The story goes that King Canute humiliated his obsequious courtiers by commanding the tide to reverse itself. When the tide failed to turn at his command, he remarked how worthless worldly kingship is, and (depending on which source you read) gave some sort of tribute to God.

So, as any one should realize, there is a limit to how much can be accomplished just by putting a crown on the new guy's head. There are some things that human beings can't do, regardless of title, like instructing the tide to reverse itself. And politicians tend to do the things that are politically expedient in order to maintain power, regardless of ideology. Sometimes, you have to swim with the tide, or else drown. People who have an unrealistic investment in a leader's charisma are setting themselves up for disappointment and this may have been the intended lesson Canute intended all those years ago, and it is interesting to compare his biography with the recent moves of President-elect Obama.

Canute was a Viking. He wielded considerable power throughout Europe, and was often referred to as the 'Emperor of the North' for holding dominion over England, Denmark and Norway. He was also a skillful politician, marrying a Christian (Emma of Normandy, the widow of Ethelred) to seal his control of the English throne while also maintaining ties (in neopagan custom) to his handfast wife of neopagan custom. Following his marriage to Emma, Canute was very generous in his financial support to the churches of his day, further cementing his hold on power. It's amazing what a little money and some public acts of face-saving (in Canute's case, to the Normans) can do.

Well, this Obama feller is a pretty fair politician, too. His moves in picking Democrats who are hawkish on defense plays well with conservative policy wonks on foreign policy and military affairs; his elevation of Sen. Clinton into the (gulp) chain of presidential succession and (arguably), the second-most powerful position in the executive branch is an olive branch to the feminist wing of his party and the invitation to Pastor Warren an obvious nod to evangelicals. Again, if you were expecting a radical departure from the past, you might well glumly conclude with (with apologies to Pete Townsend) that Obama is 'same as the old boss':

But in what is to me one of his more telling moves, Obama has obviously completely broken with the Bush Administration's dysfunctional approach to science. His appointments to head the Energy Department (Steven Chu), NOAA (Jane Lubchenco) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (John Holdren) are causing the global-warming denialists and opponents of stem cell research to throw up their hands in dismay. They are being called 'radicals', 'extremists' and 'anti-energy' by those on the right. I wonder why?

Submitted for your consideration.....

Here's an interesting talk by Lubchenco from October 2007 that such folk might find objectionable....apparently, Lubchenco thinks that scientists should advocate for the science in public life, rather than some sort of politically-expedient outcome.

Here's an op-ed piece by Holdren from August 2008 that really takes climate change skeptics to task. No wonder some of them describe Holdren (a former president of the AAAS, one of the most prestigious science outfits on the planet) as 'Chicken Little' or a 'crackpot.'

Finally here's a speech by Chu (currently Director of the Lawrence Berkeley Labs) at the National Energy Summit from a few days ago as to his interests in global warming:

Apparently, Chu is interested in preserving (in his words) 'a beautiful planet.' No wonder some of the not-so-left in the blogosphere view him as 'psychiatrically impaired.'

I conclude that, like King Canute before him, Obama is substantively living in reality.

Rather than telling the tide to reverse itself, the President-elect seems to be committed to bringing people into his Administration who think we should rely on the test of nature (that is, scientific findings) in evaluating policy.

No Bush-style suppression or ignoring inconvenient facts as part of a 'war on science.'

No career political stooges being placed in positions where their scientific illiteracy threatens sound policy decisions.

No more ignoring the formal findings of the National Academy of Science, or filling the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology with scientific mediocrities willing to toe the line for James Imhofe (R-Okl).

The millenium isn't upon us, the problems are serious and sobering and no amount of magical handwaving is going to solve the problems. But, if I am any judge, then the tide HAS turned on that day when we have a President who says this, and (crossing my fingers) really believes it:

Today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation. It's time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and work to restore America's place as the world leader in science and technology....ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.


RBH said...

One can only hope. So I do.

Michael said...

One major difference between Obama and Bush is that ideological purity was the primary consideration for Bush's appointments. Obama seems to be going for competence in his appointments.

Eamon Knight said...

As someone at Panda's Thumb pointed out: if Obama wanted an evangelical for the optics, why not go with Jim Wallis? Not popular enough with the fundy crowd?