A Not So Biographic Sketch

Posted on March 3rd, 2007 in by admin

Robert Miller Head Photo I am a university Professor of Neuroscience, whose research focus is the functional basis of nerve and glial function in the vertebrate retina and the mechanisms through which they interact. In addition, I have a broad interest in the issues that bind us through a set of common aspirations, generated by a sense of shared humanity. I am deeply concerned that the issues under which we should strongly coalesce, in support of a simple set of objectives, like the protection of our environment, reduction of greenhouse gases, protecting endangered species, reducing deforestation, providing health care for our citizens and reducing to the point of elimination all nuclear military arsenals….these issues, and the reasons why we must do something about them, have been so distorted by the political process in America, namely through the shameful practices and ideology of the corrupt Republican Party; we must now question whether the United States can or should continue as the leader of the Western World. Surely someone else can do a better job. We need leadership to take us to a better place, one where reason and dialogue dominate instead fear, prejudice and misunderstanding. We have badly defaulted on our leadership commitments as we tend to view every international problem as a military threat, or one that can be resolved by military means. Many of us in this country now painfully share this tragic view of our own nation that we once thought stood for purpose and high integrity and most of all for peaceful solutions to problems. The demand for American hegemony abroad has produced an economic disaster here at home.

With the election of Barack Obama in the fall of 2008, many of us hoped that the leadership to get us pointed in the right direction now occupied the White House. But sadly, we discovered that we didn’t get the kind of leadership we had hoped for and instead we have a centrist who is willing to compromise away many of the social protections we built during the twentieth century, when we had a healthier nation. We have learned that our President can make great speeches, but fails to deliver on the substance of these speeches and, having heard so many of them, we puzzle to understand what the person in the White House actually believes. He has surely lost enough battles with the entrenched, racist Republican party to understand that you can’t negotiate with someone who has such a low value system and expect to move the country in the proper direction. If the Republicans had put forward sensible candidates, Obama would be a one-term President; no one talks about carving his image on Mt. Rushmore anymore. We now have a President that has out-Bushed Bush on so many fronts that we have to wonder whether the office of the Presidency is so corrosive, and so much on automatic pilot, that any President will be sucked into the vortex of bad decision-making in favor of confrontational militarism no matter what the challenge. The American public sat by and watched three decades of Republican leadership produce what Noam Chomsky has described as “a failed state.”  America’s most famous journalist, I.F. Stone characterized the Reagan administration when he first grasped its intentions as a movement based on “class greed.” And, since Reagan, things have only gotten worse and gone further in that direction. Today, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is the only movement in the country that makes sense out of our corrupt financial system and its impact on the lives of members of the Middle Class and the poor.

Many Americans have gone through a period of double shock in the past eight years. We were shocked at first by the horrific events of 9/11, but since then we have been exposed to a series of un-American responses by our own government that force us into a state of denial and shame and culminated in a more profound state of shock about the nation that we thought we knew, but which has seemed so repulsive to us, because of the almost daily litany of new revelations about the  behavior of our own government. Shortly after GW Bush was elected, and 9/11 hit,  I thought it would take years to get the country back that we had just before the 2000 election. But Bush put such a dismal face on our executive administration, and placed such huge restraints on what we can do to set our ship on a better course, that I now believe it will take decades to repair the damage he has done, both domestically and abroad and I am quite certain we will never recover the scientific leadership we have lost in areas like stem cell research and environmental technology.

As a nation, we no longer know our own history and we seem unable to accept the direct outcome of our own actions. The attack on 9/11 was, to use the CIA’s own terminology, a “blowback” attack on us. We created the hostilities that led to this attack and unless we recognize our responsibilities in producing these kinds of events, such as the beginning and aftermath of  “Charlie Wilson’s War”, the failure to force Israel into a peace settlement with the Palestinians and our occupation of sacred Islamic holy sites after Gulf War I, the likelihood that we can do something long-lasting about them will forever be out of reach. Though we failed to achieve our objectives in Iraq, our political leaders like to talk about it as a great victory. Obama has changed the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to a drone war and, if necessary by his criteria, he will willing to attack and kill American citizens using such weapons. In my opinion, no President should ever have the power that Obama currently holds for deciding on the course and target of these drone strikes. There are some things that a President should not be allowed to do and the power to kill U.S. citizens for any reason should never be allowed. Homeland security has created an American security state where the new internal police force make judgments about whether acts of murder and attack in America can be classed as an act of terrorism. America cowers in the face of a fictitious enemy that is likely to become more real if we pursue our present policies. War drums now beat over Iran, without any understanding of how our economy and that of the world depends on oil moving through that region. What is the threat we actually face around the world today? Perhaps at most a few radical, pissed off fundamentalists? Never has a country so large been threatened by so few, but so incapable of grasping the reasons for the antagonism.  Of equal importance and perhaps more critical to us as a country is the fact that these kinds of actions badly divide us amongst ourselves, something we should strive hard to avoid by developing a consensus on our strategies and, if necessary, educate the country on why we need to take actions that may seem outside of our national character. A very, very long time ago, most of us thought of ourselves as members of a peaceful nation. Today that claim is an illusion.

We are on a course that seems designed to best serve the interests of our military-industrial complex. Our economy is based on military Keynesianism and we fear the debate that might reveal the magnitude of our economic militarism.  Our continued preoccupation with  military strategies and weapons development will postpone our ability to focus on the long-term solutions needed to address our real problems. We need the kind of national intelligence that has been outlawed by the Republican Party–a longitudinal view of our future. Imagine in the face of stiff challenges to our future, we have one of the two major parties pushing, as their issues of great substance, homosexuality, gun control and abortion as the nation’s most pressing problems. While the last election seemed to dim the future political prospects of those who advocate these issues as political ideology, a large sector of our electorate do not understand that they have been manipulated into a frenzy on these matters by their Republican masters, whose mentor seems to come from the words of Herman Goering, when he described the value of fear in getting public support All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

Recent polling data published in Science Magazine evolution-poll.pdf has revealed the shocking truth about the sad state of scientific knowledge and understanding that exists in our country today. The question was asked if “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals?”; those interviewed were asked to respond with true or false. The United States of America, home of the best research universities in the world, finished second to last among more than thirty nations polled: only Turkey finished behind us. Furthermore, these numbers have been getting worse in this country as the religious fundamentalist movement has become more dominant. A recipe for certain disaster is in our future if we don’t recognize the meaning of these polls and get alarmed about the future of our country, especially as these attitudes begin to encroach upon our way of life, including the fate of our educational and research institutions. Already we have placed our scientific future at grave risk by the encroachment of religious fundamentalism into our national funding policies, such as stem cell research and global climate change. Obama has set the processes in motion to reverse these policies, but the victories are few and the losses in these battles are many. “Drill baby drill” is the new mantra of the Republican party’s nominee for the election of 2012 and that summarizes his energy policy!

We can already see the impact of our research neglect as new progress in these important scientific areas increasingly comes from other countries: our leadership in science has never been more threatened than it is today. This seems doubly tragic because it’s about the only thing we have left as a future economic engine, having given up on manufacturing, and now existing as a country where the financial service sector is the top dog; what drives our economy today is speculation. The kind of economy we will have for the next fifty years is being decided right now and the attempts to create a more progressive country seem to be coming up short.

I am not just talking about science. The dumbing down of our entire culture has reached art, literature and the entire spectrum of the humanities. The American value system has eroded, partially fed by false news and empty rhetoric or the terminal sound bite. Political power is one thing to put in Washington, but political leadership in cultural values is an American disaster. There seems to be little sense that we have a common culture or set of aspirations or even curiosity about things, except what comes through our television sets. A popular television show is valued more highly than a good book. We need Oprah Winfrey to tell us what to read. We have a mass culture that feeds on short-term fads and the alternative achievements such as writing well or developing new knowledge of the world is irrelevant for the pop culture of today. Our publishing industry has focused on profit, not quality, book sales, not development of authors and easy topics, not the tough ones. Yet this confoundedly naive aptitude that seems to be flourishing in America, an unwillingness to face our past with some degree of objectivity, is the very element that allows us to plunder abroad while Americans believe we are doing good in the world. GWB was not the cause of our problems more than he was an indicator of how far we have gone down a road that may be difficult from which to return. Now that Obama has been re-elected, perhaps he may surprise us and lead the country in a new direction, but, on the basis of what we know already, Obama will continue to appease the Republicans. As one of his house colleagues put it, “Obama likes rich white people.” Obama does respond to force, so perhaps if we shout loud enough, he may get our message.

Obama had a lot to fix when he was elected. America had gone into a free-fall in its international prestige and the vitality of its leadership, on top of which we had a failing economy, the dimensions of which seem to grow each day.  There is almost no aspect of our government that was undamaged by the Bush administration, including support for education, science and our technological leadership. Indeed, the Federal government that once supported the growth of science, was, under Bush, in open denial of scientific findings and conclusions. While one aspect of Obama’s stimulus package recently passed, we still don’t know the long-term future of our national scientific investment and how far this administration is willing to go to repair the damage done to our scientific momentum. The scientific spigot got so effectively turned off during the GW Bush administration, that restoring the scientific leadership we once had is probably not possible.

As toxic as the Republican Party has been to our society, it has not gone away, and losing the House in 2010 was an unanticipated disappointment, that proves the resilience and intensity of the Tea Party iteration of the Republicans. As the party of business, they have money to buy elections and God knows they are for sale. The choice for our future is clear, or at least it should be.  We are smart enough and experienced enough to know what to do. We should also know by now that our future and that of our children is intimately related to how successfully we can manage our environment–the global environment. The Republican Party has put us into a deep state of debt and a kind of moral implosion that seemed to culminate in our financial collapse. Getting out of this hole and recovering and sustaining what we once had will be, perhaps, the single most challenging task we have faced since the end of WW II. I urge you to read about the solution we adopted to address the new responsibilities we faced after WW II and especially after Sputnik. Strip out the anti-communist posturing which led to the Cold War and proved to be such an unnecessary disaster for us and for the Soviets and then concentrate on how our investment in education, the GI Bill, the reaction to Sputnik (with the expansion of research universities and the establishment of America as a center of science), were the most important elements to our economic recovery and can be once again for the recovery we have to go through now by building and repairing our economy. The long-term prosperity that we generated in the years after WW II is gone. We need to discover a new America and embellish those parameters of our life that we know have worked in the past. To restore better balance to the Middle Class, we need to improve worker representation in unions and stop the illegal actions of companies that penalize union organizers. We need to eliminate leverage buyouts and force sanity on Wall Street. A moratorium on selling short? We need to force the financial sector to stop robbing from the real economy and start doing what they are supposed to do–serve it!  The lost tablets of our past success need to be rediscovered. And by the way, one of the reforms so badly needed in this country is that of a more enlightened press and a more effective public broadcasting system. These are public airways and those that lease them  should be held to higher journalistic standards, not the dumbing down of news and redefining what constitutes journalism. Hate radio is not free speech. Our media need to stop removing the war from the front pages and recognize the destruction we have brought to a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Wake up America! What can you do to help?

RFM

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