Panic and Alarm (and Why This Is About Science Fiction)

Salon: I lost my dad to Fox News: How a generation was captured by thrashing hysteria

Sad case study of a man whose father disappeared into the paranoid, outraged worldview of Fox News. Like certain kinds of religious extremists, Fox partisans seem to be people whose discomfort with the modern world results in a retreat into fantasy and a denial of reality.

My father sincerely believes that science is a political plot, Christians are America’s most persecuted minority and Barack Obama is a full-blown communist. He supports the use of force without question, as long as it’s aimed at foreigners. He thinks liberals are all stupid, ignorant fucks who hate America.

He consumes a daily diet of nothing except Fox News. He has for a decade or more. He has no email account and doesn’t watch sports. He refuses to so much as touch a keyboard and has never been on the Internet, ever. He thinks higher education destroys people, not only because of Fox News, but also because I drifted left during and after graduate school.

My fascination with cases like this one is, in fact, consistent with this blog’s science fictional theme. Science fiction, ultimately, is about how people react to change; about how human beings think about themselves in relation to the rest of the universe; about how human experience would be different if the world or the universe itself were different. As a literary form it arose out of the realization, beginning a couple of centuries ago, that change was something experienced within a single lifetime, in relative contrast to the entire previous history of the race, and was something that people reacted to quite differently. And the rate of change just keeps increasing – scientific (bosons, extrasolar planets, nanotubes, genomic sequencing), technological (bionic limbs, stem cell therapy, the internet, the iPhone), and social (black president! Gay marriage!). It’s no surprise that some people just check out and reject it all (except maybe for the technological part, which they accept and use unironically, since the technology follows from the sciency stuff) and take refuge in religion or paranoid politics. It’s so much simpler to think in terms of black (people who are different from you) and white (people who are like you), or that the answers to all the important questions reside in selective passages from one or another single book, trumping anything the race has learned or experienced in the past three millennia. Those attitudes strike me as blinkered and deeply self-centered, as if an adult was content to never expand upon the knowledge and beliefs of his or her 6-year-old self, and resented the idea that he or she should. Science fiction, in contrast, at its best and most sophisticated, takes an adult’s self-awareness about one’s place in the world, an openness to finding out what one doesn’t already know, a willingness to consider alternatives to the way things have always been done, and a denial that anything is sacred or immune from re-examination and questioning. We keep exploring. There are always new places to explore, new things to learn, old things to unlearn, and new ways to expand human options and increase overall human understanding and well-being.

I take this mode of science fiction as the exploration of the consequences of these progressive, humanist values. My fascination with the Fox news guy is that he represents the antithesis of these values, and I’m curious about how people end up in such dead-end traps of ideology and dogma. Part of the answer, I think, is the cultural fragmentation enabled by the internet; another part is the psychological biases that all humans are prey to, as I’ve been reading about this past year in McRaney and Bering and others, and which one can try to overcome or bypass simply by being aware of them. I’m sure there other issues in play.

I’ve been negligent in this blog about discussing science fiction itself, much, and how, as I said, it promotes mental flexibility and a resistance to dogma. That’s still part of my long term plan.

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