Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

R.A. Heinlein and the unsubtle art of the embedded editorial

"Either you love Heinlein, or you hate him. Very few people are wishy-washy on the subject. When is the last time you found somebody who couldn't stand Arthur C. Clarke? Who loathed LeGuin? But when you mention Heinlein in certain circles, you can expect the `How Heinlein Changed My Life´ speech, or the `Why Heinlein Is An Over-Opinionated Hack´ speech."
Britt R. Scharringhausen

I just finished reading Heinlein's final novel last week, and I'm still recovering from it. Not being a church-going fellow, I'm not used to sitting through sermons. As an Asimov fan, I'm especially unused to sermons embedded within what otherwise could have been a perfectly passable sci-fi novel. Consider the following:
Family decay: I think it came mainly from both parents working outside the home. It was said again and again that, from mid-century on, both parents had to have jobs just to pay the bills. If this was true, why was it not necessary in the first half of the century? How did labour-saving machinery and enormously increased productivity impoverish the family?

Seriously? Had RAH ever done a load of laundry by hand (soiled cloth diapers and all) he would have surely realized that working inside the home was at least as laborious as working outside the home until at least the middle of the 20th century. Given that, it made sense to dedicate one full-time worker to all the various tasks associated with domesticity. However, as American homes came to be wired with electricity and filled with all manner of labor saving devices (dishwashers, washer/dryers, various other electrically operated cleaning machines, not to mention pre-portioned heat-and-serve meals) it became possible, if a bit exhausting, to keep house as a part-time job in the evenings. This in turn facilitated the entrance into the workplace of those who had previously been culturally conditioned to full time housekeeping, although it may be said that society and culture lagged behind by at least a few years. Decades, if you are expecting men to fully indulge their inner nesting instinct. To add insult to ignorance, this little editorial passage was allegedly authored by protagonist/narrator Maureen Johnson Smith Long, a woman who had personally experienced the various 20th century transitions which allowed women to transition out of the home and into the office.

Here is another little editorial gem:
'Bread and Circuses' is the cancer of democracy, the fatal disease for which there is no cure. Democracy often works beautifully at first. But once a state extends the franchise to every warm body, be he producer or parasite, the day marks the beginning of the end of that state. For when the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses without limit and that the productive members of the body politic cannot stop them, they will do so, until the state bleeds to death, or in its weakened condition the state succumbs to an invader - the barbarians enter Rome.’

The Roman Republic undoubtedly suffered from various systemic problems, but extending the franchise to every warm body was never nearly one of them. If he wanted an historical example to illustrate how universal suffrage leads to collapse under the ever-increasing weight of a welfare state, he should have kept looking. Come to think of it, the best example that comes immediately to mind of this allegedly inevitable phenomenon is 21st century Greece, but surely RAH didn't see it coming that the birthplace of democracy would eventually preside over its dotage.

Okay, just one more bit of blatant sermonizing:
Consider these:

1) 'Bread and Circuses'
2) The abolition of the pauper’s oath in Franklin Roosevelt’s first term;
3) ’Peer group’ promotion in public schools.

These three conditions heterodyne each other. The abolition of the pauper’s oath as a condition for public charity ensured that habitual failures, incompetents of every sort, people who can’t support themselves and people who won’t, each of these would have the same voice in ruling the country, in
assessing taxes and spending them, as (for example) Thomas Edison or Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Carnegie or Andrew Jackson. Peer group promotion ensured that the franchise would be exercised by ignorant incompetents. And 'Bread and Circuses’ is what invariably happens to a democracy that goes that route: unlimited spending on 'social’ programmes ends in national bankruptcy, which historically is always followed by dictatorship.
Historically? Always? This would imply that there are at least a handful of examples of democracies which, having granting the universal franchise, subsequently collapsed under the weight of welfare programs and were thereby replaced by dictatorships. I hereby defy Heinlein's supporters to come up with two or three.

Truly great science fiction authors, such as Asimov and Herbert and Morrow, do not merely sermonize from the mouths of their main characters (though they have all been known to indulge in this on occasion) but rather weave for us a narrative in which the moral of the story is ambiguous and the morality of the characters doubly so, thus permitting the reader to engage in robust ethical reasoning and drawing their own conclusions. Alas, the libertine libertarianism of To Sail Beyond the Sunset doesn't nearly do this. Even on highly controversial matters (e.g. free-love, voluntary incest, the role of women, the limits of capitalism) the reader is provided only one narrow point-of-view, all else is summarily dismissed.

Monday, May 2, 2011


First off, to all of my friends who say it is inappropriate to revel in the death of a human being, I implore you to loosen your codpieces and tighten your circles of moral concern a bit, just enough so as to exclude high-achieving mass-murderers. Those who take their greatest joy in massive exhibitions of suffering and death do not warrant the level of empathy that we extend to other living beings, such as snakes and spiders and streptococcus. You don't need to be a hardcore utilitarian to do the maths on this one. Humanity is better off without people like Saddam and Usama, and this is true whether or not it will ultimately prove possible to civilize, modernize, and liberalize either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Is it not clear that we can save lives in the present by going after the apex of any given murderous organization or regime, as opposed to waging conventional war against countless waves of newly-minted foot-soldiers? Without the meme-machines at the top and the malevolent mullahs who support them, these recruits would never have been recruited.

Morever, for those of us who support the Obama administration, it is clear that the GOP had planned to attack his presidency as soft on terror, while the wingnut fringe has worked to make that position look mainstream by claiming that Obama sympathizes with at least some of the ideology of radical Islamism. They might yet use this strategy, in fact, I sincerely hope they try to fly that old lead balloon. There is nothing quite like vanquishing actual enemies to bolster one's national security credentials.

Finally, we need to look forward here at how many innocent lives will be spared now that the world's foremost network of institutionalized mass murder has lost its greatest single human resource. No one in the movement has the articulation, charisma, intelligence, folk hero status, monetary resources, socio-political connections, training, and leadership experience of bin Laden. While he will be succeeded, he can never be replaced.