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IEET > Life > Vision > Fellows > David Brin

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Past keeping faith with future… and day with night


David Brin
By David Brin
davidbrin.blogspot.com

Posted: Feb 8, 2013

Why the U.S. Civil War -relates to Sci Fi. Each night in November we watched Ken Burns's CIVIL WAR documentary with our 16 year old. A terrific work of high-class, dramatic and enriching media, very highly recommended. Still, I felt the documentary was a bit light on the underlying causes of a national trauma that is resonating within and among Americans.

BurnsCivilWar
Oh, sure, slavery was central. Those who try to minimize that or make other excuses ought to read the actual documents and declarations of secession published by South Carolina and other rebel states. South Carolina's declaration used the word "slavery" proudly, dozens of times. Those declarations presented "grievances" which pretty much consisted of hating northern states for not shutting down abolitionist newspapers. That truly was about it, in almost every secession declaration: "you Yankees allow freedom of the press so folks can say mean things about us. In that case, we spurn the oaths we swore. Goodbye."
 
"States' Rights" were scarcely mentioned -- indeed, the south had pretty much owned and operated the US Federal Government for thirty years till Lincoln's election ended that long run.
 
I have long held that the Civil War did not start with the firing on Fort Sumter.  It began in 1852 with the passage - and brutal enforcement - of the Fugitive Slave Act, which led to invasion and outright raids of northern states by squadrons of irregular southern cavalry, committing outrages and depredations from Illinois to Pennsylvania, supported first by southern-appointed U.S. Marshals and later - when locals began resisting - by federal troops.  These slave-catcher raids, smashing into homes, terrorizing neighbors and dragging off friends you knew since childhood, were the prime provocation that radicalized northerners into re-starting their dormant militias. It is what drove many of them to support Lincoln. Nothing like it happened in the south until Sherman.
 
But slavery is gone.  So why are we still blatantly fighting the same Civil War, 150 years later? Across pretty much the same geographical and cultural divide? Can it be something deeper and psychological?  A current that flows through impenetrable veins, that made slavery a poisonous side effect and not a primary cause?
 
GettysburgA hint can be found in Ted Turner's excellent 1993 Civil War film, "Gettysburg," based upon the 1974 novel, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. (Don't bother with its putrid film prequel "Gods and Generals.")  In "Gettysburg" a British military observer, sympathetic to the Confederate cause, comments to General Longstreet that both sides spoke the same language, sang the same songs... but had different dreams.
 
This resonates with what Mark Twain said -- blaming the war on the addictive quasi fantasy novels of Sir Walter Scott and the streak of romanticism that wove through Southern sensibilities. Indeed, Sam Houston is quoted in the Ken Burns documentary, predicting that hot southern blood would be overcome by northern coolness and ponderous momentum of will.
 
A hundred years ago, in the time of Spengler, Spencer, Wells and Stapledon, this notion of national character was taken seriously.  That the pragmatic cynicism of the French and British contrasted against the Romanticism of Germany and Russia.  And yes, Nazism was the most thoroughly Romantic movement ever conceived.  It is one reason why I am chilled by Tolkien, though I respect him.  It is why I find deeply disturbing the utter-romantic visions of George Lucas.
 
This is not unfamiliar territory for me! I have a romantic soul - sired by generations of poets - that has been harnessed by discipline in science. Hence, I know what both science and romance are good for. Romance is for the evening, when the day's work of contributing to civilization is done.  When all the drudgery of adult endeavors -- cooperation and competition and accountability and all of that -- can be put aside. The stars come out, a chill breeze blows, and the snapping of a twig out there can suddenly send chills up your spine!
 
Romance renounces accountability and so-called "objective reality!" It sees no need for them. And when that mind-set ruled our daylight hours, warping politics and business and the way we perceived our real-life neighbors... horror ensued.  In almost every other culture and society, the romantic tendency to view our own worldview as perfect and the enemy as subhuman reigned.  Until the Enlightenment came to show us - oh so painfully and gradually - how to utter the great words of science and decency: "I suppose I might be wrong. Let's find out."
 
KillerAngelsBut that way of thinking is for the things we do in sunlight. Cool science is for day, when a civilization must be built by negotiation and practical arts and compromise and fact-checking and the banishment of rage. When matters are decided that might decide or alter life... or death.
 
Romanticism must never again be allowed anywhere near the world of policy! Despite the Riefenstahlian machinations of Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh. Or Vladimir Putin or Al Qaeda. Or the residual torches of recidivist leftism that keep trying to warp the liberal mindset. Romance ruled our forebears and made ten thousand years of living nightmare! Good-riddance in the daylight of grownup activities.  Justice, science and saving the world - these pursuits can't afford delusion, no matter how vivid and tantalizing it may be..
 
But oh, how horrible it would be to live - as human beings - without any romance at all!  The shiver of something unknown.  The brush at the cheek.  The thrill of obsession. The itch that must be scratched.  The itch - the compulsion - to howl! We pay our dues by day, striving to make a civilization without fear or want or much pain. But it will all be for naught if -  at the end of each day - we cannot welcome back night!
 
I thought of this a few weeks ago, while visiting my home town of Los Angeles to help dedicate a square in honor of LA's greatest literary son, Ray Bradbury.  I pondered how Ray was the truest romantic of all. How he plumbed the darkest corners of the human soul.
 
But Ray also despised pessimism. He was grateful to a civilization that had been good to him, that gave him readers and audiences and a chance to play pundit during moon landings... and to see four healthy daughters grow up into bold, unlimited women. And he knew that ingratitude is one of the lowest and crappiest human traits.

How to reconcile those two apparent contradictions? Honest gratitude... with a soul that screams at both terror and infinity? It's simple. Division of labor.  Be willing to be many.
 
Darkness is to be shivered at voluptuously...
 
... and shivers make the darkness ours.  They push aside the Gernsback Continuum of day, which strives to make a future for our children, warm and safe and lacking something.
 
Those shivers give us the moment. Something for ourselves, after we have paid our dues to posterity. They take us back to wallow in past eras and ways, when light did not fill the world but flickered bravely against a chill wind and looming darkness.  Opposing all odds, we flickered, when courage was our only weapon in the wild and vivid night. The same realm we still go to in our dreams, after dusk, when duty's put aside.
 
Oh, if we make a better, saner world... as in Star Trek... I hope we never lose that driving need, that penchant and longing!
 
For telling ghost stories by the campfire. And wolf-calling at the wild moon.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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COMMENTS


“But oh, how horrible it would be to live - as human beings - without any romance at all!”


As human beings, yes. But if you could trade places with Spock or another decent Vulcan (were there wicked Vulcans? don’t remember) for example, would you? I wouldn’t hesitate: humans are way, way too bloodyminded/violent, fickle/wavering, etc. Being a Vulcan would be IMO a ‘no-brainer’.
As for the Civil War, things become morally v. fast: Northern wage slavery was hypocritical to the point of nearly negating the issue of Southern slavery; but there was just enough, as you pretty much say above, to fuel the Yankee effort. It was moral brinkmanship—but isn’t such universal? One would then write the Civil War was a contest to impose either Northern wage or Southern bona-fide, slavery on the huge Western territories (which had belonged to the ‘Indians’). What a tangled web we weaved.
Nazism vs. Stalinism was for starters a contest to impose either National Socialism or Sovietism on an eastern Europe caught in the middle. Then there was a major nation—Germany—trapped between Communism and Capitalism…





.. “But slavery is gone.  So why are we still blatantly fighting the same Civil War, 150 years later? ... Can it be something deeper and psychological?”


Deep and psychological even as per today’s conditions: today’s wage slavery in the US and slavery in sweatshops overseas is in the back of any thinking person’s mind- we are certainly not proud of it. But more on-topic:

“Across pretty much the same geographical and cultural divide?”

That’s a relatively easy one to figure. The contest between the definitely more religious South versus the obviously more secular North comes to mind right off.
‘Right To Work’ states located in the South versus more prevalent proletarian progressivism in the North. Regulations versus lowering costs. Even Southern Charm versus the Godfatha in New Yawk.


Problem with romance is, take it too far then why is it any different from religious fetishes? It becomes a great deal of chittering. Why is romance so different from monkeys cooing about bananas in the jungle? IMO romance is whole lot of monkey business; let’s not make it more than it is—or less. Romance is overrated.
No problem with the teachings of Christ, but when Christians blubber over infant Jesus in the manger that is where I draw the line.
Nothing wrong with an old man mentioning his grandkids once in a while.. yet when he goes on about what an angel his granddaughter is and how the older one by another son is planning on attending Wellesley, I want to yell:
‘I don’t know her so why bring up her case!’
When coots get misty eyed it is time to head for the door.





#3, to continue the monologue:
the duality is that romance can be special and or sacred; yet it can also be simian chitter chatter. We hear the chittering when watching celebrity shows, but we don’t hear it in ourselves as much.

An observation on the Civil War:
the North waited four score and five before attacking the South (the South’s attack on the fort near Sumter was defensive in effect), it waited until all other possibilities had been pretty much exhausted. But aside from the hypocrisy of wage slavery (10+ hrs. a day under harsh conditions) youthful cannon fodder primarily fought the Civil War.. contemporary orators knew that the pen is not only mightier than the sword, it is far far safer. A paper-cut is better than getting your face blown off by a shell. If we want to ruminate on the Civil War—or any war—we had better take such into account.
.





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