Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Problem With Nice, Orderly Societies

I've written about stories with A Message before. You've run into them: Several generations ago they might even have, "and the moral of this story is..." at the end; These days, it's more along the lines of Humanity has Killed Mother Nature and We're All Gonna Die! Or maybe the big, bad computers will take over.

Don't get me wrong: I liked the special effects in "Avatar," and "The Matrix" is on my to-be-viewed list. I'd have watched "The Matrix" start-to-finish before, but until this year, the excerpts I'd dropped into had been on late-night television. Apparently the 1999 movie's setting actually makes sense. Sort of. Good enough for 'willing suspension of disbelief,' anyway.

I'm getting off-topic. In the second paragraph. That's fast work, even for me.

Where was I? "...and the moral of this story is...:" right.

I don't particularly like stories that apply The Meaning with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, or drop The Moral on the reader like an anvil. Even if - make that particularly if I started out agreeing to some extent with what the author had to say.

So, I intend to write nice, bland, meaningless drivel with no discernible purpose beyond entertainment? Not likely.
Bear with me, please: the rest of this post is about Utopias and good intentions. Sort of.
Take nice, orderly societies for example. Sounds - nice - doesn't it?

A Nice, Orderly, Society Where Everybody's Protected: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Just imagine a wonderful world of the future: all the people walking around with a dreamy smile on their faces, completely and totally secure in the knowledge that they're safe from natural disasters, muggers, and unfamiliar ideas.

A reasonable desire for the security implied in the first two points is, I think, part of the reason we started cooking meat and living in groups of more than a dozen or so. I don't have a problem with preventing natural disasters. Or at least dealing with things like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and blizzards with minimal or no injury and death.

I even think it'd be a good idea if we could find a way to make muggers a footnote in history. Although in that case, I'm a little concerned about some of the methods suggested during the 20th century.

Lobotomies are coming back, by the way.

I don't take the conventionally-dim view of humanity that's part of some contemporary intellectual fads - and a number of post-Gutenberg branches of Christianity. I have, on the other hand, been surrounded by human beings for over a half century: and I think the fellow was right:
"For mischief comes not out of the earth, nor does trouble spring out of the ground; 2But man himself begets mischief, as sparks fly upward."
(Job 5:6,7)
I've written about that before, too.

I also don't see humanity as a cancer on delicate little Mother Nature's face, or as a totally corrupt mess. But let's face it: People make mistakes. Some want to do harm.

I think that even a well-intentioned altruist can mess things up: if he or she gets enough power.

The desire to protect the weak from harm is, I think, a good idea. But I also thing we can be 'protected' too much. I've touched on that before, too:
" '...Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.

There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law....'
" 'Locksley Hall,' Alfred, Lord Tennyson"
" 'Happily, some of us got off the planet in time.' "
" 'Notes of a Traveler,' Otha Sisk"
(" '...Into the Future...' - Excerpt; Attitude; Comment and Theme" (July 3, 2009))
I'd Love to be In Charge?
I'll admit that there have been times when I thought I couldn't possibly do a worse job than national and world leaders. That's not the same as thinking that I'd do a good job.

The sort of broad control achieved by totalitarian regimes is - I think - a really, really bad idea.
It Can Happen Here
There may be Americans who imagine that 'totalitarian' governments are 'over there.'

Others feel that America's federal government is "totalitarian."

For that matter, there are a few folks around the world who seem convinced that shape-shifting space-alien lizard people really run things.

I don't agree - with any of the above. Which 'proves' that I'm part of the conspiracy.

Getting off-topic. Again.

If you've run into some of my other blogs, or met me in online communities, you may know that I'm a Catholic. Yeah: one of those people.

You might expect me to be appalled at the rampant pornography sullying our fair land. That's near the mark, but I'm also concerned about some efforts to 'protect' us from smut.

I don't think porn is a good idea. For starters, it arguably doesn't show much respect for people - women, quite often. But I don't think that books, magazines, photos and videos with prurient interest are the only problem we've got.

Several years back, it looked like the American public was going to be 'protected' from the Wicked, Wicked Web by our benevolent leaders. I'm fairly convinced that the folks who were pushing for a federal agency to control what Americans saw, heard, and read had good intentions. They said they were worried about porn and 'hate speech.'
"...Fair enough. I don't approve of pornography or hateful screeds either.

"But when some socially conservative Christian organizations joined forces with liberal political action groups, I got concerned. They both wanted the government to do something about about people putting bad things on the Web. One of the odd couples was the Christian Coalition and the Feminist Majority.1

"We didn't (quite) get a federal agency in charge of deciding who could put information on the Internet, and who could view it, thank God. But it could have happened. A great many people were very upset.

"So upset that, in my opinion, they weren't thinking about the consequences of what they wanted."
(Another War-on-Terror Blog (March 9, 2008))
That odd couple of worried people was, I think, a demonstration that emotions and reason don't play well together. ("Emotions, the Frontal Cortex, The War on Terror, Anarchists, and the Illuminati," Another War-on-Terror Blog (December 23, 2008))

I don't have any problem with parents - or schools - using blocking software to keep kids from seeing stuff that the parents or school board don't think is 'proper.' Families and local school boards have an obligation to look after children - and are small enough so that the crazy ones can't do widespread damage.

But a federal agency deciding what well upwards of 300,000,000 people should be allowed to see? With an option to make the plan global?

I wasn't concerned that a federal agency couldn't manage something like that: I was concerned that one could.

Managing the Masses For Their Own Good? Been There, Tried That

I'm pretty sure that some folks really believe that Stalin's Soviet Union was a golden age for Russia. Others may feel that McCarthyism was a good idea.

The world wasn't made up exclusively of freedom-loving Americans and oppressive commies - or wise leaders of the people's struggle and oppressive Yankee imperialists back in the 'good old days.' And it certainly isn't now.

But I think we still have 'intelligent, caring' people who honestly feel that everything would be wonderful: if only everybody could be made to act just the way the 'right sort' think they should.

Since I also think that well-meaning do-gooders like that will be around for the foreseeable future: speculative fiction writers have no shortage of material to play with.

Related posts:


  1. The most realistic fiction has the antagonist starting with noble goals to develop a system to help the people. Unfortunately, they cannot deviate from or change the system and it becomes less about the people and more about the system.

    I am pretty sure that is what happens in real life. Not many people want to be evil and destroy.

  2. You could be right about that - the "not may people want to be evil and destroy."

    It's hard for me to imagine the folks I meet as wanting to wreak chaos and destruction upon the world. Granted, I live in a small central Minnesota town: so my neighbors may not be a representative sample of humanity.

    The 'noble goals gone wrong' plot probably goes back to before the Golden Age of Greece, and it's shown up often enough lately. So have 'boy meets girl' stories: being used often *isn't* necessarily a bad thing.

    One of my favorite partly-viewed movies was (the title escapes me), about this fellow who ran the world. All he wanted was for folks to have enough to eat.

    It wasn't Soylent Green.

    The show followed the outline you gave. What I saw of it was plausible.

    And, that sort of 'noble antagonist' thing has dramatic possibilities.


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