man on the moon

July 20, 2014

45 years ago today, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module Eagle and into forever.

It cost approximately $355,000,000 to make that happen, and that was just for Apollo 11. In today’s dollars, that would be approximately $5,850,000,000. That’s 5.85 billion with the “B.” And again, that’s just for Apollo 11. You have to figure in the total cost of all previous Apollo missions, the Gemini missions, the Mercury missions, all the satellite, dog, monkey missions, all the way back to the formation of NASA. Put simply, that’s not cheap.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Should we do more of it? Unquestionably.

I admit to a certain pro-space bias. I grew up close to where Gus Grissom grew up. Star Trek was on my TV screen from a very young age. I suspect I am not alone here – we’ve all seen the majesty of the “Earthrise” picture and felt the power of the image of the Pale Blue Dot. And everyone knows how much I loved both versions of “Cosmos.” We need to go back to the Moon, and then we need to go beyond. We have a Rover on Mars right now – why not go walk alongside it for a spell?

Back to Apollo 11. We went to the Moon with less computing power than what is in a late-model Honda Accord. Think of how far beyond that we are today. Just, for a moment, consider the possibilities. We have the technology. Why not the will? We lost the will somewhere, and we all suffer for it. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is wrong on just about every single topic, but he is absolutely correct when he says we need to go back into space.

Had we kept up with the pace of transformative change and discovery maintained during the Apollo era, I propose that we would have colonists on the Moon right now and be looking at Mars colonies within the next decade, if not already. What wonders would we have in our everyday lives with that kind of technological, scientific, and humanistic brainpower pumping away?

For that matter, why not the will for further scientific exploration here at home? Why not the will for investigations of the human spirit in art, music, literature, history? What are we afraid of? Why do we fear knowledge and learning so much?

Every last one of you reading this comes from a species that has always looked somewhere – up, over, down, inward – and wondered “Why?” We need that wonder back.

We need it in our science. We can tackle the problems of climate change today. We can find new, renewable, clean sources of energy today. We can stop the pillaging of places like Alberta and Appalachia for coal, oil, and gas today. We can cure disease and end famine today.

We need it in our education. We can educate people to think critically today. We can uncover new ways of looking at our culture today. We can create powerful new works of art, music, theatre, literature today.

We need it in our diplomacy. We can put a stop to the petty striving that tears nations, cities, and families apart today.

We can do all this, and we can do all this today – if we have the will.

Do we?

WF

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A New Birth of Freedom

July 3, 2014

“I haven’t seen him. But I suppose he will be a pain. A birth-pain, perhaps, but a pain.”
“Birth-pain? You really believe we’re going to have a new Renaissance, as some say?”
“Hmmm-hnnn.”

– Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

INTRODUCTION

Tomorrow marks the 238th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; today is the 151st anniversary of the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg. I have always been a Civil War buff – you may recall my meditation upon the Burnside Bridge at Antietam – so I like to filter American history through that conflict.

So much has happened this past week that I am only now able to process it. Part of this is due to some personal things (which remain nobody’s business but ours, though I will say that I think we’re on the far side of it now), and part of it is because it, on the surface, seems so antithetical to everything I hold dear. We’ve seen the Supreme Court of the United States decide that corporations are not only people, they have more rights than actual people. This same SCOTUS has created the possibility that any non-tax law can be ignored or broken if the person – well, in actuality, the corporation – has “sincerely-held” beliefs on a topic. As if to rub it in, the same decision attempted to vacate that possibility by claiming only one belief was subject to this ruling.

Essentially, the majority of Justices have proclaimed that religious freedom only truly applies to one issue, and even then only if you take the most conservative stance on that issue. At the same time, they have left the door open to allow corporations the right to (a) refuse fair compensation if the corporation feels the money is supporting a cause in which the corporation does not believe, and (b) ignore or disobey laws that do not take the most conservative viewpoint on a religious issue. This is not “freedom of religion.” This is a clear favoring – perhaps the term “establishment” might be more appropriate – of one particular religion over others. I am neither a lawyer nor a Constitutional scholar, but I tend to recall one of the early Amendments to the Constitution frowned on that sort of thing. And as we’ve seen, it’s already gone way past just Hobby Lobby.

Here’s the thing: this actually has nothing to do with religion, much as everyone – including the victors – is trying to make it about religion. It’s about the expansion of corporate power and money at the expense of regular citizens. It started with Citizens United…no, it started with Buckley v. Valeo…no, it started with the Santa Clara cases and the misbegotten and ill-applied doctrine of corporate personhood. Others have written more informatively about the effects of corporate personhood, both intentional and otherwise, and I will defer to their words. Rather, I choose to focus on what can and should be done.

WE CANNOT HALLOW THIS GROUND

The line of American history can be read as one of expansion. We can easily visualize this in terms of territory, as we’ve all seen the sixth-grade maps showing how first we were just at the crest of the Appalachians, then to the Mississippi, then the Pacific, then our noncontiguous lands. We called this Manifest Destiny, and to be sure, it didn’t end well for a lot of people who deserved way better. The expansion of which I speak, however, is an expansion of the rights contained in the Constitution to all of us. This expansion began almost immediately, and continues to this day. Sometimes, it’s a fairly smooth process. Other times, blood is spilled – as mentioned above, this is the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

There are always those who fight the expansion. I am reminded of Sen. Richard Russell (D-Georgia), who, when told he was fighting nothing more than a delaying action against civil rights, replied “I know, but I am trying to delay it – ten years if I’m not lucky, two hundred years if I am.” We have seen this fight before – in the marches of Susan B. Anthony and over the Equal Rights Amendment (a still-incomplete battle). We saw it in the factories of Pullman and Detroit, in the front of the bus in Montgomery, in the farms of the Central Valley of California, in the streets of Greenwich Village, and anywhere one person has stood up to say, “I count.” Now we have seen the beginning of a new fight. The pushback against the expansion is coming from a different sector this time – corporate personhood. In an attempt to limit the rights of actual human beings, those who have always opposed the expansion have found a new path. They can claim the mantle of expansion for themselves (for are they not giving rights to a new class of “people?”), and wrap themselves in the Bill of Rights and in the flag, while in truth they are doing their level best – as they always have – to limit the rights of the rest of us. In this cause, they have been ably assisted by a network of organizations devoted single-mindedly to the limitation of our rights as citizens in the name of acquiring ever more of our shared inheritance. And, like Sen. Russell, they know that delay can turn into denial; we, however, know that delay can turn into victory, when the outcry is strong enough. My job – our job – is to raise that battle cry: “I count.”

I honor the memory of those who gave blood, toil, tears, and sweat to rally around that battle cry. Our words alone can never do proper justice to their memory. Our actions will show how we honor them, by taking up their fights as our own. And even though we may not win every battle – this week was proof of that – I maintain faith that Dr. King’s arc still bends toward justice. So we must keep fighting, even though the odds are overwhelming, even though we are tired, and saddened, and angry, and hurt.

OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE

I fight because the story does not end. Each generation remakes the United States according to its interpretation of the ephemeral idea of “America.” The Founders were brilliant men, though it should be stated for the record that their idea of the “common man” was a white male landowner. In this, as noble as their intentions and as good as their plans were, they fell short. The rest of the story is how succeeding generations took the promise of the Constitution – government of, by, and for the people, forming a more perfect union – and expanded that to include more and more of their fellow-citizens. “We cannot escape history,” said Lincoln, and that is as true today as it ever was. Through war and reconstruction, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and now the fight for full equality, the story goes on. I know not when it will end, but I hope – even in the darkest moments – that infinite chapters, developing all that is best in our collective plot, will continue to pour from the pens and keyboards of We, The People. For after all, we are the true authors of our liberty and of our history. We should never want to escape history; it is our story, and we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to write the best possible story we can.

WF


expletive deleted

May 20, 2014

Continuing with the twin themes of Richard Nixon and resentment as a political tool, here are two links which have been on my mind recently.

This link considers prejudice against Appalachians in academia, and this link examines Sauk Centre, MN, Sinclair Lewis’s hometown and the model for Gopher Prairie in Main Street.

The first article makes me think – what happens when someone willingly embraces the stereotypes of that group, and then uses those stereotypes as a marker of culture? Do the stereotypes become self-generating at that point? Is it a matter of “You think I’m a redneck? I’ll show you a redneck!” There is a natural human response of wagon-circling when a member of your tribe is attacked, to be sure, and I suspect there’s some of that at work here. But it can go to far, and ideology can obscure reality. (Read that link, by the way. It is outstanding.) Sinclair Lewis hit on this when he wrote Main Street. In an insular community, outsiders – or more specifically, ideas promulgated by outsiders – are rarely accepted or even tolerated. I found this out earlier this year when my hometown was in the news for less than good reasons. Even though it was home in a technical sense, I never felt like I belonged there, much in the same way that Lewis never felt like he belonged in Sauk Centre. Yet, that is where his ashes are buried, and it is not beyond the pale of possibility that my earthly remains will at least in part end up back home as well. I have felt the resentment of those who accepted things as they were, and I have also nurtured strong resentments myself at those same people. I love my family, and I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything, but Bedford is not home. It is simply where I am from. (Short form: having a non-majority temperament or views in a small town is tough. I doubt I’m alone in this.)

This politics of resentment is how Nixon captured the White House in 1968. He was careful enough to not be openly resentful in the way that George Wallace was (and arguably having Wallace in the race, instead of splitting the Right, allowed Nixon to use better code language and secure his position as the “Center”), but he still tapped into that. His language throughout his term in office (“Silent Majority,” the constant allusions to a giant conspiracy during Watergate) sent dog-whistles to the resentful base. And as we saw in yesterday’s post, he came by this honestly and at an early age.

I get Nixon. But for differences on political issues, I could be Nixon. In many cases, so could you. And that is why, as much of a populist as I am on economic issues, I have to keep it in check. Because when unchecked, it turns a President who was truly masterful at many aspects of foreign policy* into a punchline, a paranoiac, and a cautionary tale.

This has been a rather rambling excursion into my brain. I hope it resonated with at least some people.

*I propose that Nixon did what he did domestically (EPA, price/wage controls, Keynesian economic policy, etc.) to keep the heat off his foreign policy, making him the mirror of LBJ (who was hawkish in Vietnam to keep his opponents on his side, allowing him to pass his domestic policies).

WF


let me make one thing perfectly clear

May 19, 2014

Recently, I have been reading several things that make me think about Richard M. Nixon, the uses of power, and the politics of resentment.

If you know anything about Nixon’s college years, you know that there was a group of well-heeled upper-class types on the Whittier College campus known as the Franklins. Nixon would have never been accepted as part of this group, coming as he did from a working-class background. So he created an alternate group – the Orthogonians. Throughout his life Nixon set himself in opposition to the elites, even if – nay, especially if – they were from his own party. He was, if it is possible to be such a thing, the consummate outsider. At the height of his power, at a point when he was quite literally the single most powerful person the world had known up to that point, he used that power in ways both subtle and obvious to take (in his opinion) the elites down a peg.

He wasn’t the first outsider President; his immediate predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, was also from the wrong side of the tracks. LBJ grew up in a formerly stable family that had fallen on hard times. Like Nixon, he could not afford to go to a major university (Nixon went to the local college; LBJ went just down the road to what was then a teachers’ college and is now Texas State University – San Marcos), and like Nixon, he was all too willing to believe that his humble origins were the subject of scorn and mockery by the wealthier, the smarter, the better-connected.

In both cases, perhaps there was a kernel of truth to the fear. Robert Caro speaks of the Kennedy loyalists referring to LBJ (though never, to be sure, after the assassination) as “Rufus Cornpone.” Film critic Pauline Kael was famously lambasted for elitism after expressing surprise at Nixon’s victory since “no one I know voted for him.” And hey, everyone on the political spectrum from George Wallace to Occupy Wall Street finds “the elite” to be a suitable target for opprobrium. Where it gets dangerous is when Populism – an honest political movement, and one with honorable intentions and goals – crosses a line into what might be termed “elitism of the lowbrow.” When that happens, knowledge and expertise are themselves suspect, since they come from experts. (See this recent article in MacLean’s for a Canadian take on the situation.)

There more coming here, though I’m not quite sure what yet. I suspect it will have to do with feeling an outsider (something I know all too well) and what counts as acceptable prejudice (see this article for more, but don’t read the comments).

WF


plus ça change

December 1, 2013

Same as it ever was:

Only a few of these denominational schools were equal to good second-rate grammar schools, Lindsley charged, and he scorned their “capacious preparatory departments for A, B, C-darians and Hic, Haec, Hoc-ers–promising to work cheap, and to finish off and graduate, in double quick time.”

The quote is from Richard Hofstadter, Academic Freedom in the Age of the College. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955, p. 212. Hofstadter is known today as an historian of populism and anti-intellectualism, but in this instance he turned his gaze on the development of academic freedom and the beginnings of American higher education. In this case, Hofstadter is quoting Rev. Philip Lindsley, an 1804 graduate of Princeton and later president of Cumberland College (which became the University of Nashville).

So when I rant about the low standards and fly-by-night nature of most of your for-profit “universities and colleges,” at least I’m part of a grand historical tradition.

WF


immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales

September 1, 2013

(Literate people will understand why I used that title.)

I have not yet decided if I agree with President Obama’s plan for limited military intervention in the Syrian civil war. I wish to examine what evidence I can further. I can, however, comprehend some of the domestic politics around an international issue, and I’m going to explore those. Of course, the mere fact that there are domestic politics of this type around an international issue is a different subject, but that can be tackled at some future point.

(1) A common question is “Why are we getting involved now? Why is a chemical weapon attack worse than a normal attack?” This is a fair question. Historically speaking, the use of chemical weapons was so mortifying when the German Army used them in World War I* that an entire international treaty was written to ban them. We (mostly) abhor warmaking, and obviously any violence should be avoided, but the use of certain weapons has long been considered to be beyond the pale even under the rather nebulous rules of engagement common in most wars. The position of the President and his administration is that this clear flouting of international treaty and custom sets a dangerous precedent.

(2) On the political side, I believe that it is absolutely vital (more on this in a moment) that the President seek an authorization for the use of military force. I further believe that each Representative and Senator should weigh the evidence and vote his/her conscience. The party whips should stay out of this. Finally, I believe that any member of Congress who decides to oppose this simply because they don’t believe in handing the President a “victory” on any subject – that is to say, anyone obstructing just for the sake of obstructing – should be summarily censured and/or expelled from whichever chamber. Ultimately, though, we the people are responsible for such hideous representatives, as there is a sizable chunk of the population (let’s be honest here – red states, rural areas, racist exurbs) that has elected a cadre of Tea Party buffoons whose sole purpose is to prevent any governance at all. I have often said that the misnamed Tea Party is a cancer upon our body politic, and nothing I have seen has convinced me otherwise.

(3) About the AUMF – I said it was vital, and I mean that from a political perspective, but legally it’s unnecessary under the War Powers Resolution of 1973, so long as the President then goes to Congress within 48 hours. It has been violated once or twice, but never has a violation led to a Constitutional showdown. If that were to happen here, I suspect that ending would be different, as the aforementioned Tea Party buffoons are looking for any reason to impeach.**

It’s messy. I don’t know where it all ends. But let’s have the debate, and let’s have it be an honest debate that puts what’s great about America forward. After all, the fact that we’re having the debate at all is a testament to our system of governance.

*Seriously. World War I is understudied, but it is at the core of pretty much every chunk of world history that follows.

**They have their unspoken reason, of course.

WF


documents

July 4, 2013

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

===

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

===

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

===

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

===

We’re getting there.

WF