Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump

The flat earth society

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In his indispensable book Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster draws a famous distinction between flat and round characters in fiction. This classification has been beaten to death in countless high school literature classes, so it can be bracing to revisit his original language:

In their purest form, [flat characters] are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round…One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized whenever they come in—recognized by the reader’s emotional eye, not by the visual eye, which merely notes the recurrence of a proper name. In Russian novels, where they so seldom occur, they would be a decided help. It is a convenience for an author when he can strike with his full force at once, and flat characters are very useful to him, since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.

This kind of insight from a professional novelist is cold, hard cash, and it reminds us that a round character isn’t necessarily better than a flat one. “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round,” Forster says, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I frequently get more enjoyment from stories populated by vivid flat characters than by the indistinguishable round ones of so much modernist realism.

Yet there’s an even deeper point to be made here, which is that flatness may actually be closer to how we think about the people around us, or even about ourselves. We can start with Forster’s observation that flat characters are often more memorable than round ones: “They remain in [the reader’s] mind as unalterable for the reason that they were not changed by circumstances; they moved through circumstances, which gives them in retrospect a comforting quality, and preserves them when the book that produced them may decay.” And I’d argue that we also remember flat characters more clearly because they partake of the ways in which we see the supporting players in our own lives. When we think of neighbors, coworkers, and other casual acquaintances, we’re likely to associate them with one or two obvious qualities, if we even manage to have a distinct impression of them at all. It’s only the ones we know best—our families, lovers and closest friends—that we can grasp with the nuance with which we view the roundest characters in fiction. And this can even extend to our own motivations. It’s hard for us to integrate all aspects of our past and personality at once, except when it takes the form of instinct. Most of our actions are intuitive or habitual, and when we need to consciously pay attention, it’s easier to emphasize one part of our identity at a time. We can switch between roles multiple times each day, or we can play a single part for years. It’s an adaptive strategy that makes it easier for us to act and make decisions. We’re only one thing at a time because that’s all we can keep in our heads at once, and the other sides of ourselves have a way of falling into line.

I started thinking about this after reading an article by Perry Bacon, Jr. on FiveThirtyEight on how Americans seem to be shifting other aspects of their identity—like religion or ethnicity—to fit their political affiliations. This conclusion is based on a paper by the political scientist Patrick Egan, who analyzed a series of surveys that were given to the same group of respondents over time. He found that what we tend to see as relatively fixed demographic information can actually be quite fluid, and that these changes are strongly correlated with the political labels that we embrace. As Bacon sums up the results:

Liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to start identifying as Latino or saying that their ancestry was African, Asian or Hispanic.

Conservative Republicans were much more likely than liberal Democrats to become born-again Christians and to stop identifying as non-religious; liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to leave religion and stop describing themselves as born-again.

Conservative Republicans were more likely than liberal Democrats to stop describing themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual; liberal-leaning Democrats were more likely to start identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Bacon concludes: “Increasingly, the political party you belong to represents a big part of your identity and is not just a reflection of your political views. It may even be your most important identity.” And this strikes me as only a specific case of the way in which we flatten ourselves out to make our inner lives more manageable. We pick and choose what else we emphasize to better fit with the overall story that we’re telling. It’s just more obvious these days.

And while this might seem like a stretch, I can’t resist drawing a comparison between our two most recent presidents. Whatever else you might think of Obama, he was undeniably complicated, with a personality shaped by a vast network of pressures and expectations. From a literary standpoint, he was a round character. Trump, by contrast, can seem ridiculously flat. Nearly everything that he does can be adequately explained by his vanity, or his desire to project weakness as strength, and he emerges as a far more sinister version of a flat character like Mr. Pickwick. As Forster writes: “It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr. Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr. Pickwick is far too adroit and well trained. He always has the air of weighing something.” And there’s a real mismatch between Trump’s flatness, which is traditionally a comic quality, and the tragic consequences of his actions. Here’s Forster again:

[Flat people] are best when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore. Each time he enters crying “Revenge!” or “My heart bleeds for humanity!” or whatever his formula is, our hearts sink…It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humor and appropriateness.

Cultures have a way of taking psychological cues from their heads of state. As Forster says of one critical objection to flat characters: “Queen Victoria, they argue, cannot be summed up in a single sentence, so what excuse remains for Mrs. Micawber?” When the president himself is flat—which is another way of saying that he can no longer surprise us on the downside—it has implications both for our literature and for our private lives. The process is already happening. And it shouldn’t astonish us if we all wake up one day to discover that the world is flat.

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2018 at 8:39 am

The paper of record

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One of my favorite conventions in suspense fiction is the trope known as Authentication by Newspaper. It’s the moment in a movie, novel, or television show—and sometimes even in reality—when the kidnapper sends a picture of the victim holding a copy of a recent paper, with the date and headline clearly visible, as a form of proof of life. (You can also use it with piles of illicit cash, to prove that you’re ready to send payment.) The idea frequently pops up in such movies as Midnight Run and Mission: Impossible 2, and it also inspired a classic headline from The Onion: “Report: Majority Of Newspapers Now Purchased By Kidnappers To Prove Date.” It all depends on the fact that a newspaper is a datable object that is widely available and impossible to fake in advance, which means that it can be used to definitively establish the earliest possible day in which an event could have taken place. And you can also use the paper to verify a past date in subtler ways. A few weeks ago, Motherboard had a fascinating article on a time-stamping service called Surety, which provides the equivalent of a dated seal for digital documents. To make it impossible to change the date on one of these files, every week, for more than twenty years, Surety has generated a public hash value from its internal client database and published it in the classified ad section of the New York Times. As the company notes: “This makes it impossible for anyone—including Surety—to backdate timestamps or validate electronic records that were not exact copies of the original.”

I was reminded of all this yesterday, after the Times posted an anonymous opinion piece titled “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The essay, which the paper credits to “a senior official,” describes what amounts to a shadow government within the White House devoted to saving the president—and the rest of the country—from his worst impulses. And while the author may prefer to remain nameless, he certainly doesn’t suffer from a lack of humility:

Many of the senior officials in [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them…It may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening. And we are trying to do what’s right even when Donald Trump won’t.

The result, he claims, is “a two-track presidency,” with a group of principled advisors doing their best to counteract Trump’s admiration for autocrats and contempt for international relations: “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state. It’s the work of the steady state.” He even reveals that there was early discussion among cabinet members of using the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to remove Trump from office, although it was scuttled by concern of precipitating a crisis somehow worse than the one in which we’ve found ourselves.

Not surprisingly, the piece has generated a firestorm of speculation about the author’s identity, both online and in the White House itself, which I won’t bother covering here. What interests me are the writer’s reasons for publishing it in the first place. Over the short term, it can only destabilize an already volatile situation, and everyone involved will suffer for it. This implies that the author has a long game in mind, and it had better be pretty compelling. On Twitter, Nate Silver proposed one popular theory: “It seems like the person’s goal is to get outed and secure a very generous advance on a book deal.” He may be right—although if that’s the case, the plan has quickly gone sideways. Reaction on both sides has been far more critical than positive, with Erik Wemple of the Washington Post perhaps putting it best:

Like most anonymous quotes and tracts, this one is a PR stunt. Mr. Senior Administration Official gets to use the distributive power of the New York Times to recast an entire class of federal appointees. No longer are they enablers of a foolish and capricious president. They are now the country’s most precious and valued patriots. In an appearance on Wednesday afternoon, the president pronounced it all a “gutless” exercise. No argument here.

Or as the political blogger Charles P. Pierce says even more savagely in his response on Esquire: “Just shut up and quit.”

But Wemple’s offhand reference to “the distributive power” of the Times makes me think that the real motive is staring us right in the face. It’s a form of Authentication by Newspaper. Let’s say that you’re a senior official in the Trump administration who knows that time is running out. You’re afraid to openly defy the president, but you also want to benefit—or at least to survive—after the ship goes down. In the aftermath, everyone will be scrambling to position themselves for some kind of future career, even though the events of the last few years have left most of them irrevocably tainted. By the time it falls apart, it will be too late to claim that you were gravely concerned. But the solution is a stroke of genius. You plant an anonymous piece in the Times, like the founders of Surety publishing its hash value in the classified ads, except that your platform is vastly more prominent. And you place it there precisely so that you can point to it in the future. After Trump is no longer a threat, you can reveal yourself, with full corroboration from the paper of record, to show that you had the best interests of the country in mind all along. You were one of the good ones. The datestamp is right there. That’s your endgame, no matter how much pain it causes in the meantime. It’s brilliant. But it may not work. As nearly everyone has realized by now, the fact that a “steady state” of conservatives is working to minimize the damage of a Trump presidency to achieve “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more” is a scandal in itself. This isn’t proof of life. It’s the opposite.

Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2018 at 8:59 am

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.”

Donate here to The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights and The Raices Family Reunification Bond Fund

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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.

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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

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