Friday, August 22, 2008

Ivory Tower Syndrome

I consider myself one of the most fortunate individuals in the planet. I am sure this feeling is shared by many of the egomaniacs who populate the Bay Area; in fact I am positive that many BayAreans are indeed part of the egomaniacs club. But seriously, I mean it. I am about to begin my 5th year as PhD student in Electrical Engineering at one of the best institutions of higher education in the world, Stanford. Before that I worked for 4 years in the knowledge intensive Silicon Valley high tech industry. I have spent the last 8 years of my life interacting with some of the smartest people in the planet from all walks of life and from all kinds of cultures/countries. Having been born and raised in a small rural town in Spain, I am still puzzled that I was able to come this far. We'll leave that story for a different time and place.

In Silicon Valley it isn't that unusual to know people who are proficient in three languages, hold several degrees from prestigious institutions and who work at the hottest high tech companies. At Stanford, the faculty is made of the best people in their respective fields. Students go through a very tough selection process before they are offered admission. This is why I am so puzzled that Obama enjoys so much popularity on campus across the board. The liberal bias amongst faculty members in top American institutions is nothing new. George Will of the Washington Post put it best in his 2004 column Academia, Stuck to the Left:

"Many campuses are intellectual versions of one-party nations -- except such nations usually have the merit, such as it is, of candor about their ideological monopolies. In contrast, American campuses have more insistently proclaimed their commitment to diversity as they have become more intellectually monochrome. They do indeed cultivate diversity -- in race, skin color, ethnicity, sexual preference. In everything but thought."

Even taking that bias into account, I find the Obama worship professed by most of my fellow Stanford community members mind boggling. I have had the courage to ask some ardent Obama supporters why do they support him, at the risk of being exposed, and all I have gotten back is a bunch of nonsense. When asked to name a single significant legislative achievement by the man, they all answer along this fellow's lines to Chris Mathews in this MSNBC interview. It is also obvious that Obama doesn't have any executive experience at a major government entity (he's been no major, governor or secretary of anything). Even Jimmy Carter, the President he is most often compared to, given the similar way "from obscurity to nomination" in which both clinched their respective nominations, had been Governor of Georgia before starting his bid for the White House. Needless to say that Jimmy Carter has been consistently ranked in the bottom half with respect to other US Presidents by academics. Obama doesn't have either Eisenhower's impeccable military credentials. So lacking the legislative, executive and military credentials that have been associated with US Presidents (at least XX-th century ones), I find it quite astonishing that some many of these Stanford people like the guy so much. When confronted with these facts, the most honest amongst Obama's fans point to his academic degrees; the uber-honest point also to his "African" American background and that it's about time to have an African American President. I have put "African" between quotes because Obama isn't really an "African American" as it is understood in the traditional American sense. Obama's African background is contemporary African, he isn't related, that we know of, to the Africans who were brought to the American colonies as slaves in the centuries prior to the American Civil war. From that point of view, his alleged "African American" background is fake.

So in terms of "pure qualifications" all we are left with is a guy who has degrees from top schools. Now, how many of those guys (and ladies) are produced every year? This year, at Stanford alone, we had more than 4000 people receiving an undergrad or grad degree. Even if you take the top 10 % among those (since some people would rush to point Obama's Latin honors in his Law degree) that's more than 400 people, every year and at Stanford alone!!!!

It doesn't look very convincing to me. This Obama experience has just confirmed what I had always sensed prior to coming to Stanford as grad student. Highly smart people are to be respected for their work in the field they are experts in. When it comes to giving opinions about political candidates, their opinion is worth neither more nor less than that of the guy next door who might be a plumber (with all due respect to plumbers). Just as you surely would prefer to call a plumber than to call a Stanford Professor to fix your broken pipe, I think that you shouldn't count on the perceived "endorsement" of Obama by the intellectual elite as something to make up for Obama's lack of presidential qualifications. Those intellectual elites are as human as the rest; in our 1 person 1 vote democracy, when it comes to politics their opinion isn't worth more than that of any other person. In fact, in Obama's case, one has every reason to be suspicious of that endorsement given the consistent support of the so called "intellectual elite" to Democratic candidates.

I would like to end this post with a reference what many will find completely outrageous. In my opinion, it just evidences that highly smart people can make extremely dumb (even evil) decisions when it comes to endorsing political figures. This is an excerpt of a well known letter by Niels Bohr to Werner Heisenberg regarding their 1941 meeting:

"Personally, I remember every word of our conversations, which took place on a background of extreme sorrow and tension for us here in Denmark. In particular, it made a strong impression both on Margrethe and me, and on everyone at the Institute that the two of you spoke to, that you and Weizs├Ącker expressed your definite conviction that Germany would win and that it was therefore quite foolish for us to maintain the hope of a different outcome of the war and to be reticent as regards all German offers of cooperation. I also remember quite clearly our conversation in my room at the Institute, where in vague terms you spoke in a manner that could only give me the firm impression that, under your leadership, everything was being done in Germany to develop atomic weapons and that you said that there was no need to talk about details since you were completely familiar with them and had spent the past two years working more or less exclusively on such preparations. I listened to this without speaking since [a] great matter for mankind was at issue in which, despite our personal friendship, we had to be regarded as representatives of two sides engaged in mortal combat."

Apparently, the letter was never sent; it was kept by Bohr in his archives and was made public by his family in 2002. Luckily for us, Heisenberg was wrong.

1 comment:

Smart-Cookie said...

Obama capitalizes on Americans' weakened sense of self-worth following the neo-conservative policies of the Bush administration, and instills in his followers a sense of left-wing revenge and entitlement, whatever the costs to freedom and democracy.

Although it's understandable that most don't realize it, there is a difference between neo-conservatives and Republicans. John McCain is a Republican.

We The People must choose more wisely than in the past. You make the proper comparison between Obama and Pres. Carter. You're also right to inject the nuclear weapons component. It's simple: Humanity cannot survive another World War. America is already fighting the GWOT, and global tensions over ideologies and competition for resources mount on a daily basis. This is no time to elect an inexperienced, oppotunistic lawyer who feeds people's hatred, shame and lust for "easy" solutions, without regard for our founding principles or our Constitutional structure.

Thank you for providing your educated observations ... and your thoughtful wisdom.