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Almost the End of the World

January 31st, 2012 Posted in The Artful Life

This weekend I read Daniel J. Flynn’s wonderful piece on Ray Bradbury in The American Conservative. I hope my friends who are: a) not American, b) not conservative, or c) none of the above won’t be turned off by the journal title, and I hope my friends who are solidly both won’t think they know what’s coming, because the essay, like Bradbury’s work, is, as Flynn writes of Farenheit 451, “…less about right-left than about smart-stupid.”

It’s a remarkable piece, laden with insights into the workings of Bradbury’s “blue-collar intellectual” mind. Flynn also evinces a nice sense for the well-turned phrase, as in this gem about Bradbury’s break-out work, Farenheit 451:

“A book about books is a novel way to get booklovers to love your novel…”

An observation of Flynn’s that has me thinking is this comparison of Bradbury to two well-known (and dreadful to read) science-fiction utopians:

“For H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy, utopia was the far future. Bradbury looks in the other direction. He sets his wayback machine to Green Town, America circa 1920.”

In one of those serendipitous occurrences that are the sources of significant epiphanies (rarely), delusions of wisdom (more often), and occasions for thinking to oneself: “Huh, that’s kinda cool” (most common), soon after reading the piece on Bradbury, I noticed a libertarian holding forth about how the various Republican candidates are short-shrifting the great benefits of space travel.

And now, a brief interlude, so you can follow the trail of the synaptic firings that led me (and you, because apparently you have nothing better to do) here. I remember seeing, years agp, Louis Farrakhan interviewed on a respectable nightly news show. Farrakhan almost seemed reasonable, and even made it into the home stretch looking like a thoughtful, slightly quirky man who believes in spiritual discipline and an orderly personal life and bowties.

But then the interviewer asked him about the spaceships.

You could see a quiver in Farrakhan’s serene smile, and he almost avoided the temptation, but of course he couldn’t, because Louis Farrakhan is batshit crazy. So he began talking about spaceships and aliens and you realized, if you didn’t know it already, that if the thuggery and apostate pseudo-Islam and Jew-hating wasn’t enough to earn the Nation of Islam permanent ridicule by every thinking person, the fact that they elect to be ruled by a certifiable lunatic ought to be.

I get the same feeling whenever some of my libertarian friends start going on about space travel and having their brains frozen until all disease can be conquered.

End of interlude.

The point is, I’m cogitating now on this juxtaposition between forward-looking and nostalgic futurists. I think the critical factor is utopianism. For example, standard political pablum like: “I believe America’s best years are ahead of us” makes me roll my eyes, because it rejects a fundamental truth about humans, which is that we form tribes and ravage one another whenever we get the chance, which means it’s an absolute miracle, every year that some semblance of rule of law and limited government in opposition to tribal majoritarianism survives, and its unlikely to persist, especially when we get all moon-eyed over demagogues who say crap like “I believe America’s best years are ahead of us.”

I’m suspicious of forward-looking utopians, because they either have a messianic view of politics or economics (Ronald Reagan will be reincarnated; technology will outrun human fallibility), or because they are secretly iron-fisted totalitarians, itching for the authority to make everyone behave the way he ought. The same is true of backward-looking utopians, people like the followers of arch-Calvinist Doug Phillips (himself a crass commercialist).

Let’s face it — I have a deep, abiding dislike for anyone who thinks we can Tower-of-Babel ourselves to heaven on earth.

So I find myself with an affinity for Bradbury, who cautions us to ask what we are forsaking when we race so quickly away from what we have known, in pursuit of what we think we know. There’s a humility in that stance, I think, which can serve us all well.