for bullying from the art crowd know exactly what sort of thing those tirades included. Those who’ve evaded that experience so far—well, I was told that I had no right to have an opinion on the subject, that I don’t know anything about art, that I obviously prefer Norman Rockwell, that I’m offended by intellectual challenges, that I’m offended by new techniques and media, that I feel threatened by modern art, that I’m in favor of censorship, and that I’d change my mind if I just stood in front of an abstract expressionist canvas and tried to understand my reactions.

It’s worth noting that none of these claims happens to be true, but let’s set that aside for a moment and take a look at what happened. I had a character in a story express an opinion about art—an opinion, by the way, that was relevant to the story and also to the character—and that was enough to send some of my readers into a fair imitation of a Donald Duck splutterfest. This isn’t the first time, or the hundred and first time, that I’ve watched that same sequence unfold.  Across the spectrum of contemporary art, if you display a lack of enthusiasm for anything produced by someone whose claim to the status of “artist” is accepted by the art scene, you can expect to field something of the kind.

That can be highly entertaining—I certainly found the latest round of it a source of wry amusement—but it’s also relevant to the subject of the current series of posts on education for the deindustrial era. One of the core things you should expect to get from any education worth the name is the ability to sort out gold from garbage: to recognize, in the fields of learning and creativity, the differences between genuine insight, recycled cliché, and pretentious noise. To get that ability, it’s crucial to recognize that there are two kinds of bad practice in the arts, sciences, and scholarship.

The first of them can be called, without too much distortion, lowbrow trash. What defines lowbrow trash is that it rehashes the overfamiliar. It deploys stereotyped effects in stereotyped ways to evoke stereotyped sentiment. It tends to be popular among the poor, because people who have to bear the brutal insecurities every complex society inflicts on its more vulnerable members desperately need the reassurance of the familiar, and if black velvet paintings of dogs playing poker are what’s available to meet that need, then that’s what will go on their walls. (There are better options, but these days those generally aren’t available to the poor.) The apotheosis of lowbrow trash is kitsch, which wallows so enthusiastically in rehashed sentiment that it achieves unintentional self-parody.

There is also, as it happens, lowbrow trash in scholarship and science. Here you find the histories that regurgitate every currently accepted stereotype about this or that corner of the past, the scientific papers that “prove” some bit of conventional wisdom by excluding contradictory data—this is easy to do if you know your way around experimental design—and so on. These also have their own forms of kitsch, though you often need a little more specialized education to catch the unintentional self-parody.

That said, lowbrow trash is only one side of the picture. There’s another side, and since this entire discussion started with a bit of fiction, I don’t think it’s out of line to ask my readers to gather around old Father Goose for a few minutes and listen to a story called “The Emperor’s New Art.”

This all happened right after the events of “The Emperor’s New Clothes;” any of my readers who don’t happen to know that tale can find a pleasant online version hereThe two fraudulent tailors who’d sold the emperor a suit of nonexistent clothes were marched to the nearest border and thrown out of the empire with a warning never to return. They had very little money and knew better to try the same scam on the ruler of the next empire over, since even in those days, news traveled fast. So there they sat on a stone fence, trying to figure out what they were going to do.

“I know,” said the taller of the two. “The emperor of this land is an art lover. We can become painters.”

“But neither of us knows the first thing about painting!” the shorter tailor replied.

“Neither of us knows the first thing about making clothing, either,” the taller one reminded him. “Let’s see if we have enough money between us to buy some art supplies.”

Now since this is a fairy tale, there was an art supply store waiting just down the road, and the two found they had just enough money between them to buy a canvas, some brushes, a set of paints in flimsy tubes, and a spray bottle of fixative. That didn’t leave them enough money to rent a studio, or even a room for the night, and the day was almost over, so they found a dry place under some trees and went to sleep with their art supplies safe, as they thought, between them.

Late that night a stray dog came trotting by. He was not too bright, and to him, the tubes of paint looked like puppy treats. He sneaked up between the two tailors and gobbled up the paint tubes in three quick gulps, breaking them open with his teeth in the process. Before he could trot away, though, the first mouthful of paint hit his stomach and made it lurch. The second mouthful made it lurch again, and the third—well, to make a long and somewhat anatomical story short, he proceeded to throw up the paint, along with everything else he’d eaten that evening, right onto the canvas. He then backed away, and ran off to find some tasty grass to settle his stomach.

The two tailors woke at sunrise to find their paint tubes gone and a great deal of technicolor dog barf all over their one canvas. “Oh, no!” cried the shorter tailor. “Our art supplies are spoiled and we have no money to buy more. We’ll never become famous painters now!”

“Nonsense,” said the taller one. “You never did have enough imagination.” He carefully dried the canvas in the sun and sprayed fixative over it. “Here is our first masterpiece.”

So they proceeded to the palace of the emperor. On the way they grew beards and let their hair get long, and they stole an assortment of ill-fitting clothing from clotheslines along the way so they could look eccentric and bohemian. So attired, they presented themselves to the imperial art committee and said, “We are great artists, so brilliant, so avant-garde, and so tormented by our talent that our work can only be understood by the truly sophisticated. Ordinary people—well! Ordinary people look at our paintings and say, ‘That looks like dog barf,’ but that simply shows how pedestrian their tastes are, how little they understand the true sublimity of which art is capable. But you, ladies and gentlemen, you are persons of refined taste and deep aesthetic sensitivity. We know that you will appreciate—” He held up the canvas on which the dog had thrown up. “—the first great work of the Borborygmist school of art!”

Now of course the first thought of every member of the imperial art committee was, “That looks like dog barf.” As soon as that thought entered their minds, though, every one of them thought, “Oh, no! Does that mean that my tastes are pedestrian and I don’t understand the true sublimity of which art is capable?” So none of them said anything at first. Then one, who felt a little more insecure than the others and felt he had to prove that he didn’t have pedestrian tastes, said, “This is indeed a great work of art.” All the others thought, “He must have refined taste and deep aesthetic sensitivity.” So they all began to praise the painting, and the more they looked at it, the more they succeeded in convincing themselves that it couldn’t be what it obviously was, that is, a canvas on which a dog had thrown up.

So the two artists sold the painting to the Emperor for a tidy sum. The Emperor didn’t actually think much of it—his first thought on seeing it was, “That looks like dog barf”—but since all the members of the imperial art committee insisted that it was a great masterpiece and only people with pedestrian tastes thought it looked like dog barf, he kept his mouth shut and tried to convince himself that it really was a masterpiece. One day, though, when the painting had been put on display for the public, and the artists and the members of the art committee and the Emperor himself were standing there beaming, a little child came up, took one look at the painting, and said, “That looks like dog barf.”

The artists, the committee members, and the Emperor all looked down their noses at the child and said, “Child, you obviously know nothing about art.” So the child went away, and the artists lived happily ever after—and that, my children, is most of what you need to know about the history of modern art.

That is to say, lowbrow trash is not the only kind of trash that needs to be recognized as such by the educated person. There is also highbrow trash. Where lowbrow trash communicates overfamiliar sentiments in overfamiliar ways, highbrow trash avoids communication by saying nothing that can be interpreted outside of a narrow circle of cognoscenti. It’s meant to exclude, so that its purveyors and connoisseurs can feel superior to those who those who don’t get it. As lowbrow trash appeals to the poor, who need the comforts of familiarity in an insecure world, highbrow trash appeals to the affluent, who tend to be sheltered from adversity and so get bored easily, and who also tend to flock to anything that will allow them to parade their supposed superiority to the poor.

There’s plenty of highbrow trash in the realms of scholarship and the sciences, just as there’s plenty of lowbrow trash there. As with lowbrow trash, too, there’s a far end to the spectrum, a point at which it achieves self-parody and becomes unintentionally funny. There is unfortunately no common word for this latter, no equivalent word to kitsch, so one needs to be coined; the term I have in mind is “warhol.”

This is not to express any lack of respect for Andy Warhol, whose name provides that label. Quite the contrary, I admire the man immensely. He was arguably the twentieth century’s greatest satirist, a comic genius so versatile and so subtle that some of the butts of his humor haven’t yet realized that the joke was on them. This was the man who meticulously copied a supermarket box of Brillo pads and sold that as a work of art. No less a philosopher than Arthur Danto spent a good fraction of his career trying to come up with an aesthetic philosophy and a definition of art that would allow Warhol’s Brillo box to keep its status as an artwork, and never seems to have gotten the joke.

There is, as it happens, precisely one theory of art that justifies the claim that Warhol’s Brillo box is art. It’s the theory that there are certain very, very special people called “artists” who are so tremendously creative, so overwhelmingly sensitive, so dripping with sheer aesthetic oomph, that anything they treat as art is, ipse dixit, art. If an eight-year-old boy hangs a urinal on a nail on the wall for people to see, that’s a prank, but if Marcel Duchamp does it, it’s a great work of art. Why? Because art oozes out of every pore of his body, that’s why, and there's a puddle of it on the urinal to this day. It’s understandable that artists should find this way of defining art congenial to their egos, but it’s just as understandable that Andy Warhol’s wicked sense of humor would zero in on so comically arrogant a claim, and push it past its logical extreme into rank absurdity.

Let us please get real: a urinal does not become a work of art because an artist sticks it on a wall, nor does a Brillo box become a work of art because Andy Warhol decides to pull the art world’s collective leg. Plenty of other examples could be added—there’s no shortage of highbrow trash these days, and no shortage of warhol, either—and an important part of education is developing a strong enough personal sense of aesthetic and intellectual taste that when a couple of former tailors come along with dog barf on a canvas and insist that this is the first great masterpiece of the Borborygmist school of art, the educated person is confident enough to say, “No, that’s dog barf.”

How do you develop that kind of personal sense? There’s a very simple, straightforward way; it’s been standard practice in every literate society for thousands of years, and the current intellectual climate in today’s United States treats it as three steps lower than evil incarnate.

That is to say, you have a canon. 

A canon is a set of works in any given field that are generally accepted as masterpieces. In a healthy culture, pretty much every educated person has encountered and studied the works that belong to the canon of that culture. The word “canon” literally means “measure,” and that’s what a canon does: it gives you something to measure other works of the same kind. Let’s take literature as an example. There are, in every literature and every branch of literature, certain works that stand head and shoulders above the rest, and an important part of education consists of reading those works, thinking about them, studying them, figuring out what makes them great (and also where they stumble), and developing a personal sense of literary taste by exposure to them. Is the canon the only thing you read? Of course not—what’s the use of a means of measuring if you don’t use it to measure something other than itself?
 
A canon, by the way, is always contested, it’s always in flux, and it’s always unfair. Different works rise up into the canon and drift back out of it in response to the vagaries of taste. There have been times when Shakespeare’s plays were cast out from the canon as too vulgar, and novels most people now find insufferably stuffy were considered marvels of literary genius. That’s inevitable, because a canon is always and only a summary of the collective aesthetic and intellectual taste of an age, and inevitably suffers from the blind spots of the age. If there’s some kind of absolute ideal of beauty or sublimity out there, of the sort Plato imagined, it’s not accessible to mere human beings. All we have to work with is our own, hopefully more or less educated reactions to works of art, science, and scholarship.

So each culture in each age, with rare exceptions, adapts the canon of arts, sciences, and scholarship that it considers important, adding some works and deleting others, on the basis of its own inevitably flawed perceptions, and proceeds to use that as a basis for education. The exceptions are periods like the present, when the schism in society anatomized by Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History shatters the sense of shared values that binds a society together, and you end up with a polarized mess in which the dominant minority and the internal proletariat glare at each other across a wasteland of smoking ruins. At such times, the dominant minority plunges with gusto into highbrow trash, the internal proletariat plunges with equal verve into lowbrow trash, and both sides pretend that those are the only two possible options—that those who don’t like abstract expressionism must therefore love Norman Rockwell, and vice versa.

That’s not good for art, or for that matter science or scholarship. One of the things that individuals who care about any of these things can contribute to their welfare is to cast aside the dubious enticements of both kinds of trash, try to construct some approximation of a canon in the fields that matter to them, and educate themselves in the time-honored method of repeated exposure to, and reflection on, really first-rate works. It’s from such efforts, once the schism in society completes its trajectory, that a new canon emerges, and the heritage of the past gets handed on to guide the creative minds of the future.

A couple of additional notes may be useful here. First, just because you’ve identified something as trash, highbrow or lowbrow, doesn’t mean you have to avoid it. Trash can be fun. I inherit from my misspent youth, for example, an amused delight in really bad fantasy fiction, the kind of thing that Poul Anderson anatomized brilliantly in his essay “On Thud and Blunder,” and there are books I keep on hand when I want to wallow in that sort of thing. For all I know, there are people who have a similar reaction to abstract expressionist paintings, though I admit I’ve never met one. 

Second, just because you know it’s good doesn’t mean you have to like it. I don’t happen to like Italian opera, for example. I know that it contains a good selection of world-class masterpieces, but they’re not to my taste, and so I leave them to those who delight in them. I have a similar reaction to rap music, and to a variety of other art genres. My wife has a BFA in art history, and we routinely visit art museums when we travel, but our tastes differ somewhat—she’s gaga for the Impressionists, who I find pleasant but not the overwhelming experience they are for her; our roles reverse when it comes to the French Symbolists; by mutual consent, we avoid the modern art wing altogether and make a beeline for the Japanese gallery and the medieval and Renaissance European collections. Meanwhile, other people are making their own choices, and so should you.

Finally, laughter is an appropriate response to art. It’s an even more appropriate response to highbrow or lowbrow trash, and of course it’s all but inescapable when you encounter kitsch or warhol. If the reaction you have when you stand in front of a canvas covered with dog barf is hysterical giggling, by all means giggle. It’s a salutary corrective to the cult of humorlessness that so often obsesses the purveyors and connoisseurs of highbrow trash.

With that in mind, we can proceed to...

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Homework Assignment #3

As previously noted, since this sequence of posts is on education, there’s going to be homework. Your homework for the next month or so is to find three works in one field of art, science, or scholarship. One should be a work of lowbrow trash, one should be a work of highbrow trash, and the third should be a classic. All of them should be in the same genre—for example, you might choose three science fiction novels, or three paintings, or three operas, or three historical essays, or three books on physics.

The highbrow trash will probably be hardest to find, as this goes into and out of style in various genres, while lowbrow trash is eternal. If you happen to choose science fiction, for example, most of the over-the-top highbrow trash appeared in the New Wave era of the 1970s, when a good many writers decided to prove that SF was High Literature, and got pompous, humorless, and dull in the usual way. Lowbrow trash? Any bookstore or public library will have it by the yard; look for clichés that were already dated when the original Star Trek premiered. Classics? By and large, old Hugo Award winners qualify.

Put some time into all three works. Notice the difference in your responses to them. Also notice the objective differences in them. Don’t hesitate to laugh where appropriate.

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Finally, I'm pleased to say that sales of the limited edition of the first of my Weird of Hali novels, Innsmouth, are going well. One implication is that if you want a complete set of the hardback edition, you have a limited amount of time left...and the second and third novels in the series, Kingsport and Chorazin, are already written. Copies can be purchased here.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Retrotopia: Unnoticed Resources

This is the twenty-first installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator discovers that the differences between the Lakeland Republic and his own country include a sharp variance in vulnerability to sudden political and economic shocks...
 
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The briefing finally wound up a little before one o’clock, and Stuart Macallan invited all of us to lunch in one of the formal dining rooms downstairs. I gathered that the ambassadors were having lunch with Meeker in the president’s private dining room one floor up, but the meal was nothing to complain about: sandwiches on croissants, French onion soup, pear slices, Brie, and choice of beverages. You could tell something about each of the diplomats by watching the latter—the ones who downed strong coffee to deal with too little sleep, the ones who tipped back a local beer to be social, and the ones who got something stronger than beer to keep from having to think about just how bad this mess could get.

I sat with Hank Barker from the Missouri Republic delegation, and a couple of other people from the trade end of things—Jonathan Two Hawks, also from Missouri, Vera McTavish from East Canada, and one of the familiar faces in the room, Lashonda Marvell from the Free City of Chicago—I’d taken part in rough-draft negotiations on a trade-in-services agreement with Chicago six years back, and she’d been on the other side of that. Two Hawks and McTavish were coffee drinkers, Marvell and I ordered beer, and Barker got bourbon straight, downed it, and then ordered another.

They were all interested in access to the Erie Canal, of course. It had never really occurred to me how big a resource that was.  People in the Atlantic Republic government treat it as a relic, but with the Mississippi closed to ship traffic by a shooting war, it had suddenly become the one way around the potential bottleneck of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. While I wasn’t an official envoy, they all knew perfectly well that Montrose’s landslide election win meant that the current embassy staff might not have the same clout in Philadelphia they once did, and they wanted to make nice with the new team.

I was perfectly willing to play that game, for that matter. Transit fees on international shipments down the Erie Canal would bring in hard currency at a time when we could really use that, and if the whole business was handled right, it would leave the other nations involved owing the Atlantic Republic favors that could be called in later on. So, between bites of sandwich, I sketched out the kind of terms we’d want—I modeled them shamelessly on the draft agreement I’d worked out with the Lakeland Republic, of course—and they tossed back questions and counteroffers. It was a good lively discussion, the fun part of trade negotiations, and I think we really made some progress toward a set of agreements that would be win-win for everybody.

The official Atlantic Republic delegation sat pretty much by themselves over on the other side of the room, and gave me flat unreadable looks now and then. They knew perfectly well what I was doing, and what the people from the other delegations were doing. They were all Barfield’s people, most of them would be out of a job in January, and since I wasn’t here in an official capacity, I hadn’t bothered them and they’d returned the favor. Still, that was before this morning. Once the lunch broke up and people started heading out, I shook hands with everyone at my table, made sure they had my contact info back in Philadelphia, and headed over to the handful of Atlantic people still sitting at theirs.

One of them was a guy I knew from back when I was in business, and I went up to him and shook his hand. “Hi, Frank.”

“Hi, Peter,” he said. “Hell of a situation.”

“I won’t argue.”

He eyed my clothes, and said, “Gone native, I see.”

I laughed. “When in Rome. I got tired of people looking at me like a two-headed calf.”

“Whatever floats your boat,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“What’s official policy on sending a message to the President-elect via diplomatic links?”

He gave me a bleak look. “‘All reasonable accommodation,’” he quoted. “You guys pounded us fair and square, and it’s your baby now.” With a sudden edged smile: “Frankly, now that this new thing’s blown up, I’m glad I’ll be out the door in two months.”

“I bet,” I said. We talked about the details, and the upshot was that the two of us took a taxi to the Atlantic embassy six blocks away on Lakeland’s Embassy Row. From the outside, it was a nice stone building of typical Lakeland design, like the other embassies, and the Atlantic flag, navy-white-navy with a gold anchor in the middle and a gold star in the upper left, whipped back and forth in a raw wind. Go through the door and everything’s brushed aluminum and black plastic, with the kind of abstract art on the walls that looks like an overenthusiastic dog gobbled an artist’s paint tubes and then threw up. I’d spent most of my adult life in settings like that, and gotten used to thinking of them as modern, cutting-edge, and so on. For the first time it really sank in just how incredibly ugly it all was.

Still, I followed Frank to the communications center down in the basement, got handed over to the comm manager and shown to a desk with a veescreen terminal. For the first time since I’d crossed the border, I had the once-familiar sensation of an image field projected into my visual cortex, and was surprised by how intrusive it felt. Still, I had work to do. I typed out something to Meg Amberger, the transition team’s trade-policy person, letting her know about the potential shipping agreements with Missouri, East Canada, and Chicago, and asked her to tell the boss that the negotiations with Lakeland had gone well—I figured she could use the good news. I added four words that I knew Meg wouldn’t understand, but would pass on anyway, and then hit the SEND button. A moment later that was on its way; I thanked the manager and left the comm center.

Frank was waiting for me outside the door. “Normally I’d invite you to come around and check your veemail here, but we’re down to essential traffic only.”

It took me a moment to realize what he was saying. “Satellite trouble?”

“Yeah. One more thing on top of everything else we’re having to deal with.”

I eyed him, considered the options. “Can I buy you a drink?”

He paused, then nodded. “Sure.”

He knew exactly what I was asking, of course. We went outside again, and he waved down a taxi and gave the driver an address I recognized, over on the other end of downtown. All the bars and restaurants close to Embassy Row are wired for sound by somebody or other.  If you’re embassy staff or intelligence, you know where your people have mikes, so you can take contacts there when you want something recorded, and you usually know where at least some of the other countries have mikes, so you can feed them true or false information as the situation requires. If you want to talk off the record, though, you go somewhere well away from Embassy Row, and never the same place twice, so it’s harder for anybody else’s spooks to try to listen in.

So we rolled through the streets of Toledo behind the amiable clop-clop-clop of the horse, Frank looking glum and uncomfortable in his bioplastic suit, me being glad that old-fashioned wool suiting keeps out the chill. Neither of us said much of anything until we got out of the taxi. We were in front of the Harbor Club, the place where I’d listened to Sam Capoferro and his Frogtown Five and talked to Fred Vanich. It was open and surprisingly busy for three in the afternoon, but we had no trouble getting a table over to one side, across from the piano Sam had played. A spry old lady with silver hair and dark brown skin sat there now, playing Chopin with an ease that showed she’d had her fingers on a keyboard since she was six or so.

The waiter came over as soon as we were settled.  I ordered a martini, and Frank gave me a sidelong look and ordered a double shot of vodka, straight. The bartender didn’t waste any time, either.

“So,” I said, once the drinks arrived. “Satellite trouble, and everything else.”

“You know we lease satellite services from a Chinese firm, right?” Fred took a slug of his drink “We’re supposed to have four high-speed channels. Right now we’ve got one, and it’s high speed only if you give that phrase a really broad definition. Rumor has it that at least two embassies have no realtime comm links home at all, though nobody’s admitting it, and it won’t many more fender benders in orbit before our provider calls force majeure and we’re shut out completely. Everybody’s trying to figure out some way to get satellite service back, but it’s going to be a while.”

“A long while,” I said. “How did embassies phone home before there were satellites?”

It seemed like an obvious question, but Frank looked at me as though I’d sprouted a spare head. “I have no idea,” he said. “Who cares?  Anyway, our provider’s trying to see if there’s a way to get armored satellites out to the Moon’s Lagrange points or something, but that may be years out.

“But that’s just one more mess on top of the others. You know the Philly stock market’s down hard.”

“Along with everyone else’s,” I said.

“Worse.” He gestured with his drink, which was getting toward half empty.  “We had a lot more foreign investment than anybody realized—it was all through shell corporations, you know the drill—and when telecom stocks started dragging the market down, you had the usual flight to safety. The Department of Finance stepped in, of course, and propped things up with hard currency loans, but they’ve only got so much on hand and the World Bank isn’t handing over any more. So even before this damn war broke out, we were looking at a major economic crisis—and now this. I honestly don’t know how we’re going to make it.”

“We’ve had economic crises before,” I said.

“It’s different this time. Finance is running in circles like a bunch of robot tanks with a defective program, and everybody else is trying to get as much money out of the markets as they can without making too much noise, and when the hard currency runs short the bottom’s going to drop right out. I hope your boss has something up her sleeve, or we’re going to be in for it.”

I motioned for him to go on, and he said, “And now the war. This stays off the record.” I nodded, and he went on. “Our NIS people here talked with their opposite numbers back home.” NIS was National Intelligence Service, our spook shop in Philadelphia. “They’ve got sources down south. Word is that along with the drilling platforms, at least eighteen Confederate production platforms got blown to scrap, and fourteen of them were running stripper well farms.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that there’s not enough output to pay for replacing the platforms once the fighting’s over. A lot of the Gulf oil industry works legacy fields, right? If the situation’s similar on the Texas side, and that’s the current best guess, a big fraction of Gulf oil production is g, o, n, e,  gone, for good. That means another price spike, and maybe worse.” He gave me an uneasy look; I gestured for him to continue, and he said, “Actual shortages. As in ‘No, we don’t have any at all’ shortages. How do you deal with something like that?”

“There’ve been oil shortages before,” I reminded him. “How did people deal with those?”

“I don’t have the least idea,” he said. “That was then, this is now.  But the people back in Philly are just aghast. They’re trying to game possible responses and coming up blank. I don’t know if there’s any option that will work at all.” He finished his drink, waved down a waiter and ordered a refill.

I nodded and said something to keep him talking, and for the next two hours or so got an increasingly detailed account of just how screwed the Atlantic Republic was going to be without viable satellite services, economic stability, or a reliable source of petroleum—we used less of that latter than most of the other North American republics, and a lot less than anybody thought of using back before the Second Civil War, but it was still something we couldn’t give up without landing in a world of hurt. All the while, though, I was trying to fit my head around the way he’d blown off my questions.

The penny didn’t drop until I got him onto a taxi—he was pretty wobbly by then, so I paid his fare and told the driver where to take him—and stood there on the sidewalk watching the back of the thing pull away. Two weeks ago, I realized, I’d have done exactly the same thing. That was then, this is now, it’s different this time, that’s history, we need to be thinking ahead of the times, not behind them: how many times had I mouthed those same catchphrases?

I’d meant to flag down another cab, but turned and started walking instead taking the distant pale shape of the unfinished Capitol dome as my guide. Around me, Toledo went about its business as though this was just another day. The sky had cleared off, the wind was brisk but not too raw, and people were out on the sidewalks, shopping or heading for swing shift jobs or just taking in some fresh air. The crisis that had the Atlantic Republic tottering was just another piece of news to them. It was interesting news; a paperboy came trotting along the street shouting “Extra! Latest news on the war down south!” and found plety of customers. Still, they didn’t have to care.  It wasn’t something that was going to throw them out of work and shred the fabric of their daily lives. And the reason was—

The reason was that they had stopped saying “It’s different this time,” and treated the past as a resource rather than an irrelevance.

I kept walking. Everything I saw around me—the horsedrawn cabs, the streetcars, the comfortable and attractive brick buildings, the clothing on the people—had been quarried out of the past and refitted for use in the present, because they worked better than the alternatives. The insight that had come crashing into my thoughts in the middle of Parsifal returned: for us, for people in the North American republics and elsewhere in the industrial world, the period of exploration was over, the period of performance had arrived, and we had plenty of data about what worked and what didn’t, if only we chose to use it.

A streetcar went by, packed with workers on their way home from the day shift; the conductor’s bell went ding-di-ding ding, the way conductors’ bells went on those same streets a hundred and fifty years before. I knew perfectly well why nobody in Philadelphia had considered putting streetcars back on the streets of the Atlantic Republic’s cities, to do a job they did better, and for much less money, than the shiny high-tech modern equivalents. I’d been in the middle of the groupthink that made progress look like the only option even when progress was half a century into negative returns.  Everyone I knew was well aware that “newer” had stopped meaning “better” a long time ago, that every upgrade meant more problems and fewer benefits, that the latest must-have technologies did less and cost more than the last round, but nobody seemed to be able to draw the obvious conclusion.

I shook my head and kept walking, while those ideas circled in my head.

It must have been most of an hour later when I realized I’d overshot my hotel by a good six blocks.  The Capitol dome was something like a dozen blocks behind me, and I’d strayed into an upscale neighborhood of row houses with little shops at the street corners. I turned around, headed back toward the dome. By the time I got there, it must have been past five o’clock, and people were trickling out of the Capitol entrance, heading toward the street and the line of cabs that waited there for fares. I recognized one of them at a glance; fortunately, she saw me and turned up the sidewalk to meet me.

“Hello, Melanie,” I said.

That got a tired smile. “Hello, Peter. Hell of a day.”

“I won’t argue.” I considered the options. “Up for dinner?”

“About that.”

I gestured to one of the cabs; she smiled again, and the cabby bounded down from his seat and opened the door for us.

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In other fiction-related news, I'm pleased to announce that Founders House, the publishing firm of the After Oil anthologies, is launching a new magazine of science fiction and fantasy, titled Mythic. They're soliciting stories for the first issue right now. Publisher Shaun Kilgore is looking for science fiction and fantasy that moves past the stereotypes of the genre -- science fiction that isn't all about spaceships and rayguns, and fantasy that isn't infested with dragons and elves -- and he's indicated to me that submissions of deindustrial SF will be welcome. Check out the website here.