Friday, October 27, 2017

It's the lies that make you want to kill yourself

"You can't crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that's precisely what our society is doing. Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can't, he prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. Right? In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn't any. Not from intellectual excellence, he hasn't any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That's the power structure he's part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.
What drives people crazy is trying to live outside reality. Reality is terrible. It can kill you. [...] But it's the lies, the evasion of reality, that drive you crazy. It's the lies that make you want to kill yourself."

Ursula K. Le Guin - The Dispossessed


"The machines are willing to divulge to any curious Kesh such details of scientific theory or historical fact as might be sought. The point is that the Kesh simply aren't interested. Their world of myth, ritual, and song, and the slow turning of the seasons, satisfies them. [...] Some readers are repelled by the somnolence of the Kesh and by their renunciation of ambition; but many are charmed and inspired (although Le Guin herself seems, at times, to be wryly ambivalent). [...] the admirers of the Kesh are so emblematic - so coextensive, in fact - with radical environmentalism [...] In fact the primitivist vision is a recurrent one, and is strictly in the Western tradition. The assumption that such thinking is a natural and unique concomitant of leftist (or "progressive") sentiments is utterly false."

Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, from Higher Superstition,
(citing Le Guin's Always Coming Home in their discussion of shallow fads and Apocalyptic Luddism among environmentalists)


Higher Superstition is a book from 1994 which should probably be obligatory reading for any Western college student. It addresses the roots of much of the insanity we find today in snowflake-riddled academia, the intersection of postmodernism with the self-serving political oratory to which it lent an air of faux-intellectual respectability. Though I hardly knew it (I might be forgiven, being eleven at the time) the notion that you can make your own reality if only you shout long and loud enough was apparently already infiltrating universities, and the rot seems to have started from the top down.

I've never read Always Coming Home, which is actually kind of weird given my somewhat intemperate consumption of Le Guin's SF novels. Gross and Levitt, as well, qualify her with "the talented Le Guin has our best wishes" before tearing into those who would emulate her fictional Kesh. Never having read the book, I nonetheless chuckled in recognition at their mention of the author's wry ambivalence.

On the flip-side, I'm currently re-reading The Dispossessed, which I'd call her best work. *

It's easy to love or hate Le Guin, given her characters' predilection for declamatory speeches and the often contrived social situations in which they manage to land. Really now, you just happen to find yourself on the empty tundra, sharing a small tent with an insta-bake trans-sexual? What a coinky-dink, tee-hee! However, she's also talented enough to remain readable even when over-indulging, in direct contrast to, oh, I don't know, just off the top of my head... Ayn Rand**. And, in contrast to Rand's fanatical, reactionary single-mindedness, Le Guin comes across in most of her writing as simply too self-aware to fall into outright proselytism. Unlike her fans.

Though she's easily identified with every facet of left-wing politics (socialism, feminism, environmentalism, multiculturalism, kumbayatic Oriental mysticism, what-have-you) that wry ambivalence, a finger constantly tracing the other side of the coin, consistently crops up just when you expect her to get on her soapbox. Her introversion pamphlet contains some scathing asides on the intellectual limitation of isolation. Her nominally female-led race of simians nonetheless holds males up as spiritual leaders, dreaming the big dreams. Her rambling tale of mystical resistance to oppressive technocracy ends up bemoaning a member of the murderous technocratic secret police.

Most importantly, her anarchist Utopian tract The Dispossessed spends quite a few chapters detailing the stifling, stultifying stagnation of mob rule. Kinda hard not to feel for the young schoolboy Shevek as he's shouted down and publicly shamed by his teacher for the terrifyingly unegalitarian crime of talking about interesting things, and it's worth noting this system of childhood indoctrination seems more or less the lynchpin of establishing an Odonian society in the first place: beating "egoizing" out of them while they're young.
Not a practice conducive to ongoing intellectual progress, and the author damn well knows it.
Although the speech opening this post comes from a relatively minor character barely qualifying as a hero's helper, it nonetheless carries the moralizing heft of the standard SF hero's mentor's pedantic monologue on society's failures - and it's directed at Le Guin's own ambiguous anarchist Utopia! More specifically, it's directed at people. Not capitalists or socialists but the average naked ape, because political discourse often views things backwardly. It's not power structures which create powermongering, but the other way around. Homo sapiens shapes its environment, and ours is the world such apes make, a lynch-mob projection of human nature.

Therein lies the tragic flaw of modern "progressive" movements. As soon as they become a badge by which to hold oneself morally superior to others, they become tribal identities, power structures, weaponized public opinion by which the cowardly average human mind seeks to rule one's fellows. No wonder a California yuppie's "I'm a feminist" echoes so closely the self-righteousness of a backwoods Alabama hick's "ah'm a Chreeshtchun" because both cases represent the tyranny of the majority. They're a regressive primitivism, the bleating of the herd, tribal solidarity seeking to blunt better minds by enforcing strict, fanatical adherence to established doctrine.

Ursula Le Guin, for all her hope and support for left-wing politics, was painfully aware of this, even while writing a story for ex-hippies in the mid- '70s. It can't be an accident that Shevek's task toward the end of the book is not defeating the planet of archists but coming home to reform his own revolutionary movement, to keep it from backsliding into counter-revolutionary control schemes. Denying the ever-present threat of human mediocrity, attempting to evade reality, is insane, and suicidal. Any mass movement will be perverted by its own mass appeal. The many shadows of god yet stalk our marketplace.

*The Left Hand of Darkness was good but over-rated, for obvious political reasons. The Word for World is Forest comes closest. Solitude is amazing and in a league of its own 'cuz I said so. (Shut up, sorcerers.)

** This is John Galt speaking.
This is still John Galt... still speaking. You'd best settle in.

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