Monday, April 14, 2008

JFK at the end of ideology

Solutions to our national problems are not political but technical. Not great, but fine.

On May 21, 1962, John Kennedy said: "I would like to say a word about the difference between myth and reality. Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint, Republican or Democrat--liberal, conservative, moderate. The fact of the matter is that most of the problems, or at least many of them that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of 'passionate movements' which have stirred this country so often in the past. Now they deal with questions which are beyond the comprehension of most men."

What we need, in other words, are technically trained people - experts in solving fine-tunable administrative problems - to take over our political life. We don't need people with political ideologies, the "great" (big, capacious, comprehensive) types whose "passionate movements" should worry us. Let's not get "stirred" by political disagreements. We've progressed past that now. The real problems (real as opposed to mythic) are so complex and nuanced that their solutions are beyond our knowing. We need experts.

I see white-lab-coated, horn-rimmed bespectacled men calibrating our political differences by turning dials on room-sized computers in the basement of the White House. Modern politics circa early 60s.*

This isn't the only time JFK made this point. At the 1962 Yale commencement, he said the following:

Today...the central domestic problems of our time are more subtle and less simple. They do not relate to basic clashes of philosophy and ideology, but to ways and means of recasting common goals--to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.

What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need are not labels and cliche's but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.

...[P]olitical beliefs and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solutions.

...[T]he problems of...the Sixties as opposed to the kinds of problems we faced in the Thirties demand subtle challenges for which technical answers--not political answers--must be provided.

* And oh my, wouldn't the two candidates in the '64 election challenge this view! It's a view that, I'd say, had its heyday in the years between 1957 and 1963.