Future Shock, Chesterton, Columbo
Corroding our Spotless Machines in the Light of the Utterly Reasonable Moon
Just One More Thing
I watch Columbo every night. It’s a treasure trove of character acting, narrative diversions, iconic guest stars. There’s an ecosystem of gifted regulars (Vito Scotti, etc), the deft (sometimes eccentric) touches of Patrick McGoohan and John Cassavetes. The real draw, of course, is Peter Falk’s brilliant detective, but these other elements turn an already great franchise into something more than the sum of its parts. Like The Golden Girls, it's also comfort viewing. I used to watch reruns with my grandparents, or during the day if I was home sick from school.
I dipped into Twitter the other day and saw a post from cartoonist Janos Kanov saying for the next hour, he’d be taking requests. I asked him to do Detective Comics starring Columbo instead of Batman. I think the results are glorious:
A few nights ago, I caught an episode (A Friend In Deed) with the following dialogue about a Bel-Air burglary gone wrong(?):
Columbo : Let me ask you something... how do you figure this guy? I mean, to me; a burglar is like a hungry alley cat. He sneaks around after dark, but if he hears something, he runs.
Lt. Duffy : Haven't you ever heard of Future Shock? The world's going to hell with itself! Believe me Columbo, times have changed.
I’m really not one to yell at the sky. Still, there’s an awful lot to this. It’s been 51 years since Lt. Duffy referenced Alvin Toffler’s then-still-new theory. Think of all that’s come and gone. While pop-futurists imagined advances in macro-technology (in the year 2000, we’ll live on the moon!), most of our science has focused on shrinking the footprint required for better computing. Moore’s Law brought us the PC and smart phone. Toffler’s terms (future shock, information overload) describe psychological and societal responses to too much change in too short a time. In the 800 human lifetimes from 50,000 BC to 1970, 650 were spent in caves.Now, we go to the moon. Criminals (a cowardly, superstitious lot) turn from opportunistic theft to murder. A quaint idea in 1973 (and, because it’s Columbo, a red-herring), but it’s hard to deny we’ve become more neurotic, more isolated, more susceptible to social contagion and disinformation. We’re more violent, less safe. In the relationship between productivity and wages, we’re poorer. Our soup kitchens and food pantries, opened in the late 70s and early 80s as temporary stop-gaps in the War on Hunger, have never been able to close. Our relationships suffer, our grasp on reality wanes.
There are fortunes yet to be made from our division, this on top of the piles and piles of cash we’ve already forked over in support of our preferred sets of facts. Our leaders fatten their campaign coffers, mostly to cynical ends.
Can we blame Future Shock for the mass-shootings? Maybe, in part. It seems dishonest to downplay the mental health crisis, and the people who talk most about it in this context (Congressional Republicans) have no intention of funding the kinds of healthcare programs that might make a difference. They don’t even support universal background checks or red flag laws. It’s dishonest, no, diabolical, to pretend there’s no connection between the expiration of the assault weapons ban and the rise in mass shootings.
I think Jon Stewart, who doesn’t want to repeal the Second Amendment or confiscate guns, deals with it fairly in the following exchange.
I am making my way through G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Chapter 2, “The Maniac,” is germane to various points above. “The madman,” he says, “is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”Nathan Dahm’s reason is laser-focused on one word, “infringe,” and this renders him completely nonsensical. In Chesterton’s terms:
“Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large. A bullet is quite as round as the world, but it is not the world. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument.”
The complete, narrow circle is a “spotless machine” allowing no trace of nuance.Rational as it may be on its own terms, it is hermetically sealed from outside experience; it is bereft of wisdom, compassion, and truth. Spotless becomes a relative term; the whole thing is covered in blood.
The Utterly Reasonable Moon: Poetry and Rocket Propulsion
There’s only one of Toffler’s 800 lifetimes between his and Chesteron’s work. Orthodoxy debuted five years after Kitty Hawk. Future Shock was a year after Apollo 11. For Toffler, understanding and preparing for the maddening pace of technological, economic, and societal change was essential. Chesteron believed humility, philosophical tension, and art could help. “The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so to make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion.”Chesterton is not demeaning reason as such, but assessing the ramifications of a collective rationalism given wholly over to material pursuits. In other words, future shock.
“Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world. But the Greeks were right when they made Apollo the god both of imagination and of sanity; for he was both the patron of poetry and the patron of healing. Of necessary dogmas and a special creed I shall speak later. But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur. But the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name.”
Alvin Toffler, Future Shock. 1970. 14.
Bob Kane, via Bruce Wayne.
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. 1908. 17