Thursday, February 5

Back to the Future

The future never happened. At least, it never happened the way prophets, pundits, and futurists of Revolutionary Modernity--and their ilk--said it would. Reality took an altogether different path--as you might well have expected it would have.

Nevertheless, we are quite familiar with what the future should have looked like according to their convoluted vision. From old science fiction reruns, tattered comic book collections, juvenile penny-dreadfuls, and yellowed pulp magazines, we are actually able to recognize the profile of their future--a future that never was.

A distant gleaming skyline soars up from the fruited plains through plump cumulous clouds to sleek zeppelin docks and mad neon spires. Roads of crystal unfold between the towers like an origami trick. They are crossed and recrossed by thousands of satiny silver vehicles like choreographed beads of running mercury. The air above the city crackles with remote radio-laser signals. It is simultaneously thick with ships: giant delta wing-liners, dragonfly-like gyro-copters, electro-magneto aerial cars, and vast hovering helium blimps. Searchlights sweep surreally across the horizon illuminating streamlined buildings ringed with bright radiator flanges.

Thronging the broad plazas of pristine marble below are the happy citizens of this jaunty utopia. Orderly and alert, their bright eyes are aglow with enthusiasm for their floodlit avenues, their shark-fin robots, their care-free conveniences, and their elysian prosperity. They all look wise and strong, striking a uniform pose of youthful health, energy, and cooperation.

It is a heroic world of fluted aluminum, slipstream chrome, lustrous lucite, burnished bronze, and the unfettered dreams of progress. Every scene, every nook and cranny, every high flung portal of this great technological trophy seems to generate eager bursts of raw industrial achievement. It is a marvelous world, fit for Flash Gordon, Tom Swift, Buck Rogers, and Dave Dashaway--humming with a kind of totalitarian optimism. It is a triumph of science like a triumph of will--imagined by Horatio Alger, Hugo Gernsbach, and H.G. Wells or perhaps Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Herman Goering. Its brave new world has been deliberately engineered to be very nearly perfect--or something frighteningly close to that.

But of course, it never happened.

Thankfully, that imagined future collapsed under the weight of its own fantastical illusions--and its coercive predilections. It is only remembered nostalgically as a kind of architecture of broken dreams. Today, its vast vision of a compulsory utopia is widely recognized as little more than an immaculate deception.

Aside from late night cable TV reruns, its relics survive only on the most disreputable fringes of our culture. We might find hints of it in a few depressing strips of the urban landscape beneath the crumbling layers of neglect and the dust of decrepitude. It might be seen along highways pock-marked with rocket-ship motif transient motels, alcoa-sheathed mattress wholesalers, and fifth-run drive-in movie theaters bedecked with gaudy geometric marquees. From the mad scientist deco-style of the Thirties to the stripped down ultra-pragmatism of the Fifties, the future that never quite happened was born of a pretentious spirit of modernism that is laughably passé today. Were it not so relentlessly tacky, perhaps it could even be considered quaint.

We might also find hints of the future that never happened in the institutionalized hallmarks of our relentlessly industrial age--from the do-it-all muti-national corporation to the solve-any-problem government bureaucracy, from the social engineering of our neighborhood public schools to the genetic engineering of our health maintenance organizations. The same defunct science fiction ideology that conjured up handy ray-guns, personal jet shoes, and atomic food pills also manufactured millennial dreams of a technologically edenic, worry-free society.

Only a handful of idealists remain who insist on entertaining such fabulous notions. And their days are numbered. Their eternally-idealistic organizations have become mere relics, inevitably passing into oblivion like the B-movies and the space operas from which they have sprung. They are twenty first century dinosaurs, doomed to extinction.

George Jetson and Fred Flintstone are the same person.

The utopian vision of the future that never happened was of course spawned by a peculiar and innovative worldview. It was a system of thought rooted in the superiority--even the supremacy--of science over every other discipline or concern. A fantastic world could be expected in the days just ahead because the sovereign prerogative of science would, no doubt, make short work of curing every cultural ill, correcting every irrational thought, and subverting every cantankerous disturbance. There was no obstacle too great, no objection too considerable, and no resistance too substantial to restrain the onward and upward march of the scientific evolution of human society.

That kind of unswerving confidence in the good providence of industry and technology gave its adherents a conceited algebraic certainty about their forecasts and predictions. As H.G. Wells, one of the leading lights of such sanguine futurism, asserted: “For some of us moderns, who have been touched with the spirit of science, prophesying is almost a habit of mind. Science is very largely analysis aimed at forecasting. The test of any scientific law is our verification of its anticipations. The scientific training develops the idea that whatever is going to happen is really here now--if only one could see it. And when one is taken by surprise, the tendency is not to say with the untrained man, ‘Now, who’d ha’ thought it?’ but ‘Now, what was it we overlooked?’ Everything that has ever existed or that will ever exist is here--for anyone who has eyes to see. But some of it demands eyes of superhuman penetration.”

For Wells, and all those who shared his Flash Gordon optimism, science was a kind of new secular predestination. It not only affirmed what could be, it confirmed what would be. And more, it discerned what should be.

Scientific experts were thus not only the caretakers of the future, they were the guardians of Truth. They were a kind of superhuman elite--not at all unlike Plato’s philosopher-kings--who ruled the untrained with a firm but beneficent hand in order to realize the high ideals of progress.

That meant that science had to necessarily be intermingled with ideology. It had to become an instrument of social transformation. It had to be harnessed with the idealism of the far-sighted elite. It had to wielded by the cognoscenti as a tool for the preordained task of human and cultural engineering. It had to be politicized.

Thus, in the early days of the twentieth century, science and millenarian politics were woven together into a crazy quilt of idealism, fanaticism, and ambition. It enabled a few powerful men and movements to believe the unbelievable, conceive the inconceivable, and imagine the unimaginable. According to philosopher Eric Voegelin, “This potent admixture of ideas and ideals became a kind of le dernier cri--the ideological craze of a new orthodoxy and the starry-eyed bludgeon of a new plutocracy.”

And until the foundations of that plutocracy crumbled under the weight of two world wars and a myriad of other twentieth century horrors, the future that never happened was sustained by it as the future that almost was.

Moscow History Conference

I am in Moscow, Idaho. It's not exactly the first place folks think of when they are planning a trip in February. But for the past nine years I have found myself here for an annual history conference that I do with my friends Steve Wilkins and Douglas Wilson. As you can tell from the sketch above, this year the conference focuses on the failures of Revolutionary Modernity. I will be speaking tonight on Marx, tomorrow on Nietzsche, and Saturday on Lenin--some of the most horrific monsters Western Civilization has ever produced. Not exactly fun stuff! But, important.

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