The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the purest specimens of midcentury rationalism ever produced. Anyone who wishes to understand the narratives of progress and liberation, that hold so much sway over so many, owes it to themselves to watch this movie.
The basic elements are all there: an alien from a superior civilization. Human beings who let fear become their guiding principle, and who are hopelessly unable to overcome their internal divisions. A lot of conflict and intrigue leading up to a didactic speech for the finale.
The ideology that went into the making of this movie was most apparent, to me, in the early interactions between the alien Klaatu and a man simply introduced as Harley, the “Secretary to the President.”
Klaatu demands a meeting, not with the president or even with the UN, but with leaders from all of the nations in the world. When Harvey attempts to explain the politics that make such a thing unlikely, Klaatu shows nothing but contempt.
My mission here is not to solve your petty squabbles. It concerns the existence of every last creature who lives on Earth.
When the attempt to gather all of Earth’s leaders fails, Klaatu is equally as understanding.
Calling political problems complex is merely an excuse for stupidity, which a superior being has no patience for. Meanwhile, Klaatu is incapable of compromising—he will not meet with some or even most of the world’s leaders, and broadcast to everyone else. No, it’s either everyone, or the annihilation of life on Earth. Complexity or compromise are for the stupid.
After watching this scifi classic recently, I could not help but think of two contemporary figures who, while undoubtedly rationalists of a sort, have more self-awareness of this tendency.
One was Scott Alexander. In this post, which is in the form of a dialogue, the following exchange occurs:
Bob: But you could make the same argument about picking stocks, couldn’t you? Do lots of research, focus on the ones where you’re most certain that they’re overvalued or undervalued, and then you have great odds of getting rich! But of course, we know that doesn’t work. Everyone else is trying the same thing, and the current position of the stock market reflects the consensus results of that process. You run afoul of the efficient market hypothesis.
Alice: Now you’re just being silly. There’s no efficient market hypothesis for politics!
Bob: But why shouldn’t there be? A lot of people mock rationalists for thinking they can waltz into some complicated field, say “Okay, but we’re going to do it rationally“, and by that fact alone do better than everybody else who’s been working on it for decades. It takes an impressive level of arrogance to answer “Why are your politics better than other people’s politics?” with “Because we want to do good” or even with “Because we use evidence and try to get the right answer”. You’d have to believe that other people aren’t even trying.
Emphasis added by me.
The second comes from Neal Stephenson’s most recent book, Seveneves:
Luisa chuckled. “I hear you, sugar. I’m not gonna say you’re wrong. But I have to warn you that this is the word—‘ politics’— that nerds use whenever they feel impatient about the human realities of an organization.”
Alexander and Stephenson acknowledge that the “human realities” of politics and group action, and even of acquiring knowledge, are legitimate problems. Not “petty squabbles,” not merely a matter of clearing “stupidity” out of the way.
Yet both largely end up taking more subtle and nuanced paths to similar ends. Alexander concludes his post by arguing that the effective altruism movement is capable of eradicating global poverty. Stephenson’s novel continues to be framed as a struggle between technocrat-engineers who just want to roll up their sleeves and solve problems, and politicians who use their influence over the more numerous non-engineers to obtain power at the risk of compromising the whole mission.
I am not going to offer up a critique of this framework here. Greater minds than mine have done so, many times. And greater minds than mine have defended it.
I will, however, end with Klaatu’s didactic speech, the payoff of the whole movie. Those who wish to avoid spoilers can skip it. But I was amused by the tepid, almost bureaucratic character of the speech. This was no idealistic or romantic call to rise above ourselves. This was a cheap Leviathan with a defense of it that lacked heart.
In any case, this is the speech:
Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves — and hired policemen to enforce them.
We of the other planets have long accepted this principle. We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets — and for the complete elimination of aggression. A sort of United Nations on the Planetary level…
The test of any such higher authority, of course, is the police force that supports it. For our policemen, we created a race of robots–Their function is to patrol the planets — in space ships like this one — and preserve the peace. In matters of aggression we have given them absolute power over us.
At the first sign of violence they act automatically against the aggressor. And the penalty for provoking their action is too terrible to risk.
The result is that we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war — free to pursue more profitable enterprises.
We do not pretend to have achieved perfection — but we do have a system — and it works.
I came here to give you the facts. It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet — but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.
This is the best the superior being, who looked down his nose at our “petty squabbles,” had to offer? “We do have a system—and it works.”
You know who else had a system? I hear it even made the trains run on time.
One wonders if the writers of The Day the Earth Stood Still truly believed that some analogue of completely trustworthy peacekeeper robots are or will be available to the human race. I worry that too many may think so, even today. Even when our rationalists show a modicum of self-awareness.