Walsh: A principle of madness

From an Antique Land

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” won the Oscar for best picture in 1957. In the movie, British martinet Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness, is forced to construct a bridge for his captors and wartime enemies, the Japanese. Like Ahab’s white whale, this bridge becomes an obsessive devotion. Blindly obedient to principle, Nicholson balks at anything less than the finest engineering and the sturdiest construction. He raids the medical tent seeking malingerers, and finds a whole group to meet his definition. The company medic, Clipton, level-headed and wary of abetting the enemy, wonders aloud, “Must we work so well? Must we build [the Japanese] a better bridge than they could have done for themselves?”

Clipton wonders this because Nicholson has lost touch with reality. His reasoning sputters and fades behind the steady torch of principle — by whatever means, to whatever end. Clipton wonders this because Nicholson, though he cannot see it, is wrong.

House Republicans, just as thoughtlessly guided by principle, have advocated and passed a budget bill with severe cuts that are wrong. Not wrong-headed, but wrong.

I try to avoid categorical dismissals. I was moved a few months back by an interview with Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Van Jones, in which he argued that no politician on either the right or left can be defined by a single moment in time. “Glenn Beck,” he said, “who a lot of people on the left are concerned about, did something great last week when he refused to go along with the whole Shirley Sherrod thing.” The point, Van Jones explained, is to look beyond party distinctions and to see the good in each other.

So I tried. Really. But I’m having trouble seeing the good in Republican intentions.

We are flagging desperately in the race for a new energy economy. China has surged ahead while Europe has steadily crept forward. And yet Republicans find nothing more gratifying than asphyxiating funding for new energy research. They have cut 20 percent from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science budget, zeroed the $600 million allotted to the Office of National Infrastructure Development, and called for a quarter-billion dollar cut to the budget of ARPA-E, a research division modeled on the Pentagon’s highly successful DARPA. After all, why would Republicans bother with inquiry into energy alternatives that are deeply embedded in national security concerns, or care about advanced energy innovation spurred by market competition?

On other environmental issues, Republicans have displayed the same idiotic intransigence, sticking to principles that will drive our country into the ground. Among countless other cuts, conservation programs within the Bureau of Land Management are on the chopping block, efforts to clean and mitigate further pollution of the Chesapeake Bay have been stalled, and proposals to regulate mercury emissions from cement plants have been derailed. Jeremy Grantham, business leader and cofounder of the hundred-billion dollar investment firm GMO, a man certainly not unfriendly to a handful of conservative ideals, said the following about the Republican stance toward the environment: “Have they no grandchildren?”

Across the board, most federal agency budgets will see cuts. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is slated to receive a budget increase of two percent. GOP priorities were most transparent in their (thankfully vetoed) support for a $450 million investment in a jet engine for the next-generation F-35.

War planes, or engines for war planes, should not represent our manufacturing future. Rather than competing for the development of more sophisticated technologies for killing (at which we are already quite proficient), we should compete in the booming economy for alternative energy and environmental conscientiousness.

In the climax of “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” Colonel Nicholson’s masterwork, his bridge, is blown up with plastic explosives. A steaming train folds into the ravine and a series of senseless deaths in the muddy and torpid river follow. The bridge, that great sign of civilization, has collapsed, and the jungle, the screeching and tenebrous wild, encroaches again from the riverbanks. Clipton stands alone over the bodies floating facedown. The sole survivor, he is nearly speechless. Nearly.

“Madness,” he calls to nobody. “Madness!”

I could not agree more.

Dylan Walsh is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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