The Post-Apocalyptic Book Club – Week 2 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Redux

Sharon July 14th, 2008

Hi Everyone – This will be the last week of the PA Book Club on Heinlein’s TMIAHM.  Next week we’ll be discussing Niven and Pournelle’s  _Lucifer’s Hammer_, and in August we’ll move on to _Life as We Knew It_ by Susan Beth Pfeiffer and _The Gate to Women’s Country_ by Sherri Tepper (who won the reader voting), so you can start getting those Inter-library Loan orders in. 

Last week we got into a fascinating discussion of revolution, and its possibilities – or lack there-of in both our present situation and in the novel.  We also talked a little bit about the idea of limits, and about family structures.  I really enjoyed the discourse that came out of this.

I thought it might be interesting to talk about the larger idea of an “apocalypse” as a subject for literary exploration.  One of the reasons I wanted to begin with Heinlein and Niven/Pournelle is that they come from two very different, but tied together periods of science fiction writing. Heinlein is a golden age author, one of the first people to bring science fiction out of the pulp era into the mainstream – and it isn’t an accident that this mainstreaming of science fiction happened shortly after World War II, and after the first uses of the atomic bomb, when it became possible to imagine a worldwide apocalypse.

Now the truth is, a true world-wide apocalypse is extremely unlikely – although lord knows, we are doing our damnedest to create one with climate change.  But I think it is important not to underestimate the sheer psychological weight of transitioning, as Heinlein did, from a world in which world-wide nuclear winter (or some similar Holocaust) was unimagined, to one in which it became possible.   It is, I think hard for those of us who grew up in the post-apocalyptically-conscious world to imagine the way that changes our thinking – I suspect I have few (probably not none, but few) readers who were old enough in 1945 to really have grasped the fact that our sense of our place in the world changed so powerfully.  Thus, for Heinlein (and often for Clark and Asimov the other most famous Golden Age writers), I think it makes a certain amount of sense that the apocalypse is always in the background, usually far less explicit than in TMIHM - instead of direct apocalypses, mostly (there are notable exceptions) the writers of this era give us apocalypses past or narrowly averted – instead of thinking about how we might go on after the disaster, they leap ahead to a distant future in which we’ve survived, or get us off one more time.  I wonder if perhaps this is because it is so hard to imagine the disaster itself striking – and so hard to shake it off.

Heinlein was 15 years younger than TS Eliot, and younger than most of the early high modernist poets (Pound, Yeats, Stevens, etc…), but I think broadly of the right age to be thought of as a modernist (more Bishop’s era though) - shaped by the first World War, and harrowed by the second.  In the study of literature, genre authors are fairly rarely thought of as part of high literary movements – I’ve often wondered what would happen if we integrated those movements, consider Pound next to Burroughs, the pulps of the 30s with the high poetry of the 30s (yes, there are some scholars who do just this).  Science fiction spends a great deal of time depicting passages like these in minute details:

What is that sound high in the air  
Murmur of maternal lamentation  
Who are those hooded hordes swarming  
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth  
Ringed by the flat horizon only  370
What is the city over the mountains  
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air  
Falling towers  
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria  
Vienna London  375

The tie between the destruction of the self and the destruction of the outer world will arise again and again, and I’m interested in the ways we imagine it, and how that imagination changes in different eras.

Pournelle and Niven, born in the 1930s, children during WWII, come from a later era – one in which science fiction was much more mainstream than when Heinlein began writing, and one in which the world of science fiction and the world of the present had surprising overlaps – both Niven and Pournelle have advised governments on terrorism, Star Wars and the real possibilities of science fiction technologies on the ground.  The lines between plausible and implausible are less clear than they were when a Heinlein story was turned down because the idea of someone going to the moon was too inconceivable. 

This is a question I’m going to be interested in as we talk about the next two books in the series – Sherri Tepper is a science fiction writer of a later era still, where as Susan Beth Pfeiffer isn’t a science fiction genre writer at all, but a young adult author.  It will be interesting to talk about the conventions of books for younger people – Heinlein wrote TMIAHM having more or less just shaken off his role as primarily a juvenile writer, barred from sex or anything too controversial.  And when Heinlein shakes something off, be it socialism (yup, he was a junior socialist in the 30s, like a lot of Americans), he shakes it off hard, reminding us that there is no more passionate advocate than a reformed whatever.

I’m curious what people think – to the extent that you’ve read books in this genre, and to the extent that my readers represent different genres, I wonder how much generation affects one’s relationship to the idea of disaster.  Born in 1972, I’m the daughter of baby boomers who grew up in the duck and cover era, and the child of Reagan’s defense shield ads and Cold warmongering.  For me the disaster was always possible.  What is it like for you?

The other subject that interests me is the question of freedom.  As I began writing this post, I came upon Kurt Cobb’s latest essay, which I think is intriguingly connected to one of the central questions that Heinlein is interested in – how do you make a livable, non-authoritarian society, particularly in a densely populated future.  One of the fascinating things about Heinlein is that he honestly seems not to think this is possible.  One of my favorite moments in the book is this one, in which Stuart proposes an alternative to democracy:

 Stu said, “Professor, I’m glad to hear that you are anxious to stop being President.”

“So? You share our comrade’s misgivings?”

“Only in part.  Having been born to wealth, stealing doesn’t fret me as much as it does him.  No, but now that Congress has taken up the matter of a constitution I intend to find time to attend sessions. I plan to nominate you for King.”

Prof looked shocked.  “Sir, if nominated, I shall repudiate it.  If elected, I shall abdicate.”

“Don’t be in a hurry.  It might be the only way to get the sort of constitution you want.  And that I want too, with about your own mild lack of enthusiasm.  You could be proclaimed King and the people would take you; we Loonies aren’t wedded to a republic.  They’d love the idea – ritual and robes and a court and all that.”


“Ja da! When the time comes, you won’t be able to refuse.  Because we need a king and there isn’t another candidate who would be accepted.  Bernardo the First, King of Luna and Emperor of the Surrounding Spaces.”

“Stuart, I must ask you to stop. I’m becoming quite ill.”

“You’ll get used to it.  I’m a royalists because I’m a democrat.  I shan’t let your reluctance thwart the idea any more than you let stealing stop you.”

“I said, “Hold it Stu.  You say you’re a royalist because you’re a democrat?”

“Of course.  A king is the people’s only protection against tyranny…especially against the worst of all tyrants, themselves.  Prof will be ideal for the job…because he does not want the job.  His only shortcoming is that he is a bachelor with no heir.  We’ll fix that.  I’m going to name you as his heir, Crown Prince.  His Royal Highness Prince Manuel de la Paz, Duke of Luna City, Admiral General of the Armed Forces and Protector of the Weak.”

 I stared.  Then buried face in hands.  “Oh, Bog!”

Besides being quite funny,  I’m fascinated by this idea that the people are, in many cases, the worst possible tyrants to themselves.  I think that’s a genuine insight, and while I agree with Heinlein about comparatively little,  I do think there’s a truth there.  Now Heinlein handles the question by treating this largely as a joke, and by the idea that there’s always another frontier out there – Heinlein thinks that most people, left to themselves, will ruin anything, and the answer is to go out to yet another unruined place in perpetuity. 

In the absence of a frontier to escape to, this becomes an urgent question, and one that I think the relocalization movement has somewhat elided (Cobb even gives us something of pass on the subject, which is kind of him, but maybe not merited) .  The truth is that if we are to live sustainably, we’re going to need strong mechanisms to enforce sustainability.  Societal and cultural pressures can do some of it.  But those cultural and societal pressures don’t honestly exist yet – and instituting them will take time.  If we are imagining a more democratic society, how do we get the democracy around to recognizing the need to do sustainable things even when they are painful and unpleasant? 

That is, the will of the people has its limits – sometimes the people are idiots.  The truth is, that without Brown v. Board of Education, integration wouldn’t have happened – most Americans were quite comfortable with segregation.  Without an autocratic order (based on constitutional principles, but we all know that Supreme Court justices can use constitutional principles to get all sorts of places) , we might not have gotten to anything but “seperate but equal” – the same could be said of the Massachusetts court decisions that legalized gay marriage.  Ultimately, the push of benign leadership is sometimes necessary to drive the people where they ought to have gotten on their own, but couldn’t. 

Now of course, we all know that autocratic leaders come in all stripes – benign, outright evil and all the blurry grey areas in between.  And yet, it is a little too easy to romanticize democracy – I’m all for it, but I don’t think that those who imply that democracy is a magic tool that gets us where we need to go in and of itself are right. 

So one of the questions that interests me in relationship to this book is whether the inevitable slight to a regulated, and (in Heinlein’s view at least) emasculated (literally in Farnham’s Freehold ;-) ), self-slavery is a likely result of any serious attempt to regulate ourselves.  I’m not so much interested in Kings here, as the ways we might regulate the tyranny of the people as we try and control ourselves?  Heinlein declines ever to consider the idea of controlling reproduction, for example – suggesting that doing so would be destructive to the very idea of freedom (and for Heinlein, freedom is largely personal – he may endorse freedom for a group, but he doesn’t seem to think that any group, other than the clan, perhaps, can hold on to it).  Is that true?  Can we have freedom and self-limitation together?  Thoughts?

Eliot, of course, plays with this question – for him, the question is in part whether it is possible for women to meaningfully self limit.  Twice we see a woman caught in a sexual bind – first there’s Lil, who is asked cruelly (and in one of the great all-time lines of poetry) “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” – she has five of course, and nearly died, but in saving her own life, she risks losing her husband.  In another, the secretary, who does not desire the caresses of the young man carbuncular, recognizes the inevitable (?) failure of resistance, and does not resist, playing with the blurry grey between date rape and thinking of England

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,  235
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,  
Endeavours to engage her in caresses  
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.  
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;  
Exploring hands encounter no defence;  240
His vanity requires no response,  
And makes a welcome of indifference.  
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all  
Enacted on this same divan or bed;  
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall  245
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)  
Bestows on final patronising kiss,  
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…  
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,  
Hardly aware of her departed lover;  250
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:  
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’  
When lovely woman stoops to folly and  
Paces about her room again, alone,  
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,  255
And puts a record on the gramophone.

For Heinlein, people can’t self regulate because self-regulation is emasculating.  For Eliot, women, at least, can’t self-regulate because men aren’t quite emasculated enough by self-regulation.  It makes, at least for an interesting contrast, and I think, a useful way of thinking about the problem of self-regulation – it only works if everyone works together.  But how, how, do we achieve that?


16 Responses to “The Post-Apocalyptic Book Club – Week 2 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Redux”

  1. karen says:

    I think freedom and self regulation are possible in a population if that population is highly educated about all the results of their actions. I mean that people need to be made aware and be afraid of dangers that a certain action can have even if the result in not right in front of them. That is the problem with climate change. The result is not an immediate cause and effect that we can see in the moment.
    If you had some pleasure in front of you (say a piece of pie) and someone told you don’t eat it because it is poison, we would have the self control to not eat it. Education is the only way. Sex is a tough one though, because it is such a basic biological urge.

  2. Jennifer says:

    What a lot to think about!

    I was born in 1971 and I remember spending most of my teen years terrified of dying; I think a big part of that was all the Reagan-era talk of world destruction. Like: not only will I die but most likely everyone and everything I love will die, too, in this horrible nuclear blast.

    When I entered college talk moved from nuclear disaster to climate disaster, and that’s still where we’re at now.

    The big difference between nuclear disaster and climate disaster, as far as I understood it, was that we (people & everything else living) have no chance of surviving a nuclear explosion but climate change is just change. Humans will still look like humans (no genetic mutations for example) but our daily lives will have to look very, very different.

    So the challenge to those of us see climate change coming is to anticipate what those new lives will/ought to look like, and prepare for that. Prepare personally, prepare our children. And also try to move our society closer to it.

  3. Rosa says:

    The funny thing is, Heinlein was *very* pro-military…which is about as externally-regulated as you can get.

    I have to think about the rest, but i wanted to talk about the post-apocalyptic stuff – do you really think it starts with WWII? Because religious apocalyptic belief seems like an important part of our history at various times. It just got scientific after Hiroshima.

    But maybe Im just suffering from the inability to imagine the paradigm shift. I’m two years younger than you, and I was raised on a steady diet of religious & SF apocalyptic stories. We read the story about the girl and the 1,000 cranes in elementary school and Alas, Babylon in middle school literature class. Oh, and the Christian apocalyptic literature and music about the Rapture was all around, too – though not as much as now, because it was before Left Behind.

    But I had gotten over it…until we invaded Iraq. I woke up one morning just after the invasion having had the *same* stupid post-apocalyptic dreams I used to have in the Reagan era.

    Now I have a worse dream – after my son was born in 2005, I started having a dream where we were trying to haul my baby and a mom who had just had quintuplets and all her kids on our bikes, along a highway full of abandoned cars, knowing somethign malignant is about to jump out at us. It’s *awful*.

  4. Jennifer says:

    Regarding your other question — alternative ways of organizing society — I read Ursula LeGuin’s books Always Coming Home and The Dispossessed at such a tender age (and so many times subsequently) that I’m unable to form an answer of my own. It’s always her worlds that I imagine as the best possible ones.

    Personally I don’t believe a country as large as this one can ever reach ecological sustainability. There’s too strong a temptation to come up with one-size-fits-all solutions. I mean, I live in the desert (Bend, Oregon) where it’s always sunny, and no one has solar power. Why not? Because houses here are built according to national standards; because they’re built by national companies who put up the same structure here as in Atlanta…


    The Dispossessed talks about self-regulation. LeGuin puts a lot of faith in the power of social disapproval/ostracism. Watch teenagers for awhile and you might agree with her : )

  5. Sharon says:

    Rosa, I think that apocalypticism is a strain of human thought – my doctoral work was on the fantasy/fear of apocalypse that was associated with the Black Death, and yes, it appears all the time in human history. But I also think that there’s a mainstreaming and spread of apocalypticism that comes with that transitional moment in human history. For example, in Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, the idea is that one can defeat death by…everyone dying. But I think the idea that the whole world could be transformed by human action – rather than divine ones – created something (or rather, several somethings) somewhat different than what came before.


  6. Texicali says:

    To some extent what I saw in Heinlein was a societal self-regulation was a somewhat absent authoritarianism. Their was the Authority, but other than selling and buying from the authority there were no rules, except those social mores which could get you placed outside. Or beaten, depending on the extent of the offense. I think that regulating sustainability can only occur within strong communities that have the social disapproval/ostracism thing going.

    For example the Amish (not to say that they are a definition of sustainable) reject certain technologies through social disapproval. Anyone can buy a car, but you will be rejected by the community. However, anyone who is willing to turn their back on their community can pursue their own desires unfettered by the social organization they were born into. Which works fine for them because they do not want anyone who does not want to follow the rules.

    However, let say that in a relocalized/apocalyptic future you live in a community that is dependent on a flow of water that moves through a canal. Everyone has barely enough if it is shared equitably. Two-thirds of the way down the canal, someone starts taking more than their share. Giving this group/family the hairy eyeball will not be enough. There will either be an authority to appeal to, or regulation will take the form of the lower one-third approaching the person/group, and might will make right. Is such a thing ideal? No, ideal would be that everyone accepts a smaller portion so that all might have.

    But what if it is more complicated? Say the family at the end is incompetent, won’t take help, and is wasting their allotment. Is it more sustainable/just to take their water and grow more for the betterment of the community (or for your own self-interest)? Or, your neighbor is growing on the hillside and won’t terrace. Do you take his land because he is destroying it through erosion? It can be quite hard to define sustainability.

    I was born in 1978, and didn’t really start paying attention until after the Soviet Union was not a real factor. We were Christian fundamentalists who believed strongly in the apocalypse and the rapture. So we didn’t much worry about it, because the apocalypse couldn’t happen until God wanted it to, and we would be gone by then. It wasn’t until the Oklahoma City bombing that I though about man made disasters, and then only to marvel at how easy it would be to cause large scale damage with what is easily available. This background has had a strong role in my continued acceptance/resignation towards what some would define as an apocalyptic event (peak oil, climate change, etc.). Except that I believe it will be caused by man, and I will live to see/experience it. Though I can be somewhat flip about the effects to others I am deeply concerned about how the larger community will react. In large part because an individually prepared person in the midst of a large metropolitan community seems less like a wise man and more like a target.

    Jennifer, I too lived in Bend. My wife and I were there for a year and a half after college. A beautiful place, not much in the way of jobs. Poverty with a view it was called. I still have family there and would love to go back, but growing things there is tough between the soil and the short growing season.

  7. Jerah says:

    Hunh. Well, I was born in 1977, so I’m squarely in the generation you’re talking about. I’m not sure that it’s my Christian upbringing (rapture, etc), my tendency to worry about things I can’t control, or my age, but I certainly have that post-apocalyptic train of thought always chugging away in the background.

    It’s certainly come more to the forefront since 9/11 and the 2003 blackout here in NYC. Those were pretty big events for all of us here, definitely proved that “business as usual” can be drastically interrupted at any moment, without warning.

    As for modes of self-regulation, that’s a tough one. I think there’s a difference between self-discipline (being able to stick to a diet, say, or pay the bills on time) and what you’re calling self-regulation (not take more than one’s share when you have the opportunity to do so). The first one can be an expression of pure self-interest (don’t want to be fat or unhealthy, don’t want the electricity cut off) and the second is more of an internalized concept of fairness.

    So I guess the question is, is there any way to get people to internalize the concept of fairness in their personal behavior? Honestly, as things are right now, I think that pretty much amounts to being raised right and/or believing in a higher power (even if that higher power is just the human collective as a spiritual concept). Give people the opportunity to advance themselves a little tiny bit (an extra turnip from the CSA bin, for example) and they probably will.

    But really, I guess, the question isn’t whether people take an extra turnip or two, it’s whether they’re ready to internalize the concept of sustainability as fairness and fairness as subset of justice. We, as a society, as a global system, would have to make some pretty big changes in the way we view fairness. We would have to reject economic “equal opportunity” as an acceptable stand-in for justice. Are people ready to turn a corner and welcome a new paradigm? I don’t know.

  8. Brad K. says:

    David Weber is author of the immensely satsifying and long-lived series based on Honor Harrington. In ‘Crown of Slaves’, a spinoff from the main story line, he also posits a constitutional monarchy for a newly-formed nation of escaped slaves.

    His basic country is perhaps based on England, perhaps on Heinlien, also a constitutional monarchy.

    Lois McMaster Bujold’s Warrior Apprentice and other stories in the Barrayar series envision an empire with the balance of power resting on a Council of Counts. Miles Vorkosigan, one main character, comments that ‘No one takes responsibility for anyone here’, that some form of feudal political organization is more satisfying.

    Almost the way we ‘belong’ to a party, or a state, or a nation. But we dilute the allegiance by never formally swearing to be held responsible to another.

    Mike Sherman’s Kris Longknife series has Earth and 600 colony planets devolve from a general UN type democracy – and Kris’ home planet organizes 80 like minded planets. And they immediately elect a king with nearly no powers while they write a constitution.

    Whether these modern SciFi writers are following in Heinlein’s footsteps, are enamored of England, or find the idea of a feudal relationship from citizen to ruler more satisfying, this choice of identifying a nation with a hereditary monarch sure seems persistent.

    And I like the idea, of creating social roles and lives aside from individual free-market capitalism. As Weber points out, a healthy constitutional monarchy can be much more democratic than a corrupt democracy. Not that I am concerned that our nation has slid through ignorance and corruption to tyrannical disassociation from the citizenry.

    And, really, how much difference is there between the people that revere the *office* of the President, as opposed to the sitting President, and those that revere their monarch?

  9. Kerr says:

    This is a bit threadrot, and I apologize for being off topic, but I just started _The Light Ages_ by Ian R. MacLeod. It’s set in a steampunk fictional Victorian England where the economy is dependent on a magical element that is pumped out of the ground, that causes pollution and sickness, and that is rapidly running out. It’s an interesting allegory so far; it’s only missing climate change.

  10. knutty knitter says:

    I’m not old enough to remember back much further than Vietnam (I’m 1958) but I have always considered war a total waste of time and effort. I think Heinlein seems to view it as a fast way to further development. There were a number of writers with that idea back then. The idea that if you had to die for something it would make it twice as important (Stranger in a Strange Land) also seems to apply.

    For myself, yes I did go through the apocalypse thing when a teenager but I eventually decided that worrying got you nowhere so just do the best you can with what you have.

    As far as democracy goes, I think that the most important thing is communication. For example, it is difficult to be corrupt in a community who knows you personally. It is easy to be corrupt when no one knows you personally. Therefore it follows that democratic structures should not contain more individuals than can readily communicate with each other and thus know whoever it is that is in charge, even if only as a friend of a friend.

    This is not to say that corruption will not happen from time to time (it will), but that such things will be aired publicly when they happen instead of being swept under the carpet. Socially this would be a killer even if nothing else was done and having lost public trust, it would be almost impossible to get that trust back in any meaningful way.

    Perhaps we should be setting up a system of smaller countries and making the UN the organization it was supposed to be. (Pie in the sky anyone?)

    Self regulation is something society, through parents, community etc teaches you. It is then up to you to behave within the accepted norms of your society or leave for a different society. If you refuse to conform, you may find yourself reviled, imprisoned etc. (and I can think of several very nasty ways of being punished) However, if you think it would improve your community to change in some way, you must be prepared for whatever they choose to throw at you and then refrain from saying “I told you so,” more than once :) Of course they might decide to kill you and be done with it which leads me back to that idea that killing will advance humanity faster than letting you live. Hmmmm….I still think that is a bad idea. Change through guilt from martyrdom is never as good as simply changing by thinking through the pro’s and cons.

    People tend to be sheep. Perhaps someday we will be educated enough and advanced enough to think at least a little for ourselves but I dunno…
    There’s a bit at the end of The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie that sums this idea up nicely (Anthony talking to Chief Inspector Battle). Perhaps there is a place for monarchy but I’d like to see it more as a transition than as a permanency. Democratic Monarchy anyone?

    I don’t think I agree with Heinlein very much but then that’s what makes life interesting. Sometimes a different perspective can totally change the way you think and challenge old viewpoints to destruction. This is where it pays to be flexible enough to change and yet still remain yourself.

    The women in The Wasteland have rendered themselves subservient which is something I could never do. I find them irritating if only because they seem thoughtless in their lives. But then, maybe they have decided that to conform is easier than to question. Not everyone is cut out to be a thinker or a rebel, and who am I to say that they should. As for freedom, that exists in your mind.

    viv in nz

  11. Hummingbird says:

    I guess I am one of the few who remembers world war II and the psychological reaction to the advent of atomic weapons. There was the sense that some Frankensteinian threshold had been crossed and we had fatally messed with mother nature (probably true) Every strange weather event was attributed to atomic testing. I was 7, but I still vividly remember going thru my parents Life magazine with page after page of large photogtraphs of Heroshima after the bomb.

    After reading the above comments, I guess that each generation has its Armageddon moment. I was teaching in a classroom during the Cuban missile crisis, and I remember everyone trying to get thru the day while anticipating instant incineration at any moment. The people living in terror of another 911 have always seemed to me to be wildly overreacting in light of these experiences.

    Probably the early humans had the same feeling during a devastating drought.

    As for the possibility of an enlightened democratic government, the American experience is not encouraging. I think there is a reason why so many books envision a breakup into much smaller entities where people know each other and issues are local. I suspect this will need to happen for government to be effective.

    I am interested in the continuing efforts of some in Vermont to secede from the union for just these reasons.

  12. Hummingbird says:

    As for thoughts about post-apocalyptic forms of government in literature (well, books, anyway), most seem to posit a strongman leader, either Good or Bad or both in Conflict, as in Stirling’s books. (I skip all the military tactics stuff, but his survival and social ideas are sometimes interesting.) He also has a woman as one of his Good leaders.

    I think some kind of strongman leadership is much more likely after a disaster as people will want someone who will save them from each other. I don’t know how to get to democracy from there without some basic stability in everyday life.

    On the other hand, we in the US have a tradition of revering the idea of democracy, and there would likely be a current of public opinion that wanted this to be present in any government that emerged.

  13. Rosa says:

    Local communities can have terribly abusive entrenched hierarchies, too – the national ills like slavery, domestic abuse, land speculation, all took place at the local level.

    I actually think the reason most SF writers write about hierarchical systems is that democracy and consensus are boring. They’re slow (that’s part of why the US tries to export a form of democracy with no checks and balances – stuff gets implemented faster). There are a lot of rules – consensus groups have their own intricate set, parliaments have parliamentary rules, traditional tribal councils had/have a whole intricate set of rules everybody knew about what could be said when and who could say it. In a big group where you have representational democracy, it can feel really distant and corporate.

    Really exercising democracy and living in egalitarian relationships is a skill, and it’s one that most of us don’t get growing up (my home was a tiny kingship growing up, and my school was not designed to teach us to treat each other well) so we have to spend a lot of time and energy learnign and practicing it.

    Social pressure is important – but it can fall into pure faddism (“you’re not *really* one of us because you don’t dress by our standards”) or be used to manipulate the group for the benefit of just a few.

  14. Hummingbird says:

    I think Rosa is right on! Non literary types like me need to remember that literature is not always about ideas. Sometimes it is about telling a good story. I can’t imagine wading through parliamentary debates or committee meetings in a novel.

  15. Sarah says:

    Hmmm…I seem to be one of the youngest people here. I was born in 1984, and I never really had the sense of impending apocalypse growing up. Most of the major conflicts going on at that time were far enough away that I could get away with not noticing them. 9/11 was late enough that it mostly shaped my political identity in that it made me distrustful of our own government rather than afraid of terrorists.

  16. So great article. I enjoyed reading it.

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