Sunday, 26 September 2010

"Shall I Raise Her Banner?"

Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?  - The Queen of Sheba riding to meet Solomon, from a fresco in Gondar, Ethiopia - public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.The Council chapter of Killer-Kate has sped unexpectedly to a conclusion - it seems that now the action is picking up, this first draft can carry on a way further without a revision. Perhaps all the way to the end, which would be best, since then I'll know exactly what raw material I have to work with at every stage. But a little way further at least. The Rising is here. War is here, and reckoning, and a deadly rush for peace before all peace goes down in flame.

It is the homeward stretch and the great surge of the tale, and I am here at last. They say that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I wonder how far that will prove true for me, too, though I am only telling of war and not living it?

It has been a strange chapter and a stranger synthesis of ideas. I'm not sure there isn't a lie - a lie subtle and almost cruel - in the end result, that none of my characters are capable of seeing in their newfound resolution. Ah well, they have sold it to themselves, and if it proves false they will no doubt feel it buckle. But it will bear some thinking on by me.

If people believe their great hero when she says that she is only the banner-carrier, and she inspirits them by showing that the hero hymned in the songs could only possibly be all of them together - how much does it matter that they can only believe it because she, personally, is their great hero and told them so?

This may or may not matter in the story. I'm pretty convinced it matters in the world outside my window.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

They Don't Know Jack

With the Vigilance Committee in the East End: A Suspicious Character - Illustrated London News 1888 - public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
In the morning paper, some hit-and-run text opinionator made this killer point which I have only heard about thirty million times this year:

"Sure, most Muslims aren't terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims..."

Wherefore Muslims shouldn't get upset if non-Muslims look at them funny - or maybe do a little bit more. This is speciously plausible enough, that even plenty of otherwise smart people I know seem to find it conclusive.

So because I've run out of patience this morning, here is another argument of the same logical form:

"Sure, most white males aren't serial killers, but most serial killers are white males."

More than this, the bet that a given serial killer will turn out to be a white male remains a disproportionately good bet to make in this country. Therefore, both the literal statement and the unstated implications of each proposition are true in exactly the same way.

Nonetheless, if Jamila in the street starts giving me the hairy eyeball on the strength of my abnormal propensity to imitate Jack the Ripper, then I shall feel fully justified in ripping into her arguments with the keen blade of my SCOOOOOOORN! Because it will plainly be the toot she is talking.

This implies, necessarily, that she has an equal right to lay on with the fool-flayer if our positions are reversed.

Excuse me, Mr Opinionator. I feel one of my funny turns coming on.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Fix Is Out

On John Scalzi's excellent blog Whatever, commenter Dave is obligingly and productively wrong on the Internet:

"...why would anyone in Michigan vote against the party trying to jump-start the economy in favor of the people who deride government intervention in the apparent belief that the economy should be left to fix itself?"

This is such a usefully pithy expression of a very common plaint, that upon reading it I was struck with unexpected insight.

"Fix the economy." Surely only a dumb or malign person wouldn't want to do that? Even if I have no confidence in government intervention whatsoever, shouldn't I want to fix things by making the government and its cronies stop digging? Shouldn't I try to do my own personal bit, if I have systemic reasons for distrusting our now-dominant institutions?

Well, yes - partly, and sort of kind of. But the truth is, while I object to bad economic conditions as much as the next wolf-warder, I don't want to fix the economy at all.

Because when Dave (and, I think, most people across the political spectrum) talk about fixing the economy, they show thereby that they think of it as something like a machine, which can and must be serviced by expert engineers during its occasional and inevitable breakdowns. Another Dave on the political Right has even gone so far as to suggest that British society itself is a broken machine, which badly needs him and his crew to reconstruct it! And as long as we accept the metaphor, the response is actually a sensible and spirited one.

But even the economy is not much like a machine. It is only a subset of society, which is a set of social relations between people. When the relations between all the people in a population are considered merely as the components of a machine for achieving whatever it is that the machine-handlers are after, then we are thinking in terms either of a very unattractive society or a very inefficient machine.

So I don't, intuitively, think of the economy in mechanistic terms. This is an intuition which has taken me a long time to come by - the policy wonk and the SFnal engineering geek in me both have a natural tendency to think in terms of design and art. Still, I think I'm mostly cured by now.

Once one gets as far as thinking of the economy, not as a machine for producing output, but as a bunch of people choosing to do stuff among themselves - then the "We need to fix the economy!" cri du coeur suddenly acquires a very different ring to it.

Because we have just gone from comparing intervention with fixing a broken machine, to something more like fixing a football game or an election. That is not the sort of intervention that usually works out in favour of the punters.

I would like to un-fix the economy! I would like to yank the magnets out of the bent bankers' roulette-wheels, short out the power to the self-stimulating bureaucrats' printing-presses, and chuck a monkey-wrench into the special interest cartels' legislative sausage-machine. Since these all lie somewhat beyond my modest powers, mostly I just get to grumble, and seek out the most honest games in town where I have any choice at all.

But I think this explains why full-spectrum liberals like me on the one hand, and progressives and conservative paternalists on the other, so often seem to be talking past one another and shaking their heads at each other's unfathomable idiocy, as per Dave's quoted comment and a million others like it everywhere.

It isn't idiocy on either side.* It's just that we're working from such violently clashing metaphors for what an economy is, that it's almost impossible for one of us to state any proposition about it without sounding either imbecilic or wicked to the other. Unpacking the implicit bits of the metaphors might be a start in narrowing down the reality of the disagreement. I wonder what the next step would be?

* Especially not mine, obviously.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

"All Measures Always, Kate."

The Wedding Dance in a Barn, by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) - public domain, via Wikimedia Commons For the second and I hope final time, I've just finished the concluding chapter of the Wassail arc in Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland, after a mostly fallow summer. This summer consisted mostly of various non-writing activities and gaddings about, all of it worthwhile, but all of it with the dread of chapter-completion lurking miserably in the back of the mind. The dread turned out to be justified, since the intended ending was all wrong. When I finally did the deed, I realized that it started the next arc in the easy way and not the true way, and that I would incur a good deal of punishment for this in the course of attempting to write the Rising arc without bashing my brains out against the nearest convenient wall.

So: the true ending as I see it is now provided. This leaves my protagonists finally reconciled to things they've been struggling with or against all their lives, and with a prospect of honest fellowship and happiness they've never known.

Which, being who they are, they must and will now push back into the fire - and hope besides hope that it will come out again, glowing.

Because one good answer to the forgiveness of unpayable debts, is freely to give away more than ever was asked or was due, in some coin in which one finds oneself presently richer.

The coming Council chapter needs to be terrible, not cosy or softened by helpful circumstance, if wonderful things are to come of it. I wish my backbrain had noticed this in a more helpful way over the past couple of months, but hey. There is going to be a lot of back-ripple into existing sections as I write this part, too: it's one of the bits that defines how much of my Fairfields setup is and isn't essential to the line of the story.

But for this night and this chapter's end... I will leave my heroic old villains dancing.

Friday, 3 September 2010

From Each According to Their Heart-Strings

By upbringing and by conviction, I am an individualist and proud of it. But the word 'individualist' has acquired a nasty taint of selfishness and conceit, by association with that sort of self-styled 'rugged individualist' who, not content with letting everybody go to the devil in their own way, stands ever ready to assist them along that road of all roads, and will gladly brag of this manly virtue from arsehole to breakfast time.

This brag needs calling. A true rugged individualist, who goes through life caring only for one individual, is almost as far from sincere individualism as it is mathematically possible to be. There are at least seven billion individuals whose interests he is blatantly discounting, and seven billion to one against is lousy odds in my book. He might as well call himself a socialist for single-mindedly promoting his golf club, a conservative for zealously protecting his rare edition of the Marquis de Sade, or a Green for being nice to his bull terrier. An atom or two of the right stuff is present in each instance, but it won't stretch far enough to deserve the breath it takes to claim it.

It's all about me is not the mantra of the individualist. We already have a word for that belief: it is called solipsism. If somebody believes that the rest of the world really exists independently of them, and behaves as far as possible as if it doesn't matter anyway, then so much the worse for them. From where I'm standing - as a dues-paying member of the Rest of the World - if it walks like a solipsist and quacks like a solipsist, then for all practical purposes it might just as well be a solipsist. Conservatives and classical liberals who consider this a bit harsh are invited to consider it in the light of the ever-useful Doctrine of Revealed Preferences.

The consistent individualist cries, not It's all about me, but It's all up to me! Which is a motto much less comfortable, if more exhilarating, and far too frequently something worth crying about.

"From each according to his ability, to each according to their needs," is a vile philosophy of government, because both ability and needs are determined by a third party, who has the ability to make everybody else satisfy their peculiar and oft-perverted needs. I am far from convinced that it is an ignoble philosophy of self-government. When that judgement is made by each according to their own ability, it strikes me as a merely natural and honourable consequence of taking one's own and other people's individuality seriously. Only it is not the sort of judgement that can, or may, ever be made for another.

My favourite wording of this rule is, unsurprisingly, not a traditional Marxist one. It is, more surprisingly, due to that arch-collectivist, somewhat misanthropic, ultra-Green radical feminist and unsurpassed proponent of the High Fantastic Slapstick, Sheri S Tepper - one of those brilliantly wrongheaded curmudgeons and unrepentant Individuals whom her mirror-enemy G K Chesterton would have instantly recognized and, on his better days, celebrated with a skill unmatched. Saith Tepper, and sez I:

"To the weak, succour. To the strong, burdens."

And the strong we shall know, and become, by their burdens freely chosen and borne. The cosmos has no work fairer nor more rugged to offer.