Thursday, April 14, 2016

Life, the Universe, and Authoritarians

Once you start identifying liberals with social breadth and conservatives with social depth, suddenly it starts to explain a lot, and you start seeing examples everywhere.  (Yes, this may be partly the case of the man with the hammer who thinks everything looks like a nail).  Liberals reaction to outsiders is to engage with them (albeit in a superficial way), while conservative reaction is to disengage.  And when outsiders want to engage whether you want to or not, indifference to outsiders can be easily transformed into hostility.  Certainly it is not a new insight that many people can be immensely helpful, supportive and generally good to one another while also being cruel and merciless to outsiders.

And I started noticing this theme particularly in wildly caricatured form in science fiction.

Consider Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  The Federation is at war with their most powerful and ruthless enemy yet* -- the Dominion.  Our heroes encounter a race of super-soldiers called the Jem'Hadar -- merciless, suicidally aggressive, and with technology far beyond our own, all in service of an evil empire known as the Dominion, which is bent on conquest of anything that stands in its way -- including the Federation.  They can beam through our shields, walk through a force field, beam seemingly unlimited distance, and defeat the strongest star ship with ease. They also seem to know a disturbing amount about us, while we know very little about them.

Our side seems to have only one trump that may be able to match the Dominion -- Odo, the Changeling/shape shifter, a race of beings whose natural state is somewhere between gelatin and liquid metal, but who can assume any solid form they wish, together with its strength and power.  Our heroes set out in a new, super-powered ship to find the home world of the "Founders" (the leaders of the Dominion) and try to convince them that the Federation is no threat.  But the super-powered ship is attacked and as easily overpowered as any.

Everyone is captured except Odo, who escapes with his best friend, Kira.  Odo arrives on his home world, where the Changelings form a vast, shimmering sea known at the Great Link, in which the Changelings join physically and telepathically, in the bliss of eternal communion.  They can separate and act as individual beings whenever they want, or melt in and become a single being.  It is the ultimate expression of deep commitment, such as no solid can ever imagine. No Changeling has ever harmed or coerced another.  And the viewer starts to feel a sense of hope, that maybe the Federation has found an ally powerful enough to challenge even the Dominion.  Various distractions get thrown at us, mostly as red herrings to increase the shock at the Big Reveal.  The Changelings are the Dominion!  Hunted, hounded, and persecuted by the solids, the Changelings responded by seeking to dominate and control everyone else, "Because, what you can control, can't hurt you."  And so it turns out that the Changelings, who have achieved the ultimate depth of commitment, have done so only at the expense of all breadth.  And they are not merely conservatives, but supreme authoritarians, seeking to impose order on a chaotic universe and regarding anything not under their control as an intolerable threat.

Memory Alpha, speaking of the only other Changeling we meet as an individual:
She rationalized her kind's dislike for humanoids, and ultimately the war waged against them, by recounting the suspicion, hatred and violence they had experienced thousands of years ago when exploring the galaxy. Built on that prejudice, her mistrust kept growing and she was very proud that her kind, through the creation of the Dominion, had finally become the "hunters", controlling the destinies of hundreds of other races, "because what you can control, can't hurt you". She called the murders and deaths the Founders were responsible for after the creation of the Dominion as bringing "order" to the galaxy.
In short, despite the beautiful depth of the Great Link, the Changelings' rejection of any sort of breadth, their refusal to count anyone outside of their own kind in their moral calculus turned them into a race of monsters.

But I prefer a lighter-hearted piece linking conservatism to authoritarianism -- Douglas Adams' Life, the Universe, and Everything.  Deadly killer robots (in the form of cricket players) are on the prowl, threatening the very existence of Life, the Universe, and Everything.  Slartibartfast (whose name is presumably Magathrean for exposition) shows clueless human Arthur Dent an Informational Illusion about who is behind the killer robots:  (see pp. 65-66).
They walked quite near the watchers beneath the tree, swinging lanterns which made soft and crazy lights dance among the trees and grass, chattering contentedly, and actually singing a song about how terribly nice everything was, how happy they were, how much they enjoyed working on the farm, and how pleasant it was to be going home to see their wives and children, with a lilting chorus to the effect that the flowers were smelling particularly nice at this time of year and that it was a pity the dog had died seeing as it liked them so much. Arthur could almost imagine Paul McCartney sitting with his feet up by the fire on evening, humming it to Linda and wondering what to buy with the proceeds, and thinking probably Essex.
. . . . . . . . 
The people in the group were clearly alien, if only because they seemed a little tall, thin, angular and almost as pale as to be white, but otherwise they appeared remarkably pleasant; a little whimsical perhaps, one wouldn’t necessarily want to spend a long coach journey with them, but the point was that if they deviated in any way from being good straightforward people it was in being perhaps too nice rather than not nice enough.
Is it too much of a stretch to say that the overwhelming niceness of the Krikketers is really just their social depth?  (Many a secular liberal has been surprised to find something like it at conservative Christian churches as well).  Their world is idyllic with only one disturbing thing -- their sky is completely black, with no moon or stars because they are in a dust cloud that cuts off all sight of the rest of the universe.  Indeed, they have no concept of a universe and are barely aware of the sky at all. As Slartibartfast Expositious explains:
"You see, the reason why they have never thought ‘We are alone in the Universe’ is that until tonight they don’t know about the Universe. Until tonight . . . .Imagine,” he said, “never even thinking ‘We are alone’ simply because it has never occurred to you to think that there’s any other way to be.”
Then a spaceship crashes down on their planet.  The idea of something falling from the sky simply never occurred to them.  (Um, doesn't it ever rain on Krikket?)  They use the ship as a prototype to build one of their own to shoot off and see if there is anything out there.  The Informational Illusion continues to show their first flight into space, and the sense of awe is so strong that even Adams briefly adopts a serious tone:  (See page 70).
The coldness and heaviness and blankness of it took a slow grip on Arthur’s heart, and he felt acutely aware of the feelings of the Krikkit pilots which hung in the air like a thick static charge. They were now on the very boundary of the historical knowledge of their race. This was the very limit beyond which none of them had ever speculated, or even known that there was any speculation to be done.  
The darkness of the cloud buffeted at the ship. Inside was the silence of history. Their historic mission was to find out if there was anything or anywhere on the other side of the sky, from which the wrecked spaceship could have come, another world maybe, strange and incomprehensible though this thought was to the enclosed minds of those who had lived beneath the sky of Krikkit. History was gathering itself to deliver another blow. Still the darkness thrummed at them, the blank enclosing darkness. It seemed closer and closer, thicker and thicker, heavier and heavier. And suddenly it was gone.
They flew out of the cloud.  
They saw the staggering jewels of the night in their infinite dust and their minds sang with fear.  
For a while they flew on, motionless against the starry sweep of the Galaxy, itself motionless against the infinite sweep of the Universe. And then they turned round.  
“It’ll have to go,” the men of Krikkit said as they headed back for home. On the way back they sang a number of tuneful and reflective songs on the subjects of peace, justice, morality, culture, sport, family life and the obliteration of all other life forms.
 And so they set out to destroy the rest of the universe.  As Slartibartfast explains to Arthur:
“Overnight,” said Slartibartfast, “the whole population of Krikkit was transformed from being charming, delightful, intelligent ...”  
"... if whimsical ...” interpolated Arthur. 
"... ordinary people,” said Slartibartfast, “into charming, delightful, intelligent ...”  
"... whimsical ...”  
"... manic xenophobes. The idea of a Universe didn’t fit into their world picture, so to speak. They simply couldn’t cope with it. And so, charmingly, delightfully, intelligently, whimsically if you like, they decided to destroy it."
Or, to be a bit cynical, from conservatives into authoritarians.  Their threshold of activation was extremely low!  Krikkiters never had to worry about the trade-off between depth and breadth because they never knew, and never had any concept of people unlike themselves or a world beyond their own.**  Never recognizing any need for breadth, the Krikketers were free to focus on depth and form a "charming, delightful, intelligent, if whimsical" society of great social depth.  Having no concept of breadth, they were completely unprepared when the need for it came along.  Different people have very different thresholds for when outsiders start to be seen as a threat.  To Krikketers, their threshold was met simply by knowing that a universe beyond their world existed.  And, the rest of the universe being completely outside their moral calculus, they had no compunctions about setting out to destroy it.

They prove remarkably efficient at it. They are ultimately defeated by a medium-sized galaxy, but it takes about 2,000 years and 2 grillion casualties.  “That’s a whole lotta stiffs,” says the judge at the war crimes tribunal.  Clearly coexistence is out of the question!  Yet the Krikketers are such obviously good people that the tribunal can't bring itself to destroy them.  So it locks their planet and star into a Slo-Time envelope until the end of the rest of the universe, at which point they would be released and could have their solitude, freed from the necessity of making and difficult trade-offs between depth and breadth.  But then it turns out that one of their killer robot ships got away and is preparing to release Krikket from its Slo-Time envelope so they can finish the job.  That is where our story begins.

But in the end, Adams couldn't face the implications of his own story.  If so extreme a preference for depth over breadth can make people at once so nice and so monstrous -- well, the implications are more than a little disturbing.  So it turns out that the people of Krikket are not responsible for their own actions.  They are actually being manipulated by an Evil Computer that brainwashing them to do things they would not otherwise do.  The real Krikketers, without its malign influence, have no desire to destroy the rest of the Universe, and really just want to be left alone.  Some of them are even considering sporting ties with the rest of the Universe, which would be seriously complicated if they blew it up.

And I will admit, after having stretched the story this far, it really is going to far to suggest that the Evil Computer represents a demagogic politician stirring up people who just want to mind their own business into hating other people.  The computer was manipulating the people of Krikket without any awareness on their part that it even existed.  Demagogic politicians, by contrast, are publicity hounds who stir people up very openly and definitely want everyone to know about them.

Still, ultimately demagogic politicians can transform populations of charming, delightful, intelligent (if whimsical) ordinary people into charming delightful, intelligent (whimsical) manic xenophobes. People who prefer depth to breadth may very well be more charming, delightful, intelligent (and whimsical) than people who prefer breadth to depth.  But they are also much, much more vulnerable to being transformed into manic xenophobes.  And any liberal who wants to argue the superiority of breadth over depth does well to start there.

*Well, except maybe the Borg.
**What about differences within Krikket?  Wouldn't there have been some?  Realistically, yes, it seems a safe assumption.  However, it is a well-established convention in science fiction that every planet except Earth is a Planet of Hats operating like a small-scale society where everyone is alike. Yes, I know it is utterly unrealistic, but it is a literary convention, dammit!  Deal with it!

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