Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 3

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Note: My article “The Campbell Machine,” which describes one of the strangest episodes in the history of Astounding Science Fiction, is now available online and in the July/August issue of Analog. To celebrate its publication, I’m republishing a series about an equally curious point of intersection between science fiction and the paranormal. This post combines two pieces that originally appeared, in substantially different form, on February 17 and December 6, 2017.

Last year, an excellent profile in The Atlantic by McKay Coppins attempted to answer a question that is both simpler and more complicated than it might initially seem—namely how a devout Christian like Mike Pence can justify hitching his career to the rise of a man whose life makes a mockery of the ideals that most evangelicals claim to value. You could cynically assume that Pence, like so many others, has coldly calculated that Trump’s support on a few key issues, like abortion, outweighs literally everything else that he could say or do, and you might be right. But Pence also seems to sincerely believe that he’s an instrument of divine will, a conviction that dates back at least to his successful campaign for the House of Representatives. Coppins writes:

By the time a congressional seat opened up ahead of the 2000 election, Pence was a minor Indiana celebrity and state Republicans were urging him to run. In the summer of 1999, as he was mulling the decision, he took his family on a trip to Colorado. One day while horseback riding in the mountains, he and Karen looked heavenward and saw two red-tailed hawks soaring over them. They took it as a sign, Karen recalled years later: Pence would run again, but this time there would be “no flapping.” He would glide to victory.

For obvious reasons, this anecdote caught my eye, but this version leaves out a number of details. As far as I can tell, it first appears in a profile that ran in Roll Call back in 2010. The article observes that Pence keeps a plaque on his desk that reads “No Flapping,” and it situates the incident, curiously, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, not in Colorado:

“We were trying to make a decision as a family about whether to sell our house, move back home and make another run for Congress, and we saw these two red-tailed hawks coming up from the valley floor,” Pence says. He adds that the birds weren’t flapping their wings at all; instead, they were gliding through the air. As they watched the hawks, Pence’s wife told him she was onboard with a third run. “I said, ‘If we do it, we need to do it like those hawks. We just need to spread our wings and let God lift us up where he wants to take us,’” Pence remembers. “And my wife looked at me and said, ‘That’ll be how we do it, no flapping.’ So I keep that on my desk to remember every time my wings get sore, stop flapping.”

Neither article mentions it, but I’m reasonably sure that Pence was thinking of the verse in the Book of Job, which he undoubtedly knows well, that marks the only significant appearance of a hawk in the Bible: “Does the hawk fly by your wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?” As one scholarly commentary notes, with my italics added: “Aside from calling attention to the miraculous flight, this might refer to migration, or to the wonderful soaring exhibitions of these birds.”

So what does this have to do with the other hawks that I’ve been discussing here this week? In each case, it involves looking at the world—or at a work of literature or scripture—and extracting a meaning that can be applied to the present moment. It’s literally a form of augury, which originally referred to a form of divination based on the flight of birds. In my handy Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, we read of its use in Rome:

The natural region to look to for signs of the will of Jupiter was the sky, where lightning and the flight of birds seemed directed by him as counsel to men. The latter, however, was the more difficult of interpretation, and upon it, therefore, mainly hinged the system of divination with which the augurs were occupied…[This included] signs from birds (signa ex avibus), with reference to the direction of their flight, and also to their singing, or uttering other sounds. To the first class, called alites, belonged the eagle and the vulture; to the second, called oscines, the owl, the crow and the raven. The mere appearance of certain birds indicated good or ill luck, while others had a reference only to definite persons or events. In matters of ordinary life on which divine counsel was prayed for, it was usual to have recourse to this form of divination.

In reality, as the risk consultant John C. Hulsman has recently observed of the Priestess of Apollo at Delphi, the augurs were meant to provide justification or counsel on matters of policy. As Cicero, who was an augur himself, wrote in De Divinatione: “I think that, although in the beginning augural law was established from a belief in divination, yet later it was maintained and preserved from considerations of political expediency.”

The flight or appearance of birds in the sky amounts to a source of statistically random noise, and it’s just as useful for divination as similar expedients are today for cryptography. And you don’t even need to look at the sky to get the noise that you need. As I’ve noted here before, you can draw whatever conclusion you like from a sufficiently rich and varied corpus of facts. Sometimes, as in the case of the hawks that I’ve been tracking in science fiction, it’s little more than an amusing game, but it can also assume more troubling forms. In the social sciences, all too many mental models come down to looking for hawks, noting their occurrences, and publishing a paper about the result. And in politics, whether out of unscrupulousness or expediency, it can be easy to find omens that justify the actions that we’ve already decided to take. It’s easy to make fun of Mike Pence for drawing meaning from two hawks in North Dakota, but it’s really no stranger than trying to make a case for this administration’s policy of family separation by selectively citing the Bible. (Incidentally, Uri Geller, who is still around, predicted last year that Donald Trump would win the presidential election, based primarily on the fact that Trump’s name contains eleven letters. Geller has a lot to say about the number eleven, which, if you squint just right, looks a bit like two hawks perched side by side, their heads in profile.) When I think of Pence’s hawks, I’m reminded of the rest of that passage from Job: “Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.” But I also recall the bird of prey in a poem that is quoted more these days than ever: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” And a few lines later, Yeats evokes the sphinx, like an Egyptian god, slouching toward Bethlehem, “moving its slow thighs, while all about it / Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.”

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June 20, 2018 at 8:03 am

Bonfire of the vanities

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A while back, Michael Wolff, the journalist and controversial author of Fire and Fury, observed of a certain presidential candidate in an article for Vanity Fair:

Bill Clinton’s sexual life…is about shame and need, whereas his seems to be about an entirely different conception of marriage and family. It’s a resistance to modern marriage—to the man-woman parity thing. He’s unreconstructed, and proudly so. He’s shameless. There’s no apology about him doing what he wants to do…[He arguably] is the most anti-family-values candidate in the race (this or any other). And yet, in some sense—which could be playing well with the right wing—what he may be doing is going to the deeper meaning of family values, which is about male prerogative, an older, stubborn, my-way-or-the-highway, when-men-were-men, don’t-tread-on-me kind of thing…He has always been surrounded by concentric and sometimes intersecting circles of reasonable and professional people and greater and lesser inappropriate types…It is, however…the inappropriate ones that dominate his mind share, staffers who have tended him so long and enabled him so well…that they are, in their fashion, crazy, too.

It was the summer of 2007, and Wolff was writing about Rudy Giuliani. (I’ve slightly edited the text above to replace personal names with pronouns.) At the time, Giuliani seemed to have a genuine shot at becoming the Republican candidate for president, which only points to how much time as passed—and also, sadly, to the ways in which we’ve come full circle.

In the early days of the Trump administration, one of the few silver linings was that we seemed to be seeing less of Giuliani than I had once feared. For reasons of my own, though, I decided last year to read a very interesting book titled The Campaign, by Evan J. Mandery, which recounts his experiences as the research director for Ruth Messinger’s doomed campaign for mayor of New York in 1997. As a result, I ended up thinking more about Giuliani than I might have liked, and I was particularly struck by a story that I either had forgotten or had never heard. Mandery’s book is structured as a diary, and in an entry from early August, he writes:

On an otherwise sleepy Sunday, we’re awakened by the news that Vanity Fair will publish an article this Wednesday (we have an advance copy) verifying that Giuliani has been having an extramarital affair with his communications director, Cristyne Lategano, and that he has bullied the press into suppressing the story…According to the article’s author, [Jennet] Conant, Lategano “openly idolizes Giuliani,” which generally helps one survive at City Hall.

I haven’t read the original article, which doesn’t seem to be available online, and it’s worth noting that both Giuliani and Lategano have steadfastly denied the allegations. In 2000, however, Giuliani’s wife, Donna Hanover, alluded to the rumors at a news conference in which she announced their separation: “For several years, it was difficult to participate in Rudy’s public life because of his relationship with one staff member.” And her spokeswoman later confirmed that Hanover was referring to Lategano.

But the alleged affair itself was less interesting than the responses that it inspired, both from Giulani’s team and from the media. According to Mandery, the Messinger campaign prudently declined to get involved, but a war of words broke out in New York. Local reporters pushed back against the article’s insinuation that they had neglected to pursue the story, with the Daily News writing in an editorial: “Adultery is a serious charge, and to move it from rumor to print requires real proof, which Vanity Fair apparently doesn’t have.” As for the mayor’s people, Mandery recalls:

Rather than attack the truth of the charges directly, the Giuliani team is attacking them indirectly by questioning Vanity Fair’s journalistic methods. Deputy Mayor Randy Levine faults the story for replying exclusively on unnamed sources. “It’s the worst kind of scurrilous journalism,” he said, “based on anonymous sources and hearsay.” “Where are the sources?” he asks…Lategano says, “Allegations by unnamed sources are not true, and there is no need to comment on malicious works of fiction.”

As Trump put it last year: “Whenever you see the words ‘sources say’ in the fake news media, and they don’t mention names…it is very possible that those sources don’t exist but are made up by fake news writers.” And when a reporter pressed him about his response to the rumors, Giuliani responded in a fashion that Trump might have admired: “That’s a really cheap question.”

And then, remarkably, it all sort of went away. Lategano remained on the payroll, Giuliani handily won the election, and everyone forgot about it—particularly after Giuliani left Hanover for another woman, Judith Nathan, with whom he had evidently had an affair. Last month, after fifteen years of marriage, Nathan filed for divorce. Two weeks later, Giuliani announced that he was joining Trump’s legal team. I have less insight into his inner life than I do for just about anyone else on the planet, but it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t feel the parallels between the president and himself, and that those resonances don’t shed some light on some of his actions in recent days. (Speaking of the Stormy Daniels case, Giuliani said earlier this week: “Imagine if that came out on October 15, 2016, in the middle of the last debate with Hillary Clinton?” It was widely seen as an inexplicable statement that only made matters worse, but deep down, he might have just been thinking of the Lategano story, which broke in the middle of his own reelection campaign.) If Trump and Giuliani seem to be operating by their own playbook, it might be because they both know from experience how quickly such stories can fade in the fire and fury of a tumultuous public life. But things can change. Back in 1997, the journalist Michael Tomasky criticized the Vanity Fair article in New York Magazine, and he wondered aloud about what might be said in its defense:

First, that if the mayor’s marriage is on the rocks, it’s news. Sure, of a sort: he’s a public figure. Plug in George Steinbrenner or Donald Trump or Brad Pitt for Giuliani, and the papers run with it. Yes. But nobody’s going to wag a sanctimonious finger at Steinbrenner, [and] no editorialist is going to argue that the public may suffer from Trump’s infidelity.

Written by nevalalee

May 4, 2018 at 8:58 am

Checks and balances

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About a third of the way through my upcoming book, while discussing the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, I include the sentence: “The issue also featured Heinlein’s “Universe,” which was based on Campbell’s premise about a lost generation starship.” My copy editor amended this to “a lost-generation starship,” to which I replied: “This isn’t a ‘lost-generation’ starship, but a generation starship that happens to be lost.” And the exchange gave me a pretty good idea for a story that I’ll probably never write. (I don’t really have a plot for it yet, but it would be about Hemingway and Fitzgerald on a trip to Alpha Centauri, and it would be called The Double Sun Also Rises.) But it also reminded me of one of the benefits of a copy edit, which is its unparalleled combination of intense scrutiny and total detachment. I sent drafts of the manuscript to some of the world’s greatest nitpickers, who saved me from horrendous mistakes, and the result wouldn’t be nearly as good without their advice. But there’s also something to be said for engaging the services of a diligent reader who doesn’t have any connection to the subject. I deliberately sought out feedback from a few people who weren’t science fiction fans, just to make sure that it remained accessible to a wider audience. And the ultimate example is the copy editor, who is retained to provide an impartial consideration of every semicolon without any preconceived notions outside the text. It’s what Heinlein might have had in mind when he invented the Fair Witness, who said when asked about the color of a nearby house: “It’s white on this side.”

But copy editors are human beings, not machines, and they occasionally get their moment in the spotlight. Recently, their primary platform has been The New Yorker, which has been quietly highlighting the work of its copy editors and fact checkers over the last few years. We can trace this tendency back to Between You & Me, a memoir by Mary Norris that drew overdue attention to the craft of copy editing. In “Holy Writ,” a delightful excerpt in the magazine, Norris writes of the supposed objectivity and rigor of her profession: “The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.” And she says of their famous detachment:

There is a fancy word for “going beyond your province”: “ultracrepidate.” So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. Anti-ultracrepidationism. Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective. For instance, an issue that comes up all the time, whether to use “that” or “which,” depends on what the writer means. It’s interpretive, not mechanical—though the answer often boils down to an implicit understanding of commas.

In order to be truly objective, in other words, you have to be a little subjective. Which equally true of writing as a whole.

You could say much the same of the fact checker, who resembles the copy editor’s equally obsessive cousin. As a rule, books aren’t fact-checked, which is a point that we only seem to remember when the system breaks down. (Astounding was given a legal read, but I was mostly on my own when it came to everything else, and I’m grateful that some of the most potentially contentious material—about L. Ron Hubbard’s writing career—drew on an earlier article that was brilliantly checked by Matthew Giles of Longreads.) As John McPhee recently wrote of the profession:

Any error is everlasting. As Sara [Lippincott] told the journalism students, once an error gets into print it “will live on and on in libraries carefully catalogued, scrupulously indexed…silicon-chipped, deceiving researcher after researcher down through the ages, all of whom will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on and on into an exponential explosion of errata.” With drawn sword, the fact-checker stands at the near end of this bridge. It is, in part, why the job exists and why, in Sara’s words, a publication will believe in “turning a pack of professional skeptics loose on its own galley proofs.”

McPhee continues: “Book publishers prefer to regard fact-checking as the responsibility of authors, which, contractually, comes down to a simple matter of who doesn’t pay for what. If material that has appeared in a fact-checked magazine reappears in a book, the author is not the only beneficiary of the checker’s work. The book publisher has won a free ticket to factual respectability.” And its absence from the publishing process feels like an odd evolutionary vestige of the book industry that ought to be fixed.

As a result of such tributes, the copy editors and fact checkers of The New Yorker have become cultural icons in themselves, and when an error does make it through, it can be mildly shocking. (Last month, the original version of a review by Adam Gopnik casually stated that Andrew Lloyd Webber was the composer of Chess, and although I knew perfectly well that this was wrong, I had to look it up to make sure that I hadn’t strayed over into a parallel universe.) And their emergence at this particular moment may not be an accident. The first installment of “Holy Writ” appeared on February 23, 2015, just a few months before Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, plunging us all into world in which good grammar and factual accuracy can seem less like matters of common decency than obstacles to be obliterated. Even though the timing was a coincidence, it’s tempting to read our growing appreciation for these unsung heroes as a statement about the importance of the truth itself. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post:

It’s not surprising that one of the persistent jokes from the Trump era is the suggestion that we’re living in a bad piece of fiction…Pretending we’re all minor characters in a work of fiction can be a way of distancing ourselves from the seeming horror of our time or emphasizing our own feelings of powerlessness, and pointing to “the writers” often helps us deny any responsibility we may have for Trump, whether as voters or as journalists who covered the election. But whatever else we’re doing when we joke about Trump and the swirl of chaos around him as fiction, we’re expressing a wish that this moment will resolve in a narratively and morally comprehensible fashion.

Perhaps we’re also hoping that reality itself will have a fact checker after all, and that the result will make a difference. We don’t know if it will yet. But I’m hopeful that we’ll survive the exponential explosion of errata.

The fall of the foundation

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Note: Spoilers follow for the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.

At the World Science Fiction Convention two years ago in Kansas City, I attended a panel where an audience member asked a question about Donald Trump. There were audible groans from the room, but one of the panelists—I think it was David Brin—drew a parallel between Trump and Nehemiah Scudder, the religious demagogue who casts an ominous shadow across Heinlein’s Future History. It was a clever comparison, but as time goes on, I’ve come to realize that there’s an even better surrogate from the golden age of science fiction. I’ve seen it mentioned here and there online, but the most thorough treatment is by Chris Taylor of Mashable, who writes of the psychohistorians of Asimov’s Foundation series:

They hope to preserve all the knowledge of civilization after the collapse of the Empire, as predicted by foresighted futurist Hari Seldon. We see them overcome various “Seldon crises,” gaining more and more star systems—until the Empire collapses halfway through the second book, Foundation and Empire, ahead of schedule. At this point in the story, the Foundation seems as secure as Obama-era technocracy did. It’s the end of history, basically—and though a group of underground democrats grumble about its rigid political system, the rational, enlightened, science-friendly Foundation has clearly triumphed over the forces of darkness and anarchy…Then out of nowhere comes the Mule, a terrifying warlord who conquers the entire Foundation in the space of a year. Seldon’s…prediction turns out to be badly wrong—as useless, say, as pre-election polling in November 2016. He didn’t see the Mule coming…[The Mule] turns out to have developed a one-in-a-trillion genetic mutation that gives him a strange power: the ability to implant the emotion of his choice in others. So the Mule instills his followers with ecstatic, fanatical loyalty, and sticks his opponents with despair and “a miserable sense of defeat.”

Taylor’s excellent article, which is worth reading in its entirety, highlights passages from Asimov’s stories—much of which the Mule spends in disguise as a clown—that have taken on an uncanny resonance. Here, for instance, we see Han Pritcher, a decorated military hero who once opposed the Mule, only to be converted by him after a failed assassination attempt:

Pritcher caught a mental breath and tried to think back. How had he been before the Mule had Converted him from the diehard democrat that he had been? It was hard to remember. He could not place himself mentally. He could not break the lining wires that bound him emotionally to the Mule…There had been no sensation the first time. There had been no pain, no mental jar—not even a feeling of discontinuity. He had always loved the Mule. If there had ever been a time long before—as long before as five short years—when he had thought he hadn’t loved him, that he had hated him—that was just a horrid illusion. The thought of that illusion embarrassed him.

And a little while later, when the First Speaker of the Second Foundation addresses the Mule directly at last:

Emotional contact such as you and I possess is not a very new development…but the faculty of direct emotional contact tended to atrophy with the development of speech a million years back…[But] you were born with it…We calculated the extent to which a megalomania would take control of you and we thought we were prepared…The added psychic distortion due to your inferiority complex passed us by. We allowed only for megalomania—not for an intensely psychopathic paranoia as well.

And if you’re wondering whether these parallels might have occurred to anyone within the Republican Party itself—well, it’s possible. Here’s what one prominent conservative wrote two decades ago in a book titled To Renew America, which seems now like a slightly less catchy version of Trump’s favorite slogan:

While Toynbee was impressing me with the history of civilizations, Isaac Asimov was shaping my view of the future in equally profound ways…For a high school student who loved history, Asimov’s most exhilarating invention was the “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon. The term does not refer to Freudian analysis but to a kind of probabilistic forecasting of the future of whole civilizations. The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior. Pollsters and advertisers now make a good living off the same theory.

The author was Newt Gingrich, whose love of science fiction has been amply documented elsewhere—he wrote science fiction novels, participated in Jerry Pournelle’s think tank on the Strategic Defense Initiative, gave a controversial speech at the Nebula Awards, and mused during his last presidential campaign about placing a permanent base on the moon. And he really likes the Foundation series. As Ray Smock, the former historian of the House of Representatives, wrote in a fascinating article on the subject: “The greatest influence on Newt Gingrich, the conservative Republican, was the liberal atheist Isaac Asimov…Newt saw not just entertainment but a master plan using the Foundation trilogy as his political handbook, a guide to how one man creates a new force for civilized life.”

Gingrich, like the economist Paul Krugman, wanted to be Hari Seldon, and at first, he pursued his goals in the manner of any aspiring psychohistorian. (As Smock writes with a straight face: “While Hari Seldon created the Foundation to carry out his work, Newt used a variety of foundations and organizations to foster his work.”) So how did he become such a vocal defender of our generation’s equivalent of the Mule? Helpfully, Gingrich published an entire book on the subject, Understanding Trump, which includes a passage that sheds some light on the problem, mostly by speaking of Trump as if he were a super empath:

[Donald Trump] has a sixth sense about connecting with the American people. For instance, Trump routinely spoke to crowds of ten to twenty thousand people, but if you watched his gestures and body language, you saw that he was connecting with audience members one by one…Trump’s familiarity and comfortableness with working-class Americans also enables him to intuit what people care about and what they are looking for…In addition to giving strength and resolve to his supporters, I am sure the rallies were critical to maintaining Trump’s spirit as well. He was able to stay in tune with, and be guided by, the will of the people.

And if you want to understand the fundamental strangeness of what remains of the Republican Party, it helps to see it as an organization of men who thought fondly that they were a foundation of Hari Seldons, but who turned out to be embarrassingly eager to throw in their lot with the Mule, contenting themselves with “wins” on specific issues even as their party was irrevocably transformed. Trump, like the Mule, seems to have only gradually understood the extent of his power: “Slowly, I learned that I could reach into those minds and turn the pointer to the spot I wished, that I could nail it there forever.” Now he clearly knows what he can do. And he fooled many of us for a long time into thinking that he was a clown.

The Martian Way

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In these divided times, the one position that seems to consistently transcend party lines is that we should really get our act together and go to Mars. This is particularly true if you happen to be president. Toward the end of his first term, George W. Bush called for a return to the moon, which would serve as a way station for “human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond,” and then he pretty much never brought it up again. Shortly before the last presidential election, when he probably should have been focusing on other matters, Obama wrote in an opinion piece that the “clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space” would be a manned mission to Mars. As for Trump, his views are more or less what you’d expect. Earlier this month, in a speech at Miramar Air Station in San Diego, he expressed enthusiasm for space, in his own inimitable way: “Very soon we’re going to Mars. You wouldn’t be going to Mars if my opponent won, that I can tell you. You wouldn’t even be thinking about it.” In the same speech, Trump also voiced his support for the idea of, well, starship troopers:

My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea. We may even have a “Space Force”—develop another one. Space Force. We have the Air Force; we’ll have the Space Force. You know, I was saying it the other day because we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said, “Maybe we need a new force, we’ll call it the Space Force.” And I was not really serious, and then I said what a great idea, maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen. That could be the big breaking story.

The week after Trump gave this speech, I happened to come across a passage in The Scientific Estate by the political scientist Don K. Price, which was first published in 1965. After lamenting the lack of participation in public policy by scientists in democratic nations, Price writes: “Science fiction…is a form of literature unwisely neglected by students of politics. On something like the theory that if I could write a nation’s songs I would be glad to let someone else write its laws, I am inclined to think that it is the space cadets of the comic strip—and their fictional counterparts back to Jules Verne or even Daedalus—who have fired our enthusiasm for the race with the Russians to the moon.” He’s probably right. But then he goes on to make a striking assertion:

That enthusiasm is certainly shared on both sides of the Iron Curtain. But with a difference, and a difference that may be more important to the future of our political system than the amount of money that we spend on space exploration. The difference is that the Soviet space cadet, in sharp contrast to his opposite number in Western science fiction, seems to be very conscious not only that he is in a race for prestige or power with another country, but that he has discovered the key to the use of the scientific method in human affairs. This is the materialist dialectic, which is supposed not merely to let the communist system make the best use of science in technical matters, but to give the scientific intellect a generally dominant role in the society of the future.

My knowledge of Soviet science fiction is regrettably close to zero, so I can’t speak to this argument directly. But I can venture a few observations within my own limited circle of expertise. The idea that the protagonist of science fiction “has discovered the key to the use of scientific method in human affairs” sounds a lot like John W. Campbell, who wanted nothing more than to turn sociology and psychology into provinces of engineering, which would allow scientists to have “a generally dominant role” in the enlightened age to come. Dianetics was conceived as a social movement as well as a therapeutic one, with Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard both openly envisioning a world that would be run by “clears.” A decade earlier, the Foundation series had taken the idea of a science of history and politics to its ultimate conclusion. (Comparisons have often been made between psychohistory and dialectical materialism, to the point where Asimov later felt obliged to state: “I have never read anything by Marx. I have never read anything written about Marxian economics or philosophy.” He was protesting too much—in his late teens, he described himself as a communist, at least to his friends in the Futurians. But any resemblance between the two theories was due less to any direct influence than to their shared dream of a comprehensive science of civilization.) When Price published his book, it may well have been true, as he writes, that “as Isaac Asimov has noted, most contemporary science fiction in America is not utopian, but anti-utopian.” But this was partially a reaction to the optimistic mood of the Campbell years, and the individuals who actually worked on the space program consisted in large part of scientists and engineers who came of age during the golden age of Astounding, just as the next generation would be shaped by the Heinlein juveniles.

It seems perfectly plausible, in short, that science fiction “fired our enthusiasm” for the space race, which both America and Russia came to be see as an expression of national power. The extent to which science fiction inspired us to go to the moon in the first place is up for debate—Campbell certainly believed that it did, and I’d argue that we’re only talking about going to Mars, which otherwise doesn’t seems like an urgent priority, because science fiction got there first. And it’s fair to say that we place an emphasis on manned spaceflight primarily because of the stories that it allows us to tell to ourselves. As I’ve argued before, science fiction set stories in space because it made an exciting backdrop for adventure stories, and it was only after the genre started to take itself seriously as a predictive literature that it began to seem like part of our collective destiny. Even now, its appeal is primarily emotional, not scientific, and if Mars appears so prominently in the rhetoric of our presidents, it’s because its usefulness as a narrative symbol goes beyond politics. (Trump’s proposed budget, significantly, eliminated numerous scientific programs at NASA, including the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope and many earth science missions, while sparing the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. The spending bill recently passed by Congress, by contrast, maintains or increases the current levels of funding.) Presidents tell stories to themselves and to the rest of us, and you can learn a lot from how they appropriate the images that their predecessors have used. For Trump, who otherwise displays minimal interest or understanding of science, a mission to Mars fulfills the same role as a border wall or a military parade. It’s a symbol of power, or a plot point in a story in which America plays the role of the competent man. When we hear it from Trump, this seems obvious. But maybe it was never anything else.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2018 at 10:19 am

The end of applause

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On July 8, 1962, at a performance of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, the pianist Glenn Gould asked his audience not to applaud at the end. Most of his listeners complied, although the request clearly made them uneasy. A few months earlier, Gould had published an essay, “Let’s Ban Applause!”, in which he presented the case against the convention. (I owe my discovery of this piece to an excellent episode of my wife’s podcast, Rework, which you should check out if you haven’t done so already.) Gould wrote:

I have come to the conclusion, most seriously, that the most efficacious step which could be taken in our culture today would be the gradual but total elimination of audience response…I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.

Later that year, Gould expanded on his position in an interview with The Globe and Mail. When asked why he disliked applause, he replied:

I am rebellious about the institution of the concert—of the mob, which sits in judgment. Some artists seem to place too much reliance on the sweaty mass response of the moment. If we must have a public response at all, I feel it should be much less savage than it is today…Applause tells me nothing. Like any other artist, I can always pull off a few musical tricks at the end of a performance and the decibel count will automatically go up ten points.

The last line is the one that interests me the most. Gould, I think, was skeptical of applause largely because it reminded him of his own worst instincts as a performer—the part that would fall back on a few technical tricks to milk a more enthusiastic response from his audience in the moment. The funny thing about social media, of course, is that it places all of us in this position. If you’ve spent any time on Twitter or Facebook, you know that some messages will generate an enthusiastic response from followers, while others will go over like a lead balloon, and we quickly learn to intuitively sense the difference. Even if it isn’t conscious, it quietly affects the content that we decide to put out there in the world, as well as the opinions and the sides of ourselves that we reveal to others. And while this might seem like a small matter, it had a real impact on our politics, which became increasingly driven by ideas that thrived in certain corners of the social marketplace, where they inspired the “momentary ejection of adrenaline” that Gould decried. Last month, Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook employee, wrote on Wired of the logistics of the site’s ad auction system:

During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters. But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook’s click model, effectively winning him more media for less money. In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone’s screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices.

And in the aftermath, Trump’s attitudes toward important issues often seem driven by the response that he gets on Twitter, which leads to a cycle in which he’s encouraged to become even more like what he already is. (In the past, I’ve drawn a comparison between his evolution and that of L. Ron Hubbard, and I think that it still holds up.) In many ways, Trump is the greatest embodiment so far of the tendency that Gould diagnosed half a century ago, in which the performer is driven to change himself in response to the collective feedback that he receives from applause. It’s no accident that Trump only seems truly alive on camera, in front of a cheering crowd, or while tweeting, or why he displays such an obsession with polls and television ratings. Applause may have told Gould nothing, but it tells Trump everything. Social media was a pivotal factor in his victory, but only at the cost of transforming him into a monster that his younger self—as craven and superficial as he was—might not have recognized. And it worked horrifyingly well. At an interview in January, Trump admonished reporters: “The fact is, you people won’t say this, but I’ll say it: I was a much better candidate than [Clinton]. You always say she was a bad candidate; you never say I was a good candidate. I was one of the greatest candidates. Someday you’re going to say that.” Well, I’m ready to say it now. Before the election, I argued in a blog post that Trump’s candidacy would establish the baseline of the popular vote that could be won by the worst possible campaign, and by any conventional measure, I was right. Like everyone else, though, I missed the larger point. Even as we mocked Trump for boasting about the attendance at his rallies, he was listening to the applause, and he evolved in real time into something that would raise the decibel count to shattering levels.

It almost makes me wish that we had actually banned applause back in the sixties, at least for the sake of a thought experiment. In his essay, Gould sketched a picture of how a concert might conclude under his new model:

In the early stages…the performers may feel a moment of unaccustomed tension at the conclusion of their selection, when they must withdraw to the wings unescorted by the homage of their auditors. For orchestral players this should provide no hazard: a platoon of cellists smartly goose-stepping offstage is an inspiring sight. For the solo pianist, however, I would suggest a sort of lazy-Susan device which would transport him and his instrument to the wings without his having to rise. This would encourage performance of those sonatas which end on a note of serene reminiscence, and in which the lazy Susan could be set gently in motion some moments before the conclusion.

It’s hard to imagine Trump giving a speech in such a situation. If it weren’t for the rallies, he never would have run for president at all, and much of his administration has consisted of his wistful efforts to recapture that glorious moment. (The infamous meeting in which he was showered with praise by his staff members—half a dozen of whom are now gone—feels now like an attempt to recreate that dynamic in a smaller room, and his recent request for a military parade channels that impulse into an even more troubling direction.) Instead of banning applause, of course, we did exactly the opposite. We enabled it everywhere—and then we upvoted its ultimate creation into the White House.

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2018 at 9:02 am

The scorpion and the snake

with 2 comments

At the end of the most haunting speech in Citizen Kane, Mr. Bernstein says wistfully: “I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.” And I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t think about Orson Welles, who increasingly seems to have led one of the richest and most revealing of all American lives. He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of all places. As a young man, he allegedly put together a résumé worthy of a Hemingway protagonist, including a stint as a bullfighter, before he was out of his teens. In New York, he unquestionably made a huge impact on theater and radio, and he even had a hand in the development of the modern superhero and the invasion of science fiction into the mainstream, in the form of a classic—and possibly exaggerated—case of mass hysteria fueled by the media. His reward was what remains the most generous contract that any newcomer has ever received from a major movie studio, and he responded at the age of twenty-five with what struck many viewers, even on its first release, as the best film ever made. (If you’re an ambitious young person, this is the sort of achievement that seems vaguely plausible when you’re twenty and utterly absurd by the time you’re thirty.) After that, it was all downhill. His second picture, an equally heartbreaking story about an American family, was taken out of his hands. Welles became distracted by politics and stage conjuring, fell in love with Dolores del Río, married Rita Hayworth, and played Harry Lime in The Third Man. He spent the rest of his life wandering from one shoot to the next, acquiring a reputation as a ham and a sellout as he tried to scrounge up enough money to make a few more movies, some of them extraordinary. Over the years, he became so fat that he turned it into a joke for his audiences: “Why are there so few of you, and so many of me?” He died alone at home in the Hollywood Hills, typing up a few pages of script that he hoped to shoot the next day, shortly after taping an appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. His last film performance was as Unicron, the devourer of planets, in The Transformers: The Movie.

Even the barest outlines of his story, which I’ve written out here from memory, hint at the treasure hoard of metaphors that it offers. But that also means that we need to be cautious when we try to draw lessons from Welles, or to apply his example to the lives of others. I was once so entranced by the parallels between Welles and John W. Campbell that I devoted an entire blog post to listing them in detail, but I’ve come to realize that you could do much the same with just about any major American life of a certain profile. It presents an even greater temptation with Donald Trump, who once claimed that Citizen Kane was his favorite movie—mostly, I suspect, because it sounded better than Bloodsport. And it might be best to retire the comparisons between Kane and Trump, not to mention Jared Kushner, only because they’re too flattering. (If anything, Trump may turn out to have more in common with Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, the corrupt sheriff of a border town who frames a young Mexican for murder, only to meet his downfall after one of his closest associates is persuaded to wear a wire. As the madam played by Marlene Dietrich says after his death: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”) But there are times when he leaves me with no choice. As Eli Rosenberg of the Washington Post noted in a recent article, Trump is oddly fond of the lyrics to a song titled “The Snake,” which he first recited at a primary event in Cedar Falls, Iowa, saying that he had read it “the other day.” He repeatedly returned to it throughout the campaign, usually departing from his scripted remarks to do so—and it’s a measure of the dispiriting times in which we live that this attracted barely any attention, when by most standards it would qualify as one of the weirdest things that a presidential candidate had ever done. Trump read it again with a flourish at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference: “Did anyone ever hear me do ‘The Snake’ during the campaign? I had five people outside say, ‘Could you do “The Snake?”‘ Let’s do it. I’ll do it, all right?”

In “The Snake,” a woman takes pity on a snake in the snow and carries it home, where it bites her with the explanation: “Oh shut up, silly woman. You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.” As Trump helpfully says: “You have to think of this in terms of immigration.” There’s a lot to unpack here, sadly, and the article in the Post points out that the original song was written by Oscar Brown Jr., a black singer and social activist from Chicago whose family isn’t particularly happy about its appropriation by Trump. Other observers, including Fox News, have pointed out its similarities to “The Scorpion and the Frog,” a fable that has made appearances in movies from The Crying Game to Drive. Most commentators trace it back to Aesop, but its first known appearance is in Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, which was released in 1955, and it’s likely that we owe its most familiar version to none other than Welles himself. (Welles had written Harry Lime’s famous speech about the cuckoo clocks just a few years earlier, and Mr. Arkadin was based on the radio series The Lives of Harry Lime.) Here’s how Welles delivers it:

And now I’m going to tell you about a scorpion. This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. “No,” said the frog, “no thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me and the sting of the scorpion is death.” “Now, where,” asked the scorpion, “is the logic in that?” For scorpions always try to be logical. “If I sting you, you will die. I will drown.” So, the frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back. But just in the middle of the river, he felt a terrible pain and realized that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. “Logic!” cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. “There is no logic in this!” “I know,” said the scorpion, “but I can’t help it—it’s my character.” Let’s drink to character.

And just as Arkadin raises the possibility that the scorpion is himself, you’ll often see arguments that that Trump subconsciously identifies with the snake. As Dan Lavoie, an aide to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, recently wrote on Twitter, with what seems like almost an excess of shrewdness: “Historians will view it as obvious that Trump was describing himself in ‘The Snake.’ His over-the-top recitation will be the narrative device for the first big post-Trump documentary.”

We often explain real life to ourselves in terms drawn from the movies, and one way to capture the uncanny quality of the Trump administration is to envision the rally scene in Citizen Kane with the candidate delivering “The Scorpion and the Frog” to the crowd instead—which only indicates that we’ve already crossed into a far stranger universe. But the fable also gets at a deeper affinity between Trump and Welles. In his book Rosebud, which is the best treatment of Welles that I’ve seen, the critic David Thomson returns obsessively to the figure of the scorpion, and he writes of its first appearance on film:

The Welles of this time believed in so little, and if he was to many a monstrous egotist, still he hated his own pride as much as anything. We should remember that this is the movie in which Arkadin delivers the speech—so much quoted afterward, and in better films, that it seems faintly spurious now in Arkadin—about the scorpion and the frog. It is a description of self-abuse and suicide. That Welles/Arkadin delivers it with a grandiose, shining relish only illustrates the theatricality of his most heartfelt moments. That Welles could not give the speech greater gravity or sadness surely helps us understand the man some often found odious. And so a speech full of terror became a cheap trick.

What sets Trump’s version apart, beyond even Welles’s cynicism, is that it’s both full of terror and a cheap trick. All presidents have told us fables, but only to convince us that we might be better than we truly are, as when Kane archly promises to help “the underprivileged, the underpaid, and the underfed.” Trump is the first to use such rhetoric to bring out the worst in us. He can’t help it. It’s his character. And Trump might be like Arkadin in at least one other way. Arkadin is a millionaire who claims to no longer remember the sources of his wealth, so he hires a private eye to investigate him. But he really hasn’t forgotten anything. As Thomson writes: “Rather, he wants to find out how easily anyone—the FBI, the IRS, the corps of biography—might be able to trace his guilty past…and as this blunt fool discovers the various people who could testify against him, they are murdered.”

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2018 at 9:31 am

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