The ritual of the Street Corner — a “tonic” exercise in humility

As time passes, many of us are coming to realize that our current political and social struggles – especially within the United States – have much less to do with “left versus right” in any classic sense, than they are about future versus past, optimism versus pessimistic cynicism, and confident pragmatism against varied dogmatisms that preach despair.  You can see this not only in the fanaticisms or lefist and rightist politics, but also in culture. Take the way novels and films of fantasy and so much science fiction — filled with dystopias, apocalypses and lavish feudal settings — today push notions of nostaligia and rejection of the modern world.  A world that gave the authors and directors and screenwriters the kind of lives that any king of old would have envied.

FavoriteCliche copyElsewhere, I talk about some of the economic drivers and lazy plotting temptations that too-often cause storytellers to choose this path.  A cheat that can make money, for sure! But one also spreading poison through the blood and heart and brain of a society that badly needs confidence. A society that has earned confidence, after beating down so many ancient evils, like racism, sexism and our ancestors’ blithe contempt for nature.  In that essay, I reflect upon how some dour tales are truly great!  When they warn of a danger we might thereupon be inspired to solve — making those stories self-preventing prophecies. We don’t need happy endings… but neither do we need dull-repetitive propaganda for hopelessness.

Project Hieroglyph is one effort by a coterie of science fiction authors to reverse this trend and challenge readers with an impudent notion… that the future might be better, if we seek it with vigor, courage, goodwill, and a spirit of negotiation… and adventure.  Lots of great drama and adventure! I helped establish Reading for the Future with that goal in mind.  It underlies the new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD.

== An Exercise for Cynics ==

Here I’d like to challenge readers to try a little experiment, one is sure to chip  at the stylish cynicism we absorb from both media and our own sanctimonious egotism.  Are you honest and willing to reconsider?  Most people who do as I recommend (below) come away at least a bit inspired, less sure that their fellow citizens are complete sheep, and possibly stoked with just a little more confidence that we can do it – cross the next 50 years of minefields and quicksand pits, so that our children will get to something better. 

One of the oldest arguments for cynicism? Some variant on:

“A cynic is an optimist who has snapped out of it and realized how awful people are.”

One of the great cliches of all time. And I can only respond with —

”What is a cynic who snaps out of it even FARTHER? Enough to realize that, despite the gruesomely stupid, self-delusional and abysmally corrupt aspects of human nature… things are getting phenomenally better. And have been for some time?

I mean, which is more amazing? That the Enlightenment is under threat from a collusive cabal of conniving aristocrats, imperialists and extremist nutjobs? Or the fact that this routine and utterly predictable alliance, which ruled every other urban culture for 4,000 years has been staved off repeatedly, till now, by a republic — and a civilization — that has kept combining redesign and renewal and revolution with an almost infinite capacity for resilience in the face of repetitious human nature?

156209451So here is Brin’s Exercise… I command you to go forth and do this!

Go to a street corner, preferably one with a very busy four-way — or eight or twelve (via multiple lanes) — stop signage, where people and cars and bicycles must negotiate traffic rules every second, negotiating  right-of-way and movement with quick eye contact, lazy little hand-flicks and brief nods. Allow yourself to be amazed at how easy it seems. How relaxed and bored everyone is, with this libertarian miracle or self-regulation.

Then do a slow 360. Notice all the other things that are working! The quiet and efficient courtesies, the technologies, the tiny acts of honesty and cooperation.

Notice all the hidden competence of a myriad professionals that make all the switches turn on time and fill the restaurants with food. Do not let a patch of one square degree pass your view without comment, or noticing something that you took for granted, before! If you finish the turn having counted less than a hundred bona fide miracles, start over!

People accuse me of being a flaming optimist, because I have a naively positive view of human nature.  How absurd! No, friend. I am a flaming optimist because I understand just how wretched human nature is! I am uniquely qualified, as a student of all sciences, of history… and a licensed professional alternate world builder in the mighty genre of Speculative History (also clled science fiction)… and a person whose third and fourth cousins were all murdered by unprecedented rationalization and unspeakable human savagery…

… as one who awakens every morning surprised that Cossacks have not yet burned my home, taken my wife and kids, burnt me at a stake and ruined my proud civilization.

Not yet.

Hence the ferocity of my optimism, oh my friends and co-rebels against any chance that the bad old days might return. (A possibility that I portrayed in The Postman.) Hence my deep and abiding disdain for cynicism. Because it isn’t helpful. And if it isn’t helpful in this fight, I have no time for it.

We have one hope. The Modernist Agenda — combined with a little faith. It’s a program that’s worked so far. Indeed, we cannot properly fight for it without conceding — indeed, AVOWING! — that it has worked. Fantastically. Epochally. Better than any other program for living and working together ever devised.  Because no other system even tried to eliminate racism, sexism, feudalism and every other noxious ism that limited human potential.

== Must I also like… my neighbors? ==

Like everyone else, I am drawn to cynical contempt-for-the-masses around me. Masses who seem so dimwitted… who support imbecile politicians… who don’t know where Rwanda is or what happened there… who actually think we are at “war”… who raise such dopey, X-Box-addicted brats…

RitualStreetCorner…only then I do the exercise. I go to that street corner and start turning. And every time I finish one of those 360 degree rotations, noticing the myriad marvels all around me, the incredible courtesy and skill and competence that it takes to (ironically) make a civilization that is proof against the individual incompetence of countless fools…

… I find myself forced to make a concession. To grasp that (as the best scientists say)… I might be wrong.

And that is when I mutter, grudgingly —

”My neighbors simply… cannot be as stupid as they look.”

Yes, they look stupid. I am sure yours do, too. Perhaps, as individuals, they are. But when they are taken together, combined, made free to interact under rules that encourage decent cooperation and competition, something happens. Together, we get smarter than we ever deserved to be.

It is called an Emergent Property. And, friends, you live in comfort and wallow in information and freedom because of it. Moreover, the shortsighted dogmatists who hate complexity have no idea what it is that they are prescribing, when they offer their simplifying nostrums:

“All government is vile, all the time,” or –

“All competitive capitalism is vile, all the time,” or –

“Anything western or american is automatically better,” or the recently more pervasive poison see in nearly all Hollywood films:

“Anything western or american is automatically evil and disgusting, without any redeeming properties!”

Pay no attention to the simplistic prescribers of right or left.  What they are offering is to take it away — all the marvelous complexity — and replace this marvel with rule by philosopher kings. By platonist prescribers of left, right, libertarian and religious and weird. Dig deep and it’s all the same thing. Dolts and ingrates who despise while wallowing in the fruits of the very civilization they hate. Who would kill the goose that gives a flood of golden eggs.

Oh, yes, some of our neighbors are fools, after all.


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