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Great for art! Terrible for running a civilization


My romantic soul agrees with this vivid howl! (From Robert A. Heinlein’s Glory Road.) 

How vivid, and don’t we all… at least in part… agree?

And yet, this plaint by a Heinlein character — a scarred Vietnam vet and sci fi fan — also exemplifies the lethal Problem of Romanticism, in which arty emotionalism gets all the mighty propaganda! Propaganda just like Heinlein’s passage (though seldom as eloquent.) 

Let me put it as a bald assertion. Romanticism may be one of the most-central aspects of being human… and not always for the better.

From the Punic Wars all the way to modern Hollywood flicks, romanticism has spent centuries propelling rage and demonization in all parties, in all human conflicts, making calm negotiation next to impossible. (Admit it. Some of your own passion is about “MY kind of people are virtuous and those opposing my kind are inherently and by type morally deficient!”)

Oh, let’s also admit from the start how addicting righteousness can be! Yes, it must have been reinforced during evolution because of the passion and forcefulness it supplies, during the struggles each generation faced, across the last half a million years. So reinforced that it can be hard even to notice.

== NOT a good basis for policy, in a complex world ==

Emerging from the voluptuous high of romanticism is hard, but not quite impossible, as we’ve shown during the last 200 years of gradually augmenting… maturity.

In fact, as one who lost nearly all of his cousin family lines to one of the most romantic of all vile movements, let me thank God that the romantic soul is having its hands peeled off of policy at long last, after 10,000 years of wretched fear-drenched rage, in which every generation’s tribes called their rivals subhuman, deserving only death, like the Tharks of Mars, Tolkien’s orcs, the Trojans that Achilles slew in heaps…

…or the Black folks who Confederate romantics enslaved as sub-human and Jews slaughtered in millions by romantics playing Wagner…

…and successively masses of robots… then clones… then masked storm troopers who George Lucas mowed down to our delight since, naturally, none of their kind had mothers to mourn them?

== We need romanticism, at our core! Only… ==

Here’s a pretty basic question.  Look at Heinlein’s list of great adventures his character longed for. Now tell us which of them  would be even a scintilla as good a place to raise a family as this tawdry, fouled up mess of a world he was complaining about.  Oh, it’s tawdry and messed up, all right. But largely by the ways it has failed to move away from the kinds of brutal, even sadistic adventure-zones that were rampant both in fiction and across nearly all of human history. 

But there are equally many ways that we have started leaving all of that behind!  And your long, comfortable lives, free of most anguish, pain and death while staring at the flat screens of these palantir miracle devices, kind of suggest our change of path was the right course.

At long last we are giving policy over to the part of us that does fair argument and science and the freedom of even despised minorities to speak and demand we LOOK at them with compassion and respect!

That transformation is not complete – by far – and it may yet fail! But we are close – so close – to exiling ‘romance’ from daylight activities of fact-based policy, sending that part of us instead over to the realm where it belongs. NOT the daylight hours of invention, argument and negotiated progress… 

…but to the campfire hours of moonlight and stars dancing overhead – or the couch or movie theater or pulpy novel – when… YES!… we can unleash that wild, romantic spirit. Those hours when we still need to bay at Luna or Barsoom, to relish garish adventures and quests against dragons…

…or to scan a million black squiggles on pressed vegetable pages, or glowing from a kindled screen, and let those incantations draw us into the voluptuous, subjective roar of which Heinlein speaks!

I make such incantations! I craft good ones. (You’ll enjoy them!) 

But no. 

That side of us should never again be given the tiller of nations or policy. (As crazy people at all political wings are right now demanding that we do!) 

The daytime halls of policy and science and truth-seeking and negotiation… and yes, even revising even our most passionate biases – that’s when and where we must (it is long past time) at last grow up.

== Recovery from authoritarian regimes ==

Here’s an amazingly cogent and well-parsed theory for how authoritarian regimes often transition to democracy after a long reign by an autocrat who is both repressive and good at effective rulership and development. It reminds me of Asimov’s ‘psychohistory’ riff on strong vs. weak emperors vs. strong vs. weak generals. In fact, this article strikes me as a much more cogent psychohistorical contribution than any of the recently popular “historical cycles” bilge that’s been going around. Income, Democracy, and Leader Turnover, by Daniel Treisman

“Abstract:  While some believe that economic development prompts democratization, others contend that both result from distant historical causes. Using the most comprehensive estimates of national income available, I show that development is associated with more democratic government—but mostly in the medium run (10 to 20 years). This is because higher income tends to induce breakthroughs to more democratic politics only after an incumbent dictator leaves office. And in the short run, faster economic growth increases the ruler’s survival odds. Leader turnover appears to matter because of selection: In authoritarian states, reformist leaders tend to either democratize or lose power relatively quickly, so long-serving leaders are rarely reformers. Autocrats also become less activist after their first year in office. This logic helps explain why dictators, concerned only to prolong their rule, often inadvertently prepare their countries for jumps to democracy after they leave the scene.”

Certainly Singapore and South Korea followed this model. Did Pinochet? Iran’s Shah is hard to fit here, except to put him in the category of “less strong than he thought he was.” So. Can we hope this will be legacy of some of today’s world strongmen?

And finally... 

I may have linked to this before. Here’s Mark Twain blaming Sir Walter Scott’s romanticism for the Civil War

“Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the silliness and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.”

I knew I liked the fellow who crafted Huckleberry Finn, one of the finest and most noble of all fictional rascals.



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