Thursday, January 27, 2011

State of the Union: The Things Obama Did Not Have to Say - But Did Anyway

The president’s State of the Union Speech was - at long last - the one I wanted him to give. It went after the very poison that has so sickened the United States of America. His call for us to shake off the Cult of Future-Hatred, indulged in by both right and left, was about urging us to start looking forward again, instead of to some mythically better past.

Clearly, Barack Obama does not expect that to happen through a sudden coming-together in unity and courtesy.  (He did ask for those things, but we know that asking will not make them happen).  For those those demanding accountability for the greedocracy of a looming oligarchy he had only incremental steps toward transparency. And, while the President pointed out the hypocrisy of Teaparty “deficit fighters,” who plunged the nation into tsunamis of red ink during their watch, in the name of disproved Voodoo Economics, he did so in fairly gentle terms. For one simple reason.

Because none of these side-skirmishes are where the real battle lies.

As I’ve said for months, for years, the real agenda of the neoconservative movement - its one consistent theme - has been to wage bitter war against nearly all centers of American expertise.

You may have only heard of one part of this campaign -- the relentless and undeniable Republican War on Science, now so blatant that Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh have all taken to deriding “scientists” as a universally-damned caste, no longer even applying qualifiers or conditionals! It’s become so flagrant that - whereas twenty years ago thirty percent of U.S. scientists registered republican - now, according to the AAAS and the Pew Research Foundation, only 5% cling to their old political loyalties with the GOP. Many remain “conservative” over matters of fiscal or foreign policy, but none can any longer abide an all-out, Know Nothing campaign against fact-based reason.

Is this why I applauded, so heartily, the president’s repeated references to science, technological leadership, innovation, education and bold entrepreneurship, in his State of The Union address? To renew that post-Sputnik spirit -- the fierce dedication-to-curiosity that forged the keel of our prosperity and success?  Of course it was. 

It reminded me of the moment I liked best, back on election night in 2008, when Obama’s victory speech resonated in so many ways... but I kept aloof from the regular, ringing rhetoric, listening not for the words that he had to say, but those that he inserted wholly on his own account.

(Try to develop this habit. It can be illuminating!)

We expected him to endorse all the requisite motherhood and apple-pie phrases... some of them universal, or pan-american and some blandly liberal.  You know, like unity, brotherhood, responsibility and - yes, hope. Yada. Good things. And totally expected. 

But when he spoke of a nation propelled forward by curiosity... that was what I had been listening for.  It wasn’t a word on anybody’s requisite political litany or list of necessary catch phrases. It was not compelled by politics, polemic or audience expectations, nor by tradition or dire need. Nobody even commented on it, in all the speech postmortems. It was there simply because Barack Obama thought that it ought to be.

A nation propelled forward - in part - by curiosity.  In 2008, it was a drop-in hint.  Last night, it was the central theme!

Moreover, Make no mistake, it was militant. They were fighting words. For, I was watching closely, and every single time that Barack Obama referred glowingly to science, or innovation, or entrepreneurial boldness, you could see the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, grimace or frown a little deeper, making clear that this is precisely where our deepest battle will take place.  Not across fictional gaps in a mythical and stupidly misleading so-called “left-right political axis.” But across a chasm between those dedicated to the past and those eager for the future.

Let’s be plain: I would have liked the speech even better, had President Obama directly challenged Congress to perform an act of good faith, by restoring the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), and other independent advisory boards that were wiped out during Republican control, when they decided to dispense with the inconvenience of reality checks from even the most studiously impartial and nonpartisan commissions.  Not having restored the OTA, when she had the chance, counts as my biggest grudge against former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obama should have demanded this, and dared the GOP to justify its refusal.

Yet, this is about so much more than science and technology.  Last night’s speech hinted that the President at last understands; the “war on science” is only the most blatant, surface manifestation of a general campaign against all of our professional castes. 

Name one that isn’t under fire from the new-right! Scientists, teachers, university professors, attorneys, civil servants, diplomats, journalists... heck even cops! And yes, if you have watched carefully, or know anything about the “miracle of 2006”-- even the brilliant men and women of the United States Military Officer Corps have been under assault, for years.

Why? Why has such a broad campaign to discredit (almost) every highly skilled and educated expert class become the centerpiece of conservatism?  A hijacked version of conservatism that has Barry Goldwater spinning in his grave?  You have only to look at the few centers of elite expertise that have been left alone! Those that are spared this all-out onslaught. The financial industry, industry lobbyist associations, and the hyper-rich.

A select group who are spared attack by Fox News. Now why would these groups want to fund propaganda aimed at undermining all other intellectual elites? Unless... in order to the power of those with the skill and fact-based knowledge to notice and point fingers at outright lies....?

Hm... well... maybe we can analyze that another time.  For now, let’s get back to the speech.

I had one proud moment when I heard the president drop in another of those “he did NOT have to say that!” lines. There was one sentence, while he discussed our need to improve American schools, when Obama mentioned something that our schools do better than any others on the planet. Do you recall what it was?  Did any of you catch it? Even briefly?

I doubt one pundit in a hundred  noticed.  But it is something that we do SO well that  Education Ministries in Delhi, Tokyo and Beijing send out hundreds of minions, every year, re-training teachers to instruct their classes in a more American manner!
Boldness, confidence, creativity, and unabashed willingness to question.  These are traits that American schools (and parents) encourage very well! They are not easily measured by standardized tests, so they do not get mentioned in the news, nor do they become the fodder for hand-wringing political diatribes. But, at last, I have seen one politician notice! Moreover, it is important. In order to improve, it is necessary to grasp what you are doing right, as well as what’s wrong.

    Do I expect this speech to make much difference? Indeed, was it even worth the time I spent writing about it?

Not really.  Certain parties in high places, not just in America but in foreign lands, have already chosen to re-ignite Phase Three of the American Civil War. We are in it, right now, 150 years after the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. (Which happened ten years after the Civil war actually began, in 1850. Ask me later.) When things have gone that bad, one doesn't hold out much hope for transformation emerging out of a single speech.

But at a time when all forms of expertise and skill and knowledge are the chief victims and targets in a bilious civil war, and when science is the paramount enemy - openly declared - of a faction that wants us to turn our backs upon tomorrow... any talk of "winning the future" is welcome, indeed.

----  FOLLOWUP ---

“During an appearance with Greta Van Susterin on Fox News, Sarah Palin criticized Obama for referencing Sputnik during the State of the Union, because she believes that Sputnik brought down communism. She said, “Yeah, they won, but they also incurred so much debt at the time, that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.” Yep, Sarah confused the space race with the arms race.”

Please, go read the article.  See what she said. Does it get any plainer than this? Choose tomorrow.



«Oldest   ‹Older   201 – 210 of 210
Catfish N. Cod said...

@Dr. Brin: You suggest moving UN agencies out of Switzerland as "it is not a UN member". This is no longer true; the Swiss finally caved and joined in 2002. They do still maintain independence from the European Union -- but so do Norway and Iceland, who have been offered membership several times.

Our new friend the nameless optician is quite wrong, but should be listened to anyway. I wouldn't be surprised if he is right from his perspective... because there ARE a few cul-de-sacs where the sort of brain rot he describes has occurred. Where you have to suck up to theories-of-the-moment, spurred by utterly non-scientific impulses. If this happens to your chosen subspecialty, it's like the world is rotting before your eyes. It's ghastly, and I've seen it happen to colleagues. Stem cell research, anyone?

BE THANKFUL, then, that this is the exception and not the rule! My advice to anyone who believes this is to GET OUT OF YOUR SPECIALTY, even if only for a sabbatical, and look at fields COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from your own. For instance, it is a _heavy_ trend in American medical science these days to be in ruthless pursuit of the truth behind innumerable "traditional" hospital practices... no matter how beloved they are of the elder physicians that determine the "politically correct" positions to hold on questions of antibiotic use, post-surgical treatment, prophylaxis, etc., etc. "Evidence-based medicine" has roared from nothing in the past ten years to become a major force in health care practices.

As for "peak science", I remember well how many leading lights of physics in the 1890's were espousing the idea that all the basic laws of physics were now known. There were just a few loose ends to tie up, like that pesky inability to pin down the speed of the Earth through the luminiferous aether.


sphyses: what happens when an Egyptian boy sphinx and a Greek girl sphinx get together.

Catfish N. Cod said...

On civilizational insurance policies: There is a tremendous amount of groundwork that needs to go into preparing for extraterrestrial and especially extrasolar colonization. Fortunately, much of the same work can be used as civ-caches against Carrington Events, Black Deaths, nuclear war, and anything else up to and including relativistic kinetic-kill strikes... and the same work can be useful to economic stimulation as well!

It's all part of a concept I'd like to call GEOVUM. And it's work that has, in bits and pieces, already begun.

We spent a thousand years trying to figure out how to make Damascus steel before we rediscovered it. We can't afford such problems on a large scale, now or ever. To fully back up our civilization and our planet, everything that _can_ be reproduced must be provided with a means to _be_ reproduced. That ranges from the biological -- species and ecosystems-- to the pure data of books, databases, images, sounds, and also to the skill sets and wisdom of the oft-disdained "practical arts". ALL these things are too valuable to lose... and they are precisely the things that accidental, natural, and deliberate catastrophes tend to destroy.

Conveyance of *both* the information to reproduce a system *and* the resources and means to do so is the engineering challenge inherent in every zygote of every species on Earth. An incredible amount of fine-tuning goes into the prep of the cytoplasm of a fertilized egg, with RNA and ribosomes ready to roll, massive amounts of stored reserves, and an intricate self-unzipping system for bootstrapping complexity into the new organism. To make a civilizational cache work, on Earth or in space, we need that same attention to re-creative detail. We need an egg designed to grow into an Earth... a GEOVUM.

Fortunately, many -- perhaps most -- of the components of a GEOVUM network already exist! Consider the Internet Archive in San Fransisco, whose backup site is at the New Library of Alexandria. The Svalbard Seed Bank has already been mentioned. And every major library, museum, zoo, botanical garden, wilderness preserve, cultural center, and living-history exhibit contains parts of what we will need to build... or rebuild... a world.

The daunting but achievable task of a GEOVUM project would be to tie all these disparate pieces together, along with the nitty-gritty work of determining how to first store and then unpack all that content from who-knows-what starting resource base. One might have to start as far down as stone etchings... such as the Rosetta Disk Project from the Long Now Foundation. All levels of starting points and all possible inputs need to be contemplated, to make sure that the archive can ALWAYS be accessed.

It's a huge, huge project... but the end result is more than a vault safeguarding our heritage. It's also the most complete Swiss Army Knife possible; a resource where any subset of humanity can always, at a pinch, call up skills only used a world (or more!) away, or thousands of years past. Every component of a GEOVUM would be a useful tool in and of itself, spurring the world economy day in and day out.

For today, for the tomorrow feared, and for the tomorrow hoped...

Jeff B. said...

Catfish N. Cod:

Civilization insurance sounds like a great idea... As a child of the Cold War I spent much of my adolescence in either fear- that we'd die when the bombers were coming (and will never, ever forget when they flew the Concorde into the local airport, right over the house, or that we'd live and have to start all over with nothing.

I suppose that's an extension of the civilization insurance of which you speak- what happens if the the unimaginable happens, and we have to rebuild? A gap of only one or two generations would lose much of the technology of the last 20 years. The grandchildren would never be able to hear today's music, since almost all is only in digital form, and books sadly appear to be heading that way as well.

Perhaps in addition to basic survival insurance like the Boy Scouts teach, and broad civilization insurance, we need tech insurance- how to build a computer from scratch, how to do basic programming, how to read diagrams for high tech, so that once society is up and running again we can turn the old recordings back on again.

And to Paul: most Amish would flinch at becoming royalty. How they'd react to hordes of starving English at their gates is another question; some do have firearms for hunting, but they really do embrace pacifism and would probably be the least able to adapt. If there is such a thing any more, a small farmer would be much more likely to have the knowledge and skills to bridge both worlds.

Acacia H. said...

The thing to consider is this: would other people protect the Amish, in exchange for food and/or knowledge? I think so. I am fairly certain the Amish wouldn't turn people out unless they were freeloaders who showed no respect at all. Thus we could very well have the Amish teaching people how to plant crops and the like.

Of course, there's another thing to consider: would the military be able to "reboot" from such an event? There is hardened materials out there. And if a computer or generator was shielded in a Faraday cage or its equivalent, it may not be burned out from the EMP effect.

For that matter, what would the effect of the EMP be on a nuclear power plant? Might not those continue to be sources of electricity once the effect subsides, requiring just for the power companies to start putting wire up once more?

I suspect such an event might be far less detrimental than we fear. At the very least, Americans are innovative and have a proven track record of pulling together when the chips are down.

Rob H.

Paul said...

In a recent discussion/argument with someone working in ISRU research, the topic of small-scale techniques for production came up. And the idea that few modern production techniques easily scale down, even if you know them. But it can be hard to find the old or original methods of production.

But there are hobbyist who practice (or try to recreate) ancient or classical methods. From blacksmithing, pottery, etc, to early electronics/computing.

Perhaps an online effort to reach various isolated hobby groups, so they each have a rolodex of local real-world contacts from other types of groups in the event of the end of civilisation. Medieval blacksmiths, potters, bronzers, electronics enthusiasts, engineer-historians, horse-breeders, boiler-makers, etc etc, who would normally never have reason to know about each other.

David has written about encouraging/networking/training citizen-responders. This is more about civilisation-responders.

(Deadfier: One who reverses or removes adfication.)

Paul said...

Fifth time I've tried to post this...

Tony Fisk said...

The Transition Network is another important set of initiatives that ties in with 'Geovum' related stuff.

atici: tribes of small, furry animals living in roof cavities. They go bump in the night.

Tony Fisk said...

Kepler in the Age of Amateurs: it would appear that citizen scientists are finding planetary candidates, as well.

David Brin said...


Woozle said...

I'm late to the party, but I had to comment on the "deadly asteroid impact" Onion piece. I saw that one coming several years ago -- deadly asteroid impact denial:

Imagine that astronomers have detected an asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth. It is huge, larger than the one which killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and will destroy all life when it hits.

The game, then, is to identify individuals or groups whose rhetoric is particularly non-reality-based, and explain – in the words of each individual or group – exactly why it is that the asteroid impact will not be a problem and we should continue supporting their agenda as before.

I had Dubya saying:

Now, there are some who do not place the safety of United States citizens at the highest priority. They want to distract us, weaken our resolve, make us look indecisive. They would propose that we should set aside our singlemindedness of purpose and allow every new thing that comes along to distract us from that.

There are even those who would warn us of so-called doom and destruction falling out of the sky, like some kind of fairy-tale – but these people cause dissent, and disagreement; they are working against freedom and for terrorism. And so I say NO! We must not turn aside! We will stand resolute, and finish the job!

«Oldest ‹Older   201 – 210 of 210   Newer› Newest»