Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ike's Farewell Address

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower's farewell address, the speech in which he warned of the rise of the military-industrial complex. The theme of the entire address is, to borrow a phrase from another former President with a connection to this place, that we not only have a government of and by the people, but we need to have a government for the people. Government is in place to help our fellow Americans in profound ways. This is just a decade after the Great Depression and the power of the government to help the most vulnerable among us is not something that is in doubt. But the desire for power on the part of moneyed interests can get in the way of the government’s ability to help Americans and with the rising influence of the military-industrial complex, we need to look out for those we are supposed to be looking out for.

But Eisenhower saw another change that has happened with the conclusion of the Second World War. Not only is the private sector changed in ways that ought to concern us, but which cannot be reversed, science too has changed. And so he gives us a second warning:

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been over shadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

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.
Just as we need to watch out for the new captains of industry, so too, he worries, we may need to protect ourselves from a scientific-technological elite in order to have a government that does what it needs to do to encourage the flourishing of the American people. At a time when we are still having to fight legislatures who want to teach Creationism instead of biology, it may seem a bit quaint to look at worries of a take-over of government by a scientific elite, but there is something interesting and deep in Eisenhower’s insight.

Has the military-industrial complex usurped science in such a way that the same concern covers both? With the likes of Monsanto, Dow Chemical, the Tobacco Institute,...has the corporatization of science created a technological elite that shapes how we think? For example, one cannot speak to a group without a PowerPoint presentation meaning that one can only think in slides and bullet points.

Has this fear of a scientific-technological elite come to be in the same way that the powerful military-industrial complex concerns did?