Monday, June 25, 2007

From Thomas Jefferson to Star Trek

Conservatives stereotypically make a great deal of noise about the flaws and failures of contemporary liberalism. One point that tends to be overlooked is that there are certain trends of thought that have defined liberalism from the first days of an independent United States to the present. One of these trends is the idea that absolutely everyone would be much better off if we all just ditched high technology altogether and went back to an agricultural, non-industrialized way of life.

Thomas Jefferson was notorious for this belief, although it was certainly more plausible in his day than ours. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote in "The Age of Jackson" (p.8) that:
The America of Jefferson had begun to disappear before Jefferson himself had retired from the presidential chair. That paradise of small farms, each man secure on his own freehold, resting under his own vine and fig-trees, was already darkened by the shadow of impending change. For Jefferson, Utopia had cast itself in the form of a nation of husbandmen. "Those who labor in the earth," he had said, "are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people"; and the American dream required that the land be kept free from the corruptions of industrialism.
The Jeffersonian ideal certainly didn't survive long for the United States as industrialization and monopolization slowly accelerated during the 19th century. The Jeffersonian dream didn't exactly go away either. For example, during World War II the United States and the United Kingdom briefly considered an exclusively agrarian future for Germany in the form of the Morgenthau Plan:
In 1944, Morgenthau proposed the Morgenthau Plan for postwar Germany, calling for Germany to be dismembered, partitioned into separate independent states, stripped of all heavy industry and forced to return to an agrarian economy.
Nowadays, the environmental movement has caused a dramatic revival of the Jeffersonian dream. Its single most popular modern-day proponent is Al Gore; according to, Al Gore wrote in "Earth in the Balance" (p. 366) that:
This crisis will be resolved only if individuals take some responsibility for it. By [sic]education ourselves and others, by doing our part to minimize our use and waste of resources, by becoming more active politically and demanding change. each one of us can make a difference. Perhaps more important, we each need to assess our own relationship to the natural world and renew. a connection to it.
Then there is the Star Trek franchise which seemingly has every other episode devoted to virtuous pre-industrial societies getting bullied by their stronger, more aggressive neighbors. The common assumption of all Star Trek writers seems to be that a sizeable fraction of civilizations in the galaxy will just give up on technology altogether -- assuming that they were evil or stupid enough to acquire it in the first place -- even if it means getting pushed around by Klingons armed with knives and sharp sticks.


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