“Star Wars… Nothing But Star Wars…”

Michael Lind at Salon:

On the left, technological optimists were replaced by Rousseauian romantic primitivists. In the 1970s, Green guru Amory Lovins promulgated the gospel that “hard” sources of energy like nuclear power are bad and that called for a “soft path” based on hydropower, wind and solar energy. Other Green romantics decided that even hydropower is wicked, because it is generated by dams that despoil the prehuman landscape.

The New Left of the 1960s and 1970s longed for small, participatory communities, and rejected the giant organizations that New Deal liberals had taken pride in. In the 1980s and 1990s, new urbanists converted most progressives to their nostalgia for the ephemeral rail-and-trolley based towns of the late nineteenth century. GM foods, which New Deal liberals like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson would have embraced as a way to feed multitudes while sparing land for wilderness, were denounced by progressives who favored “heirloom” turkey and melons that the Pilgrims might have eaten. The increasingly reactionary American left, disenchanted with nuclear power plants and rockets and suburbs, longed to quit modernity and retire to a small town with an organic farmers’ market and an oompah band playing in the town park’s bandstand.

A similar intellectual regression to infantilism took place on the right in the late twentieth century. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, conservatism was defined by big business anti-statism, not by neotraditionalism. The Republican opponents of New Deal Democrats shared the New Dealers’ faith in science, technology and large-scale industry. They just wanted business to keep more of its prerogatives.

Contrast Eisenhower-era business conservatism with the religious right of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other evangelicals and fundamentalists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. By 2000, an entire national party, the Republicans, was intimidated by religious zealots. No Republican presidential candidate could support legal abortion or criticize the pseudoscientific “creationist” alternative to evolutionary biology. Hatred of biotechnology, in the form of GM foods and human genetic engineering, was shared by the regressives of the left and the right. First a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, then a Republican, George W. Bush, sought votes by claiming he had been “born again” with the help of Jesus, something that no president before the 1970s would have claimed.

Today optimism about science and technology is found chiefly on the libertarian right. At least somebody still defends nuclear energy and biotechnology. But in libertarian thought, science and technology are divorced from their modernist counterparts — large-scale public and private organizations — and wedded to ideals of small producers and unregulated markets that were obsolete by the middle of the nineteenth century. Libertarian thought is half-modern, at best. To its credit, it does not share the longing of many on the left for the Shire of Frodo the Hobbit or the nostalgia of most of the contemporary right for the Little House on the Prairie.

If there was a moment when the culture of enlightened modernity in the United States gave way to the sickly culture of romantic primitivism, it was when the movie “Star Wars” premiered in 1977. A child of the 1960s, I had grown up with the optimistic vision symbolized by “Star Trek,” according to which planets, as they developed technologically and politically, graduated to membership in the United Federation of Planets, a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN. When I first watched “Star Wars,” I was deeply shocked. The representatives of the advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization were now the bad guys, and the heroes were positively medieval — hereditary princes and princesses, wizards and ape-men. Aristocracy and tribalism were superior to bureaucracy. Technology was bad. Magic was good.

The Dark Age that began in the 1970s continues. Today’s conservatives, centrists, progressives — most look like regressives, by the standards of mid-20th century America. Tea Party conservatives argue that federal prohibitions on child labor are unconstitutional, that the Fourteenth Amendment should be repealed, and that the Confederates were right about states, rights. Religious conservatives, having lost some of their political power, continue to their fight against Darwinism. Fiscally conservative “centrists” in Washington share an obsession with balanced budgets that would have seemed irrational and primitive not only to Keynes but also to the 19th-century British founder of The Economist, Walter Bagehot. And while there is a dwindling remnant of modernity-minded New Deal social democrats, most of the energy on the left is found on the nostalgic farmers’market/ train-and-trolley wing of the white upper middle class.

Here’s an idea. America needs to have a neomodernist party to oppose the reigning primitivists of the right, left and center. Let everyone who opposes abortion, wants to ban GM foods and nuclear energy, hates cars and trucks and planes and loves trains and trolleys, seeks to ban suburbia, despises consumerism, and/or thinks Darwin was a fraud join the Regressive Party. Those of us who believe that the real, if exaggerated, dangers of technology, big government, big business and big labor are outweighed by their benefits can join the Modernist Party. While the Regressives secede from reality and try to build their premodern utopias on their reservations, the Modernists can resume the work of building a secular, technological, prosperous, and relatively egalitarian civilization, after a half-century detour into a Dark Age.

Cathleen Kaveny at dotCommonweal:

It strikes me that this new two-party system would also leave many Catholics without a home –for obvious reasons, which we DON’T need to discuss here. In other words, THIS IS NOT A POST ON ABORTION.

But the underlying question, which I DO want to discuss here, is what is the Catholic idea on progress?  It strikes me that it is complicated. Any ideas?

Andrew Sullivan

Daniel Larison:

One of the things that Lind’s preferred states all have in common is that they are expansive, bureaucratic, centralized states ruled by autocrats or unaccountable overseers, and they are capable of extracting far larger revenues out of their economies than their successors. Obviously, Lind finds most of these traits desirable, and he seems not terribly bothered by the autocracy. In the case of the UFP, one simply has a technocrat’s utopian post-political fantasy run riot. Indeed, the political organization of the Federation has always struck me as stunningly implausible and unrealistic even by the standards of science fiction. It was supposed to be a galactic alliance with a massive military whose primary purposes were exploration and peacekeeping, and which had overcome all social problems by dint of technological progress. If ever there were a vision to appeal to a certain type of romantic idealists with no grasp of the corrupting nature of power or the limits of human nature, this would have to be it.

Lind’s article is not very persuasive, not least since his treatment of the change from antiquity to the middle ages is seriously flawed. Lind writes:

But few would disagree that the Europe of Charlemagne was more backward in its mindset, at least at the elite level, than the Rome of Augustus or the Alexandria of the Ptolemies.

Nor are the great gains of decolonization and personal liberation in recent decades necessarily incompatible with an intellectual and cultural Dark Age. After all, the fall of the Roman empire led to the emergence of many new kingdoms, nations and city-states, and slavery withered away by the end of the Middle Ages in Europe.

Well, count me among the “few” that would disagree. For one thing, the “Europe of Charlemagne” was also the Europe of the Byzantines, and under both the Carolingians and the Macedonians later in the ninth century there was extensive cultivation of literary and artistic production that significantly undermines claims that this was an “intellectual and cultural Dark Age.” This was an era of substantial manuscript production, and one marked by the learning of Eriugena and Photios. The Carolingian period was actually one of the more significant moments of political reunification in Europe prior to the later middle ages, but it is true that Charlemagne and his successors did not have a large administrative state apparatus at their disposal. The Iconoclastic emperors in the east were hostile to religious images, but in many other respects they cultivated learning and drew on the mathematical and scientific thought that was flourishing at that time among the ‘Abbasids. Obviously, we are speaking of the elite, but it is the elites of different eras that Lind is comparing. The point is not to reverse the old prejudice against medieval Europe and direct it against classical antiquity, nor we do have to engage in Romantic idealization of medieval societies, but we should acknowledge that this approach to history that Lind offers here abuses those periods and cultures that do not flatter the assumptions or values of modern Westerners. For that matter, it distorts and misrepresents the periods and cultures moderns adopt as their precursors, because it causes them to value those periods and cultures because of how they seem to anticipate some aspect of modernity rather than on their own terms.

Ioz on Larison:

I understand that Gene Roddenberry’s retromod vision of the future had Kirk kissing Nichelle Nichols, but even before the stylish sixties gave way to the weird, hierarchical, technocratic dictatorship of The Next Generation, the United Federation of Planets played barely the part of a supernumerary. The governing organization always seemed to be Starfleet, whose motto . . . to boldly go . . . and shoot with lasers . . . Their missions of exploration always seemed to lead to armed conflict, and the bold, interracial, transspecies future had as a model of its money-free, egalitarian, merit-based society something more or less directly descended from the British Admiralty, circa Trafalgar.

Meanwhile, if we must read Star Wars as something other than someone talking that old hack and fraud Joe Campbell a leeeetle bit too seriously, then let me just remind you that the “advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization” was an evil empire run by a cyborg monster and an evil wizard, and that in almost every visual detail its model was not the New goddamn Deal, but the Third fucking Reich.

Ross Douthat:

So here’s my question: What did Lind think of the prequels? Because in a sense, George Lucas addressed nearly all of Lind’s issues with the “Star Wars” universe in movies one through three. (I am bracketing the more creative interpretations of those films …) Queen Amidala of Naboo, Princess Leia’s mother, turned out to be an elected queen, who moved on to senatorial duties after serving out her term as monarch. (How a teenager managed to navigate Naboo’s version of the Iowa caucuses remains a mystery …) The once-mystical Force was given a scientific explanation, in the form of the “midichlorians,” the micro-organisms that clutter up the bloodstream of the Jedi and give them telekinetic powers as a side effect. And the lost Old Republic that the rebels fight to restore in the original films was revealed to be , well, “a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN,” with the Jedi Knights as its peacekeeping force and the lightsaber as the equivalent of the blue helmet.

For Lind, then, I can only assume that watching the prequels was an immensely gratifying experience. And for the rest of us, the knowledge that Lind’s prescription for “Star Wars” helped produce three of the most disappointing science-fiction blockbusters ever made should be reason enough to reject his prescription for America without a second thought.

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