Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Being remembered in a utopian history of the future

The great American defence lawyer Alan Dershowitz recently told a New Zealand crowd the threat to free speech in Western countries worries him a lot. He hasn’t observed this kind of problem since the 1920s and 1930s.

Back then, there were obvious reasons why freedom of speech was being crushed. Europe had disastrously ended WWI, inflation was rampant, and countries were ungovernable. The major parties were the Communist party on one side, and Fascist parties on the other. None of that is true today.
American lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz

You don’t have to read Stephen Pinker’s great work The Better Angels of Our Nature – in which the professor proves the world is on an upward trajectory – that things really are getting better by almost every measure.

“Look at the US, things are going very well. Even the poor are richer than they have ever been. The inequality gap is widening, but we don’t have hunger, starvation and unemployment problems. The circumstances that normally lead to this kind of extremism in political discourse are not present. So other factors must be at work,” he says.

And yet, extremism certainly exists.

Humans don’t do very well with utopia. Philosophers have long understood that if utopia could be realised, the first thing people would do is break a window. Maybe they’d be bored and want something – anything – to happen, even if it’s dangerous. But I think it has more to do with the desire for utopia itself.

We all say we want to avoid death, but the only way to do that is to remove all the things that make us vulnerable. As those vulnerabilities are taken away, the core of what it means to be human disappears, placing us in an eternity in which nothing can grow and nothing can become. Utopia is something we think we want, but we want it only because we don’t know what we want.

I often think New Zealand is the closest any country has come to utopia. The US too has moved near to utopia. It’s not everyone’s version of utopia, sure, and that’s why some people are breaking windows. More than eternal bliss, some people simply want to be remembered.

The US is a young country, relatively speaking. It’s had a handful of versions of the same government lo these 240 years and things have by-and-large been stable (the Civil War excepted.) But at some point, the US will at least mirror Europe’s ideological, economic and social divisions. These tore Europe apart, united it under any of at least a dozen empires, and triggered countless, devastating wars. At some point in the future, maybe 1000 years from now, that stuff will happen in the US. It's inevitable.

So, if it’s going to happen eventually, why not secure your place in history as the one who sets it in motion? That way, you will drive history rather than be yet another forgotten political figure when the Big Change comes. I think this explains why people start and join movements.

Think of it another way. In all aspects of life, things exist on a continuum evaluated in relation to their opposites. Music must have high notes and low notes, soft notes and loud notes. When the music of an era holds for too long on one thing, the next era of music is inaugurated when someone plays from the other end, re-establishing a dynamic equilibrium. It defines not only the new thing but also the old thing.

Likewise, in art. Beginning in the Renaissance, painters worked to paint more accurately and realistically. But as the centuries passed, it became repetitive. They didn't know at the time they were the realistic painters – they simply assumed they were being good painters. The impressionists came along and proved a person could be a good painter by painting completely unrealistically. This new art form was distinctly unrealistic and emotional, but the impressionists also defined their predecessors as too formal and literal just as much as they closed the book on them.

The same goes for politics, law and everything else. We know our Western legal system requires lawyers to defend people we hate, so no one has ever really criticised that before.

But what if you were to demonise, intimidate and discourage lawyers from wanting to fill that role? You could ensure that people the public hates don’t get a fair trial, not by rigging the trial, but by changing the culture so no one performs the role the system assumes at least one person will fill for it to be valid.

You can affect all kinds of social change this way. The long-term trend does seem to be more freedom and prosperity due to science and technology. It feels normal, expected, just like the expectation of defence lawyer for a mass murderer. We don’t think anything of it. So, the only way to make a name for yourself is to reverse that trend. By defining the new era as the antithesis of the previous era. By using science and technology to make people less free and less prosperous.

If the trend instead was that human existence is getting more miserable with each generation, then the agitators would be out in the streets leading the revolution. They act either way because they want to be remembered generations after they are dead. You don't get that today by curing disease or doing something amazing. Can you name the inventor of chemotherapy or the microchip? Did you even know they have a chicken pox vaccine now?

I think these people know intuitively that the best way to be great in the eyes of history is to seize the machinery of civilization and throw it into reverse. It would imply you are one of the few who sees and understands the machinery. It further implies you are one of the few among the few who have seized the lever. And finally, it means you are the singular one of the fewest of the few with the courage – or insanity – daring to pull the lever knowing exactly what will happen.

Terrorists are defined by their desire to do break the status quo, but they neither see the machine nor have any control of it. As for these kids, I don’t think their heart is in it. They didn't come to this reversal idea emotionally. They are anti-freedom because these are the times which will reward such a stance.

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