Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Is Well In the Nexus

Reality is a tricky little animal. In fact, I’m not even sure if there is such a thing. I'm pretty convinced at this point in my life that there is something called perceived reality, but to know if something is actual apart from how a sentient being perceives it is something I’m not sure can ever be fully known or understood. A good case in point are the events in the life of Captain Jean Luc Picard from the time he entered into the Nexus in the film Star Trek VII: Generations until the end of the movie Star Trek X: Nemesis.

There has been much debate over the years since the release of these films as to the validity of the events and if they really happened in the lives of these fictional characters or were they simply the created perceived reality of Picard, now residing within the Nexus. For those unfamiliar with the stories I recommend viewing Star Trek films VII through X for a better understanding of what follows.

The Nexus was first introduced in Generations, the seventh film in the Star Trek franchise in which the crew from The Next Generation television series entered the world of big screen motion picture status. This Nexus was described as an energy ribbon traveling through space that once it comes into contact with living matter (such as a human being) that person is somehow transported within the “tissue” of this ribbon and their reality becomes whatever they perceive or can comprehend it to be. They soon become so engrossed in the reality they are experiencing within the Nexus they can no longer distinguish between the reality from which they were pulled, from the reality they are now encountering.

In the case of Picard and his foe, a Dr. Soran (played by actor Malcolm McDowell) they are swept up into this Nexus while Picard’s ship and crew aboard the Enterprise D are being utterly destroyed as the planet they crash-landed on is annihilated from the shockwave of that planet’s imploding sun. However, Picard finds himself suddenly surrounded by a wife and children he never had but always dreamed of. Soran’s whereabouts are unknown but it is believed that in his reality he is reunited with his own family who were killed centuries earlier by a Borg attack on their home world. Just as Picard is about to give himself over to this new reality he is pulled back into memory of his duty as a Starfleet officer and the captain of the Enterprise. This is where the whole concept of reality vs. perceived reality takes shape. It is my contention that all reality is perceived and this film, along with the next three that follow are a great example of that premise.

In order to hold on to the reality he previously knew as his truth Picard conjures up an image of his most trusted confidant, the El Aurian survivor of the Nexus 85 years earlier, Guinan (portrayed by actress Whoopi Goldberg). She claims to be an “echo” of her true self that was left behind when Captain Scott pulled her, Soran and several other of her people from the jaws of the Nexus eight decades earlier just before they were completely taken in by the phenomena. However, what gave me the clue that this wasn’t really Guinan, or even an echo, was the fact they she seemed aware that she also existed in Picard’s timeline aboard the Enterprise D, something an echo could not know but was known by Picard. Therefore, it is at this point that Picard, well within the confines of the Nexus, is beginning to create a new reality for himself, one that he can accept and deal with mentally that would not leave him psychologically debilitated. He convinces himself upon Guinan’s advice that he can leave the Nexus, go back to the planet he just left and stop Soran from destroying the sun, thus saving him from entering the Nexus and stop the destruction of this solar system, including his ship and crew. He realizes he will need help or Soran will likely get the upper hand again so he employs the help of his greatest Starfleet hero who was also swallowed up by the Nexus eight decades ago, none other than Captain James T. Kirk, the most notable leader in Starfleet’s history. The two of them ride off into the Nexus sunset and face Soran back on the planet face to face, are successful in destroying both the rocket that would implode the sun and get Soran killed in the process. Sadly, while saving the day one more time and in true hero fashion, Captain Kirk also meets his final demise with two words, “Oh my!” Picard is rescued by Starfleet ships, his crew is also saved while Picard reminds everyone viewing the film that there will be a new Enterprise and more adventures to be had.

What was experienced in “Generations” from the moment Picard entered the Nexus was a reality totally created by Picard from the whole cloth of his own psyche. If we were living on the planet he and Soran were on at the time of the ribbon’s arrival and had not been swept up as they were, what we would have witnessed would have been the disappearance of them both and soon after the destruction of the planet, as well as the entire solar system of planets that existed around that imploding star. That would include the destruction of the Enterprise D, the death of its entire surviving crew, including Riker, Data, LaForge, Beverly, Troi and Worf. That would be our reality. However, what we experienced was reality, not from our perspective but from Picard’s. And, everything we saw after Generations, in films VIII through X were three struggles Picard had to face in his new Nexus reality, which to him, is reality.

In film number VIII — First Contact — Picard must take on his most outwardly visceral foe, The Borg. Before he can find the peace promised for those inhabiting the Nexus enemies both outward and inner must be met, combated and defeated. Once this is completed then the life alluded to by both Soran and Guinan, a life in which one feels like they are engulfed “in joy” can become the perceived reality for the individual. In First Contact Picard does meet not only The Borg, but the very queen of the continuum that had abducted him and made him do things he forever regrets and after much conflict, loss of life and sideshows such as the Phoenix launch, he is victorious in destroying the Borg Queen and her minions allowing him to move on to his next great enemy in film IX.

Star Trek IX: Insurrection is considered by many to be one of the worst films in the franchise. I disagree. Why? Because it is part of the hierarchal trilogy necessary for Picard’s complete transformation of peace within the Nexus. In film VIII he met and defeated his most obvious foe, the Borg. However, in this movie he must meet and undermine a slightly more devious foe, one that was hinted at in a couple of the earlier episodes of the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series. Members of the high command at Starfleet. In at least two episodes of the show this internal threat was alluded to, once in Season One episode “Coming of Age” and again in the same season the episode titled “Conspiracy” leaves little doubt about problems within the upper echelon of Starfleet Command. This finally comes to a head in the ninth film where members of the command with ranks of Admiral and higher plot against an entire planet of people after siding with a group of renegades who are seeking to rape the planet of is revitalizing effects by completely destroying the planet’s atmosphere. This is all being done in secret without the knowledge of the President of the United Federation of Planets and some of those in leadership within Starfleet. While on this planet Picard meets a new love, someone he could have a future with, and with the mutagenic properties on the planet they could literally spend an eternity together in contemplative bliss. However, first Picard, after defeating the plot and those behind it, must return to Earth and bring restoration to the Starfleet we all know and love. With this enemy now vanquished Picard only has one more obstacle in his path to experiencing the peace and joy of the Nexus. And this would prove to be his greatest enemy of all time, costing him the highest price of all.

In Star Trek X: Nemesis, railed as the worst film since Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Picard comes face to face with his greatest and final “nemesis” — Himself, reflected in the face of his clone. If these four films can be viewed as the culmination of Picard’s journey in the Nexus then they make perfect sense and can be seen for the masterpieces they were instead of as failures. The failure is not in the stories told in these films but in our lack of understanding that they are an interwoven psychological tale of the captain’s psychical journey into his inner Nexus peace. He can have no joy until the last dark shadow chasing him can be dispelled and these last four films in the Next Generation franchise are just that — Picard’s road to salvation.

This final battle of the mind costs Picard his most needed commodity — his dictatorial demands from reason and rationale, symbolized by the ever present Data. The android has always represented Picard’s walk on that fine line between doing what is rational and following his emotional humanity and like Data, he wasn’t always successful. With the death of Data, Picard did not lose his reason but he was finally able to harmonize it into something beautiful. He didn’t give up rational thinking but in the guise of Data’s brother, B4, was able to see his reality anew with the reason and wonder of a developing child. Other trinkets gave Picard closure as well: Riker and Troi finally married, something quite frankly would probably have never happened apart from Picard’s Nexus experience. Riker also, after two decades accepts his own command as Captain of the USS Titan and Wesley Crusher unbelievably returns to Starfleet as a Lieutenant. I find it hard to believe that Wesley, after his broad and unimaginable experiences as a time traveler would return to the confines of a stiff Starfleet uniform taking orders from, well, anyone. But that is my perceived reality, not Picard’s.

After the events of the final film we are left to wonder what became of Captain Picard. We last see him walking the halls of his retrofitted Enterprise E, nodding at new and old faces and life going on as life always does. In my perceived reality I surmised that after Picard had acknowledged himself to be of a certain age, after having never accepted promotion to Admiral (as advised by Kirk in Generations) he quietly retired from Starfleet, hopped on the first transport ship he could find heading for the briar-patch, beamed down to Ba’ku and spent the rest of his eternal, ageless days with his beloved Anij spending their days together admiring the arts and rising to new planes of spiritual awareness.

Yes … All is well in the Nexus.

"Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens" - A Book Review

Doctor HOW is an Gaelfreyan alien, a Time Keeper with a SPECTREL that looks like a red police call box. He is headquartered in his mansion-esque estate in South London and tasked with the duty of keeping track of resident aliens on planet Earth ensuring they follow all the galactic rules of immigration and not call attention to themselves unless they rip the fabric of self-induced denial that dulls the mind of the human inhabitants of the planet as it relates to life outside the existence of human comprehension.

Doctor HOW has a brother by the name of Doctor WHO. HOW has been on Earth for centuries whereas WHO arrived on Earth in 1963 CE and committed one of the greatest crimes known among Time Keepers, revealed his story to a national television syndicate known as the BBC — thus was born the bane of HOW’s existence, the legendary, howbeit, fictional Time Lord, Doctor Who.

Doctor HOW, his brother Doctor WHO and four others, Doctors WHAT, WHY, WHEN and WHERE are the original Men in Black, however, after WHO’s infraction WHAT, WHY, WHEN and WHERE left in disgust and frustration leaving HOW abandoned with the sacred Time Keeper duty for this region of space all to himself; a task that has become more difficult with the passing of the decades requiring him to take on Earthly companions as the challenge requires.

The latest adventure of Doctor HOW is called “Doctor HOW and the Illegal Aliens,” the first of a five-volume set of sci-fi stories of this Time Keeper’s adventures.

Doctor HOW, is thrown into a troublesome mystery that requires him to take on a local young thug named Kevin as his companion as they explore an alien presence that can shape-shift and time-morph as it appears to attack and feed off of diesel fueled vehicles and machinery. It has killed humans, destroyed property and has proven itself to be both highly volatile, hostile and extremely dangerous.

Author Mark Speed has created and woven together some great ideas that are unique while at the same time throwing in just enough Doctor Who easter eggs to remind readers of the true inspiration for his tales. This is not a copycat Doctor Who series but stands alone as a true blend of sci-fi adventure and comedy with both familiar and newly created friends and foes in the time traveling environs for Time Keeper (Time Lord) legends.

Speed has also introduced Doctor HOW in a short story titled “Doctor HOW and the Rings of Uranus” and the troubling but thought-provoking “Doctor HOW and the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy,” which is actually a part of the second HOW novel.

I can highly recommend “Doctor HOW and the Illegal Aliens” for those who like strange and somewhat comedic twists to familiar stories and characters. It is available from Amazon.com, other online bookstores, public libraries and wherever fine books are sold.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Case Against Liberal Compassion

Four years ago I wrote a book about modern American liberalism: Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State. It addressed the fact that America’s welfare state has been growing steadily for almost a century, and is now much bigger than it was at the start of the New Deal in 1932, or at the beginning of the Great Society in 1964. In 2013 the federal government spent $2.279 trillion—$7,200 per American, two-thirds of all federal outlays, and 14 percent of the Gross Domestic Product—on the five big program areas that make up our welfare state: 1. Social Security; 2. All other income support programs, such as disability insurance or unemployment compensation; 3. Medicare; 4. All other health programs, such as Medicaid; and 5. All programs for education, job training, and social services.

That amount has increased steadily, under Democrats and Republicans, during booms and recessions. Adjusted for inflation and population growth, federal welfare state spending was 58 percent larger in 1993 when Bill Clinton became president than it had been 16 years before when Jimmy Carter took the oath of office. By 2009, when Barack Obama was inaugurated, it was 59 percent larger than it had been in 1993. Overall, the outlays were more than two-and-a-half times as large in 2013 as they had been in 1977. The latest Census Bureau data, from 2011, regarding state and local programs for “social services and income maintenance,” show additional spending of $728 billion beyond the federal amount. Thus the total works out to some $3 trillion for all government welfare state expenditures in the U.S., or just under $10,000 per American. That figure does not include the cost, considerable but harder to reckon, of the policies meant to enhance welfare without the government first borrowing or taxing money and then spending it. I refer to laws and regulations that require some citizens to help others directly, such as minimum wages, maximum hours, and mandatory benefits for employees, or rent control for tenants.

All along, while the welfare state was growing constantly, liberals were insisting constantly it wasn’t big enough or growing fast enough. So I wondered, five years ago, whether there is a Platonic ideal when it comes to the size of the welfare state—whether there is a point at which the welfare state has all the money, programs, personnel, and political support it needs, thereby rendering any further additions pointless. The answer, I concluded, is that there is no answer—the welfare state is a permanent work-in-progress, and its liberal advocates believe that however many resources it has, it always needs a great deal more.

The argument of Never Enough was correct as far as it went, but it was incomplete. It offered an answer to two of the journalist’s standard questions: What is the liberal disposition regarding the growth of the welfare state? And How does that outlook affect politics and policy? But it did not answer another question: Why do liberals feel that no matter how much we’re doing through government programs to alleviate and prevent poverty, whatever we are doing is shamefully inadequate?

Mostly, my book didn’t answer that question because it never really asked or grappled with it. It showed how the Progressives of a century ago, followed by New Deal and Great Society liberals, worked to transform a republic where the government had limited duties and powers into a nation where there were no grievances the government could or should refrain from addressing, and where no means of responding to those grievances lie outside the scope of the government’s legitimate authority. This implied, at least, an answer to the question of why liberals always want the government to do more—an answer congruent with decades of conservative warnings about how each new iteration of the liberal project is one more paving stone on the road to serfdom.

Readers could have concluded that liberals are never satisfied because they get up every morning thinking, “What can I do today to make government a little bigger, and the patch of ground where people live their lives completely unaffected by government power and benevolence a little smaller?” And maybe some liberals do that. Perhaps many do. The narrator of “The Shadow,” a radio drama that ran in the 1930s, would intone at the beginning of every episode, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”

Well, the Shadow may have known, but I don’t. The problem with this kind of explanation for liberal statism is that very, very few liberals have been compliant or foolish enough to vindicate it with self-incriminating testimony. Maybe they’re too shrewd to admit that ever-bigger government is what they seek above all else. Or maybe they don’t realize that’s what they're up to.

Such arguments trouble me, however. The great political philosophy professor Leo Strauss insisted that it is a grave mistake to presume to understand important political philosophers better than they understood themselves, unless one had already put in the hard work necessary to understand them as they understood themselves. Perhaps this good advice can be democratized, I thought, and applied as well to Elizabeth Warren and Rachel Maddow as to Aristotle and John Locke. If we make that effort—an effort to understand committed liberals as they understand themselves—then we have to understand them as people who, by their own account, get up every morning asking, “What can I do today so that there’s a little less suffering in the world?” To wrestle with that question, the question of liberal compassion, is the purpose of my latest book, The Pity Party.

Indifference to Waste and Failure

All conservatives are painfully aware that liberal activists and publicists have successfully weaponized compassion. “I am a liberal,” public radio host Garrison Keillor wrote in 2004, “and liberalism is the politics of kindness.” Last year President Obama said, “Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. When I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything. Kindness; empathy—that sense that I have a stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because [my daughters] are doing well, that’s not enough—I want your kids to do well also.” Empathetic kindness is “what binds us together, and . . . how we’ve always moved forward, based on the idea that we have a stake in each other’s success.”

Well, if liberalism is the politics of kindness, it follows that its adversary, conservatism, is the politics of cruelty, greed, and callousness. Liberals have never been reluctant to connect those dots. In 1936 Franklin Roosevelt said, “Divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” In 1984 the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, “Tip” O’Neill, called President Reagan an “evil” man “who has no care and no concern for the working class of America and the future generations . . . . He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.” A 2013 Paul Krugman column accused conservatives of taking “positive glee in inflicting further suffering on the already miserable.” They were, he wrote, “infected by an almost pathological meanspiritedness . . . . If you’re an American, and you’re down on your luck, these people don’t want to help; they want to give you an extra kick.”

Small-d democratic politics is Darwinian: Arguments and rhetoric that work—that impress voters and intimidate opponents—are used again and again. Those that prove ineffective are discarded. If conservatives had ever come up with a devastating, or even effective rebuttal to the accusation that they are heartless and mean-spirited: a) anyone could recite it by now; and, b) more importantly, liberals would have long ago stopped using rhetoric about liberal kindness versus conservative cruelty, for fear that the political risks of such language far outweighed any potential benefits. The fact that liberals are, if anything, increasingly disposed to frame the basic political choice before the nation in these terms suggests that conservatives have not presented an adequate response.

A first step in that direction is to note a political anomaly pointed out by Mitch Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana. Daniels contended that disciplining government according to “measured provable performance and effective spending” ought to be a “completely philosophically neutral objective.” Skinflint conservatives want government to be thrifty for obvious reasons, but Daniels maintained that liberals’ motivations should be even stronger. “I argue to my most liberal friends: ‘You ought to be the most offended of anybody if a dollar that could help a poor person is being squandered in some way.’ And,” the governor added slyly, “some of them actually agree.”

The clear implication—that many liberals are not especially troubled if government dollars that could help poor people are squandered—strikes me as true, interesting, and important. Given that liberals are people who: 1) have built a welfare state that is now the biggest thing government does in America; and 2) want to regard themselves and be regarded by others as compassionate empathizers determined to alleviate suffering, it should follow that nothing would preoccupy them more than making sure the welfare state machine is functioning at maximum efficiency. When it isn’t, after all, the sacred mission of alleviating preventable suffering is inevitably degraded.

In fact, however, liberals do not seem all that concerned about whether the machine they’ve built, and want to keep expanding, is running well. For inflation-adjusted, per capita federal welfare state spending to increase by 254 percent from 1977 to 2013, without a correspondingly dramatic reduction in poverty, and for liberals to react to this phenomenon by taking the position that our welfare state’s only real defect is that it is insufficiently generous, rather than insufficiently effective, suggests a basic problem. To take a recent, vivid example, the Obama Administration had three-and-a-half years from the signing of the Affordable Care Act to the launch of the healthcare.gov website. It’s hard to reconcile the latter debacle with the image of liberals lying awake at night tormented by the thought the government should be doing more to reduce suffering. A sympathetic columnist, E.J. Dionne, wrote of the website’s crash-and-burn debut, “There’s a lesson here that liberals apparently need to learn over and over: Good intentions without proper administration can undermine even the most noble of goals.” That such an elementary lesson is one liberals need to learn over and over suggests a fundamental defect in liberalism, however—something worse than careless or inept implementation of liberal policies.

That defect, I came to think, can be explained as follows: The problem with liberalism may be that no one knows how to get the government to do the benevolent things liberals want it to do. Or it may be, at least in some cases, that it just isn’t possible for the government to bring about what liberals want it to accomplish. As the leading writers in The Public Interest began demonstrating almost 50 years ago, the intended, beneficial consequences of social policies are routinely overwhelmed by the unintended, harmful consequences they trigger. It may also be, as conservatives have long argued, that achieving liberal goals, no matter how humane they sound, requires kinds and degrees of government coercion fundamentally incompatible with a government created to secure citizens’ inalienable rights, and deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.

I don’t reject any of those possibilities, or deny the evidence and logic adduced in support of each. But my assessment of how the liberal project has been justified in words, and rendered in deeds, leads me to a different explanation for why, under the auspices of liberal government, things have a way of turning out so badly. I conclude that the machinery created by the politics of kindness doesn’t work very well—in the sense of being economical, adaptable, and above all effective—because the liberals who build, operate, defend, and seek to expand this machine don’t really care whether it works very well and are, on balance, happier when it fails than when it succeeds.

The Satisfaction of Pious Preening

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latinate word “compassion” means, literally, “suffering together with another”—it’s the “feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it.” Note that suffering together does not mean suffering identically. The compassionate person does not become hungry when he meets or thinks about a hungry person, or sick in the presence of the sick. Rather, compassion means we are affected by others’ suffering, a distress that motivates us to alleviate it. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Emile, “When the strength of an expansive soul makes me identify myself with my fellow, and I feel that I am, so to speak, in him, it is in order not to suffer that I do not want him to suffer. I am interested in him for love of myself.”

We can see the problem. The whole point of compassion is for empathizers to feel better when awareness of another’s suffering provokes unease. But this ultimate purpose does not guarantee that empathizees will fare better. Barbara Oakley, co-editor of the volume Pathological Altruism, defines its subject as “altruism in which attempts to promote the welfare of others instead result in unanticipated harm.” Surprises and accidents happen, of course. The pathology of pathological altruism is not the failure to salve every wound. It is, rather, the indifference—blithe, heedless, smug, or solipsistic—to the fact and consequences of those failures, just as long as the empathizer is accruing compassion points that he and others will admire. As philosophy professor David Schmidtz has said, “If you’re trying to prove your heart is in the right place, it isn’t.”

Indeed, if you’re trying to prove your heart is in the right place, the failure of government programs to alleviate suffering is not only an acceptable outcome but in many ways the preferred one. Sometimes empathizers, such as those in the “helping professions,” acquire a vested interest in the study, management, and perpetuation—as opposed to the solution and resulting disappearance—of sufferers’ problems. This is why so many government programs initiated to conquer a problem end up, instead, colonizing it by building sprawling settlements where the helpers and the helped are endlessly, increasingly co-dependent. Even where there are no material benefits to addressing, without ever reducing, other people’s suffering, there are vital psychic benefits for those who regard their own compassion as the central virtue that makes them good, decent, and admirable people—people whose sensitivity readily distinguishes them from mean-spirited conservatives. “Pity is about how deeply I can feel,” wrote the late political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain. “And in order to feel this way, to experience the rush of my own pious reaction, I need victims the way an addict needs drugs.”

It follows, then, that the answer to the question of how liberals who profess to be anguished about other people’s suffering can be so weirdly complacent regarding wasteful, misdirected, and above all ineffective government programs created to relieve that suffering—is that liberals care about helping much less than they care about caring. Because compassion gives me a self-regarding reason to care about your suffering, it’s more important for me to do something than to accomplish something. Once I’ve voted for, given a speech about, written an editorial endorsing, or held forth at a dinner party on the salutary generosity of some program to “address” your problem, my work is done, and I can feel the rush of my own pious reaction. There’s no need to stick around for the complex, frustrating, mundane work of making sure the program that made me feel better, just by being established and praised, has actually alleviated your suffering.

This assessment also provides an answer to the question of why liberals always want a bigger welfare state. It’s because the politics of kindness is about validating oneself rather than helping others, which means the proper response to suffering is always, “We need to do more,” and never, “We need to do what we’re already doing better and smarter.” That is, liberals react to an objective reality in a distinctively perverse way. The reality is, first, that there are many instances of poverty, insecurity, and suffering in our country and, second, that public expenditures to alleviate poverty, insecurity, and suffering amount to $3 trillion, or some $10,000 per American, much of it spent on the many millions of Americans who are nowhere near being impoverished, insecure, or suffering. If the point of liberalism were to alleviate suffering, as opposed to preening about one’s abhorrence of suffering and proud support for government programs designed to reduce it, liberals would get up every morning determined to reduce the proportion of that $3 trillion outlay that ought to be helping the poor but is instead being squandered in some way, including by being showered on people who aren’t poor. But since the real point of liberalism is to alleviate the suffering of those distressed by others’ suffering, the hard work of making our $3 trillion welfare state machine work optimally is much less attractive—less gratifying—than demanding that we expand it, and condemning those who are skeptical about that expansion for their greed and cruelty.

*****

Those of us accused of being greedy and cruel, for standing athwart the advance of liberalism and expansion of the welfare state, do have things to say, then, in response to the empathy crusaders. Compassion really is important. Clifford Orwin, a political scientist who has examined the subject painstakingly, believes our strong, spontaneous proclivity to be distressed by others’ suffering confirms the ancient Greek philosophers’ belief that nature intended for human beings to be friends. But compassion is neither all-important nor supremely important in morals and, especially, politics. It is nice, all things being equal, to have government officials who feel our pain rather than ones who, like imperious monarchs, cannot comprehend or do not deign to notice it. Much more than our rulers’ compassion, however, we deserve their respect—for us; our rights; our capacity and responsibility to feel and heal our own pains without their ministrations; and for America’s carefully constructed and heroically sustained experiment in constitutional self-government, which errs on the side of caution and republicanism by denying even the most compassionate official a monarch’s plenary powers. Kindness may well cover all of Barack Obama’s political beliefs, and those of many other self-satisfied, pathologically altruistic liberals. It doesn’t begin to cover all the beliefs that have sustained America’s republic, however. Nor does it amount to a safe substitute for those moral virtues and political principles necessary to sustain it further.

“Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.”

ABOUT the AUTHOR:

WILLIAM VOEGELI is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Henry Salvatori Center

After receiving a Ph.D. in political science from Loyola University in Chicago, he served as a program officer for the John M. Olin Foundation. He has written for numerous publications, including the Christian Science Monitor, City Journal, Commentary, First Things, the Los Angeles Times, National Review, and the New Criterion.

He is the author of two books, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State and The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Heart and Soul of Science Fiction’s Appeal

What is it about science fiction that draws us into that world of part scientific reality and possibility and pure fiction with a dash of thrilling drama? Why do we even care?

I have spent my entire life living in the world of science fiction on various levels. In childhood it was being mesmerized by the literary works of writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and watching those works get translated into scratchy old black and white films from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Then it was onto that small ten-inch screen housed in a gigantic wooden box that brought the visual stories of Rod Serling, Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Hitchcock, Philip K. Dick and Gene Roddenberry into my living room. As a journalist I have spent my adult life writing about it. And, in the beginnings of this 21st Century it is seeing great works of sci-fi on massive high definition screens that are stories tall while being engulfed in three dimensions and Dolby high-res digitized surround sound. However, regardless of how it is presented -- oral storytelling around a campfire, in books, e-readers or small and big screens there is something about science fiction that finds a level of appeal to human beings on this planet. Just what could that appeal be?

While science fiction as we know it has been around for at least two hundred years the founder of science fiction fandom, Forrest J. Ackerman is credited with coining the phrase “sci-fi” and made it part of the vernacular in the early 1950’s. Even though he is considered to be the Moses of sci-fi he really never made a serious attempt at trying to define what the genre was, mainly because he felt it to be too many things to too many people for a one liner hook. However, other greats from science fiction have tried. A study of the genre by Princeton University cited several science fiction authors in their look into the subject. Their study revealed that probably the most prolific writer of the 20th Century, Robert A. Heinlein defined the genre as a “Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” While being a bit long-winded, as Heinlein often became in his tomes, his definition is probably the best all around and gives us a clue as to the world-wide appeal of the genre. Rod Serling gave the shortest and most concise determination when he stated that “Science fiction is the improbable made possible.”

When these two interpretations are looked at closely we can begin to understand what it is about science fiction that tends to draw many of us in.

If sci-fi is based on both speculation and realism as Heinlein suggests and allows for equal parts imagination and astute discourse by the above average intellect then the appeal would be near impossible to ignore by those with a creative and perceptive mind. That kind of discerning mental palette simply cannot ignore it and will be drawn in, but only if what is being read or viewed is both intellectually stimulating and emotionally profound, allowing for both lively discourse and experimentation.

Those drawn to science fiction that comes on the inventive level of an Asimov, Herbert, Clarke, Bradbury or Robinson will also be sufficiently peaked as well due to its Serling nature. It will be seen as a challenge to the psyche, particularly if what is being presented in the work; be it a novel, short story, television spot or film, is by all appearances “improbable.” The brilliant among us love nothing more than making what the average citizen of the world considers impossible, probable and beyond that -- doable!

Without science fiction and those minds pulled into its web of genius nearly all of those modern day inventions we now take for granted would have never come into reality but would have remained locked on the pages of books or in the dialogue of characters on film. Diseases, now considered obsolete would still be running rampant, communications, distribution of power to individual homes and places of business, travel by land, air and sea would likely have remained a dream in the minds of great writers of the past and space would continue to be something humans could only speculate about.

Science fiction made all these things possible because someone read or saw the works of these great men and women in their books and films and decided the improbable could be made possible. That, above all else, is the appeal of this genre we call science fiction.