The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Officer Recruitment Up: Nihilism and Nine-Eleven

Tom Ricks in "From Ivy League to olive drab" comments on the (apparent) rise of elite graduates opting for the military over politics, finance and business. He explains it with two points:

The negative trend is, I think, that a significant portion of students are finishing at our best universities feeling let down and unfulfilled by the experience. It just wasn't all it they'd expected it to be. There is too much drinking and dope-smoking and too little sense of commitment to anything larger than one's own ambitions and appetites. Ultimately, they tell me, they didn't feel challenged to be more than themselves, intellectually or morally.

The historical moment is that these young men are from the 9/11 generation. Most of them were 13 or 14 years old then that attack occurred -- that is, barely conscious of the larger world. Since then, for all their conscious lives, they have lived in a nation at war. So what I think fundamentally is going on is that they are deciding that al Qaeda's attack and its consequences are becoming the defining event of their lifetimes, and they want to be part of that.

My response:

I think you are probably sadly right on both counts. University life might as well be a course in nihilism. That is somewhat unfair. The failure of universities to instill values is a reflection of our society (and consumer societies more generally). We are driven by money, sex, cars, TV and any number of banal careers. When one is working, one doesn't have quite the time to think and ponder about this. When one is studying, a mix of contemplation and idleness, the ugly, materialistic nihilism of our society becomes unbearable.

I think the second point on the 9/11 generation is also probably true, and also quite sad. I think it is sad that Americans feel so insecure today, when they in fact have never been so secure since 1939 when the Nazi conquest of Europe made isolationism untenable. We are not a nation at war. The fact some people talk and think as though we are in an epic struggle speaks to the mediocrity of this generation. As though having two 'small wars', virtually cut off from the rest of the nation, were comparable to the struggles of WW2 or the threats of total annihilation of the Cold War.

I find it sad also because the biggest security threat to America today, a nuclear terrorist attack, is not in fact one where military force is all that useful (unless we plan on invading every single potential proliferator, clearly impossible). It is much more a job for meticulous FBI agents and Pashtun-speaking intelligence officers than aimless drones or gung-ho Marines.

The only good sign is that at least some young people want to do something that requires discipline and purpose. Not that that needs to be found in the military. I myself will be graduating with a Master's shortly and, as I don't think I have the character for the military, hope to work in State or Defense.

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Michael Kinsley vs. Social Sciences (and U.S. Cuba Policy)

Michael Kinsley is my favorite journalist and political commentator around. This is so not so much on the basis of his articles, which are usually good but not great. Nor is it because of his trailblazing founding and editing of the first (?) online magazine Slate, although that usually provides a lot of very diverse and interesting stuff.

No, I was charmed with Kinsley's numerous appearances on Charlie Rose in which he is, from Clinton to Obama, an unflappable voice of reason and skepticism. You see him duke it out over the years from his writing a book on the American people in the 1990s entitled Crybabies, his preaching the gospel of combing media and internet (when it wasn't so fashionable, whereas now it seems so obvious to us), and his wry commentary of the Bush years. And too, one sees him in an ostensibly losing (and for the longest time, secret) struggle with Parkinson's disease, to the point of significantly affecting his mannerism and speech, which he has not let negatively affect his life. He defected from Washington D.C. to continue his career in Seattle, Washington (substituting Microsoft and hiking for Crossfire and going to New York shows).

Kinsley doesn't go onto Charlie Rose often enough, so I do read his articles. And I really enjoyed this week's piece. It's a commentary on experiments in social sciences and policy towards Cuba. The barbs on economics and political science are ones I have thought myself:
Among the social sciences, economists are the snobs. Economics, with its numbers and graphs and curves, at least has the coloration and paraphernalia of a hard science. It's not just putting on sandals and trekking out to take notes on some tribe.
Political science, meanwhile, announces its defensiveness in its name. If it really were a science, it wouldn't need to say so quite as adamantly, would it? The difficulty with social science is that it's about people, who tend to be fickle. Political science is usually about people in large groups. Parties. Societies. Nations. If you want to test a proposition about, say, the relationship between democracy and free trade, you can't just set up a bunch of countries to experiment with. You have to take what you find, and there will always be some exception or complication to defeat your pretensions to science.
It then goes on to argue how we have valid experiments in foreign policy: we've tried every different thing under the sun to eliminate communist regimes. Some things seem to work, others don't, and while hardly original, Kinsley suggests the longevity of Cuban Communism suggests something about the effectiveness of our policies towards that country..

I hope to see more of Kinsley's mild-mannered acid wit in the future!

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Battlestar Galactica

I finally finished Season 4 of Battlestar Galactica today. Spoilers abound.

BSG has for the last four years been some exemplary, bold television. As a series it has its flaws: seemingly bipolar characters, sometimes aimless story arcs, the fact that half the fleet seems to be made up of reporters… And the finale was deeply dissatisfying in many ways – I don’t need to repeat what has been said all over the internet about the gaping plot holes and unbelievably garish, lazy mysticism. At the same time, it had two things that I loved about the series.

The first is the real genius of the show. Its good moments are extremely good, because they are truly compelling. The quality of the actors and naturalistic settings make the characters and situations feel very real. The events gone through are awe-inspiring and we experience them as our own: the confused end of civilization, the claustrophobia of being on the run in tin cans, the wonder at finding a friendly, superior vessel, the despair of finding an Earth of ashes… And that is only scratching the surface. The travails, joy, despair, horror, redemption, and triumphs of the characters are ours. You literally fear, cheer and weep for them. The finale featured a good number of moving scenes and fitting send offs that ran from the shocking through the hopeful to the bittersweet… I loved Season 4 for using a number of characters – Dualla, Gaeta, Athena, Helo – to their full potential and the finale too has priceless moments with Adama, Roslin, Caprica Six, Baltar.

"Bold television"

The second is the show as a format for debate. Themes have included democracy, civil rights, terrorism, war and all that. The main themes in the finale are ones proper to Science Fiction: the nature of artificial life and the dangers of technology. Both themes are extremely timely. Artificial life for the current research on genetically modified food, cloning and stem-cell research. The dangers of technology are always an issue in any human civilization, but especially industrial civilization.

Frankenstein's Monster: Early Cylon

This isn’t particularly new ground. The show’s premise – robots becoming human, usually running amok – is extremely common in Sci Fi. One could cite Blade Runner, Terminator, about half of Isaac Asimov’s cannon, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis… In fact, you can go all the way back to what is perhaps the first Science Fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What BSG did was to add to this venerable tradition for the first time on television in a compelling new setting, beautifully executed with stunning CGI and great actors. It has renovated the Promethean Myth, perhaps the most important and commonly addressed question of Sci Fi.

Prometheus: Greek myth...

The conquest of technology, the acquisition of previously forbidden knowledge, these themes go back as least as far as the myth of Prometheus. The Titan Prometheus gives man the ability to use fire. The Gods are angered by this theft. Prometheus is chained to a mountain in the Caucasus, doomed to have his liver devoured by an eagle every day. Man is given a box, unwittingly opened by Pandora, releasing all of the evils into the world. We learn to split atoms, to turn dead dinosaurs into propulsion, to produce everything en masse. In doing so, the world conforms to something approaching our will. Infant mortality drops, lights stay on at night, urban pauperism is reduced to a small minority, EasyJet and Skype destroy the meaning of distance. We do not grow up with rotten teeth to die in our early thirties of dysentery… But we can never predict the effects of Prometheus’s gifts. It was not so long ago that blowing up the Earth was not such a remote possibility. And even today our addiction to various creature comforts might lead to any number of disasters. Whenever we empower ourselves further through technology, turning the world progressively into an extension of ourselves, we must always be aware of the dangers as well as the opportunities.

Debate on the issue seems to split into uncomfortable polarization. On the one hand are those who protest at various summits, or feel empowered by smashing a McDonald’s, variably anti-globalization, anti-genetic modification, anti-nuclear, seemingly entirely emotional and unconstructive (or, in the case of opponents of stem-cell research, driven by reasons of faith). On the other are those, rather low-key these days but very powerful in the Nineties, advocating growth above all, as part of a risk-taking and social Darwinist philosophy, typically displaying an unhealthy technological fetishism. Really, these are two equally nihilist modes of thinking. Only Tom Friedman, cheerleader of the new globalized capitalism cum cheerleader of all things Green, seems to have reconciled the dilemma within himself, although not really satisfactorily.

...flawed metaphor

The Promethean ambition is one of the most important dilemmas facing humanity today. Science Fiction is the only genre really capable of grappling with it. It is no coincidence if the subtitle to Shelley’s classic is The Modern Prometheus. BSG has breathed new life into the debates on artificial life specifically and the Promethean dilemma more generally. These are debates we need. For the myth of Prometheus is in some ways an inadequate metaphor for industrial, scientific Man. It is not the gods who curse us for acquiring new knowledge and technology. We do that ourselves. It is our own political, social, psychological and, indeed, moral character which determines that. We choose whether we split the atom to power lightbulbs or destroy cities, whether we use our surgeons to remove cancers or adjust our noses, whether our factories produce bullets or tennis shoes… We decide.

Not that I would take the producer, Ron D. Moore’s philosophies at face value. The very final scene had an unbelievably heavy-handed Luddite message… (Not that I think a little Luddism is unhealthy.) BSG also provided a fascinating vision of a cyclical pattern to technological development. This pattern could be extended beyond robots that kill their masters (for instance: civilization > nuclear weapons > nuke to Stone Age > repeat). BSG leaves us with much food for thought.

What are we left with after four seasons of BSG? We have an inevitably flawed, beautiful series. We have a striking, compelling story that often soars to very great heights. We have the sublime score of Bear McCreary which I’m sure I will long to for a long time… and something else. It is not often entertainment makes you think. More than that it has made me want to write. But it is bittersweet to see it end, as Tim Kreider writes:

[W]atching it end still made me sort of maudlin and wistful, since we’ve lived with those characters for years now and we’ll never see them again. A TV show creates an artificial family group, it's serial and ritualistic, and it lasts over a sizable fraction of your lifespan, so it’s much better at evoking this feeling of time and finality than even long movies or books--even if that series is as silly and trivial as Cheers. (I still get all nostalgic for a certain era of my life and circle of friends whenever I see an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) It makes you mournful for a whole phase of your life, even if it's only just ending and you didn't even notice it was a phase while you were in it--a sort of nostalgia for the ever-vanishing present. Also I had a big crush on Laura Roslyn.

And to conclude with smiles:
* Galactisimpsons
* Motivational posters.
* BGCast Season 3 Analysis, Parts i, ii

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