A trope is a storyline that can be applied over and over again. So the hero off on a quest or the girl left at home to whom he will return are two tropes or part of the same one, this one as old as Homer, in the case of the Odyssey, the girl not being a young thing but his long separated wife. One of the things learned from studying literature is not to be caught up in tropes that seem to be the common wisdom when all they are are ways of imagining a situation that excludes other ways of doing so. If I, myself, have made a contribution to the #metoo debate in this blog, it is that the trope of males being obnoxiously aggressive is not the only way to imagine the interaction between employers and employees, however much that may be an accurate way of describing Hollywood and its casting couch culture. I remember a time when the organizing principle for interpreting the relation between men and women was romantic, men and woman sparring with one another until they engaged in a clinch and a kiss, the aggressive bully an exception rather than what is always to be looked out for. Better to think of Beatrice and Benedict or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan than of Harvey Weinstein.
The same is true with the relation of artificial intelligence to the military, which, on the basis of a New York Times article that appeared yesterday, might seem frightening. We all tend to imagine that the military uses science only for apocalyptic ends, that the military is irrational in its pursuit of ever more and more sophisticated and more destructive weaponry and that it can bring no good. We are trained in this trope by movies like “Dr. Strangelove” and the Terminator trilogy and, most relevantly, by that old Matthew Broderick movie, “War Games”, that put America's nuclear response in the hands of computers that could not be turned off except at the very last minute, the computers having thought they had discovered a threat from the other side. I suppose that this trope goes even farther back, to H. G. Wells' "Things to Come", which imagined that a new world war, a second world war, would set civilization back to barbarism until the world was rebuilt by the scientists who knew how devastating war could be.
I am afraid people will be taken in by this trope, that the military getting into artificial intelligence is bound to lead to doom. But the truth of the matter is that we, meaning liberal intellectuals, were wrong when we invoked this trope at the height of the Cold War, when C. P. Snow, among others, claimed that the chances of our destroying ourselves as well as the Russians in a war of nuclear annihilation were north of ninety percent. Many of us spiritually sided with Bertrand Russell in being against nuclear weapons, or with Carl Sagan for proclaiming that an atomic war would lead to a nuclear winter that would blanket the globe and not allow crops to grow and so doom most of the human race, including the victors, to starvation. I did place some confidence in the idea of mutually assured deterrence, an idea I had gotten from military theorists, but I did wonder whether it was not just a matter of time before we arrived at our doom through inadvertence or because of a mad dog general or just because systems break down. The Cuban Missile Crisis was just a harbinger of that doom which awaited us. But the truth of the matter is that the defense analysts were right. Mutually assured destruction did work as a deterrence and Hot Lines and other mechanisms did prevent nuclear war by accident. And we are better off for being neither Red nor dead. The military persevered even if they did so with such bizarre measures as equipping missile silo officers with pistols so that they could shoot one another if they did not obey instructions either to launch or not to launch their missiles. I am not proud of that history. I would have preferred, at least when I was much younger, a United Nations, as FDR envisioned it, that would become a world government rather than a United States that would become policeman to the world and a model to other nations, as it has been except when George W. Bush was President and also for the past two years.
It is difficult to give up tropes just as it is difficult to give up norms or values, the differences between the three that norms are discovered to be such only after they are violated while a stock of tropes are perfectly clearly available to us from the literature we have read or been exposed to and tropes, unlike values, do not have to be abstracted formulations for which it is always possible to find a counter-argument, as when we can counter the Golden Rule by suggesting it would be better to have what we might call a Titanium Rule whereby people ought to treat others better than they would want themselves treated. One trope does not disprove another; rather, it undercuts it and so allows it to be seen with disdain. Tropes have weight but can be altered. And so I remember when all the children in my neighborhood had a meeting and decided, in the late Forties, that they would abandon the old rhyme and rephrase it as: “eeny, meeny, miney, mo, catch a tiger by the toe”. That was because we had more allegiance to a different trope, which we had learned as even younger children, that we should never forget that once we had all been slaves in Egypt.
There is another clash of tropes at work in the news this week. The death of John McCain has been greeted with an outpouring of praise for him as a war hero, as a straight talking Senator, as a man of humor and grace, even though it could also be said of him that he was slow on civil rights and was very much in line with Conservative beliefs on the economy and never found a war he didn’t like and that he never sponsored a piece of legislation whose results endured. The praise can be understood as part of the trope which is that it makes us seem more honorable if we do not speak ill of the dead. We are showing that our common humanity demands we be humble before death, that all of us are brothers and sisters living under the sword of Damocles. Be gracious. That, however, was not a choice that President Trump originally made. He lowered the flag on the White House for only one day and provided only a brief note of condolence to the family. Liberal cable news and many citizens took that as an affront to the memory of John McCain and so just another way in which Trump was being crude and ungracious.
But there is another trope that can be applied. There is no higher tribute to a foe that you do not relent in your hatred of him, that you do not seek to make up with him just because he is dying or has recently died. So Achilles dishonors the corpse of Hector because they were mortal enemies. Achilles will not go soft because Priam asks him to. Should I now be soft on Robert E. Lee or Joe McCarthy because they are dead? Or is hatred of one’s enemies no longer an honorable emotion, having been replaced entirely by the trope of loving dead enemies because they were, after all, merely human?
Another event in the news this week reminds me of the virtue of that alternative trope. (Every week of news supplies more than enough grist for the mills of social and literary analysis.) Pope Francis has been all over himself, full of apologies for the child abuse scandal in Ireland and Pennsylvania, without actually suggesting any reform measures he might take, for example, in reforming the education of seminarians or even ending the priestly vow of chastity, given that it is so often disobeyed and with sometimes harmful results. Pope Francis seems to be stuck on the idea that the asking of forgiveness is the ultimate surrender of an individual to morality. That is indeed the lesson of church history. Jesus forgives all of us our sins if we merely sincerely ask for forgiveness, Salvation lies in the plea, for it shall be answered. Well, what if that is not enough? What if institutional reform and not just the sweet feeling of having been forgiven is required to put an atrocity to rest? That calls into question the entire trope of the church, pushing aside the idea that the Church is pure even if its priests are corrupt. So there is a lot at stake if the Church does not come up with an alternative to a formula that sounds more and more like a platitude and I do not know if the hierarchy, so long schooled in the trope of forgiveness, can be ingenious enough to come up with something that will excite the imagination of Catholics everywhere, who need only stop their donations and their attendance to bring down this two thousand year old institution. Maybe an unprecedented mass resignation or a stop to wearing those silly dresses. It may be that the storyline of forgiveness, even when sanctioned by the death of someone who had been a political opponent, is played out but I can't predict what will be the new storyline, just as I do not know what will end the storyline that sets Trump up for being impeached.
So it is necessary to decide which morals will guide our lives, those less matters of principle than they are of the stories we allow ourselves or that occur to us to tell ourselves about events. And, beyond that, to question our stories. So today we must make the effort to get past the story of a military doomsday machine. I refuse to allow myself to be frightened by the military taking up A. I. Why wouldn't they, just as they have taken up cyberwarfare? You don’t want them to abandon that too even if it is what protects our elections from interference by the Russians. A. I. is there to be taken up, to be turned to military purposes and, to use another trope, I am still frightened by the Nazi spectre and remember that the military saved us from that. So I am not surprised by the article in the Times nor frightened by it.