Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Modernism vs. Romanticism

SF writer David Brin has been running a multi-part essay on his blog about the conflict of modernism (which he defines "an over-arching dream of ambitiously making a better world through human creativity and will") against romanticism (reverence for stability, the status quo, or even the past). I like his use of those terms, and as a political moderate he rightly criticizes both the Right and the Left for their romantic leanings.

I am, of course, much further to the left than Brin, but I recognize the contrast as well. I think that it is one of the oft-ignored "other axes" to the political specturm. Economics and social issues are the two major axes, of course. There is also the authority-anarchy axis that the libertarians love to point out. But this modernism-romaticism axis I think is a crucial one. Modernism was the essential distilled philosophy of the Enlightenment, and by extention the foundation of American political society.

It used to be that self-described progressives were not only social progressives but scientific progressives; i.e., modernists. Then the Left turned away from science. Scientists now fear reporting even minor discoveries concerning race or gender for fear of accusations of racism and sexism from the Left. The promise of genetic engineering to help provide nutrition for the millions suffering from malnutrition may not be fulfilled because of leftist anti-GM hysteria in Europe.

Conservatives are almost by definition romanticists. However, their suppression of scientific progress ususally comes with a statement about God's intentions or corporate-sponsored propaganda.

In the twenty-first century, with the convergence of the information and biotech revolutions, the divide between modernism and romanticism is going to grow much deeper. You will have romantic liberals (most of the current left), modernist liberals (Hughes's "democratic transhumanists" and technoprogressives), romantic conservatives (most of the current right), and modernist conservatives (the Extropians and classical transhumanists). This doesn't even get into the issue of economic versus social liberalism and conservatism, or globalism versus nationalism. The future is going to be complicated.

But really, when hasn't it been?

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7 comments:

  1. Oh yeah, and blogger comments don't seem to have a limit on how long a comment can be! And if they do, it's obviously not as bad as haloscan! Woohoo!

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  2. I would caution saying that "the left" has abandoned science. True, some leftists extremists have, but many leftists haven't. Most even.

    Also, while I don't keep up on it as well as you do, isn't there a possibility that some leftists are calling out amazing new science discoveries as sexist and racist because maybe they actually are?

    Finally, I think that even leftists who are against the promise of genetic engineering (to use the example you did) are more so because of how the new technologies can and more than likely will be used by those in power to further oppress and marginalize those whithout power.

    So in that sense I don't think they are being "romantic" in that they strive for the status quo. More accurately, it seems to me that they feel that a status quo response is that "technology will improve therefore human relations will improve". Technology actually has a pretty bad track record of this. Not to blame it, but it in itself hasn't ended racism and sexism, human organization around the issues has.

    I am not writing this to beat my point into the ground, because I do think it's pointless for people on the left to resist technological gains simply because of some archaic fear, but I do think many leftists (myself included) think that the bigger issue with malnutrition is political and not technological, and therefor even the biggest leap in GM may not solve anything until the social situation is altered.

    Just my two.

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  3. Also, while I don't keep up on it as well as you do, isn't there a possibility that some leftists are calling out amazing new science discoveries as sexist and racist because maybe they actually are?How can a discovery be racist or sexist? This is exactly my point. It is not the science that would be racist or sexist, it is how people would use it.

    Can you think of a real peer-reviewed and accepted scientific discovery that is racist or sexist in and of itself? I can't. The closest I can think of are crack-pot theories like black-inferiority in The Bell Curve, which were not science at all!

    What I speak of is the idea that it is wrong to even ask the question of if there are differences between the sexes or between different ethnic populations out of fear that the evidence might say there are. I am talking about the idea that if there are (gasp!) differences between men and women then these differences automatically imply a male-dominant heirarchy.

    As an example, let's pretend that the old men-are-logical women-are-emotional stereotype were true (and the evidence does not support this one, it is an example only). The current left would for the most part start a fuss that the scientists are clearly trying to prove men are superior. A "modernist" left (and one with a sense of irony) would argue that women are superior in emotional capacity and they won't hold men's mental handicap against them!

    Differences in potential for a large group say nothing about differences among individuals (the variation of which is almost always greater than between the populations). Any given man, in the example above, could be an idiot and highly emotional and any given woman could be a genius and cold as ice.

    Differences in potential definitely say nothing about policy towards them. In fact, they highlight the need for a public policy that encourages equality of consideration because, as the saying goes, everyone's different!

    So in that sense I don't think they are being "romantic" in that they strive for the status quo. More accurately, it seems to me that they feel that a status quo response is that "technology will improve therefore human relations will improve". Technology actually has a pretty bad track record of this. Not to blame it, but it in itself hasn't ended racism and sexism, human organization around the issues has.Perhaps the single most emancipating development for women was technological, and in fact "transhuman" enhancement technology: birth control pills.

    And nobody argues that the technology will solve the social problems. The idea that "technology will improve and therefore human relations will imporve" is clearly ridiculous. It is a strawman argument, and while it may be the status quo in some circles, it is not what people like Brin or myself would argue.

    But technology has a great track record of solving non-social problems. Dying from nearly every disease on the planet, for instance. Life expectancy has grown from around 30 to around 80. We're instantly talking to each other across 300 miles using lightning in a string.

    The left, rather than treating technology as something seperate, needs to make it an integral part of their work. Instead of focusing only on improving "human relationships," the left should focus on improving human lives. Social issues are only one part of that.

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  4. I think that you will be hard pressed to find people on the left (certainly not many of them) who think that men and women are biologically identical, or even that the races are for that matter.

    I just think that most leftists would look more at what the role society plays in the male hiearchy, and more importantly what can be done about it.

    Also, while the technology of birth control greatly advanced women's roles, it did not force a change in culture to give women the equality they demanded. It was actually the women themselves organizing and changing the culture that did that.

    But I see what you are saying about embracing both tech and social movement, I just think that you are blowing it a little out of proportion.

    All the women's studies classes I ever took (especially the psychological ones) talked about the bio differences, also noting how microscopic they really are, and how there could be just as much variance inter-sex as there are intra-sex (I hope I am using those terms right!)

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  5. No, you're right on, and that was what I was saying, too. It's like race. Yes, there are genetic differences between races; even a cursory look will demonstrate that fact. But the amount of variation between, say, two white people can be far greater than any given white person and any given black person. Same with sex.

    And maybe I do blow it out of proportion. Then again, maybe you underestimate the usefulness of science to achieve social ends. It's really just a matter of perspective, and wholly dependent on individual situations. I don't think science will bring about peace or end discrimination. I do think that science could solve environmental problems, and possibly "get around" social problems to help with things like famine. But it's not a cure-all, and I don't want to make it sound like building some magic machine is the answer.

    The important thing is to not fear science. Our brains are the only things that distinguish us from the rest of the animals. Let's not squander that.

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  6. Ryan, I just wanted to say how awesome it is that we can have good discussions about things we seem to agree one!

    Keep it up potna!

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