31 May 2011

Manhattan Projects

In a couple of recent conversations, I've heard folks invoke the Manhattan Project as a demonstration that given a vigorous enough government commitment, scientists can be directed to secretly invent the seemingly impossible. Unfortunately, that's just not true.

I think a lot of people imagine that one sunny day in 1942 the US government came to the scientific community and said, “we need a city-busting bomb, and we'll give you resources to do it,” and the scientists quietly whipped up the Bomb to order. But that is the reverse of the way it happened.

Physicists had been designing atom bombs on blackboards as a “thought experiment” since the 1930s. Seeing the theoretical possibility of the Bomb wasn't hard to figure out. It was the scientists who came to the government, aware of the potential to make the Bomb and horrified by the prospect that the Germans might develop it leaving the Allies at their mercy. It wasn't the conceptual difficulty of the Bomb which necessitated the mammoth effort of the Manhattan Project. Yes, having a large team of scientists did help do it more quickly, and resulted in the team delivering two different successful Bomb designs. But it was the materials problem of separating the uranium isotopes that required the magnitude of the Manhattan Project. Scientific discovery and technological invention do scale with investment, but only to a degree.

And as a secret effort, the Manhattan Project may be unique. Obviously we still have secret military research in the US, and totalitarian nations can conduct big secret projects, but it's difficult to imagine keeping something as big as the Manhattan Project under wraps again. Scientists tend to be garrulous and iconoclastic; only the uniquely galvanizing threat of Hitler with the Bomb could have kept so many of them both engaged and careful to keep the secret.

24 May 2011


A few months back, I snarked to a friend that “few things say culturally conservative American Protestant hegemony with an ‘I'm not an antisemite’ fig leaf like using the word ‘Judeo-Christian’ ”.

But I just learned from an article in Tablet magazine that it has complicated, interesting origins.

When and how did America start to think of itself as a Judeo-Christian country, rather than what it historically has been, a Protestant one? That is the question Kevin M. Schultz asks in Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford), and he gives a very concrete answer. The change came about in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks primarily to the concerted effort of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, a lobbying and educational group founded in 1927.
The NCCJ had its origins as a reaction to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, with its anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic hatreds, and took new urgency from the rise of Nazism in 1930s Europe. Its most popular programs were the so-called Tolerance Trios, in which a priest, minister, and rabbi would tour the country conducting public discussions.

This was a vigorous propaganda effort.

the marching band formed into a Star of David and played a rousing version of “Ein Keloheinu,” before reforming as a cross and playing “Onward Christian Soldiers”

The past is another country.

03 May 2011


Conor Friedersdorf, in an article on Rush Limbaugh's comments on Osama Bin Laden's death, delivers some of the best analysis of Limbaugh's technique that I've ever seen.

Osama bin Laden's death caused a bunch of curiosity seekers to tune into Rush Limbaugh's radio program. Would the man who said he wanted President Obama to fail congratulate him on this success?
His problem was that he couldn't come out Monday morning swinging. Sure, some of his listeners would stick by him. But the Limbaugh audience is largely made up of nationalistic War on Terror hawks who wanted bin Laden's head on a pike as much as anyone. Opening with a direct attack on Obama after an event that brought out the jingoism in NPR listeners wasn't going to play.

Longtime Limbaugh watchers won't be surprised by his ingenious if cowardly solution.
In order to fully grasp his mastery of the strategically ambiguous monologue, let's go back to the line I flagged before: “Last night I was as proud as I have been of the U.S. military in I don't know how long.” Earnest praise for the troops? Sure seems like it on first listen. Mocking allusion to Michelle Obama's controversial "proud of my country for the first time" remark? Also plausible! Especially in context. Certainly some of his listeners heard it that way and chuckled. But also totally deniable if necessary! The important thing to realize is that there is no right answer, other than whatever happens to be more convenient for Limbaugh at a particular moment in time.

For pathological narcissists like Limbaugh, there is no truth of what they really mean when they say things; it's rhetorical strategies all the way down.