Monday, February 2, 2015

Brave New World: How Change Happens

Dr. Carl Djerassi

"Recreational sex is an integral part of society. According to the World State, sex is a social activity, rather than a means of reproduction and, as part of the conditioning process, is encouraged from early childhood. The few women who can reproduce are conditioned to use birth control, even wearing a "Malthusian belt," a cartridge belt holding "the regulation supply of contraceptives" worn as a fashion accessory. The maxim "everyone belongs to everyone else" is repeated often, and the idea of a "family" is considered pornographic. Sexual competition and emotional, romantic relationships are rendered obsolete because they are no longer needed. Marriage, natural birth, parenthood, and pregnancy are considered too obscene to be mentioned in casual conversation."
Wikepedia description of "Brave New World"

Sunday's New York Times carried several different articles which struck me as being related, although I doubt the editors would have grouped them

One was an obituary of, Carl Djerassi,  the biochemist who first devised an economical way of making progesterone, which was the breakthrough required to manufacture oral contraceptives. He was called, "the father of the birth control pill," although, as he correctly noted, many scientists contributed and he was simply a convenient icon.  

The second article was a meditation on how change happens, using abolition of slavery as the template.  The historian who wrote the piece noted that Abolitionists, those pure of soul folks who worked diligently to abolish slavery were widely reviled, and, ultimately, ineffective. Their righteousness is now indisputable, but their effectiveness minimal, and without the war, and the desertion by the Southern senators and congressmen from the government in Washington, and the craftiness of Lincoln, the 13th amendment would never have been passed and slavery might have survived into the 20th century. 

The final piece was Ross Douthat's piece on how people of the liberal persuasion have turned to protest and social issues, now they find the path toward economic justice blocked by the Republican majorities in Congress and on the Supreme Court.
He correctly notes that Occupy Wall Street has gone the way of the Yippies, just one more example of a group of well meaning, righteous and in some ways admirable people who simply fumbled the ball because they had not actually thought through what they wanted and how to get there. 

Douthat goes on, "Finally, the late-Obama left is shaped by the success of the same-sex marriage movement, a rare example of a progressive cause that seems to be carrying all before it. To activists, its progress offers a model for winning even when electoral obstacles loom large. It shows that the left can gain ground at the elite level and then watch the results trickle down."

I will have to go back and re read Brave New World, but I can well recall how powerfully it affected me as an adolescent. It was supposed to be a dystopia, but I was so taken with the idea of such complete sexual and social freedom, of the then fantasy of what it would be like to live in a world where all the repression surrounding sex and man/woman relationships could be jettisoned, that, for me, it was a secret utopia. 

And, lo and behold, much of Huxley's dream came true.  So much of science fiction in the first half of the 20th century had to do with fantasies about transportation and firepower--obvious concerns for those times--but I cannot recall much about a future ruled by changes in information technology or biological manipulation. Brave New World was all about the social forces which could be unleashed by advances in biology.

I had forgotten the parts about test tube production of new human life, but even that has come to pass. Of course, in the American wrinkle, it has been co-opted by money.  "Infertility" doctors are ruthless in their pursuit of dollars as they guide their customers through IVF and other procedures designed to achieve parenthood. That is the dark side of progress.

But, on the bright side, there are grateful parents who never would have received that gift of parenthood. Even the most bizarre and cruel murderer, "The Fall" 's Paul Spector, is entirely convincing when he takes his young daughter in his arms and tells her, "Whatever happens, remember: The best thing in my life has been watching you grow up."

When I was growing up, sex was for procreation, to be had for the first time on the wedding night and only within marriage. In the (relatively) short time of one life, it has become, as Huxley described, "recreational" and if not encouraged, at least accepted to begin as early as possible, or as early as the child/adolescent if ready for it. 

And, truth be told, the sex part is really not the essential part. In Huxley's world, separating breeding from human contact was important because it allowed for the continuation of a social order, in which people remained in their own classes, happy there and not rattling cages. Biology had progressed to the point where you could choose to produce people with various levels of intelligence and physical capabilities, almost as you might breed cattle or dogs, to fill certain niches and occupy certain occupations.

And what do we have now in America?  Do people move from the upper 1% down to lower classes with any regularity?  Do people born in the lower 15% of the SES group move, with any regularity up to the upper 20%?  Do we not have a remarkably static society now, in which people get born into their station in live and stay there--the rich get richer (and stay richer) and the poor get...well, we used to say, and the poor get children, but now at least, happily, we do not have to say that.


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