12 November 2012

Politics of the Science-Fictive Future: Or, what a "Futurist" Wants from the Republicans

This election year, many have been quick to note that Romney and the Republicans lost at least in part because they are no longer speaking  to a demographic (white males) capable of winning them the election. I think these pundits may be on to something, but I don't think the same will be true four years down the road, when that party will be presented with a far more equal shot at the White House. The pundits reason that the conservative values held by white males aren't views shared by the growing majority of america that is not white or not male or both, but I think these commentators don't get that it's not the whiteness or the maleness of the demographic that gives it its conservative bent.

The white male gets his generic conservative attitude from working in a system that supports him. He doesn't want it to change because for him, it works. Instead of innovating the government's policies, he would take the more cautious approach of working within the lines as they already exist, because they seem well-drawn to a cohort that has benefitted from their delineation (such as him). That, not fiscal responsibility or religiosity, is the core of the conservative ideal. There is actually much to like in such an ideal, even for people whom the system has not thus far made ascendant: stability, assurance in the knowledge that it has worked for others and could be made to work for you, the advantages of familiarity, the perpetuation of rightly-honored traditions, etc. These aspects will also appeal to the section of the majority that also sees itself as on top, as working within the system they were given to rise to the point they are at. It would be foolish to think that just because of race or gender they will somehow find the conservative ideal unattractive. 

They will not vote conservative, however, unless the party redefines itself by reimagining their take on this core value and abandoning some of the traditional trappings of that stance.

In the arena of social policy, they will need to eschew publicly-religious-based moral decision-making. This is not because basing moral choices on religious beliefs is wrong. In fact it is probably the only truly legitimate way to do it. The reason they need to avoid this, though, is that in a non-white male majority, they can't count on establishing a unifying religious vision; the new majority is going to be made up of a patchwork of nominal Catholics, a whole bunch of vying protestant sects, and ever-increasing number of the irreligious who are trying to base their morality on some kind of scientific ground or another. Thus, candidates wishing to appeal to this majority of minorities will need to appeal to the one thing most of them will have in common - the belief in a separation of church and state. It will be fine to mention that a candidate is religious, and to in actuality make decisions based on that candidate's own religious integrity, but the party and candidate must have a wholly secular justification thought up as well. It can be done; you can convincingly argue that abortion is wrong not just from a religious standpoint, but also from a scientific/philosophical standpoint, for example. The other basis for social policy in a new conservative party should be economic - a language of dollar bills that every American intuitively understands. Take a cue from the growing libertarian sentiment in this country - if weed and other drugs could be legalized and taxed to turn a profit, then they should be. Let the individual decide what is right for them if it only hurts them - a true conservative sentiment if there ever was one. This coming change is as inevitable as Prohibition's repeal was in the 30's - don't let the Democrats get the jump on this message. Couch it in terms of reacting to the situation as history dictates you should, thus enshrining the move as a move from the heart of your conservative ideal - the idea that we should act based on what we know already works. This will steal the show from the Democrats for the young electorate and truly move the debate about the war on drugs, our border, and the national debt forward into new and fruitful territory - all in a way that preserves your conservative ethos. 

In the arena of business and fiscal policy, the Republican party desperately needs to cease its big business protectionist tendencies and become the friend of the entrepreneur, the nascent Green Economy, and the Internet. Teddy Roosevelt was once a member of your ranks; this man is a ghost from your past whose policies are writ large in your political future. Nobody in America likes that we have businesses that are actually "too big to fail." Deregulate - stand for a more open economy so long as trusts and monopolies are not in play. Keep arguing for a smaller government - the nightmare of Greece's downfall is strong in our memories, or could be made strong - but be willing to compromise here (look to cut defense spending, foreign aid, and the postal service instead of healthcare policies, for example). The Green Economy will need some incentive to get started, but not as much or of the type that many Democrats think it will need if a conservative agenda of deregulating the economy and busting up the big  players is successfully pursued. Focus emphasis on the improvement of American industrial infrastructure via our Internet - bust up the cable companies, make sure Google and the rest are keeping the net neutral, and ensure it remains the wellspring of entrepreneurship that has made it so huge thus far. Divorce the party from SOPA and the RIAA as much as possible given recent history and use the idea that an economy driven by information technology will boom on a glut of FREE information. Stand against regulation of this most important of business sectors, and be ready to disagree with Democrats on the degree to which governments should have oversight into network traffic and censorship. Some of this does constitute an about-face for the party, but characterize the party and the candidates as disparate instead of united; show that the party candidates who uphold these and other policies are united in ideology but are willing to try to realize it in different ways. This will give the party's image some vitality and dynamism. Liberals will be forced to pay attention to each candidate instead of dismissing them as "Republican." Conservative voters will find the party more inclusive.

Where foreign policy is concerned, Republicans should foster a revolutionary approach with roots deep in American history. Americans are psychologically ready for an era of political (but not economic) isolationism. We should be the country with open borders for immigrants of all colors, with little cause to be involved in foreign conflicts or peacekeeping operations unless called to do so by NATO or the United Nations. The War on Terror can be fought via cunning realpolitik diplomacy with other nations, especially China and India, and by an expansion of the CIA, as we did during the Cold War. Propose to lead the free world by example and not by fiat. Make it clear the USA is looking for profitable business opportunities regarding our planet's climate change and the dawn of Peak Oil.

That last point brings us to the Republican party's relationship with science. The future of the world is one in which science and technology will make an ever-increasing impact, which makes intelligent and coherent use of these tools an imperative for any political party. The reality of Climate Change and humanity's role in it must be acknowledged, as must the possibility that peak oil is upon us. These two events constitute an enormous problem for our developing worldwide civilization, and the Republican party's relevance must consist in engaging with these realities instead of denying them. There are valid conservative approaches to this: focusing on conservation and renewal of natural resources as opposed to major terraforming initiatives, for instance, or championing nuclear power as a tried-and-true green technology with downsides that can be mitigated at a later date by human ingenuity. Actually coming around to the fact that we will need to cut back and be sustainable instead of a forever-expanding industrial revolution. Democrats are lacking in this area because they aren't putting enough emphasis on conservation and sustainable growth, and they tend to wrongly link their strategies to unhappy social policies, such as various forms of population control. They are surprisingly unable to mobilize social responses that Republicans could happily adopt; for instance, the victory gardens and DIY projects which characterized America's incredible response to the stresses of the Second World War could be used to greatly improve sustainable living in America, as would initiatives to move the middle class out of sprawling suburbs and into more densely-packed urban areas that made use of the extra space to create "green belts" in which the ongoing green revolution could develop in close proximity to the people. An emphasis on at-home production instead of reliance on imports would help us avoid the inevitable rise of costs in shipping that will attend the oil crisis in the years to come. American agriculture, manufacturing, and information technology should be bolstered with improved educational outreach to the millions of new immigrants more open borders would provide - these people should be turned into the newly-revitalized blue-collar class of the twenty-first century, ready to actually implement what we have the know-how to do. It is one thing to promote science and technology in our schools, but businesses today know that America's true lack in human resourcing is in the blue collar area. Science and technology are changing what blue collar looks like, but our preconceived notions of its inferiority are unfortunately not. Republicans should make life easy for high-tech blue collar workers, and help resurrect that kind of practical middle class.

America could benefit greatly from a Republican party that stands for the entrepreneur, the individualist, and the sustainable lifestyle. Some party members already have inklings of putting their feet through this door; Romney was really a moderate defeated because of being backed by a rabidly right-wing party that in all probability was the driving cause behind him saying some very unsavory things that voters (like me) just couldn't stomach. I suspect the same was true of McCain, the last time I voted for Obama. Obama is a great president, but it would be great to see a new kind of Republican the next election competing with whoever is tapped to succeed Obama. A Republican prepared to be competitive and radical - only in the sense that they are rethinking what always has made the conservative approach appealing. That Republican could stir up the new majority and do major good for the country and its world. In a future that looks to change our lives so much, so rapidly, we could all benefit from a powerful voice for conservative nation-building philosophy.  

09 April 2012

The Constant: Story

This is not a poem;
Think of it more
As a poetic telegram from your future.

This is not the future
With rocket cars
Or FTL Martian Colonization

This is YOUR future
And the future of your children
And your nation.

The plausibility is high
Because it is already begun,
And what is begun we will complete

Whether because we know to
Or because, too late
We are forced.

So these words are telling you
Warning you

The suburbs will die 
Along with the gasoline car;
Your children will inhabit cities.

Agribusiness will grow your things
Industry will manufacture ideas
And your neighborhood will feed you.

Everyone will be a designer;
(Did you ever play with Legos?)
Everyone will be a consuming producer.

Thus stardom will fall to earth,
Swamped in the morass of human experience,
Billions of us coming online.

Information technology
Will destroy commerce in mass;
It is creating commerce in ideas.

So ships and trucks and airplanes
Will ply fewer expanses,
Copyrights will combat human rights,

And human rights will conflict
With human needs and the future generation's
Very existence.

Religion will die a slow, mistaken death
As "Science" learns to oppress.
The gentle will weep.

The classroom is the neighborhood
The workplace is your livingroom
Yet your reach is global.

Women will make children
For state money;
Men will sex robots.

The natural world will recover territories
The landscape dotted with panels
And windmills and cellulosic fuel bases.

The population will contract and empty
And grow old, demand will slacken
The economy slow.

Life will also slow,
The new spaces will be enjoyed
With knowledge gleaned from free books.

Libraries will deliver hyperlinked books to your house
For a fee, and your sunglasses
Will be imbued with 3D movie classics.

The word of rap will run
Over the dubstep ground,
Through an ethnic forest, to your ears.

You will grow poorer,
Happier, educated, 
and forgetful, even of violence.

Medicine will oppress all of us
If we let it define our standards of life,
And computers will take our jobs

If we think of jobs
As they are thought of now.
Your children will thus actually want schooling,

Though education will not save them
From the press of their peers
Around the world.

All the specialized minds 
Will let their cars drive them
Safely to only a few jobs.

The rest of us must learn to be generalists,
Rennaissance "agriculturalists,"
Cultivating in a strange, satisfying rennaissance. 

Because it will at last
Seem strange, even to the young.

27 March 2012

Review of John Carter: The Movie

This is the movie Avatar should have been (yes, Avatar was bad). Here you have a whole world properly imagined, without any of the noble savage baggage or Fern Gully hippy BS that weighted down Avatar. Yet it still has a message, and it still delivers entertainment just like its pulpy forbears did.

When a director previously known for WALL-E makes a movie like this, you don't just sit through the whole thing without thinking about the message, no matter how entertaining (or not) you find it. John Carter does have a message that builds on WALL-E's - human civilization is on a crash course for destroying the environment of its planet. Andrew Stanton smartly expands on this simple message, fleshing it out by using a very old science fiction universe to move the drama of such a conflict over to Barsoom, another planet (very like Mars back in the days when we thought ancient alien canals ran over its surfaces due to defects in our telescopes), where another race of men are experiencing the end results of rampant expansion and civilization at the expense of the environment, resulting in the barren desert landscape that Mars is known for.

This is a brilliant move for Stanton to take because it builds on a theme that was actually already present in the original novels of Barsoom, generates a cultural cachet with the older generation, and uses it to comment on a very modern problem - our global climate change crisis. Whereas WALL-E was for children (wonderfully), and it left the reasons for Earth's destruction simply as gluttony and waste, here the reasons get a little bit more sophisticated - Barsoom and Earth are both seen as doomed by the demigod-like Therns, who seek to manage what they believe is the inevitable downfall of any civilization so that it does not disrupt their control of events even as the planetary ecosystem crumbles to dust around them. A more damning sketch of climate change deniers could not be painted. Stanton makes the humans (the ones responsible for the destruction of the ecosystem) almost unwitting players in this planetary-scale tragedy, blind to advances in science that could save them because of old beliefs in fatalism and internecine conflicts they cannot forget. Nobody is bad, as Avatar would have us facilely  believe - instead they are only human (or Thark, as the case may be). John Carter (played by a barely capable Taylor Kitsch) has the job of  trying to convince the viewer through his superhuman actions that we can transcend these inherent weaknesses if we can leap no matter how insurmountable the odds.

This message is subtly established over the course of a plot full of properly  swashbuckling heroics, including naval combat, pitched battles, gladiatorial forays, journeys into forbidden realms, super-intelligent damsels in distress, geopolitics, strange cultures, and of course, the Western-sky beauty of that dying planet Barsoom herself. That most viewers didn't grasp the message consciously can be forgiven, since they had this to preoccupy themselves with. This is to say nothing of the good visual jokes and sometimes even funny dialogue, although at times the script does fall over itself, especially with a few bad lines - but these only serve to enhance the pulp atmosphere if you're of the right mindset.

Second viewings for the sake of watching a "bad movie" will surprise viewers with the revelation of a deeper purpose to all the sound and fury on-screen, but of course most will sadly write this film off and never give it a second chance.


One last final note about the Tharks - they are the most even-handed, complex, and believable alien races I've ever seen on-screen. SF movie-makers take note: THIS is how you create a tribal alien race without blatantly ripping off a stereotype of a random culture on Earth. They are barely anthropoid, have bizarre, sometimes superstitious rituals that would seem morally repugnant to a human, and have many faults (including a hopefully cultural propensity to violence). But they are also fair, honorable, strong, brave, funny, and open to change. Even better, all of this is subtly laid out over the course of developing the greater plot, without ever wasting any time on dreary and unlikely explanations, as Avatar did.

Instead of explaining itself, John Carter asks you to accept what you do not understand, to imagine it as you will while it concerns itself with the more important task of telling you a thrilling story that can inform your beliefs, if you let it.