Paradigm shifts


Filed Under Races 2010 on Jan 26 

Although President Kennedy’s inaugural speech in January 1961 is more famous (“Ask not what your country can do for you….”), President Eisenhower’s farewell speech from January 1961 contained many themes and ideas that could still be thought of as being quite relevant, even today.

Excerpts follow:

Throughout America’s adventure in free government, such basic purposes have been to keep the peace; to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity and integrity among peoples and among nations.

Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world. It commands our whole attention, absorbs our very beings. We face a hostile ideology global in scope, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle – with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.

Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties:

– A huge increase in the newer elements of our defenses
– Development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill
– A dramatic expansion in basic and applied research

These and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

Although Eisenhower was obviously referring to Soviet-backed communism with his use of the phrase “hostile ideology global in scope, ruthless in purpose, insidious in method,” that phrase could just as easily refer to current Islamic terrorism.

Additionally, his opining that there might be a great, overreaching hope of a “miraculous solution” to the problems facing the country is evidence of the tempting thought that pursuing successful Government-sponsored outcomes—no matter how unlikely—was just as prevalent 50 years ago as it is today.

All of which brings up the question of how useful are older documents and thoughts—past speeches, old papers, even the Constitution—in providing useful, relevant guidance and example to current situations?

Conservatives are quick to state that the Constitution remains perfectly relevant, that the principles laid out by the Founding Fathers are timelessly brilliant and insightful, and that the basic rights and guidelines established by the Constitution and its amendments are still applicable today, even to situations not specifically envisioned by the Framers.

Many Liberals are of a different mind completely, thinking that while the Constitution and other older documents and speeches are interesting and worthy of academic study, they can’t necessarily be taken in their totality as serious guides for today’s actions. As a well-spoken, well-read liberal acquaintance of mine puts it:

[Eisenhower’s speech is]

A useful teacher indeed, keeping in mind that as the pace of change continues to accelerate, there are often paradigm shifts so radical and pervasive that the lessons of the past, while worthy of review and contemplation, are inadequate to the task of providing a roadmap or in some instances, any substantive guidance at all.

This viewpoint may be short on specifics (What ‘paradigms’ are ‘shifting’? Define those terms. What ‘pace’ is ‘accelerating’ and how fast does the ‘acceleration’ need to be in order for the ‘paradigm’ to ‘shift’? To shift into what? And become what? Define ‘radical’ and ‘pervasive.’), but its implication is reasonably clear.

So the question remains: Are we a society that is guided by timeless, unique, permanent principles of basic rights, or are our founding and guiding documents “living” documents whose meaning should change as dictated by current circumstance and outside consensus? Although some may say this question unfairly characterizes things as being an either/or situation, others will be just as quick to point out that evolving standards and ‘living’ documents add up to no standards at all.