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There is Madness on the Other Side Too: The Left’s War on Optimism
David Brin   Apr 13, 2012   Contrary Brin  

Is the bold future of our youth being killed by gloomy science fiction?  Or has Sci Fi grown more dour as a reflection of our mood?  Glenn Reynolds interviews authors Neal Stephenson and Vernor Vinge in a thought-provoking inquiry: Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction: “While books about space exploration and robots once inspired young people to become scientists and engineers—and inspired grownup engineers and scientists to do big things—in recent decades the field has become dominated by escapist fantasies and depressing dystopias.”

(Hey… I’m TRYING, dammit!)

Almost as if deliberately proving the point, TED speaker Paul Gilster rails against techno-optimism in a desperately wrongheaded essay that really should be read in order to understand the problem with today’s well-meaning left.  Paul does us all a disservice by conflating a multidimensional landscape with a digital, either-or choice - confusing “optimism” with complacency.

Yes, we all know the types he refers to as techno-optimists - fools who shrug off looming water shortages, energy deficits and climate degradation, blithely assuring us that “humanity and/or science and/or markets and/or God will find a way.”  Such people are dolts, often driven by a political wing that has done horrific damage both to the U.S. and the world.

Nevertheless, in taking the reflexive opposite point of view, many folks on the left wind up being very little better.  Their sense of urgency to save the world is laudable.  But it gets wrongheaded when the message becomes “Let’s do something!  And by the way, nothing ever works!”

That was the calamitously awful, guilt-tripping meme conveyed in James Cameron’s otherwise worthy film Avatar.  The notion that our society is not only dismally greedy and stupid, but the very worst culture ever.  The worst civilization conceivable.

This despite being the very same civilization that paid James Cameron billions to help enthusiastic audiences want to be better. Ah well. Ironies are lost on those steeped in finger-wagging lecture mode.  We have experienced waves of such finger-wagging since the sixties, all of it lusciously indignant and satisfying to the finger waggers.  But helpful?

Sure, in the beginning, films like Soylent Green used the raw-guilt-trip approach effectively to shake people into awareness.  I call such tales - along with Silent Running and Silent Spring - “self-preventing prophecies” in that they roused millions not only to look up (and ahead) but to become actively involved in working against disaster.

Which is, in fact, the point! Doomy-gloomy guilt trips have served their purpose!  Everyone who can be recruited into environmentalism (for example) by guilt-tripping already has been!  Everybody else is simply repelled by the message.  Forced - by either-or logic - into the other camp. At this point, overbearing chiding is completely counterproductive.

 Today, we need more sophisticated legends, that show us not only possible failure modes, but humanity buckling down to get things right.  Overcoming errors and dastardly-plots? Sure! But balanced by other trends, like a civilization filled with citizens eager to do better. And that - the stunning power of enlightened citizenship - appears to be almost completely absent from Hollywood, these days.

The New Puritans

Solutions are possible.  They will require investment, thought, negotiation and endless hard work, just to squeak by.  But that’s exactly what we can do.  A trait that our parents burst with. Can-do.  A can-do spirit that (alas!) dismal reflexes on the left associate only with complacency.

Take Jared Diamond’s fascinating and important book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” By all means get and read it.  Diamond overstates (by far) the case that all past civilizations declined for reasons of environmental neglect. But his examples edify and warn, about where we’ll wind up, if we don’t pay heed!

On the other hand, his prescription - renunciatory ecological fascism - is yet another example of the primly dour puritanism of Paul Ehrlich and so many others - the truest heirs of Cotton Mather. Indignation junkies who finger-wag dire proclamations that salvation can only come from retreating to “ancient wisdom” and shivering in the dark.

Never, ever, is it avowed that we might get past this dangerous era (as I suggest in Earth and Existence) by moving forward.

Anyone for Plan C?

Are these our only choices?  Between chiding, prune-faced, lefty-puritans and giddy rightists who proclaim that either God or some vague corporatist market-innovators will save us out of the blue?  Will anybody note that both groups are vociferously, fanatically anti-future?

Is it any wonder that can-do science fiction - suggesting that hard work and goodwill and ingenuity and negotiation might achieve wonders - has fallen on hard times?

Our root problem today is not obdurate denialism coming from the right.  That insanity is part of Culture War and can only be treated as a mental illness. Blue America must do what it did in every previous phase of the U.S. Civil War.  Simply win. Answer the Tea Party’s tricorner hat nonsense with the Union volunteer’s kepi.  We will stop resurgent feudalism and know-nothingism. Tell the troglodytes and oligarchs they cannot have our renaissance.  Our enlightenment.  Our proudly scientific civilization.

No. What I find far more worrisome is the left’s mania to confuse ALL optimism with complacency, proclaiming any zealous, can-do enthusiasm to be part and parcel of the right’s madness.

It is a baseless and dismal reflex, inherently illogical, anti-technological, demoralizing, and - above all - truly destructive of hope, undermining our ability to actively and vigorously save ourselves and the world.

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."


So what’s the plan to inspire? to lobby the masses?

The creativity and positive futurism inspired by sci-fi writers is essential, yet the dissemination of ideas and inspiration is limited through literature alone?

Remember what I said previously? Folks like myself who mostly read non-fiction and little sci-fi, need to be “shown” positive visions of the future with movies?

How? We can still covert the beloved sci-fi thriller, but let’s include and incorporate positive innovation and tech? Let’s stimulate “demand side economics” and show the masses a future that could be possible? Let’s inspire potential young engineers of the future to develop “replicators”, “assistive robotics”, “green energy city scapes” etc?

Have we all suddenly forgotten why we relished Kubrick’s “2001” and Roddenberry’s Star Trek?

I often watch “I robot” and savour the visionary future so close, I can almost taste it?

This is how to lobby technocracy and political change, stimulate “demand side economics”?

Having worked among environmentalists for 16 years I think David is generally spot on. The cocktail of urgency and defeatism is very present, as is the guilt-driven focus on renunciation.

However having read Collapse, admittedly some years ago, I think he’s a bit unfair on Diamond. From my recollection he recognises explicitly that environmental factors were only part of the reason why the past civilisations he describes collapsed, and one of the prescriptions he provides at the end, admittedly focused on population control (but is that such a bad idea, at least in the short term, especially if we want to reverse the ageing process?) is to empower women since empowered women tend to have less children. I don’t recall his prescriptions being particularly fascist/coercive/undemocratic.

But on the whole I thoroughly agree. I don’t have a problem with pessimism if that means emphasising the possibility, perhaps even likelihood, of dystopic scenarios, but I do have a problem with defeatism and ridiculing anyone who dares to be define an optimistic/positive vision. It is defeatism, rather than pessimism per se, that is dangerously self-fulfilling.

I love Jason Silva and Dr. Steel.

These are the kinds of public faces we need for transhumanism.

Please don’t forget nostalgia, either; the sentimentality of the aged can and does filter down to youth.

I’m glad someone set Brin straight on “Collapse”.  To say that Diamond advocates fascism, whatever modifiers are put into front of the word, is beyond the pale.

Brin also needs to be set straight on “Avatar”.  Cameron only portrayed part of our society as dismally greedy, stupid, and exploitative, specifically the megacorps and their mercenaries.  The creatives, the scientists, and the true patriotic warriors he portrayed as the protectors of the weak and the saviors of our society.  In short, Brin trips into the same trap that he accuses others of falling for—oversimplifying the complex.

More problematically, Brin is dead wrong about the problem.  Depressed lefties aren’t the problem.  If you can show them a better future, in general they WILL follow.  They WANT to believe in a brighter future; they just cannot envision it.  The wingnutters, on the other hand, will never grow up.  Brin’s correct that they are best treated as mentally ill, but his prescription, to simply WIN, is trite and wholly unhelpful.  Winning that Civil War is the critical first step to winning the future, and that is the puzzle that we must solve, not gloss over with happy talk.

I don’t mind people being nostalgic as such. It can even be a source of creativity, as retro fashions blend with recent trends to produce something new. It becomes a problem when it becomes delusional or people become angry or simply lose interest in the future because it doesn’t measure up to their unrealistic wishes.

You’ve pointed out frequently that much of the regressive politics in the US is nostalgia-based, and we have that in Europe too (I was reading yesterday about a far-right Greek party that is nostalgic for the Third Reich, and they are by no means the only ones). I guess it’s important though to recognise that nostalgia itself can be legitimate and genuine, even if it is nostalgia for a past that never was. Part of the problem with today’s political debate, especially in the US, is that it is so polemic that people feel constantly under attack. And then, of course, they are even more likely to retreat into delusional retro visions.

So maybe that’s another “madness on the left” that David didn’t mention: refusal to accept that some people just don’t share our values and desires, and there’s no absolute reason why they should, which just pushes people further into denial and extremism. Jonathan Haidt’s work strikes me as very important in that context…and it reminds us that this isn’t only about nostalgia, it’s also about a different set of moral instincts. You don’t HAVE to be delusionally nostalgic to be conservative.

For most of us, (the masses), we don’t know what we want, we don’t even bother to contemplate what we don’t want, (philosophical laziness perhaps?) We don’t contemplate what is/can be possible, nor how “we really do” have democratic powers, and can “collectively demand” socio-political/economic change, guiding a better, more affluent future?

Most only start ranting when they “see” their freedoms and values are under attack.

Most of us are oblivious to the fact that the “few”, (but not all), are stifling the future, and purposefully employ movie/media producers to misdirect mass entertainments with dystopian futures? Orchestrating “Boom and Bust” economic cycles that feed austerity and drive/perpetuate the “race to the bottom” - this is what is holding back “real” progress?

The solution? “Show” the masses what IS possible?

Nobody knew they wanted a smart phone until they see one. No one contemplates techno-utopia until they can see/en-vision it with their own eyes?


Purposeful manipulation of the many by the few is only one part of the story, but I agree that the best antidote is to show people what’s possible. But also without completely dismissing the dystopian scenarios: they also play a useful role, by making us aware of the risks. Positive visions and no risk assessment make Jack fall off a cliff.

“Part of the problem with today’s political debate, especially in the US, is that it is so polemic that people feel constantly under attack. And then, of course, they are even more likely to retreat into delusional retro visions.
So maybe that’s another ‘madness on the left’ that David didn’t mention: refusal to accept that some people just don’t share our values and desires, and there’s no absolute reason why they should, which just pushes people further into denial and extremism.”

Our best bet is explaining alternatives to dystopia to youth, as though the older can be reached, if you spend 100 guineas of effort to get one farthing of interest from someone who possesses a hardened set of desires and moral instincts, it ends up as wasted effort—then we are even more foolish than they!

@Disputo re “Depressed lefties aren’t the problem.  If you can show them a better future, in general they WILL follow.  They WANT to believe in a brighter future; they just cannot envision it.”

Depressed lefties, perhaps. But many other lefties think imagining a better future is not politically correct and intellectual enough. They prefer to criticize optimist imagination with a diarrhea of words too long to be understood by others (or so they hope). They want others to think wow, (s)he must be so smart, and don’t give a damn about anything but their inflated ego.

Note: I _am_ a leftie in the sense that I support a fairer society with wealth redistribution and BIG, but I prefer good old Marx to today’s fake PC lefties.

Let’s start with libertarians:
they generally mean well, unfortunately they don’t comprehend how power is far more important to the majority of men than freedom is. Freedom has different meanings to different actors;
power has a simpler modus operandi: one can tell others what to do but not vice versa—the CEO can tell the janitor what to do but the reverse is not the case.

This cuts across left/ right, the Marxist craves power as much as the libertarian.

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