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Saturday, December 09, 2017
INNOVATIONS AND AMERICAS GREATNESS
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All of these innovations — and others our future students could mention, from driverless cars to artificial intelligence — have downsides and risks. So does every other significant innovation in history, starting with fire and the wheel.
Let me set that debate aside for now to make a more simple observation. As I’ve noted before, fracking, mobile apps, and gene therapies are revolutions that, by and large, had their genesis in the U.S.A. Not in Russia or Japan, the former countries of the future. Not in China, the current one. Not in Brazil, the perpetual one. They happened in America.
And so the interesting question is: Why?
Every good teacher knows that a great education depends on asking the right questions. Since we are living in a time in which the president of the United States has made an issue of American greatness, it behooves us to ask: Well, just what is it that makes a country great?
I would argue the answer depends on how we choose to answer a few basic questions. So allow me to propose four of them.
The first question is, How do we treat foreigners? A more academic way of putting that question is to ask, What is our attitude toward human capital?
Do we recognize its inherent value and potential? Or do we tend to see people, especially immigrants, as liabilities: likely criminals, costly additions to the welfare rolls, threats to our cultural integrity, would-be terrorists, and so on?
Because the subject of the DACA program for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children has been in the news this year, I’ve done some research on this subject for my column. A few findings:
Did you know that immigrants account for 35 percent of all U.S. Nobel Prize winners? Did you know that 83 percent of the finalists in the 2016 Intel Science Talent search — widely known as the junior Nobel — are the children of immigrants? Did you know that 40 percent of all Fortune 500 companies — accounting for $4.8 trillion in revenues and 19 million employees — had founders who were immigrants or the children of immigrants? Did you know that immigrants start businesses at about twice the rate of other Americans? Did you know that without immigrants we would have had no population growth whatsoever since 1970, putting us on a path to a Japanese-style demographic death spiral?
It is, of course, true that immigrants put strains on their host societies. It is also true that in any immigrant population there will be thieves, rapists, killers, scallywags and layabouts — though, by the way, did you also know that the incarceration rate of illegal immigrants is nearly half that of U.S. citizens?
But the important question Americans must ask themselves isn’t whether there are liabilities. There are. It’s whether the liabilities aren’t vastly outweighed by the benefits. Do we see newcomers as an opportunity for us to grow? And do we believe our welcoming of them is evidence of our abiding faith in our founding creed, created equal?
The second question: What is our attitude toward independent thinking?
It is no secret that it is becoming increasingly difficult to express a controversial thought in many parts of the United States today.
A software engineer at Google writes a well-researched memo politely suggesting that the company is going about its gender policies wrong, and he gets fired. Football players take a knee during the national anthem to protest what they see as racial injustices and the vice president ostentatiously walks out on them. A liberal professor at Evergreen State College objects to student demands that all white people leave campus for a day, and he is hounded from his job.
Oh, and a center-right columnist at The New York Times suggests that perhaps we should be less than 100 percent certain about our global-warming predictions, and 40,000 people sign an online petition demanding that he be fired.
All this has been accompanied by multiple efforts, on campuses and in corporate life, to criminalize or aggressively marginalize certain types of speech in the name of such worthy goals as civility and inclusiveness.
Yet what begins as soft censorship rarely ends there. What starts as an effort to deter outrageous speech inevitably has the effect of quashing genuinely original thinking. Just as the path to scientific discovery is a matter of trial-and-error, so too the road to an original idea, a great book, or a transformative social movement will always be littered with foolish thoughts, indelicate statements, and all kinds of verbal rubbish that may offend all kinds of powerful people.
The United States has always been a land of invention — technical, political, and social — because it has given wide latitude to indelicate statements the ultimate value of which is often far from immediately apparent.
We have also thrived because we have a cultural disposition in favor of the gadfly, the contrarian, the upstart, the entrepreneur, the late bloomer, the disrupter, the activist, the social nuisance. We have an inner sense that ripe fruits always start as sour ones, and so we nurture them.
This is not how it is done in China, with its explicit forms of censorship and prescribed opinions. It is not how it is done in much of Asia, which often suffers through excessive deference to the opinions of elders. It is not how it is done in parts of Europe, with its polite political fictions.
But it is how we have done it in the United States. It is why we’ve been able to maintain an international edge in the “Think Different” category. And the question is whether we can maintain that edge knowing that it is ultimately our tolerance for the opinions that offend us most that’s the most vital ingredient in the preservation of our national institutions and the perpetuation of our national greatness.
The third question: What is our attitude toward failure?
Several years ago, the great historian Bernard Lewis made an important observation about the destiny of nations.
“When people realize things are going wrong, there are two questions they can ask,” he wrote. “One is, ‘What did we do wrong?’ and the other is, ‘Who did this to us?’ The latter question leads to conspiracy theories and paranoia. The first question leads to another line of thinking: ‘How do we put it right?’”
Lewis is an expert in the Middle East. Why are so many countries in that part of the world such failures? Why have they squandered their national energies on hating their neighbors, instead of thinking a little more critically about their own behavior? What might Syria, Iraq or Libya have looked like today if they had respected their Jewish citizens instead of scapegoating and persecuting them, both out of appreciation for their contributions and as a guarantee of tolerance for other ethnic or religious minorities?
True, there’s a point at which self-criticism can become neurotic, paralyzing and perversely self-satisfied. But it’s also true that individuals, communities and nations that habitually ask “What did we do wrong?” instead of “Who did this to us?” are also the individuals, communities and nations that, in the long run, succeed.
Lately, I’ve wondered: In which camp do we Americans fall? For many years there has been a grievance culture on the left, with a habit of turning statistical inferences into allegations of systemic biases, and treating bad personal habits as syndromes or diseases beyond the control of moral discipline.
Now that’s been joined by a grievance industry on the right, which seems to think that every factory closure in Ohio is the result of devious trade negotiators in Beijing, and that everything else wrong in the world is the fault of Goldman bankers, Beltway “cucks” and the Fake News Media.
This is a turn that can only be described as un-American. For generations, one of our advantages over our competitors in Europe and Asia is that we have had a greater tolerance for personal or business failures. We’re a country of second chances. But tolerance for failure has to be predicated on an acknowledgment of failure, a sense that we must first blame ourselves before we can hope to do better.
My fourth and final question: What is our attitude toward global leadership?
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Truman Doctrine. That doctrine put an end to our disastrous national experiment in blind and self-defeating isolationism by promising that America would come to the economic and military aid of embattled nations facing insurgency or aggression.
In the following year, Truman came to the military rescue of a blockaded outpost of freedom, West Berlin, and he came to the moral rescue of another embattled outpost, Israel. In both cases — as, later on, in our defense of South Korea Truman put our national values ahead of our narrow self-interests.
He didn’t ask, “What do we get out of this deal?” He asked: “What is right?”
How extraordinary have been the moral and strategic dividends of these investments in principle! In West Berlin, Truman created what would soon became the world’s most visible rebuke to Communism and, not by accident, the scene of its demise. By fighting for South Korea, he saved its people from the Orwellian despotism that rules on the other side of the 38th parallel.
And by recognizing Israel he gave Jewish civilization a chance to reclaim its roots, the Jewish people the possibility to stand up against its enemies, and a Jewish democracy the opportunity to wrestle with, and perfect, itself.
For America, the dividends have been even greater. We have had 70 years of unparalleled material prosperity and technological advances. Seventy years of global leadership and trendsetting. Seventy years without another great war.
And we have been able to do it because, for all the vicissitudes of the Cold War and globalization and the war on terrorism, Americans have broadly understood that great nations, like great institutions and great citizens, lead by example: by inspiring rather than coercing loyalty; by a decent respect for the opinions of mankind; by steadfastness of purpose and evenness of temperament; by the understanding that a policy of magnanimity and benevolence will, if nothing else, provide us with the friends, and the self-belief, needed in times of adversity.
That is “the world America made,” as my friend Robert Kagan put it a few years ago. And yet this, too, seems to be under threat, thanks to an economically transactional and morally blinkered species of a foreign policy whose only question is “what’s in it for us?” and would trade all that we’ve gained, all our idealism, for a mess of pottage.
In short: Do we understand that our greatness ultimately depends on putting our values first? That we do best when we define our interests according to our values, rather than — in the style of every fallen empire defining our values according to our interests?
So those are my Four Questions. How we answer them matters a great deal to how we fare in the future. It’s a responsibility that rests especially heavily on the shoulders of educators. Because the questions I’m asking are only secondarily about policies, over which honorable people can disagree. They are primarily about habits of mind and virtues of character: about hospitality and openness; intellectual independence and tolerance; forgiveness and responsibility; magnanimity, courage, and fair play.
I believe a university such as Yeshiva, with its proud embrace of religious wisdom with secular knowledge, can meet that responsibility.
Not a generation ago we were the strangers in this land, just as we had ourselves been strangers in Egypt. We know what it means to be the foreigners. And we know how much we have contributed on our road to our American belonging.
We are the children of Abraham, the original idol smasher and iconoclast: We know what it is to hold fast to unpopular ideas in the face of opprobrium and persecution — and to see those ideas vindicated in time.
We are the people of King David, a man of many flaws. We know what it means to struggle, fail, and try again.
And we are the followers of Moses, who also put values first as he steered his people through a wilderness toward a promised land he would never enter. We believe that our morality is a long-term investment, whose benefits only our children may reap, but is the wellspring of our self-respect and survival.
In short, ladies and gentlemen, I think we have something to teach. In this country, our country, we have been granted the opportunity, the means, the privilege and even the power to teach it. Let’s not miss our chance.
Thanks once again for your time, and for this high honor. I’ll treasure it.
This is the text of the keynote speech delivered on receipt of an honorary doctorate at Yeshiva University’s annual Hanukkah dinner in New York on Sunday.
Thank you for the honor you do me with this degree. I’d like to think that somewhere in the great upstairs my rabbinical forbears from Vilna are smiling on this occasion.
My topic this evening concerns the future of the United States — or, as some of my more pessimistic friends in the Never Trump camp are prone to frame the question: “What future?”
It is prompted by the reflection that tonight is this 93rd year for this event, and thus by a sense of curiosity about where the world might be 93 years hence.
I hope that my youngest child will have just celebrated her 101st birthday. And I predict the Jets will be no closer to winning a Super Bowl.
What about the rest of America?
Suppose it’s the year 2110, and a history professor at Yeshiva’s Business School is asking her students to name the inventions or innovations that defined the economic terms of the 21st century, much in the way that airplanes, the Model-T, and penicillin defined the 20th century, or the steam engine and locomotive defined the 19th.
What answers might her students give?
Let me suggest three.
The first is what we usually call fracking. A decade ago, it was fashionable to claim the world was running out of oil, and that the United States was mostly a bystander when it came to energy markets. Yet today, the world produces more oil than ever and the U.S. is the world’s No. 1 energy producer of petroleum and natural gas.
Fracking has meant we could sanction Iran’s oil exports and barely feel the consequences at the pump. It has helped the U.S. achieve historic reductions in CO2 emissions as we switched to natural gas from coal. Instead of living in a “Limits to Growth” era of diminishing possibilities, as the doomsayers of the 1970s believed, it turns out that we are in an era of energy superabundance, in which the United States is again the global leader.
Here’s another innovation few of us could have imagined: mobile apps.
If you had used the term “mobile app” a little over a decade ago, hardly anyone outside of a few computer labs would have known what you meant. It’s a $100 billion industry and a ubiquitous feature of our lives. It has challenged longstanding urban monopolies, created job opportunities for hundreds of thousands of marginal workers, changed the way we deliver and read the news, and will revolutionize everything from the way we get pizzas to medical diagnoses.
Finally, we might add gene therapies to the list.
A century ago, 46 percent of Americans died of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, as opposed to just 3 percent today. A half-century ago, heart disease was the great killer. But mortality rates have also come way down thanks to improvements in medicine and changes in lifestyle. Instead, as we live longer, cancer is becoming the main risk.
Now, suddenly, the advent of gene therapies has opened the prospect that many cancers may be manageable or curable after all. Though we are still at the touch-wood stage, it is no longer far-fetched to envision a horizon where many more of us will push through the diseases that now get us in our 60s, 70s and 80s — so that we can enjoy healthy and productive lives for much longer (at least until dementia or something else gets us).
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