Three Monkeys, Three Typewriters, Two Days

December 1, 2009

Selective quoting (or "Is it all about the military-industrial complex?")

I recently read a famous presidential speech for the first time, and was struck by how selectively it is remembered and quoted. What I see as the key predictive quotes from the speech:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.


The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

That first part comes up a lot both in public discourse and in offhand references. The second, not so much. Yet looking back now, almost 50 years after President Eisenhower's farewell address, I'm struck by how clearly he saw the future on both issues, and how poorly we've fared on the less-publicized one. Even more poorly than on the publicized one, in my opinion. That ought not to be a surprise, I suppose.

The full speech is well-worth reading; it compares quite favorably with what passes for political speeches nowadays.

Posted by bzbarsky at December 1, 2009 10:38 PM | TrackBack

But don't read too much into Eisenhower's words either. They aren't any help whatsoever in telling truth from fiction.

Don't forget that industrial-strength denial is very much part of our political life. Industrial groups fund "opposition" and politicians are bought. Remember smoking? Smoking is not harmful, especially if you're from South Carolina. Pollution is not harmful either. It's OK if rivers catch on fire. Trees are creating that smog. No, the glaciers and sea ice are not melting. No, winters are not getting shorter. Well, maybe they are, but it won't make any difference. Well, maybe it will, but it must be natural. Aha! Gotcha! Found an e-mail.

Posted by: VanillaMozilla on December 2, 2009 6:41 PM

While not predictive, I thought this passage in particular (mutatis mutandis occasionally) was a strong reminder that there is nothing new under the sun:

"We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle – with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment."

As far as predictive goes, I thought this bit was worth remembering (again mutatis mutandis):

"As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage."

Recalling a different speech, the solution to that problem is simple but not easy, as demonstrated by near-uninterrupted unbalanced budgets for the last fifty years. Still, there were a few blips of balance, and a couple downward trends (the 90s, 2003-2007ish) which could easily have been promising for longer with the absence of a 9/11-scale catastrophe and some policy changes.

I'd never gotten around to reading this speech either; thanks for bringing it up.

Posted by: Jeff Walden on December 3, 2009 3:54 PM

Jeff, agreed on the "we have an enemy" passage. And yes, the part that you say is worth remembering struck a chord.

I'm not sure that unbalanced budgets are of necessity plundering the resources of tomorrow, though they can easily be. I think the lack of infrastructure investment in recent decades (in some ways since Eisenhower's interstate highway system was more or less completed) is a much more serious problem in my mind than a small budget deficit. Of course the sort of deficits we've been running recently aren't exactly "small"...

Posted by: Boris on December 3, 2009 4:24 PM

Not of necessity, certainly; some unbalance is certainly acceptable from time to time -- that restriction being the key. However, until we reach a point where as a matter of course we pay down more of the national debt each year, with only occasional lapses as a result of economic downturn, I don't see how we're going to avoid it happening. The hope that we could grow out of it seems patently absurd; we're not a China or India that's still far away from a steady-state rate of growth. We could print our way out of some of it, but that's not going to work for long; if Britain can fail a debt auction, so can we (although we aren't as bad off as they've been recently). Then there's always the option of defaulting, but I don't think anyone wants that; think Dubai, but at least a magnitude or few worse. I really don't see how we're going to get out of this, absent fundamental political changes among those we elect.

Posted by: Jeff Walden on December 5, 2009 1:19 AM
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