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.

and

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 10:38 PM