Geek Out: bringing intelligence to the campaign

August 01 2013

Bob Braun, a former longtime columnist for The Star-Ledger, is following Rush Holt’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. He will be sharing his thoughts and his stories from the campaign trail from time to time.

I lost too many friends in Vietnam ever to believe politics doesn’t matter in the lives of ordinary people. That war, and all the wars that followed it, proved politics can kill. Those growing up black and brown and disadvantaged proved politics can oppress. The dozens of New Jersey residents killed by Superstorm Sandy proved politics can lethally encourage complacency.  Politics simply is too dangerous to ignore—especially now when communications technology makes George Orwell’s 1984 look naïve and behind the times. We are both spied upon by our government and sedated by a media industry that profits from mindless entertainment while ignoring serious issues.

I don’t believe this abbreviated, mid-summer campaign treats politics with the respect it deserves, but if you are seriously interested in the issues and want to cast an intelligent vote—a vote unhampered by the glare of pretended celebrity status—then take a look at Rush Holt’s Geek Out on this website. It is beyond question the most intelligent and respectful treatment of what is at stake in the Aug. 13 primary and the Oct. 13 election.

``In today’s politics,’’ Rush said in introducing the program, ``we also must oppose the impassioned minority who deny reality. And some would have us believe that all Washington needs is a new kind of politics, one driven by personality and powered by popularity and devoted to compromise of all viewpoints.

The Internet program reminded voters of Rush’s positions on many issues and that was important. His opposition to NSA spying and his introduction of legislation to repeal both the PATRIOT Act and the FISA amendments. His pledge to work to protect Social Security and expand Medicare to a single-payer health system.  His support of taxation to reduce carbon emissions and limit Wall Street speculation in favor of the long-term investor.

But there is more in this 90-minute broadcast than simply a repetition of his views. Geek Out raised two inevitably intertwined propositions that really come down to the main issue in this election. The first is that public policy decisions must be based on fact. ``Evidence matters,” Rush and his panel of scientific experts repeatedly say in the broadcast. The second—more implicit—is that known facts compel principled action to improve the lives of Americans.

Some of the candidates in this primary campaign either have lowered their expectations of what can be accomplished or made a virtue out of their willingness to compromise principle.

 “ Although the ability to compromise is a virtue, not every compromise is virtuous,” Rush says. “Not all viewpoints are equal—some are wrong factually, some are wrong morally, and some are both.

``How do you negotiate health care with someone who invents his own female biology?  How do you negotiate education with someone who denies evolution? How do you negotiate energy policy with someone who denies climate change?

``Now I’m willing to negotiate halfway to a position, but not to a position that is devoid of evidence and, even if I were, the Tea Party wouldn’t accept the halfway. Now rather than compromising with ignorance, shouldn’t we help others find that evidence, too?”

That is the basis of intelligent law-making, not a broad smile and rhetoric. Not surrender. As Rush notes in the broadcast, ``We should follow the evidence fearlessly where it leads.’’ He adds:

``We shouldn’t lower our sights. We should hold out, not in a stubborn way, not in an obstinate way, not in a non-compromising way, but we should hold out for our vision of what America should be and that means progressive ideas such as making sure Social Security is going to be there for the long term and won’t be merged into private accounts that will wane and wax with the stock market. It means we should be working hard for single payer health care.

``Those are not going to happen immediately, but they are not as far away as they will be if we don’t work for them.’’

Basic to all of this is how you view the state of the nation. Rush makes the fact-based argument that the country is strong and rich. It is not, as many Republicans say, poor, a debtor nation. The country can spend money—invest—to ensure a better future.

He cited the courage with which the nation in 1944—in the midst of an existential war—created the GI Bill to ensure a better future, not just for soldiers, but for all of us, by expanding educational opportunities and creating a middle-class that could afford homeownership. That can be done now, Rush says:

``You spend money so you will be better off in the future than you are now. Do we have the money to invest? The answer is surely yes. We are the wealthiest country in the world. We have a great workforce. We have great education. There is no reason why we should not be investing in education, in research and development and in infrastructure.’’

Evidence matters even to the question of NSA spying on its own people. Where is the evidence the shredding of the Fourth Amendment has made the country safer? Rush, former chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, doubts such evidence exists. And, in any event, he makes the case that the debate should not be about the trade-off between security and liberty but about proven competence.

``It should be obvious to people that the Fourth Amendment exists not to give law enforcement officers a hard time. It exists to make sure that these powerful agencies prove to an independent person, a judge, that they know what they’re doing so they don’t go off on wild goose chases and witch hunts and follow their hunches. We’re not trading civil liberties for security. The whole idea is that, if enforcers use their fearsome powers in moderation and thoughtfully, we will be safer.’’

Geek Out brought intelligence to the campaign. Scientists—including Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who served as the US energy secretary—talked about what they knew. They didn’t recite talking points written by media and public policy firms. While the event challenged the mind, it was interesting and accessible to anyone who is serious enough about politics to want to cast a vote August 13.

One surprise was the reading of a texted endorsement from Glenn Greenwald, the investigative reporter whose stories about NSA spying helped create the current national debate. This is what he said about Rush Holt:

``He is not beholden to Wall Street and the one percent. He exercises his own independent judgment that trumps mindless partisan loyalty. He is unafraid to take controversial and politically unpopular positions when he knows doing so is the right thing to do, as he did when warning of NSA dangers when almost nobody was doing so; when he used his scientific expertise to challenge the massive hole s in the FBI’s claim to have solved the anthrax case; when he stands up to the crony capitalism and moneyed interests that run Washington and control the Congress. Rush Holt is exceptional, unique and urgently needed.’’