Friday, January 23, 2009

More Afterthoughts

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.


This post is turning out to be more difficult to wrap up than I expected. In part it's because I've come down with a mother of a cold and my brain has been operating at about half-wattage for the past two days, but mostly it's because this post wants to keep branching off in a multitude of scattershot directions. There are so many things you need to know.

If you think I was too harsh on the 19th century utopians, don't take my word for it; go read them yourself. Three of the most influential were Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, News from Nowhere, by William Morris (who also wrote the seminal fantasy novels, The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World's End), and A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells. Of these three I found the Howells novel the most disillusioning, as Howells was a literary giant of his day: a novelist, poet, and playwright; an extremely influential literary columnist and critic who wrote for The Atlantic and Harper's; and a close personal friend of Mark Twain, who routinely gushed over Howells' manifest brilliance in his personal letters and writings about writing. And yet the Altrurian trilogy is such an utter load of rancid socialist tripe.

Guess this just goes to prove that even being a brilliant entertainer, as Twain was, doesn't necessarily mean you know jack squat about politics or economics.

The Utopian formula varied slightly from writer to writer, depending on their personal gripes, but generally amounted to a glowing description of how wonderful life in the future would be, if only Man could rise above his selfishness and petty concerns long enough to get with the agenda: a society sensibly reorganized along "scientific" principles; the abolition of wealth, private property, possessions (up to and including possessions like "husbands," "wives," and "children," depending on the writer), capitalism, hereditary wealth, national borders (sometimes), religion (although some kept the nominal trappings of Christianity but saw it redirected into more secular and socially useful channels, much like contemporary mainstream Protestantism), monogamy (depending on the private kinks of the writer); the embracing of perfect equality and universally uniform government-run childhood education...

Alduous Huxley's Brave New World is in many respects a belated response to the ravings of the late 19th century Utopians. If you've never read it, do so. Now. If I ever teach a course on 20th century literature or science fiction, the two novels that absolutely will be required reading are George Orwell's 1984 and Alduous Huxley's Brave New World. Together, they explain so much about how we got to where we are now.

But at the moment I'm stuck back in the 19th century, trying to fill in the gaps (or perhaps Orwellianly deliberate omissions?) in your universally uniform government-run education. The primary importance of the Utopians is that they had a profound influence on the Fabians, which is another thing you need to know about: The Fabian Society, an organization of late 19th century British intellectuals (including, yes, H. G. Wells) who had come to the conclusion that Karl Marx was right, but if managed properly, the common people could be led to embrace communism gradually and without all that messy violent proletarian revolution business. In the U.K. the Fabian Society directly spawned the Labour Party. In the U.S., it spawned the Progressive movement, which was perhaps best articulated by founding The New Republic magazine editor Herbert David Croly in his book, The Promise of American Life.

You may read Croly's book, if you like. I wouldn't recommend it, as Croly never uses one word when three can be made to fit or expresses in a sentence an idea that could be puffed up into a long and turgid paragraph. The essential idea of the book is that democracy, capitalism, and individualism have failed and the people must be led — gently now, we don't want to alarm them! — into embracing a collectivist "welfare state" in which hereditary wealth is abolished, no man suffers from either the degrading influence of being poor or the corrupting influence of being rich, wealth is redistributed equitably through a system of "income tax" confiscations and "welfare" payments, all industry and art is scientifically managed by the government for the greater good of society, and yet the people retain an acceptable illusion of freedom, until such time as the great work is complete and the Platonic philosopher-kings who run the whole show can at last drop the curtains, to reveal that We The People now live in a perfect socialist world. Cue the applause.

The real importance of The Promise of American Life is not the number of copies it sold, but the people who read it and embraced its thesis, those people being primarily Theodore Roosevelt (after he was out of office, thankfully), Woodrow Wilson, several Supreme Court justices and leading jurists, and later, the primary architects of FDR's "New Deal." So if you're one of those crazy right wingnuts who believes that there has been a century-long conspiracy to turn the American republic into a socialist oligarchy...

Yeah, pretty much.

Still writing, but hitting the Publish Post button now to see what it looks like so far, and then taking a break to sneeze and dose up on more aspirin...

'at's odd. HaloScan's post counter seems to be malfunctioning again.

Okay, THAT is really annoying. HaloScan has taken a dump again. Henry, Passinthrough, Snowdog, Jack, Chris; every comment posted after Rigel's 3:25 a.m. post shows up on my admin screen, but is invisible to everyone else.

I've about had it with HaloScan, as this is a chronic problem. Tech support has been contacted. No signs of life were found. Presumably HaloScan will at some point resume working, and when it does there will be not one word of explanation. I'm ready to switch comment engines.

No, not to CoComment. I've already had quite enough fun watching die Pleite geführt, sagt der bayerische Gewerkschaftschef Werner Neugebauer. "Grob fahrlässig haben die Manager eine ganze Technologie am Standort Deutschland gegen die Wand gefahren, ausbaden müssen es jetzt wieder einmal die Mitarbeiter." Es sei dem Unternehmen nicht gelungen, ein tragfähiges Zukunftskonzept vorzulegen, sagt Jurk. Aus dem Bundeswirtschaftsministerium heißt es am Freitag the random German incursions into Vox's site. I'm looking for a reliable comment engine. Anybody know of one they'd recommend?

If so, uh, wouldja send me the info in an email, bitte?

I stand corrected. JS-Kit technical support got back to me in just over an hour. That's never happened before. Maybe HaloScan's new owners are serious improving quality, support, and customer relations. Stay tuned...