Variations | This and then that

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IN economics, tradeoffs are among the primary considerations. You give, you get. But, as the Rolling Stones would put it, you can’t always get what you want.

By contrast, in politics, many of us assume that we can always get what we want. That we can “solve problems once and for all.” That we can end this and that. “Elect me/put me in charge and I will do such and such, and the results will be exactly what we want them to be.” Unforeseen and/or unintended consequences of popular measures are seldom considered, if at all. No one bothers to review the history of legislation and public policies — including outright repression — that goes all the way back 4,000 years ago. In every election, many of us cling to the belief — hope — that choosing the “right” candidates (“smart,” “educated,” “tough,” “no-nonsense,” “sincere,” “virtuous”) ought to do the trick. And if not, maybe we should, through legislation, tweak the system of government, create and/or abolish certain government offices, “empower” certain agencies, implement “reforms,” ensure “more transparency,” etc. etc.


Again, we do all that without looking back at the actual results of similar measures in the past.

Gore Vidal once called America “the United States of Amnesia.” But it’s not just the U.S. Not a lot of things in this world are new, to paraphrase Amity Shlaes; they are just forgotten.

Like this couplet from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784):

How small of all that human hearts endure

that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

* * *

Another reason to read history, said another wise man, George F. Will, “is to know how little has generally been known about what was coming next.”

Experts, now and then, have been making predictions about the future. Author Dan Gardner noted that a now-defunct magazine, Brill’s Content, once compared the predictions of famous American pundits with a chimpanzee called Chippy who made his guesses by choosing flash cards. “Chippy consistently matched or beat the best in the business.”

I prefer reading science fiction to the experts’ latest terrifying (and they are almost always terrifying) predictions about the future. And today, amid the seemingly never ending and worsening Covid-19 crisis, and the lockdowns now in effect in so many jurisdictions and countries around the world, I am amazed that an American writer born in 1904 published a work of fiction in 1944 that appears to be increasingly relevant in our internet era.

I first read Clifford Simak’s “Huddling Place” in senior high school. There are nine other short stories in his “great short fiction” collection, but “Huddling Place” impressed me the most.

Set in 2117, it is about a world where not a lot of people leave their homes.

“For what need was there to go anywhere? It all was here. By simply twirling a dial one could talk face to face with anyone one wished, could go, by sense, if not in body, anywhere one wished. Could attend the theatre or hear a concert or browse in a library half-way around the world. Could transact any business one might need to transact without rising from one’s chair.”

People have forsaken the cities, “the huddling places,” and now live in country homes where they “get fresh air and elbow room and a graciousness in life that communal existence, in its strictest sense, never had given them. And here was the end result. A quiet living. A peace that could only come with good things. The sort of life that men had yearned for years to have. A manorial existence, based on old family homes and leisurely acres, with atomics [nuclear energy] supplying power and robots in place of serfs.”

Our hero is a famous brain surgeon. One of his best friends is Mars’ greatest philosopher. Yes. Life exists on Mars. And earthlings and Martians are buddies.

Our hero’s philosopher-friend is on the verge of discovering a new concept of philosophy. “A concept…that we cannot do without. A concept that will remake the solar system, that will put mankind ahead a hundred thousand years in the space of two generations. A new direction of purpose that will aim towards a goal we heretofore had not suspected, had not even known existed. A brand new truth…. One that never before had occurred to anyone.”

But the Martian philosopher has to undergo brain surgery, and our hero, an expert in the Martian brain, is the only one who can perform the operation — in Mars. This means that he has to leave his house where has lived and worked for the past 30 years. There’s only one “problem.” Travel terrifies him. He has agoraphobia. “The morbid dread of being in the midst of open spaces.”

The best science fiction stories don’t make “predictions” about the future. But they can make us think about our current situation.

Today, a growings number of people can do a lot of things — shop, study, work, workout, consult a doctor or even socialize — in the comfort of their homes. All we need is an internet connection and a laptop/smart phone, and life can pretty much go on.

“Man had forsaken the teeming cities, the huddling places…. He had done with the old foes and the ancient fears that kept him around the common camp fire, had left behind the hobgoblins that had walked with him from the caves. And yet — and yet —

“Here was another huddling place. Not a huddling place for one’s body, but one’s mind. A psychological campfire that still held a man within the circle of its light.”

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