Archive for the ‘politics’ Category


The End of Thinking Big?

July 25, 2011

The final space shuttle mission has launched some weeping and gnashing of teeth. Count me among the lamenters. I was six when Neil and Buzz walked on the moon; I remember my parents waking up my brother Matt and me to watch their first steps on the Sea of Tranquility. Growing up in Concord, NH, I got to see the Apollo 11 capsule as it toured the 50 state capitals. In elementary school I’d write to NASA and they’d send me large envelopes full of color photos of astronauts, launching rockets, and distant galaxies. As a student teacher in 1985-6 I was filled with pride as my brother Tom’s social studies teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was chosen to be the first teacher in space. On that awful January day I was working in the faculty room at Woodside High in California when someone wrote on the chalkboard that Challenger had exploded. “Space shuttles don’t explode,” I said to myself. Later in my teaching career I won a Christa McAuliffe fellowship for the state of North Carolina, and spent a year designing a web site that helped teachers and students assess the credibility of online sources. The site is gone now, though I found one teacher who still has a link to it.

But beyond the “reach for the stars” sentimentality I have a deeper concern. As our worship of the free market combines with the belief that any taxation is a direct threat to our way of life, we have stopped thinking of the public sphere as a place to do great things. I know the government has problems to be fixed (as do all our institutions, for they reflect our common limitations), but the manned space program showed we could think big and succeed, not only in the grand scope of human accomplishments, but also in the more practical matters of what NASA calls “spinoffs,” like these from the shuttle program that justify the agency’s contributions through the lens of “return on investment.” Manned flight will now be privatized, and while those who’ve benefited the most from 30 years of tax breaks may one day get to give some of their piles of disposable income to Richard Branson so that Virgin Space can show them the curvature of the Earth during a short weightless ride to space, I’d rather see scientists and explorers establishing a presence on the Moon or Mars in the name of all of us, for the benefit of all of us. I want to dream again.


I was terrorized

May 3, 2011

On September 11, 2001, Vicki and I were taking the kids home from a visit to Schenectady, NY, to see Vicki’s grandmother, who had been recently diagnosed with cancer. We were supposed to fly through Newark on our way home to North Carolina. Lucky enough to get a rental car before they disappeared, we ended up driving home over the next two days.

I do not recall feeling consciously scared by the attacks of that day. I do remember feeling far from home. It was surreal to see signs on the interstate in Pennsylvania warning us to make way for any National Guard vehicles driving by. I remember feeling protective of the kids, then 8 and 6 years old. But when I got home I realized the terrorist attacks had scared me subconsciously when I would look out my back door over the next few nights and wonder, for a flash, who else might be “out there.” We had lots of woods behind our house, and in these flashes I would imagine “bad guys” moving through the emptiness.

I had forgotten those flashes until Sunday night when I learned that we had killed Osama bin Laden. When we had turned on the TV to hear the news, I had another flash. This time, it was a glimmer of relief. The bad guy was dead.

For a decade we’ve tried to “not let the terrorists win.” If you’d asked me any time between September 20, 2001, and May 1, 2011, I would have said with great certainty that they had not. But I now see that I had a couple of moments of terror. They make no sense–bin Laden was never going to “get me,” any more that I am one iota safer now that he’s dead–but it worked. Terror worked in some way. I wonder how I have consciously manifested those unconscious feelings in the days between.


As I Leave Russia

January 13, 2011

First, a couple of random observations.

Natalya, who hosted five of us for our night at Swan Lake, told me a couple of interesting things about cars in Russia. She started her car remotely as we left, and mentioned that she can program it to start every couple of hours if the temperature stays below a certain level. So in the winter, driving a car gets pretty expensive because it has to keep starting at night. Also, I asked her why some cars have the driver sit on the left, and others on the right. The latter are cars imported from Japan; the former are mostly made in Russia.

There are lots of walk-up roadside kiosks, usually near bus stops, that sell what I think of as “convenience store” goods, including beer and soda. Which means the “coolers” they sit in are, in winter, warmers. Can’t serve frozen Pepsi, right?

Here’s what’s been in the back of my mind this whole trip. I’m a Cold War kid–I was born six months after the Cuban Missile Crisis; my high school history teacher, John Shaw, held a globe in his hand as he explained why communism had to expand in order to survive; I remember where I was the night the US beat the Soviet hockey team in Lake Placid. So it feels like no small miracle that I am now sitting in the Moscow airport, about to board my fourth Aeroflot flight of the week. Aeroflot was one of the rare places where Soviet and American life intersected–bringing diplomats to the UN, or flying Brezhnev to a summit. For such an exotic symbol of my youth to now be ferrying me (in Boeing and Airbus jets!) from Germany to Siberia and back just astounds me. To watch a ballet with new Russian friends, to teach a workshop that helps Russian and American co-workers communicate more effectively–what a better use of human resources than planting another missile in another silo. There’s always plenty to despair about in the world, but this week reminds me of how far we have come too.


50 Years Since a Week That Still Shapes Our Lives

September 27, 2010

According to this morning’s USA Today, yesterday marked 50 years since the first Kennedy-Nixon televised debate. While it would be 26 years until Ford and Carter renewed the tradition, televised debates now occur in every presidential and vice-presidential election, and in many congressional and gubernatorial races too. Along with letting voters size up candidates in the same room at the same time, these debates have given us Nixon’s five o’clock shadow, Ford’s claim that Poland in 1976 was not under Soviet domination, Reagan’s “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  and “There you go again” in 1980, Lloyd Bentsen’s “I knew Jack Kennedy, and you sir, are no Jack Kennedy” in 1988 (to fellow VP candidate Dan Quayle), Ross Perot’s “I’m all ears” in 1992, and both “Joe the Plumber” and Sarah Palin’s winking “You betcha” in 2008. That’s a lot of history in a handful of televised hours.

One reason there wasn’t another debate until 1976 is that most pundits believe the first Kennedy-Nixon debate swung the election to JFK. He won the popular vote by 0.1%, and his electoral win was the closest in half a century, so small distinctions between the candidates could make a huge difference. Voters who listened to that first debate on the radio thought it was a draw, but those watching on TV gave JFK a significant win. The reasons are now famous: JFK relaxed in Florida for a few days before, and showed up tan and rested; Nixon was recovering from illness, had continued to campaign until just before the debate, wore no makeup (hence the visible five o’clock shadow), and wore a suit nearly the same color as the backdrop behind him–all of which made him look weaker than his rival. And thus was birthed Camelot, the frequent televised presidential press conference (Obama, please, a little more JFK here and a little less Ike), and the modern presidential debate.

According to Saturday’s NY Times, tomorrow will mark 50 years since the event that led to arguably the greatest sports essay ever written, John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” Updike was one of barely 10,000 fans at Ted Williams’ last game for the Boston Red Sox, the game where Williams used his last at bat famously hit a home run (his 521st; the only reason he didn’t hit 700 was because he gave six years of his prime to serve his country) and even more famously would not tip his cap to the crowd afterward. Updike, who never wrote again about sports, could not have known that he had launched a form of essay, transcending game recaps to place sports in deeper literary and cultural contexts.

That’s one helluva week.


An Occasion for Courage

August 18, 2010

In the right’s latest attempt to turn back the Democratic victories of 2006 and ’08, a project to build a Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero has been twisted into a “mosque” “at” Ground Zero. While the planning commission reviewing the request to build the center unanimously approved the request, and while NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg resoundingly supported the Muslim community’s right to build it, others less courageous want the center moved.

The grandest part of the American experiment in democracy is its insistence on preserving the rights of minorities when majority views threaten those rights. From the ending of slavery to the inclusion of women as equals, our path as a nation has been widening with time. Even as we stumble toward inclusion for the rights of gays and lesbians–and though stumble we may, our momentum carries us forward–there is now this attempt to narrow the rights of Muslims, because those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks were also Muslims.

While it’s clear that the pain of that day is still very strong for most Americans, that doesn’t grant us a license to limit fundamental Constitutional rights. In fact, it is in such times that we must insist on supporting these most cherished rights. This is a moment that demands that we respond with courage, that we trust that our system can flourish–that it can *only* flourish–when all of us live our lives with all of our rights intact at all times. It’s a shame that so many politicians, especially Democrats, refuse to trust that system and express support for it.

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