Revolution

The other day I got to thinking about political revolutions, especially about the “successful” ones, and a few of those that seemed successful for a while. From those that I know of and those I’ve studied, it occurred to me that the vast majority fall into two categories – those countries where the leader of the revolution became a despot, or something similar, and those where the revolution swallowed the early leaders, and more cases than not, where a dictatorship of sorts ensued. Now, of course, neither of these happened in the United States, which is why we tend, I suspect, not to look at revolutions in the terms I’ve laid out. And I’m not counting events in countries where the form of government changed gradually and relatively peacefully as revolutions.

Armed and violent revolutions tend to occur when large percentages of a county’s population are unhappy, angry, and feel that they have little or nothing to lose… and almost usually are fomented and led by those who belong to what might be called the educated-alienated or the marginalized middle class who have personal and/or economic grievances against the existing power structure.

Revolutions tend to fail when not enough people feel that disenfranchised and/or when the government has an overwhelming monopoly on force – and when the soldiers who constitute that force are loyal to the regime.

Some historians make a distinction between movements that seek to change who rules and those that seek to change the entire way in which a country is ruled, which might suggest that merely replacing a ruler is a coup and changing the governmental structure by force is a revolution.

Is a revolution possible here in the United States, with all the cries for secession, and the increasing acrimony between the two political parties? History has shown that almost all lands with any lasting history suffer either government evolution, revolution, or coups, if not all three. The United States has revolted against British Rule, suffered through a bloody civil war, and seen a gradual but massive change in the structure and power of government… and faith and support of Congress is at an all-time low, combined with a close to all-time low in public confidence in the financial sector. Interestingly enough, faith in the President, while lower than his average ratings, is nowhere near all-time lows for a President.

Is that enough dissatisfaction to spark a rebellion? It’s certainly enough for some people, but I have my doubts if it’s enough, at least so far, to support any massive change in U.S. government, meaning that the deadlocks will have to get worse before anything – constructive or destructive – happens.

The Inconvenience of Your Convenience

One of the largely unacknowledged aspects of the incredible speed at which personal and professional communications technology change is the fact that such changes not only often waste more time than they save, but that they pander to and foster self-centeredness.

I’ve mentioned the time-wasting before, but I continue to be reminded of it again and again.  Almost every month, my editor’s publishing firm changes some aspect of their software, which means that when I ask my editor for certain information, it always takes longer because it seems that just as he’s learned all the bells and whistles from the last upgrade, the company changes something else.  The same thing occurs at my wife’s university, and even with all those upgrades her computer got ransom-virused – and she’s never used it for anything but business [her IPad is much more convenient for the personal stuff, and I have to admit it doesn’t seem half so prone to viruses, even if it does have other glitches].  Because I have to keep current for a number of reasons, I’m now wrestling with some annoying features of Windows 8.1, and I’m still angry about the fact that the latest version of Word occasionally effectively deletes what I’m working on – without activating the automatic back-up/save if I type too fast and accidentally hit a three key combination that has an H in it.  I don’t mind too much activating spell check or creating a new document, but deleting what I’ve just written has me wanting to assassinate the system designer or marketing manager who decided such add-ons were good. All of these rapid and continuing “improvements” waste most people’s time, but because just enough people upgrade, if you don’t, before long you’re getting documents you can’t open.  So what’s convenient for a comparative handful of IT techies and tech geeks becomes anything but convenient for the rest of us, especially for those of us who use technology as a tool to accomplish something else, rather than to create “new” features just in order to make that claim.

The other aspect of our modern communications revolution is that it both isolates individuals and encourages a self-centered attitude.  Take cellphones.  We now have acquaintances, and even some friends, who switched from landlines to cellphones. Most of them don’t even tell anyone, as if everyone should know.  Then, maybe they posted it on Facebook, as if it happens to be everyone else’s duty to find out.  And when you can’t reach them, they’re the ones who are upset, but it’s rather difficult to reach people without their phone number, either for texting or talking, especially now that more and more of them are abandoning email, except for business.

And social media.  What if I don’t want to be on Facebook or LinkedIn or… whatever?  Or tweet on Twitter?  That’s my choice; it’s anyone’s choice, but now, the attitude of all those on Facebook is that they no longer have to make an effort to actually reach out to others; they just have to post on Facebook, and others have to reach out to them to find out how things are going.  It’s not that people are more selective.  They can’t be, not if they’re posting on social media sites.

But then, maybe that’s not because they’re self-centered.  Maybe it’s because they’ve spent so much time wrestling with technology that’s supposed to be easy, and isn’t, that they only have enough time to post on social media and send 128 character tweets.

Technology, Money… and Rights [Part II]

Unfortunately, the problem of “rights” is even larger than just religion, as adjudicated in the Hobby Lobby case, because first amendment to the Constitution also states: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” The Roberts Court has effectively declared in the case of funding political campaigns that restrictions on contributions are a restraint of freedom of speech. The problem with the Court decision is that it doesn’t address the question of what occurs when the combination of massive amounts of money combine with high technology to assure that the predominant publicly disseminated “speech” dealing with elections is that of the wealthiest one tenth of one percent of the population. In effect, the multi-million dollar megaphones of the rich drown out the views of anyone else. Yes, those without that kind of funds can speak, but their words go largely unheard.

In certain respects, this isn’t a new problem. Because of their position and wealth, the founding fathers had greater access to the press, and often used it, at times not in the noblest of ways, to further their own interests and ends, but because of the lack of instant communications, a press that was largely local, and diverse regional interests, none of them had access to the entire society either continuously or in real time, nor did they have the ability to buy ink and exposure in all media outlets in all states. They could not and did not conceive of the media concentration and penetration that exists today. Their interest was to assure that all views had a chance to be heard.

Yet in citing the Constitution to allow unlimited political contributions and “independent” political media expenditures that are effectively unlimited by individuals who can keep the amount of their contributions hidden, as well as their very identity unknown, the Roberts court has effectively undermined the very goals of the founders in crafting and adopting the first amendment, because the combination of money and technology effectively diminishes the freedom of speech of those who lack both money and access to technology, and, not incidentally, diminishing any public “right to know.”

Yet the far right trumpets this as a victory for free speech when it is really a victory for anonymous plutocratic propaganda.

Penalty Kicks and Free Throws… Again

I don’t watch soccer/football much, in fact, seldom, but I did end up watching the World Cup semi-final match between the Netherlands and Argentina… and the result underscored something I’ve said before, except with regard to basketball. Mastery of the simpler aspects of anything is key to continued success.

The Netherlands and Argentina played to a scoreless tie after regulation, and then after another 30 minute additional period the game was still scoreless.  Argentina converted four out of four penalty kicks in the shoot-out, while the Netherlands failed on two out of three attempts. While a penalty kick isn’t nearly as easy as a basketball free-throw, it’s far, far easier than scoring a goal in play, when it’s often difficult to even get near the goal with the ball, let alone get a clear shot.  Argentina made that abundantly clear, by not being able to score a single goal in two hours of play, but by putting four out of four shots in the goal in the shoot-out.  The Netherlands lost by not being able to accomplish the simpler tasks in the game.

This “case study” goes well beyond soccer or basketball.  I’ve seen people lose jobs because they failed to write a simple thank you note, or to recognize a former colleague or superior in a different setting.  I’ve seen more than one beginning writer destroy/abort his or her career by arguing violently with editors who have seen scores of writers come and go.  I’ve seen political careers tanked because no one asked a simple question – How did things get this way? – before going off in a direction that considering the answer would have most likely precluded.  I’ve seen singers lose competitions because, when talents were evenly balanced, the singer with more carefully chosen attire and polite mannerisms topped sloppy dress and flip mannerisms. And in all these cases, and others, the individuals involved were anything but stupid.  They just relied on their innate brilliance or talent and ignored mastery of simple skills.

A successful writer needs more than mere story-telling ability and more than mere skill with words, and, more than sometimes, some of those extras are simple skills, such as tact, thank-you notes [NOT emails,unless you're in the tech world, where hand-written or print thank-yous have become a symbol of backwardness], and a certain amount of respect for those who control one’s fate.  And, oh yes, just plain showing up on time…or getting manuscripts in on time — and, here George R. R. Martin is the exception who proves the rule.

Finance in Fiction

More than a few times, I’ve commented on how important it is for a fantasy or science fiction writer to understand basic societal economics if that writer wants to portray a workable and realistic fictional society.  In recent years, more and more writers have become clearly aware of this, and their books reflect this.  More recently, however, the comparative absence of finance and banking has struck me, yet some form of banking, whether it be counting houses, money-lenders, or the like, has existed in virtually every human civilization that became sophisticated enough to have iron tools. Any form of wide-spread trade requires at least a rudimentary financial system, and a financial system allows what one might call an oligarchical concentration of power and wealth, which in turn feeds intrigue and scheming.

One of the problem with portraying stock exchanges and banks is that few writers really understand them enough to portray just how much they can multiply either evil or good…or how quickly they can turn what seems to be good into total disaster. And, of course, the usual depiction of the banker/financier ranges from Shakespeare’s Shylock, to Dickens’s “early” Scrooge, to Mr. Potter in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life,   to, more recently, the bankers and brokers in Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street. The problem with such one-sided depictions is that they actually understate the impact finances and financiers have on society and government.

The key role a financial system plays in any economy is to provide liquidity, because without liquidity transactions and trades become almost impossibly difficult.

I recently read an incredibly detailed massive fantasy epic, one that depicted almost all aspects of society – traders and their formal and informal associations, rulers and their bureaucracies and sycophants, military types, barbarians, entertainers, crafters, laborers, merchant princes, even authors – but not any financiers or bankers, despite a welter of trade and conflict between adjoining lands.  A great story – but I kept wondering what financial structure was behind it all, and why the bankers, or their equivalent, didn’t put the brakes on some of the idiocy, because successful bankers do tend to be conservative [except in today’s USA], sometimes foolishly so.

So… for better or worse, don’t forget the bankers… or their equivalents.