Guest essay by Eric Worrall
President Obama recently gave a speech, in which he seemed to suggest that politicians should subordinate their decisions to the opinions of scientists. My question – why don’t we cut out the middleman, and put the scientists directly in charge?
But when our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem. (Applause.)
You know, it’s interesting that if we get sick, we actually want to make sure the doctors have gone to medical school, they know what they’re talking about. (Applause.) If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane. (Laughter.) And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think, “I don’t want somebody who’s done it before.” (Laughter and applause.) The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science — that is the path to decline. It calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan, who graduated high school here in New Jersey — (applause) — he said: “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”
The debate around climate change is a perfect example of this. Now, I recognize it doesn’t feel like the planet is warmer right now. (Laughter.) I understand. There was hail when I landed in Newark. (Laughter.) (The wind starts blowing hard.) (Laughter.) But think about the climate change issue. Every day, there are officials in high office with responsibilities who mock the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientists that human activities and the release of carbon dioxide and methane and other substances are altering our climate in profound and dangerous ways.
A while back, you may have seen a United States senator trotted out a snowball during a floor speech in the middle of winter as “proof” that the world was not warming. (Laughter.) I mean, listen, climate change is not something subject to political spin. There is evidence. There are facts. We can see it happening right now. (Applause.) If we don’t act, if we don’t follow through on the progress we made in Paris, the progress we’ve been making here at home, your generation will feel the brunt of this catastrophe.
So it’s up to you to insist upon and shape an informed debate. Imagine if Benjamin Franklin had seen that senator with the snowball, what he would think. Imagine if your 5th grade science teacher had seen that. (Laughter.) He’d get a D. (Laughter.) And he’s a senator! (Laughter.)
Look, I’m not suggesting that cold analysis and hard data are ultimately more important in life than passion, or faith, or love, or loyalty. I am suggesting that those highest expressions of our humanity can only flourish when our economy functions well, and proposed budgets add up, and our environment is protected. And to accomplish those things, to make collective decisions on behalf of a common good, we have to use our heads. We have to agree that facts and evidence matter. And we got to hold our leaders and ourselves accountable to know what the heck they’re talking about. (Applause.)
Someone has to watch the watchers.
Very few politicians or other authority figures who have been entrusted with absolute power, have used it well. One politician who stands out, for the honourable discharge of his duty, was the Roman General Cincinnatus.
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519–430 BC) was a Roman aristocrat and statesman whose service as consul in 460 BC and dictator in 458 BC and 439 BC made him a model of civic virtue.
Cincinnatus was regarded by the Romans, especially the aristocratic patrician class, as one of the heroes of early Rome and as a model of Roman virtue and simplicity. He was a persistent opponent of the plebeians. When his son, Caeso Quinctius, was convicted and condemned to death, Cincinnatus was forced to live in humble circumstances, working on his own small farm, until an invasion caused him to be called to serve Rome as dictator, an office which he resigned two weeks later, after completing his task of defeating the rival tribes of the Aequians, Sabines, and Volscians.
His immediate resignation of his near-absolute authority with the end of the crisis has often been cited as an example of outstanding leadership, service to the greater good, civic virtue, lack of personal ambition, and modesty. As a result, he has inspired a number of organizations and other entities, many of which are named in his honour.
George Washington was frequently compared by his contemporaries to General Cincinnatus – throughout the turbulence of the War of Independence, and serving two terms as President, he maintained his humility, and never developed a pathological love of power, a disregard for political boundaries, which is all too evident in many of today’s politicians.
George Washington wrote the following, in response to be asked to serve a third term as President.
The period for a new election of a Citizen, to Administer the Executive government of the United States, being not far distant, and the time actually arrived, when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person, who is to be cloathed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those, out of whom a choice is to be made.
I beg you, at the sametime, to do me the justice to be assured, that this resolution has not been taken, without a strict regard to all the considerations appertaining to the relation, which binds a dutiful Citizen to his country–and that, in withdrawing the tender of service which silence in my Situation might imply, I am influenced by no diminution of zeal for your future interest, no deficiency of grateful respect for your past kindness; but am supported by a full conviction that the step is compatible with both.
President Obama asked what Benjamin Franklin would have thought, about people who are unconvinced about the urgency of climate change.
He should have asked what George Washington would have thought, about a President who casually muses about a third term, whose legacy of office will include, in my opinion, a politically unhealthy broadening of executive power, a track record of excessive use of executive authority, all to “solve” a crisis which his political opponents do not agree is an urgent issue.