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Old April 22 2014, 12:38 AM   #205
Deranged Nasat
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Re: ENT: Tower of Babel by C. L. Bennett Review Thread (Spoilers!)

Prepare for words, people. Lots and lots of words.

There are plot-related scenes on the Chelon homeworld and in an undisclosed location with Kirk, Grev and Not-The-Assistant-Director, but the real meat of this chapter is Federation/Rigel relations and the question of politics, so I'll focus on that.

Soval's analysis/judgement of Thoris' speech and the wisdom or logic of it from the perspective of political capital is interesting. I also like his bland internal commentary on the competitive journalism of the non-Vulcans. I think it's all convincing as a logical, Vulcan perspective on what we've just seen.

Lots of interesting points raised. As Thoris says, the Federation has thrown itself together rapidly; if anything, I think he might be understating on this one - a decade ago, most of the founding members were on the brink of war with one another, now they're best friends.

I hope no-one will mind if I get a bit bogged down in personal opinion here, and ground this next piece in my own perspectives. Personally, I really enjoyed this chapter because it deals with the nature of politics. Politics, as I see it, can be understood in two possibly non-compatible ways and that is where the first difficulties come into play for me. It can be considered the means by which people, communities and individuals organize themselves and achieve functionality, an inherent social instinct that is now extended beyond immediate clan but is fundamentally the same thing - in which case, everyone is political and all interaction is politics - or it can be considered a process removed from private human behaviour and instead be a particular type of interaction, or interaction in a particular set of contexts, that employs its own rules. Again speaking personally, the core of politics as I relate to it - and not really deciding on either of those positions - is the tribalistic worldview that most humanoids (to my knowledge...) possess. A perspective that (as I see it) is almost paradoxical in its two primary goals - to be accepted as part of the group (so to gain the security and power that comes from collective identity; strength in numbers, the relief of being un-exposed and unknowable) and to gain status within the group relative to others (affirm the individual desires or ego, get attention), so to be conformist and aggressive in equal measure. I've long maintained that a higher degree of "sociability" goes hand-in-hand with a greater degree of relational aggression. There's little doubt in my mind that most social interaction and discourse has its basis in tribalist assumptions (or tribalist behaviours have their basis in what is normal human social interaction, whatever).

Another paradox is the assignment or acceptance of responsibility (which contrary to what many claim, they do not take automatically as a necessary companion to power). One who affiliates or identifies with a grouping will defend a fellow member on principle, but if they find they truly can't - that the consequences of solidarity and shared protection will be too severe - they'll employ what is almost an opposite response and throw the person in question out, severing them from the group in order to protect it. The individual is subordinated and sacrificed to group identity, with the individual used as a scapegoat to shield the group, indeed often described in terms revealing of what the true concern is: "doesn't represent us", "gives us a bad name", etc. What is often lauded as an emphasis on individual responsibility actually strikes me as the very opposite - it's all about denying the individual responsibility of seeking or keeping membership, official or unofficial, within a shared identity. So there's a fundamental conflict there, between my assumptions and those of others, it seems.

So too (he says) do people make their affiliations their identity. We don't say "my religious beliefs are Xantist" or "I'm a follower of Xantism", we say "I'm a Xantist". It's I = Xantist; we're not in a relationship, we're synonymous. We don't say "My political beliefs tend to be to the political left", for instance, we say "I'm left-wing". Okay, using linguistic convenience like that is a poor basis for an argument, I know, but it's useful, I hope, in making the point. People take their political (and ideological, philosophical, religious, etc) positions and affiliations as synonymous with - or at least permanently Joined in Trillish fashion with - their very identities. An attack on the former is taken as an attack on the latter.

I also believe that all other concerns are ultimately secondary in the tribal mindset to what - taking a position on that original question - I might choose to call "politics"; that is, to a reading of the social situation in its complexities and the desire to remain both within the conformity of the identified group and in a leading or prosperous position relative to other members. This isn't at all to say that people have no regard for a sense of consistent ethics, reason, truth, or other virtues, or that they don't try to, say, honestly represent constituents or play by principles held to be objective, merely that these will be discarded or ignored when the alternative is to truly disempower or weaken whatever groups one has affiliated or identified with (and not necessarily without regret or internal conflict). I would also propose that this is not so much a conscious decision as a simple consequence of the way most people work.

All this raises some problems, because if politics is the means by which peoples and communities arrange matters for their communal benefit then it can easily be argued that the political system must be tribalist or it isn't effective or representative, despite my rather consistent personal position that tribalism and group identification is "the" problem, and politics should be conducted without them (raising another issue of whether that's anything other than supremely arrogant, potentially despotic and even racist on my part, given that it potentially declares a majority of people inherently excluded). Whether politics is tribalism or whether political systems simply tend to employ it (sort of a reworking of my earlier dilemma of definition) is something I confess to struggling with a great deal. Is tribalism an infection to be removed from politics, or is it politics itself, synonymous? If the former, is that goal rather not the desire to better all individuals but rather to intolerantly declare great swathes of the populace unsuited to participation, implicitly if not in any sort of practice? Is it a case of "have you tried not being gay?".

So many questions, the answers I am unsure on.

A "non-political" position (one that tries to hold to the idea that the desires and drives of tribalism shouldn't be brought into play) is pretty much by default an extremist one, because it doesn't play by the usual rules, doesn't acknowledge the conventions that make the majority of people comfortable. It risks unrest, which is (in my view at least) the only crime and the only enemy in the perspective of a community, at the deepest levels, and understandably isn't something they want. Given that I think the person given to group affiliation always has a keen, quite possibly unconscious sense of how the group is reacting, and seeks to ensure they remain "safe" with its shifting tides, collectively feeling their way to a sort of consensus even as individually they try to assert themselves against others, I also question some of the fundamentals of a democratic and/or inclusive system, do I not? Because how can there be change at anything less than a glacial place under such a self-censoring system, when some might think drastic change completely necessary now? Can there be growth without dislocation, without conflict? Without forcing it? Social evolution. "What do you want?"

(This is also why so many people think as the Planetrists do; they are wary of large government and unifications because they know how strong that conformist instinct is, and fear their diversity being destroyed by the very forces that say they wish to include and preserve it. Think Eddington's comments on the Borg, etc).

I've always seen "my way" - that is, what I strive for based on how I've come to see myself - as ideally finding a balance, or inhabiting the balance, between unity and conflict by combining a strong sense of community (what I call my "natural socialist" ways) with an equally strong sense of independence (what I call my "natural libertarian" ways). There is only the drop and the ocean, and the ocean is made of drops, and all things are fluid but there is an organizing movement to it all.

Tribalist ethics are rather alien, I think. As the Bedouin say, "Me against my brother, My brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers" - closing ranks against those outside and responding to an attack on one as an attack on all, while jostling for position within. And there are always circles of identity - like how European nations saw themselves as one Christian society at the same time as they were warring and feuding, and not just because all their royals were related now anyway).

To get back to the book at long last (I've no doubt lost 80% of the readership by this point ). Thoris, in his campaigning at Babel, is trying to balance what many would call "the necessities of politics" with his personal sense of what's right (what the Vulcans might say is cthia, as well as what will, in his personal ethics, be best for the Federation and what will be most responsible of him). He's trying to navigate the system while remaining true to his convictions; Soval is probing as to whether he truly understands the potential consequences or complications he'll be facing through doing so. This is a conflict that I really relate to and I like seeing brought into play here.

The young Federation is negotiating its sense of a shared identity and the degree to which its singular, unifying identity trumps, incorporates or stands uneasy in proximity with the smaller, original national and cultural identities of its member worlds. It's also easy to see why the Rigel admission debate is so relevant and so provocative. With Rigel, it strikes me that we have here an admissions process of a nature that we're likely never going to see again in Federation history. From here on, it'll be small states agreeing to become part of a bigger nation that dwarfs them, to incorporate themselves into an ever-bloating political/national juggernaut, a clearly unequal meeting. While that's technically true here, this is really more akin to two more-or-less equal alliances negotiating the possibility of their coming together. That is surely going to exacerbate the existing dilemma faced by the Federation's member populations. So the linking of "is Rigel right for the Federation and is the Federation right for Rigel?" with the Federation's sense of identity is very useful and provocative.

As Garak put it in my beloved A Stitch In Time: "the great determining factor of our becoming is relationship. Unrelated, I become unrelated. Alienated. Opposed, I become an antagonist. Unified, I become integrated. A functioning member of the whole".
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Last edited by Deranged Nasat; April 22 2014 at 12:55 AM.
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