Decision to stop off-shore drilling because of risk betrays American Exceptionalism.
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But it is important to understand why the search for that dream. Why will the world see the recovery in these Gulf Coast states, why will the oil industry get stronger and better from this accident — and what about that recovery will be so peculiarly American?
Recently the History Channel has been running an intriguing series called America: The Story of Us. What is so striking — and commented upon by a mix of accomplished Americans such as Donald Trump — is the deeply American character trait which surfaced early in our history. A trait that virtually leaps from the screen as events such as the building of the Erie Canal are described.
The Erie Canal, the dream of entrepreneur Joseph Hawley and New York Governor Clinton, was inspired by the Hudson River, which stretched from New York Harbor all the way straight up to Northern New York. Possessing a vision of “manifest destiny,” realizing that if a canal connected the Hudson to Lake Erie in the West products could be moved not only across America but the world, Clinton persisted with a vision that was viewed with skepticism even by the usually visionary Thomas Jefferson. Conceived in 1808, after 17 years of hacking and gunpowdering wilderness and sheer rock, the Canal was opened, the greatest engineering marvel of its day. It changed America — and by extension the world.
But the doing of it? The nitty-gritty of constructing a 363-mile long canal through the wilderness? Impossibly and dangerously difficult. Trees had to be not just cut but uprooted — en masse. There was the bitter cold of winter and the sweltering heat of summer. Mules, along with oxen the primary transportation in clearing out tree stumps and debris, could be stubborn. There was not a single civil engineer in the United States. Not one. How does one build complicated canal locks without an engineer? And then there were the solid, towering walls of limestone rock that had to be blasted through. Not to mention the volatile gunpowder that did the blasting. Mud. Swamp. Insects. Over 1,000 Canal workers died. That’s one thousand human souls lost to this determined vision of carving a canal out of the wilderness. Today, a proposal like this — and the hardships involved — would have gotten nowhere with Luddites.
In this one act alone, the essence of today’s debate between President Obama and his conservative opponents is crystallized. The mindset exemplified in the building of the Erie Canal is at the very heart of what we call American Exceptionalism. Contrary to President Obama (“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”), we are in fact not just like our British cousins, we are not Europeans, we are not the Spanish, the Russians, the Chinese, the Irish and so on.
We are in this country, Barack Obama’s attraction to non-American ideology notwithstanding, definably American.
America. A place where, as Ronald Reagan once said, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts.” Contrary to the American Left, America is not about judging others by color, ethnicity or religion. We are not about the government running us — we have from the very first moment seen America as something else entirely. We are about a very, very different idea of America.
Right from the start, America evolved because Americans answered “yes.” Yes to the question: “Do we take the risks?” Yes to the question: “Do we persist when something is difficult?” These types of questions always draw a yes from Americans, if not from this president at the very least from one justifiably well-known plumber named Joe. Not for Americans the Luddite-style of cowering at the risks involved in a challenge. Not for Americans the idea of destroying a stocking frame. Had Americans been around in 1589 they would surely have invented the stocking frame or taken the invention to heart, understanding instantly there would be yet another American out there who would invent something better. Stocking frames were in fact a harbinger of a future vastly different from the one in which Ned Lud was comfortable. Moving forward is difficult. But whether Americans are settling Plymouth, building the Brooklyn Bridge, planning and executing D-Day or going to the moon — stocking frames one and all — Americans know something will go wrong when plan meets reality. Yet Americans also know most importantly that persistence in pursuit of the dream, as the wise Calvin Coolidge once said, has alone “solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
And if there is anything that Americans have mastered that gives us that much talked about American Exceptionalism it is the willingness — the eagerness — to dare to dream. To have the sheer guts to make those dreams come true. To use our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and liberty to make of our own lives whatever we wish to make of them, from a Valley Forge to an un-polluting and prosperous fleet of deep-sea oil rigs to the first man on Mars and beyond.
Yet it is a sad fact of life that the spirit of Ned and his Luddites is alive and well, exported from a foreign shore to America. Don’t drill! Don’t build the nuclear power plants! No natural gas exploration! Stop the coal mining! Keep those wind farms out of the way of my yacht! No, no, no and no again. From the South Side of Obama’s community organized Chicago to the precincts of the Obama White House itself to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sacramento, the Luddites seek to smash whatever they see as the latest 21st century stocking frame.
Were they running the show in 1776 the Luddites would have stayed safe and opposed the stocking frame that was the Declaration of Independence (which at least a third of Americans of the day really did.) Were they running the White House at various times in American history there would be no stocking frames today, whether those stocking frames were disguised as freedom for slaves, the Panama Canal, the decision to put a man on the moon or victory over tyranny in the Cold War.
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER’S DECISION to snuff out the dream of oil drilling off the California coast as a contributor to the larger dream of American energy independence is an admission. An admission that he has been taken in by the very familiar siren song of the Luddites. It is the call to wield the hammer and smash the latest version of Ned Lud’s stocking frames — the deep sea oil rig.
In grabbing that political hammer, then taking it to the dream of drilling off the coast of California, in giving up on that American willingness to risk, a willingness that once upon a time created a movie star and a governor from the risky dreams of a penniless immigrant, Governor Schwarzenegger reveals he has been lured backward by the siren song of the world he long ago escaped. A world where in fact the safety of a liberal Utopia is imagined but has never existed. He is a seeker of a safety that cannot exist in an imperfect world run by imperfect human beings. And by seeking out that safety, the ironic but inevitable hard truth is that the only thing that will get hammered are the people of California. Not to mention, if the spirit of the Luddites prevails, all the rest of us.
As you watch the price of gas start to skyrocket this summer, as your American dream is stolen by everything from the price of next winter’s heating oil to the price of milk, as that American dream is stolen from the very poorest in our midst, you will realize it is because at least in part that drilling off shore and drilling on shore from Alaska to California to the Gulf to the Atlantic and so much more are off the table. Off the table because there are Luddites abroad in this land who are determined to snuff out the Exceptionalism that is America itself. Only then will some understand who really is wielding that hammer to their dreams.
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