Essays: Kahn goes Boom! |
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Kahn goes Boom!

THE week was a-tremble with omens of disaster. Miss World got fired by the almighty Mecca: jostled from the groove of rectitude by her doe-eyed regard for George Best, Tom Jones and Peter Revson, she was judged no longer fit to carry out her regal duties. On BBC news, Kenneth Kendall gravely brought us the fell tidings.

On Midweek (BBC1) there was an excerpt from President Nixon’s latest press conference, showing his face to have reached a stage beyond deliquescence and bordering on liquefaction. If placed in a beaker, you wondered, would it form a convex meniscus, like mercury, or a sticky concave one, like lolly water?

Meanwhile, in sports-loving Munich, the World Figure Skating Championships (BBC1) sprang a small but chilling leak, when it was blatantly revealed that the Soviet judge gives high marks to Soviet skaters even when Soviet skaters fall on their Soviet behinds. Rodnina made a boo-boo and still got maximum points from her adjudicating compatriot, who was apparently working on the Stalinist assumption that reality is what power pronounces to be true. Invidious in most respects, such a principle at least has the advantage of being intelligible to laymen. What most of the judges think they are judging when they judge ‘artistic impression’ remains a mystery.

It went without saying, in this nebulous context, that Toller Cranston of Canada once again did not win the Men’s Championship. His Artistic Impression was only a tenth of a point or so better than that of the man who did and was therefore not enough to give him the lead. And yet the truth is that Cranston is an artist and the rest of them are, to various degrees, penguins, with silly straight arms like flippers. Fifty years from now, if no busy fool has wiped them, the tapes of his current programme will be looked on as some of the art-sport era’s most beautiful products.

That is, of course, if 50 years is not too optimistic an expectation of mankind’s future. Over the past five years television has been instrumental in convincing humanity that unless it has a vasectomy and learns to recycle its non-biodegradable flotsam, it will be smothered by a rising tide of empty detergent containers on or about April 1979. This impression being by now well ground in, the new fashion is to set about reversing it. Broadly, the shift is from the gloomwatch mood of Professor Ehrlich back to the good old dependable zest and bounce of Bucky Fuller, who cheerily regards energy crises as the merest blockages in Spaceship Earth’s fuel-lines, easily cleared by the whirling Dyno-rod of the human intellect.

Embodying this change of emphasis on a massive scale is fat-man futurologist Herman Kahn, hugely in evidence this week in an Horizon called The Future Goes Boom! (BBC2). Roly-poly Herman first reached fame as a Thinker about the Unthinkable, dreaming up Scenarios for the conduct of nuclear war. In the Pentagon his message went down like a 50-Megaton bomb, since thinking about the unthinkable was an indispensable preliminary requirement to financing it. Inspired by this success to an ever more panoramic view of the future, Herman went into business as a panoptic clairvoyant. Gradually the negative aspects. (e.g. the prospect of total devastation) got played down. More and more it turned out that the years ahead were viable, even rosy. He saw the future, and it worked.

Like Enoch Powell, Kahn has the knack of convincing people who in the ordinary way know nothing about what constitutes intellectual distinction that he is intellectually distinguished. His purported IQ of 200 is bandied about like Powell’s Greek. Bernard Levin — than whom, usually, no man rates higher for acerbity and gorm — has been seen arriving at Kahn’s feet by helicopter and nodding thoughtfully at the very kind of ex cathedra fol-de-rol which in the normal course of events he would greet with a penetrating raspberry. And if Kahn fooled Levin, he made a turkey of Brian Gibson, who in producing this programme put a glaring dent in his track-record as a documentary whizz-kid. Renowned for his programmes on Venice and Charing Cross Hospital, Gibson should have been smart enough to lay on some opposition that would pin Kahn down. As it was, the fat man was left free to toddle.

The really fascinating thing about Kahn’s predictions is their predictability. With the aid of his colleagues at the Hudson Institute — an outfit which hires itself out on a global basis as an ecosystematic Haruspex — Kahn is able to focus a divining eye on a country rich in natural resources and predict that it will get rich. Similarly he is able to glance at the figures for a country poor in natural resources and predict that it will get poor. But genius is nothing if not flexible, and the Institute is proud of having discovered, all of 10 years ago, that Japan would become a leading world Power. The true marvel, of course, would have been to discover anybody who ever thought anything else, but you can’t expect miracles. Kahn’s boys don’t claim to be infallible: merely prescient.

Kahn speaks a personal language featuring units of time and distance otherwise unknown to science. In particular, the auto-extruding temporal unit ‘fivetenfifteen­twennytwennyfive­yearsfromnow’ crops up often enough to be worthy of a name. On the analogy of the Fermi (the diameter of an electron) I propose it should be called the Hermie. Kahn’s First Law of Ecodynamics can then be simply stated. In the space of one Hermie, anything that is happening now will still be happening only more so, unless something stops it. (The Second Law states that the fee for being told the First Law will be very large.)

Apart from their predictability, Kahn’s predictions are also notable for their vulgarity, as in his notion that future wealth will allow everybody two cars and a helicopter each, plus access to free-fall sex. A sociologist from the University of Kent was allowed just enough screen time to point out that Kahn’s preachings constituted an ideology, but not enough to outline which ideology it was. The producer’s hope, I suppose, was that Kahn would condemn himself out of his own mouth. The hope was pious, placing too much trust in the efficacy of self-revelation. A quick burst of incisively expressed disbelief would have done wonders.

The Nicol Williamson one-man show (BBC1) was excellent value. The much-banned Kenneth Griffith finally got his show about his banned shows on the air: Called The Public’s Right to Know (Thames) it left me wondering if awkward situations don’t became even more awkward the minute Kenneth Griffith steps into them. Last week I scornfully quoted Wilson as saying ‘a real, a radical, a relevant attack on rising prices,’ but owing to a technical error most of this got left out. As a consequence, Wilson became Prime Minister.

The Observer, 10th March 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]