Facts and fictions

Charles Krauthammer, a partisan hack on whom one can almost always count for a party line masquerading as an analytical conclusion,* recently wrote this op-ed piece on Social Security reform in which he suggests that the date that Bush gave in his State of the Union address for the bankruptcy of the system -- 2042 -- is a "fiction," and that the actual date of the system's crisis is 2018, when the "pay-as-you-go system starts paying out more (in Social Security benefits) than goes in (in payroll taxes)" due to demographic shifts and adjustments in the level of benefits provided. Now, this claim may be true and it may not be true; whether you think that it is probably says more about your feeling about how government programs should be run (whether they should try to break even, or whether they should seek to utilize and redistribute overall social resources so as to approximate a certain kind of society over the long term) than it does about any of the actual figures involved.**

But what I found most interesting in the piece is the metaphorical structure that Krauthammer deploys in an effort to get his point across. He calls the piece "2042: A Fiscal Odyssey," an obvious allusion to the classic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey -- except that he downplays those aspects of the film that try to provide as accurate a forecast of the human future in space as Kubrick and Clarke could manage at the time (which is why, for example, there are no cool sound effects, since there would be no sound in a vacuum, and why the journey to Jupiter takes so long, since there is no faster-than-light travel). "The new millennium was always a science fiction idea, and now that we are there, years beginning with a '2' still seem fictional," he comments; "2011, the first boomer retirement year, has a Stanley Kubrick feel." Note the metaphorical opposition of "facts" and "fiction" -- as though having a "Stanley Kubrick feel" and "seem[ing] fictional" meant that the things being discussed were in some important sense false. And then he delivers this pithy observation: "2042 lies somewhere in the Matrix." One gets the feeling that Krauthammer hasn't seen any of the Matrix films, since these are not only dystopian visions of the future but also cleverly analytical treatments of the human capacity to become imprisoned by our own constructions. If 2042 lies in the Matrix, that ought to be a wake-up call to take some rather drastic steps designed to head off that possible future pronto.

So what are these allusions doing in the op-ed? I don't mean "what was Krauthammer's motive in putting these things in?" since a) his motive is probably something like "make my point as effectively as I can, and try to bring some of my readers along with me" -- he is an op-ed columnist, after all, and that's what they do for a living -- and b) it's irrelevant to the really interesting question*** of the function of the allusions concretely deployed. And what they do, I'd submit, is to establish (rhetorically) an opposition between "fact" and "fiction" that obscures the value-laden character of Krauthammer's position. If 2042 can be (rhetorically) linked to "science fiction," then his alternate date of 2018 looks, almost by definition, to be in some sense more factual. His rhetorical strategy depends on the socially plausible opposition of "science fiction" and "(science) fact," even as it sustains and extends that opposition by deploying it in a very public setting.

Whether one thinks that this is a good strategy or not depends on whether one accepts the dichotomy in the first place. I'm not so sure that it is a good dichotomy for a number of reasons; chief among these is the observation that virtually everything appears "fictional" before it happens. A chief element of the Social Security program -- the notion that present-day workers have an obligation to support those not working or those no longer working -- appears in science fiction novels long before the program's creation, most notably in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887; the converse notion, a broader critique of the notion that government should be enacting general societal responsibilities, also has important science-fictional precedents, such as Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged -- one of Alan Greenspan's favorite books -- and Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. In all of these cases, the political-moral value-commitments that inform subsequent policy are treated in the splendid analytical isolation of a fictional world in which the author can control all of the important variables, and readers of the novels might pick up those value-commitments in the course of their reading (or might have them confirmed and reinforced through seeing those value-commitments played out narratively).

What I mean to suggest here is simply that science fiction can be a source of "factual" policies, making the simple opposition that Krauthammer deploys somewhat problematic. Just because something looks like "science fiction" does not necessarily make it any less factual, especially since today's fictions can sometimes become tomorrow's facts. Dismissing a political stance by associating it with science fiction ignores this interpenetration, reproducing a misleading dichotomy for the sake of a few political points.

On the other hand, some of the freedom accorded to "science fiction" as a genre depends on this dismissive attitude; if things get too hairy, one can always toss up one's hands and say "hey, hold on, this is just science fiction." Hence Star Trek's exploration of politically and socially sensitive issues (Vietnam and inter-racial kisses in the original series, and the morality of genocide in several TNG episodes, most notably in "I, Borg"), Iain M. Banks' reflections on liberal empire, and so on. One can get away with quite a bit by prefacing it with the label "science fiction," and engage in rather profound social commentary and extrapolation of trends without having to adhere to whatever (ultimately arbitrary, perhaps?) standards are presently being upheld as constituting the essence of sound social science or political commentary.

Hence I remain ambivalent. The dismissal of "science fiction" as such: a good or a bad thing? Discuss.

* Krauthammer is hardly alone in this disposition; similar things could be said of Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, E. J. Dionne, George Will, and almost any other nationally syndicated editorial columnist -- to say nothing of bulldogs like Ann Coulter and James Carville. My choice of Krauthammer for this particular entry has to do with his choice of metaphors, and should not be (necessarily) taken as a commentary on his politics. Op-ed columnists of whatever political persuasion aren't writing as scholars, and holding them to scholarly standards is a bit unfair…but what the hell.

** Krauthammer's fiscal logic depends on the presumption that we should treat the Social Security program as an independent aspect of the government's budget, and look at the program's health by directly comparing FICA tax income with benefits distributed under the heading of "Social Security." As Max Weber would remind us, which facts we see and uphold depend on the prior resolution of a political-moral question about what the government should be doing -- a question that cannot be settled by an appeal to "the facts" because, of course, which facts matter depends on which value-commitment one utilizes to apprehend them.

*** Don't know about you but I for one am not really interested in peering into Charles Krauthammer's mind or soul.

[Posted with ecto]

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