Cory Doctorow's


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  1. Cory, the world is not full of bad things because of “bad people” with sinister motives cackling as they lay their Evil Plots.

    It’s not being diverted from a state of natural goodness, or even potential goodness, by bad intent(*). As Karl Marx put it, “Human beings make history; but they don’t make it just as they please.”

    Bad intent exists, but usually the world is far worse than that.

    Attributing things to ordinary sinister intent is melodrama: white hats, black hats, shoot the villain (or shut up people who say things you don’t like) and All Will Be Well.

    But all will not be well, ever. The universe is just sodding not designed for us; we’re a chemical accident.

    Human life is -tragic-, not melodramatic.

    It is -inescapably- tragic, though very lucky people leading sheltered lives can forget this… until the bill comes due. Which it always does in the end. If nothing else, we’re all going to die, usually by inches, in fear and squalor and agony.

    John W. Campbell did not derive any personal power or benefit because he pushed for that ending to the “Cold Equations” story. Campbell’s motives are of course irrecoverable, but I think it’s probable that that’s what he wanted to get across, apart from it being more dramatically powerful and memorable.

    (How many people would remember that story if it had a conventional happy ending? It’s remembered because it was shocking.)

    “If being in a lifeboat gives you the power to make everyone else shut the hell up and listen (or else), then wouldn’t it be awfully convenient if our ship were to go down?”

    Cory, apart from the sheer weird unlikelihood, have you considered what an asset that attitude would make you -in an actual lifeboat-? (Glyph of irony.)

    Or an infantry squad or a coal mine?

    Life is tragic, real life example:

    A relative-in-law of mine was a BAR gunner in the 2nd infantry, from Normandy to near Prague in 1944-45, at which point he was one of only eight in his platoon who weren’t dead or crippled, of the 40-odd men who’d hit the beach. And he’d been wounded three times.

    Like pretty well every other unit in the Allied armies his outfit had two sets of orders for prisoners.

    (We’re talking Germans who surrendered as individuals or small groups up at the sharp end here, not units doing it formally; they were safe, as were other prisoners who made it back behind the combat zone. We’re not talking about the SS, either.)

    One set of orders was “take them back to the trucks”, which was given when there was time and personnel to spare without endangering the mission they were tasked with or their own lives. It meant what it said.

    The other order was “take them down to the end of the road”. It had an unspoken codicil: “And shoot them.”

    Since he had an automatic weapon, he was the one who usually got these orders; the second type happened quite often, about 50% of the time in fact.

    (Everyone knew that this was the way it worked in unspoken practice as opposed to publicly proclaimed theory — you’ll find it in Bill Maudlin’s account of his time in Europe, for example, where he mentions the case of a German enlisted man who stayed behind with a wounded officer and surrendered with him. He remembered it because he couldn’t think of a single American officer he’d have taken that risk for, since it was more likely than not they’d both be shot out of hand.)

    One time when my in-law had taken them “back to the trucks”, the truck drivers were upset because some shells had landed close to them on the way in, and they started beating on the prisoners. My in-law grabbed the driver and slammed him up against the truck and said: “Leave them the hell alone.”

    The driver said: “What’s your problem, Mac? These are the bastards who were shooting at us.”

    He replied: “No they weren’t, you son of a bitch. -You- live in a ration dump. They were shooting at -me-, and I said leave them the hell alone.”

    The point being that my in-law wasn’t a bad guy. He was a good guy, in fact, a regular working Joe from an Irish-American mill town who got drafted and then went home after the war and became a mailman and get married and raise his kids. Neither a hero nor a villain, just another ordinary guy caught in the gears of history, over which he had no control whatsoever.

    He didn’t shoot the German prisoners because he hated Germans or because he was cruel; and the sergeant who told him to do it and the lieutenant who spoke a word in the sergeant’s ear weren’t black-hats either. He had nothing against the prisoners, and considered them, in his own words, as just another bunch of poor unlucky bastards doing what they were told and trying to stay alive, pretty much like him.

    He did it because he had to; because the job and his buddies were more important that the poor unlucky bastards on the other side. Or the civilians who got in the way when he put a burst through the wall of a farmhouse to check if there were Krauts waiting inside to spring an ambush.

    (And that was in a theater where both sides, or at least us and the regular German army, were -trying- to play by the rules.)

    Oh, and PS: FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD is about as racist as HUCKLEBERRY FINN.
    Like Twain’s book, it’s an indictment of the dehumanizing effects of slavery and racial prejudice. Heinlein uses the tried-and-true satiric device of turning the tables to make the thing more visible, rather like Swift in GULLIVER’S TRAVELS. I’m gobsmacked that anyone could -not- see this. But then, there are people who don’t realize HUCKLEBERRY FINN is antislavery. Granted FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD isn’t as good as Twain’s masterpiece, but then what is?

    (*) In fact, fanatical idealism is a far greater contributor to the sum of human misery than, say, greed or cruelty or lust for power. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, a bandit can be satiated, a sadist can get tired, but an idealist will go on torturing and killing because his conscience demands it of him.

    Comment by S.M. Stirling — March 11, 2014 @ 5:07 am

  2. The Empress Catherine the Great corresponded with the French philosophe Voltaire (IIRC) in the 18th century, mainly about government and social organization. She was a noted “enlightened despot” and took an interest in contemporary ideas about such things.

    At one point he complained to her that she wasn’t making some reforms they’d both agreed were desirable, mostly bettering the lot of the serfs who made up most of the Russian population. He reminded her that she was Tsarina, and could proclaim whatever laws she pleased.

    She replied: “You write on paper. I have to write on living human skin, which is infinitely more ticklish and twitchy.”

    Her point being that Voltaire could afford to speculate about ideal situations. She — though theoretically an absolute monarch — had to work with real human beings, real groups and constituencies with their own interests and viewpoints. There were always unintended consequences and an unlimited capacity for blowback if she stepped on the wrong toes. Not to mention the power of sheer obstructionism and inefficiency.

    A little earlier when Frederick the Great died he was found to have a chest of documents, all decrees and laws he’d proclaimed. Each was neatly annotated: “This decree never carried out or obeyed to the best of my knowledge.”

    Unlike Farnham or my in-law with the BAR or the pilot of the spaceship in THE COLD EQUATIONS (who were all basically just stuck with their larger context, the way most people are) Catherine could make some “big decisions”.

    She could decide whether or not to go to war with Turkey and who should be appointed governor of New Russia (southern Ukraine) or which courtier she would go to bed with or which nobleman would get what office.

    But she couldn’t, for instance, decide to abolish serfdom. If she’d tried, she’d have been deposed and probably dead within a couple of months because while a Tsar could put down one noble or group of nobles, collectively they were more powerful than he. And probably there would be another serf uprising like Pugachev’s, put down by the new Tsar in an ocean of blood and horror.

    Catherine knew all about deposing Tsars; she’d led the plot which deposed and killed her husband and predecessor on the throne, in conjunction with a junta of noblemen who were officers in the Imperial Guard. The most she could do was have her successor educated in the most modern and enlightened principles… and he found himself almost as powerless as her to do the things he really wanted. It took another couple of generations and Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War before a Tsar was able to force through emancipation, though most occupants of the throne thought that serfdom had to go.

    To take an other example, Abraham Lincoln hated slavery: as he once summed it up succinctly, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

    When the South bolted the Union and the war started, radicals in his party told him that God had given him the opportunity to strike down slavery immediately.

    He replied: “I hope to have God on my side. But I -must- have Kentucky.”

    Precipitate action would have thrown the Border states over to the Confederates, who would then have won the war and continued slavery indefinitely.

    He issued the Emancipation Proclamation only when the time was ripe — and then only covering the areas under Confederate control. Slaves in the Union states had to wait several more years. But he actually -did- destroy slavery, by working within the possible courses of action open to him. He didn’t make a self-referential gesture and wreck everything.

    That’s why politics is called “the art of the possible”.

    So the reason the Powers That Be don’t do “Obviously necessary thing I want” or “throw all their resources into doing the thing I consider most important” is not that they’re cackling bad guys, usually.

    The reason is that being tied on the top of the machine doesn’t mean you can make it do whatever you want. Everyone who makes decisions is constantly bombarded with competing demands, and has to prioritize and negotiate and twist arms and slap backs and pay off X, Y and Z. A politician who ignores this is going to be a short-termer and a failure; a CEO who does so will be out on their ass in short order. Things have an enormous inertia.

    There are a few despots — Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot — who have so absolute a grasp on power that they can upend and shatter their societies simply by giving orders. That is not really a good precedent, I’d say.

    Comment by S.M. Stirling — March 11, 2014 @ 2:12 pm

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