Some Light and a Lot of Heat

That is the way of it, when a great question falls into the public debate, or at least, that’s how it will look to the outsider. The extremes on either side bash away energetically at each other, the op-eds and the commentaries are reeled out like so many furiously unfurled rolls of toilet paper, until either the issue is resolved definitively, or everyone is quite tired of it — or some great event crashes in unexpectedly and renders the whole thing absolutely moot.

In the meanwhile, the consensus one way or the other on the great matter tends to come from the great, conflicted, indecisive middle ground. It comes slowly, little by little; and those great heroic leaps forward beloved of the op-ed pages and the history books have usually had the way cleared for them by decades of discussion, as the great undecided middle thrashes out the matter, goaded by the needle-pricks of activists, cranks and the iconoclasts.

For you see, the thing is that most humans — like most animals— are wary of change. We are innately small-c conservative. Most of us prefer the known, the predictable, the well-established, because that is what we feel best-equipped to handle in our daily lives. Not that we are against change of any sort— it’s just that we prefer to have thought about it for a while, before leaping in. We would like to have considered all the foreseeable angles and alternatives, to have mapped out some of the possible divergences; in other words, to have some sort of idea on what we can expect to come out of these changes, and what course we might have to take, depending.

This advance thought-work takes time, however impatient those activists and visionaries may be; and it simply has to be accomplished if success is to attend on their great cause. There can be no shortcuts, no imposition by judicial or political fiat; unless a great majority of the center is at least tentatively convinced of the utility of it (or that no great and lasting harm will come).

Consider two historic quests in America; for powered flight, and for female suffrage. By the time the Wright brothers and their successors made the airplane a reality, there had been more than a century of experimentation, dreaming, fantasies and discussion about being able to fly. Once the Montgolfier brothers proved it could be done with balloons in 1783, the idea that men could fly like birds was in play as a future reality, and the tinkerers and fantasist went to town, and the rest of the common lump of humanity began to get used to the notion. Not quite a decade after the Montgolfiers’ flight over Paris, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women sets the groundwork for considering a wider degree of political, economic and social freedom for women.

As shocked and horrified as the traditionalists were by the whole notion of women being able to vote, control their own income and their own bodies — the ideas were in play for the next hundred and thirty years. Just as the possibilities of flight were chewed over and digested, so was the advancement of rights and protections for women; in little incremental steps, so most thoughtful people could see that yes, that one little change didn’t mean the end of the world, it worked pretty well, and most everyone was happy with it, or at least not terribly unhappy.

I have often thought that the popularity of science — or speculative — fiction is our way of doing that think-work, in advance of the possibility; of getting ourselves used to the many entrancing possibilities: how would we cope, for example, should we encounter a telepathic race, or one that has three sexes (or only one), or even the vast dark and empty stretches of space between the stars. We need to think about the great matters of our time, and to talk about them reasonably, even when the debate is heated, even angry on the fringes.
In the center, we must still be — as my favorite news commentary site has it — engaged in civil, well-reasoned discourse. The radical fringes start the conversation; spur it on, frame the opposing sides, but eventually consensus comes out of the middle. Out of that ongoing discussion is a final resolution arrived at, eventually — here, and other websites and round-tables, over dinner tables and around the water coolers, as messy and indecisive and incremental as it usually seems to be on those days when we are all pounding away. It will be a bit, but good work can never be hurried. And it never hurts to be civil and reasoned.

(This is an old archive post of mine, from … oh, dear, 2005. I have about ten years of archived writings here and there, and just for a lark, and because I am probably the only person able to thread my way through the various sites – I am collecting the best of them up and putting them out as e-books. Well, what the heck, practically everyone else has done an e-book or so. A collection of travel and historical essays is here, and some of the accounts of my eccentric family is here. I actually wound up as a professional scribbler because readers so enjoyed the family essays. I made a book of them, which is probably very close to being unavailable because of me moving on from the original publisher … but the original posts are still available for your enjoyment and delectation. And it really makes my Amazon Author page look well-populated, too!)

12 thoughts on “Some Light and a Lot of Heat”

  1. Sgt – As I read this it seemed to me that you were talking about 2 different types of change – scientific and political.

    I will make the premise that both types are almost always effected by a minority.

    For good or bad.

    I don’t believe there is some vast “middle group” of people contemplating a particular issue – for years perhaps – before a consensus is made.

    Most major political changes – like tectonic shifts in the earth, have a cataclysmic event that serves as the impetus.

    Look at our American Revolution – only a third of the population actively supported it. A third were loyal to the Crown, and a third didn’t care one way of the other.

    In all intellectual honesty in this example I can’t point to a “cataclysmic event” for the impetus of the American Revolution other than a third were tired of paying taxes to Britain.

    Look at WW2 – where the world as we know it today became defined. I would point to the Great Depression as the main impetus (followed by a vindictive Britain and France demanding reparations from an already destitute and reeling Germany – giving a Hitler)

    WW1 gave us the Bolsheviks – a distinct minority. And the Germans were kind enough to shelter Vladimir and, like introducing a bad virus, spiriting him back into Russia ;-)

    As far as scientific advancements they are almost always done by a minority – but admittedly they minority works off the labors of those before them.

    Some time ago I started to read this book by Tony Robbins – and at 900 pages I thought that brevity was the soul of wit (seems someone else said that at one time) – but the one thing I got out of in in re: change – was that people won’t change unless their goal is more powerful than what they are currently comfortable in.

    Want to lose a lot of weight but spend a lot of meals at fast food places? Then one has to decide whether the vision of losing weight is more powerful than the pleasure of the Big Macs. That is why most people “can’t” change – unless the doctor is telling them they’ll have a heart attack unless they lose 60 lbs.

    In other words they need a strong impetus.

    As far as the “vast middle” making long, deliberations – listening to all the arguments – then making an informed and deliberate decision – well, unless something is pushing them – I can’t subscribe to that…

  2. > followed by a vindictive Britain and France demanding reparations from an already destitute and reeling Germany – giving a Hitler

    The problem with the post-World War I settlement was that it wasn’t punitive enough. After all, which choice would make you more angry:

    a) Having your major cities flattened, your country partitioned into four zones of foreign occupation (including one to the French) for 15-60 years, 10 million of your citizens moving west as refugees, your industry destroyed or uprooted, your industrial secrets taken, your army, navy, and air force abolished, your leaders shot, hung, or imprisoned, the permanent ethnic cleansing of regions that had majority populations of your ethnicity for a millenium, your women reduced to prostitutes, and your country’s name a byword for evil for all time.
    b) Having to pay $785,000,000,000 for destroying the industrial heartlands of two of your neighbors whose neutrality you violated after you’d spent 4 years sitting on top of them, losing two small slices of territory, having your military capped at 100,000 men, no tanks, no warships, no subs, the exile of your titular leader to a neighboring country, the demilitarization of one frontier district, partial foreign occupation for up to three years, and having to admit you caused the war that destroyed Western civilization.

    If you chose a, you chose correctly.

  3. Joseph – I think in your description you describe WW2 much more than WW1 – surely in WW1 the causes were far murkier than WW2. And while Germany was destitute, I don’t believe any of her cities were damaged. The war raged through France and Belgium for 4 years but I don’t believe the lines ever got to Germany.

    One of the best descriptions of the Weimar era and the beginning of Hitler – came from Wm Manchester, in his Churchill biography, The Last Lion .

    Despite the Great Depression every time the struggling Weimar Republic was getting on its feet the French demanded more reparations.

    And this helped bring Hitler. It was astounding the chances Britain and France had to eliminate him – easily through 1936 – starting with his march into the Rhineland.

    It was said that Britain lost an entire generation of young men in that war – as did the French. In one battle – the Somme (1915?) 50,000 men were killed – in one day

    Britain and France didn’t have the stomach to confront Hitler when it would have been easy. The German Army had Generals who were counting on their intervention during the Rhineland crisis – ready to overthrow him – but of course that never came.

    Now post WW2 – there was at least 1 in the Roosevelt Administration who wanted to permanently dismember Germany – can’t say that I could fault his reasons.

  4. I’m reading the Lions of Summer about the causes of WW1. The French played a more active role than is usually accepted. Their ambassador in Russia was actively seeking war. I have always blamed the Kaiser but maybe he had some help in the French Foreign Office.

  5. I think Sgt. Mom is referring to a process that is not a conscious procedure but more like flock behavior where the middle masses slowly come to grips with an idea or theory. It is like the premise of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of sci-fi books, where group actions/decisions occur naturally causing change without a real leader directing the process.

    It also occurs to me that the cultural effect of Star Trek highlights this process. Such as the naming of the Shuttle Enterprise after the ship on Star Trek. It is an organic permeation of ideas or concepts. Very scary when you consider who is directing the current cultural content of entertainment and media today.

  6. Michael – From the little I have read on the origins of the First World War I believe all sides thought it would be over soon. Sort of like our American Civil war, where during the first battle of Mananas the people from Washington rode out in their carriages to view it as spectators.

    If you want to see an entertaining movie on the aviation aspect and the American Lafayette Escadrille try to get a copy of the movie Flyboys – some of the characters are composites of the actual characters but yes, the squadron did have an actual pet lion as their mascot.

    The tactics, aircraft are pretty realistic and you must remember parachutes weren’t used until late in the war. If your plane caught fire you were issued a revolver to end your life with less suffering.

    From what I read of the post on the Kaiser vacationing in Norway (from Lex?) he wasn’t that smart a fellow. Or at least politically attuned.

    Jeff The Bobcat: In reading this I too was thinking of some theory about group consensus – akin to game theory? About how “The Group” usually makes the “right” decision (rebuttal these days I am sure most would agree)

  7. Getting back to my original point … which was that big steps in anything, either a technoligical development, or a social movement, have to be thought about first, and considered by the general public, so they can get used to the idea … at least, it has to be on their horizon, in some form or other – even just as speculative fiction.

    The ability to fly – there were people fantasizing and thinking about that possibility all during the 19th century, and when it finally came to be a reality, the general public took to it it, fairly enthusiastically, because all that ‘think work’ had been done. I was thinking of my grandmother, who was born in the late 1890s. She would have been eleven or twelve when the Wright brothers began messing about with heavier than air powered flight, in her twenties when passenger air travel became a reality, fourties when her son became B-17 air crew, and twenty years after that, she flew to Europe herself! She was raised on a farm, where horses were the draft animals. If all that ‘think work’ about the possibilities of heavier than air flight hadn’t been done, would those of her generation accepted the whole concept so easily?

  8. Sgt – I will give it another shot. I don’t think your question is an “either / or” – but economics plays a huge part – and need. All of the big companies thought that a microprocessor-based computer for the home was a waste of time to develop – I have a friend who worked for Xerox in the late 70s and tried to get them interested.

    Steve Wozniak tried to get HP interested. It took several small companies to bring them to the public and one, Radio Shack, specialized in a small PC for the business, the TRS-80. Hard to believe today isn’t it?

    There was no gestation period for the public to “mull it over” – it filled a need the big companies couldn’t see and people bought them.

    Flying – you have to remember the idea was around as far back as the 15th century with da Vinci.
    People accepted it more because it became something they could afford – although I am sure there was a segment that had to be convinced of its utility.

    Some years ago I was able to get a ride in an old mail plane – forget the manufacturer – but it was an open cockpit biplane – the pilot sat in the rear compartment and the front compartment held up to 2 passengers. That was the beginning of public travel I think.

    This Boeing – – really started to bridge the mail plane to the airliner. But they were expensive to fly.

    (take a look at this beauty – it just flew a promotion video with the 787 – oldest and newest Boeing airliners

    Some things – the public has to see a reason for (bad sentence) but if they see it in action and can see how it fills their need, they’ll adopt it.

    And a few products – or ideas – came out with the idea of solving 1 need and the public found it for another, not even considered by the developer.

    Coca-Cola, developed in the mid-1800s, was originally marketed as a nerve tonic, stimulant, and headache remedy.

    Some social changes I believe have been mulled over by society. I think of how much change I have seen since the early 60s with civil rights.

    As far as the italics, they left with the dogs ;-)

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