Saturday, December 24, 2016

Metafictional Musings

I wrote my first incomplete story on a manual typewriter when I was seven or eight years old.

Around the same time Loyal Sedition officially launched, I began a new fiction project that I intended to publish episodically at my static website. I imagined that I would occasionally post my thoughts about the writing process on this blog, both for my own edification and for the possible amusement of any readers. Instead, Loyal Sedition has focused mainly on politics and philosophy, touching on entertainment but rarely. It became almost my only personal writing outlet.

Meanwhile my fiction project languished … for all the usual reasons and more. The science-fictional concept behind it was beyond my ability to execute, which I quickly realized as I started to write the first couple chapters. Though I wrote the leads for several chapters, I let myself be stifled by the need for a more traditional narrative structure. The dynamic, engaging opening that I had imagined—one that would be simultaneously intensely intimate and spectacularly grand in scale—turned into disconnected scenes bracketing the characters sitting around a table talking about orbital mechanics and international treaties.

Beyond that, all I have are excuses. I don’t have enough time between working full time, establishing a part-time business, failing to maintain a satisfactory household, and all that. In truth, I lack the discipline to pursue my writing amid these and other distractions. Maybe that would remain true even if I had the wide latitude I presume to need.

Nevertheless, I’ve tried to break the impasse again and again over the years … but mostly I’ve just tinkered when the mood struck. I’ll write a sentence or a paragraph here … a page or two there. (I wrote pages and pages for my shelved Third Millennium opus.) I’ll dabble in science fiction, magical fantasy, or alternative reality. (I wrote the heartbreaking background for a bloody-handed anti-heroine from a place called Hearth.) I’ll write notes or treatments for various story ideas. (I wrote dozens of now lost pages summarizing an SF story that I eventually decided was too derivative to pursue.) In other words, I’ve toyed with many projects … but still haven’t produced any significant results.

This year, I was inspired to take a different tack. I started to write a screenplay adapted from one of my favorite novels. Building on another author’s work has freed me from the usual doubts that restrain me and lead me to surrender to other distractions. Intellectually, I know that I have to start by placing the plot elements into the story, even if I later have to rearrange, polish, or even remove some of them. Emotionally, though, I too often fail to lay that first course of storytelling bricks … and instead succumb to frustration.

In this case, the building blocks have already been placed. Working within the constraints of a different narrative medium, I can rearrange, rebuild, or even replace the plot pieces that don’t properly fit. Otherwise, the job is akin to editing a completed manuscript. I still need to provide a good measure of creativity due to the aforementioned narrative limitations, but the adaptation process will get me over that first emotional hurdle.

Already, I have made much more progress than usual, drafting about 200 pages of a probable 600-page project. I’m now confident that I can carry the exercise through to completion. Being an adaptation of other copyrighted work, this project is very unlikely to see publication. As much as I would love to see it produced as perhaps a 12-episode television series, I’m hoping that the exercise itself will prove valuable to both my desire and ability to write … even if the work must remain out of general view by design.

This post may not rise to my usual “high” standard of entertaining or thought-provoking fare, but it seemed a worthwhile milestone to place for future reference. Will it mark a meaningful change to my unrequited aspirations as a writer? Or will it mark yet another dead end in that pursuit? We shall see.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Terror and Tragedy

I had planned to report on the Ninth Circuit’s en banc decision in Peruta v. San Diego … but then came the horrific events in Orlando. The appellate court denied the right of law-abiding citizens to bear arms in public … while a Muslim terrorist simply ignored such prohibitions in order to murder dozens of people whose homosexuality offended his religion. If you don’t understand why both of these things were constitutionally and morally wrong, then you are a self-deluding fool … or an Islamic terrorist.

Even in shall-issue Florida, the killing still took place in a gun-free zone. Firearms are prohibited in bars and other drinking establishments. Now, given the clientele involved, the victims in this incident were reasonably unlikely to be armed even if weapons weren’t prohibited, but the prohibition certainly did nothing to stop the murderer. Moreover, as he was apparently a licensed security guard, the killer knew full well that his intended victims would be “legally” disarmed.

The outcome might have been different … but probably not.

This isn’t about tactics, political or otherwise. It’s about fundamental principles and natural rights. What we saw both in California and Florida were violations of principles and attempts to suppress rights. Both events should be seen as abhorrent to their own degrees in what was supposed to be an enlightened, egalitarian culture—but I know they won’t.

The American experience came so close to that egalitarian dream, but now that light will fade. Our divisions will widen, our misguided envy and misplaced jealousy will fester, and we will slowly but surely tear ourselves apart. The only real question at this point is the magnitude of our fall.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Deepness in the Sky

A Deepness in the Sky (Vernor Vinge, 1999)

While not exactly a new work, A Deepness in the Sky remains one of the most important novels I have read. Even after 15 years or so, it has continued to influence my thinking on the human condition and the historical processes that constrain it. Rereading the book this year, a review seemed apropos.

Written by Vernor Vinge, the novel is science fiction, set many thousands of years in the future, when human civilizations have spread into interstellar space. It serves as something of a prequel to his earlier work, A Fire Upon the Deep, making it for the most part both less operatic and more realistic. People still face the physical and temporal limits of slower-than-light travel—and their historical consequences. The economic expense of interstellar flight is even more staggering. The details of interstellar trade aren’t explicated quite so well, but I will return to that problem in my criticisms.

The plot itself is a swashbuckling tale of conflict between different human factions set amid first contact with an alien species inhabiting an anomalous star system. Vinge splits the narratives between the humans and the aliens. He anthropomorphizes the aliens through a clever storytelling device that allows the reader to identify with them while still recognizing their unusual biology and culture.

The characters form an ensemble cast. However, the almost mythical figure of Pham Nuwen towers above the rest. A man from humble beginnings who sought to unify human civilizations and to prevent their inevitable cycles of collapse, he finds himself tempted with a second chance to achieve this goal. His internal battle represents the novel’s primary moral conflict, the struggle between the desire for libertarian individualism and the impulse toward a totalitarian pursuit of the common good.

Perhaps the novel simply came along at the right time in the evolution of my own political philosophy, but it was this moral dilemma that I found so affecting. Pham Nuwen’s personal evolution is not dissimilar to my own, though his tragedy is played out on interstellar scales. To accept and embrace freedom is to also accept the consequences that may come along with it. The alternative, however good the intentions may be, is to reject fundamental morality and to control others through violence and coercion—to provide for the common good by somehow abusing power more justly, as I have lately taken to describing the conundrum. Civilizations may fall, but history has already proved that force cannot long maintain them.

As much as I love this novel and would recommend it to the canon of philosophically meaningful fiction, it isn’t without flaw. First, there is the unambiguous nature of the characters. As I described earlier, the story’s moral conflict is personified by Pham Nuwen. Almost everyone else of importance is clearly good or evil. It isn’t enough that the villainous human faction is composed of treacherous would-be conquerors. Its leaders have to indulge in torture and rape as well.

Next, though Vinge goes to great lengths to describe the interstellar trading culture, he ultimately fails to explain how it would actually be profitable. With most of the sum knowledge of human experience and technology being freely broadcast throughout inhabited space, the marginal value of the additional technical information carried aboard a starship would be negated by the enormous expense of interstellar travel itself. That said, I think he is still closer to the mark than most. Thus far, we’ve seen only the first inklings of economic or political theory being applied to explain why our galaxy isn’t already teeming with interstellar civilizations, so the paucity of fictional representations is understandable.

The final problem is a plot hole that follows from the preceding fault. After the human factions nearly destroy each other in battle, they choose to lurk, conceal their presence, and wait for the alien civilization to mature. This would seem like a prudent, non-destabilizing strategy. However, why can’t the aliens already detect the ongoing broadcasts from human space designed to promote common language, culture, and technology?

The lessons of A Deepness in the Sky seem more relevant to me than ever. I still can’t say whether our civilization is at the beginning of its end or the end of its beginning, but it has become increasingly clear that some great transformation is imminent. Vernor Vinge himself would probably argue for the advent of a technological singularity, though this novel was written to describe human fate in a world where such has expressly not occurred. While I think the concept of the singularity is useful when examining changing historical paradigms, I also think that Vinge and the likes of Ray Kurzweil are wrong. Humans and our technologies may be capable of amazing things … but nothing that fantastic. If we make it that far in the present historical epoch, we may try, but we will fail. However, in the current moral paradigm, human civilization itself will fail. No hero can prevent it. No government can prevent it. Indeed, they will be its authors.

So … do read this novel … while you still have the luxury to do so.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Question of Migration and Assimilation

The sacred Kaaba in Mecca.

Americans, Europeans, and anyone else who values egalitarian multiculturalism, I would like to pose a question. If you found yourself as an immigrant, how quickly and how thoroughly would you adopt the cultural values and practices of your new country? Would you assimilate easily?
Let’s say, for example, that circumstances compelled you to emigrate to Saudi Arabia in pursuit of a better life for you and your family. Would you try to learn Arabic? Would you embrace Saudi cultural values? Would you encourage your sons to adopt Islam so that they might become successful in Saudi society? Would you be happy that your granddaughters would have to wear the hijab and lose the legal rights and privileges they would have enjoyed as women in the West?

Now, let’s also imaging that the Saudi kingdom were as generous to you and other immigrants as European and American governments are to their immigrants. The kingdom would pay to meet your basic needs at least modestly and would cater to the educational needs of your children. In fact, you and tens of thousands of other immigrants could subsist without ever integrating with your host nation. How eager would you be to assimilate into this alien, sometimes antithetical culture without any real economic pressure to do so?

I submit that you probably would not assimilate and neither would you try. On the contrary, you and the other immigrants would leverage whatever political power your numbers gave you to change Saudi culture to more closely match your values and practices. That’s what large groups of related people (tribes and nations) do.

Mass migration is conquest by other means, and history records such events as invasions, even when actual warfare is infrequent. Just ask the Celts or the Khoisan or the Ainu or the Australian aborigines or the Dravidians or the Maori or the first nations of the Americas. It is a political and cultural truth that none of us can escape.

As a libertarian humanist, I would celebrate the free movement of people and ideas … but as a historical realist, I also have to recognize, however grudgingly, that a borderless world is a last-order freedom. Only when other liberties and responsibilities are firmly in place or adequately protected by institutional safeguards can we safely open our borders to welcome anyone who would come. To do so now—with our massive, irresponsible welfare states—is to finance the diminution or destruction of our own egalitarian cultures.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Toward the Voluntary Society: An Introduction

The flag of anarcho-capitalism doesn't have to be the only standard in a voluntary society, but it would certainly be one.

All too often, political philosophy is an exercise in utopianism, the construction of imaginary, idealized societies. On their face, these visions are impossible to realize given disparate human motivations, actions, and desires. The processes proposed are also frequently illogical, invoking non sequitur after non sequitur in their explication.

Marxism is perhaps the most famous example. On his projected path to a stateless, classless communist society, Karl Marx predicted that, despite their own rising standards of living, the working classes in prosperous capitalist economies would revolt against the owning and ruling classes. Thereafter, socialist dictatorships would be established to control every aspect of cultural and economic development in order to eventually eliminate all human inequality. Then, somehow, this totalitarian state would simply surrender all of its power, giving way to a completely free society, where each individual person would produce according to his ability and consume according to his need. Though all attempts at its practical application have failed at every step, Marxist ideology is still immensely popular for obvious reasons.

The reasons why Marxism would never work should be equally obvious, but I’m not writing today to critique Marx. Rather, I want to introduce another political philosophy and explicate it without magical thinking or utopian idealism. The voluntary society I will describe may be no more achievable than Marx’s communist paradise, but I think it can be approached much more closely through the application of ideologically consistent libertarian philosophies and realistic political processes.

All of this presupposes that human freedom is a desirable outcome. I can understand and accept that not everyone shares this goal. Indeed, slave states have flourished throughout human history and have created widely revered cultural landmarks. For those who see such states as the superior way to live, nothing that I can say or do will ever change their minds. Instead, I want to chart a possible course for those who do value human freedom but struggle to understand why the current paradigm also appears to be failing to deliver it.

I will follow with a series of essays discussing various aspects of the voluntary society and how they might realistically be achieved. None of these will demand the adoption of any one model of social or economic organization. In fact, I will argue that all organizational models are permissible within a voluntary society so long as they adhere to just two fundamental moral principles.

On that moral foundation, we can move toward the voluntary society in a logical fashion. This will also account and allow for human differences that other political philosophies have simply and improbably hoped to erase. The choices demanded won’t be easy by any means, and some of the ancillary outcomes that will be implied may be disconcerting where they can’t be mitigated, but this is the only path toward lasting freedom—one that won’t vanish in the mirage of utopian fantasy.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Of Wolves and Men

A wolf pack on the move.

The photograph above has been circulating on social media in recent weeks. It purports to show a wolf pack, wherein the old, sick, and weak set the pace for the group from the front, the young and strong make up the center, and the dominant male watches over everything from the rear. Some of my “liberal” friends have commented favorably on this social structure. One even remarked that it’s “how we should act …”

While the picture is beautiful and illustrates how different social groups can survive, I find it deeply ironic that compassionate “liberals” would recommend it as a model for human society. Let’s look at the wolf pack more closely to see why.

The old, sick, and weak are placed in the vanguard of the pack. This may let them set the pace, but it also puts them at the greatest risk for attack by hostile wolves or other predators. Should an attack come, then the stronger members of the pack have the option to flee safely or to counterattack the distracted enemy.

When the pack makes a kill, the wolves usually feed by rank. The dominant pair eat their fill, followed by the lower ranks. The old, sick, and weak get whatever scraps are left when the stronger wolves are done. As a result, they may grow weaker still.

Rivals for dominance within the pack are often expelled or killed. Outcasts face great difficulty surviving on their own—much greater difficulty than a single, able-bodied human would face. If these lone wolves manage to survive but can’t eventually start their own packs, the may turn to poaching and other desperate pursuits, making them the criminals of the wolf world.

Wolf packs are also highly territorial. When they meet, there is usually hostility. In other words, the primary relationship between different wolf populations is warfare. These conflicts are one of the main causes of death among wolves, accounting for over half of all fatalities in some cases.

And when the old, sick, and weak wolves can no longer walk, they will ultimately be abandoned by the pack to die in isolation and suffering. In lean times, they may even be killed and eaten by their own pack mates.

When our old, sick, and weak can no longer move, we will carry them—sometimes to a fault. Human groups can be just as competitive as rival wolf packs, but we thrive through cooperative competition (at least within free markets). We try to shelter our outcasts and to protect our defenseless. Despite our self-ascribed penchant for violence, the trend for advancing human civilizations has been the pursuit of peaceful relations between nations.

Our principal failure, at least in the enlightened portion of human society, is not a lack of compassion. It is misplaced and misdirected compassion. We have allowed the hand extended in help to be used to pull all of us down. We have failed to properly understand social problems, and we have repeatedly failed to learn the lessons of history.

Ironically, wolf society is exactly the harsh, dog-eat-dog paradigm that so many “liberals” falsely accuse “conservatives” and libertarians of desiring. Those of us on the political right (nominally or otherwise) who advocate for individual freedom, personal responsibility, and equality of opportunity do so because of our compassion for others and because of our desire to reduce human suffering. We want to see the weak grow stronger, the disadvantaged become prosperous, and the downtrodden regain dignity. Through no ill intent of its ideological proponents, the left would expand poverty, helplessness, and subjugation as a cause and consequence of its pursuit and application of political power.

And when the leftists finally succeed, human society may indeed begin to resemble the brutal reality of the wolf pack once again.