“We live in a time which has few historical parallels”

May 3, 2021 by

. There are practical problems, problems of the restructuring of human institutions, of their obsolescence and inadequacy, and problems of the mind and spirit, which if not more difficult than ever before, are different and are indeed plenty difficult.”

– J. Robert Oppenheimer, Director of Los Alamos Laboratory, Manhattan Project, a 1961 talk at the University of Colorado.

Over too many years of a life in politics, I grew tragically amused at the ever growing list of topics verboten to talk about in established circles. Raising any number of issues, quite important issues, resulted in immediate marginalization and banishment to the hinterland of cranks. Easily, the most taboo topic was the failure of politics in direct consequence of the dysfunction of America’s obsolete and inadequate institutions of government.

There were a few you could have a serious conversation on this topic. For instance, my brother-in-law’s brother Tom Geoghegan, a serious attorney and author, long called for abolishing the senate. An easy step if you wanted in anyway to revive democracy in America. Confronted with this idea, I can count on less than one hand people who actually thought about it, opposed to all who raise their eyebrow, immediately dismissing both the idea and whoever foolishly raised it.

So, it’s gratifying to find Mr. Oppenheimer’s speech from over a half-century ago. It can certainly be said he helped shaped the world we find ourselves in today. The first tool developed from the human knowledge of quantum physics, the nuclear bomb, still horrifically defines global politics, remaining far beyond the discussion of any practical politics. This despite the fact that whatever existential threat you frighten yourself with on any given night, Oppie’s “device” can still instantaneously, on a scale far greater than any other, reshape life on this planet.

Which gets to his point, we need not a reshuffling of people sitting in chairs of power, but a fundamental reshaping of the institutions themselves, whether political, government, economic, business, education, or cultural. To meet any and all challenges humanity currently faces, necessitates as part of the solution fundamental reforms of human institutions.

Reconstituting of our ability to talk to each other, an essential first step for any democratic revival and reform is universally met with instant dismissal by those in any position of power. The vacuousness of our politics is not by accident. I’ll let Doctor Oppenheimer conclude,

“In this world of change and scientific growth, we have so largely lost the ability to talk with one another. In the great succession of deep discoveries, we have become removed from one another in our traditions, even a little in language. We have had neither the time, nor the ruggedness, nor the skill to tell one another why we have learned, nor to listen properly, nor to see what there was that would increase and enrich our common culture and understanding. And so it is the public sector of our lives, what we hold and have in common, has suffered, as have the illumination of the arts, the deepening of justice and virtue, and the quality of our common discourse.

Never in history have the specialized traditions flourished more than today and we have our private beauties, but in those high undertakings where humanity derives strength and insight from public excellence, we are impoverished. We hunger for nobility in the rare words and acts that harmonize simplicity with truth. In this default, I see some deep connection with the great unresolved public problems – survival, liberty, and fraternity – in this default is the responsibility we have to history and to our fellows for remaking human institutions as they need to be remade today… As a very start, we must learn again, without contempt and with great patience to talk to one another and we must learn to hear.”

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Preview YouTube video J. Robert Oppenheimer – Lecture at Colorado University 1961

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