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The “Real” Ending of Battlestar Galactica

I’ve figured out the real way that the Battlestar Galactica reboot ended (versus the Hollywood version we saw on TV). The real BSG story was just too dang sad. After all they’d been through, the fleet (and not just the leader) was dying. They arrived at Earth during the last ice age. They’d already taken major losses, only to discover that a combination of toxins in Earth’s food, new diseases, and a slightly different biochemistry meant that they wouldn’t survive more than a generation on this new world. At the end of their resources, they chose to stay anyway to help the local humans, who were experiencing a population bottleneck. The fleet arranged for the destruction of their advanced technology not because they didn’t want to use it anymore, but because they couldn’t allow such technology to fall into the hands of a bunch of hunter-gatherers, and there wasn’t enough time to uplift them to a technological civilization. If they held on to the tech for too long as their numbers dwindled, the locals would overwhelm them and take it. But before the fleet destroyed their tech, they took measures to decrease the albedo of the ice caps to end the ice age sooner. And they had another plan–they’d give these hunter-gatherers the knowledge of agriculture.

Only one person was biochemically equipped to survive indefinitely on this new world–the human/Cylon hybrid named Hera. It was she who continued the project of the spread agricultural knowledge among the local humans after the rest of the fleet was dead. With her unique genome, she may have lived for hundreds of years (she may be alive still). She told stories about the fleet that had brought her to this new world; if she was capable of having children with the locals, she gave them the names she remembered in the fleet’s honor (Adama, Apollo, etc.). Besides inspiring the obvious goddess’s name, she also became the inspiration for Demeter and the other goddesses of agriculture. But she never forgot what she’d lost.

The war with the Cylons became the revolt of the Anunnaki, among other stories

My Philcon Schedule (Nov. 10-12)

I’ll be at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Convention Nov. 10-12

Fri. 9PM Signing


Baltimore Book Fest schedule 9/22 & 9/24

I’ll be at the Baltimore Book Fest this Friday and Sunday at the SFWA tent, where SFWA partner The Ivy Bookshop will have early release copies of War and Craft for sale.

My schedule:
Friday 9/22
4PM Worldbuilding For Writers
6PM Fiction Pairings: I Liked ____, Now What Do I Read?

Sunday 9/24
1PM Signing
4PM Forget What You Learned In School: Alternate History, Secret History, Real History
5PM Doctor, Who…Should I read if I like Doctor Who…or Game of Thrones…or…?

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 7 (of 7): Sigmund Freud and Conclusion

VII. Sigmund Freud

Why do I bother with Freud? I didn’t give him much of a chance back in college, and the time since hasn’t been any kinder to him. Many of his theories about individual psychology have been discredited; many of them weren’t very scientific (in the sense of being subject to proof or disproof). Despite talking so much about sex, he didn’t understand women very well. Freud was also a social theorist of a sort, but his approach group psychology has also been sharply criticized.

Why then cite Freud at all? Because even a scholar imbued with the other social theorists in my essay and detailed empirical knowledge of his topic may fail to account for human irrationality and perversity. Franz Neumann was such a scholar. He knew his theorists and his subject, the Nazis, very well indeed–as a German Jew, he’d had to flee them. In exile in America, he wrote Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933–1944. Yet despite his clear vision of the terror, dysfunction, and arbitrariness of the Nazi regime, Neumann still relied on the rational aspects of social theory predict Nazi actions, and therefore failed to anticipate their greatest horrors. He thought the Nazi’s would “never allow a complete extermination of the Jews” because that would remove their convenient scapegoat.

On the other hand, a Freudian could more easily believe that humans were capable of such collective irrational horror. Freud told a story about group psychological states, that though pre-scientific, remains compelling. In his narrative, a society, like an individual, could have a death wish–a Thanatos drive in contrast to the Eros principle that animates much of Freud’s work.

Despite how enthusiastically America took to his theories, Freud didn’t find much greatness here. He joked that “America is a mistake; a gigantic mistake, but a mistake.” I would have tried to convince him that the U.S. was psychologically impressive with our collective young adult-style vigor. We’d successfully resolved our complexes about our Old World parentage, and we were pursuing an Eros-driven international policy of cooperation that contained our Thanatos urges.

But the post-9/11 period has brought our Thanatos side to the fore and, seeing this, a Freudian may have been the least surprised of the followers of the classic theorists by the failure of rational arguments against nonrational values in this last election. He could have foreseen millions voting for someone who promised collective vengeance. He might understand how a culture that once felt itself young and vigorous now seemed debilitated and stupefied with the Thanatos urges of a fascist regime.

Yes, a Freudian social theorist might have seen our current situation coming, but I doubt Freud himself would have. Freud didn’t flee the Nazis until it was nearly too late, and his sisters perished in the concentration camps. Ironically enough for this essay, Freud was saved in part by the generosity of a relative of Napoleon III–Princess Marie Bonaparte.

VIII. Conclusion

My little survey has some clear limitations. With the possible exception of Mill’s writing (which may have included some of his wife’s work), these writers are all white, European men from a time before many of our contemporary concerns and theoretical perspectives–for example, game theory, environmentalism, feminism, and many other lenses for critique.

Yet for all that, these are thoughtful men of the modern era, and it’s a worthwhile intellectual exercise to see what sort of collective mirror they hold up to our situation. Some common themes emerge–the importance of values and institutions (even for Marx), the problem of figures like Napoleon III, and their difficulty foreseeing nonrational human actions.

While they would have varied in the weight they assigned to an individual leader, all would have viewed the very question of any one man making an entire society great again as being at best misguided. But they would likely view this particular regime’s ascendancy as an attack on the things that made America great in the first place. We are lessened even by the inception of this regime, and we’ll be lessened further before its end

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 6 (of 7): Emile Durkheim

VI. Emile Durkheim.

In college, Durkheim irritated me with his seeming insistence that social forms and organization preceded material conditions, particularly at the start of civilization—it just didn’t happen that way. Also, despite his use of numerical data, there’s still a little mythic hocus pocus about his rhetoric. But Durkheim’s ideas have stayed with me because he was interested in the hidden glues of society–for example, forms of experience that are religious without god, or why year after year, roughly the same percentage of people in a country or other large group kill themselves. When I first read his Suicide, it was the season of spring midterms at Harvard, and the blood read of its cover in the hands of Social Studies majors throughout campus had a morbid resonance.

For Durkheim, the modern world is marked by the rise of social anomie and the decline of the forces of cohesive meaning. Against this, he pitted those rituals and gatherings which dissolve our small, isolating, tribal divisions into a larger whole. Durkheim regarded events like the Super Bowl, which brings millions of Americans together in the common experience of game watching while wearing their totemic jerseys, as indistinguishable in essence from what he considered the “elementary” religious rituals of the Australian aborigines. These forms of quasi-religious binding have a dark side: e.g., the classic fascists had their own rituals—events full of pseudopagan elements like the Nuremberg rally

Durkheim had a great influence on the French school system, and he believed in a secular, unifying education. This wasn’t so different from the revolutionary ideology that drove the post-independence growth of American public schooling. Yes, Durkheim’s model was a bit culturally imperialistic, but it was animated by the faith that all persons in France could be good Frenchmen, whatever their religious and other differences.

Durkheim wouldn’t be surprised to see the level of social anomie in America rise after another century of further division of labor and breakdown of traditional social bonds, but up until now he would have been impressed by our ability to continue united across a continent despite this trend through our republican rituals, education, and other ties. Perhaps recent technological change has amplified the acceleration of anomie, and given such conditions, Durkheim might have anticipated that 2016 would be a year of big rallies in our politics, and that the regime would gather masses of cult-like devotees looking for meaning and purpose amidst their expanding sense of dissolution of common values. Durkheim might have judged the regime’s rituals for their potential for national unification versus division. While Durkheim wished to bring all of France together within one secular system, the “nation” that our new regime wishes to make “great” leaves out vast swaths of our country’s populace.

Durkheim also would have opposed our regime’s undermining, through privatization or other division, of institutions that he considered important for society’s sense of unity—for example, our prisons (which dispense society’s sense of justice), and of public education. Without public education’s indoctrination in the common republican values of our society, our national unity could be further strained.

But this discussion of Durkheim the logical social theorist ignores the moral passion that he showed during Dreyfus affair. He wrote a scathing response to the anti-Dreyfus disparagement of the liberal intellectuals and artists who dared to challenge the Rightists in the French government. I expect that, if he were around today in the United States, he would join the anti-regime resistance, and he’d be writing far better essays than this one.

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 5 (of 7): Max Weber

V. Max Weber.

Weber is the Rodney Dangerfield of social theory—he gets no respect. The far-left likes their reductionist Marx class theory, while the right wants Smith’s capitalism uninhibited by Smith’s other principles. Weber is the man for Ivy League elites and lawyers, the great-grandfather of Clintonism. But he reminds us more systematically than de Tocqueville that institutions matter, and that our values and our economics are not in a linear cause and effect relationship, but in a long back and forth dance.

For our purposes, Weber’s breakdown of modes of legitimate political authority had two particularly prominent categories–the charismatic and the bureaucratic. The bureaucratic mode is the rational and legalistic companion to that rational and efficient economic mode, capitalism. Weber believed in the importance of experience in politics as with any professional endeavor—and that’s what a permanent bureaucracy has in contrast to officials elected for short terms. Weber’s dark view of the bureaucratic-capitalist future as an “iron cage” wasn’t just a value judgment, but a statement of factual constraint–that’s there’s no way to run a modern nation-state without some of that cage.

On the other end of the spectrum, the charismatic figure is the one who, in oppositions bureaucratic legalisms and rationality, says, “It is written but I say unto you.” At their best, charismatic figures can be vehicles of necessary change, but paradoxically, those changes only gain permanence through institutionalization.

Weber’s analysis would seem to imply that, with its democratic fusion of charismatic and bureaucratic systems, of political amateurs and professionals, America’s government couldn’t really work over the long haul. But in fact, he must have been impressed that we’d pulled it off for so long, because when the time came to help draft the Weimar Constitution, he may have been inspired by our model to advocate a strong presidency. In his essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber described the need for a charismatic yet competent leader. The leader would have to be capable of wielding his caesarist mandate to effectively limit the bureaucracy. Weber was more afraid of the depersonalizing force of bureaucracy than the emotional force of the Leader. He gave this hybrid concept of government an ill-omened name: Fuhrerdemokratie.

Indeed, the Weimar constitution tried to do too much and left an authoritarian loophole. Weber advocated the emergency powers provision that the Nazis were able to use to destroy German democracy. Weber’s reputation has always been somewhat tarnished by this failure in the practical sphere.

After so much American hubris about Weber’s mistakes, he might be amused by our own constitutional failure. Though it arose with a charismatic promise to limit our bureaucracy, our current regime does not also possess the political competence that Weber believed would be necessary for success in governing. The ascension of a pure amateur bent on not merely limiting the bureaucracy but on slashing the necessary stores of rationality and experience in government would have been Weber’s nightmare, regardless of the new leader’s particular ideology.

Will the regime learn from experience and become more capable, more instrumentally rational in achieving its values? There’s no sign of it yet, and with its normal balance between the charismatic and the bureaucratic sharply skewed, what Weber found great in America is likely to suffer.

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 4 (of 7): Karl Marx

IV. Karl Marx

Any conservative readers who’ve come this far, please hold your nose for a moment and consider Marx as social theorist and not the Marx whose ideas of revolution went horribly wrong in the twentieth century. Yes, Marx thought the U.S. had some aspects of greatness. We were an industrial society without aristocracy and the baggage of feudalism, though we had slavery and its aftermath against us in his scale of social evolution. He thought well of our ability for peaceful revolution(s) by votes. “You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries–such as America, England…–where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means.”[i]

Marx might stealthily admire the cleverness of the bourgeoisie in keeping the capitalist system running through the welfare state as in life he admired that class’s ability to remake the world. His The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon is perhaps his most relevant work regarding how the U.S. and other industrialized nations have found stability despite economic disparities and how they may lose it.

Marx had his own axe to grind against de Tocqueville’s bête noire. His biggest problem with Louis Napoleon was in terms of class theory: how did this con artist seemingly displace the authority of both the dominant bourgeoisie and the classes that contended against it? The answer was that the class struggle had created a partial political paralysis and vacuum into which Napoleon III could step. In Marx’s view, Napoleon III relied on the support of the riffraff (what Marx called the lumpenproletariat), the acquiescence of the largely inert peasantry (Marx called them a sack of potatoes), the proletariat’s general chaos, and the haute bourgeoisie’s fear of sticking their own necks out again into politics.

This last bit—the reluctance or inability of the wealthiest to assume the highest offices—persisted in many modern democracies. The haute bourgeoisie has mostly left direct governance to others that they have financed, rather than becoming themselves focal figures for political and class hostility. Indeed, Marx thought that a too prominent and direct political role for extremely wealthy individuals would be dangerous to the capitalist class as a whole.

Marx was wrong in one crucial respect about Napoleon III—he wrote early in his rule that class tensions would soon end his reign, when in fact it lasted twenty years and was only ended by total military defeat. There’s a lesson here for critics of our current regime who think historical forces will do the work for them.

We’ve done a good job up in the U.S. of avoiding a Louis Napoleon-style figure—until now. The new regime combines Louis Napoleon’s lumpenproletarian appeal with a quasi-haute bourgeoisie leader and other billionaire appointments. The prominence of the ultra-rich in this regime could be dangerous in terms of class struggle, but that may be the least of it.

Marx might note how this regime’s rise may lead to the end of American exceptionalism. In its original social scholarship sense, American exceptionalism is a particular set of theories about the mitigation of class consciousness and class struggle here in the U.S. as compared with Europe. But, under the regime’s policies, the increase in income disparity and the dismantling of the welfare state may provoke class antagonisms. The regime’s attack on voting rights may also close an important safety valve of class tension. Together, the regime’s efforts against the conditions that made America exceptional in social theory could lead to the rise of American class consciousness as a distinct political force. That may be good news for a Marxist, but bad news for American greatness.

[i] “The Possibility of Non-Violent Revolution” [1872 Amsterdam speech] from The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 522, 523.

American Greatness in Classical Social Theory Part 3 (of 7): John Stuart Mill

III. John Stuart Mill.

Reading Mill is like a long conversation with someone who thinks he’s always the brightest guy in the room–though with supergenius Mill, that’s usual true. The guy learned Greek at age three.

Mill argued for utilitarianism in the broadest sense–a refinement of Smith’s looser distinction between long-term self-interest and short-term selfishness. First, utilitarianism involves a kind of happiness math—the greatest good for the greatest number—so the happiness of a particular part of nation shouldn’t come from the unhappiness of the other parts. But Mill tweaked this math a bit: not all happiness is equal. He believed that it was better to be Socrates than a pig, because while Socrates could appreciate and choose between both lower and higher forms of pleasure, a pig could only wallow in the lower. Mill also loved free speech and believed that in a free marketplace of ideas the best ideas would ultimately win out.

Therefore, to have a society that would seek the higher forms of happiness and have the best marketplace of ideas, it was necessary to have quality education for all.

Mill was ahead of his time as an advocate of women’s rights. Some of this was just doing the utilitarian math again—the oppression of half the population simply couldn’t be justified in his theory. But his personal life also influenced his views. Mill’s high-pressure learning had driven him to a nervous breakdown at a young age, and his long-time friend and eventual wife probably helped to keep him sane and socialized. She also contributed greatly to his writings.

In sum, for Mill, America’s greatness would be as an engine of general human happiness. We have broad individual liberty, toleration, compulsory education, freedom of speech, and women’s rights—the necessary tools in his view to supply the greatest good for the greatest number.

So, how would Mill view our new regime? Whatever his own views, he would have approved of free speech for the regime’s alt-right supporters and of right to tweet whatever one desired at 3AM. But he may have been dismayed with apparent failure of our marketplace of ideas to come out along the classical liberal, tolerant, and rational lines for which he would have hoped, and the long term consequences this failure may have for our society’s general happiness.

More than the other social theorists in this essay, Mill believed that people could be educated to be rational actors in his own hyper-intellectual self-image, and that’s probably just plain wrong. But I don’t think he was wrong about the importance of education for our collective happiness. Mill probably would not have had a problem with the regime’s support for a voucher system, but he would have insisted on quality options for low-income families, and those do not appear to be a priority of the regime.

Assuming he still had his nineteenth century prejudices while viewing today’s world, Mill might not have objected to the statements of the regime against certain immigrants—he made similar statements himself. But I think he would have drawn the line at the new regime’s profound disrespect for women, and he would probably agree more with Samantha Bee than the regime.