The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rush of Light

Contemporary American Conservatism is a Laser Warming Up with Unpredictable and Potentially Devastating Results

I heard two seemingly unconnected stories back-to-back last night on NPR’s All Things Considered that got me thinking. I marveled how the first seemed almost an advisory caution for the latter.

The first story was a science piece on a new category of super-small lasers becoming practical realities. Lasers light is created by a process known as stimulated emission, in which an electron, agitated by a photon, creates a second photon with the same phase, frequency, polarization, and direction of travel as the original photon with no apparent loss to the original. Trap the created photons in a reflective chamber and eventually a cascade effect results.

In order words, laser light is just ordinary light allowed to bounce around inside a box, where it builds power until released in a rushed beam of extraordinary intensity and sometimes-devastating outcome. Most academics assumed this limited the degree of laser miniaturization possible, since the box needed to give photons sufficient room in which to bounce.

However, Mark Stockman of Georgia State University had a revelation six years ago. He realized a single, rapidly vibrating electron, sitting on a metal surface, could produce laser light all by itself. Stockman called such lasers “nanopendulums.” Other scientists dubbed them “plasmons.” A research team at Norfolk State University recently developed a plasmon laser out of a bead of gold a mere forty-four nanometers across – about one thousand times smaller than the thickness of a human hair.

Lasers this small could capture images of the molecules inside our bodies, in order to understand things like cancerous tumors from the inside out. Figure out how to connect a series of these lasers together, as other teams are currently studying, and a new generation of computers emerge that can store information with a thousand times the current density and process it a thousand times faster.

From tiny potentialities, huge outcomes are possible – toward both productive and destructive ends.

The second story was a political piece, consisting of an interview with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, about his new book, The Death of Conservatism. Understand that Tanenhaus is not writing off conservatism as an American ideology or political movement. Instead, he chronicles its death “as a really vital contributive force to the serious political conversation of our time.”

Understand further that Tanenhaus is writing without any sense of schadenfreude. In fact, he believes liberals should bemoan rather than celebrate conservatism’s declining influence. Tanenhaus argues the role of classical conservatism is to “ask the tough questions, to be very skeptical about the idea of an ever-growing [federal government], not because it isn't a virtue in and of itself, but because it can get out of control.”

Tanenhaus sees the current U.S. conservative movement as having “degenerated into a hollow echo-chamber of . . . die-hards and talk show hosts, disconnected from the broad public, which until recently it spoke for.” What is more, conservatives have “declared war on everything outside their shrinking island of movement politics.” Tanenhaus refers to them in their present state as “revanchist conservatism” – the politics of resentment, anger and revenge.

Tanenhaus views this degeneration of conservatism as a genuine shame for both liberals and the country as a whole. I would go a step further and call it something unpredictable and potentially very dangerous indeed. Consider the language used by Tanenhaus. He describes contemporary conservatives as a small number of individuals, trapped and bouncing around inside the box of their own ideas. This sounds remarkably like a laser, albeit during its initial, “warming up” state.

The problem is the initial state of lasers is not steady state. Instead, they begin to cascade and we have already seen signs of this from U.S. conservatism in the form of last year’s McCain/Palin rallies and this year’s “tea parties” and angry town hall meetings over healthcare reform. The crowds at these meetings are angry and this is understandable. However, the dangerous part is anger’s use not as a means to communicate disapproval or offer alternatives but its encouragement simply for its own self-satisfied release.

We see it in the constant repetition of fear-based rumors and fear-mongering lies. We see it in the demonizing not of specific political policies but specific politicians. We even see individuals encouraged to bring and display firearms and other weapons, in order to make their anger even more intimidating.

It is a recipe to turn angry individuals within crowds into assassins and angry crowds into mindless, destructive mobs. The devastation that could result if the anger continues to cascade and then releases in an intense beam of hatred is incalculable. Moreover, it takes nothing more than a few nanopendulums, in the form of far-right pundits, such as Limbaugh, Beck, and O’Reilly, and a few far-right politicians, such as Rove, Palin, and Gingrich, to start the process

Traditionally, conservatives were the keepers of the status quo in this country, portrayed in cliché as affluent, white, card-carrying members of the GOP, who concerned themselves with issues such as civil rights, poverty, and entitlements only to the extent necessary to keep the middle class stable and non-white, impoverished minorities from rioting.

Years of reckless control on their part left more and more of the middle class sliding into poverty. At the same time, immigration, both legal and illegal, is slowly transforming non-white Americans into the new majority. We already see some of the initial developments from this shift in the election of a progressive African-American President and the first Democratic Congressional majority in many years.

Such change threatens the old status quo. Fear and resentment are currently ricocheting within plasmon chambers of right-wing talk radio and Congressional cloakrooms. Conservatives still number a greater proportion of the affluent among their numbers but it would be ironic if, in the new revolution, the old keepers of the status quo are the ones chanting, “Burn Baby Burn!”

We can be sure of only two things. First, the conflagration they release will be to the benefit of no one, least of all themselves. Second, the ignition for their inferno will come not from a match or flinty spark but from a rush of light.

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