Technodialectic

In noting James Lileks’ excellent commentary concerning leftist angst about American success, which exposes the anti-war types as actually just anti-American types (apparently they’re also upset that we’re achieving arms control greater than they ever could have fantasized, but it doesn’t count, because it’s part of our actual successful defense strategy, instead of an “arms control process”), Professor Reynolds makes an interesting point this morning.

This hostility to American success also explains why the same kinds of people were so viscerally hostile to the space program. As Norman Mailer famously observed, it showed them up. They were blathering on about changing the world, while a bunch of flat-topped nerds with slide rules actually went and did it. Naturally, the left has never forgiven them.

As a recovering aerospace engineer, I’ve noticed this as well. And this is as good a time as any to make a confession.

Once upon a time, in Flint, Michigan, when I was young and impressionable, I was a campus radical, and even a member of SDS (though I don’t think they ever had any cards to carry, and I don’t recall any dues). I should note, for those Gen X and Y’ers not up on their ancient history (i.e., the late sixties and early seventies), that this was Students for a Democratic Society, which was actually founded about sixty miles east of Flint, in Port Huron.

Now, so-called “progressive” groups have never worried overmuch about truth in advertising (as the self-labeling with the word “progressive” implies), or truth in general, for that matter. The Bolsheviks didn’t call themselves that because they were really a majority–they were just after kind of a bandwagon effect. So it seemed like a good thing to me. After all, I was a “Student” (albeit a junior-high-school student). And “Democratic”–who could argue with that? And “Society”? Well, there’s the National Geographic Society–they seemed to be OK. So, as a naive fourteen-year old, I joined up.

I joined up mainly because I thought they were against the war in Vietnam, and I also (even though I had models of various fighter aircraft, and dreams of being an Air Force pilot, aborted by my near-sightedness) thought I was against the war. I wasn’t against war in general, but this one seemed to be problematic, even though I was three or four years shy of draft age…

The actual detailed history of my brief foray into leftist (high-school) campus politics is not so much interesting as it is long, so I’ll instead make it short and simply say that, after a few weeks of organizing sit-ins over dress codes (the girls wanted the right to wear cullotes, as I recall, and we guys were willing to go to the barricades for them), and publishing an underground student newspaper on mimeograph (another technology with which students today are utterly innocent), and actually attending an anti-war rally sponsored at the local branch of the University of Michigan, I was invited to attend a meeting at the grownups’ (i.e., local college students) SDS.

I went to the meeting, held in a classroom at night at the local U of M. The highlight (or for me, lowlight) of the evening was a film that we had to endure, that showed the joys of going down to Cuba and helping cut sugar cane por Fidel y la Revolucion.

At that moment, I had an epiphany. These people were socialists, if not communists! Being an Ayn Rand devotee at the time (and not just because she had a cool last name), I was shocked.

After the movie ended, I mentally tore up my imaginary SDS card into little fanciful pieces, walked out, and dabbled with leftist politics no more. But I did start to give some thought to the nature of societal change, and evolution, and revolution, and I started to read some history.

And in so doing, I came to realize that the true revolutionaries were not people marching to the barricades, or theorizing about social philosophies in Ann Arbor or Berkely or Paris cafes, or even the small subset of such people who actually somehow came to political power. The true revolutionaries were the technologists–those who solved societal needs not by attempting to forcibly rearrange society, but rather by giving individuals new tools that allowed them to reorder their own lives.

Gutenberg almost single-handedly (and probably unintentionally) overthrew much of the power structure of his time. Mssrs. Winchester and Colt, and the fellow who invented barbed wire, had as great an impact on the American West as Thomas Jefferson, and more than any politician from the region. Arguably, few politicians had as much impact on the twentieth century as Henry Ford, or Orville and Wilbur Wright, or Armstrong, prolific inventor of the modern radio, or Turing and von Neumann and Noyce and Jobs and Gates, and all the others who gave us the modern information revolution.

When a history of the late twentieth century is written decades or centuries from now, it seems likely to me that John F. Kennedy will be noted as “a minor politician during the era of von Braun.” His “we choose to go to the Moon and do the other things because they are hard” speech at Rice will probably be remembered, but as more information comes out about him, and his Presidency is put into perspective by historians not blinded by the Camelot myth, it will likely also be parodied (“I choose to do Marilyn Monroe, and Judith Exner, and the other women, not because they are easy, but because I am haaaarrrrd…”)

And as part of that insight, a few years later, I did head off to Ann Arbor, but not to hang out with the cool campus radicals, but rather, to attend engineering school.

Anyway, I think that Glenn is right. At some level, the left realize this as well, and it really pisses them off. This, to a large degree, is probably the source of much of their opposition to new (and even old) technology–it changes the world in dramatic and unpredictable ways, and disrupts their ongoing plans to impose upon us dystopias, and their latte philosophizing and teach-ins (and their own bombings) just can’t keep up.

In fact, I think that this is why some of them are still unable to bring themselves to support the war. In their hearts, though they don’t necessarily agree with the specifics of bin Laden’s goals, they feel a sympathy for his methods of lashing out at the otherwise impregnable Kapitalist Amerikan Tekno-Empire, and perhaps even admire and envy his ability to carry them out, in a way that they never competently could, though they’d never admit it. Bill Ayers was a piker compared to Osama. The enemy of their enemy is their friend.

And now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, and socialism has been shown to be the fraud that it is, they are infiltrating instead the environmental movement. In so doing, they are further infusing anti-technology attitudes there, depriving true environmentalists (as opposed to the green-on-the-outside, red-on-the-inside “watermelon” socialist environmentalists) of many of the technology solutions that could actually solve their problems, including space technology. But that’s a subject for another day.