Why don’t our dreams of a better world inspire us to act?

Summary: In this chapter of our search for a better America we examine our stories and myths. Do they show a path to the future — inspiring us to act —  or are they just dreams of salvation by gods?  {1st of 2 posts today.}

Phoenix
In our future lies a better America.

Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.

— John Adams’ Letters to John Taylor (1814).

I’ve written hundreds of posts describing how our passivity and apathy have allowed the 1% to gain power as our representative institutions decay, so that now the Republic itself is at risk. I’ve written 50+ posts about ways to reform ourselves and rebuild America’s politics. Unfortunately the diagnostic posts are more convincing than those about cures. Readers agree, as the posts about the problems get far more clicks than do those about ways to reform (there is another, darker explanation, which I’ll pass over today).

In these cases I turn to our myths for inspiration. Let’s review some of the good futures described in our literature, films, comic books, and TV shows.

Looking at our dreams

“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see….”
“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”
“No,” said Ford … “nothing so simple. Nothing so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards.”
“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”
“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”
“So,” said Arthur, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”
“It doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they assume that the government they’ve voted in approximates the government they want.”
“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”
“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”
“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”
“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”

— Douglas Adams, in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984).

The Space Patrol in Robert Heinlein’s future history series (e.g., Space Cadet, 1948) is an autonomous military organization maintaining the peace by its monopoly of nuclear weapons. They are aware of that the Patrol could become tyrants, and it had one almost-successful internal coup d’état (“the Long Watch”). This is the most realistic of the visions described here, although the stories themselves imply their improbability.

 

Lensman

The Lensmen maintain the peace in E. E. Smith’s novels (e.g., First Lensman), armed with their powerful lens, selected by the god-like Arisians. Their leaders were an elite of many species created by a millennia-long breeding program run by the Arisians.

In the DC comics the Green Lanterns Corps maintains peace in the galazy. They are warriors selected and armed by the god-like Ooans.

The Lord of the Rings series describes how evil is overcome in Tolkien’s Middle Earth by a coalition of races led by the people of Númenor, Übermensch genetically-engineered by angels (the Ainur). They are assisted by the Elves (superior to humans) and 5 minor angels (the wizards or Istari).

Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation trilogy tells of peace brought to the galaxy by a breeding program that creates a race of telepaths.

Isaac Asimov’s stories about robots and the Multivac supercomputer describe peaceful futures under the hidden control of these superior intelligences. See Robot Dreams (Remembering Tomorrow) for the Multivac stories and I, Robot about the evolution of our positronic overlords.

There are countless stories of our brave military and intelligence officers overcoming our foreign foes. Tom Clancy was the boomers’ Homer in this genre, brought to perfection in Executive Orders, the end of his Jack Ryan series. But these don’t discuss how we govern ourselves. Rather they describe a fantasy world in which the people of the security services feel great remorse after they kill people, leaders of the CIA and military are selfless and wise, and Prince Charles is a brave family man (in Patriot Games). For details see Tom Clancy, manufacturer of myths that kept us happy & ignorant.

There’s also a thriving redemptive literature, often describing a wonderful post-apocalyptic world where the virtuous (or chastised and now wise) remnant rebuild. Even Christians indulge in these fantasies of worldly ends and beginnings (modeled after Noah). For example see Larry Burkett’s books. Most describe economic collapses, but especially note Solar Flare (1997): billions die, leaving the remnant to construct a pure society.

The Five Wizards

Lost History

“The basis of a democratic state is liberty.”
Aristotle’s “Politics”, Book VI.

More serious than the poverty of our myths is our amnesia about history. Tales of past accomplishments set our expectations about what’s possible and our responsibilities. The rise of Athenian democracy (e.g., Solon the Law-giver), the Roman Republic, Robin Hood, the Swiss Republic (e.g., William Tell), the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution — all these have become at most half-remembered stories, no more real to us than tales of Middle Earth.

Conclusions

“People need stories, more than bread, itself. They teach us how to live, and why. … Stories show us how to win.”
— The Master Storyteller in HBO’s wonderful “Arabian Nights

I was hoping for stories about bold men and women overcoming our foes, foreign and domestic. Stories about building a better future. All I see are fantasies, the equivalent of Tevye singing “If I were a wealthy man” in Fiddler on the Roof.

Our weakness of imagination is a serious problem. We need to see a path to a better future, not just have it described analytically with facts and logic.  I don’t see any. If you do, please tell us in the comments!

“Joe {Professor, of an advanced alien race} knew about democracies, voting, representation, and courts of law. He could fish up examples from many planets. He said that “democracy was a very good system, for beginners.”
— From chapter 9 of Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel (1958)

For More Information

Here are my solutions, describing a path to a better America:

  1. Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America.
  2. Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.
  3. Fixing American: taking responsibility is the first step.
  4. Should we risk using anger to arouse America?, — Yes.
  5. Can we reignite the spirit of America?,

 

 

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