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April 30, 2006

Are We Lost in Space?

“Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon” (in IMAX 3D) is a huge, glitzy, knock-your-socks-off special effects advertisement for the space program. And, boy does it work! As a child of the Sixties who remembers ditching church one evening in 1969 to sit transfixed as Neil Armstrong took his “small step,” I was already an easy mark. But this production would have sealed the deal in any event. It is the right mix of stunning visuals and vision: As the lunar module descends, we the audience stand on the surface, and watch, dodging the dust and rocks blasted our way. And as the Astronauts leap-walk through their chores, we reach out to help them pick up a stone or snap a picture. All the while, Mission Control cheers and chatters in our ear.

The real argument for funding the space program has always resided in the outer reaches of the strictly reasonable. It’s really about poetry—or the poetic exploration of what it means to be human. So when the spiritually earth-bound get you talking Tang and Teflon, you’re dead. This film, however, eschews all that in favor of authorities such as Socrates, Neil Armstrong himself, and a host of children testifying to the human capacity for wonder. Still, isn’t it all too damn expensive? Wasn’t such a grandiose vision of social purpose something that belonged to our (eh, more liberal) grandparents?

As a country, as a people, we can never be more than we imagine ourselves to be. When Kennedy spoke of going to the Moon and “doing the other things,” he was speaking of and to a people who believed their ability to create a better world was nearly infinite. It was the innocence of that belief that took us to the lunar surface over thirty years ago—surely, one of our finest hours. But that belief also has its foolish side. At the same time we were walking on the moon we were also wading through rice paddies, spending lives and billions on a tragic attempt to re-engineer a culture we didn’t understand in the least.

You would think that the proper lesson to be learned from this history is that it’s not resources that restrict us, but the intelligence and care we use to imagine the future we would create. Well, you’d think, anyway. Just for comparison: Iraq: $315 billion (through fiscal '06); NASA yearly budget: approx. $15 billion.

Posted by stevemack at 10:41 AM | Comments (5541)

April 28, 2006

George Allen's Six-Gun Soul

Ryan Lizza has written an absolutely unnerving portrait for TNR of presidential wannabe George Allen, the conservative’s great-white hope to unsaddle John McCain. Lizza’s Allen is a boot-wearin’, tobacci-chewin,’ Country-music thumpin’ cowboy-senator who has always cultivated a version of red-state cultural identity—even while attending high school on the rugged badlands of Palos Verde, California (an L.A. suburb much like Beverly Hills, only snobby). But Allen apparently has a checkered past. As a teen he drove around Southern California brandishing the Confederate flag (and wore one on his lapel for a school portrait); he was suspended for scribbling racist graffiti on a school wall; and as a young politician he was quite willing to advance his career by cozying up to constituents steeped in confederate nostalgia.

But oddly, the picture of Allen that comes through is not that of a closet racist, but something even worse. Left to tend his younger siblings while his famous coach-dad traveled the country, Allen dispensed a form of discipline that looked more like recreational violence. He was a bully. (Much of this—a broken collarbone, a broken nose, pulled hair, etc.—is detailed in a memoir penned by his sister.) Those who knew him when remember a troublemaker, one who seemed to delight in images of cruelty. He was, as he now boasts, a “rebel.” If Lizza’s picture is remotely accurate, it seems clear that what attracted Allen to confederate culture was not its racist core, but its iconography of violent rebellion to authority. Senator Allen has some issues.

Political psychology is, to be sure, a highly suspect art. And even if it were not, we’d still have to concede that some degree of adolescent “acting out” is more evidence of mental health than is a stainless record of do-gooder behavior. But most kids grow up, learn lessons, and confront (or disavow) their youthful antics. Allen, however, has seemed to buff them into a political personality. Senator Macho decorates his office with a hangman’s noose and his home with a confederate flag. He revels in the politics of shit-kicking. So we must at least wonder whether the childhood angst that drove him to identify with Southern rebels is the same impulse that would inform a hip-shootin’ presidency.

Posted by stevemack at 01:10 PM | Comments (10)

April 27, 2006

The Worst President in History

What could possibly qualify a president for the title of “worst in history”? The historian Sean Wilentz offers one answer in Rolling Stone. After painfully documenting Bush’s unpopularity with professional historians and general public alike, he puts the question:

"How does any president's reputation sink so low? The reasons are best understood as the reverse of those that produce presidential greatness. In almost every survey of historians dating back to the 1940s, three presidents have emerged as supreme successes: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. These were the men who guided the nation through what historians consider its greatest crises: the founding era after the ratification of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and Second World War. Presented with arduous, at times seemingly impossible circumstances, they rallied the nation, governed brilliantly and left the republic more secure than when they entered office."

Wilentz goes on to build an impressive case against Bush, from his failed war in Iraq to his inept domestic policies. He lays special stress on the notion that successful presidents “rally the nation” by reaching out across the ideological divide—unlike the man who farcically told us he was a “uniter, not a divider.” All of this is true, of course, but ist still does not quite explain Bush's uniquely dismal place in history.

Welintz is right that we honor the greats for the way they respond to crisis. Likewise, the forgettable failures: Buchanan and Hoover reside at the bottom because of their inability to act. But Bush has invented a whole new category of failure: He alone among the failed presidents is a visionary, an activist, a leader who radically changed policy in order to radically change the nation and the world.

This president has worked at being bad! A ravaged economy and a tinderbox world are his achievements, and his monstrous failure.

Posted by stevemack at 08:46 PM | Comments (802)

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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