"Technology is … a queer thing. It brings you gifts with one hand, and stabs you in the back with the other."
-- British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow
"But then again, you know, you see that, you turn on television and see this enormous disaster and you say to yourself, why would we want to take that risk?"
-- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, on his decision to refuse oil drilling off the coast of California
Arnold as Ned Lud.
Who would have imagined this casting? The Austrian-immigrant turned body builder, entrepreneur, movie star and governor of the nation's largest state. The man who once seemed to have such a perfect grasp of the can-do spirit behind the idea that is America -- starring in a 21st century portrayal as Ned Lud.
Who is Ned Lud, you ask?
Actually, there's a bit of a dispute over whether he even existed. But the more or less accepted story is that Ned was an English weaver from the village of Anstey, trodding God's earth in the neighborhood of 1779. In a fury one day, Ned took out a hammer and smashed a couple stocking frames. Stocking frames were the next step up the line in the industrial revolution from the knitting once done exclusively by your mother's two hands, and by 1779 they'd been around for a while. A while being, specifically, 1589. By 1812, there were estimated to be 25,000 or so stocking frames in the burgeoning knitting industry in the three counties surrounding Ned's supposed ancestral home.
And right about 1812 there began to sprout up in Britain what American novelist Thomas Pynchon described as "bands of men, organized, masked, anonymous, whose object was to destroy machinery used mostly in the textile industry. They swore allegiance not to any British king but to their own King Ludd" adding for some incomprehensible reason a second "d" to Ned's last name. Pynchon adds: "It isn't clear whether they called themselves Luddites, although they were so termed by both friends and enemies." As observers have pointed out ever since, the Luddites had what the late British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow termed an irrational fear and hatred of science and technology. They were the "counter-revolutionaries" of the Industrial Revolution, who angrily detested modern inventions they had "never tried, wanted or been able to understand."
The Luddites have been immortalized in song and verse since their first appearance, not long ago by the late British writer and poet Robert Calvert:
They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy
That all he could do was wreck and destroy, and
He turned to his workmates and said: Death to Machines
They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams.
It's safe to say that the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico from a BP drilling rig is not only treading on a lot of futures but stamping -- hard, very hard -- on a lot of dreams. The futures of shrimpers and fishermen and resort owners and restaurants and waiters and waitresses and a very, very long list of others (not counting birds and sea life itself) are being both tread on as well as stamped on.
In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took one look at the television screen and promptly took a political hammer to the idea of drilling off the coast of his state. "Why risk?" he asked in the spirit of Ned Lud.
Not to be outdone, President Obama, who had shakily joined the drill-baby-drill crowd on its furthest perimeter is now reconsidering.
But the real question here is whether or not Americans will succumb to the Luddite world view. Or clean up the mess, understand that risk is a part of everyday life, and that in fact nothing in this world is either risk free or fail safe.
So let's look around a bit at the everyday life in which we all now exist.
As good a place to start as any is with the brothers Wright.
Wilbur and Orville, as every American school child was once taught, finally manifested man's centuries' old dream to fly with the invention of the heavier-than-air flying machine -- the airplane. A couple of bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio they struggled, failed, persisted and finally got off the ground at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in December of 1903. The era of manned flight had begun, obviously now a major part of everyday life not just in 21st century America but around the world.
But there was and is a problem. You might call it the oil spill problem of air travel.
Planes, shocker that this may be, can in fact crash. Wilbur and Orville figured a way around gravity, but they couldn't get rid of it. And try as they and their successors have to improve the flying machine product, planes made by the imperfect human being can be nothing other than imperfect. As a result, from 1903 to this moment there has always been an understanding of risk when one steps into a flying machine. People both on the plane and the ground can be hurt. Actually, they can be killed. In considerable numbers. Since Wilbur and Orville got us all airborne not a year has passed without death from air travel. Thousands of people have died doing this let's-pretend-I'm-a-bird thing. To cite a tiny fraction of headline grabbing incidents through the decades: in 1945 it was the 13 people who died when an Army B-25 Bomber plowed into the Empire State Building; the 128 who perished in the fiery crash of TWA and United passenger jets over the Grand Canyon in 1956; the All-Nippon airline that went down in Tokyo Bay in 1966 with 133 fatalities; the Air Canada plane that crashed during a landing approach in Toronto killing 109 in 1970; the United Airlines DC-10 in Sioux City, Iowa, that lost 111 during an emergency landing in 1989; Flight 800 of TWA that exploded in 1996 off the coast of Long Island killing all 230 aboard or…well, you get the picture. Lots and lots and lots of people have been killed. Perhaps the most spectacular in terms of sheer carnage before the 9/11 terrorist attacks involving four jetliners was the 1977 crash on a fog bound runway on Tenerife, part of the Canary Islands. In a tragic mix-up, Pan Am and KLM jetliners collided on the runway, killing almost 600 people.
All of these incidents are a mere snapshot of what has gone on up there in the not-so-friendly skies, where everybody from average Americans to famous rock stars and politicians have met very public and horrific fates. Only weeks ago the President and First Lady of Poland, along with a chunk of the Polish government, died in an especially tragic airborne accident. Not a decade has gone by since the invention of air travel -- not one -- when people haven't died by the hundreds if not thousands while using Wilbur and Orville's invention.
So if you're a Luddite, what?
Obviously, not flying is safer then going aloft. So after you take the hammer to every airplane in America (and the world) you could venture forth and take a chance on a car. Henry Ford's baby -- the mass produced automobile. Uh-oh. Think again. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Transportation tells us that 33, 963 Americans died in car crashes -- averaging out at 93 dead Americans every single day of 2009. That's 10,000 more people dead in a year then are living and breathing in all of the Washington, D.C. suburb of Fairfax, Virginia! Quick, get that Luddite hammer and get busy in Detroit! What in the world was Henry thinking inventing something as death driven as an automobile? Smash the factories, disband the unions. It's over!
The point, of course, is that if you want to eliminate the inventions that kill people (the BP oil spill killed 11) and ruins lives, you will need a lot of hammers. Do cell phones cause brain tumors? Car crashes with inattentive drivers? Get the hammer. Eat some bad hamburger? Kill the cows. Lead paint? Get that lawyer's legal hammer. How about the errant baby carriages, badly wired houses (no house fires if you live outdoors), boats that sink, tractors that tip, bridges that cave, knives that end up inside people instead of steaks, glass that cuts, coal mines that explode and…well, again. You get the picture.
From the moment you popped out of the womb -- assuming, of course, you successfully avoided the abortion doctor -- you have emerged into a totally unsafe environment.
CURIOUSLY, IN ALL THE MEDIA coverage of this accident there is one large fact being left out. All those good people with boats? The people who run the restaurants? The tourist industry? Every single one of them is dependent on the existence of that black crude bubbling up from the bottom of the sea. Without it there is no commercial fishing, no driving to and from the docks where the boats are stored. Tourists? None -- not, at least, if tourists to the Gulf Coast get to that Gulf Coast by plane, train or automobile.
But if Governor Schwarzenegger's new Luddite sensibilities and those lurking barely beneath the surface of the Obama Administration hold sway (over the weekend the President let loose with a blast at technology and those evil geniuses at places like Apple and Microsoft), the Luddite philosophy will begin tightening the screws on everyday Americans -- even as Obamanomics has set the deadly course for Greek-style economic bankruptcy.
Consider the Luddites at work in America today in the energy sector alone:
• Opposition to mountaintop coal mining as seen here.
• Opposition to nuclear power as seen here.
• Opposition to natural gas drilling here.
• Opposition to off-shore oil drilling here.
• Opposition to oil drilling on shore in the Alaskan wilderness here.
• Opposition to wind turbines here.
• Opposition to solar energy here.
Getting the picture? No oil drilling on or off shore. No natural gas, no coal, no nuclear power, wind power or sun power.
The future according to Ned Lud.
A mere handful of miles down the Susquehanna River from where this is being written -- visible plainly when one crosses area bridges -- are the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant known as Three Mile Island. Perhaps you've heard of it. Back in 1979 TMI, as locals call it, had a…well…problem. A glitch. OK. More than a glitch. It appeared for a brief time that just like the famous Jane Fonda film The China Syndrome, then playing in theaters, residents of Central Pennsylvania would have to kiss off everything they held dear. Up to and possibly including their lives, because TMI was, in the style of the hysteria surrounding Fonda's movie, about to have a melt down that would burn all the way through the earth to the other side -- China.
It didn't happen.
Could it have happened? Well, maybe the China part is a bit Hollywood, but yes. It could have been Chernobyl. Yes. Like the terrifying problems of crashing airplanes and cars, it could have happened. Nuclear power is a man-made machine, just like those airplanes and cars and that oil rig bleeding its essence into the beautiful waters of the Gulf. Yet everyday around here Central Pennsylvanians get up in the morning, turn on the lights, and go about their day with plenty of safe and cheap energy. No one that I'm aware of has seven arms and three legs as a result of living through the experience.
Safe. Cheap. But not, however, risk free. Because there is no such thing as risk free in this life. We who live near the arguably most infamous nuclear power plant in the world understand we are vulnerable to a glitch. In this day and age, maybe a terrorist attack. God only knows what vulnerabilities lie within the machine that is TMI. They are there -- they are everywhere -- without doubt.
Yet unlike Governor Schwarzenegger we are willing to take the "risk" of living here. In part because most sensible people in the shadows of those cooling towers know that in fact there is no "risk free" place to live anywhere in America or anyplace else in this world. Nuclear power accidents can happen. Oil can spill. Planes can crash.
But life will go on.
WHILE OUR FELLOW AMERICANS in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama and Florida may be momentarily and quite understandably shell-shocked, they will move on and succeed. Why? Because they are Americans, meant here not in the patriotic sense but in the sense that they will not let go of their dreams. Dreams have but two ways to go: forward to a manifested reality, or retreat to failure and defeat. The people of the Gulf Coast like the Pilgrims who stared out at a frozen land in front of them and an ocean behind them, will do what Americans have always instinctively done. They will find a way to make their American dreams real once again. To clean up, to build, to re-build, to adapt. And in the process they will exhibit yet again the core values at the heart of American Exceptionalism.
As Nansen G. Saleri has noted in the Wall Street Journal, the oil companies too will dream their own dreams. They will absorb the hard facts -- in this case the hard scientific data of the world of deep sea drilling, of oil, gas, post-accident responses -- the nitty-gritty of a mistake. And then? Then they will move forward to realizing the dream.
Gulf Coast Americans will dream again -- and make those dreams come true.
As with Washington at Valley Forge, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton building the Erie Canal, Texans and the Alamo, Lincoln with the Civil War, Edison with the light bulb, Teddy Roosevelt with the Panama Canal and Ronald Reagan with the Cold War… a way will be found to make the dream live. A way will be found.
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.
His name is Ned Lud.
And his army of Luddites are invading America.
One of their soldiers is the Governor of California.