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What Oppenheimer Teaches Us About Today’s Cultural Moment

Let us hope we have the wisdom to take heed of the messages the movie communicates.

Oppenheimer is the best film Hollywood has produced since The Godfather. The movie brilliantly recounts how the theoretical physicist and genius J. Robert Oppenheimer led the urgent U.S. effort to develop the atomic bomb during World War II that culminated in the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and inducted the world into the Atomic Age.

The movie is gripping in the (mostly) true story it tells, with acting tours de force by its stars and supporting players, brilliant writing, and terrific cinematography. But, like all great art, it evokes reactions in the viewer beyond what the filmmaker might have intended. For me, even though the story takes place between the 1920s and 1950s, the film highlights two cautionary lessons acutely relevant to the circumstances in which we find ourselves in 2023.

The Need to Regulate Apocalyptic Technology

​With the explosion of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer became terrified about the world-destroying potential of nuclear proliferation, about which he famously lamented, “Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” He particularly opposed developing the hydrogen bomb, which is exponentially more powerful than uranium weapons. Rather than build more and bigger bombs as the Cold War was looming, Oppenheimer urged President Harry Truman to pursue negotiations with the Soviet Union to limit the development and deployment of advanced nuclear weapons.

Oppenheimer was naïve about the Soviets, and President Truman was right to disregard his advice, even calling him a “crybaby scientist.” But the great scientist was right about the need for international controls to regulate such a potentially destructive technology, while also allowing for beneficial uses. And atomic energy was and is highly regulated. Indeed, test ban treaties, verifiable explosive device limitations, and nonproliferation agreements have prevented our going over the brink.

Alas, we seem to have forgotten that important lesson. Scientists are developing new technologies more powerful than atomic energy. Artificial intelligence is one. AI has tremendous potential to assist in improving human performance. But, we are told, it could also spell the end of us if we lose control of our own computers, to the point that 36 percent of AI experts surveyed worry that AI development may end in a “nuclear-level catastrophe.”

Ditto biotechnology, which is making it possible for us to remake the world at the molecular level. For example, CRISPR — an easy-to-use gene-editing technique that can refashion any life-form on the planet — may be the key to treating terrible genetic diseases and improving crop resilience. But it also has the potential to destroy humanity, say, if a terrorist were to bioengineer a bird flu pathogen or fashion a blight to obliterate food production.

Back in Oppenheimer’s day, the world had the wisdom to apply meaningful controls over atomic energy. But even though AI’s power is expanding exponentially and human babies have already been genetically engineered — as have animals, crops, and bacteria — we aren’t even trying to negotiate constructive international protocols to ensure the safe development and deployment of these technologies. Instead, “the experts” wring their hands at symposia and assure us that voluntary guidelines are sufficient, while government leaders remain largely mute. Our refusal to ensure that our ethics keep pace with our technological prowess illustrates the cowardice of our age.

The Dangers of Cancel Culture

The second primary plot of Oppenheimer recounts how the scientist’s government security clearance was revoked in 1954 for his having expressed disfavored opinions about Communism in the 1930s and for opposing H-bomb research. No one gained from Oppenheimer’s fall. Not only was the scientist’s career destroyed and life ruined, but also the country was deprived of benefiting from his intelligence, heterodox thinking, and depth of knowledge for the rest of his life.

Punishing “wrongthink” was then known as “McCarthyism,” named after its primary proponent, Senator Joe McCarthy. We now call such social excommunication “cancel culture,” and it’s just as harmful to its victims and general society today as it was in the 1950s.

Canceling stifles creativity, impedes the free exchange of ideas, and thwarts the working of checks and balances over the politically powerful. This can lead to tragic policy errors. For example, take the anti-COVID policy debacles. When the public health establishment called for locking down society as a means of fighting the pandemic, contrary ideas were stifled and heterodox thinkers attacked as conspiracy theorists and quacks.

Thus, when epidemiologists Drs. Martin Kulldorff of Harvard, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford published the Great Barrington Declaration disagreeing with general lockdowns and the policy of keeping children out of school, they were slandered by National Institutes of Health head Dr. Francis Collins as “fringe” doctors, and Dr. Anthony Fauci actively sought to discredit the authors in the media rather than openly debate their ideas.

But we now know who had the better case. The millions of children whose educations have been permanently retarded might be in a far better place if the Great Barrington Declaration hadn’t been so ruthlessly suppressed. The same could be said regarding officials working with social media platforms to smother opposition to vaccine and mask mandates, which resulted in mass firings of military personnel, medical professionals, and teachers, all fields now experiencing acute staffing shortages.

The same canceling Oppenheimer experienced is rife amid other contentious issues that would benefit substantially from increased rather than stifled debate. Climate change epitomizes the problem, with one-sided fear-mongering now pushing Ireland to seriously consider culling up to 200,000 dairy cows, as the United States actively chokes its own energy independence.

The transgender controversy is another case in point. Gender ideologues seek to punish medical doctors and policy advocates who object to “gender-affirming care,” which involves puberty blocking and even surgeries on children who feel they aren’t the sex they were born. The potential health consequences are incalculable and often irreversible. Indeed, I suspect, thousands of mutilated victims of such ideological medicine will rue the day that contrary arguments were suppressed rather than openly debated.

So, I recommend that readers take the time to see Oppenheimer. It not only tells a compelling and entertaining story involving legendary historical luminaries such as Oppenheimer, Truman, Albert Einstein, and Edward Teller, but also offers significant truths highly pertinent to the current moment. Let us hope we have the wisdom to take heed of the messages the movie communicates.

Cross-posted at The Epoch Times.

See also: American Prometheus: Destroyer of Worlds | Mind Matters

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.

What Oppenheimer Teaches Us About Today’s Cultural Moment