Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Remembering FDR

Yesterday I wrote that "invoking [Abbie] Hoffman's memory may be one of the best antidotes to all of the current 'memorial worship' of Ronald Reagan." Today, in her Editor's Cut blog post for The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel invoked a somewhat less controversial memory, that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Her timing was impeccable, since today is the 75th anniversary of his first inauguration. Her objective was to call into question whether or not the Democratic party is still "the party of Roosevelt." This is clearly a relevant question, since America had been plunged into its worst ever economic crisis under the administration of a Republican President and presumably elected Roosevelt out of a country-wide perceived need for change. (Does that sound familiar?)

Unfortunately, vanden Heuvel's post scores primarily on rhetoric at a time when we are being besieged by rhetoric on all fronts:

On a cold day at the tail of winter, Roosevelt looked out over a nation gripped by Depression, incapacitated by fear, and confronted by threats as grave as any we face today. He spoke, reassuringly, of how we had nothing to fear but fear itself. The New Deal policies he launched transformed nearly every aspect of American political, economic and cultural life. As important, they restored hope, work and a measure of dignity to millions.

It is that spirit of grounded realism and determined idealism that we need to reclaim today. It is that spirit which offers an antidote to those who rule as if they have nothing to fear but the end of fear itself.

As we wait for the results from today's primaries in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont, it's worth asking if the party of Roosevelt can recapture the imagination and nerve to offer solutions on a scale equal to the problems we face?

If it is "grounded realism" that vanden Heuvel wants (and it is certainly what I want), she would do better to consult a speech that Roosevelt gave at Oglethorpe University on May 22, 1932, rather than that Inaugural Address that she chose to celebrate. This is the text I have in mind:

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.

There is an irony in how I encountered this text that deserves citing. It was used by Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., to introduce Chapter 11 of The Mythical Man Month. This collection of "Essays on Software Engineering" was published in 1975 and may best be read as an extended apology for the fiasco that was the development of IBM's Operating System/360. The buck for this mess stopped at Brooks' desk, and many of us have benefitted from his effort to write about getting into and out of messes is such readable language. While I often argue that technocentrism is responsible for many of today's messes, this is a case where a dyed-in-the-wool technologist came up with wisdom that extended beyond his specialty; and his invocation of Roosevelt was one of the most memorable episodes in my own reading of his book.

The important message in Roosevelt's text is that, when you are confronted with a truly complex problem (like the Great Depression), the first solution you apply is not necessarily going to be the one that works best or, for that matter, works at all. The title of that eleventh chapter of The Mythical Man Month is "Plan to Throw One Away." The message of the chapter paraphrases Roosevelt: Build something. Then make sure you understand what works and what doesn't. Learn from what you build; then throw it away and build something better. The real "nerve" that Roosevelt brought to his administration was the courage to try things and then admit frankly when they did not work, writing them off as part of a learning process that might help in "getting it right the next time." Indeed, one way to read the "raw numbers" is that the demand for industrialization brought on by the Second World War did more for turning around the economy than any of the New Deal programs did. This is not to discredit any of those programs. After all, that "depression" was not just economic but also both psychological and social (a point that vanden Heuvel recognized). Much of the New Deal had to do with treating a national malaise; so, when the time came to rise to the challenges of the Second World War, the American public was psychologically prepared to do so.

Notice that, in that last paragraph, I focused only on the "nerve" part of vanden Heuvel's text, rather than the "imagination." This is a reaction of my own cautionary remarks about attaching too much "currency" to "innovation." The "innovation evangelists" work hand-in-glove with the media to cultivate a messianic culture, which assumes that there is always an answer "in the back of the book" and all we need is the right leader who has the right book. The media then translate this into a failure-is-not-an-option philosophy, anxious to jump on any glimmer of failure as a potential headline story. Roosevelt's greatest insight was that failure not only is an option but also a necessary option. Without it you may succumb to the illusion of having solved the problem and will be unprepared for the consequences that ensue when you discover that it is not quite the solution you thought it was.

So, yes, it is good to remember Roosevelt on this particular anniversary date. As I said at the beginning, the context is too appropriate for the anniversary to be ignored. Nevertheless, we need to be a bit more specific about why he deserves to be remembered; and that "we" applies to not only those of us participating in the electoral process but also those who have made a career out of influencing the choices we make through manipulation of the media we consume.

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