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Fatal Flaws of our Enlightenment?


David Brin is an astrophysicist, technology consultant, and best-selling author who speaks, writes, and advises on many topics including national defense, creativity, and space exploration. He’s also one of the “World’s Best Futurists.” Find David’s books and latest thoughts on various matters at his website and blog. In Fatal Flaws in our Enlightenment, David further discusses subjects he covered in our interview in October.


Fatal Flaws of our Enlightenment?

Courtesy of David BrinContrary Brin

I post this heading out the door to speak tonight at the California Democratic Party Convention, in San Diego. And yes, they even invite registered Republicans, when they have important ideas to share. Or at least vital questions. For example….

Is our Great Experiment in danger of coming to an end? Certainly, the world seems filled with forces pushing for Government of the people, by the people, for the people to perish from the Earth.

Ezra Klein summarizes the book: “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Klein’s appraisal is cogent and very important reading in its own right. I urge you to find time for it, even if (like me) you lack time for the source material. As you might guess, I agree that Donald Trump is “not the disease” but a symptom, top-to-bottom. Here’s an excerpt:

‘“2017 was the best year for conservatives in the 30 years that I’ve been here,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week. “The best year on all fronts. And a lot of people were shocked because we didn’t know what we were getting with Donald Trump.”

"‘The best year on all fronts.' Think about that for a moment. If you want to know why congressional Republicans are opening an assault on the FBI in order to protect Trump, it can be found in that comment. This was a year in which Trump undermined the press, fired the director of the FBI, cozied up to Russia, baselessly alleged he was wiretapped, threatened to jail his political opponents, publicly humiliated his attorney general for recusing himself from an investigation, repeatedly claimed massive voter fraud against him, appointed a raft of unqualified and occasionally ridiculous candidates to key positions, mishandled the aftermath of the Puerto Rico hurricane, and threatened to use antitrust and libel laws against his enemies.

‘And yet McConnell surveyed the tax cuts he passed and the regulations he repealed and called this not a mixed year for his political movement, not a good year for his political movement, but the best year he’d ever seen.’

I also agree that we face an existential moment in our experiment in Democracy. Every generation of Americans have experienced attempts by the oligarchs of that era to suborn our institutions and laws and cheat, in order to restore the standard human pattern of feudalism. These attempts correlate with phases of our recurring Civil War. 

But never before has a large share of the wealth elite chosen to foster open war against every single knowledge or fact-using profession, from science, teaching, medicine and journalism to the "deep state" FBI, intel agencies and military officer corps. This time it is all-or-nothing. Perhaps because the gnome families behind this putsch know that the Enlightenment Experiment is on the verge of its greatest-ever successes.

Klein – and the authors of  How Democracies Die” do suffer, however, from myopia. They give examples like 1930s Germany and more-recent Venezuela, for how democracies can fail amid whimpers, or else cheers of either right wing or left-wing populism. But this ignores the failure modes that ended earlier trial-runs, such as Periclean Athens and the Florentine Republic.

The lesson overall is that experiments in flat-open-fair — or diamond-shaped --civilizations always result in spectacular creativity, fecundity, error-correction, science, art and unleashing of talent… but they are also unstable. Beset by oligarchic attacks and by cyclical waves of citizen immaturity-impulsiveness, they have always — in the past — succumbed and collapsed back into classic, pyramidal hierarchies of power. That, certainly, is the lesson — to give up on any hope of wise democracy — being pushed in confederate media and by world despots, allied in the cause of bringing down the West. 

It is the preaching of despair and demigod worship conveyed within science fiction by authors like Orson Scott Card. And by cyclical history buffs of both the mad far-left and the treasonous entire-right. 

Only… isn't 250 years a record for such an experiment to last? And, having restored it and re-invigorated it many times — e.g. during the "Greatest Generation" — can't we confidently imagine doing it again?

Lift the banner of the Union 

Even more biting – for those of you who weren’t angry and riled-up enough – is this essay in The Atlantic - Boycott the Republican Party, by Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes -- asserting that the only way to save American Conservatism… and possibly the Republican Party … is to burn their political power to the ground, so that perhaps a phoenix of adult-sane conservatism can rise from the ashes. “The rule of law is a threshold value in American politics, and a party that endangers this value disqualifies itself, period.” 

Of course the gnomes and their servant-shills wage war against all fact-using professions because those are the “elites” who stand in the way of return to aristocratic rule by… well, imbeciles, of course. Because exactly what do these people think will happen when they make enemies of all the folks who know stuff and can invent and build everything from lasers to nukes to genetic codes to AI? How, exactly, is this supposed to work out for you?

In my novel Existence, I portray a much smarter aristocracy trying to forge a deal, instead, with the “boffin elites.” But, of course, just like the inventor-entrepreneur billionaires like Musk, Bezos, and Gates, the fact-folks will likely have no part of such treason.

See (below) how great new candidates are rising from the "fact communities" — from science and from the military officer corps. But first…

An alternative view… called “optimism”

Let's swing to a different tome that Bill Gates has gone all-out about, calling Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, by Steven Pinker, “My new favorite book of all time.”  

Enlightenment Now is the follow-up to Steven Pinker’s groundbreaking The Better Angels of Our Nature, which angered both the far-left and the entire-mad-right by showing how especially violence – but also other metrics of progress – have improved everywhere that the overall progressive agenda has taken hold. Here, Prof Pinker presents the big picture of human progress: people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideal of using reason and science.

Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? “Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing.” - review in Kurzweil News.

And optimism mixed with paranoia?

Edward Snowden pushing a new privacy-sousveillance tech called “Haven” that lets folks with cell-phones to apply transparency at the powerful while protected against being discovered. The good news: this Haven thing is open source, offering some small hope that it might not turn into a snake that bites the user. Maybe. The bad news? This is really vague!  For example, only at the very beginning of the video, when Snowden says “spare android phone,” do we get a hint that this is not an app for your regular pocket-robot, but rather something you can use your old phone for, outside of the tightly controlled “networks.”

Also, philosophically, while I am a big believer in sousveillance and deem this likely to be helpful, especially in states and regions where power oppresses, it is nevertheless based upon an assumption and desire to counter asymmetries of transparency with your own asymmetries of transparency.  That is a dangerous game and not what I personally have fought for. Moreover, it's a game that’s unlikely the little guy will ever win for very long. Still, I hope some of you will join this Haven community and report back, from time to time.  I’d rather it were tried, than not.

Fact people volunteers 

Many of you recall my essay calling for a "Year of Colonels". Well, Conor Lamb is everything (it seems) that I asked for, when I said we must run sane, pro-science and fact, purple ex-officers in every red district in America. Every State Assembly seat. Every State Senate, City Council and dogcatcher position.  This 33 year old retired Marine officer, federal prosecutor and devout Catholic has a chance to win a special election vs the GOP candidate (who's proclaiming "I'm more Trump than Trump!") in a solid-red district in Pennsylvania, where the former Republican rep had to resign… caught ordering his mistress to get an abortion.

If that means liberals in all those places will then have to negotiate with sane, decent, calm, science-respecting, rights-progressive, environmentally-responsible — but temperamentally conservative crewcut types who sometimes go hunting — instead of confronting today's insane, fact-hating traitor-shills of Rupert Murdoch… then live with that!

American conservatism won't die, but it can be shaken out of its current, nightmare fever or jibbering lunacy. Each of us must find one "ostrich" who might be wakened, and make him or her our mission.

A broad front… a Big Tent… and the intelligence to run the right people in each district… that's how the Union will win this phase (number 8) of the American Civil War against a risen Confederacy that's absolutely (as always) treason.

And here's a Mississippi biochemist who's also showing that fact folks can fight back.  

Step back from your suicidal putsch, oligarchs! If you succeed in bringing down the enlightenment experiment and "government by the people," you will reap ashes. We fact people know how to make and do stuff. As Bruce Banner put it:

"You won't like us when we're angry."

[Originally published Feb. 23, 2018]


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