Ed Driscoll

You Can't Fool Thomas Friedman: It's Sputniks All the Way Down

Wikipedia sums up the famous “turtles all the way down” analogy thusly:

The most widely known version appears in Stephen Hawking‘s 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which starts:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

For the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, while the World May Be Flat, it’s standing on Sputniks all the way down. In his latest Best of the Web column, James Taranto credits Friedman for being the likely origin of the president’s now much-parodied Sputnik riff last night:

“Sputnik moment,” however, sounded to us not just false but clichéd. And in fact, it turned out the president himself had trotted out the “our generation’s Sputnik moment” line before, at a Dec. 6, 2010, speech in North Carolina. But we doubted it originated in the White House speechwriting shop. It sounded like the work of a far, far worse writer. Sure enough, our suspicions were confirmed by a book review in the Sept. 9, 2008, edition of the New York Times: “Thomas L. Friedman’s latest book is a plea for a new Sputnik moment.”

Friedman, it turns out, has been beating the Sputnik drum since the Clinton years:

  • “Just as the Soviet launch of Sputnik elevated the importance of science education in the early cold war, the onset of globalization and intensified economic competition is elevating the importance of technology education today.”–March 10, 2000
  • “Think about this. We are facing a mounting crisis in science and engineering education. The generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians who were spurred to get advanced degrees by the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik and the challenge by President John Kennedy to put a man on the moon is slowly retiring.”–Dec. 5, 2004
  • “A few years ago my youngest daughter participated in the National History Day program for eighth graders. . . . My daughter’s project was ‘How Sputnik Led to the Internet.’ “–June 1, 2005
  • “I came to Detroit looking for the hottest new American cars. Instead, I found Sputnik.”–Jan. 20, 2006
  • “The big question for me is, how will President Bush and the Democratic Congress use China: as a scapegoat or a Sputnik?”–Nov. 10, 2006
  • “We used to try harder and do better. After Sputnik, we came together as a nation and responded with a technology, infrastructure and education surge.”–June 29, 2008
  • “I believe this Chinese decision to go green is the 21st-century equivalent of the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik. . . . Well, folks. Sputnik just went up again: China’s going clean-tech. . . . China is embarking on a new, parallel path of clean power deployment and innovation. It is the Sputnik of our day.”–Sept. 27, 2009
  • “I hope Americans see China’s rise as the 21st-century equivalent of Russia launching the Sputnik satellite. . . . Unfortunately, the Cheneyites want to make fighting Al Qaeda our Sputnik.”–Jan. 16, 2010

Last week, James Bowman of the New Criterion asked, “What is it about writing for The New York Times that makes people stupid?” Perhaps a better question might be, what causes writing for a paper devoted to advancing an ideology that calls itself  “progressivism” to be so devoted to nostalgia?

No wonder the Gray Lady is in such trouble, when three of its most prominent employees each seem forever trapped in their own decade of American 20th century history:

  • And for Thomas Friedman, between his China and Sputnik references, it’s forever the Cold War of the 1950s.

Or as an Instareader quipped:

Re Sputnik — They told me if I voted for McCain the President would get nostalgic for 1950s America….” And they were right!

Last month, Byron York explored Frank Rich’s contributions to the collective nostalgia of the Gray Lady:

Nothing irritates New York Times columnist Frank Rich more than Republicans who — in Rich’s view — want to turn the clock back to the 1950s.  That long-ago time in America was never the idyll it is sometimes portrayed to be, Rich believes, but rather a “phony nirvana” rife with racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic injustice.

So it is surprising that in a new column, “Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?” Rich waxes nostalgic about…the 1950s.  He tells the story of Robbins Barstow, a union official living in suburban Connecticut who in the 50s was an avid home-movie maker.  In 1956, Barstow, his wife, and three children won a trip to Disneyland in a contest sponsored by 3M, the makers of Scotch Tape.  The home movie Barstow made of the experience, “Disneyland Dream,” portrays the happy family boarding an old Constellation propeller aircraft to fly to the paradise of Southern California and enjoy the wonders of Disneyland.  It has become something of a classic of post-war Americana.

To Rich, the Barstows lived in “an America where great corporations like 3M can be counted upon to make innovative products, sustain an American work force, and reward their customers with a Cracker Jack prize now and then.”  Even when American optimism was shaken, as it was after the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik in 1957, there was a “bedrock faith in the American way” that leaders like John F. Kennedy could call on to “reclaim America’s heroic destiny.”

More than anything, Rich asserts, the America of the 1950s brought promise, hope, and optimism. “The sense that the American promise of social and economic mobility was attainable to anyone who sought it permeates ‘Disneyland Dream’ from start to finish,” writes Rich.  “Economic equality seemed within reach in 1956, at least for the vast middle class.”

Rich devotes a few words to some of the non-wonderful things about the 1950s, making a passing reference to the absence of “a nonwhite face among [the Barstows’] neighbors back home or at Disneyland.”  (Just for the record, the Barstows lived not in Yazoo City, Mississippi but in Hartford suburb of Wethersfield, Connecticut.)  On the whole, though, Rich paints a glowing picture of the 50s to stand in stark contrast to today, when middle-class wages are stagnant, and, according to Rich, people no longer trust capitalism to reward hard work.  “Many of America’s best young minds now invent derivatives, not Disneylands,” Rich writes.  So unlike those great 1950s!

It says much about how progressivism’s intellectual steam has gone out when it becomes obsessed with a past it once reviled — and of course, whose prominent member similarly waxes nostalgic about the golden mid-century era of  untrammeled Big Government himself from time to time.