So there I was at Chicon 7, attending a panel called “Human or Robot: Is Human Spaceflight Necessary?” with Ben Bova. Bova was the moderator, and there were no other panelists beside the two of us. (There were more of us scheduled, but none of them showed. I assume they were hung over.) The panel was quite interesting, and everyone involved clearly held passionate opinions about the issue. I even joked that that was what was best about it; the panelists have less work to do when the audience members are talking amongst themselves. Primarily, we were discussing whether humans would ever colonize space or terraform Mars, and if so, on what timeline that would happen.
For the record, my position on that issue can be boiled down to a handful of points:
- The optics of sending humans to colonize/terraform/research Mars without the ability to send them home are almost impossible. The only society to effectively send manned missions to parts unknown with no hope of return is the Society of Jesus.
- The complexity of the ecosystems necessary to sustain human life is vast and nigh-infinite, and is easier to engineer in the controlled space of an orbital colony or generation ship than it is an extant ecosystem. Charlie Stross has written about this at length.
- While it is true that a human geologist can get more brainwork done in an afternoon than a Mars rover can in a day, rovers are cheaper and don’t require nearly the daily upkeep. Half of what the astronauts on the space station do is life-supportive housekeeping. Sending a human means sending a unique set of problem-solving capabilities, yes. But the bandwidth for those capabilities is equally if not more likely to be absorbed by life-support as research, and even simple stresses cause significant deleterious impact to the prefrontal cortex. The solution to this problem is not to send humans and robots, but to send more robots.
- Space is not the Oregon Trail. No, really. It isn’t. There will not be buffalo for you to hunt along the way. There will not be rivers you can gather water from. There will not be trading posts. The lifestyle of space exploration and colonization is one of scarcity, not abundance. If someone designed a long-haul space mission game in the spirit of Oregon Trail, it would be the most boring game ever, because winning would mean that nothing whatsoever had happened along the way. So, please, let’s ditch the Manifest Destiny rhtetoric when we talk about space, and recognize it for the bullshit it is. We humans have no “primal urge” to fill a niche. (Even saying so sounds a little dirty.) Just because humans have filled every nook and cranny of our native planet doesn’t mean we should do the same to another one. And just because we’ve ruined our own planet with our selfishness is no excuse for trying again elsewhere. When your irresponsible teenager makes a stupid mistake and crashes the family car, you don’t give him another set of keys. You ground him. When he clutters up his bedroom and then whines about how he would just be neater if he had more space, you don’t buy a bigger house — you tell him to clean his fucking room, already. We should figure out how to save this planet before exporting our problems to another one. Because by the time we figure out how to leave this one, it will already be too late.
For the most part, everyone involved was well-behaved and mannerly. Except for that one fascist in the front row.
I have this thing I tell non-fan, non-academic people about my experiences with both. I’ve spent most of my time in school in one way or another, and I’ve been seriously involved in fan activities like conventions for almost seven years. One thing I’ve noticed: sarcastic know-it-alls at school sit in the back row, and sarcastic know-it-alls at conventions sit in the front.
Case in point, this guy sitting in the front row at our panel, who early on talked about how he actually worked for NASA as an independent contractor, building and retailing a special device that helps astronauts test their bone density after prolonged missions. I have no idea if this is true or not, but I suspect it isn’t. If so, I hope NASA has prepared themselves for some sensitivity training. Why? Because during a relatively rare lull in the conversation, he said: “You know, about ninety percent of the people on this planet are the parasite class. They’re a drain on all the resources. We wouldn’t have to leave this planet if we could figure out what to do with them.”
Now, I paraphrase, but I do remember my own words with better clarity, because I remember seeing the Philip J. Fry meme dancing before my eyes if I said them: “Are you for serious, are are you just trolling?”
“Oh, I am serious,” he said.
“I’ve heard people talk that way before,” Mr. Bova said, “in Nazi Germany.”
“They just didn’t do it right,” Volkssturmman Dummkopf said.
The audience booed. Outright. They were visibly and audibly uncomfortable, staring at this guy with a mixture of horror, contempt, and pity. (For my part, I pitied the woman sitting next to him. Her gaze was fixed to her lap, and I don’t think she made eye contact with anyone during the whole panel.)
“I don’t think you should talk about this, any more,” I said. “And if you do want to talk about it, you should leave.” I pointed at the door.
Then the backpedaling started. He explained that he wasn’t really serious, and he only meant his remarks in “a Dilbert kind of way.” I was unaware until this point that there was a Dilbert kind of way, but maybe this guy was referring to Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ history of misogyny, notably his habit of exposing heretofore-secret beliefs, realizing they make him sound like an asshole, and then taking it all back and pretending it was a joke. There are certain obvious parallels.
Since this wasn’t my panel to moderate, I didn’t order him to leave. But I would have, if it had been. That’s a moderator’s privilege, as far as I’m concerned. Moreover, I subscribe to the Marion Ravenwood Rule of Community Management: I would rather let it burn than let the Nazis have it. So be warned, future convention-going fascists: if I’m moderating, I will straight-up stop the panel until you leave. I won’t let anybody else on the panel answer any questions, and I won’t call on anyone in the audience. I will Make A Scene. You will be centre stage.
Why make this vow? Because fandom is a third space, one infused by a festival atmosphere. For some folks, events like Worldcon (or Comic Con, or A/X, or PAX, or any convention anywhere) are their personal Mardi Gras. They paid good money for a membership, and with it they purchased the right to feel safe. They did not purchase the obligation to listen to your scary Lovecraftian rants. Or your Ayn Rand-y sermons. Or your bullshit in general. Especially when it derails the entire conversation, thus making it All About You, which is probably exactly what you wanted in the first place.
Speaking of which, the exact same thing happened at the next panel I attended.
I wish I were joking. But the very next panel I attended was called “Inner Space vs. Outer Space,” and after the topic of genetic engineering came up, some guy started talking about how eugenics really do work, and how if we could just get the right people to do the job, it wouldn’t be unethical. At all. Because some German scientists did it with foxes, once. And made friendly foxes.
There are a couple of things wrong with this. First, eugenics is a method of total selection. That’s how it was practised in South Carolina, anyway. This is different from breeding programs, which is what this guy was talking about — probably in a Dr. Strangelove kind of way. Breeding programs can generate good results, it’s true — but in a Best in Show kind of way, not in a Dune kind of way. And even then, too much of a good breeding program can lead things like hip dysplasia. Or the Habsburg lip.
Arguments aside, this is the takeaway: Talking about how awesome the “science” of eugenics is makes you sound like a racist, a classist, and a misogynist. It is not in any way endearing, charming, or attractive. It does not make people think you are clever, it makes them think you are crazy. It makes them wish that you would leave.
It’s true that there was once a link between the “Futurist” movement and the Fascist movement. That time is past. People who are actually concerned about the future — people whose solutions for contemporary challenges don’t involve genocide — want nothing to do with that way of thinking. It’s true that our world is afflicted with parasites. You’re just wrong about who they are.
7 thoughts on “Fascists and Futurism”
Robin Hanson has written about the obstacles that undiscriminating contrarians create for people near them (such as discriminating science fiction authors): http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/06/against_free_th.html
Gosh … I am speechless …
(well, not actually, but very nearly … at first I was about to stand up for freedom of thought and all that … but then I countered that thought with
a) a person is allowed to have any thoughts they want, however their “right” to speak is not a requirement for them to upset others.
b) as you say, conventions are a shared safe space (or should be) and so there are social norms and expectations … what would be fine at a swingers party in Florida or a republican convention in Miami may not be acceptable at a Worldcon …
c) some people claim “ah but fans are socially disabled, or at least some are, and don’t realise what is socially acceptable …” … if you’re blind, you may need help to traverse a room … if you’re missing your legs you may need help with climbing stairs … if your disability is mental (aspergers/autism etc.) and you know about it, then ask for help … don’t think you can get away with being an idiot by saying “oh, I’m aspie, you have to accept that I’m an asshole … ” (not that I’m claiming the eugenics or fascist guys have said this, just that that is a very usual next step to the argument … )
Guy sounds like a turd – but it also seems like conventions are a bit like Disneyland in that rather than argue with someone about why their position is wrong, dissent isn’t tolerated. Not so much a meeting of “new/old challenging ideas” – but a rigorous enforcement of orthodoxy.
As long as an idiot is *polite* and remains so, discussion of bad ideas in a rational way is more likely to change minds than simply banishing them without discussion.
Socrates (and I’m not saying this guy was that smart) often would propose outlandish ideas just to see how good the arguments were against those outlandish ideas. The Athenians wouldn’t argue with him – they were all about making him go away.
Actually, our conversation was full of dissent and disagreement. There were plenty of people in that audience who disagreed politely without advocating the systematic elimination of “the parasite class.” They raised their hands, waited their turns, and listened carefully to each other. They were, by my estimation, an ideal audience.
And for the record, what this individual proposed was not outlandish, because genocide is not outlandish. It has a well-established track record in human history. That track record is why it’s not very funny. Moreover, this individual did not situate his remarks in the context of satire or humour. He tried to apply that context retroactively, when he realized that the people surrounding him didn’t share his views. He showed his ass, and then he tried to cover it. Nothing more, nothing less.
How do you think we can talk about (and act on) the intentional modification of human genetics without going down the slippery slope to fascist outcomes? I have a couple of relatively non-debilitating birth defects that I kind of wish someone could have eliminated without making me into their vision of the perfect Aryan. And extending that into the far future subject of the panel you discussed above: could/should humans be modified for long term space travel at some point in the distant future, or should that be the exclusive role of robots forever?
I think the focus should be less on “how do we discuss this without falling down the slippery slope?” and more on “how can we conduct human genetic research in the most ethical way possible?” Bioethics is an active field with a broad and vigorous discourse, and these discussions are happening within that field. If we truly want to have this discussion, we have to familiarize ourselves with that discourse.
Because really, it’s entirely possible to have this conversation without slipping into fascism. It is. Really. Researchers and doctors do it every single day. They’ve managed to map the genome, research embryonic stem cells, and recommend gene therapy without so much as mentioning the eradication of other human beings. “First, do no harm,” applies just as equally in this instance, and most doctors (and most people of science, period) know it. Even the humble interns who clean research animals’ cages have to do an ethics course. If we want to have this conversation, we have to understand the ethics that science is working from, and ethical procedures that are already in place to avoid that slippery slope altogether.
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