There is Madness on the Other Side Too: The Left’s War on Optimism

Is the bold future of our youth being killed by gloomy science fiction?  Or has Sci Fi grown more dour as a reflection of our mood?  Glenn Reynolds interviews authors Neal Stephenson and Vernor Vinge in a thought-provoking inquiry: Why We Need Big, Bold Science Fiction: “While books about space exploration and robots once inspired young people to become scientists and engineers—and inspired grownup engineers and scientists to do big things—in recent decades the field has become dominated by escapist fantasies and depressing dystopias.”

(Hey… I’m TRYING, dammit!)

Almost as if deliberately proving the point, TED speaker Paul Gilster rails against techno-optimism in a desperately wrongheaded essay that really should be read in order to understand the problem with today’s well-meaning left.  Paul does us all a disservice by conflating a multidimensional landscape with a digital, either-or choice – confusing”optimism” with “complacency.”

Yes, we all know the types he refers to as techno-optimists – fools who shrug off looming water shortages, energy deficits and climate degradation, blithely assuring us that “humanity and/or science and/or markets will find a way.”  Such people are dolts, often driven by a political wing that has done horrific damage both to the U.S. and the world.

Nevertheless, in taking the reflexive opposite point of view, many folks on the left wind up being very little better.  Their sense of urgency to save the world is much appreciated.  But it gets wrongheaded when the message becomes “Let’s do something!  And by the way, nothing ever works!”  

That was the calamitously awful, guilt-tripping meme conveyed in James Cameron’s film – Avatar.  The notion that our society is not only dismally greedy and stupid, but the very worst culture ever.  The worst civilization conceivable.

This despite being the very same civilization that paid James Cameron billions to help enthusiastic audiences want to be better. Ah well. Ironies are lost on those steeped in finger-wagging lecture mode.  We have experienced waves of such finger-wagging since the sixties, all of it lusciously indignant and satisfying to the finger waggers.  But helpful?

Sure, in the beginning, films like Soylent Green used the raw-guilt-trip approach effectively to shake people into awareness.  I call such tales – along with Silent Running and Silent Spring – “self-preventing prophecies” in that they roused millions not only to look up (and ahead) but to become actively involved in working against disaster.

Which is, in fact, the point! Doomy-gloomy guilt trips have served their purpose!  Everyone who can be recruited into environmentalism (for example) by guilt-tripping already has been!  Everybody else is simply repelled by the message.  Forced – by either-or logic – into the other camp.

 Today, we need more sophisticated legends, that show us not only possible failure modes, but humanity buckling down to get things right.  Overcoming errors and dastardly-plots, sure! But balanced by other trends, like a civilization filled with citizens eager to do better.

Solutions are possible.  They will require investment, thought, negotiation and endless hard work, just to squeak by.  But that we can do.  Can-do.  A can-do spirit that (alas!) dismal reflexes on the left associate only with complacency.

Take Jared Diamond’s fascinating and important book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succed. By all means get and read it.  Diamond overstates (by far) the case that all past civilizations declined for reasons of environmental neglect. But his examples edify and warn, about where we’ll wind up, if we don’t pay heed!

On the other hand, his prescription – renunciatory ecological fascism – is yet another example of the primly dour puritanism of Paul Ehrlich and many others – the truest heirs of Cotton Mather – who finger-wag dire proclamations that salvation can only come from retreating to “ancient wisdom” and shivering in the dark.

Never, ever, is it avowed that we might get past this dangerous era (as I suggest in Earth and Existence) by moving forward.

== Anyone for Plan C? ==

Are these our only choices?  Between chiding, prune-faced, lefty-puritans and giddy rightists who proclaim that either God or some vague corporatist market-innovators will save us out of the blue?  Will anybody note that both groups are vociferously, fanatically anti-future?

Is it any wonder that can-do science fiction – suggesting that hard work and goodwill and ingenuity and negotiation might achieve wonders – has fallen on hard times?

Our root problem today is not obdurate denialism coming from the right.  That insanity is part of Culture War and can only be treated as a mental illness. Blue America must do what it did in every previous phase of the U.S. Civil War.  Simply win. We will stop resurgent feudalism and know-nothingism. Tell the troglodytes and oligarchs they cannot have our renaissance.  Our enlightenment.  Our proudly scientific civilization.

No. What I find far more worrisome is the left’s mania to confuse ALL optimism with complacency, proclaiming any zealous, can-do enthusiasm to be part and parcel of the right’s madness.

It is a baseless and dismal reflex, inherently illogical, anti-technological, demoralizing, and – above all – truly destructive of hope, undermining our ability to actively and vigorously save ourselves and the world.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “There is Madness on the Other Side Too: The Left’s War on Optimism

  1. This tendency on the left has bothered me for quite some time. I find no better example than the fact that too many on the left have so eagerly embraced someone like James Howard Kunstler, and his insipid doomer prophecies.

  2. Mark Davidson

    That’s an excellent point. A friend once said to me, “I never watch science fiction movies, they’re too dark and depressing.” And unfortunately that’s true on the whole. The vast majority of SF movies are either mindless action movies, or apocalyptic, or horror movies set in space, or visions of some oppressive future society, or just plain fantasy rather than SF.

    What was the last thought-provoking hard-science SF movie that left you feeling inspired when you walked out of the cinema? Has there been one in the last 25 years? Personally I found Avatar boring, aside from the special effects. Somehow Star Trek movies and Dr Who have gone downhill intellectually the slicker they have become.

    Where are the the near-future hard-science movies about thriving space colonies, good uses of technology, a balanced hi-tech society that it would be great to live in, interesting and strange aliens, mind-blowing ideas? The first person who makes a movie like that will not only make himself a fortune, but inspire a new generation.

  3. David,
    Avatar was merely ‘Dances with Wolves’ in space. The Hunger games, equally formulaic harkens back to ‘The running man.’ Rather than decry the seeming lack of optimism – perhaps the truer victim is originality.

    In this matter both left and right are similarly handicapped.

    Kind regards,

  4. Jody Woodland

    No movie options to offer, but Robert Sawyer’s recent WWW trilogy posited an optimistic possibility for a post-singularity world, instead of the usual Terminator/Matrix variations.

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