[UPDATE: And I told you so. Brin’s been running a series on the ‘unstable world’, and said he was going to cover ISIS – but mysterious abandoned it before he got that far. As predicted, there’s a certain kind of mind that just can’t dealt with the existence of the enemy.]
I’m not sure whether to be annoyed or amused by David Brin.
When I first stumbled across his work, I wanted to like him and he obviously wants to be liked. I like his admonition to libertarians that they cannot so easily forget that their liberty is the result of centuries of work. Similarly, his criticism of the lack of truly optimistic science fiction is well placed. I applauded when he wrote that the key thing about 9/11 was the response of the citizenry, not the government. I even thought his comment on how libertarians failed to see that oligarchy was historically the worst enemy of the free market was more insightful than it was.
The trouble is – well, where does one begin? He has a style of prose that tends to be both overwrought and pompous. No one has ever told him that praise of your work only counts when it is being made by someone else. He keeps using words with multiple meanings as though they had only one, and it’s the one that suits him (e.g. using ‘liberalism’ while failing to distinguish between American liberalism and liberalism in the rest of the world, using ‘romanticism’ while failing to distinguish between romantic art and romantic philosophy, and so on). He even has the cringeworthy habit of signing his stuff “David Brin, Ph.D.”, recalling Francis Wheen:
“Non-medical ‘doctors’ who insist on drawing attention to their postgraduate qualification – Henry Kissinger in the US, Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland – always bring disaster in their wake: it’s tantamount to having the warning ‘This Man is Dangerous’ tattooed on one’s forehead”
That’s all secondary to his unfortunate habit of misrepresenting pretty much anything. Here he shares his wisdom on American patriotism:“Maniacal flag-waving is a well-known symptom of decline in great nations, from Rome in 400 AD to Britain in 1910.” In point of fact, ‘flag-waving’ was far more pronounced at the nations’ genesis than at their close – it was the citizens of the Roman republic who lionized Brutus the Elder for executing his two sons when he discovered that they were plotting to destroy revive monarchism.
This glib misrepresentation is everywhere in his web stuff, like holes in a Swiss cheese. Whether the subject is Adam Smith, Robert Heinlein, the Austrian school, the neoconservatives, Ayn Rand, J.R.R. Tolkien – Brin’s representation can be counted on to be highly distorted at best. I’ll go through each case at a later date, but the key thing is that these errors don’t appear randomly. In other words they are not the errors of sloppy scholarship. They all follow a consistent line, and that line is the denial of heroism, and even human individualism.
Brin’s argument against the romantic hero goes like this: only a minority are heroes, and these tend to be in some sense supernatural and super human – whether these are Achilles in the Iliad or Anakin in Lucas’ unwatchable film. Since that status is divinely granted, it cannot be imitated or approached by the ordinary folk, so it leads to a view where the ordinary ones can get sent to the wall with no concern, since only the blessed ones matter.
Well, fair enough. I honestly don’t have that much time for superhero comic books myself. There is, however, another tradition when it comes to showing heroism – one captured by Sir Edmund Hillary’s remark: “You don’t have to be a hero to accomplish great things – to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated”. Brin’s having none of that either:
[Tolkien]’s elves and hobbits and uber-human warriors performed the same role that Lancelot and Merlin and Odysseus did in older fables, and that superheroes still do in comic books. Through doughty Frodo, noble Aragorn and the ethereal Galadriel, he proclaimed the paramount importance – above nations and civilizations – of the indomitable Romantic hero’
It is just about possible to miss that Aragorn is a torn soul who is notably reluctant to accept his duty. It isn’t at all possible to miss the the hobbits in the book, far from being ‘uber-human’ are very much everymen, or every-hobbits anyway. Frodo, not to mention Sam, Pippin and Merry are people who would infinitely prefer the quiet life back home, but find themselves having to step forward when circumstances force them to. Nor are they notably ‘above nations and civilizations’ – while Frodo does save the Shire, he is so wrecked by his experiences that he comes to realize that he has saved it, but not for himself.
Tolkien was a devout Christian, and this is a profoundly Christain way of looking at things. It is saying that even the least can make a difference. It is also the exact opposite of what Brin claims Tolkien is saying. Divine or ordinary, Brin has a real thing against heroes (N.B.: He also has a habit of negatively referencing Niezsche while showing no sign of having understood him).
“Why do you need heroes?” I’m sure he’d say. “You want giants who stand out and above from the ordinary people? You know where that leads don’t you? To Hitler, that’s where!” I’m exaggerating his rhetoric a bit, and stripping it of its customary ornament, but I am certain that something like this would be his response.
Brin just will not shut up about the Nazis.
On the film 300 he writes
“Leni Riefenstahl would be proud”.
“Why are the viewers of Fox and Beck/Limbaugh so cosmically stupid that they never – any of them – ask enough questions to notice the tsumani of ironies and contradictions and outright lies at their Nuremberg Rally”
[Ocean acidification] cannot be armwaved away with Fox-nuremberg-style sieg-incantations.”
On the neoconservatives:
“[Neoconservatives”] base their dogmas on an émigré philoshper named Leo Strauss, sharing their core calues with Plato, Hebel Marx, Goebbels and – ultimately – Muslim fundamentalists’.
Here Brin is repeating verbatim the charge originated by the crackpot conspiracy theorist and anti-Semite Lyndon LaRouche. I append no comment.
What the devil is going on here? Brin’s clearly not a stupid man despite the inanity of his writing. That’s significant – he is possessed of a strong intellect that is strictly limited. How can a clever man argue like this?
A clue is that he has written almost nothing on the subject of Islam. He repeatedly defends the vision of the progressive, scientific West against the forces of reaction – whether they are found in Tolkien, Star Wars, or FOX news. Yet he is silent on the most reactionary force in the world today. He praises the importance and necessity of criticism, and is silent about those who are abolishing criticism with the knife and bomb.
Here we have to go back a way, about seventy years, to arguably the greatest science fiction writer of all time, H.G. Wells. People forget this, but Wells was not ‘just’ a novelist, he was a power that inspired confidence in science and scientific progress. Orwell wrote at the time “The minds of all of us, and therefore the physical world, would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed.” However, Orwell continues: “Only, just the singleness of mind, the one-sided imagination that made him seem like an inspired prophet in the Edwardian age, make him a shallow, inadequate thinker now.”
That’s Orwell’s Hitler, Wells and the World State, published in 1941. Orwell begins it by quoting a Wells’ article, written at the start of 1941, please note, that dismisses Hitler as nothing more than ‘a screaming little defective’, argues that the threat from Germany was overstated, and that the Nazi empire was about to implode of its own accord. How on earth could an intelligent man be so far off Orwell wondered?
The answer was that Wells, like most English intellectuals of his age, lacked the intellectual faculty to understand a phenomenon like fascism – or Bolshevism. Modern students of human intelligence realize that it is wrong to speak of intelligence as just one thing – there are many different types, and it is possible for someone to be unable to ‘get’ mathematics, and be a first rate archaeologist or carpenter. Something similar applies here – some people are, for whatever reason, just insensitive to the emotions and energies that have guided most human conduct for most human history.
Worse is that such people tend to think of themselves as naturally more enlightened for that absence. They don’t understand the Old Ways, they don’t see any reason to even try to do so. That leads to a paradox – the more such intellectuals dismiss the old ways, the less they are able to resist their return. In response to Wells demand – again, in 1941 – for a World State overseen by a technocratic government, Orwell pointed out the following:
‘Before you can even talk of world reconstruction, or even of peace, you have got to eliminate Hitler, which means bringing into being a dynamic not necessarily the same as that of the Nazis, but probably quite as unacceptable to “enlightened” and hedonistic people. What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that hey are superior to foreigners For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the SS men patrolling the London streets at this moment
The parallel between David Brin and H.G. Wells is eerie. Note the term ‘enlightened’, kept between two sets of inverted commas. Another of Brin’s literary ticks is referencing the Enlightenment and placing himself as its heir. Similarly, I first came across him while looking up material on global warming – Brin proposes that the rest of society just get behind what the eggheads decree as a sensible solution, and just can’t understand why people might not be okay with such a sensible proposition (‘an air of angry surprise at the human beings who can fail to grasp anything so obvious’ – Orwell).
Another dead giveaway is the relexive attack by such intellectuals on precisley the people who are best able to resist the menace. Wells sharply criticised Churchill. Brin doesn’t care for the neoconservatives – note his comparison of neoconservatism with Islam. To those accustomed to peace and quiet, the guard dog looks too much like the wolf.
Finally, there is the similarity in backgrounds. Finally, both Wells and Brin come from backgrounds sheltered from the hard realities of the world. Wells came from the non-military British middle class. Brin comes from the most fortunate population in history – those white Americans who were born immediately after the Second World War. While the rest of the West lived in the shadow of communism, and rebuilt their societies from scratch, the United States enjoyed sixty years of summer.
Good for Brin. Yet that background can make you miss that some of us do not have that kind of security. Orwell was glum about the state of English anti-totalitarian literature. “One development of the last ten years has been the apprearance of the ‘political book’, a sort of enlarged pamphlet combining history with political criticism, as an important literary form But the best writers in this line – Trotsky, Rauschning, Rosenberg, Silone, Borkenau, Koestler and others – have none of them been Englishmen, and nearly all of them have been renegades from one or other extremist party, who have seen totalitarianism at close quarters and known the meaning of exile and persecution.” For my own part, I have found that the closest comrades I have in the matter of Islam, those most clear about its nature and threat, have come from outside of the West, and certainly almost none of them are Americans.
American good fortune can tempt one to forget that for the rest of the world, history has not been so rosy. The ways of thinking and living that the ‘progressive’ intellectual dismisses didn’t just arise because people decided to be mean, or for a laugh. Those old ways were, and in many places still are, the price of survival. Please reread the Orwell quote where he says that if the Wells/Brin intellectuals had succeeded, you’d have seen the SS patrolling London. Orwell again:
“The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions – racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war – which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.”
‘Lost all power of action’ is good and precise. So is his description of the Wellsian and Brinsian worldview as ‘essentially hedonistic’. The modern liberal, and above of the American liberal intellectual offers a world of limitless fornication, drugs, plenty of toys and the hard edges of life rendered soft by statism. Against that, Islam’s fanatics offer a sacred struggle, an uncompromising book, and a black flag flapping in the wind, writ with the name of God – and liberal intellectuals are dumbfounded when the latter attract men in their millions.
I don’t want to be too mean about the liberal intellectual intelligence. It is very good for organising companies and meetings, planning, conducting research, manning school boards, resolving conflicts and all the rest of the things that make our lives so bearable. What it, however, is completely incapable of, by definition, is heroism. It cannot make a man organise a beleaguered safety zone, saving a quarter million lives. Or brew bombs to strike down the God Emperor. Or lead a raid into the slavelands, buying freedom for others with your own death. Or saying that you have nothing to offer but ‘Blood, sweat and tears’ and inspire a finest hour. Or lead a small band against those who almost annihilated your people, and win.
There’s an irony in Brin’s hatred of the neoconservatives. The liberal utopia he espouses is most closely described in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, or, to give it its full title, The End of History and the Last Man. That last part is crucial – in the vision put forward, the great struggles of history have been won. What further need for heroes? What need for testosterone? Away with them, the world has outgrown them.
Ah, but has it?