Against the Holodeck

by Jonah Goldberg

Dear Reader (including those of you who will likely suffer from a severe outbreak of cacoëthes carpendi due to the lameness of this “Dear Reader” gag),

I remember once talking to cab driver in L.A. (“Oh, no. A cab driver anecdote? Mark it down people, Goldberg’s officially phoning it in now.” – The Couch). We passed some restaurant where a guy was getting out of a Lamborghini or Ferrari or some such, and I said something like “I could eat a burrito.” But the driver didn’t hear me. When I noticed the car, I said something like “Nice car.”

“Yeah, except there’s no way that guy owns it,” the cabbie barked at me like maybe I had insulted him or something. The cabbie launched into this elaborate explanation of all things L.A. He told me how the “owner” of the car probably rented it for the week or is leasing it for more than he pays in rent for his one-bedroom apartment in Pasadena. The upshot of the tutorial is that L.A. is a hive of scum and villainy where a certain kind of cad, a particular breed of bounder, lives perpetually on the edge of bankruptcy but with a Rolex on his wrist and expensive cologne on his, on him I guess. Think Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire, but with better clothes and less manbrosia® (my term for male body odor). If you haven’t seen The Wire, Ziggy is what neuroscientists call a “loser.” When he has money he uses hundred-dollar bills to light his smokes, which is one reason he runs out of money very quickly.

Anyway, it occurs to me that Uncle Sam is becoming a variant of this sort of miscreant. He makes perfectly good money, indeed, he’s rich by any rational standard, but never puts any of it away, never pays his debts except to extend his credit for another day.

At least that’s the picture Obama is painting with the fight over the sequester. Uncle Sam “makes” about 2.6 trillion a year, and borrows another trillion or so, mostly from Chinese bookies. But he’s constantly tapped out, ever in need for a little more juice, and if he doesn’t get it, everything will go ass-over-tea-kettle. As I write in my column today, Democrats are saying that if Uncle Sam doesn’t get a bigger raise, government won’t be able to function (government spending will still be bigger this year than last year, even if the sequester goes into effect). That’s junkie logic. It’s the mindset that says you can’t cut back on beer but if you don’t get more money you’ll have to cut back on the kids’ diapers.

Blue-Model Dementia

Speaking of junkie logic, roughly half of all Detroit residents don’t pay property taxes. Why? Because they don’t get much of anything for their money. Oh, and because they can probably get away with it. When it is possible to not pay taxes, people don’t pay their taxes for the same reason dogs lick their nethers: Because they can. What interests me is that Detroit has “the highest property taxes among big cities nationwide,” with property value assessments sometimes ten times the real value. It reminds me of that line from Orwell where he says that “a man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.” In chemistry, you might call this process autocatalysis. In Dadaism, you might call this process “a glass-eyed tiger crying over a melted clock milkshake.” But let’s stick with the Orwell line.

Detroit is a failed city. Because it is a failure, it takes to high taxes to fix its problems and then Detroit fails all the more completely because it takes to high taxes.

One last point. I thought Obama “saved Detroit.” I seem to recall hearing something to that effect during the presidential campaign. Funny how there’s no contradiction between being saved by Obama and being ranked the Number One Most Miserable City in America.

Beaconsfield of Dreams & the War with Machines

So, I need your help. I’m working on a project (right now it’s a speech, but it might turn into something else, as well). Without getting too deep into the details, I’m trying to come up with interesting examples of how technology changes our understanding of morality, philosophy, and culture. Some examples are obvious: the birth-control pill, crop rotation, the atomic bomb, anesthesia, stuffed-crust pizza, etc.

I don’t want to taint the jury, as it were, by getting too specific about what I’m looking for, because when you crowd source things (“You mean ask your readers to do your homework” — The Couch) it’s best to ask fairly open-ended questions.

Instead, indulge me for a moment (a fairly ridiculous thing to ask in a “news”letter such as this, which depends entirely on reader indulgence).

In a wonderful exchange of letters between Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley, Chambers explained why he could not call himself a conservative (he considered himself a “Man of the Right” instead). Here’s a small excerpt from a letter from Chambers to WFB:

Briefly, I remain a dialectician; and history tells me that the rock-core of the Conservative Position, or any fragment of it, can be held realistically only if conservatism will accommodate itself to the needs and hopes of the masses – needs and hopes, which, like the masses themselves, are the product of machines. For, of course, our fight, as I think we said, is only incidentally with socialists or other heroes of that kidney. Wesentlichen[essentially], it is with machines. A conservatism that cannot face the facts of the machine and mass production, and its consequences in government and politics, is foredoomed to futility and petulance. A conservatism that allows for them has an eleventh-hour chance of rallying what is sound in the West. All else is a dream, and, as [Helmuth] von Moltke remarked about universal peace, “not a very sweet dream at that.” This is, of course, the Beaconsfield position. Inevitably, it goads one’s brothers to raise their knives against the man who holds it. Sadder yet, that man can never blame them, for he shares their feelings even when directed against himself, since he, no less than they, is also a Tory. Only, he is a Tory who means to live. And to live is not to hold the lost redoubt. To live is to maneuver. The choices of maneuver are now visibly narrow. They chiefly enjoin defying the enemy by occupying (or capturing) that part of his position which reality (many realities) has defined as settled for this historical period; thereby splitting the enemy, immobilizing and confusing, if not winning, part of his forces. I should have stood with Lenin, not with Trotsky, Radek and Bukharin, about Brest-Litovsk. In the matter of social security, for example, the masses of Americans, like the Russian peasants in 1918, are signing the peace with their feet. The farmers are signing for a socialist agriculture with their feet.

Let me translate a bit. The Beaconsfield position is a reference to Benjamin Disraeli (the Earl of Beaconsfield). Disraeli was a great conservative modernizer, who adapted to the times. What Chambers is saying is that while principles may (or may not!) be eternal, their relevance and application is ever changing. That change is driven less by ideas than by material changes in how we live. The conservative who adapts to the times will invariably be declared the enemy of the conservative who stands his ground. That should sound familiar enough these days. More interesting to me is his contention that the war with liberalism is really a proxy war for the war with machines. While I have my disagreements with Chambers, I think he’s on to something here. Indeed, I’ve been making a similar point for a very long time now.

Now, I love – love! – how conservatives focus on ideas and principles. But that dedication often causes us to forget that not all problems stem from ideas. Rather, problematic ideas often stem from stuff, my technical term for technological innovation. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but inventions are the mother of opportunities. The car did more to make “free love” and promiscuity possible than any French novelist, German philosopher, or Hollywood director ever could. Those things were brothels on wheels.

Often the revolutionary ideas that everyone loves to discuss are simply cheap marketing promotions for revolutionary technologies. A friend of mine once gave me a fascinating primer on how he thinks the technology of siege warfare created ideology itself (more on that another day). Vast swaths of socialism can best be understood as a cult of the locomotive, the thresher, and the assembly line. As Voegelin once quipped, for the Marxist, “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”

The challenge for conservatives is that while we love to argue with Nietzsche, we’re ill-equipped to argue with a Buick, particularly if everyone wants a Buick. Note, the Left often has even bigger problems with technology than conservatives do. But they’re different problems and the subject for a different “news”letter.

Anyway, I think this stuff is fascinating and if you have any thoughts, suggested reading, etc., I’m all ears.

Against the Holodeck

Okay, one last illustration. Researchers claim they have a Star Trek holodeck. Note: They don’t. They have a wrap-around 3D screen. Big difference. But imagine for a moment that holodecks were suddenly available (for those of you who don’t know what the holodeck is, I am truly amazed you subscribe to this “new”letter in the first place. Very quickly: The holodeck was this artificial fantasy land on the starship Enterprise (models 1701-D and after) that allowed crew members to create just about any virtual reality they wanted).

If we had holodecks – places where computerized fantasies could be made entirely lifelike, how would that change our conceptions of a life well-lived? Why work if you can live your fantasies in a realm of your own design? Is sex with a hologram masturbation or adultery? What about murder?

Oh, and one last thing about the holodeck: I hated it! It was an excuse for actors to vamp and preen for the screen and writers to compensate for their embarrassment about writing science fiction. It was also crazy stupid. Geordi could see all of the different forms of light on the electromagnetic spectrum — including infrared, x-ray, etc. And he used the holodeck all of the time. If the people on the holodeck looked normal to him — they were humans.
 

Various & Sundry

Okay, my cacoëthes scrivendi wore off a while ago, so let’s just get on with the various and sundries.

Speaking of brothels on wheels, man found with 20 sheep in hatchback.

Drunk animals!

Missing boy found under beanbag chair!

Spot the secret words!

My speech at AEI last week.

Dogs = Smart.

Breaking Bad monopoly.

And more weird stuff from the incomparable Debby.

 

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg