How America Can Rise Again - The Atlantic (January/February 2010)
I love this guy! He's made his way up through the halls of power, moved around the globe, and still manages to preserve his boyish optimism about the state of our State. I used to think he was a China scholar, but then he showed up in more exalted places in the editorial hierarchy. It's nice to see a niche generalized. My niche. Well, my abandoned niche.
America, like California, is really a state of mind. We should never allow our geographic designation to limit our aspirations, just as we should never transgress any boundaries without specific invitation. We have lately grown more rude than even our uncouth development should have allowed. And it is long past time to grow up.
Like Fallows, I find room for optimism in the hardening of the nation's political arteries. Something will have to give, and it's about time. It's a long ways past time actually, especially as we watch with just a tinge of envy how the Chinese with their command public sector can keep their economy motoring along.
We don't want Chinese style one-party rule for absolute certain, but most of us do want to shed the plaque along the political arterial roads to solutions which Fallows brings to focus. With his well traveled X-ray vision. The gerrymandered perpetually red or blue party fiefdoms. The years and years of giving out special favors to get votes. And perhaps most importantly, the politicization of the process of university research funding, and the giving out of grants.
I want to offer Fallows back a hope he may never be able to see on his own. It's of a sort engendered here in Buffalo, "the city of no illusions" which will never get over the mistakes which lost us the glorious promise from our past at the nation's literal crossroads.
In the world of perpetually new Information Technology, past success is always in the way of adaptation to the disruptions which are always the economic engines for growth and flourishing. China could leap-frog wiring and just start out in the cellular age.
In this sense, the early success of a city like Buffalo, which once had the highest per-capita income in the nation around the time of our Pan American Exposition, is partly to blame for the fact that our skyline still echoes those glory days.
Fallows makes a similar case for the peculiar form of our national government, against the more flexible newer parliamentary systems which sprouted on our inspiration. Our political machinery hasn't changed an iota from the days when states were less dissimilar in size, and when partisanship was less subject to the veto power of any given radical bloc.
The success of disruptive technologies has ultimately and in every case depended first on massive investments from the public sector, Fallows shows. Beyond the scale which could ever be made by private enterprises in need of ownership of whatever Intellectual Property they come up with. Fallows cites Google sprouting from Defense Department development of what would become the Internet. Genetic engineering from the Human Genome Project. Commerce from the Interstate highway system.
Now we languish in the idiotic certainties of various religions and ideologies, that only private ownership of all intellectual property, including even our genetic mappings (!!!), can stimulate innovation. Forgetting that the Air-force still runs the GPS signaling which keeps us drivers from getting lost. Or which powers the tremendous economic power held in your smartphoned hand. That only God can sanction an artificial boundary found by scientific man. That our libidinous desires and cultural prejudices can limit our membership in the public franchises of family, leadership or research.
Even as things are getting better for the once marginalized - and more rapidly than ever - the ones with a death grip on the veto brakes are stopping our collective bus. We can't seem to get at the really important issues of our time.
The minority states which might still believe the wild frontier is real, get to hold the rest of us hostage. The emotionally unstable in the face of the realities of human choice, get to define debates on nearly everything. And somehow anti-scientific takes on global warming not only have to be given equal time, they manage to capture the belief of over half the electorate. As if science were a democratic process.
But we will not languish for long. Buffalo retains its record as among the bottom one or two large cities for median household income. But we have mastered the art of multicultural living, even as our neighborhood boundaries harden. We have infrastructure to spare, even as it frays around its margins. Were we to incorporate the sprawl around the city, and shed layer after layer of redundant governmental structures, we would magically rise in every measure from the ashes of our despair.
Alas, we all chant, that we built our great University in a swamp to the city's north; once owned by the buddy of our empire building former Governor Rocky. For shame that we haven't been able to resolve a design to replace our clogged Peace Bridge. How stupid that we built a subway from a thereby deadened downtown to the city-edge campus of our University; perhaps stoppered there by our low-crime and lilly white suburban Siamese twin Amherst. The new North Campus is in Amherst, cut off from the city except by car.
Amherst holds on as tightly to its ranking near the top for crime statistics as Buffalo does to its near the bottom. Their assessed tax base has long surpassed the city's, which still hangs on to the region's cultural institutions and Olmstead parks and architectural treasures all long since moved off the tax rolls.
Not to mention missing that goal wide right, and the embarrassment of Talking Proud! under Jimmy six-pack. Oh, and the petty corruption and stranglehold on retail real-estate among a tiny elite group of developers. Not to mention blue blooded holdouts hanging on to power through the back doors of money (full disclosure, I'm a near legacy of blue blood, but I never would join a club which would have me for a member).
Where's the hope?
We're the nation's microcosm in Buffalo, right? We can stand in for these Jeremiads of gloom and doom which Fallows correctly points out have always been in the American grain.
But looked at another way, this glass is way more than half full. We have all the water. We have abundant power from our Falls. We have still-surviving housing stock which is actually rising in value, never having burst its bubble. We never did hemorrhage all that funny wealth, and we still get an income from the great Big Apple which hasn't figured out how to quit us. (We feed their theaters and art galleries from our streets)
And Buffalo is still at the crossroads, whether what gets transmitted is signals on a wire, freight along some rails, or commerce across the border with Canada. The St. Lawrence Seaway and the Interstate systems were only temporary diversions, if you look ahead another 75 years as Fallows urges us to do. Our harbor remains empty and ready.
But there's another thing. We're too stupid around here to be quite so jaded as the ones who've tasted life at the top. We still like our Bills when they are losing. We made something out of your garbage with our greasy chicken wings.
We're amazed at how much house our money can buy compared to the rest of you. And if you think government is too big out in Alaska or Montana, or Idaho, you ain't seen nothing! Imagine what we could do with that rucksack off our back! We wouldn't even have to shed the killer civic infrastructure which was funded when we were great.
We're so unjaded that we might even be convinced that the next big disruptive technologies will never get their start in Silicon Valley where all the money still is pouring. Swap windmills for dot.coms, and no-one will notice that the best energy can still be saved by hand.
Once the silicon-based technologies help us to get the price right by smartening up the grid, real hands will need to insulate and lay rail back down and tear down parking lots and put up windmills along our harbor. And it will still be cheaper to live in Buffalo than in some desert skyscraper.
Where we can talk and think as well as the rest of you. Noticing along the way that the grand old theories of Dr. Einstein, which elevated him to the stature of greatness, also contained the seeds for the leveling which comes when mankind awakens, finally, to the fact that we are, collectively, co-creators of the cosmos. That there is nothing random about winning the lottery, but having won you're stupid if you think it was smart to play. Especially when you take credit for it.
So, are we really co-creators, or is that some nice poetry made up in California where they let dreamers into government? Where stage and film actors play the role of leaders.
Um, yes, we truly are. As a little known piece of investigative journalism by someone named Thomas Pynchon turned up once in the Nation Magazine, a vagabond denizen of Buffalo named Howard Hahn makes a credible claim - trumping the surfer dude physicist - to have filled in the missing piece to the mass-energy equation. The now famous E = MC² equation which enabled the bomb to stop the bloodshed halfway through the 20th century.
The missing force to complete the Grand Unified Theorem, for so long the holy grail of physicists the world over, is none other than emotion, says "Howie." I know the fellow pretty well, and I'm telling you to trust him. In my experience he makes up far less shit than do presidents and governators. Although those intimate with him do remark that he makes stuff up like a far older man.
There's no real math to this new discovery. You just have to do a trivial thought experiment in the manner of the Great Wildhaired One himself. You consider that all about you the world runs by accident. Unless you're crazy, you realize that the genius of evolution depends on the buildup across the eons of all these random couplings. You realize that the rich people mostly won the lottery, no matter how they rationalize their genius. Mostly it's legacy - and not so much genes - as you can tell by following the dynastic structure of who gets to play in movies. Or who gets elected to public office.
These insider connections are made to look like a kind of genius, by the 3D high-tech magic of the media industry, which also has the ability to transform a man into a monster overnight. Remember when Tiger was cute? He looks like a thug suddenly. I don't know how Obama slipped past the gatekeepers, although he's acting pretty timid for the moment. Maybe he got read some kind of riot act.
But it's not my purpose here today to recite the ways in which science might promotes the trued Christian behaviors of what gets labelled, dismissively, Socialism. Public investment in monopoly commodities by any other name.
It is my purpose to inject a seed of hope. That to consider emotion an actual force in reality, and not just in the fiction of your own outlandish dreams, is no more crazy by far than to consider particles both probability functions inhabiting the nothingness of space, as well as hard things which make something out of it.
Emotion is not only what determines how we behave with one another; it's not only what binds us together as fellow human beings. Emotion also defines whatever we might mean by consciousness, because consciousness is a quality not of individual pieces of hardware, but of those bodies in emotional communion with one another through the magic of language.
And once we learned to write it down - and only then - humanity was born again, into what we mean by decent as well as what we mean by mean. Buffalo is right at that crossroads, here in the nation's armpit. We're no better or worse off than the rest of the country, but we're a lot more likely to smell a rat. We've had experience.
But it's not about Buffalo, for crying out loud Virginia. It's about the whole of us, and not just those fortunate enough to have made it to within the boundaries of these United States. It's one big boat now, and we're all in it.
When the connection can't be proven physically, we call it random. We might as well call it emotional and be done with foolish beliefs in literal transcendence. Metaphorically speaking, the most important force of nature really is emotion. And, um, literally too.