“More Plot and Less Politics”

Every so often I get a comment like that, more often lately in the books of “The Grand Illusion,” and I just want to shake my head. In fact, sometimes I do. I feel the same way when someone makes comments about just wanting to get rid of politicians and politics.

What many of these people fail to understand is that, like it or not, politics are responsible for all the achievements of the human race, and that the declines of past great civilizations largely resulted from the failure of politics.

Why do I say that?

Because individuals acting alone are limited in what they can do. Cooperative effort is what enables technology pretty much anywhere above late stone age, and cooperative effort requires social organization. Social organization falls apart without a political structure of some sort. While some theorists will claim that a market system trumps politics, even market systems need politics to function above the stone age.

Regardless of which is more important, there have never been any societies with a technology at or above the bronze age without some form of unified political and economic system.

Now, I understand the need for entertainment in fiction. If a fiction book doesn’t entertain a reader, it’s generally a failure. But just as non-stop action is totally unrealistic, as I pointed out in an earlier blog, so are societies without at least plausible economic and political structures.

You can’t maintain an autocratic kingdom or even high-tech society without enforcers of some sort, and a set of enforcers, whether a military-police structure or a secret police, requires organization and structure, which in any system involving human beings requires politics. Non-autocratic technological societies have differing structures and differing politics, but politics remain necessary.

I could ask the question of why at least some “action-oriented” readers readily accept the impossibility of non-stop action and reject the impossibility of societies without workable politics, but the answer is most likely that, because they don’t see or understand that politics can be as deadly, and often more deadly, than military or other action, they find direct violence and action more emotionally satisfying. That lack of understanding on a larger scale in society is why autocrats like Putin, Hitler, Mussolini, Orban, and more than a few others gained power through political means, rather than by direct military force.

Shades of Gray

One of the biggest rationalizations/copouts in politics today is one used by far too many voters, usually when someone makes an observation about one politician’s unethical or potentially illegal behavior or the politician’s blatant falsehoods. Those who want to support the politician, despite that behavior or those lies, all too often say, “All politicians are crooks” or “They all lie.”

To begin with, every single human being who reaches adulthood has lied. That’s not the question. The question is what kind of lies they told and to whom. Were they white lies to spare someone’s feelings? Or lies to excuse their own failures, like claiming they were late to work because an accident backed up traffic when they really overslept because they were hung over. Or were they lies like those told by former President Trump? The other question is how often and how blatant the lies.

When we deal with acquaintances, most people weigh the “shades of gray” in judging people, but when they deal with politicians, from what I’ve seen, the smallest fault in a politician one doesn’t like or who’s of the “wrong” party is enough to justify voting for a politician with far greater faults who comes from the “right” party. People shy away from dealing with shady merchants or car dealers, but they don’t show the same reluctance when a shady politician from their own party spouts blatant falsehoods.

And usually, neither candidate is perfectly pure. When that happens, a large segment of each party tends to justify staying with the party candidate by magnifying the sins of the opposition candidate, rather than by comparing their actions and statements of the two [now, most people say they do this, but it’s clear from election results that many don’t].

Sometimes, voters believe that the principles a politician opposes or supports justify voting for that politician, despite his or her flaws, but how large do the flaws have to be before voters turn away from a flawed politician? How outrageous do the falsehoods and lies have to get before voters reject a politician from their own party?

Some voters never do, and that was how the Germans ended up with Hitler, the Italians with Mussolini, the Russians with Putin, and why Trump believes he can run and win a second term.

Misleading Statistics

The other day, I got an email cartoon listing nineteen goods/categories whose prices have increased 10% or more over the past year. Nine were grocery products and one was men’s suits. The others were categories: gasoline, airline tickets, used cars, gas utilities, hotels, delivery costs, electricity, furniture, and cleaning products. The bottom line caption was: So how is inflation only 8.6%?

I checked the numbers against the latest CPI-U, and some were exaggerated. The email said used car prices were up 35%, but the CPI lists the annual inflation at 7.8% The email also listed gasoline increases at 49%, when the actual was 29%.

But the most misleading aspect is that all of the items listed by the email together comprise less than 30% of all the items that comprise the CPI-U. All food items comprise only 14%. Eggs [up 44%] only amount to 1/10 of one percent.

Overall food prices (comprising 14% of the CPI-U) increased 11.4%, but all commodity prices, excluding food and energy, only rose 6.3% over the last year.

Now neither 8.6% nor 6.3% is good, but citing huge price spikes in small segments of the economy is definitely misleading. It’s also politically effective. People don’t notice the prices that don’t rise or rise more slowly. They notice that gasoline and egg prices are way up, or that used cars are getting pricy.

Yet, I’d be willing to be that the majority of people who received that email or saw the original posting of the cartoon and its statistics will have the reaction that the government is grossly “cooking the statistics.”

And the government has been “readjusting” the statistics for years, but in little ways, such as reducing the impact of food and energy costs on the CPI, but its figures aren’t “readjusted” by the two and three-fold magnitudes suggested by the cartoon.

This statistical “discrepancy” also illustrates one of the biggest problems faced by a democratic high technology society, that fewer and fewer of the people who vote really understand either the technology or the economy underlying their society, and that lack of understanding becomes fertile ground for demagogues who offer falsified/incorrect facts, gross exaggerations, and beguiling simple (but unworkable) “solutions” to complex problems.

Suspension of Disbelief

All fiction rests on, as the British poet Coleridge put it more than two centuries ago, “the willing suspension of disbelief for the moment.” But what continually surprises me is what aspects of “disbelief” various readers are willing to suspend (and what they are not), as well as what suspensions various authors expect of their readers.

As authors, we all have beliefs and preferences. As my readers know, I try hard to provide workable economic and political systems as a framework for my novels, and this carries over into my reading. While I’m more willing to accept an unworkable economic or political system in a fantasy, particularly when the plot doesn’t depend primarily on either, if I’m reading science fiction, especially hard science fiction, totally unworkable politics and economics are usually a total turn-off for me. Likewise, a cast of characters with no visible means of support tends to make suspension of disbelief difficult for me. But that’s me.

Everyone has different parameters for what aspects of “disbelief” can be suspended, and sometimes I find what readers can and cannot accept as “literarily believable” rather, shall I say, interesting. There are readers who can easily accept order and chaos magic but cannot believe the way certain female characters in my books behave [even though that behavior is modeled on that of my wife and my numerous daughters].

There is, of course, a difference between willingness to suspend disbelief and disliking the way characters are portrayed, but there’s a definite crossover. Readers who aren’t fond of strong women are going to have more trouble suspending disbelief when they encounter a female character who’s not particularly tolerant of male chauvinism, misogyny, and patriarchal power. Readers who are fond of action will be less likely to suspend disbelief when a character has to deal with a great deal of bureaucracy, subtlety, and intrigue.

From what I’ve observed, readers are far more likely to suspend disbelief about politics, economics, and technology than about interpersonal relationships and social structures, although this has changed significantly over the past thirty years. Even so, radically changed socio-economic structures are still comparatively infrequent, possibly because they’re hard for many readers to even imagine, let alone accept as “realistic” enough to suspend disbelief.

And, in the end, because one of the reasons why people read fiction is to escape reality, fiction that is apparently “farther” from reality draws more readers than fiction closer to reality, but that’s often an illusion, because while the magic or technology vary greatly from reality, societal basics seldom do, which is why an older book such as The Left Hand of Darkness still stands out.

The Freedom Threat

For the past three months I’ve been inundated with appeals for funds by various Republican and Democratic candidates and both political parties. But I’ve noticed that there’s a fundamental difference.

Almost every Republican appeal is not only fear-based, but it’s always about how those vile Democrats are going to take away “your freedoms.” They’re going to take away your freedom to own a gun [despite the fact that the Second Amendment preludes that, if admittedly, Democrats possibly might not allow high-speed, multiple-shot, mass-killing weapons]. Republicans charge that Democrats will have the FBI raiding your home [especially if you have top-secret documents illegally]. They’re going to hire 87,000 new IRS agents, and all of them are after you [even though the point of the agents and the additional funds is to answer phone calls the IRS hasn’t had enough people to answer for years; to handle tax returns that have taken extra months, if not years, to process; to fill vacancies that have existed for years; and to have enough people to go after high-income tax cheats, who’ve gotten away with fraudulent tax returns for years]. Yes, those Democrats are going to take away your country [that is, they want true equality for all ethnicities and genders]. They’ll take away your freedom to infect other people [can’t have required immunizations even when they’ve proved to reduce and eliminate childhood and other deaths from infectious diseases]. And, of course, they’ll actually charge the Republicans’ beloved Donald Trump with the crimes he’s already committed.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are more concerned about freedoms that the Republicans have already restricted or attempted to restrict, such as women’s freedom to control their own bodies and reproductive rights. Democrats also oppose Republican initiatives and recent laws that make it harder for ethnic minorities to vote and thus to hold office, as well as legal and legislative initiatives to allow state government officials to override election results, which Republicans have already done in several states with regard to legal ballot initiatives. Democrats also oppose Republican bans on books that only Republicans seem to find objectionable.

So, from what I can see, Republicans are fearmongering on what Democrats might do, even when such acts are Constitutionally impossible, while Democrats are fearmongering about what Republicans have already done and what they want to extend to the whole country.

Whether many people, especially Republicans, will understand the difference is another question.