Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ramble about a Book

I reread "Another Ambiguous Utopia" today, and it made me want to post something on my blog, but I'm not sure what.  I guess I'll post about something that I wanted to talk to my brother about, but he's not responding to me.

Lately, I've been reading a lot of responses to the situation in Syria and the concept of taking military action there in response to the use of chemical weapons.  It's fascinating and somewhat bizarre to see the contrast between the mainstream media (recently I. . . in a somewhat lengthy story, wound up with something approximating a free subscription to the International Herald-Tribune, which has meant reading a lot more newspaper writing than I had been reading for the past few years), where even those who argue against military strikes seem to see it as an at least moderately appealing option that needs to be persuasively dismissed, and my friends and family, who all just dismiss the idea out of hand and don't see it as even remotely appealing in any way.  But the debates themselves are also somewhat interesting to me, as were the debates about Iraq that these debates naturally remind me of, for a rather odd reason - they are about issues that are so central to my consciousness.

I'm not sure why "the responsibilities of the powerful" and "the ability of those with superior force to actually make any difference" are issues that were so significant in my adolescence, but they really, really were.  In retrospect, given that I was a teenager with the normal lack of power that being a teenager implies and no real ambitions to get any more power than I already had, it seems like yet another one of those odd things (like theodicy) that I didn't really have any good reason to obsess over.  But it was a moral issue that I just kept coming back to.  I wanted to talk to my brother about it because the imaginary game that he, our friend, and I played together wound up focusing on such issues to an odd degree - in a game that started out when I was eleven or twelve with the basic premise of, "A huge force of bad guys are destroying everything.  The good guys get attacked and fight back," it probably says something that at least one of his characters and one of my characters both had huge mental breakdowns about the morality of efforts to defeat the bad guys (who, in all honesty, were significantly more worrying and more of a threat than Syria or Iraq ever have been to the US).  Years and years later, after the Iraqi war, I came up with a plot for a short story (it probably would wind up a novella, if I ever wrote it, given what happens to things I write) taking two of my characters from our game and placing them in an entirely different context but forcing them to have another huge argument over the morality of using power; when I was reading the IHT last week I suddenly had odd visions of my two characters coming on a talk show to discuss their beliefs in relation to the Syria argument.  And it wasn't only those games, either - I also came up with a plot for a book where, I later decided during the Iraqi war, my kind-of-attractive-but-nonetheless-rather-villainous-villain was more or less George Bush (albeit with far more personal reason for his dedication to changing other societies' behavior by force, but nonetheless with no direct stake in the conflict he stirred up other than a desire to use overwhelming power to achieve aims he thought were moral).

Again, it strikes me as odd that this was such a moral preoccupation of mine during my adolescent years in the nineties, long before 2001 brought these issues to the forefront of societal discussion.  It wasn't really something that was all that personally relevant at all since I was neither in a position to be making decisions about that kind of thing nor had the desire to see myself in such a position.  Nor did I have the kind of power where my personally withholding my intervention was something that might potentially have moral implications (at least, no more so than any other person from a relatively affluent background).  When I think about where I came across this obsession and its personal importance to me, then, I kind of find myself thinking of Enchantress from the Stars.  This book by Sylvia Engdahl features, as Wikipedia tells us, "a peaceful, technologically advanced, space-faring civilization called the 'Federation,' which monitors worlds which are still 'maturing,' allowing them to grow without any sort of contact or intervention."  When the protagonist does have to intervene in order to save one civilization from another, she has to do it as gently as possible, making use of the beliefs of the locals rather than the overwhelming force her civilization presumably possesses.  I think this book, despite never quite being one of my favorites, just made a really deep impression on me as a child, both as an ideal and as a concept to argue against.  I definitely do get the sense that all of my later explorations of the concept of power and how to wield it as a teenager really did stem from both the ways in which I found Engdahl's Federation attractive and the ways in which I found it really morally troubling.  It might not have been the most emotionally gripping book (although it's also really, really cool narratively - it really is!), but it was one of the most thought-provoking books of my childhood.  I guess that the same issues also came up in Star Trek, but I never watched that as a child, so this was the one that really made an impression on me and introduced me to those ideas that still come up in serious contexts even today.