A Blind Hammer Destroys What It Cannot See

This week President Obama announced a proposal for a three-year spending freeze on all domestic programmes, with the sole exception of defense spending. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) precisely echoes my feelings on this, saying “Defense represents a significant part of our discretionary spending in this country. The defense establishment needs to be under fiscal discipline, as do all of our agencies… I don’t think defense should be exempt. If there are extraordinary things that occur that require us to respond for national security, we always will be prepared to do that. But to exempt the normal military spending just because it’s military, to me, is wrong.”

The idea that the military and actions conducted by it or in the name of defense should take ultimate precedent over all others is both pervasive and baffling. Senator Cardin was being modest when he said that defense accounts for a “significant” part of discretionary spending, as it is in fact a majority. According to the Office of Management and Budget, military spending comes to about $657 B for 2009, as compared to $584 B on all other non-defense discretionary spending. For perspective, $45.4 B went to the Department of Education, the DOE got $25 B, NASA received $17.2 B and the National Science Foundation… $6.9 B. We can perhaps agree that yes, the military is an expensive machine, and that these costs do not pay solely for guns and bombs, but the livelihoods and careers of thousands of men and women. There is also arguable benefit in national defense, peacekeeping, disaster relief, and other causes…

However, can these pursuits not be met through other, non-military means? I think the answer is a simple and emphatic “yes.” Yet there seems to be a long-standing and strongly socially enforced attitude that the military in some way is privileged to remain faultless and unanswerable even when its function is questionable or ineffective. It is perfectly accepted to put a sticker on one’s car stating that a son or daughter is in military service, but to proclaim “My son is a scientist,” invites confusion if not ridicule.

This is merely a prelude to a question that I have pondered increasingly of late. That if one browses television programming, there can be found a number of highly dramatic, over-the-top “edutainment” shows devoted to the military, warfare, weapons, and combat. There is of course a “Military History” channel, and popular shows go by names like “Future Weapons” and “Deadliest Warrior,” while in contrast the NASA channel features exciting offerings like “STS-130 Crew News Conference” and “ISS Mission Coverage.” Which titles do you figure will draw the attention of the average viewer at home? I think it’s clear, and it’s also undeniable that we all enjoy a good explosion or demonstration of the destructive capabilities of the human species. It’s fun and somehow liberating to see such carnage, but it is invariably dissociated from the suffering, pain, and death they are designed to inflict.

The decision to create shows on certain topics, what their titles are, and their content are all choices. Almost invariably, these choices are made to generate profit, but I am not convinced that these choices are made to meet a market demand. Rather, I feel that the programming drives a market. The reality TV genre is evidence of this, and so to are many products (when did we last have input on the type of car that should be built by GM?). Governments and corporations alike have at their disposal the best and brightest designers and marketeers, and spend a lot of time and effort making sure we buy what they sell. If the same energies were put towards selling science and exploration, I cannot see why the latest developments in aerospace technology, bio-engineering, or space exploration could not be topics of conversation around the water cooler just as much as “American Idol.”

This may sound hopelessly romantic, naïve… even absurd. However, we are faced with an interesting pop culture phenomenon which shows it is not. James Cameron’s Avatar is now closing in on $2 B in box offices sales worldwide, and an ask around will show you this is not because of the story, or the even the spiffy 3-D effects, but because we have been presented with a coherent, believable new world to explore and discover. A new people, a new language – a new frontier. A frontier reached through technological means (whether through spaceflight as in the film, or through new film-making techniques, as in the theatre), yet presenting a world of natural beauty and celebrating its divinity and defense. For some, the excitement of this new world will not extend beyond their 160 minutes of entertainment, for others, it may be a life-changing phenomenon. Some even experience depression at returning to their “ordinary” existence. This needn’t be so, for the wonders of Pandora are real and all around us, and we still have a chance to explore and preserve them. Avatar and its success shows us that people do yearn for other worlds, and that when presented properly, they will gladly empty their wallets to explore them. Why can we not mimic this enthusiasm for reality, which is not so very different when put into the proper light?

In the 1972 film Silent Running, As in Avatar, the Earth is a blighted, ruined place, and here the last of the planet’s trees have been put aboard spacecraft to preserve them. While back on Earth there is “hardly any more disease, no more poverty, [and] nobody’s out of job.” The main character Lowell is incensed by the lassitude of the rest of the crew, saying, “Well you know what else there’s no more of? There’s no more beauty, and there’s no more imagination, and there are no frontiers left to conquer, and you know why? Only one reason why! One reason why! The same reason you three in this room are giving me today, and that is, nobody cares!

Like Lowell’s shipmates, many of us are content to sit back and watch what TV execs think we want, purchase goods from corporations who think they know what we desire, and eat foods with no other care than that it is cheap and easy. We accept that the government will spend more money on the military than our education, and for the most part, do not even concern ourselves about it. Whether 1972 or 2009, the message is the same – the wealth of our world is all around us, and it is worth fighting for. Where might we be if we were as financially committed to destroying cancer as we are to combating “terrorism”? What if we glorified blasting off into space as much as we did blasting holes in the ground of Iraq and Afghanistan? Or in saving lives instead of destroying them? While money cannot solely provide the answer to these questions, it certainly doesn’t hurt, and taking funding away from already paltry budgets of non-military research and development is inexcusable. It may be difficult to see how any one of us can make a difference, but remember, none of us are as dumb as all of us.


Yes, that Peter Schickele.

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