Democrats & Liberals Archives

Emperor Palpatine and The Politics of Mythic Roles

One of the most interesting characters of the Star Wars saga is the Emperor himself. From his debut in Return of The Jedi (He only shows up in The Empire Strikes Back as a hologram.), Palpatine has been the symbol of purest evil, one which seduces people with their greatest, and their seemingly most right desires. Darth Vader may be a vicious bastard, but at least his road to hell was paved with good intentions. It’s in how this relates to politics that we find that some of the most important roles politicans play are the mythic ones, and woe to those who step into the wrong character’s shoes.

The real world is complex and messy, but it's not without its order. Storytellers rely on that order to compress and compact meaning into a manageable package. The best storytellers know how to wrap their stories around the quirks and the characteristics of characters, settings, and situation.

Some try to merely imitate the work of others, but with such convention bound storytelling, you're bound to suffer from diminishing returns,. Worse you have the precarious balancing act of preserving the association with the work you're imitating, while not imitating so closely that people feel they're better off sticking with the original.

There is, however, a middle ground. Some might be thinking that it's the mythological approach I described, but really that's just one aspect of it. The truth is, our society works off of emergent kinds of order, ones that arise from the interaction of different elements in it, rather than simply being a direct consequence of the rules set up by man and nature.

Part of all this is human nature. One could say its been one of the most constant elements in the shifting melee of modern culture. The basic virtues haven't changed, nor the basic vices. We still have the same basic needs, the same basic set of strengths and weakness as our ancestors had.

We're like musical instruments. Changing the song doesn't change who we are. We can further liken our situation in life to a piece of music, which causes the musician to play us differently, avoiding certain notes of our character, while putting emphasis on others. We can liken the music that results to the consequence of our actions. There are limits to this metaphor, but the essential point I want to get across is that different situations will "play" us differently.

Modern technology, with its speed and power, implicitly changes the way we act by our very use of it. A farmer with a modern tractor will have different farming habits than the guy who has to pull a plow behind an ox. That difference, though, may not change everything that would be good in terms of the modern farmer's behavior. Both farmers, modern and ancient, would be well served to work hard and work long days.

They would also have to deal with similar problems as well. A farmer in Ancient Greece might see his son head off to Athens rather carry on the family farm, the way a modern farmer might see his children leave for our cities. Common themes emerge in the music of life, regardless of when its playing, or what kind of society is playing. Just like music from a violin sounds similar regardless of the piece played, those who play similar roles in this society to those of yesteryear will share common inclinations.

We could regard power, corruption, and those other old human problems with government as a genre of works that has existed through history, like marches, call-response songs. The motivations are similar, even if the means aren't. This is what make mythology comprehensible across the gulfs of time, culture, and language. The similarity in how people act corresponds to the common thread linking stories written now with those penned or spoken ages ago.

The oldest story is the newest. In Gilgamesh, we encounter a ruler, who having lost his best friend, seeks eternal life. As we fight death today, he fights death in this most ancient of written tales. Though we have made significantly more headway in the battle than the people of Sumerian times, it's a battle we still lose, and it's one Gilgamesh doesn't win, either. Instead, he learns to appreciate the life he has, while he has it.

The newest stories are the oldest. We see in Star Wars four different Sith Lords, essentially Anti-Jedi who practice dark arts. They are like any who sell their souls for power.

Darth Maul is martial power essentialized, a warrior who uses the dark side to win battles and defeat his enemies. His purpose is destruction. He doesn't care about the why's or the wherefore's. Apart from wanting to take revenge on the Jedi, he's simply a force of nature. There are many in today's world who are like him, who let winning battles become everything. It's alright for him until he finally loses.

Darth Tyranus, or Count Dooku as he's known by everybody else, claims to be one of the conservative old guard, trying to restore the Republic to what it was before the corrupt politicians came in. To that purpose, he divides the Republic, turning star systems against each other, using the resentment of the more minor worlds against their more powerful rivals. His rebellion, though, is just a fraud, a con game played to deliver more power to the side he's really on: his own. Though he uses other's elitism against them, he's an elitist to the core, which is why he doesn't mind playing games with the lives of an entire galaxy. Things are alright for him until he encounters a truly idealistic young man, one who's developed a taste for ruthlessness in his pursuit of power to defend what he believes is rightfully his. Goaded on by his Master, that young man cuts the political career of Count Dooku permanently short.

We all know Darth Vader. He seeks peace and order in the galaxy, but unfortunately seeks it thorugh the power of anger, agression, and hatred. He tries to save what he loves, but since he is heedless about the means he employs to protect and defend them, and lacks awareness of what he's becoming until it's too late for him. His story is the most tragic of all of them, for he doesn't start his slide towards evil intentionally. To some extent, what makes him susceptible to Palpatine's dark, seductive teachings, is his all too strong belief in the rightness of his own opinions. He sells his soul to that righteous indignation, that revolutionary spirit that selfishly sets itself above the common morality of the people. His is a dark side nobody is invulnerable to. Churches have fallen to it, and still do. Governments, too. Revolutionaries who promise utopias and create dictatorships fall to it, often without noticing where the patriot ends and the tyranny begins. Might becomes right, and before he knows it, he's become the dark lord he was supposedly destined to destroy.

Things are alright for him until the betrayal of his principles begins to catch up to him. In short order, he turns against all he was protecting, and it turns against him. He turns his wife against him, and he destroys her. His evil turns the children he acted to save against him. He comes extraordinarily close to participating in their destruction, and they in his. He is the means of the Republic's ultimate demise, though his loyalties were to it even to the exception of all else. He turns against his old master, and his old master against him, and between the two of them they destroy each other, one to become a mechanical monster, the other a disembodied spirit. It isn't until he recognizes in his son the Jedi he should have been, that the good man he once destroyed returns, and the dark creature he was dies.

The Emperor, the master of the Dark Lords of the Sith, is part of our dark side, as much as Vader is himself. He is power taken to its inhuman limits, a sociopath who simply does whatever he feels necessary to gather more power to him. He's no slouch when it comes to fighting, but until he's cornered by the Jedi, he doesn't once employ that kind of power against them. Instead, he moves through the society of the Star Wars universe, promising peace, security, and justice, even as he ensures that none of that comes to pass. He manipulates and negotiates to gain and maintain his power, engineering the downfall of the just and unjust alike in his quest for power. The trap he lures the Jedi into is one where they become the aggressors, using their power to maintain and extend that of the Republic, instead of using it to keep the Republic a just and peaceful society. He pushes them to the point where they feel they have to remove him at all costs, and then uses that attempt to discredit them and destroy them. To insist on the Emperor being our President or Vice President, or any one official would be to cheapen the mythological power of this sinister figure. No, he is power personified and removed from the limitations of human decency, self control, and spiritual enlightenment.

Ironically, his two apprentices during the course of the films both fall to him as they seek to remedy the corruption of the decadent Republic. They fail to realize, though, that the corruption is inherent in all of us, that seeking power for its own sake always leads in this direction, as we turn the abstraction of unreal power real, and treat the real-world results of our actions as abstractions. We are told that if we grasp for the power to do things our way, we will be able to transcend the problems that come with being limited human beings.

We remain those limited human beings, though and our attempt to steal fire from the gods earns us our fall from grace. When we deficit spend to avoid the realities of economic limits on our government, we suffer that fall. When we commit ourselves to an endless war attempting to wield control over our enemies, rather than using our force to effectively answer threats, we suffer that fall. When we engage in a politics that seeks power at the exception of everything else, we're headed for that fall.

Bush has stepped right into the shoes that many have worn throughout history and mythology. How many Kings and Queens, Ministers and heroes have been lead astray by bad advisors, by the Iago or the Grima Wormtongue whispering in their ear? Misguided and misled rulers and leaders abound in both legend and real life.

Even if you play the hero, there can be a fall from grace for you. The Twelve Labors of Hercules, let us recall, were penance for the murder of his wife and many children, which he commited while crazed by the Goddess Hera's malign influence. King Arthur is decieved into fathering a child on his own half-sister, one who will end up his father's nemesis Mordred, and Lancelot, knight without equal, betrays his King by having an affair with Guinevere, his wife. Beowulf, having become king, dies after a servant steal sa cup from a dragon, which ends up having to go slay. Samson is shorn of his locks by his lover Delilah (and maybe more, if some interpretations of the story are to be believed). David, wise and holy ruler that he is, conspires to have a man killed so he can marry the man's wife, who he's been sleeping with. That's just one example among many in the bible of heroes with feet of clay. Even Luke Skywalker, who rejected the dark side in the movies, falls to it in one set of graphic novels, as he faces the dark power of a reborn emperor.

The heroes that don't have this complexity are not the ones we really remember. The difference between the heroes and the villains is not the perfection of the first and the imperfection of the second, its in the choices that these characters make. These are choices made in the equal haze of ignorance and foolishness that pervade all our decisions, but which carry within them the weight of what knowledge and wisdom we do have, which we have gained. The dfference between Luke Skywalker and Anakin, his father, is not in the superiority of one's character to the other. They share many of the same flaws, much of the same anger. They can both be reckless and impulsive. Both are aggressive and competitive. The difference, where it lies, is in the choice to be part of something greater, rather than simply be the something greater themselves.

Many are the dark stories where the hero, in trying to make himself powerful enough to defeat his enemies, ends up corrupting himself and having to redeem himself from that. The story I mentioned above, a comic book in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, has him doing precisely that, before he goes on to found his Jedi Academy.

Ultimately, we have to approach our politics knowing we could head down the wrong path, and what's more, being willing to change direction. To sin in ignorance is one thing; to continue doing what's wrong, seeing a better choice in front of you is the worse evil. It is the more explicit choice of the two, and taken to its conclusion, its the method of making choices that eventually smothers one's conscience. The price of remaining on that path for a long time is that the act of rebelling against the evil becomes ever costlier. It costs Anakin Skywalker his life to reject the Emperor and the Dark Side. We should do our best to avoid having to make that second Anakin's Choice, the one that the first makes necessary if redemption is to be had.

I will not claim that one side or the other is more vulnerable. I'd say we're on different places on the path. I fear for the temptations my own party faces, and hope that they will take heed of what I write here, too. We've already faced the rise and fall of a number of our own mythic leaders, and we've even managed to make one into a King Arthur figure, and another into a Pericles of the Golden Age. I think you know who I'm speaking of. Looking at all that, we have to realize that even as we admire our ideals and our leaders that we all are fallible. This is at the center of the biblical mythology of the Fall in Eden, and I believe that story is a primal lesson in the cost of the thirst for greater power, divorced from wisdom. The Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in eden carries with it a high price: that our eyes must remain open as we stand watch on our dark sides.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at May 23, 2006 7:47 AM
Comments
Comment #150503

Whew! Yeah! All of that. And, I didn’t even like the first Star Wars, and didn’t see the rest…but, you are right. Our party, is full of humans with asperations, much like the other party. We must be ever vigilant to assure we don’t trundle down the dark path. The path the other party seems to have stumbled blindly on to.

Posted by: Marysdude at May 23, 2006 12:16 PM
Comment #150512

Stephen,
I can appreciate your ability to step back and broadly assess human nature and motivations. Unfortunately, it is a skill-set that is probably mutually exclusive with the political skills needed to achieve and maintain power.

Posted by: Schwamp at May 23, 2006 12:35 PM
Comment #150526

Another significnat danger is getting caught up in our own mythology. In the case in point in our government,the top officials seem to have subscribed to the mythology of their own religious interpretations, which justifies any and all behaviors. They probably do not think they have gone to the dark side.

Real life is seldom archetypal. Assigning roles and cosmic schemes is a way to overlook realities. For one thing, it is frightfully easy to misinterpret the casting: I doubt Bush looks in the mirror and sees Vader. (Maybe Cheney and Rove do see Palpatine in the deep privacy of their bathroom mirrors.?)

The danger in stepping into the hubris of a large scale mythology is just what we see in the mind set of W. Belief triumphs observation and Truth obliterates facts. The christian metaphor replaces analysis and sensitivity (not to mention compassion).

I certainly appreciate the modern mythology cosmic scale metaphors, but I am not at all sure that the appetite driven characters of Commedia aren’t more human in scale and more appropriate in context.

(And in your casting, do I get it right in thinking you are assigning JFK to Pericles and Clinton to Arthur?)
dana

Posted by: dana at May 23, 2006 1:09 PM
Comment #150530

Unfortunately, it is a skill-set that is probably mutually exclusive with the political skills needed to achieve and maintain power.
Posted by: Schwamp at May 23, 2006 12:35 PM

Sort of like being told as we grew up that smart girls wouldn’t find husbands?
dana

Posted by: dana at May 23, 2006 1:19 PM
Comment #150558

Marysdude-
One of the persistent themes in Republican politics has been trying to save the country from what they see as threats to it. Many right-wing and conservative groups have similar notions of things.

All in all, they don’t enter into these things wanting to screw them up. It’s the insularity of thought that gets them. The Conservative movement formed much of its organizations in order to shut out moderating influences from a society where the New Deal was consensus.

This helped it to become a rather strong alternative, and to ultimately win as those who grew up New Deal Democrats faded into the background, and those whose loyalties to it were secondhand were confronted with the invigorated Republicans.

The price of this was that this revolution became one of those where loyalty to the movement became prized over pragmatism, alertness on the issues, and compromise, which are the oil for the machinery of any useful, functional political system. The price of that was the end continued success of the revolution, as its inward focus on ideology led it to be more and more divorced from the consensus and reality of the American people.

My fear is that in the struggle to capture and retain a majority presence in Washington, we may fall into the same traps. We need to keep ourselves vigilant about that possibility Even if it hinders the forward moment of our party somewhat. The alternative is that we become the monster we seek to destroy.

Schwamp-
The key, I think, is to back away from people whose best skill is winning elections. Those are the people we have to look out for. What we need is to willingly seek out those people who handle their elections well, but also have some practical or governmental experience worth relying on. Government by well-groomed personality hasn’t gotten us far.

Dana-
I was going for the traditional notion of JFK as King Arthur. Clinton, the leader of America in it’s post-Cold War Golden Age, is the one I compared to Pericles.

Mythology can be myth-leading, yes. We have to start from the knowledge that people are imperfect to begin with. Even the best people fail at their principles. The difference is what attitudes are brought into play. Does one’s religion serve to reinforce one’s egotism, or feed one’s humility. Does it cut off one from dealing with other people’s genuine grievances, or does it shield one from the bad influences of the foolish? All of us falter on these things. The question is, how well do we develop our judgment from there, how well do we make our choices. Even if we’re not perfect, we still can (and should) improve the way we lead our lives.

The challenge in this is that there’s nothing simple about this, which is why the mythological approach has been useful in times past, and times present. Maybe if somebody could have shown Bush a long time ago the troubles inherent in closing himself off from disagreements and dissent, he might have been a better leader. Instead, unfortunately, he grew up in a conservative environment where the problem with the Watergate Burglars was that they got caught.

The Republicans, if they are to recover from their issues must find a better, less corrupted mythology to work from. They need new direction, and I hope they find it.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 23, 2006 3:06 PM
Comment #150582

Stephen,

Great post, well spoken and thought out.

After reading it, i found myself wishing you were involved in the writing of the last three star wars movies because they obviously weren’t as well thought out as your post.

Good job.

Posted by: tree hugger at May 23, 2006 4:44 PM
Comment #150612

Stephen,
Great post.
I, myself, have always found Frank Herbert’s *full* body of work to be a political master stroke, and would really enjoy hearing you hold forth on that. Thank you for this article.

Posted by: Ted at May 23, 2006 5:43 PM
Comment #150640

As a believer that good science fiction is a gateway into the human psyche,a harbinger of events yet to come and some damn good entertainment,I applaud your musings. Practically speaking however Schwamps first post is correct. Power is an end to itself. Its possesion is a path that leads to wanting more power. The psychology of the power mad is not conducive to philosophical discourse.

Posted by: jblym at May 23, 2006 6:32 PM
Comment #150659

tree hugger-
In Lucas’s defense, what I wrote about in terms of the Sith is largely his work. From that angle he did his work well. He’s not a writer by inclination. He’s improved, I think, as the prequel series has worn on.

As for my writing, I think it needs some work. It’s one thing to think things out, it’s another thing to successfully convey one’s thoughts on an issue.

Ted-
He started the Dune series after having done research for an article on people using plants to fixate dune sands. The idea of doing that for a world developed from there.

If we want to generalize about it, Tolkien wanted to do Languages, Lucas wanted to do mythology, and Herbert wanted to do ecology. But really, each had to create everything else to pursue what was their passion.

With Herbert he made the world a central star. Though his son Brian and author Kevin J. Anderson would expand the action to include the geography of other worlds than Arrakis, it would always be that world that Frank Herbert would most fully and properly lay out. It’s bizarre desert ecology would be the true main character in the story, this spice laden world determining the destiny of humanity for centuries to come.

It doesn’t take much imagination to look at Dune and see the Middle East, The Fremen and see the inhabitants thereof, and the spice and see oil, that other all-important substance that must flow. The games around the spice are such that even a family that does not lust after the money and power it brings ignores it at their peril. This is the shape of things with oil. I don’t think this war was necessarily about oil, though that was part of the original post-war plan, but it was the nature of this war and the last that our interest in intervening would have been greatly reduced had the energy stores of the middle east not been at issue as well.

We can say “no blood for oil” when it comes to the Middle East, but our economy depends on the fuel that comes from there and other places, and that complicates all our political decisions, as much as it complicates the decisions of the people in those countries. We’re entangled, whether we like it or not.

It’s interesting in terms of the recent responses to gas prices that the production of a spice substitute or the transplanting of spice production to other worlds forms the plots of some of the later works in the Dune Series, and also a central part of Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s first Dune prequel trilogy.

Additionally, if we want to speak of the environmental effects of oil, we can talk about the fact that Arrakis is the desert waste it is because of the spice, and its relationship to the worm.

Dune, I think, does what good science fiction and fantasy should do: lead us to reflect on our world in new ways, while being entertaining all the while. Doing each properly, I believe, depends on doing both well.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 23, 2006 7:14 PM
Comment #150664

jblym-
There’s a pessimistic note in that though that just doesn’t sit well with me. The whole point of the article I wrote is that practically speaking we should take the warnings about power offered up in stories and in legends, because they reflect the complex reality of real world power. They also reflect what we should be prepared to do to speak truth to power and act with integrity.

It is inevitable, given human frailties, that the dynamics toward corruption and idolatry of power will develop. The degree to which it dominates our society is not, though.

We cannot simply blame these things on the nature of the world, and turn to minding our own business. The degree to which we fail to confront corruption and the abuses of power, is the degree to which we assent to the rule of the tyrants and the crooks.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 23, 2006 7:25 PM
Comment #150665

Stephen, what is proving to be the Achille’s heel of our democracy (republic for some), is what we were warned about decades ago, in book entitled, Future Shock. We are having to reinvent, train, educate, and experience new leaders every generation AFTER they have achieved the power to act. This is backwards. But we find ourselves in this predicament because of two factors. An inadequate educational system failing to keep pace with the volume overload of information to be learned from, and voter’s penchant for ideology over substance, pragmatism, and concrete plans of attack.

Politicians are everyday learning to never commit to anything until power is achieved. Hence, voters haven’t a clue what they are getting for the most part. And money underwrites elections, not education, experience, knowledge, and wisdom. For those attributes, politicians hire speech writers and PR firms.

We are on information overload and between 70 and 95% of it is pure bullshit. But sifting through it takes all of our time such that we are assimilating it after it was needed. Future Shock. It’s here! And the stupor the shock creates is lasting longer and longer for each generation. When my Dad was growing up, a high school education and the experience of 18 years of age were sufficient to fulfill the American dream. Today, I have yet to find a 24 year old I would trust to balance my check book and keep me abreast of the news.

Here are a few suggestions, by no means comprehensive:

Raise the voting age to 21. It’s a privilege wasted on most 18 year olds anyway.

Decentralize the school systems. Large class rooms and very much larger administrative duties of teachers are no longer suited to modern times. Make vocational training a part of K-12. Establish internet K-12 education. It will be the smartest move we could possibly make given bio-terrorism and pandemic flues, and the like.

Make K-12, K-13 and throw a whole additional year of American and world history into high school graduation. End the summer school vacations. Provide instead 2 weeks in June, and 2 weeks around Christmas for families to vacate on.

Make one year public service a pre-requisite to Graduate School graduation. Make 6 months public service a BA degree requirement.

Train and maintain an intelligence service with representation from every country and culture on earth.

Make federal election voting a Saturday AND Sunday event.

Issue biometric ID’s to person receiving a driver’s license, high school diploma, or job.

That will do for starters.

Posted by: David R. Remer at May 23, 2006 7:26 PM
Comment #150672

THANK YOU.

I have also noticed in works of his, alluded to in the last of the Dune series but fully expounded in Whipping Star and Dosadi, an absolute mistrust of those who seek power for it’s own sake. He calls it “pathological” on several occasions. His take on legal systems is also quite interesting. It seems as though our
current situation in DC is one he warned of in one of his chapter headers.
“Trust no government, even your own”

Posted by: Ted at May 23, 2006 7:41 PM
Comment #150719

Wow good post.
Ignorance is the path to the dark side…Yoda (or Obi-Wan Kenobi I forget now).
That being said David your points on education are excellent ideas.

Posted by: j2t2 at May 23, 2006 10:45 PM
Comment #150729

David R. Remer-
Our problem is one of choice. Things are no longer so neatly defined so that there are apparent right and wrong choices.

The problem is not too much information. It’s not that people are more ignorant than they used to be. No, the trouble is that being ignorant carries a higher price now. We’re trying to process information and interact with the world with methods of thought more appropriate to agrarian times.

We’re not full grasping the trully significant and useful nature of the sciences,nor the fact that they, like us, are imperfect, under constant improvement. If we are to weather the future shock, we have to realize that despite all our technology, we are mortal, and we are imperfect.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 23, 2006 11:12 PM
Comment #150834

Stephen, being mortal and imperfect are excuses for falling down on the tasks at hand. I realize I am mortal. But, being mortal too often results in rationalizing, hell, we are all going to be dead anyway, so why does it matter. And imperfect leads to rationalizations that I did my best and that is good enough, despite the fact that most don’t do their best and that efforts are inadequate to the tasks at hand.

I just learned about A.Q. Kahn yesterday. Don’t tell me we don’t have too much information. I have taken in news regarding nuclear proliferation and the war on terrorism at 4 to 10 times the rate of average Americans, and still managed to miss this key and central figure to understanding what the war on Terorrism and posturing against Iran is all about.

I have to disagree, Stephen. We are all on information overload and bypass due to all the crap and lies and spin we have to sift through to get to the facts and reality of things.

Posted by: David R. Remer at May 24, 2006 10:38 AM
Comment #150845

Stephen- all evil needs is for good men to stand by and do nothing. The commonality of evil,corruption and power in myth and reality not withstanding,my point was something else. The personality type that craves power for its own sake,is in essence a two dimensional type anyway.The lust for and obtaining this is a end unto itself and does not seem to lend itself to thoughful contemplation of appropriate use.

Posted by: jblym at May 24, 2006 11:07 AM
Comment #150878

David R. Remer-
The admission that you are a man and not a God can be an excuse for rationalization and apathy. Or it can be a goad to righteousness and wisdom, as opposed to the kind of control freakery and fear of death that a lack of such acceptance brings.

Though more live to ripe old age, ripe old age seems to only extend so much further than it did in the old days. The bible talked about men being allotted about seventy years of life, and even now we still live just about that long on average. Can we stave off death eternally? Not by natural means, it seems. The price of life is death.

In terms of information, there is always too much. Our brains do us the favor of filtering most of that out, and leaving only the information that nature and education have us believe is worth attending to. Even then, once we learn things, we begin to understand and believe that we need to know other things.

That might take you down to the library. All around you is tons and tons of information, some reliable, some unreliable, but there for the choosing. Could you take it all in? Would you? No. You choose a particular set of books, and if you’re lucky (or well-moderated in your reading), you can read them all before having to return them.

Now there might be a book on that shelf which you failed to pick, which might have the necessary information on it. That is always a possibility. In fact, there might be thousands of books, which if you knew to read them, could improve your world vastly. However, aside from making some of your choices irrationally random, you can’t just start without beginning from somewhere else first.

The problem is not too much or too little information, it’s our imperfection of finding useful, meaningful information in time to make good decisions. The best we can do is learn better how to choose the course by which we learn about the world around us. But as with all those unknown, useful books, though we would ideally seek them out instantly, we actually have to start our search for the truth from somewhere we already are.

I think the big reason we have a problem with education is that we look at in a deterministic, assembly line manner, rather than engaging it as the emergent process it is, where you have to start from where the students already are.

We also look at politics with too much thought to determining things, where we’d be better advised to start from where things already are and work from there. The conservatives, as it turns out, were better at convincing people to join than creating permanent policy that really worked. That owes itself in no small part to the conservative belief that will could overcome everything else.

In the end, we human beings can will something, but that doesn’t make it occur, and it doesn’t prevent our efforts from being mistaken. At least if we admit our mortality and imperfection, we can admit that we need help from others, and we can admit we need the aid of other virtues than just pluck and luck in bringing about our future good fortune.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 24, 2006 12:23 PM
Comment #150994

Stephen, your dismissal of the entire information revolution and digital ages mountainous increases in data to be sifted, interpreted, and prepared for public consumption indicates there are a few thousand books on this subject on the shelf without your finger prints on them.

It appears to be a pointless discussion. Information now comes at us in vastly larger quantities than 35 years ago. Insistence on dismissing that reality leaves no room for discussing how to manange it. Let alone the all important implication of who is interpreting and preparing for it public consumption.

Perhaps I will find another to explore this topic with who accepts the reality of information volumne increases and the implications of same.

Posted by: David R. Remer at May 24, 2006 4:17 PM
Comment #151156

I have thought of Regent Cheney as Emperor Palpatine for some years now - and of Karl Rove as being Grima Wormtongue…


Of course, Resident Bush is still just:


Posted by: Bett(er)y at May 25, 2006 8:18 AM
Comment #151173

David R. Remer-
You have me at a disadvantage, as I have not read Toffler’s book. That said, I believe I’m familiar with his notion of things, because I’ve entertained similar notions about the exponential increase in knowledge and its application.

But I don’t see mere information overload out there. Take note of how fast (though admittedly not fast enough) Bush’s stock has plummeted with the American Public. Whether Bush realizes it or not, not all information is created equally. Just putting out a cover story and trying to force that to become consensus is easy at first, but then something happens.

The trick is, the real world doesn’t run on information. It runs on reality. Because of that, if a politician applies a cover story, but doesn’t successfully address the underlying reality, events will occur that will cast doubt on the cover story, regardless of how hard he pushes it. Once people decide in critical mass that a story is false, it becomes very hard to push it.

We are the ones who run on informations, the signs and signals, tokens and symbols of the world around us. Toffler talks of information overload, but I don’t think that’s the problem with humanity as much as a deficiency of useful, meaningful theories in everyday lives. Technology use to make sense on an everyday level. Much if it, though, operates on a level that requires familiarity with higher sciences.

The limits to the extent of Tofflers information overload run along these lines though:

1)Not all information is useful to a person in their everyday lives. A person can sacrifice pursuit of such information for the kind they really can use. A rocket scientist and a geneticist do not have to keep up their knowledge mutually in all fields. This is good, because it would be difficult to make advances in any field if mutual knowledge of all fields was necessary to operate. Because of this, a person is free to sacrifice knowledge of other fields in favor of knowledge of a particular field.

2)Everyday knowledge is often repetitive. People may suffer from a degree of future shock in general, but in everyday life, once they learn something about the technology at their fingertips, they can take brief note of it and pay attention to other information. This is how people adapt, typically, to any technology.

E-mail may be difficult to understand at first, but once you’ve got the hang of it, you can move on to other things. You don’t need to relearn the writing of an E-mail or the sending of it, necessarily, in order to learn how to send an attachment.

Also, there is plenty in the world around us that doesn’t change. That can be harmful for folks, as in the case of New Orleans, where the message the city sent was “decades above water, so don’t worry”, but it can also reduce one’s less helpful anxieties. No need to worry about relearning the route to your favorite restaurant until something changes.

3)General knowledge is the gateway to specific knowledge; or, the more you know, the more it is easy to know. The geologic concepts of Exotic Terranes and Ophiolites is difficult to understand unless you understand Plate Tectonics.

Understanding that would mean you’d understand about Ocean Trenches and continental collisions. Then you could understand Exotic Terranes, in terms of the continents expanding their territory by having island arcs like Japan running into them.

Ophiolites would become clearer if you looked at them as wedges of oceanic crust from trenches that were smashed upwards when all that was left to chew up was bouyant, inedible continental rock.

Because the realities these things represent take on finite shapes, the facts, at least the good ones, are finite themselves.

4)The Amount of information is greater, but so is access and the speed of access. This can create problems in verification, but with a little reader discipline and factchecking, it means that it becomes harder to promulgate casual lies about an issue. You only have to look at Factcheck.org, Media Matters and other sites to see that even as the web taketh away, it giveth, too. A person so inclined can go to a website nowadays, and actually find a bill that congress is putting through, that among many government documents which are available online.

Before, to access much of this information, one would have to be professional reporter or otherwise be willing to go down to the local Federal Depository months after the fact and sift through the many volumes there. I can and have gone through the text of many bills that would have been much more difficult for me to discover before the information overload of today.

5)Given the right signs and signals, a well-trained mind not only can function in information overload, it can thrive on it, learning to work out truths intuitively.

I believe that if we dedicate ourselves not only to higher education, but more lucid, meaningful education, we can do better.

The No Child Left Behind Approach, though, has got to go. The real tests in life are multiple choice, to be sure, but they’re not defined multiple choices where giving the answer folks want you to give will help you get along in life. Ultimately, the world is not digital. Only our technological means of processing it is such. If we try to reduce everything to surefire standardized tests and the learning required to get past them, we will find ourselves poorly educated despite our best efforts. Standardized testing, as the comprehensive tool of education, rather than an adjunct to a broader set of tools, only provides the illusion of perfect knowledge of our students, and what’s educating them best. The real qualities of a good education are nonlinear, emergent breakthroughs that a test like this doesn’t even know how to quantify.

The problem isn’t too much information, but bad habits that make the general population more inefficient at handling it, even as a number of people master such efficient thought. We’ve got a better engine on the front, but the cars in back have rusted axles.

Years of pessimism about American intellectual powers and quality of education has not done us any good. People are smarter than they think in this country. There are many people I’ve dealt with who didn’t rate themselves as having great intellectual gifts, who with a little careful explanation could get some of the more complicated ideas and theories I had to relate. The key is, you’ve got to start from somewhere. If you can find that starting point, you can teach people an awful lot.

If we just sit around and brood about information overload, we’re far more likely to remain in that state. We have to do two things: recognize that we’re capable of handling more than we believe ourselves capable of, and recognizing that there’s a good reason that it’s been difficult to do that, and working past that limitation.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at May 25, 2006 10:25 AM
Comment #151195

I do not say this often. You are one smart cookie Stephen Daugherty.

Posted by: jblym at May 25, 2006 11:16 AM
Post a comment