Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Innovation Writ Large

By Keith McDowell

As Americans line up to purchase the latest technological innovation to satisfy their fix for gadgets – otherwise known as the Apple iPad 3 with its new Retina display, it is sobering to see the juxtaposition of this consumer frenzy – obsolete iPad’s as millinery wear for the lined-up addicts notwithstanding – against the frenzy occurring in the Republican presidential primary race. Some would argue it’s the race to the top versus the race to the bottom. Of course, “which is which” is in the eye of the beholder! And therein lies an interesting connection between the two events: it’s called innovation.

But it’s innovation outside the norms of conventional wisdom and discourse delimited by the language of business and technology. It’s innovation writ large to include the social and civil dimensions of society. And yes, such innovations do ultimately create commercial value in the marketplace for without such change and enhancement of our society, there would be no advanced economy to support the iPad 3 or enlightened consumers ready to line up to putatively improve their condition. We would still be living in the “hunter-gatherer” era of humankind.

But what has any of this got to do with the Republican presidential campaign, you ask? Before we answer that question, it is instructive to review the history of three of America’s most prominent Presidents and their role as innovators. And yes, they were Republicans!

First on our list is Abraham Lincoln. During a time of great travail as our nation was being torn apart by the Civil War, Lincoln’s Administration passed the famous Morrill Act of 1862 that established land-grant colleges and universities to teach the agricultural and mechanical arts to Americans and “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” In one innovative stroke, he created one of the most powerful engines of innovation for modern America. But it didn’t stop there. He also created on March 3, 1863, the National Academy of Sciences knowing full well that being anti-science or anti-intellectual wasn’t the proper course for America.

History records that Lincoln’s greatest achievement was to free the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 leading eventually to progress in the women’s rights movement and their right to vote in elections, the civil rights movement of the Twentieth century, and the gay rights movement of the present time – all such movements to achieve equality in the American experience. I wonder what Lincoln would have thought about using voter-ID fraud laws to suppress voting by minorities, the poor, and the elderly?

Second on our list is Theodore Roosevelt. Arguably our first conservation President, Teddy was the forerunner of the modern environmentalist and is credited with creating our national parks system, having established five such parks. As an avid mountaineer, I cherish this innovation by Roosevelt. One wonders what his position would have been on “climate change deniers” and “drill, baby drill” versus a rational alternative energy program and protection of our environment while achieving energy independence.

Roosevelt also understood the condition of his fellow man and championed the progressive movement of the early Twentieth century that led to many of the improvements in the lot of the working class in America including the notion of health benefits for employees from employers. While an iconic individualist and a “man’s man,” Roosevelt would never have supported the insidious concept of “you’re on your own.”

And finally we arrive at the third President on our list and one of my favorites, Dwight D. Eisenhower. As a child growing up in 1950s, I was often accused of having the famous Eisenhower grin. It was an accusation that I bore with pride.

Although portrayed by many of his contemporary pundits as the “do nothing” president, Eisenhower was in fact a significant innovator and implementer of innovations. For example, his administration put into place the interstate freeway system in 1956, one of our nation’s greatest infrastructure innovations. Sadly, our current Congress recently struggled to pass a simple two-year transportation bill.

Eisenhower was also a supporter of higher education signing the National Defense Education Act on March 2, 1958. Many members of my generation were fortunate enough to attend college under the NDEA loan program and to become contributors to a better America. Was Eisenhower a snob for supporting such a program? And don’t forget that Eisenhower and his brother, Milton, served as university presidents!

Surprisingly, Eisenhower was a champion for civil rights, although muted in some measure to fit the culture of the 1950s. He successfully implemented desegregation in the armed forces during his first two years in office. One suspects in more modern times that he would have understood the need to throw out “don’t ask, don’t tell” and openly accept gay service members. As he famously said in his remarks at a United Negro College Fund luncheon on May 19, 1953: “I believe as long as we allow conditions to exist that make for second-class citizens, we are making of ourselves less than first-class citizens.” Well said! Our current crop of extremist Republicans would do well to understand what Eisenhower was saying, especially as regards the treatment of women and their health.

Following along the pathway set by Lincoln, Eisenhower took his boldest and most important step with respect to the desegregation of American public schools. He ordered Federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce federal court orders to desegregate the local high school. Unlike Governor Rick Perry and other such pretenders to the Republican throne, Eisenhower wasn’t “fed up” with the federal government. He understood governing and how to use such power.

And so we return to our question about the connection between the current Republican primary race, its contenders, and innovation in the broader context of social and civil innovations. I suspect you already know the answer. Such innovations by our Presidents are absolutely essential for the growth of America, both as an economic power house and as a bastion of enhanced civilization. The current crop of Republican candidates simply don’t get it. Rolling back the clock a century or two by undoing the social and civil innovations of three of our greatest Republican Presidents is not a proper course for America.

American political leaders, whatever their party allegiance or whether of the liberal or conservative persuasion, have always understood the concept of the “loyal opposition” – at least, until now. But today, instead of freeing slaves, creating an improved model for higher education, promoting the rights of our citizens, conserving our environment and our natural resources, building new civil infrastructure such as our interstate freeway system, or investing in any of the other countless innovations required by our society and similar to those supported by previous Republican Presidents, extremists in the right wing of our country want American women to put an aspirin between their knees and to be shamed by wearing a theocratic paper sack over their heads in the modern version of the scarlet letter. They even support state-sponsored rape. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower must surely be turning over in their graves!

It’s time to expose this nonsense and foolishness for what it is and to expose these pretenders to the light of an informed citizenry. It’s not about liberal versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat, male versus female, religion or church versus the secular state, or any of the other common forms of contextualizing or polarizing American society. It’s certainly not about calling someone a slut on talk radio.

Instead, it’s about human dignity and a regard for our fellow human beings rather than throwing people under the bus. It’s about telling the truth instead of lying. It’s about the greater good over personal selfishness. It’s about facing our greatest fears and making progress in spite of them. And in some measure, as practiced by previous American Presidents, it’s about innovation writ large.

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