RFK’s Peaceful Progress, JFK’s New Frontier, Technological Dynamism & Pragmatic Techno-Optimism

by on September 2, 2009 · 8 comments

I’ve been looking for something nice to say about Ted Kennedy. I thought I found it in the eulogy he gave at his brother Robert’s funeral (MP3) —only to realize that the most rousing parts of that oration were quotes from a  speech RFK gave in 1966 in South Africa. While generally taken as a mantra for American social democrats—mild democratic socialists who, having already stolen the word “liberal,” found it necessary to steal the word “Progressive,” too—RFK’s speech contains one passage that is as relevant to RFK’s vision of perpetual “Social Progress” as it is to the reality of perpetual technological progress:

surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again. The answer is to rely on youth—not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. The cruelties and obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to the obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans. They cannot be moved by those who cling to a present that is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger that come with even the most peaceful progress.

It is a revolutionary world we live in, and this generation… has had thrust upon it a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived.

RFK wasn’t talking about the Digital Revolution, but the same words could have come from Virginia Postrel, the Mary Wollstonecraft of the Internet era, whose 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies rallied “dynamists” against “stasists” to embrace technlogical change. RFK’s call for courage and imagination needs only to be tempered by a pragmatic recognition of the challenges such change creates.  As Adam Thierer declared in his Pragmatic (Internet) Optimist’s Creed:

I believe that the Internet is reshaping our culture, economy, and society – in most ways for the better, but not without some heartburn along the way.

I believe that the world of information abundance that has dawned is vastly superior to the world of information poverty that we just left. But I also understand that not all information is equal and that that the rise of abundance raises concerns about information overload, objectionable content, and the role of “authority” and “truth.”

With these important caveats, those of us who believe in both Progress and Freedom can embrace Kennedy’s bold futurism, which his brother John called the “New Frontier” in his electrifying nomination acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention:

the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats…. The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not.  Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink from that new frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric…

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