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Doubters replace dreamers, doers

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday February 18, 1997

We celebrated Presidents Day on Monday. It’s no longer George Washington and Abe Lincoln, men of vision, courage and achievement — heroes, to use a term that is now out of favor. Presidents Day just blends them all together — Harry Truman with John Tyler and Thomas Jefferson with Chester Arthur. It’s better that way. It fits the times, our times, when our political and cultural leaders are, for the most part, more comfortable with pygmies — people with small ideas, diminished aspirations and narrow horizons. Reason: Most of today’s political and cultural “leaders” are themselves pygmies.

But America continues to have a reputation as a land of dreamers and doers. It was earned, not primarily by politicians but by ordinary people who did extraordinary things. Whether you think about the Pilgrims crossing the Atlantic, pioneers on the Oregon Trail or astronauts landing on the moon, we are a nation of dreamers, people who have big ideas, who explore, who believe we can make life better for ourselves and for others.

We are also a nation of doers — from the transcontinental railroad, Panama Canal and the Golden Gate Bridge to rural electrification, universal telephone service and Interstate highways. We build things. Americans have always built things — and so have successful people and cultures throughout the history of the world.

What underlies America’s propensity to build is our sense of optimism, our willingness to engage in possibility thinking. We have also always had confidence in our unique ability to get things done, a characteristic noted more than 150 years ago by French historian and traveler Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote about “American exceptionalism.”

Unfortunately, possibility thinking and the can-do approach that characterizes so much of our past seems to be losing ground. Examples are legion:

Consider “limits to growth” ideas, promoted by the Club of Rome and supported by flimsy and discredited research. Even though predictions that we were running out of everything from platinum to oil were wrong, “limits” thinking is now embedded in public school textbooks and is a core element of a new conventional wisdom that drives public policy-making on everything from energy to the environment.

Another is the idea of a “risk-free society,” as regulations and tort law are used to try to squeeze all the risk out of life, no matter what the cost. From airbags on cars to a ban on eating apples from Washington, there is no end to people who think they know what is best for us and are willing to use the coercive power of government to make us accept their view.

Perhaps most disturbing is the wide and uncritical acceptance of the concept of “sustainability” — even by teachers, reporters and many corporate executives, people who should know better. In fact, “sustainability” is not about science, it’s about power, and it has very dangerous implications for our politics, our economy and our society — in part because it elevates the “expert” and expands his authority; it debases the importance of human ingenuity and adaptability; it altogether rejects possibility thinking; and it discounts the power of invention and technology to sustain or find substitutes for practices that “experts” see as “unsustainable.”

Now there is a new fad among our leaders: the civility movement. America’s pygmies — on the left and the right, Democrats and Republicans — are forming organizations and getting government and foundation grants so they can help us mind our manners. So much for Lewis and Clark, for pioneers and astronauts, for building bridges and eliminating gridlock on the Internet. Instead, we have Miss Manners, the result of pygmies at work.

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