Archive for November, 2011

I interrupted my excursion through 1940’s science fiction several entries back because I kept feeling there was something important going on in Robert Heinlein’s short novel Waldo that I hadn’t yet come to grips with. And though I still don’t have the complete answer, I’ve become convinced that the underlying dynamic of that story is to be found in the nexus between higher knowledge and elite control.

There’s a strange tension in Waldo, which I believe arises from the fact that Heinlein was confident of his own ability to cope with a universe in which nothing is certain and anything is possible but seriously doubted whether the average person could entertain such a belief without compromising their sanity.

He therefore performed a kind of fictional bait-and-switch, starting off with hints of chaos on the loose but then swapping in a conclusion where Chaos is easily reduced to Order to suit the preferences of a nobody-in-particular like Waldo. And he cut the story short before this double-shuffle could be exposed as the con job it was.

Moreover, it wasn’t just higher knowledge that Heinlein felt most people were unable to handle, but difficult facts or decisions of any kind. Over and over, his stories were constructed as arguments for the necessity of elite control.

This was not a widely-held position at the time. The period from roughly 1915 to 1970 was dominated by a struggle to eliminate the old 19th century class system, and the populist impulse was particularly strong in the late 1930’s and early 40’s. But there were always a few people who, like Heinlein, had little faith in self-government and pinned their hopes on the emergence of a new elite based on merit rather than heredity.

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I finished the previous entry with an expression of surprise at the idea that the first half of the 20th century might have produced an outbreak of higher knowledge as world-changing as those of the first millennium BC and the Renaissance. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes — and I’m realizing that my doubts were based on nothing but my own prejudices.

One of those prejudices involves my dislike of the kind of American exceptionalism which proclaims that there has never been a time or place in the history of the world to equal the contemporary United States. I’ve always hated that attitude, and part of what drew me to the idea of historical cycles in the first place was a desire to demonstrate that whatever is happening here and now has happened many times before.

But setting the boosterism aside, there really was a great historical turning-point in the early 20th century that was centered in the United States. This was not due to any special American virtue, but was because the U.S. — like Classical Greece or Renaissance Europe — had the advantage of being on the periphery of the civilized world and therefore free of the most extreme forms of elite domination.

A more serious source of my doubts, however, was the fact that 20th century culture offers nothing to equal either the grandeur of the great philosophical and religious formulations of the ancient world or the brilliance of the art and literature of early modern Europe. The best American popular culture — whether pulp fiction, Hollywood films, or jazz — displayed an impressive blend of energy and grace, but it also suffered from a relative shallowness and superficiality.

I wrestled with that dilemma with for a week — until it finally struck me that this apparent shallowness was, as they say, not a bug but a feature.

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