July 2003
2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration.

Editorial License: July Fourth, The Day the Earth Stood Still
by Ernest Lilley - Editor/SFRevu

Just so you don't have to dig it out: While I don't think you can make a case for right v evil, I do believe in the peaceful coexistence of nations, even if you need to enforce it with military might...or giant robots. The probability that governments will be, to some degree, corrupt does not mean you shouldn't have them...but it does mean you need to watch them closely. As for giant robot policemen, we need to balance the benefits of Gorts with the troubles you get with Terminators - Ern

Recently we got a Netflix membership so that we can take advantage of the range of their collection and share classic movies that mean a lot to us with friends on our own movie night. I wanted to find something classic in SF to show, knowing that some of my friends had missed the education I got watching TV late at night in NJ as a child. My first inclination was to pull out the stops and see Forbidden Planet in all it's technocolor glory, but instead I found myself picking out a subtler film, and one without color...The Day The Earth Stood Still.

You probably know the film already, but on the off chance that you don't, here it is in a nutshell: The galactic brotherhood of planets sends a representative to earth to tell us to knock off the violence and accept the rule of galactic law. Klatu, the alien, is a human, though tall, thin, and quiet, and his backup is a robot that melts tanks with what we assume is a laser eye. The whole thing is very low key, though played for suspense.

Watching the film is a study in American history...and current events. There's a scene where two doctors are discussing the lifespan of Klatu, who has just healed himself of a gunshot wound with a little salve (nanotech?). He claims that where he comes from the normal life span is about 135 years, which doesn't seem like all that much to us, if you're careful, but seems to amaze the doctors...who light up cigarettes while they discuss it. Actually, I'd bet that was intentional irony, though it makes it more amusing to pretend it wasn't. The Aliens have decided that since Earth has discovered both rocketry and atomic energy, we're about to burst out into the void sowing havoc and disturbing the peace. Considering how environmentalists shut down the NERVA program, that winds up being genuinely ironic, as opposed to the smoking dig.

What really struck me though was the echo of the current American foriegn policy in Klatu's speech at the end of the movie:

"The Universe grows smaller every day -- and the threat of aggression by any group -- anywhere -- can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all -- or no one is secure . . . This does not mean giving up any freedom except the freedom to act irresponsibly...Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."

If George W. Bush is Klatu, does that make Donald Rumsfeld "The Robot"? Well, no.

We appear to be standing on the brink of an era of American hegemony, and if you happen not to be an American, I'm sure that you're somewhat nervous about it. Believe me, as an American, I'm pretty nervous about it too. No matter what you may think, we're a determinedly lassiez faire and isolationist bunch, and as long as we get to set off our Chinese invented fireworks and eat our German hot dogs, preferably covered with French's mustard, we'd be more than happy to mind our own business and let the rest of the world go its merry way.

This year, more than usual, freedom is on our minds. America has taken it on itself to unseat a despot and proclaim itself the agent of freedom in Iraq, following its adventure in Afghanistan and despite the reluctance of the UN to endorse its actions. Soon, most likely, it will embark on peacekeeping operations in Liberia, this time at the behest of the UN, and without much of anything to gain for itself, except perhaps a clearer conscience or a dangerous smugness.  Liberia, by the way, was founded by freed American slaves in the early 1800s, to the distress, as is not uncommon, of the indigenous people already there.

The more we know about the actual events of the past, the less noble they appear, and the more hypocritical we feel espousing such ideals as those grandly stated in the American Declaration of Independence: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Science Fiction is no stranger in this land of moral quagmire. For many, the first bit of serious thinking about the reality of those ideals comes from reading a passage in Heinlein's classic juvenile, Starship Troopers. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it deliberately misconstrues Thomas Jefferson's meaning...which is to exhort individuals to reject the limitation of these conditions by external authority, e.g. a monarch, and to assert our intent to secure them for ourselves against whatever adversity we might encounter. It does so to make the point that these conditions will not be obtained without struggle or sacrifice, and if it gets readers thinking that's a start...but it takes some cheap shots to do it.

Of course, he also wrote that "An armed society is a polite society." which make me think that he had never been to Afghanistan or Iraq, where personal arms are the rule rather than the exception, and while I cannot tell you whether this predisposition to personal firepower results in good manners, it certainly does not seem to promote either personal safety or the general welfare.

When we look at the behavior of Americans and the securing of freedom, we come face to face with a considerable gap between what we say and what we do. Such a gap is inevitable, I'm afraid, because there is no tendency for things to arrange themselves neatly along such lines and considerable force must be applied to provide a condition under which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are even moderately within the grasp of anyone, though I concede that the mere "pursuit" of happiness is unalienable in the sense that I cannot be stopped from trying. Prop me up in front of a firing squad and I expect I'll still try to think of something to make myself feel better about my lot...for a little while.

But of hypocrisy and the attempts by one group to assert control over another, I encourage you to read what Neal Stephenson says in his excellent work: The Diamond Age. He also provides and an engaging examination of the rights of the individual, the nature of government, and the role of AIs in childrearing. But of hypocrisy, an I'm working from memory here, he points out that it became a sin during the late 20th Century, when moral relativists had thrown in the towel on absolute sin and needed something to be critical about. It is inevitable that anyone who assumes a "moral" position will be found guilty of hypocrisy sooner or later. The more useful question is to what end they have strayed from their advertised intent, and how it reveals their actual goals.

The irony of freedom is that its a bounded condition. Unless someone sets limits, the pursuit of happiness gets bogged down in trying keep other peoples pursuit from getting too close for comfort.

From Starship Troopers: "Ah, yes, the "unalienable rights." Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What "right" to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What "right" to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of "right"? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man's right is "unalienable"? And is it "right"? As to liberty, the heroes who signed the great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.

"'The third "right"?--the "pursuit of happiness"? It is indeed unalienable but it is not a right; it is simply a universal condition which tyrants cannot take away nor patriots restore. Cast me into a dungeon, burn me at the stake, crown me king of kings, I can "pursue happiness" as long as my brain lives--but neither gods nor saints, wise men nor subtle drugs, can insure that I will catch it."

2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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