Shifting Winds

Gershom Gorenberg

This is a story about politics.

My father was an engineer. He hoped I’d be one. Then he had a grandson. When my son was around 6, my dad got him a subscription to Invention and Technology.

Invention and Technology is a good magazine if the thing that interests you most about the art museum is how the elevators work. When everyone else ran stories on the anniversary of Hiroshima and wrote about the moral questions of using an atomic bomb, I&T ran a technical account, a really technical account, of how the bomb was invented. If it had been any more technical, you could have built one yourself in the garage. These are not the pages to find philosophy or politics. Judging from my father’s office friends, if the politics were there, they’d be conservative. I’ve never checked the stats, but I guess that as a liberal Jewish aerospace engineer, Dad was a rare bird.

Everyone in our apartment tried reading I&T. None of us could get through a story. We were just the wrong audience. At our dinner table, we disect political parties or novels, not new gadgets. My son preferred reading Greek mythology. Dad went right on sending him I&T. This is how families work, and when I think about it, it’s pretty sad. He was a sweet guy, and he wanted his kid or grandkid to understand what excited him.

It’s even more sad now that my dad has been gone for two years and somehow Invention and Technology keeps showing up, four times a year, as if sent by a perpetual motion machine (which, as my father explained to me, can’t exist).

The other day, very bored, my wife picked up the new copy of Invention and Technology. My wife can spot a political clue the size of a gnat at 500 meters. She burst into the room where I was reading a biography of Saul Alinksy, and showed me the magazine. The cover words were “Top 10 Projects That Transformed America.” She showed me the letter from the I&T editor:

The idea of implementing large infrastructure projects has begun to replace the quick fix as a means of revitalizing an economy under duress….

Can throwing large amounts of federal money at public works projects lead to prosperity or only result in expensive and wasteful boondoggles?…

The American engineers and entrepreneurs who built the National Road, and later, such technological triumphs as the Hoover Dam, the air traffic control system, the national interstate road network, and the Internet, did not believe in limited possibilities.

Perhaps the best way to jump-start our economy is to recapture the same “can do” spirit…

If that doesn’t get the message across, the final picture in the cover story’s pantheon of presidents is Barack Obama. Since this is a quarterly, I figure that work on this story began around the time that Obama gave his victory speech.

As my political guru Harold Meyerson wrote during the campaign, there is a huge gap between the two American parties on government investment in infrastructure. Obama’s stimulus plan is based on the value of such governmental intervention in the economy.  I&T has just endorsed that platform.

If I were one of the remaining Republicans in Congress, I would pay attention to this. The engineers have just thrown Reaganism in the junkyard. They have just bought the latest political gizmo. They do not want you to vote “no.” I’m a little amazed at how quickly political winds can shift. But I figure that if Dad were back in his office, he’d be pleased to find that he was no longer the only liberal in the room.

5 thoughts on “Shifting Winds”

  1. My grandson who is 13 went to the inaugeral with People to People the group he went to Europe last year and he saw the festivities near the Washington Monument (he didn’t see much).But all was not lost he something new ,so he says, girls with brains. They didn’t think he was a geek because he played chess ,loved to play classical piano, preferred fencing over football, read greek mythology, read The New York Times Sunday Edition and wanted to be a lawyer like his dad, his uncle and his grandpa and handle cases for the ACLU. The girls were at the Youth Ball in his hotel and made him bring down his traveling chess set and took him on. See Obama can expand the horizons of even a young midwestern teenager albeit indirectly.

  2. I don’t know about the engineers throwing out Reaganism, but it is apparent that Republicans in Congress have thrown out science in favor of magic.

    No surprise given the overall assault on Science – see Chris Mooney’s book,

    In Magic, you repeat a spell or incantation regardless of factual evidence or demonstrated cause and effect. Rep. Boehner keeps repeating “we need tax cuts”, the Bush II economic plan and magic spell. Despite the current financial crisis and other evidence that cutting taxes while fighting two wars is fiscally unsound, that’s the Republican economic recovery plan and counter-proposal to the stimulus package. Just keep repeating the spell, it obviously takes more than 8 years to be effective! 😉

  3. I’ve been reading Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers” [Simon and Schuster, 1976], about the east european immigrants coming to New York City. There’s a passage from Hutchins Hapgood that, even though written at the time of his grandfather, might speak to Gershom’s choice not to be an engineer.

    “If this boy were able entirely to forget his origin, to cast off he ethical and religious influences which are his birthright, there would be no serious struggle in his soul …. He would be like any other practical, ambitious, rather worldly American boy. The struggle is strong because the boy’s nature, at once religious and susceptible, is strongly appealed to by both the old and the new. At the same time that he is keenly sensitive to the charm of the American environment, with its practical and national opportunities, he has still a deep love for his race and the old things.”

    Engineers build useful things yet after work our grandparents went to lectures very much like the ones Gershom is giving now. We need writers and poets too or we are incomplete. I think Gershom is making a great contribution.

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