Fatal Fantasies of Our Technological Omnipotence


Behind the public’s impatience with President Obama and the Gulf Oil spill lie dangerous fantasies of technological American angels that can fly in an fix everything and anything. The same kind of fantasies, of course, lead a company like British Petroleum that they can overcome the unexpected with a combination of public relations savvy and technical know-how.

It’s not optimism. Optimism is reality based and healthy. It’s reality-defying denial. The New York Times had a weekend piece on this all-too-American trait. In it, the late physicist Richard Feynman is quoted:

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

When Frank Rich is speculating that the oil spill will damage Obama, irony spills faster than oil in Gulf waters. George W. Bush was the President from the Oil Patch. Big Oil never had friends in high places like Bush and Dick Cheney. Now Sarah Palin, busy collecting oil company money more efficiently than a boom collects oil slicks, accuses Obama of being in the pocket of Big Oil.

And what do we make of Republicans who want to drown the federal government in a bathtub but shriek for federal assistance when economic, environmental and technological disasters strike near their homes?

When politics becomes dissociated from reality, bad things happen to good people, usually at the hands of bad people happy to exploit the virtual fantasy worlds they’ve helped invent. “Drill Baby Drill,” said Palin. There was never any considered thought given to what a BP-like disaster would do to the Gulf state fishing, shipping and tourist industries. Raising questions about it seemed out of place in the fantasies. Then disaster strikes and we turn into a nation of unruly children, wailing like infants who wail for their pacifiers after they throw them to the floor.

It’s temporarily comforting to believe that technology can fix anything because we can avoid responsibility for everything. The Right likes to talk about responsibility, but it’s an irresponsible and unaccountable political movement. Accountability is for people lower in the pecking order. Those at the top are never responsible or accountable. It’s a principle of rightist leadership. This is just one reason it’s easy for the bigoted to blame Obama for what BP did. He is, after all, a few links down in the great chain of racial being.

The sad thing is the last few decades of American history fairly shout that our technological hubris is killing us, from the fantasy that we have the best health care system in the world to our denials that climate change is the result of cosmic rays, not human folly.

Bridges collapse, children die of hunger and lack of medical care, viruses mutate and pandemics loom. The herbicide Round-up has led to the evolution of herbicide resistant weeds, threatening the food supply. The ice caps are melting, cities are wiped out by storms. Right wing nutjobs want to take science out of the classroom and replace it with hidebound, ideological dogma. When the chips are down, they scream for science to save them.

We are good at re-inventing ourselves in a kind of etch-a-sketch reality. But sometimes the picture formed by aluminum powder won’t erase. Then, reality bites.

Author: Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as MoveOn.org. In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”

4 thoughts on “Fatal Fantasies of Our Technological Omnipotence”

  1. It seems reality is annoying, frustrating and very inconvenient for most Americans. We like to think that there is some greater purpose guiding our lives and with that oversight we should avoid the nagging issues of overpopulation and global climate change. That the rules don't apply to us because we are special. So we ignore the rules, frequently break them and often stop teaching them in school putting belief before everything. But there is no higher purpose, no easy way out and certainly no avoiding the consequences of our actions. The past few years are just the dawn of a time of a great reconciliation. Our days of dodging reality are drawing to an end and like some bewildered Adam and Eve, we are slowly awakening in an overcrowded, oil-soaked chaotic garden where the weeds rule and poison rains down from the polluted sky.

  2. When Frank Rich is speculating that the oil spill will damage Obama, irony spills faster than oil in Gulf waters. George W. Bush was the President from the Oil Patch. Big Oil never had friends in high places like Bush and Dick Cheney. Now Sarah Palin, busy collecting oil company money more efficiently than a boom collects oil slicks, accuses Obama of being in the pocket of Big Oil.

    It's certainly ironic, but not surprising. During the campaign, Democrats (including Obama) mocked "drill, baby, drill." In office, they have embraced it. (Even today, a new oil drill in the Gulf of Mexico was approved by the Obama Admin.) Now they are paying the price. The lesson is clear: if you want voters to draw a contrast between yourself and your opponents, you should avoid blurring that contrast both rhetorically and policy-wise.

    That said, you are right to criticize our foolish belief in our "technological omnipotence," but it is worth noting that that meme only exists when it reinforces the status quo. The idea that we might be able use technology to conquer these problems in a more fundamental manner (and rebuild the economy along the way) along the lines suggested by the Apollo Alliance is still considered off the wall.

    1. It is hard to be surprised at irony in these days of irony gushers. And I agree about the unthinking dismissal of reality-based technology proposals like those of the Apollo Alliance.

      As a nation we consume something like 25 percent of the earth's energy resources. We have six percent of the population. We are responsible for accidents such as these.

  3. "drill, baby, drill" is not a policy. it does not mean off-shore drilling. it does not mean on-shore drilling. it does not mean the bp disaster. it is not a campaign or administration position. it is a bullshit pr slogan brought to you by michael steele at the gop convention and the folks who like it when you think in cute little rhymes. the only thing it means in 2010 – is that sara palin can get you to say what she wants you to say.

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