Tuesday, June 22, 2010

William Irwin Thompson

Thinking Otherwise—Technical Hubris and the Sinkhole of Obama's Centrism

When a technological enthusiast recently called for an undersea nuclear blast to seal the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, I recalled another time some forty years ago, when another American engineer, fascinated by the entire moon’s vibration at the lift off of the Apollo moon capsule, called for an atomic blast on the moon to measure its scale of resonant vibration.

It was, no doubt, an opportunity for a fascinating experiment, and our short-sleeved and short-sighted, flat-topped but unlevel-headed NASA engineer probably got off at the thought of shaking Mother Nature up a bit.

It never occurred to the lunatic engineer to consider that the moon’s orbit might be disturbed enough to be gravitationally attracted back to Earth, or displaced from its protective position for us on Earth as an attractor for asteroids; nor did it occur to the atomic bomb enthusiast that a tsunami might take out all the Florida Keys and coastal cities of the Gulf and poison the food chain for a quarter of a million years.

Speaking as a former MIT professor, I must say that the fact that two technicians could utter such nonsense indicates our great failing in the education of engineers, architects, and technical experts of all sorts. We Americans have an admirable “Can do!” mentality, but considering our fixing of Iraq and our present fixing of Afghanistan, it is time to step back, re-assess, and perhaps develop a new and humbler mentality, one that is no longer based on the World War Two mind-set of fixing the old world order with a new one based on atom bombs and Marshall Plans and newsreels of GI’s passing out Hershey bars to the admiring children standing to the side of history in their tattered European rags.

We need to think in a new way. When designing anything, the first thing we should ask is: What does the system excrete and how can we recycle that shadow-form into its on-going forms of production? The second question we should ask is: What are the ways the system can fail, and how can we make failure reinforce a process of correction and rescue?

All human systems fail at some point. Bowstrings snap, bullets jam, boilers explode, and airplanes crash. Deep sea oil rigs and nuclear reactors are simply too complex for Homo sapiens to be wise enough to manage. And if human cleverness is compromised by the greed and short-sightedness of a Halliburton or a BP and capitalism’s systemic purchase of government officials, then we are doubly exposed, as the surrounding system of management is not one of protection, but of menace.

In the Jeffersonian eighteenth-century agrarian vision of governance, “That government is best that governs least.” Since history has been said to repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, Jefferson has found his farcical reprise with the contemporary Tea Partiers.

Because our TV instantiated short-term memories have robbed us of the long-term memory of history and the reflective ponderings of reading, our contemporary citizens, incited by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, are angry and threatened. But they do not direct their anger at the invisible forces that do actually threaten them--such as Goldman Sachs, Fox News, Halliburton, or BP; instead, they direct their anger into the channels suggested to them by the owners of the media. So birthers claim Obama is an alien and that his programs are socialist, when they are entirely centrist and completely lacking in the ability to re-vision our historical situation and energize a new paradigm of political and civilizational thinking.

Were the Tea Partiers and the fans of Sarah Palin reflective citizens and intelligent readers, they might be able to recall in the long-term memory of history the real conditions of life in an unrestrained world of free enterprise. There were twelve hour work days, child labor and no public education; there was no public health or safety requirements for the work place; there was no public inspection of meat factories or sea food and produce. What was indeed free and omnipresent was disease and death. Government was, and has become again, a more civil form of organized crime.

These were the good old days of the culture of the real America, before uppity blacks from Harvard and Latina judges from Princeton led the rural white Tea Partiers and Libertarians into this miasma of a multi-culti world.

President Obama ran his campaign on a program of hope and a renewed sense of the invincible American “Can do!” spirit with his incantatory slogan of “Yes, we can!” Readers of his book, Dreams from My Father, will recognize in his presidency the traits he showed early on as the nice young black man who learned how not to make elderly white women like his grandmother feel afraid. He was always an idealist, but never an ideologue. And so to save the economic system, he rescued the banks. To get health insurance passed by Congress, he appeased the medical insurance corporations. To keep the lights on for American cities and the American economy running on its airplanes, trucks, and SUVs, he has called for off-shore drilling and more nuclear reactors. Nowhere has he called for the re-visioning of industrial civilization, the rethinking of the global projection of American military power, and at no time has he recognized that our technological
mentality is contributing to our extinction. While President Obama seeks to fix failed states in Pakistan and Afghanistan northern Mexico is fast becoming a failed state.The drug wars have opened a giant sinkhole that can swallow up the entire Southwest and turn El Paso, Tucson, and Los Angeles into other versions of Ciudad Juarez.

In fact, the sinkhole, like the black oil jet in the sea, has become an archetypal symbol of our new political landscape. Obama reached across the aisle in a spirit of rational compromise, but the aisle was only a red carpet over an abyss.

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