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David Brin: Our Favorite Cliché — A World Filled With Idiots…, or,
Why Films and Novels Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools

It can be hard to notice things you take for granted — assumptions that are never questioned, because everyone shares them. One of these nearly ubiquitous themes is a tendency for most authors and/or film-makers to disdain the intelligence and wisdom of society as a whole, portraying a majority of their fellow citizens as sheep or fools.

Should this be surprising? The Euro-American fable has always featured an individualistic style. When the public pays for a fantasy experience, riding the shoulder of some bold hero or heroine, each customer wants to identify with a protagonist who is special, unique, or at least interesting in some way that departs from run-of-the-mill, batch-processed humanity. Even when the character seems unremarkable, he or she is marked as singular and fascinating by virtue of being the one whose thoughts and experiences we share.

That’s the magic of “point of view.”

While individuals get our empathy and sympathy, institutions seldom do. The “we’re in this together” spirit of films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s later gave way to a reflex shared by left and right, that villainy is associated with organization. Even when they aren’t portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted. Only the clever bravado of a solitary hero (or at most a small team) will make a difference in resolving the grand crisis at hand.

This rule of contemporary storytelling is so nearly universal that it has escaped much comment – because you never notice propaganda that you already agree with. In other words, the reflex is self-reinforcing. A left-leaning director may portray villainous oligarchs or corporations while another film-maker rails against government cabals. But while screaming at each other over which direction Big Brother may be coming from, they never seem to notice their common heritage and instinct — Suspicion of Authority (SOA) — much in the way fish seldom comment on the existence of water.

Indeed, one of the great ironies is that we all suckled SOA from every film and comic book and novel that we loved… and yet, we tend to assume that we invented it. That only we and a few others share this deep-seated worry about authority. That our neighbors got their opinions from reflexive, sheeplike obedience to propaganda. But we attained ours through logical appraisal of the evidence.

No, you did not invent Suspicion of Authority. You were raised by it.

We Are the Exceptions

In fact, few other cultures subscribed to this myth-making approach. The old USSR pushed consolidationist themes; officially sanctioned Soviet science fiction depicted organizations as the central problem-solving entities, with individuals playing support roles. Even where past societies relished more individualistic story protagonists, they nearly always operated as part of a greater social context. In The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell described a traditional network of helpers, sages, clan elders and mystic guides to whom the typical champion would cyclically appeal for wisdom, assistance or declarations of definitive truth. While the hero might strive against powerful forces, he or she hardly ever questioned the authority of Olympian deities or Fates, or the overall context of rules binding them all.

Today’s dominant storytelling technique, in contrast, nearly always portrays one or two individuals in dire scenarios, without useful support from the societies that made them. There is no help or authority that can be effectively appealed to, because those leaders are at best distracted or foolish. More often than not society itself is the chief malignity that must be combated.

Of course these storyline scenarios mesh well with the intimate, thought-following style of Point of View storytelling. Modern fictional heroes — often talented to a degree that seems larger than life — are shown dealing with some problem or conspiracy that no one else noticed, or confronting the dire consequences of some massive cultural error, or uncovering malfeasance on the part of society’s corrupt leaders. When in doubt, it seems, a writer seems best served by assuming the worst.

In its crudest form, this phenomenon has been called the Idiot Plot.

#

Lately, some intelligent writers like James Fallows have pilloried the news media, blaming them for declining public trust in our institutions. It certainly is true that we’ve seen a lamentable decline in journalistic standards. And yes, many modern reporters breathlessly exaggerate tales of official depravity. But not all news-folk are sell-outs, all the time. When they target mistakes by some corner of the bureaucracy, or a descend like flies toward the stench of corruption, one might argue that they are only doing their job as “social T cells” – part of our immune system against error. Moreover, during emergencies or disasters they do show public servants skillfully performing difficult tasks, helping re-knit the web of services that keeps us all alive.

(In fact, those emergency workers offer up a clue to what’s going on. We’ll get back to that, in a minute.)

What’s significant here is that real life criticism of our institutions is the main thing that makes them better. Ironically, all the noise that makes us feel demoralized and mistrustful of them may be the surest sign of their overall health. No, the greatest blame for our declining morale should not be cast upon journalism.

It is we in fiction who show no respite or mercy, relentlessly depicting civilization as irredeemably stupid or morally bankrupt. If movies and novels were our basis for judging – say you were an alien relying only on the testimony of our adventure flicks beamed into space – then you would conclude that no human institution can be trusted. Cops won’t answer when you call. Or they’ll arrive late. Or if they come in time, they’ll prove staggeringly inept. Or else, if they swoop in swiftly and seem competent, they will turn out to be in cahoots with the bad guy.

Now imagine that your typical film director ever found herself in real trouble, or the novelist fell afoul of deadly peril. What would they do? They would dial 9-1-1! They’d call for help and expect – demand – swift-competent intervention by skilled professionals who are tax-paid, to deal with urgent matters skillfully and well. In other words there is a stark disconnect between the world that film-makers live in, and the worlds that they portray. An absolute opposite of expectation.

And yet, directors like Cameron, Nolan, Spielberg and their peers clearly don’t think they are lying, or doing harm, or insulting the public or civilization or the dedicated professionals they depend upon. I doubt the thought even crosses their minds.

Which is why this whole thing gets completely fascinating.

Self-Preventing Prophecies

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of cautionary tales! Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, On the Beach, Silent Spring, Fahrenheit 451, Soylent Green, Parable of the Sower… these all served up chilling warnings that helped to stave off the very scenarios they portrayed, by girding millions of viewers or readers to think hard about the depicted failure mode, and to devote at least some effort, throughout their lives, to helping ensure that it never comes to pass.

In fact the self-preventing prophecy is arguably the most important type of literature, since it gives us a stick to wield, poking into the ground before us as we charge into a murky future, exploring with our minds what quicksand dangers may lurk just ahead. This kind of thought experiment – that Einstein called gedankenexperiment – is the fruit of our prefrontal lobes, humanity’s most unique and recent organ, the font of our greatest gifts: curiosity, empathy, anticipation and resilience. Indeed, forward-peering storytelling is one of the major ways that we turn fear into something profoundly practical. Avoidance of failure. The early detection and revelation of Big Mistakes, before we even get a chance to make them. While hardly in the same league as Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, Carson, and Butler, I’m proud to be part of that tradition – an endeavor best performed by science fiction.

But this doesn’t explain the dreary ubiquity of contempt that seems to fill the vast majority of contemporary novels and films, depicting the writer’s fellow citizens as barely smarter than tree frogs, in a civilization unworthy of the name.

Ironically, most writers don’t believe society is really that awful. They aren’t trying to be accurate! No, they are creating a commercial product, one that has certain fundamental and ineludible requirements. The most basic of which is this: thou shalt keep thy hero or heroine in pulse-pounding jeopardy for 400 pages… or ninety minutes of film. That is the First Commandment. If you succeed in keeping the audience tense and riveted, then all else is secondary.

Ah, but think again about those skilled professionals. The cops and firefighters and FBI guys who are paid to keep us safe. If they show up on time, competent and effective, they will tell your protagonist: “Hey, that was real cool what you did in scene one, foiling that first villainous plot-thing. Only now step aside. We’ll take over from here.”

Exactly what you want to hear, in real life.

But an utter buzz-kill for drama!

Hence the Iron Rule. Society never works. Along with its corollary. Everyone is stupid. By making these twin assumptions, you can prevent your hero from getting any of the help that would dry-up all the drama. You can blithely and easily keep your protagonist in danger until that final satisfying explosion sets the credits rolling.

#

Want the simplest example? We’ve all seen it in Grade B movies. A dozen spoiled, giggling teenagers enter a haunted house. The lights go out. Someone screams. Then we hear the famous line.

“Hey, gang. Let’s split up!”

Why? Why do kids in these films deliberately choose to do the stupidest thing imaginable?

Because if they don’t split up — if they behave like intelligent people who pool their resources and march out of there with linked arms — the author might actually have to exercise some imagination in order to keep up that precious jeopardy for 90 minutes. But if you start with an assumption of stupidity, the script almost writes itself, hurtling from one gruesome decapitation to the next.

Or take your typical John Grisham book. At a predictable point the hero or heroine is cowering in a motel room, hiding from two dozen bad guys, armed with Uzis, who are watching for her at the train depot, bus station, and airport. They’re using magically-instant credit card tracing to zero in on this very hotel! She’s trapped!

Somehow it never occurs to our stalwart young protagonist simply to walk out of town. Lace up your sneakers and just hike a few miles, by sidewalk along unsurveiled residential streets, to some nearby suburb where the cops have a reputation for honesty. Or the town beyond that.

Why doesn’t it occur to her? Because the novel would be over on page 80, and we can’t have that now, can we?

Have you ever read a Michael Crichton novel, or seen one of his movies, in which the hubristic scientist actually paused and declared: “Hey, science shouldn’t be done in shadows. If I keep this new thing secret I’ll probably do something gruesomely stupid. But if I discuss this innovation with hundreds of peers, some of them will catch my mistakes and things won’t get out of hand. Nobody will die.”

It’s the reasonable thing that any sensible tech wizard would say. But never in a movie. Or just picture someone uttering this line of dialogue:

“Hey, um, Jurassic Park dude. Here’s an idea. Why don’t you just make herbivores first! A billion people will pay to come. (And you’ll only have to pay John Williams for the transcendent-joyful theme music, not the scary stuff.) Then, in ten years, after the security systems are all tested out… make one T Rex! Everyone will pay to come back.”

Do you see how competence and openness are the buzz kills of drama?

Oh, but does that always have to be true?

As it turns out, it is possible to name a movie or two, in which the captain or supervisor or organization aren’t a blithering idiots. The Fugitive, The Silence of the Lambs, and Apollo 13 all show institutions and public officials functioning well. Incidentally, they were all big hits. One of the core differences between Star Wars and Star Trek lies in how those two franchises treat the question of civilization. In the cosmos of George Lucas, not a single institution is shown functioning or doing its job. Once. At all. Ever. In contrast, Trek always loved to chew on questions like when and how the social compact might work, or fail, or need adjustment, or call for flexibility, or be handled differently by alien minds. Civilization – along with its laws and codes and contradictions – is often a major character in each show. A participant, subject to scrutiny, skepticism, but also sometimes praise. But of course, Star Trek always was an exception to every rule.

Literary science fiction and fantasy also wallow in the Idiot Plot, though with a few noteworthy exceptions. Certainly the recent tsunami of dystopia and apocalypse includes a few truly worthy “dire warnings”… while the rest are just rehashes of the same old, dark fears. Excuses to paint stark villains who can be loathed without bothersome politics. Indeed, Sauron’s red, glowing eyes pretty much rule out any danger of plot-slowing stuff like negotiation.

Variations on this theme? Not only is every sci fi innovation kept secret, so that its flaws won’t be uncovered and dealt with ahead of time, but the public seldom is invited to share in the New Thing. Or, if they do partake, they are portrayed using it as stupidly as possible, as in the flick Surrogates, where the brilliant invention of remote robotic surrogacy is only used to look good. Talk about a jaundiced view of your fellow citizens.

Did I allude to exceptions? In literature, you could look to the novels of Iain Banks, which depict our descendants having rollicking, dangerous adventures despite living in a near-utopia thanks to the hard work and genius of their ancestors. (You’re welcome, kids.) Vernor Vinge, in Rainbows End, portrays near-future citizenship becoming tech-empowered art in a society that’s getting better all the time… yet, drama is not killed.

One of my favorite recent exceptions is the series of four Spiderman flicks. None of them are highbrow or classy. But despite their clichéd fluffiness, there appears to be a little-noticed tradition. In all of the first three films, Spiderman repeatedly saves New Yorkers from harm. But there is always a moment of brief role-reversal… when normal people, regular New Yorkers, step up and save Spiderman. Indeed, when I watched the recent fourth one – the reboot – I had to start by quashing sadness over Hollywood’s craven inability to ever try anything new. Still, there came a moment, near the end, when – once again and with style — citizens stood up again for their hero. And I felt a thrill.

I felt proud.

How do such unpoisonous moments manage to sneak in, despite the driving needs of jeopardy pacing? In fact, all of the exceptions listed above stand out as excellent dramas because the writer decided to work for a living, using imagination to depict credible characters, people in peril, with problems to solve. Mistakes are made and these help drive the plot! Nevertheless, the writer or director did not feel compelled to slander all of civilization, just to get a little more jeopardy.

The Sliding Scale

Shall we test my theory? If I’m right, and the dramatic needs of an action plot drive everything, then there should be a simple relationship between the magnitude of the danger and how competent civilization is allowed to be.

If the hero’s nemesis is a regular, run of the mill criminal, you have to find some way to isolate the protagonist and prevent her from getting help from professionals. Local cops are corrupt. Or you’re trapped on in a wilderness without phones. Or bringing in the authorities would deny you vengeance. Or the classic: you’ve been framed or convicted by mistake and the cops become part of the problem. Part of the jeopardy. These methods are standard, though the details can range from hoary clichés to rare plot twists that are cleverly innovative, even surprising and memorable.

Things get a bit easier as your bad guy grows more powerful, especially if you grant the SOB an unlimited supply of henchmen who are willing to die in service of Blofeld’s evil plot to kill everybody on Earth. (Including, presumably, all of the henchmen’s relatives; where does casting find these guys?)

All of this feeds into a sliding scale of villain power. Culminating with the aliens of Independence Day. Notice, in that case, that you no longer need incompetence or corruption of our institutions. Jeopardy takes care of itself. The invaders are so badass that even the United States government and military are allowed to simultaneously be both capable and good! In order to provide spear-carrier support for the two or three point-of-view heroes.

This sliding scale is adjustable. If the director actually wants to do something original – and the writer’s brain is not already fried on cocaine – then there are always possibilities. A chance, here or there, to do what they manage to pull off in the Spiderman films.

A chance to say: “Mistakes were made and bad deeds done. These propel our story and our warning. On the other hand we aren’t enslaved utterly to the Idiot Plot. Beyond the basic needs of our tale, we feel no need to slander a civilization that’s been good to us, bringing to light all the wonders of science, providing us with health and safety and toys, while paying us to tell stories for a living!

“It’s fine to criticize government and all the other centers of power, probing for their inevitable, arrogant error-modes. But we won’t blanket-betray the nation that protected us, or the city whose cops we’d call, if we ever got into real trouble. We won’t undermine the confidence of our fellow citizens by hammering away at their belief in themselves, or their democratic institutions.

“Our movie-or-book is driven by some mistakes and warnings, for sure. And we promise relentless adventure! Thrills, spills and narrow escapes, galore.

“But we will also compensate, palliate, and try not to spread a poison.

“In the background, just beyond our hero’s manic view, you’ll glimpse a civilization that’s not hopeless, and citizenship succeeding just a little, now and then.

“If only because… well… we’ve got to live here, too.”


Comments

Pingback from News about News about Life and Society issue #1 | Blog4.RapiChat.com
Time January 20, 2013 at 2:24 pm

[...] weren't only talking about what is wrong with South Africa, but they wer more… David Brin: Our Favorite Cliché — A World Filled With Idiots…, or, Why Films … – Lo… – locusmag.com 01/20/2013 David Brin: Our Favorite Cliché — A World Filled With Idiots…, [...]

Pingback from Buzz Hollywood: Celebrity News and Gossip: David Brin: Our Favorite Cliché — A World Filled With Idiots…, or, Why Films … – Locus Online
Time January 20, 2013 at 3:00 pm

[...] David Brin: Our Favorite Cliché — A World Filled With Idiots…, or, Why Films …Locus OnlineBut if you start with an assumption of stupidity, the script almost writes itself, hurtling from one gruesome decapitation to the next. Or take your typical John Grisham book. At a predictable point the hero or heroine is cowering in a motel room … [...]

Comment from Liz McLellan
Time January 20, 2013 at 4:02 pm

” One of the core differences between Star Wars and Star Trek lies in how those two franchises treat the question of civilization. In the cosmos of George Lucas, not a single institution is shown functioning or doing its job. Once. At all. Ever. In contrast, Trek always loved to chew on questions like when and how the social compact might work, or fail, or need adjustment, or call for flexibility, or be handled differently by alien minds. ”

Interesting thought… I have a very dogged sense of my civic life and duties…and thinking about it there is a really good chance that I can lay that squarely at the feet of Roddenberry and watching Star Trek obsessively as a young person…

Comment from Thomas Pluck
Time January 20, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Excellent read, David. There are plenty of ways to deny characters help from authority. Marginalize them somehow. Make them distrust authority- even if it behaves competently in the story-world. Put the villain in society’s blind spots, the way a psychopath operates.

Comment from Mike Lorrey
Time January 20, 2013 at 7:28 pm

a whole lotta tl;dr
David, you’ve become a rather disgusting shill for Big Brother and all his schemes to enslave the human race. You attack journalists for being to energetic for attacking government officials? Gimme a break, if there is any problem in this country, it is that the media have become cheerleading shills for the authoritarian that are abrogating our constitution. You among them.

Comment from David Brin
Time January 20, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Exactly Thomas. I have no objection to writers and directors finding clever ways to isolate their characters from getting help, so that they must solve the crises themselves. And if that gimmick also happens to criticize some failure mode in the police or government or the way we run our cities… fine! Good art can criticize while giving us fun adventure. Shine light into blind spots! It is what my nonfiction book The Transparent Society is about.

What I deem lazy and low is the reflex of throwing your protagonist into peril by dint of civilization being completely absent of good and smart and skilled people. Or institutions that creak and groan but try (some of them) sincerely to function. That is not helpful criticism, it is sloth. Moreover, when it is endlessly repeated, it becomes a poison.

We, in science fiction especially, can do better. — DB

Comment from Ed Knight
Time January 20, 2013 at 10:00 pm

There’s an early 90′s Nicholas Cage noir film called Red Rock West that’s stuck with me through the years because the sheriff’s deputy was competent, but always one step behind. The fast pace of the action was what kept him from catching up. I’ve thought that was a good way to maintain tension and competence simultaneously. Help will arrive as soon as the protagonists slow down… If they only could…

Comment from Darryl Parker
Time January 21, 2013 at 3:08 am

Very thought-provoking and revealing. I’m sure the “Idiot Plot” will be with me a long time. Thank you.

I put forth John Shirley’s recent book “Everything Is Broken” (2012) as an example of an exploration of extreme individualism in a strong society that allows for it. The institutions are missing heroes in this tale and the good citizens banded together (with their weaknesses) must overcome the anarchist individuals. It appeals to the Left because of the Libertarian/Tea Party slant of the antagonists, but nonetheless the story is not reliant on the “Idiot Plot”. My only challenge to Shirley is similar to yours to Grisham – just get up and walk out. He addresses that but it is contrived in such a way to come off as a weak attempt. I found the read a refreshing contrast to exactly the plots you describe.

Comment from stevem johnson
Time January 21, 2013 at 4:25 am

In the context of the real world, this boils down to outrage that literature and drama don’t routinely seem to routinely validate the necessity and sufficiency of our world of the free market, sovereign national states, religious pluralism… well, pretty much everything that defines the US as perceived by an upper middle class conventional thinker.

I think it would be much more appropriate to criticize the emphasis on physical jeopardy plots. The universally dim view of human nature derives from unquestioning acceptance of dogmas of original sin by the religiously inclined, and by models of economic man from the secular inhumanists. Physical jeopardy plot assume either or mingle them confusedly. In either view, social institutions are mechanical expressions of human nature or market forces and are not to be questioned. When they are not allowed as objects of study, what other role is there in fiction but an obstacle to a physical jeopardy plot? The point is that humanity is not to be allowed to conceive of social institutions, even in fiction, as something amenable to change, much less held to account.

The arbitrary ways in which social institutions are disappeared to permit a physical jeopardy plot is not an implicit critique. It is a simple plot necessity. But, as said, the emphasis on the individual presumes the religious emphasis on the eternal human soul or the model of society as the outcome of free individual choices. The numerous victories of the protagonists expresses the vicarious victory of the readers or audiences. An endless parade of daydreams about winning the human race diverts us from remembering that the human race isn’t a competition.

Perhaps a critique of cyncism about humanity is in order. But Prof. Brin’s anger and contempt for people who do not forthrightly praise our institutions makes him the last person to make it.

Comment from Mark P
Time January 21, 2013 at 12:08 pm

I hear you, David, very clearly, and I don’t disagree with your basic outline of the Idiot Plot. But what about shows/books that are there as a critique of society and social institutions that play out a nuanced story of people trying to do right(-ish) in a corrupt or dysfunctional system? I’m thinking the Wire and Treme.

Comment from Space27
Time January 21, 2013 at 12:49 pm

To deny characters help from authority. In other words, to keep the protagonists from being helped by authority, society, the public, and any bystanders and cast extras. This is only one method to hold the reader’s interest, and this method is overused.

It is also not needed much of the time. I recall stories and films in which the protagonists do not resort to seeking help from authority or society. Such protagonists simply have no need for that. Others may need help but they are not aware of that fact, or they believe they don’t need help. Still others shun help not because of distrust in anyone, but because of their own pride. Some protagonists simply want to win their game all by themselves, because they are individualists or because self-sufficiency is the custom of their setting. Often these are adventure stories, often they’re male protagonists, and often they win, survive or prevail. Such stories have been popular with readers in all social classes and in many countries. Possibly, many readers have seen a similarity between the fictional societies and their own society in real life: normal, functional, not foolish or weird, but ordinary.

However, help denial is still necessary some of the time. Thriller-type stories involving extra-ordinary situations tend to show their protagonists as not self-sufficient enough to win by themselves, often because the antagonists or circumstances have so much going for them. But even help denial does not have to be done by using adversity from authority or society, nor by using foolishness or weakness of citizens. A fictional authority can be willing and ready to give its help to a protagonist, but this does not have to mean it is always able to. A fictional society can see things as they are and act on it with altruism, but this does not have to take into account resources and obstacles of its own.

Pingback from A World Filled With Idiots – Our Favourite Cliché (via @locusmag) | Literarium – The Blog
Time January 21, 2013 at 8:31 pm

[...] Read on to find out the results of that thought experiment here: http://www.locusmag.com/Perspectives/2013/01/david-brin-our-favorite-cliche-a-world-filled-with-idio… [...]

Comment from David Brin
Time January 21, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Stevem Johnson’s screech at a strawman was hilarious. He howled at something in the mirror. That must be the source, because the opinions and positions that he attributes to me bear not even a glancing relationship to my own. How crowded it must be, in there.

Mark P… I not only spoke about such exceptional shows, I gave plenty of examples.

Space27 I agree that there are many methods to achieve protagonist isolation and among these might be a plethora of reasons why the character CHOOSES to handle things alone. I expressed respect for the range of these techniques, which sometimes are the most original and interesting aspects of a book or film. May aim was not to disdain all Tools of Isolation in storytelling!

Rather, I asked that writers be aware of what they are doing and try to satisfy their story-propelling needs without spreading unnecessary poison. They can isolate the protagonist from plot-killing help creatively, rather than reflexively leaning on the simplest means – by dismissing all of civilization, all people and all citizenship as worthless.

George Lucas’s relentless reliance upon that crutch is the saddest aspect of what started out to be a fine and fun sfnal epic.

Comment from stevem johnson
Time January 22, 2013 at 4:06 am

The belief that there is some sort of “poison” in the plot necessity for physical jeopardy plots to dismiss helpful authority really is Prof. Brin’s. The compatibility of this so-called poison with acceptance of things as they are is demonstrated in reality. It really is Prof. Brin who ignores this and assumes, without argument, that it is “poison.” It really is Prof. Brin who accepts uncritically the value of physical jeopardy plots. He only criticizes “idiot” physical jeopardy plots that don’t openly validate authority.

This is an extremely narrow-minded approach. But it is Prof. Brin’s, not a strawman. It is dishonest to say so. The drivel about mirrors is nothing but mindless hostility. I say that the dismissal of authority for plot is not poison, but perfectly compatible with conservative views widely upheld. Further, I say that the emphasis on the individual in the depressingly near universal emphasis on physical jeopardy of the protagonist itself contains the cynicism about humanity that Prof. Brin supposedly detests. Except that he really only dislikes anything that insults his touchy vanity about, well, us (minus myself, of course.)

Comment from David Brin
Time January 22, 2013 at 11:52 am

Amazing. A civilized or adult person, when told “you are shouting at a strawman and not at me” would re-evaluate and re-read what he had previously skimmed. It is the honorable – even sane – thing to do. Given that we all skim in the modern era and are guilty of leaping to visceral, exaggerated or even sometimes false conclusions. Decent people take such a plea at face value and either back off or read carefully what had been skimmed.

Above all, if they insist that their characterization of the other person’s position is correct, they back it up.

In this case, SteveM is a hysterical example of immaturity. He insists “Brin means this” when I have made clear that I said nothing that even remotely coincides with his accusation. Were I too have said

Comment from David Brin
Time January 22, 2013 at 11:55 am

(Continuing) … were I to have said the things he claims that I said, his response would be appropriate. But given that his delusional interpretation bears no correlation with anything even remotely said in the article, I can safely dismiss his complaints. I’ll not engage or pay the slightest heed to him again.

Comment from Space27
Time January 22, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I realize my previous post is a little long-winded, and I did not give any examples to illustrate it. The ‘world full of idiots’ has been surprisingly widespread. However, it has not been present in all print and film.

David Brin, this perspective of yours is an okay article. Not merely okay, it made me think. It made me take a different look at ways to write, for professionals and the aspiring, and at better ways to read. That is, what the reader could look for in the stories being read, and the movies and TV being watched. The society-of-fools cliches you pointed out well, plus you connected it to other rampant cliches and routines.

I had not find in it anything disgusting or scheming, as Mike Lorrey has. Observing a general pattern and assessing it is not the act of attacking specific people in specific professions. Where do Big Brother and the cheerleading shills of media fit in?

Neither did I notice any anger or contempt, as stevem johnson did. How does pointing out a don’t-trust-society cliche equate to an objection against all social criticism? Or how would that objection equate to charging people with denial of praise for institutions?

And the institutions this article refers to are the fictional institutions. Writers usually don’t empathize or sympathize with the institutions in their stories and scripts. More usually so these days. But the instituitions in fiction are usually not meant to equate to the institutions of our real world. An observation of this is a comment on a general pattern of activity among artists. I don’t see it as a serious condemnation of anything.

Comment from David Brin
Time January 22, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Thanks Space27. You just did while mature persons do… you paraphrased the other’s position and sought to hear what he/she really said, not what would make a convenient strawman. Scarecrows are very convenient for silly people to rage at. I’d rather argue with adults and pepper my disputations with questions. Onward.

Comment from Kailey Rynne
Time January 25, 2013 at 5:33 am

David, it is so good to see someone address the question that always pops into my mind when I read works of fiction that depend upon “the Idiot Plot.” Some good drama may come out of such a plot, but never a truly good book. Unfortunately, I think it is too often used with reckless abandon in my own genre, fantasy. Thank you for the thought-provoking essay!

However, I do want to point out that there’s a bit of a flaw in your closing argument, where you say, “It’s fine to criticize government and all the other centers of power, probing for their inevitable, arrogant error-modes. But we won’t blanket-betray the nation that protected us, or the city whose cops we’d call, if we ever got into real trouble.”

You’re making the assumption that all writers are in fact depicting a society meant to represent and criticize their own society. Around the world, there are countries where the police will not come if you call, or where they are fundamentally corrupt. There are countries where institutions are incompetent and the term “government” is loosely applied. I was a little disappointed to see that you did not touch upon that point at all, especially since some of my favorite novels in fact draw inspiration from foreign civilizations.

I am not saying that taking one’s inspiration from Somalia instead of the United States in itself redeems the “Idiot Plot.” It does not. But I don’t think it’s entirely correct to say that an author or filmmaker who depicts a defunct civilization is “blanket-betraying the nation that protected us.” Our world is more complex than that.

Comment from David Brin
Time January 25, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Kailey, excellent point. But I don’t think it is incompatible with what I’ve said. I am fine even with portraying western/American civilization betrayed and utterly worthless! If the criticism being made has a point and is aimed at a plausible failure mode, then the tale may serve us all as a self-preventing prophecy, like Fahrenheit 451 or Nineteen Eighty-four.

What I consider dismal is simply positing the pathetic uselessness of your own civilization as a slothful reflex and then armwaving it away with cynicism or “it’s just a story.” When a little imagination and actual thought could have achieved the same story in a more realistic and less poisonous context.

Star Wars is a perfect example. The Republic did not have to be portrayed as 100% pathetically useless and stupid and incompetent. 90% would have sufficed. It was laziness. Nothing but.

Thanks and do please try to bring to fantasy some of the spirit of egalitarianism and progress that the real heroes – Ben Franklin & co – brought to all of us when they sparked the Enlightenment’s rebellion against 6000 years of feudal lords. Hey, I like dragons as much as the next guy. But how about the blacksmith’s daughter saves us next time? And forces the wizard to open a community college? ;-)

david

Pingback from It’s a Sci Fi World – moving forward from clichés to the future | CONTRARY BRIN
Time January 26, 2013 at 2:35 pm

[...] just-posted: “My Favorite Cliché: The Idiot Plot” – revealing the secret reason why civilization is treated with contempt by almost all novels [...]

Comment from stevem johnson
Time January 27, 2013 at 11:09 am

From space27: “Neither did I notice any anger or contempt, as stevem johnson did. How does pointing out a don’t-trust-society cliche equate to an objection against all social criticism? Or how would that objection equate to charging people with denial of praise for institutions?”

Sir/Ma’am, Prof. Brin accuses writers who write lazy personal jeopardy plots of “spreading poison.” Those are his words, and they display “anger and contempt” on behalf of Authority. I’m surprised you missed this. Further, the fixation on the Hero is quite compatible with a dismal view of humanity in general, on whatever grounds. And a fixation on the Hero has led to individuals being invested with enormous “Authority.” Personally, as I hoped I made clear, I find that more poisonous than slovenly dismissal of current institutions (or their future selves.)

As to your first question, Prof. Brin sometimes talks about society in general, but the phrase “Suspicion of Authority” makes it clear he is talking about current insitutions, even those in their supposed future incarnations. His caveat that he accepts a space for constructive criticisms of possible failure modes is not the broadminded, tolerant attitude he pretends. It is in fact a rather narrow one, i.e., restricted to what he deems a “plausible” failure mode! Sounding reasonable is not being reasonable. Instead of criticizing the fixation on the Hero, Prof. Brin’s selective outrage at slovenly plotting is a demand for validation of Authority. He’s mad about Suspicion of Authority. He would be pleased by validation of authority. This is offensive.

In your second question, your mischaracterize Prof. Brin’s complaint as against “a don’t-trust-society cliche.” Prof. Brin isn’t clear and consistent but his talk about institutions and “Suspicion of Authority” really are clear enough. Yeah, Prof. Brin wants the majority of plots to validate authority unless they pass his criteria for acceptably constructive criticism! That’s why his essay is so weird and unpleasant.

From Kailey Rynne: “You’re making the assumption that all writers are in fact depicting a society meant to represent and criticize their own society.”

All fictions are about our own society in some fashion or another. Thus they always carry messages, whether intentional or not. I suppose you can measure the artisty by how much of the message is intentional instead of unintentional (and often self-contradictory.) One message of the Hero in Physical Jeopardy plot is that “I” as an individual can hope to win. This is not a message critical of society, but a denial of the need for human solidarity. On one side of his mouth Prof. Brin talks equality but out of the other side of his mouth he didains a side effect of a fixation on vicarious triumph of the self, not society. Don’t listen to him.

Comment from David Brin
Time January 27, 2013 at 2:27 pm

One should deal with hypocrisy and delusion in careful stages. Hence (alas/apologies) I’ll spend more time and space on stevem johnson than I oughta. It is because the meta of all of this is far more interesting than our unpleasant little tiff.

First SteveM clearly realizes that he engaged in strawmanning earlier, screeching at things I never even glancingly said. In his dishonest attempt to backpedal, he now (briefly) does what he should have done in the first place — he actually attempts to paraphrase what I actually said:

“Prof. Brin accuses writers who write lazy personal jeopardy plots of “spreading poison.”

Well, well! He does make an actual attempt to paraphrase in that sentence. Bravo! Although this bears no relation or resemblance to his portrayals in earlier letters, it does now start resembling something I actually said. Alas it does not last. For next he says:

“Those are his words, and they display “anger and contempt” on behalf of Authority.”

Okay, paraphrasing is done, now we return to howling strawmanning. Put aside the fact that they were not MY words but his paraphrasing, plus that “anger and contempt” are in quotation marks, implying I used them. No, shrug those infelicities aside. What matters here is his outright lie about meaning.

In fact, my essay carefully parses the importance of directed criticism of authority — and praises it with the highest encomium that any artwork can achieve — that of “self-preventing prophecy.” Indeed I cite dozens of examples and credit such Suspicion of Authority (SOA) works with preserving freedom and our very existence on this planet today. Um, that offers a pretty steep slope against which he must assert that I mean the diametric opposite.

Further, he conflates even my objection to the LAZY idiot plot tales. I do not ask those dismally slothful tales to bow and scrape before authority. I merely ask that they not lazily _universalize_ their message of contempt for civilization. That they perhaps not disparage ALL or ANY possibility that citizenship or civilization can EVER work. Indeed, in the counter examples that I give, it is not authority figures who are most helpful, but average citizens.

In purely logical terms, then… stevem johnson knowingly tells a complete boner.

But none of that really matters. What merits some discussion with the rest of you is some dissection of his his ex cathedra declaration of my vile motives. Not because I expect him to listen, but because some of you may find it interesting:

Our modern tendency is to construe in other people the simplest possible motives, depending upon whether – on impulse – we define the other person as “with us” or “against us.” This is an affect of an addictive mental state, voluptuously pleasurable, called self-righteous indignation. Just look in a mirror, the next time you are indignant and try denying that it feels grand! I’ve given scientific papers at the National Institutes on Drugs and Addiction on this plague that has mutated our generation from being pragmatic negotiators and problem solvers into a nation of very silly people, outraged at the slant of a hat. Indeed, it is the moral and mental vice that the Idiot Plot most eagerly caters-to.

But that is not my main point here. My point is one of ancient courtesy. When you denounce another person with “You believe that…!” and fill in some horrid thing, you are honor bound to NOTICE when that other person replies with:

“Sir, you misconstrue.”

When that happens, one is behooved to pause. To re-read carefully that which had been skimmed. To tear down the impulsive strawman and use paraphrasing to build instead a sculpture. To consider the other person’s voice and take his word on his stated surface intent. Above all, not to claim powers of mind-reading.

That does not rule out indignant disagreement! You might then proclaim “You SEEM to be saying…” or even “You have IN EFFECT argued for something you claim not to believe!”

That is still very aggressive and trodding dangerous ground, and you are then obligated to cite chapter and verse. The burden of proof is upon you. But at least that approach is sane.

I have no hope or expectation that stevem johnson will parse, absorb, or even non-skim read any of that. But it is wisdom, whatever you think personally of me.

Indeed, it is only in hope that some of the rest of you will find it interesting that I bothered to respond at all to this deeply … to this person.

Persevere and explore
david b

Comment from David Brin
Time January 27, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Again, apologies for that mini-essay. I do get carried away! The only important part is near the end, starting with the paragraph just above “Sir, you misconstrue.”

Anyway, plug on!
d

Pingback from Catching a Dragon » The “I’m Spartacus!” moment
Time January 27, 2013 at 11:07 pm

[...] David Brin has an interesting article on Locus Online about “why films and novels routinely depict society and its citizens as fools.” He points out [...]

Comment from DavidTC
Time January 28, 2013 at 8:49 am

I think the real problem is not fiction that has institutions being in failure mode, but fiction that does not _address_ such failure mode.

There is fiction like, as mentioned, Independence Day, where institutions behave as reasonable as can be expected, even if, for narrative purposes, single individuals are needed to save the day. This is fine.

And there is fiction like The Wire (Warning: I have not actually see that) where the failure of institutions, and what is wrong with them, is itself the plot. This is also fine, and in fact, often what society needs. (At least, when the failure is somewhat grounded in actual problems, and not strange conspiracy nonsense.)

But there are two more possibilities. The third is when there is a complete breakdown in social institutions due to the problems of the fiction, and no one has a problem with that. Now, in some cases, this is somewhat understandable…if WWIII happens, the police probably are going to be slow to respond, and everyone sorta expects that. Or during the Fugitive, there’s a rather obvious reason he can’t rely on any social institution.

But often this is just weird when the problem is localized…sure, the national guard might not believe that zombies have taken over your town, but the fact they can’t reach anyone in a position of authority in the town should result in them showing up anyway. Likewise, if the local cops are corrupt…that’s what the FBI is for. So there _is_ normally functioning social institutions, but somehow they _all_ disappear during emergencies.

That actually *is* a problem, and probably helped result in things like the Katrina response: Oh, it’s an *emergency*, and we’re the authorities…we’re allowed to be incompetent. No. No you’re not.

Although, as bright note, the end of the movie is often signaled by the return of institutions, which is basically admitting that they are vastly more competent than the heroes and their existence completely negates the problem.

And the fourth possibility is even worse. When there’s not a ‘breakdown’ per se in the movie, but the institutions never worked, and _no one saw that as a problem_. You get the sense that no one expects the government to actually function at any point.

That is, I think, the biggest problem. Fiction where institutions are never useful.

Star Wars is actually this later type. Palpatine didn’t ‘break’ the Republic government, it already didn’t work in any useful manner.

Comment from Mike Emery
Time January 28, 2013 at 10:50 am

Brin’s depiction of the iconic individual vs. idiotic masses characterizes every Heinlein novel ever written. It’s not that far of a stretch from “fans are slans,” in fact. The Hollywoodization of storytelling, and its deleterious influence on sf in particular, adds La-La Land’s contempt for everyone outside of Orange County (or Studio City, unless you’re looking at films like “The Player,” which include Studio City as well). That contempt is programmed into their own projects, which the filmmakers themselves wouldn’t walk across the street to see. The contemptuousness is political, and akin to H. G. Wells’s notion of the “resentful slacker” (in his book “’42 to ’44″), who is so offended he is not considered more important that he refuses to do his job. In short, I agree with Brin, but for different reasons than he offers.

Comment from David Brin
Time January 28, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Mike Emery, I agree that there are elements akin to those you describe, though I don’t think it’s as universal as you suggest. Indeed, while my diagnosis is laziness, yours assigns blame to evil character… an assignment which is (forgive me) dripping in “contempt” for those you oppose. Moreover, if I might speak up (slightly) for Heinlein, his tales often do feature central or peripheral roles for the heroic everyman bystander. Moreover, I can think of a few novels in which institutions are not portrayed as utterly hopeless.

Still, you raise good points. Thanks. – db

Comment from Mike Emery
Time January 28, 2013 at 9:56 pm

Not trying to get into a shooting war here. I’ve got limited space and depend on generalization. I’m trying to characterize the “idiot plot” you note, as well as “idiot characters” (or as David Denby in “The New Yorker” put it , caricature is the mode of character in the standard-issue film). I’m not saying that Hollywood is evil. I would say most in current Hollywood lack character, or that producers triumph over others in the so-called “collaborative art” of filmmaking. The bigger blockbuster films have gotten, the more I have turned to small films. I’d much rather resee “Once” than “Prometheus.” The overvaluing of producers (and asst. producers, line producers, etc.) for films was largely triggered by the wild success of of films like “Star Wars” (1977). I liked that film a lot, but its influence on Hollywood was not positive, nor was its influence on the sf novel positive. It encouraged publishers to retreat to junk fiction rather than the kind of original, challenging work Brin is known for. I happily concede Heinlein is better balanced in some books (I love “Harsh Mistress”), and I have read all of Heinlein (to 1973 work) and like him a lot. I also like the film “Ironman” (2008). And Brin’s “NatuLife TM” (1994) is one of my favorite stories of the ’90s.

Comment from David Brin
Time January 29, 2013 at 10:03 am

Thanks Mike. I don’t see any major argument here. Even where I somewhat disagree I found your remarks both courteous and thought provoking. Alas, the biggest character flaw in Hollywood today – I believe – is storytelling cowardice… which is a close cousin of laziness.
All best and persevere — db

Comment from Phil Konstantin
Time January 29, 2013 at 11:13 am

My favorite retort to someone watching a movie who says “why would they do that?” is “Because the script says so.”

Comment from Petar Belic
Time January 29, 2013 at 6:37 pm

David, as usual, a thought-provoking piece. But I can’t help but think that this position comes from the comfortable armchair point of view on a reasonably well-to-do person. For many people, in many countries, societal institutions have indeed failed – from their perspective. Their own governments are inimical to their very existence. Perhaps in a Western Liberal Democracy, the middle and upper classes can get on board the ‘Idiot Plot’ as a trope, but for the rest of the hoi-polloi, this seems all too familiar. Government, religions, philosophers (sorry I had to!), economists, civic leaders and scientists, seem to have failed them, when even basic medical needs can’t be met by the state. Tellingly, however, the story-telling channels we have right now though, the POV is usually the reasonably well-off hero. In delightful contrast to this, I was interested to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” present a protagonist really living on the edge of the current world economic model and doing it’s best to present the world from her point of view.
Having said all this, hurrah for critiques of lazy narratives. Organisations can certainly be ‘heroes’. I can imagine the Librarians at Tanith heroically and patiently reorganising and democratising knowledge right now…

Comment from David Brin
Time January 30, 2013 at 10:57 am

Petar Belic thanks for cogent remarks. I too liked “Beasts” and loved the irony that the protagonists’ adversary-foes were among the nicest and most well-meaning members of civilization, genuinely trying to help… but that civilization itself was something the characters wanted no part of. As I said repeatedly in my article, I don’t mind such denunciations … if that’s the artist’s actual point! If a point is being made. As in 1984 or Dr. Strangelove.

It is the lazy HABIT of reflexive contempt for everything that might possibly work… that’s what I condemn. Sure, institutions are corrupt in much of the developing world… as they were in the U.S. during the Wild West days.. There is a path toward seizing and reforming such institutions and it requires confidence and courage and belief in citizenship, all of which are dissed and disdained by idiot plot tales.

I am in these trenches: e.g. my nonfiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? And my long support for Peter Gabriel’s PROJECT WITNESS (look it up) which provides video equipment so that activists in developing nations can record corruption. In EARTH (1989) I forecast what is now happening, a gradual rise in 3rd world rage vs Swiss and other banks that shelter trillions stolen from poor nations by kleptocratic lords. This will reach a head of steam in the 2020s.

But only if we reinforce rather than undermine the notion that the common folk aren’t sheep. And here you are mistaken. It is in WESTERN art that the idiot plot is most intensely pushed. It is out of Hollywood that the poison is injected most-fiercely, that there is no such thing as citizenship.

Comment from Space27
Time January 30, 2013 at 11:00 am

A shooting war? Who intended to have a shooting war here? Disagreements and debates, yes, but a war….I don’t mind a little friendly sparring now and then.

I see the Idiot Plot as the Typical Overused Plot, but with some conveniences and creativity supplied by idiocy. I see idiocy as coming from various sources: characters who are idiotic; characters who are competent but do idiotic things; and plot points that are idiotic regardless of the competence of characters and their actions. I have a loose definition of idiocy and idiot plots. I regard many of the movies in theaters, on video and in reruns as having idiot plots. Humphrey Bogart once said, as a character in a backstage drama, “He’s not a scriptwriter, he’s a popcorn salesman!”

Comment from Mike Emery
Time January 30, 2013 at 12:56 pm

One of my favorite quotes is from Martin Heidegger, from “On the Question Concerning Technology,” that “questioning is the piety of thought.” I have gotten tired of certain people thinking they know more than the rest of us, how we should think, feel, vote, and spend our money. I can decide all those things for myself, thank you. I wonder whether the idiot plot/character/film/story doesn’t somehow evolve out of a desire to tip the balance in favor of a particular view the reader/viewer is not supposed to embrace. If he does, then he has to admit he’s an idiot too.

Comment from David Brin
Time January 30, 2013 at 2:55 pm

The thing about Suspicion of Authority (SoA) as a modern western meme is that it has yin and yang aspects. It doe promote individualism, originality, creativity, Heinleinian self–reliance… and it is the basis for “T Cell” immune responses that help civilization to target errors before or as they are happening. Because, if you name any center of authority, there is a bunch of people nursing a cult of suspicion toward it! That is very healthy!

But it creates ironies. The average decent liberal frets about undue power concentrated in the hands of feudal-style aristocrats and faceless corporations. The average decent conservative wrings hands over snooty academics and faceless govt bureaucrats. When you put it that way, there’s but one proper response:

“Duh!!”

Blatantly, Big Brother could come to us from the civil service. It HAS slammed us down and cauterized freedom and markets from the oligarchy in 99% of human cultures. Both are right to worry and we guard each others’ backs!

Alas, when you combine SoA with a plague of addiction to the malignant drug high of indignation, the result is that each of us thinks we INVENTED SoA! We assume the other side could not possible be motivated by legitimate fear of “your” favorite elites. And never admit that you suckled SoA as a pervasive propaganda meme from all the movies you ever loved.

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Time January 30, 2013 at 3:20 pm

[...] Locus Online Perspectives » David Brin: Our Favorite Cliché — A World Filled With Idiots…, or,… [...]

Comment from stevem johnson
Time January 30, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Space27, just to be sure, you do agree that personal jeopardy plots that conveniently assume authorities (and, as an aftethought, people in general) to be dysfunctional or corrupt are spreading poison? And don’t agree that a fixation on individual heroes is worse? You also agree that constructive criticism of failure modes aimed at preventive prophecy is the very narrow exception?

I ask because if you agree with these absurd propositions, your complacency about idiot plots is very strange. Prof. Brin will not admit that the Hero fixation undermines citizenship. Instead, a side effect, false assumptions about the futility of institutions (and as an afterthough, people in general,) offend his tender regard for institutions. Apparently citizenship is defined as a fundamental adherence to institutions. How extraordinary! Still, by those bizarre lights, Prof. Brin has a reason to write an angry essay.

But no one who is just interested in good plotting vs. lazy plotting should be so foolish as to call this poison, or accept such hyperbole. The issue is about how this applies to the real world. After all we are talking about the literary opinions of someone who apparently believes that Silent Spring is a novel (and also still needs his seal of approval!) Or that the anti-TV message of Fahrenheit 451 was a preventive prophecy. Or that 1984 was somehow critical of authority, except for not fighting Communism hard enough. Or that Brave New World has to be justified as a preventive prophecy against genetic engineering of humans. (Or possibly against sexual freedoms that include contraception and abortion?) Is this the kind of literary perceptiveness you really want to take guidance from?

From Mike Emery: “I wonder whether the idiot plot/character/film/story doesn’t somehow evolve out of a desire to tip the balance in favor of a particular view the reader/viewer is not supposed to embrace. If he does, then he has to admit he’s an idiot too.” Yes. There are different kinds of authority. The political Hero, who throws aside customary restraints and piddling laws and makes the hard moral choices (which always means hurting someone else) is one whose narrative requires that institutions (and other people, not his supporters) must be regarded as failed. The reason why they are dysfunctional may be attributed to original sin, or to violations of the free market (to name the two most popular,) but this does mean that this narrative is truly critical of institutions. The near universal emphasis on the Hero stems is one of the few acceptable forms of discourse in a society which is resolutely opposed to genuine criticism of social institutions, or society. Slanders against humanity like original sin or economic man are always welcome however.

Comment from Space27
Time January 30, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Actually, stevem, I do not agree that personal jeopardy plots are spreading poison. I also do not think that Mr. Brin meant to equate such plots with that. I took the phrase “spreading poison” as a metaphor, and a loosely applied one at that.

Plot complications provided by authorities (or institutions, or whole populations) that are made nasty or silly for a writer’s convenience, tend to be in common thrillers as the echoing or mimicking of certain older plots which had intended to criticize or satirize certain real-life authorities/institutions/populations. Often an original and serious work is followed my many inferior and pretentious knockoffs. A Brave New World gets a dozen Idiocracies. A Road Warrior gets infinite Deathlands and Outlanders. The paint-by-numbers cautionary tale is not as good as the real thing. Convenient complications get old.

And what is Brin’s “tender regard for institutions”? Do we know how many institutions, establishments and entities there are on Earth? More than we can count. Some of them have even been given personhood. But, already like people in a smaller way, they come in different sizes, shapes and colors. They’re so many and so diverse, one cannot like them all, or hate them all either. Some of them are in conflict with eachother. The institutions can take care of themselves. Why would an individual feel much concern for them? I mean, the State Farm insurance company was never there for me “like a good neighbor”.

Comment from Mike Emery
Time January 31, 2013 at 8:53 am

Thank you, Space27, for mentioning specific films. Generalizations have their limitations. The prototype of good films attacking institutions, or Hollywood wagging its finger at other parts of society, is typified by “Wall Street,” which decimates investing by showing how it can be subverted from within. But it shows how another institution can answer that subversion.

I teach my students to identify slanted language, and not use it themselves, when they do argumentation. I wonder whether the idiot plot/character is a form of slanted language (“Can we afford to let hardened criminals out of prison early to renew their war on society?”).

Comment from David Brin
Time January 31, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I would normally cease responding to a rude person after two attempts. stevemjohnson persists in shoving stupid strawmen in front of me and proclaiming “Brin believes this!” without a scintilla of logic or evidence.

I confess, there is a silver lining – rather endearing – in watching his style of backpedaling. If you read his passages carefully, you’ll see successive brief “attempts” to paraphrase. Alas tendentiously, to shore up strawmen. Still, paraphrasing is one thing people do, when trying to find a mature path out of rigid arguments, so I read earnestly. Earlier, stevem’s salvoes were hilariously like calling out squares in BATTLESHIP that were in different oceans. e.g. ranting that I demanded that all art kowtow to all authority. An assertion so counterfactual that I could not even be amused, only concerned for his health.

His latest iteration is at least on the same game board. Alas, that is all the good I can glean. My point was that sloth motivates many storytellers to disdain ANY chance that any institutions or common citizens can EVER contribute to solutions. His insistence that I meant something disgustingly different, just in order to cram “Prof Brin” into his outrage-addiction, is becoming tiresome.

Fortunately, his subsequent paragraph-railings eviscerate any remaining credibility. I am even able to suppress my residual moment of curiosity over WTF he means by the Hero Fixation, a new element that he assumes we should all instantly grasp. I am always alert for puzzling or newish sounding ideas and feel tempted…

… but no. This is over. I’ll not have any more truck with this deeply rude and unbalanced person. Fortunately, – as we’ve seen – stevem is quite capable of holding ongoing raging arguments with others who are figments entirely of his own concoction. So rage on without me.

Comment from Space27
Time January 31, 2013 at 6:50 pm

A brilliant article followed by a thoughtful thread, but it had to be scorched by a flamer. I tried to converse with stevem without any rage on my own part. Maybe I played the role of an inflatable clown, ignoring all the punches and bouncing back up to continue a dialogue. Not hard to do when it’s all with words. Why can’t we just play with our Play-Dough without somebody throwing their at another, or accusing another of hogging all the red? It’s just ideas.

Comment from Mike Emery
Time February 1, 2013 at 7:49 am

Oh, come on. It’s the Internet, where nobody knows anything.

Comment from stevem johnson
Time February 2, 2013 at 6:31 am

From Space27: “And what is Brin’s ‘tender regard for institutions?”

Prof. Brin wrote, “Cops won’t answer when you call. Or they’ll arrive late. Or if they come in time, they’ll prove staggeringly inept. Or else, if they swoop in swiftly and seem competent, they will turn out to be in cahoots with the bad guy.

Now imagine that your typical film director ever found herself in real trouble, or the novelist fell afoul of deadly peril. What would they do? They would dial 9-1-1! They’d call for help and expect – demand – swift-competent intervention by skilled professionals who are tax-paid, to deal with urgent matters skillfully and well. In other words there is a stark disconnect between the world that film-makers live in, and the worlds that they portray. An absolute opposite of expectation.”

Prof. Brin is upset about movies where the police are not depicted favorably enough! When I answered your question about Prof. Brin’s anger and contempt, it was because I assumed it was honestly meant. I’m not longer so certain, as you didn’t respond. You seem to be excusing the “poison” charge, obviously an angry and contemptuous one given how absurd it is in a real world context, as merely a “loose metaphor.” So? It’s a malicious metaphor. I asked you three questions. You ignore two, and rephrase the other to mean something different, confusing the issue. You congratulate yourself on your lack of rage, which is all very nice I suppose. But you are not conversing with me. It’s hard to see where you’ve made any effort to engage.

My criticism of Prof. Brin was harsh, but fair. There was no rebuttal of arguments because he didn’t make any, he merely asserted an argument. I even offered a counterargument, equally unsupported, it’s true. But unless the real problem is that it is lese majeste to criticize a published author even when he says something so extreme, it’s no more invalid than the original essay. Plus, it was a hell of a lot shorter.

You want to discuss supporting evidence from films? Try The Lord of the Flies. That’s hugely important on this general topic. But the essay runs so long because it must carefully limit the topic, so that its anger and contempt for incidental negative portrayals of authority (more or less identified with humanity!) as “poison.”

What do you want? You’re the one who claimed not to see any evidence of anger and contempt on Prof. Brin’s part. And you did so in a way that made it an attack on my post. Fine, I responded civilly. You seem to feel that you’ve been jabbed. Pointed questions are not an assault. What you’ve posted really does contradict Prof. Brin’s extreme views, yet you insist you find his “brilliant.” You even go so far as to talk about “a flamer” but the only flamer here is Prof. Brin.

Comment from stevem johnson
Time February 2, 2013 at 6:34 am

Sorry, my typing and proofreading skills are an imposition. For those who actually read the post, the sentence fragment in the penultimate paragraph was meant to end “‘poison,’ seem reasonable.”

Comment from David Brin
Time February 2, 2013 at 11:02 am

X-22… miss! …. Y-14… miss! …. V-44… miss! Mirrorboy dances with self….

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Time February 2, 2013 at 4:45 pm

[...] Locus Online Perspectives » David Brin: Our Favorite Cliché — A World Filled With Idiots…, or,… [...]

Pingback from Science Fiction and Our Duty to the Past | CONTRARY BRIN
Time February 3, 2013 at 12:09 pm

[...] few try as hard to break cliches. My classic essay: “The Idiot Plot” – showing why civilization is treated with contempt by almost all novels and films [...]


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