Saturday, December 22, 2007

Spero: Question Seven

If the universe was created by an omniscient God, it was created for some reason.
And as we are part of that universe, we were also created for some reason. Are we here to be something? To do something? If so, what?

Maybe, because of the collaborative live-role-playing aspects of how we were created, we are too flawed ever to be or to do what it is we were created for. Maybe it will be our descendants- be they genetically human, giant robots, uplifted gila monsters, or virtual intelligences living in carpets of intelligent polysaccharides- who will be or do this thing.

Whatever it is, being Good is a precondition. Being reasonable is another precondition, or we will never be able to Do anything.

One thing I have often thought of is that maybe our role is to start to untangle the flaws of creation. We should be able to make a natural world where each thing can be fully itself, can seek and participate in truth and beauty, where carnivory and the other appalling horrors of the ‘natural’ world are removed. We can start with humanity, like Lord Ivywood prophesies in The Flying Inn:
‘If we come at last to live on light, as men said of the chameleon, if some
cosmic magic closed to us now, as radium was but recently closed, allows us to
transmute the very metals into flesh without breaking into the bloody house of
life, we shall know these things when we achieve them. It is enough for us now
if we have reached a spiritual station, in which at least the living head we lop
has not eyes to reproach us; and the herbs we gather cannot cry against our
cruelty like the mandrake.’

Then, we can move on to the rest. I have argued before that the individual is more important than the group, so if no individual tigers are harmed, and their genetic material is preserved as part of a thousand new varieties of Neo-tiger, I can see no downside to making them into autotrophs. This sort of endeavour- to remake the natural world as a place of more justice and mercy- would I think be a major goal of many ideologies in a real Greg Egan or Charles Stross future society. Of course it is a goal of incredible hubris, requiring megayears for its realization even in a tiny corner of the universe. And if the point of the universe does not lie inside it, but in the Universe, and we are all here- microbes, curlews, humans, and sentient galaxies- to be made into fit instruments for eternity, then maybe it is a waste of time. Possibly.

But then? Once we have reconstructed the living world, what is the point?
A problem with the popular virtues of our present civilization is that they are essentially negative. ‘Peace’- what does it mean, beyond ‘absence of violence’? ‘Justice’ means ‘equitable distribution of misery’; ‘mercy’ means ‘protection from the bad consequences of one’s actions’. In the Earthly Paradise, none of those virtues will have any meaning. We need some motivating virtues for life in the Earthly Paradise. If not, what can we do but go backwards?

As Paul tells us in Alpha Ralpha Boulevard:
We were drunk with happiness in those early years. Everyone was, especially the
young people. These were the first years of the Rediscovery of Man, when the Instrumentality dug deep in the treasury, reconstructing the old cultures, the old languages, and even the old troubles. The nightmare of perfection had taken our forefathers to the edge of suicide. ...
I myself was the first man to put a postage stamp on a letter, after fourteen thousand years. I took Virginia to see the first piano recital. We watched at the eye-machine when cholera was released in Tasmania, and we saw the Tasmanians dancing in the streets, now that they did not have to be protected anymore. Everywhere, things became exciting. Everywhere, men and women worked with a wild will to build a more imperfect world.

Of course, we will be very different creatures by that time. We should have a much clearer idea of God and a much clearer idea of the universe. Maybe the way forward will be clear. But maybe, as so often happens, our capabilities will have outstripped our moral sense. We will need strong medicine for that time. I suggest the following:

We should never be satisfied with the ideal we can imagine;
We should strive for the ideal we cannot yet imagine.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Epigraph from Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons

Goes like this:

Poor communications deter theft;

good communications promote theft;

perfect communications stop theft.

- Van Braam

Sunday, December 16, 2007

S is also for Linebarger

Re-reading the Book of Skulls makes me nostalgic for the landscapes of the Old Country.

There are very few of the tremendous vertical cacti here, the saguaros, though I
see a few, fifty or sixty feet tall, some way back from the path. What we have
instead, thousands of them, is a weird thing about six feet high, with a gnarled
grey wooden trunk and a lot of long dangling clusters of spines and green bumpy
things. The chainfruit cholla, Ned calls it, and warns us to keep far away from
it. The spines are sharp. So we avoid it; but there’s another cholla here, the
teddybear cholla, that’s not so easy to avoid. The teddybear is a bummer. Little
stubby plants a foot or two high, covered with thousands of fuzzy straw-coloured
spines: you look the wrong way, and the spines jump up and bite you. I swear
they do. My boots are covered with prickles. The teddybear breaks easily and
chunks come loose and roll away; they lie scattered everywhere, a lot of them
right in the path. Ned says that each chunk will take root eventually and become
a new plant. We have to watch our steps all the time for fear of coming down on
one. You can’t just kick a teddybear chunk aside if it sin your way, either. I
tried that and the cactus stuck to my boot, and I reached down to pull it off,
only to get it stuck to my fingertips next. A hundred needles jabbing me at
once. Like fire. I yelled. Most uncool screams. Ned had to pry it away, using
two twigs as handles. My fingers still burn. Dark, tiny points are buried in the
flesh. I wonder if they’ll get infected. There’s plenty of other cactus here,
too- barrel cactus, prickly pear, six or seven more that not even Ned can put
names to. And leafy trees with thorns, mesquite, acacia. All the plants here are
hostile. Don’t touch me, they say.

This landscape has all the inimical gooshiness of Belzagor, with the added benefit- or liability- of being real. I miss cactus. All the trees here look the same to me.

There should be more meat to this series of transitions, but here goes:

* The characters in Book of Skulls want to live forever, and do desperate things in the attempt. The people in the book who are immortal- if they really are- are strange and mystical and not like other men because they have vastly more life experience.

* The characters in Glasshouse, by Charles Stross, really do live forever. But when everybody is special, nobody is, and they all seem to be the kind of shallow Gen-X perennial adolescents that you can’t heave a rock in Newtown without hitting. When they get too close to gaining some sort of value from their life experience, they have memory enemas.

* One of the nifty things about Glasshouse was how the narrator is a veteran of a military organization called the ‘Linebarger Cats’. I assumed this was probably a tribute to Paul Linebarger, friend of Chiang Kai-Shek, expert in psychological warfare, and author of science fiction under the name Cordwainer Smith. Latter on, the ‘Cordwainer something-or-others’- I can’t remember what exactly, and I’ve taken the book back to the library, mea culpa- is given as another name used by the Linebarger Cats, making the identification obvious.

The science fiction of Cordwainer Smith is rife with cats, but I like to think the ‘Linebarger Cats’ of Glasshouse are echoes of the cats in The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal:

He coded these cats. He coded them with messages just as monstrous as the messages which had made the men-women of Arachosia into monsters. This is what he coded:
Do not breed true.
Invent new chemistry.
You will serve man.
Become civilized.
Learn speech.
You will serve man.
When man calls you will serve man.
Go back, and come forth.
Serve man.

These instructions were no mere verbal instructions. They were imprints on the actual molecular structure of the animals. They were changes in the genetic and biological coding which went with these cats. And then Suzdal committed his offence against the laws of mankind. He had a chronopathic device on board the ship. A time distorter, usually to be used for a moment or a second or two to bring the ship away from utter destruction. …
Suzdal remained calm. He coded the genetic cats. He loaded them into life-bombs. He adjusted the controls of his chronopathic machine illegally, so that instead of reaching one second for a ship of eighty thousand tons, they reached two million years for a load of less than four kilos. He flung the cats into the nameless moon of
And he flung them back in time. …
The cats came. Their ships glittered in the naked sky above Arachosia. Their little combat craft attacked. The cats who had not existed a moment before, but who had then had two million years in which to follow a destiny printed into their brains, printed down their spinal cords, etched into the chemistry of their bodies and personalities. The cats had turned into people of a kind, with speech, intelligence, hope, and a mission. Their mission was to reach Suzdal, to rescue him, to obey him, and to damage Arachosia.The cat ships screamed their battle warnings.
“This is the day of the year of the promised age. And now come cats!”

I don’t know if it was entirely wise of Stross to remind me of Smith. I still have to read a lot more of Stross’ stuff, but his worlds seem to be geeky Greg Egan-like places inhabited by people who are mentally just like us, worlds drained of mystery and the terror of the dark places between the stars by uber-technology.* The people in Smith’s universe are not quite people like us. They’re people, but you can imagine them being people from a different time. And the Instrumentality tried to make the universe into a place drained of mystery and terror, but gave it away.

I haven’t managed to get to Kingdoms of the Wall yet, it seems.
Nor have I dragged in, as planned, Star Maker, Roadside Picnic, or Orbitsville.

S is just one of those letters.

* Or not.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Eat More Whales

I went out last week to pick up some hens to replace the ones that were taken by some wild beast earlier in the year. An email had gone around at work saying that they had 200 to find homes for. They had been part of an experiment on debeaking methods, trying to figure out the best way to stop them from pecking each other to death when three of them are packed into a cage the size of a hatbox. It was a good experiment- within the system- trying to make chicken culture more humane. Kind of like putting a band-aid on a cancer, as a wise man once said.
But, the experiment was over, and the birds were surplus to requirements, and it was needful to get rid of as many as could be gotten rid of to people who wanted them, before the others were sold to the chicken extract manufacturers.

They seem healthy enough. They all have a lot of feathers missing, so they don’t look so crash hot, and the claws on their feet are dreadfully long since they’ve spent their whole lives walking on wire cage. It was neat to watch them lift their feet really high as they walked upon the ground for the first time, and neat to see them peck at things in the earth for the first time, and discovering dirt baths for the first time, and generally starting to behave like chickens instead of like automaton drones. It was like they had just been born.

Time will pass, and we will doubtless discover the distinctive personalities of each of the five hens, and they will no longer be an undifferentiated mass of ragamuffins. For they are all different when you get to know them, just like rats and cats and elephants.
I will remember, of course, the shed full of hundreds like them packed into hat-box sized wire cages that we didn’t take away, and the nine billion (or is it nineteen billion? Ninety billion?) of their kind that we slaughter every year.

There aren’t many meals on a chicken. There are a lot more on a cow. It is much better to kill the occasional cow and share it around, rather than making continual hecatombs of chickens. I strongly suspect that there is not a lot of difference between what it is like to be a cow and what it is like to be a chicken: both can obviously feel pain, be happy or miserable, and have individual personalities.

Better yet, I thought as I was driving home with my cardboard box full of chickens, we should eat whales. There are many more meals on a whale than there are on a cow. Thousands and thousands and thousands of chickens worth. Sure, they are particularly sensitive and intelligent animals. But we wouldn’t bat an eyelid at letting a particularly sensitive and intelligent human die to save the lives of tens of thousands of epsilon semi-morons. At least, I hope we wouldn’t. Chickens have feelings too. Chickens can suffer. I think if you added up all the suffering and lost potential of the thousands of chickens you’d need to balance one whale, even if they are much dumber and less sensitive than the one whale, it could hardly be a contest. Besides, whales are the ultimate free-range animals. Up until the moment they catch and explosive harpoon in the guts, they live free in the open ocean, pursuing their mysterious cetacean social goals. They aren’t shut up in hatbox-sized cages or debeaked or nothing.

I’ve always been anti-whaling, and I still am, viscerally and sentimentally, but really, I don’t think we have a leg to stand on. We have frivolously and sentimentally promoted a few animals, like dolphins and dogs, to honorary human status, and expecting other cultures to do the same is the worst kind of cultural imperialism. We get understandably upset when them accursed foreigners complain about us eating those cute wittle-icky kangaroos. How can we complain about the cruelty of whaling when we subject innumerable other animals to miserable lives before knocking them off and devouring their corpses? As another wise man once said, first remove the stick from your eye, then go about removing the speck from the other guy’s eye.
When we embrace vegetarianism- which will, by the way, do more to curb global warming than closing down every coal-fired power station in the country*- we can go about pontificating to the Japanese about whaling. But until then? Much better to eat the gigantic happy animals, instead of the itty-bitty miserable ones.

* Statistic just made up by me. But almost certainly true. Research pending…

Thursday, December 13, 2007

20/20 Targets

I caught the end of a discussion on the radio the other day about '20/20' targets.

Should Australia commit to a 15% reduction? 20%? 25%?

Now, some may call me fanatic, but I think this kind of response to a serious global crisis is nothing short of pathetic.

I call upon the Federal government to commit to a 100% reduction in this pernicious form of limited-overs 'cricket'.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

S is for Silverberg

Marco is keen for me to write about a non-controversial science fiction author. I am happy to oblige. If you have taken the ‘Are you Dr Clam?’ survey on the right, you will have come across the question ‘Which of these Robert Silverberg novels have you frequently re-read?’
So I may as well write about those books, and why I have often re-read them (if I can possibly figure it out). This should be non-controversial, if perhaps fundamentally uninteresting.

Downward to the Earth (1969) gets its title from Ecclesiastes 3:21, but I have always associated it with my mis-remembering of Psalm 118:25- ‘Adhaesit pavimento anima mea’ of the Vulgate- as ‘my soul cleaves downward to the Earth’. Silverberg drags me downward to the earth. I find nothing seductive in the godless worlds of Asimov, or Egan, or Heinlein. They are not places I want to live. The actions of the characters are not actions I want to emulate. For the worlds of Foster- long ago- and still, sometimes, in the worlds of Herbert, I feel a stir of longing, but they are safe worlds, and the characters who live in them do not imperil my soul. Robert Silverberg’s godless worlds somehow seethe with all the things I find attractive in godless reality.

Who wouldn’t be Gunderson? Wandering across a planet that he helped wrest from the alien wilderness as the alien wilderness inexorably takes it back. Both phases are terribly attractive to me: the carving of a raw new place, and the decay of an old place. The bits in between, where it is clean and orderly and functional, are booooring. I love the way Belzagor pullulates. It is a riot of living things, things that accurately reflect the intoxicating reality of real living things in the way so many of them are inimical to man. Here there are not just space monsters, but gooshy parasites with all the gooshiness of real earthly parasites. Most sci-fi writers shy away from the raw gooshiness of living things as we know them. Not Silverberg. The Face of the Waters (1991) does this even more. Actually, hmm, it does it so much it is kind of unreadable.
And what are Gunderson’s wanderings about? Sex, drugs, and the pursuit of mysterious knowledge. Things that drag the soul downward. Lots of writers can write about these things without making them seem attractive. But not Silverberg. Ah, forget about Gunderson! Who wouldn’t be Kurtz, leading the Nildoror astray with a perversion of their most sacred rite? Actually, I know he is totally reprehensible and stupid. Nobody with any sense or any shred of decency would behave like him. But there is a creepy attractiveness to him, part of the whole adhaesit pavimento anima mea thing…

There are other things to like in Downward to the Earth. There is the sense that the whole rest of the universe really exists, even though you never hear very much about the rest of Earth’s colonial empire. In Across a Billion Years – which is otherwise fairly forgettable- there is an Israeli character on board the ship, and in the little potted biography he is given at the beginning it says something like he did his degree in Alexandria, and post-docced in Baghdad, but he’d never been out of Israel before. Why is that great? Because it is never mentioned again, and is not important to the plot in any way whatsoever. It is just a superfluous geopolitical detail that makes you feel the rest of the world is really there and the story isn’t taking place in front of a cardboard backdrop.

I don’t find the characters in The Book of Skulls (1972) attractive. There is just a bit of the Generation-X envy- I don’t know how widespread this is, really- of the Baby Boomer generation and their wild sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll adventures. We are the sensible ones. I am happy we are the sensible ones. I like being sensible. But this inglorious and stupid longing to have been part of the great age of stupidity is real.

I actually bought my copy of The Book of Skulls in a great barn of a secondhand bookstore in Tucson with my friend Tim Harrison, who I have been unable to find with Google. We used to make photocopied comic books together, long ago. He worked for the Clinton campaign in 1996 and- last I heard from him- he was tracking to the fanatical left edge of idea space as quickly as I was moving into Clamspace. But that’s not important right now. At the time I hadn’t read that many Robert Silverberg books and I wasn’t that fond of them, but it said on the back cover that the immortal monks lived in the desert outside of Tucson. So I bought it. Inside, I found that the immortal monks actually lived in the desert outside of Phoenix, our arch-nemesis. Oh well. It was not as egregious an example of misleading coverness as the cover of Journey to the Centre of the Earth that I used to own.

Yes, that is a ‘raft’ ascending Mt Etna on the cover. Yes, the characters are wearing space suits. Yes, there are four of them. The cover illustrator obviously flipped it open and read half a page at the end, the slacker.

I think there is a bit of geek wish-fulfillment in The Book of Skulls in that the two weedy intellectual ones survive to the end, and the two jocks die. I don’t think it would turn out like that. Especially as Oliver’s will to live at all costs is made so much of in the bits where we are inside his head. Would he really kill himself over something as trivial, in comparison to thousands of years of existence, as his sexuality? Not from how he’s written. But I guess, in the parts of the book that haven’t been written, I guess he reached the same conclusion that any immortal character in a Greg Egan book would, that the one thing worse than annihilation is turning into something antithetical to what you are now. You can endure a temptation for seventy years. You can repress the darkness. But forever? There is no hope while your soul cleaves downward to the earth.

Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980) appeals partly because Majipoor, like Belzagor, pullulates. All those cities and peoples. The continually reiterated vastness of it. Is it just that Silverberg keeps going on about the vastness of it that it seems vast? Is the vastness just in the unwritten story inside my head, and not in the created Majipoor? I don’t know. A lot of the *particulars* of the trilogy are unsatisfactory. But as a tiny bit, seen through a glass darkly, of a world that is 99.999% hidden, it is superb. My favourite of the trilogy is actually the Majipoor Chronicles. A single tale spanning continents will unavoidably shrink a world. But a collection of stories each set in a tiny fragment of a world, that’s the way to make it vast…

The way things are continually named but not described, as if we are familiar with them already? That is splendid world-building. But the world is too creepily lawful, like the one we live in.* I think it would be frustrating to live there. Maybe that is another temptation dragging me toward the earth, the temptation to chaotically create lawful worlds for other people to live in…
I just came across something about how Majipoor was originally conceived of as an overwhelmingly urban world, which explains something that always bugged me, the imbalance between the urban areas and the rural areas responsible for feeding them. There never seemed to be enough of the latter to me. I justified the ‘alternating ribbons of city and farmland’ in western Zimroel to myself by saying that they were actually blobs of urban area on the highway like beads on a string, with lots of farmland to the north and south.
I get the impression I am trailing off into inane geographical pedantry. So I will just… trail off… and finish up with Kingdoms of the Wall (1992) at another date.

Actually, before I go, there is one huge piece missing in the pullulating tropical luxuriance of all these worlds of Silverberg's, and that is fecundity. If I were writing them, they would be seething with children as well. Characters would be getting knocked up all the time.

* Though not as creepily lawful as the Land of Oz. I have been re-reading these books to Miss E and am finding the place scarily totalitarian:

‘Ozma is as nearly perfect as a fairy may be, and she is noted for her wisdom as well as for her other qualities. Her happy subjects adore their girl Ruler and each one considers her a comrade and protector.’
(The Scarecrow of Oz)

‘Isn’t one punished enough in knowing one has done wrong? Don’t you wish, Ojo, with all your heart, that you had not been disobedient and broken a Law of Oz? ‘
‘I – I hate to be different from other people,’ he admitted.
‘Yes; one likes to be respected as highly as his neighbours are,’ said the woman. ‘When you are tried and found guilty, you will be obliged to make amends, in some way. I don’t know just what Ozma will do to you, because this is the first time one of us has broken a Law; but you may be sure she will be just and merciful. Here in the Emerald City people are too happy and contented ever to do wrong; but perhaps you come from some faraway corner of our land, and having no love for Ozma carelessly broke one of her Laws.’
(The Patchwork Girl of Oz)

‘This wonderful Magic Picture was one of the royal Ozma’s greatest treasures. .. If one who stood before it wished to see what any person- anywhere in the world- was doing, it was only necessary to make the wish and the scene in the Magic Picture would shift the scene where that person was and show exactly what he or she was engaged in doing.’
‘Of all the magical things that surrounded Glinda in her castle there was none more marvelous than her Great Book of Records. On the pages of this record book were constantly being inscribed- day by day and hour by hour- all the important events that happened anywhere in the known world , and they were inscribed in the book at precisely the moment the events happened. … For that reason nothing could be concealed from Glinda the Good, who only had to look at the pages of the Great Book of Records to know everything that had taken place.’
(The Lost Princess of Oz)

Asymmetric access to information corrupts. Asymmetric access to *lots* of information corrupts *a lot*.

Monday, December 03, 2007

R is for Rushdie

We arrived in Calcutta on the train from Bhubaneshwar one morning in the summer of 1995, for a one night stopover on the way to somewhere else. We were expecting a seething mass of humanity, but instead the streets were eerily silent. We found a taxi to take us to a hotel, and it was the closest I have ever felt to The Day of the Triffids. The middle of Calcutta after all looks pretty much like 1950s London would look if it had been left at the mercy of the elements for a few years. The streets were eerily silent, the driver told us, because it was an election day and people were staying at home to avoid bomb throwers. It wasn’t a national election, or even a state election, just a city council election.

After we got settled in the hotel I went out into the streets and meandered about. As the day wore on they grew more and more alive. It was one of the best meandering abouts in my life. I met a nice man who had lost his job in a factory injection-molding polyethylene and was living on the streets trying to save up for a train ticket to Bangalore to find work. I wandered around the museum for a while, which was a marvelous 19th century wonderland with endless cases of beetles and whole temples taken apart and rebuilt inside. In comparison to Delhi, which had seemed brash and American and stupid, Calcutta seemed restrained and English and intelligent. Street vendors in Delhi had tried to sell me all kinds of mindless tourist trash. A street vendor in Calcutta tried to sell me A Brief History of Time. I already had one; but then he moved on to Midnight’s Children, and I bought one. I am very fond of my copy of Midnight’s Children.

I have already quoted the bit of The Satanic Verses that I carried around in my wallet for years. Twice. So I won’t again, I guess.

This first question of Gibreel’s is really just a fine piece of Clamly emoting which can’t be said to have changed me, just sunk in and reinforced what was already there.

The second question, in case I have only mentioned it on comments on other blogs is more or less: How do you treat other ideas when you do change the world? I am sure it is expressed in a better way in the book, but I am too lazy to look up the proper words. This second question of Gibreel’s has hung around in my head as a sort of goad to conservatism, making me wary of novel ideologies. If I want to know how Catholic states answered this question, or how the Caliphate did, or Communists, or the Conservative Party, or a Jewish state, I can google it. If I want to know how the Inspiring New Movement with Noble Rhetoric will answer this question, I have to carefully read between the lines and try to figure out what they might get up to should they manage to answer the first question. Better just to keep my distance from the Baha’i’s, or from the Greens, no matter how superficially attractive they might seem from time to time.

Another thing I have carried around in my head for ages, colouring my worldview in a minor way, is Rushdie’s characterization of Adelaide as the sort of place where Steven King novels happen. Every couple of years something weird and ghastly happens to set me nodding in agreement with this insight again.

Besides that- well, the sudden elevation of Rushdie to super-celebrity fugitive status happened when I was an easily influenced undergraduate. It was exciting, in an age of proverbial undergraduate apathy, for there to be a book around which reading was in some way a political act. I’m still not sure whether Rushdie blundered in without meaning to cause offence, or whether he set out to cause offence. At any rate, revisiting what he said is a stark reminder of how much easier it is to give offence nowadays. The title ‘The Satanic Verses’ was translated into several languages using a word that means specifically ‘verses of the Qur’an’, hence ‘The Satanic Qur’an’, which in striking at the very source of authority in Islam is practically the worst thing you can say. Inside, this is reinforced by the explicit suggestion that the holiest thing in the world, the uncreated Qur’an, was composed fraudulently. Publishing all that was an act of unparalled audacity. (All chaotic people ought to feel some admiration for the audacity, even if you think it was wholly reprehensible, in the same way we admired the audacity of the 9/11 plotters.) It now seems obvious that millions of people would want to kill you for writing such things. Nowadays, of course, all you have to give the wrong name to a teddy bear.
Androoo will have forgotten this anecdote, I am sure. Once upon that time he said he thought fundamentalist Islam was the most dangerous religion for the world, and I disagreed with him, saying the Evangelical Christians were far more likely to cause trouble and regurgitating some trivial anecdote about Marilyn Quayle. Have we swapped places? That I am not sure about.

I found out by reading the paper the next day that it had been a peaceful election. That is, nobody had been killed. There had been bomb throwing incidents at polling booths X, Y, Z, etc., but all in all it had been a fine example of a peaceful democratic process. Interestingly- the paper said, putting no more spin on it than that- the wards the incumbent party won (it was returned) it mostly won by quite narrow margins, while the wards the opposition won they romped in. Curious coincidence, eh?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

And for all this

I did say I didn’t have a horse in the election, but I guess I did have a preferred outcome. That outcome would have been a narrow victory for one side or another, narrow enough to lend some power to the independents and stifle any hyperbole about mandates and morning springing at the brown brink eastward. A narrow victory would have been the best thing to nourish democracy and stifle its great enemy, the legislative activism that is ceaselessly sowing the tares of law until they stand thick and tall choking every patch of fertile ground. If you followed my link to Belloc in the last post, you might have read the following bit about one of the reasons for the appeal of Islam in the ancient near east. But as you probably didn’t, here it is again:

…society had fallen, much as our society has today, into a tangle wherein the bulk of men were disappointed and angry and seeking for a solution to the whole group of social strains. There was indebtedness everywhere; the power of money and consequent usury. There was slavery everywhere. Society reposed upon it, as ours reposes upon wage slavery today. There was weariness and discontent with theological debate, which, for all its intensity, had grown out of touch with the masses. There lay upon the freemen, already tortured with debt, a heavy burden of imperial taxation; and there was the irritant of existing central government interfering with men's lives; there was the tyranny of the lawyers and their charges. To all this Islam came as a vast relief and a solution of strain.

Anyway, is it safe for me to read the papers again? Have all the people who were outrageously pleased by the election result finished jubilating? It was principally the thought of the ‘Howard Haters’ celebrating with all the subtlety and intelligence they brought to their complaining that made the prospect of a Labor victory unpleasant to me. I always found the depth of their hatred incomprehensible. Here was a man seamlessly continuing the Hawke-Keating era agendas of privatizing stuff, of interning asylum seekers, of gutting higher education, and loyally supporting the US alliance. All governments since 1975 have more or less done the same thing. The Coalition government was not remotely ‘of the right’ in any way that would be recognisable historically anywhere. It wasn’t socially conservative, it wasn’t economically conservative, it wasn’t small-government conservative, it didn’t have any autocratic tendencies that weren’t shared with the Hawke and Keating governments. Of course, Howard’s government made far too many laws. True, he did that bullshit ‘never ever’ thing. I trust Lexifab’s appraisal that standards of accountability nosedived under his watch. And he seems to have been, on balance, more of a lying weasel than the other guy seems to be. But I don’t think there was anything particularly dark and evil about the man or his government. He seemed to be more decent and more competent than the general run of leaders in the Western world.

I expect Rudd will be, as well. I liked him when he used to appear on the TV in the mornings in the days when I watched TV in the mornings. He voted the right way in the ‘Let Scientists Go Crazy Ape Bonkers with Their Drill and Sex’ vote on embryonic stem cells. (Like Howard and Costello, and Peter Garrett; and unlike Brendan Nelson or Malcolm Turnbull.) I hope he goes through with his undertaking to abandon the old government’s move to introduce an identity card by stealth. I know that what he has said and what the old lot said about climate change and foreign policy, once you scrape away the rhetoric, is almost exactly the same, so I don’t feel any unease there. I don’t expect his government will be any better or worse for my sector than the last one- especially as Higher Education is now one of many far-flung satrapies watched over by a Minister for Everything. But I might allow myself to be a teensy bit hopeful there. I’m also happy with the way Rudd distanced himself from the frivolous cultural obsessions of Keating. I felt a Costello government would have been far more likely to subject us to another time-wasting constitutional change debate.


Perhaps only a Labor government will be able to get away with not implementing ‘Son of Kyoto’. Perhaps only a Labor government will be able to get bipartisan support for Hilary’s invasion of Iran. I hope so.

This really is the Lucky Country. Howard did a decent job. I am pretty sure Rudd will do a decent job. The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil. And if the Howard Haters have finished rejoicing, I can happily go back to reading the papers!