American Wonderland: From global warming to the Tea Party, our political landscape is patently absurd.
November 12, 2011
Most people, most of the time, lead lives removed from political and ideological engagement. Family, work, health, sports, and entertainment define what is generally held to be a normal life.
It is also in our national DNA to believe that we are entitled—indeed, obligated—to have a loud voice in the conduct of our government. Isn’t that what our Founding Fathers, and our American ethos, require? Yet we vote at a measurably lower rate than the citizens of most other democracies (although, as their lives improve, they tend to emulate us in this regard). Nor do we generally define ourselves, like most of our counterparts elsewhere, as belonging to the political Left or Right. Indeed, even our traditional Democratic-Republican identities are eroding. A growing plurality of Americans finds comfort in the Independent/non-partisan label.
In sum, we have convinced ourselves that in theory we are engaged citizens, while in fact most of us are the self-family-sports-media-obsessed folk that polling tells us we are. But not all of us, all the time. A substantial number of Americans claim some identity with regard to public life. A fifth of us are ready to say we are liberals; close to twice as many identify themselves as conservatives.
There is as well a political class that has career self-interests, or a cultural (or psychological) inclination to be steadily engaged in public affairs. Many are drawn by self-interest and by the sheer excitement of the political game. Others enjoy the ample outlet for commitment to causes that politics, as compared to much of the rest of contemporary society, provides.
The bulk of the political class operates much of the time within the confines of what most Americans would regard as the everyday world. True, partisan discord can grow heated. Yet vigorous interparty thumping is as old as our country, and traditionally has been regarded as a sign of the well-being of our democracy. But the belief that ours is an age of unprecedented polarization is widespread. The usual trope is to see it as a distinguishing feature of the opposition: The terrorist Tea Partyers! The socialist Obamaites!
Are we in fact living in an age of untypical ill-feeling? Compared to more placid times like the 1820s, the 1920s, and the 1950s, perhaps. Compared to notably non-placid times like the 1790s, the 1850s, or the 1960s, no.
What does distinguish ours from past periods is the vastly expanded scale and presence of ancillary political players in public life, beyond the traditional political parties and professional politicians. This includes the media, advocacy groups, the blogosphere, and ideologues for whom the cause trumps the party. These are voices and interests who share an unprecedented volume, ubiquity, and lack of direct involvement in and responsibility for the process and consequences of governing.
The genius of our two-party system has been to modify, or mollify, the more passionate segments of our populace. Do these extra-party players now pose a threat in their expanded volume and their autonomous character? The widely held view is that our on-steroids political culture, with its hyper-ideological polar extremes, does indeed endanger our capacity for self-governance.
That perception has made the political culture an attractive subject for the most conspicuous forms of political analysis: polling, punditry, and prediction. But the character of our current political scene calls for other treatments as well. One is that traditional, but currently out-of-fashion literary device, political allegory. Here is a way not so much of measuring but of testing the view that the current American political scene is in some respects an Adventure in Wonderland.
Some iconic works of Western literature are both political and allegorical. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) took its hero to the mythical lands of Liliput and Brobdingnab, whose issues—are high or low heels preferable? do you break an egg at its big or little end?—parody the political world of early Georgian England.
Do we live in an age of unprecedented political polarization?
Voltaire’s Candide (1759) similarly demolished the pretenses, illusions, and hypocrisies of Enlightenment Europe. More recently, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) did the same in spades for Stalinist totalitarianism, setting it in the all-too-appropriate locale of a barnyard.
American politics has not inspired much in the way of political satire or allegory: whether that is due to its democratic base, or its generally prosaic character, is hard to say. One exception is L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900). It is widely (though not without controversy) regarded as an extended parable of the Populist movement of the 1890s: in itself not your usual American political party. Another notable example of allegory (again, ostensibly a children’s book) is Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961). But that work is known for its word-play and fantasy more than for a political subtext.
There are two notable works of English literature that lend themselves with special relevance to the task of viewing our current political scene in allegorical terms. These are Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Some see cloaked references to imperial mid-Victorian England in these books. But they are regarded primarily as works of exceptional literary imagination. In their inverted, mirror-image way, they satirize human types and social situations. Precisely because they do that, they can also illuminate some of the more patent absurdities of our present political condition.
What do we find in the fantastical worlds of Wonderland and the mirror-image Looking-Glass House through which Alice passes? They are populated with bizarre collections of sorts-of-people and not-quite-right animals, usually speaking in riddles or gibberish. They engage in endless, often nonsensical disputations, mutual threats, and generally antisocial behavior: a not inapt metaphor for our political culture. “It’s really dreadful the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!” says Alice, as if she had just emerged from a bout of listening to a panel “discussion” on cable television, or reading what passes for “comments” on the internet.
It is helpful to divide Alice’s Wonderland into two subsets, Rightworld and Leftworld. These are home to the primary political absurdities of our time. Leftworld’s Truthers (35 percent of Democrats, according to one poll), who believe that the Bush administration was complicit in 9/11, and Rightworld’s Birthers (28 percent of Republicans), who believe that Obama is not a native-born citizen, are to the Wonderland manor born….
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s new report on Iran’s nuclear program asserts that Tehran “has carried out … activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” and that the agency sees “strong indicators of possible weapon development.” In other words, the IAEA has finally reached the same conclusions that Israel first reached in 1995. So should we really be worried about an Israeli strike now?
Historically, there has been an inverse correlation between Israeli saber rattling and military action, but senior Obama administration officials consistently confirm in private meetings that they take “very seriously” the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.
Think of it like this: In one way — and one way only — the potential of an Israeli military strike on Iran is akin to a Herman Cain presidency. Its likelihood is slim, but the potential consequences are too dramatic to ignore.
Although the precise strategy Israel would employ to carry out such an operation is debatable, its objective — to avert a nuclear-armed Tehran — is crystal clear. What’s less clear is how Tehran would react and with what aim. Would the Iranian regime be strengthened or weakened internally? Would it respond with fury or restraint?
To probe these questions, the Brookings Institution in late 2009 assembled two dozen former senior U.S. government officials and Middle East specialists for a daylong simulation of the political and military consequences that would result from an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
The simulation was conducted as a three-move game, with Israeli, U.S., and Iranian teams, each representing their government’s top national security officials. The members of the U.S. team had all served in senior positions in the U.S. government; the Israeli team was composed of a half-dozen experts on Israel, including former senior U.S. officials with close ties to senior Israeli decision-makers; the Iranian team was composed of a half-dozen specialists, including people who had either lived in Tehran or served as U.S. officials with responsibility for Iran.
I had the unenviable task of trying to channel Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The simulation was premised on a surprise Israeli military strike — absent U.S. knowledge or consent — on Iran’s nuclear facilities, motivated by the breakdown of nuclear negotiations, the ineffectiveness of sanctions, and newfound intelligence of secret Iranian weapons activity. In other words, pretty close to what we have before us now.
Arguably, the strongest argument against an attack on Iran is a question of simple mathematics. According to Israeli estimates, a strike would, at best, set back Tehran’s nuclear clock by just two to three years — but it would likely resuscitate the fortunes of a deeply unpopular, ideologically bankrupt Iranian regime, prolonging its shelf life by another decade or generation. As one Iranian democracy activist once told me, Israel and the United States should “focus less on the gun and more on the bandit trying to obtain the gun.” Bombing Iran, he said, would strengthen the bandit, not weaken it — and only increase his desire to get the gun.
Iran’s nuclear sites are purposely built close to population centers, but in the simulation, the Israeli strike managed to cause only a small number of civilian casualties. Nonetheless, one of my immediate reactions was to order Iranian state television to show graphic images of the “hundreds of innocent martyrs” — focusing on the women and children — in order to incite outrage against Israel and attempt to convert Iranian nationalism into solidarity with the regime.
To further that goal, we then invited the symbolic leadership of the opposition — Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi (both of whom are now under house arrest), as well as former President Mohammad Khatami — onto state television to furiously condemn Israel and pledge allegiance to the government. Instead of widening Iran’s deep internal fractures — both between political elites and between the people and the regime — the Israeli military strike helped repair them.
I asked a longtime aide to Karroubi about the plausibility of the above scenario. He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “10 times worse” — in terms of eliciting popular anger — than a U.S. strike and agreed that it would likely bring recognized opposition figures in concert with the government, strengthening the state’s capacity to respond.
And respond we did. I went into the exercise believing that the Iranian regime’s response to an Israeli military strike — despite many predictions otherwise — would be relatively subdued, given the regime’s fears of inviting massive reprisals. The opposite turned out to be true. Once our nuclear sites were effectively destroyed, we calculated that we had no choice but to escalate and retaliate in order to save face and project power to our own population and neighbors, deter future attacks, and inflict a heavy political cost on Israel.
Perhaps implicitly, the experience of Israel’s September 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor was instructive. Aside from a feeble official complaint to the United Nations about Israel’s “breach of Syrian airspace,” there was virtually no reaction from Damascus. As a result, the Israeli attack was met with little international or even Arab condemnation…
Engineering the 10,000-Year Clock: The Clock of the Long Now moves from thought experiment to actual timepiece
November 12, 2011
The year is 12011. Two hikers cut through a stretch of cactus-filled desert outside what was once the small town of Van Horn, near the Mexican border, in West Texas. After walking for the better part of a day under a relentless sun, they struggle up a craggy limestone ridge. Finally they come to an opening in the rock, the mouth of what appears to be a long, deep tunnel.
As they head into the shadows, not quite knowing where the tunnel will lead, the sudden darkness and the drop in temperature startle their senses. After a few minutes the hikers reach a cool chamber dimly lit from above. A tall column of strange shiny metal gears and rods rises hundreds of meters above them. Steps cut into the walls spiral upward, and the hikers ascend until they reach a platform. A black globe suspended above depicts the night sky, encircled by metal disks that indicate the year and the century.
A giant metal wheel sits in the middle of the platform, and the visitors each grasp a handle that juts out from its smooth edges. For the next several hours, they push and walk and push and walk in a circle, methodically, silently, until the wheel will turn no further. Exhausted, they rest on the platform and drift off to sleep. At noon the next day, they’re suddenly awakened by the ethereal tones of chiming bells.
It sounds like science fiction, but this is the real vision for the 10 000-Year Clock, a monument-size mechanical clock designed to measure time for 10 millennia. Danny Hillis, an electrical engineer with three degrees from MIT who pioneered parallel supercomputers at Thinking Machines Corp., worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, and then cofounded the consultancy Applied Minds, dreamed up the project in 1995 to get people thinking more about the distant future. But the clock is no longer just a thought experiment. In a cluttered machine shop near a Starbucks in San Rafael, Calif., it’s finally ticking to life.
This clock, the flagship project of Hillis’s Long Now Foundation, is a wonder of mechanical engineering. Over the course of its 10 000-year life span, it will be able to power itself enough to keep time, synchronize that timekeeping with the sun, and randomly generate unique melodies on its chimes so that visitors will never hear the same tune twice. And it will do so entirely without electricity. Think of it as “the slowest computer in the world,” says project manager Alexander Rose.
With funding from Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com, three teams of engineers in San Francisco, Seattle, and Texas have been working through the complexities of the design, including how to keep the clock ticking and how to ensure that its components will hold up through the millennia. Meanwhile, a construction crew in Texas has been blasting and digging through limestone to create the tunnel. In Washington state, engineers at Seattle Solstice are refining a giant stonecutting robot that will eventually be shipped to Texas and deployed inside the mountain, to etch the spiral staircase directly into the rock. “This is a project of a bunch of engineers,” says Rose. “And building a big physical thing is just cool.”
Still, the designers believe there’s much more to the project than just geek chic. A clock that’s meant to last for 10 000 years poses a fundamental challenge for a speed-obsessed age: How do you engineer something for the very distant future and get people to care about it today?…
November 12, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.