Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Politics in Science Fiction-Part One

Science fiction seems to have a fatal flaw: its vulnerability to becoming politicized. (1) We have probably all seen examples of politics intruding upon the domain of science fiction. Here are examples from some recent movies:

Avatar (2009)--Billy Wilder famously called Titanic "horsesh_t." Unfortunately, he died before having a chance to comment on the more execrable (and far more derivative) Avatar (which I think should be retitled Ferngully in Space). There is much to dislike about the movie, but I'm not sure that anything about it is more ridiculous than the fact that James Cameron, who presumably holds his own corporation and who made and released Avatar with and through other corporations, so vilified corporations in his movie, or that he did so in such a heavy-handed and sophomoric way. I'm not here to defend corporations. They don't need my help. But Mr. Cameron's unconcealed and self-righteous opinions about them call attention to his total lack of irony or self-awareness. And if it's not a lack of irony, it's a kind of special pleading that goes something like this: "It's okay for me to hold a corporation," he seems to be saying, "because my corporation is good. Those corporations over there, on the other hand, are downright evil." It's obvious that Mr. Cameron holds the military in contempt as well. He simply disguised his feelings in Avatar by making his military men part of a corporation, falling back on the progressive canard about a "military-plutocratic" alliance about which I wrote in my previous posting. It shouldn't come as any surprise that James Cameron is progressive in his politics, that he subscribes to the cult of global warming, or that he is an atheist. However, I would not want to characterize him in a simplistic way, the way he has characterized the military or people, like him, who form corporations.

War of the Worlds (2005)--Steven Spielberg's take on H.G. Wells' classic is not overtly political. Terrifying scenes of a sudden, unexpected, and devastating attack evoke memories of September 11, 2001, but those scenes are devoid as far as I can see of political content. However, they make it clear that the people of Earth in Mr. Spielberg's movie are Americans on 9/11 and that the Martians are the terrorists. But then, in the scenes that take place in Tim Robbins' basement--the place where an otherwise good movie goes to die--political commentary creeps in. It was put there (presumably) by the co-screenwriter, David Koepp, who seems to be speaking through Tim Robbins (the perfect mouthpiece for such commentary). Robbins' character's words are, in effect, that the occupation of Earth by the Martians won't work because occupation never works. Did you hear that, President Bush? Occupation never works. The implication is that in the real world, Americans are the Martians. If it's okay with the makers of War of the Worlds, I'll go on with the understanding that Martians and terrorists are the badguys and that we are not, at least for as long as we stand for human freedom.

Gravity (2013)--Gravity is an exciting movie. It harkens back to the hopeful and determined attitude of science fiction movies from the past. In the end it proves to be a little empty, though, as movies tend to be these days. I don't think that sense of emptiness just happened, though. Like War of the Worlds, Gravity is not overtly political. But despite all the struggles and hazards, Sandra Bullock's character never--as far as I can remember--says even the most obvious of prayers: "Please help me" or "God help me." In fact, the only reference to religion or faith that I remember seeing (other than the death and resurrection of Sandra's lord and savior, George Clooney) is a little Buddha statue floating around in freefall. Some people report seeing an icon of St. Christopher, but that slipped by me. Peter T. Chattaway, on a website called Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith (Oct. 4, 2013), has commented on the issue. I'll let him speak:
. . . I cannot help but note that the way this [St. Christopher] icon functions in the film echoes a pattern that is often seen in Hollywood films: the main white American protagonists are typically secular and have no religion to speak of, while it is often some sort of exotic "other" who represents the spiritual dimension of the story. The Russian cosmonauts bring icons into space, and the Chinese taikonauts bring a smiling Buddha into space, but the Americans, as far as we can tell, bring nothing more than a Marvin [the] Martian toy. 
I doubt that the absence of religion and faith was a political decision on the part of the moviemakers, who are by the way almost certainly secular in their outlook. They just don't think of these things. They wouldn't pray, so why would one of their characters, especially a scientist, resort to such superstitious nonsense? So maybe the decision to keep religion or faith out of Gravity has to do with secular or liberal ignorance, indifference, or squeamishness. Or it could have been a marketing decision in which the moviemakers decided not to risk offending anyone by having a character say something as natural as, "God help me." (2)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)--I have lots of complaints about Star Trek Into Darkness. First, why, when you have an opportunity to tell any story you want about anything in the entire universe, would you make a remake of a remake? Star Trek Into Darkness is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), a movie based on an episode of the original show (from 1967). That story has already been told. Why tell it again?

Anyway, there is political content in Star Trek Into Darkness, but it seems to me pretty muddled. It all has to do with terrorism and George Bush and/or President Obama and the Middle East and/or Afghanistan and the United States and militarism and national defense and the martial spirit and preemptive attacks and drone-fired missiles and/or other things I can't remember. The terrorist is a white guy named Khan Singh, who is nominally a Sikh, except that Sikhs are usually not white and are not terrorists, but we can't say who the terrorists are because that would be politically incorrect or racist, unless the terrorist is Benedict Cumberbatch, who with his terroristic words used the terroristic phrase "colored actors" when referring to some of his fellows, one of whom he blew up in the movie, but then he (Cumberbatch) prostrated himself before the Tyrants of Twitter, apologizing profusely for "giving offense," but then he was probably okay anyway because of his otherwise enlightened, liberal views on things. There are Klingons in the movie, too. In the original show they represented Asiatic hordes, but now they represent something or other. I guess I'd better watch the movie again to get it all straight.

Anyway again, there's a lot of crying in Star Trek Into Darkness, but the image that really sticks with me is the scene in which the Federation forces, dressed in their best Nazi-gray uniforms and their tall Nazi hats, assemble for some reason or other. That all brings up a question: Do the moviemakers mean to imply that the Federation, and by extension the United States, is a Nazi or fascist or totalitarian organization? Or are they (the moviemakers) just clueless as to appearances? I have seen that question before--Is Star Trek fascist?--but that's a topic for another day.

To be continued . . .

Notes
(1) It might be more accurate to say that science fiction is already essentially political and that any non-political science fiction is that way only because the people who politicize things are busy elsewhere at the moment. More on that later.
(2) This all makes me think of Fritz Weaver's character in The Twilight Zone episode "The Obsolete Man," who becomes obsolete himself when in a moment of weakness and desperation he cries, "In the name of God, let me out!"

In the original Star Trek show, the crew of the Enterprise dressed like Nazis because they were going undercover on the Nazi planet Ekos. In Star Trek Into Darkness, they dress like Nazis for some reason I can't think of.

Speaking of Nazi-like uniforms in science fiction, Angelina Jolie's duds looked the part in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), a throwback to Gernsbackian super-science stories, which inspired the futurism of the 1930s and comic books of the Golden Age. Note the forward-looking or progressive title and theme coupled with overtones of fascism, nazism, or totalitarianism. That idea will come again later in this series.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

15 comments:

  1. It occurs to me that sf would have a hard time not becoming politicized if we accept the theory of its literary origins that James Gunn proposed.

    He envisioned four literary genres that fed into sf: travel literature, satire, utopia, and the gothic romance. Obviously, satires and utopias tend toward being political.

    Enter the idea of technology bringing a better life -- Hugo Gernsback in the 1920s -- and an increasingly secular society, and it's perhaps inevitable that sf went from being theoretically mixed in its political views towards trending in a definite direction -- the progressive and libertarian directions. Both are problematic in my mind as blueprints for society.

    But I think we also have to keep in mind that movies and certain authors well-regarded by progressives get a lot of attention and press. They don't necessarily get the sales. (I'm not even going to get into awards because I don't they indicate lasting value or quality on a consistent basis -- even taking politics out of it.)

    One segment of the market seems to resist not only their political, "conscious-raising" medicine not being drenched with enough sugar but its very presence.

    I wonder how much of it is uttering of shibboleths by authors is to buy peace and maybe keep the sales numbers up but not sincere.

    I've noticed in a lot of the new books I've reviewed make token gestures towards racial/sexual/gender diversity. It's usually not convincing on its own terms and is not treated with enough depth or time to, I suspect, satisfy a progressive audience. Dramatically and conceptually unnecessary in other words.

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    1. Dear Marzaat,

      I'll have to look into James Gunn's ideas more. Thanks for bringing them up. And I'm glad you brought up Hugo Gernsback, too, because that's where I'm going with this series.

      I think you're right that science fiction after Gernsback went in progressive or libertarian directions. I'm not sure how much difference there is between the two, but I think both are problematic. But then I think all "blueprints for society" are problematic. A blueprint implies a plan. A planned society is a nightmarish society, a dystopia. A free society is a much better option.

      So all that gets to the question, Is a conservative science fiction possible? Or is "conservative science fiction" an oxymoron?

      Finally, you used the word I wanted to use the other day when I wrote about Ghost Fleet: token. The reviewer of the book made sure that there were token characters present before he would approve of it. He wouldn't have called them token, but that was their function, at least as far as his review went. Instead of just thinking of them as representations of human beings, he saw them as objects upon which he could place a label or use to check a box.

      Anyway, progressives require conformity. You must check all the boxes. You must announce and put on display your political correctness. If you don't, you shall be pilloried and flayed. The result for the artist who complies is not art but propaganda. The Soviets did it. The Nazis did it. Now the priests and censors of political correctness are doing it.

      Thanks for writing.

      TH

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    2. "Anyway, progressives require conformity."

      Isn't the very basis of conservatism a conformity to "the norm"?
      IIRC, beatniks and hippies were looked upon with derision and scorn by conservatives because they weren't "like us".

      "You must announce and put on display your political correctness. If you don't, you shall be pilloried and flayed."

      Change "political correctness" to "loyalty" and it sounds like a guy named McCarthy.
      Remember him?
      He had lists of people who weren't (to his tastes) "politcally-correct".

      "The result for the artist who complies is not art but propaganda."

      Sounds like the Hayes Office and tv network censors in action, keeping writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling from presenting "radical" ideas to the masses.

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    3. Dear Britt,

      I would say that every society or culture puts pressure on people to conform. Even societies and cultures that call themselves non-conformist tend to be conformist within their own ranks. They just don't conform to the mainstream.

      If you're talking about a 1950s brand of conservatism--the era of the organization man--I would say yes, there was pressure to conform, as well as derision and scorn for people who didn't, like you say. But the 1950s are over. The kind of conformity I'm talking about has to do with political correctness, a purely leftist or progressive phenomenon that--as I understand it--came out of the New Left of the 1960s and '70s. The best example I can come up with for that kind of conformity is in universities today, where there are speech codes and so-called "free-speech zones." Speech codes at universities are leftist or progressive in orientation. There is no such thing, as far as I know, as a conservative speech code, at least at a public college or university. Beyond that, conservatives know and liberals ought to know that free speech is an unalienable right. That makes the entire universe a free-speech zone.

      I won't defend Joseph McCarthy, but he's dead and gone. Before dying, he was more or less disgraced. No one today calls himself a McCarthyite. He doesn't have any followers. However, there are still those among who are proudly Marxist or Maoist or Castroite. There are still people who wear images of Che Guevera, a racist thug and murderer, on their clothing. Those four men were all leftists, and their ideas--if not their actions themselves--resulted in the deaths of untold millions of people. Joseph McCarthy was a harmless piker compared to them.

      The Hays office (which I regret to say was run by a Hoosier) was not an office for propaganda. It was an office within the movie industry for self-censorship. I won't defend that office, either, and I won't defend censorship of movies or television. But there's a difference between propaganda and censorship.

      Finally, I would say that two wrongs don't make a right. That's simple enough.

      Thanks for writing.

      TH

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    4. "If you're talking about a 1950s brand of conservatism--the era of the organization man--I would say yes, there was pressure to conform, as well as derision and scorn for people who didn't, like you say.
      But the 1950s are over."

      Not to Republicans.
      That's exactly the society they want to restore...the "glory days" of the 1950s!

      "The kind of conformity I'm talking about has to do with political correctness, a purely leftist or progressive phenomenon that--as I understand it--came out of the New Left of the 1960s and '70s."

      Funny, the "New Left" were considered anarchists ... the opposite of conformists.

      "I won't defend Joseph McCarthy, but he's dead and gone.
      Before dying, he was more or less disgraced.
      No one today calls himself a McCarthyite.
      He doesn't have any followers."

      Oh yeah?
      Alabama Republican: McCarthy ‘turned out to be right’
      http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/alabama-republican-mccarthy-turned-out
      You can Google and find many other like-minded individuals, almost all of Repub/Con orientation.

      "But there's a difference between propaganda and censorship."

      One is deliberately putting out a false message, the other is obscuring the truth.
      Your point?

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    5. Dear Britt,

      There probably are people who look back with a sense of longing and nostalgia for the 1950s, but for you to put all of the people of a certain group into that category is almost certainly inaccurate. You say that Republicans "want to restore the 'glory' days of the 1950s." I could just as easily say that Democrats want to restore the glory days of the 1960s or the 1930s, and we would both be wrong. Generalizations like that, especially unsupported and unsupportable generalizations, don't get us anywhere.

      I think of the New Left as a mixed bag and not just a bunch of anarchists. Here is Jack Newfield in his book A Prophetic Minority (Signet, 1967):

      "What is explicitly new about the New Left is its ecumenical mixture of political traditions. . . . It contains within it, and often within individuals, elements of anarchism, socialism, pacifism, existentialism, humanism, transcendentalism, bohemianism, Populism, mysticism, and black nationalism." (p. 16)

      He probably missed a few isms, as he wrote his book in the mid-60s. (It was first published in 1966.) Feminism, for example, is conspicuously absent from his list.

      My point again about conformity is that outsiders may not conform to mainstream society, but they usually conform within their own group. I suspect that includes even anarchists. That conformity is probably one of the roots of political correctness: the pressure to conform within the politically correct group. The worst sin for a politically correct person is not to conform to politically correct ideas. The worst punishment meted out by politically correct people is not towards outsiders but towards transgressors within their own group. Outsiders, after all, may be completely indifferent to the opinions of politically correct people. I, for example, don't care what they have to say except that they're trying to deny other people their freedom and to silence opposition as all tyrants do.

      I'm still not going to defend Joseph McCarthy, but if there were such a thing as a viable McCarthyite movement or philosophy, we wouldn't have to Google it. We would know the names of his followers. Name a socialist? Easy. Bernie Sanders. Name an Alinskyite? Easy. Barack Obama. Name a libertarian? Easy. Rand Paul. Name a constitutional conservative? Easy. Ted Cruz. Name a McCarthyite (without the help of Google)?

      Joseph McCarthy is dead and gone. He has been gone for nearly 60 years. Hating him seems to me a kind of nostalgia, the longing I wrote about a few weeks ago for the thing a person hates or fears the most. (If only we had the glory days of the 1950s again when we could really hate Joseph McCarthy. What pleasure that would bring.) He was a minor player in American history. We might as well leave him that way.

      As for the difference between propaganda and censorship: in my posting, I was talking about propaganda vs. art. Creating a supposed work of art for political purposes or to make a political statement to me is propaganda. It's not necessarily art. It might look like art, but if the purpose or statement is too strong or overpowers the art, then it probably isn't art. Maybe there's a sliding scale of art/propaganda. I would not argue that there has not been some really fine or beautifully made propaganda, but still, not art.

      Thanks for writing.

      TH

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    6. A long footnote:

      I wrote that conformity probably exists even among anarchists. Here is a quote from Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), a founder of anarchism:

      "I do not want to be I, I want to be We."

      That seems to me a strange thing for an anarchist to say.

      Bakunin's We may very well have been the same We as in the book of the same name by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a book in which conformity is taken to its asymptotic extreme.

      Bakunin is supposed to have been an influence upon Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), so-called "Father of the New Left" and one of the originators of critical theory.

      Critical theory and political correctness are bound up in Marxism and the theories of the New Left, but I don't know how they're related exactly. Let's just say they like to walk hand in hand.

      In any case, that's a long chain in which there may be some weak links, but it just shows how ridiculous Leftist theorizing becomes. It reminds me of the theorizing of UFOlogists, cryptozoologists, and occultists: it's all connected, we just have to find the key.

      TH

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    7. "My point again about conformity is that outsiders may not conform to mainstream society, but they usually conform within their own group."

      By that standard, anybody belonging to any group is a conformist, per se.

      "That conformity is probably one of the roots of political correctness: the pressure to conform within the politically correct group."

      Again, you concept of "conformity" applies to any group and any member within that group.

      "The worst sin for a politically correct person is not to conform to politically correct ideas."

      The worst sin for a Republican is not to conform to Republican ideas.

      "The worst punishment meted out by politically correct people is not towards outsiders but towards transgressors within their own group."

      The worst punishment meted out by Republicans is not towards outsiders but towards transgressors within their own group.

      "Outsiders, after all, may be completely indifferent to the opinions of politically correct people."

      Outsiders, after all, may be completely indifferent to the opinions of Republicans.

      See how any group can be said to be doing what you claim only "politically-correct people" do?

      "I, for example, don't care what they have to say except that they're trying to deny other people their freedom and to silence opposition as all tyrants do."

      I say exactly the same thing, whether it's conservatives or liberals doing the repressing.

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    8. "I wrote that conformity probably exists even among anarchists. Here is a quote from Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876), a founder of anarchism:
      "I do not want to be I, I want to be We."
      That seems to me a strange thing for an anarchist to say."

      Why is wanting to be part of a cause bigger than yourself so surprising?
      And how is that "conformity"?
      By that standard, everybody on Earth is a conformist since we all belong to one group or another!

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    9. Dear Britt,

      It's not surprising at all to me that people want to be part of a cause bigger than themselves. That’s just human nature. And I think you’re right that every person who is a part of anything conforms to one degree or other. I’m talking about something different.

      A desire to be a part of something larger than oneself isn't in itself conformity. The kind of conformity I’m talking about comes once a person surrenders his identity and autonomy to a larger cause--what Eric Hoffer called a holy cause--so that he might rid himself of himself and become submersed in a group of his fellow true believers. The holiness of the larger cause and of the loss of individual identity is illustrated in a quote from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin:

      " 'We' is from God, 'I' is from the devil."

      Words that echo Bakunin’s desire.

      So I think the surrender to the holy cause comes first, then the individual who has surrendered himself conforms to the requirements of his cause.

      Anarchism as a political philosophy seems to me a cause that falls into the category of the holy cause or mass movement as described by Eric Hoffer. The anarchists of the 1960s may or may not have been a part of that same cause, but they were part of a movement that I have heard described as an impossibility: mass bohemia, in other words, the unity and conformity of a mass of non-conformists. In the end, the vast majority of those people got married, worked in nice, middle-class jobs, and now support the government that they once found so hateful in part because it’s going to provide for them in their old age.

      TH

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    10. Dear Britt,

      Now to respond to your first reply that goes back and forth between quotes from me and your substitutions.

      First, I would not want to conflate "conservative" with "Republican," nor "liberal" with "Democrat." Those are all separate terms. They mean different things. (I’m not sure that some of them mean anything anymore.)

      Second, I’m glad to hear that neither one of us likes repressions of freedom, no matter where it comes from.

      Third, I think you substituted “Republican” for “politically correct people” not because you want to attack Republicans (maybe you do) but because you want to defend political correctness. Is that accurate? If not, can you clarify? If so, do you like political correctness? At the end of your message, you wrote: “I say exactly the same thing, whether it's conservatives or liberals doing the repressing.” So you stand against repression. But how can you stand against repression and still be in favor of political correctness? Am I misinterpreting what you wrote?

      Finally, I didn’t say that “only” politically correct people do these things. As a group bent on silencing opposing viewpoints, they simply use the techniques that others have used in the past and continue to use today. Some of those techniques are as old as time. Others—specifically to do with manipulations and distortions of language—seem to be have come from the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. George Orwell—paradoxically a socialist—described the games people play with language in 1984 and in his essays.

      TH

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  2. "However, they make it clear that the people of Earth in Mr. Spielberg's movie are Americans on 9/11 and that the Martians are the terrorists."

    Terrorists don't conquer and hold territory.
    War of the Worlds was HG Wells' take on European colonialism in Africa.
    The Martians are the technologically-advanced Europeans, the humans are the Africans who can offer little except courage against the invaders.
    In Book One, Chapter One Wells states..."And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races.
    The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years.
    Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"
    Wells didn't consider his fellow British to be "terrorists", just arrogant idiots!

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    1. Britt,

      I wasn't referring to the book but to the movie. I don't think any of H.G. Wells' political commentary made it into the movie.

      Terrorists don't conquer and hold territory until they do. You could say that Bolsheviks and Nazis were terrorists first, but even if you throw them out, we still have the Islamic State.

      Thanks for writing.

      TH

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    2. "I wasn't referring to the book but to the movie."
      Only the 2005 movie, I trust, since the 1953 version didn't have the contexts you're reading into it.

      The Nazis worked from within, using the political process to get their people elected until they were powerful enough to take over the government.
      Yes, they used strongarm tactics during that period, but so did various American political parties during the 1800s...and nobody's calling Republicans or Democrats "terrorists"!

      The Bolsheviks were a different matter, since the group was banned from operating openly in Imperial Russia.

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    3. Dear Britt,

      Yes, I was talking about the 2005 movie, not the 1953 movie.

      It's true that the Nazis worked from within once they came into control of government, a move that was actually legal. I don't know enough about German history to say, but they might have done things before coming to power that could be called terrorist activities.

      Next, I think there are people who call Democrats or Republicans terrorists with the implication that just having a political disagreement or being in the opposition is a kind of terrorism.

      Finally, I don't know enough about Russian history, either, but I'm pretty sure the Bolsheviks did things that would have been called terrorist activities. I guess the problem is the very loose if not meaningless definitions of "terrorist" and "terrorism."

      Please keep the comments coming.

      TH

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