Laughing our way to understanding

The Thinker by Rodin

How many people yesterday attended Comedy Central’s Rally for Sanity and/or Fear on the mall yesterday? The U.S. Park Service no longer estimates crowd sizes. Newspapers reported tens of thousands but I think it is more likely the crowd exceeded 100,000. CBS News estimated 215,000.

I can say as someone who tried to attend the rally that plenty who wanted to attend the rally must have simply given up. My wife and her friend managed to get the rally but I eventually bailed. I-66 going into Washington was largely a parking lot, almost all of it due to people trying to get to the Vienna metro station to attend the rally. Getting to the metro station and finding parking was only part of the problem. There were also half hour to hour queues to get Metrorail tickets, and then more waiting to actually get on a train. As often happens at these events, people at stations further down the line found trains too packed to get on. They had to take a train to the end of the line simply to get a seat to take a train back into Washington.

We had two electronic flash passes but our friend who was from out of town had to buy a ticket. So I loaned her mine and went home to watch the rally on my computer. That way at least two of us would get there on time. I probably got a much better view at home anyhow. Glorious fall weather, a super friendly crowd and the light comedic touches by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert kept the event fun, reasonably short and mostly apolitical. The only ones being skewered seemed to be the most egregious examples of the right and the left.

The real purpose of the rally was hard to figure out. In some ways, the rally seemed unique. Has our nation’s mall ever been used for a large, comedic event before? I could not recall a time, unless you consider most political rallies to be unintentional comedic events. The event was covered without commercials and participants were encouraged to contribute to the Trust for the National Mall, as well as not to trash the mall, which is what typically happens after rallies of any size. It was also hard to figure out the point of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on August 28th, which was clearly smaller than this event. Both rallies seemed a little surreal. At Beck’s rally, Glenn Beck tried to momentarily morph into an apolitical figure. At yesterday’s rally, Jon Stewart’s closing monologue also seemed surreal: serious but with a touch of comedy, almost a sermon about how we must all learn to live with each other.

Generally, comedians simply try to make us laugh, collect a few quick bucks and move on. It is easy to forget that comedy can help us understand and frame real issues by looking at them in a different way. All humor is based on some contrast with reality. Comedy can, if only for a moment, be like opening a small window in a stuffy room and letting some fresh air come through. As it turned out, that was the purpose of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. It was an attempt to tell the nation that our polarization is beyond the dangerous phase. Jon Stewart’s message was to let us know that it has reached a toxic phase where it is destructive to all who seek to make this country a better place. As Stewart eloquently put it (in words that are likely to endure), “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

Some will doubtless question Stewart’s credentials to diagnose our national problems. But if not Stewart, then who? Stewart’s political leanings are well known, but he is always civil. Moreover, Walter Cronkite is dead. As Stewart noted, between barrages of negative ads, endless highly skewed talk shows and 24-hour news channels, who can cut through all the noise? Stewart and Colbert did, at least for a little while, to at least some of America (principally a younger crowd).

The rally had its lame moments, but at least for a few hours it did succeed in focusing a critical mass of people on our national dysfunction and warn them of the seriousness of our problem. Sufficiently high levels of disunity and chaos feed national dysfunction and in one case triggered a civil war. Nowadays, it opens windows of opportunity, not for America, but from those countries and movements glad to clean our clocks. While we argue about tax cuts and health care for all, China is mastering clean energy technologies. It seems to have bought controlling rights to most of the world’s precious minerals, and is attempting to blockade our access to them. Massive disunity like we have now serves no national interests and further weakens us as a nation.

Short of totalitarianism, there is no way Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Tea Partiers or any political movement will ever fully succeed. Even if success were possible we would become a sterile, monolithic culture stripped of our fundamental freedoms. We have gone dangerously awry but through comedy, Comedy Central is making us aware that while we can laugh about our national problems, it really is not a laughing matter anymore. As Stewart noted (and as I noted in this blog post), however much we might not want to get along, if we are to be a functional nation we must find a civil way to do so anyhow. This is not facilitated when extremes on either side characterize the other side in dehumanizing terms.

While I am a liberal, sometimes I see liberals cross the line. I found Keith Olbermann’s most recent special comment disturbing, not for its untruthfulness, but for the visceral hatred that Olbermann so obviously feels for weird but disturbing Tea Party candidates. I could be wrong, but I have yet to hear any Olbermann special comments that are not dripping with a similar tone of animosity. The common factor is outrage. Yet it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable, to separate a person’s position from a person’s character. Neither Sharron Angle nor Sarah Palin are bad people because they disagree with me. It is their policies that I think would weaken our country. I wish politicians on both sides could learn basic civility. It was never a problem for the late William F. Buckley. However, these days vitriol seems to pay. It works as well for Keith Olbermann as it works for Rush Limbaugh. Both are banking on their ability to outrage, as well as entertain. If Olbermann did not flush with rage and anger regularly on camera then it’s unlikely he would be earning his very comfortable salary.

The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear gave us a few good laughs, kept us entertained, but also opened up a conversation on civility and moderation that is long overdue. Some people have had enough. Moderation is driving more genteel movements like The Coffee Party. We need to stop closing our ears to each other, and try listening with an open heart instead (and I count myself as one of these people). We must try to listen with empathy and figure out what meta-causes are driving this animus.

For social conservatives, I really doubt that the size of the federal government is what gets their blood boiling. It is likely something far more basic, like the enormous social and technological changes happening all around them that seem so unstoppable, and thus uncontrollable. If that bothers you then why would you not, like Bill Buckley, do your best to holler, “Stop!” For liberals, the animus is probably not health care for all, but values rooted in a sense of community, compassion and wanting to see those values emulated by our government. Some may ridicule us for “feeling their pain” but for many of us, we feel their pain because we lived their pain.

We will never be a wholly united country, nor should we strive to be. Disagreements are natural. What is unnatural is near total polarization, which is where we are now. When this happens, genuine dialog becomes impossible. Stewart and Comedy Central may be our Don Quixote tilting at windmills, but at least they are trying to foster a climate that encourages moderation and civility. That is not worthy of laughter, but is worthy of our applause and thanks.

Who should we trust now?

The Thinker by Rodin

Lordy, Walter Cronkite is gone. Nearly thirty years after he retired as anchorman for the CBS Evening News, the most trusted man in America has regrettably gone to meet his maker at age 92. What amazed me is that even though Cronkite had been largely off camera for thirty years, his passing has inspired genuine grief from millions of Americans. It seems like more people are mourning Cronkite’s passing than Ronald Reagan’s. Cronkite should have faded from our memories by now but for many of us he looms large and singular all these years later. One thing you hear repeatedly is that America will never trust anyone again as they trusted Walter Cronkite.

If you want to be the most trusted person in America, it helps if you have little competition. Cronkite thrived in television news in an age when you had three networks and thus only three choices for your evening news. Cable was just emerging in the 1970s and cable news did not appear until CNN was born around 1980. Today with so many ways to acquire our news, many of them new, it is hard for any individual today to stand out they way Cronkite did. Few of us even bother to watch network news these days. The whole idea of TV network news is almost obsolete.

Cronkite seemed singular but in reality, he followed in the footsteps of the late Edward R. Murrow, who spotted him as a war correspondent in London during World War II. Murrow made it possible for us to place our trust in Cronkite because like Cronkite, America trusted Murrow. I was not old enough to watch Murrow live on television, but I was certainly aware of his legendary influence growing up. I suspect that even those under thirty who never saw Walter Cronkite behind his desk at the CBS Evening News felt his presence.

We trusted Cronkite not only because he looked trustworthy, but he was born in an age when journalism was a highly ethical career, where facts mattered and where professional duty required impartiality. In our new media age, some of us now place this level of trust in certain news bloggers. In fact, few bloggers are impartial, but many are voracious consumers of the news. A talented few have minds like Sherlock Holmes and can sift through vast amounts of information to discern the truth. A couple of bloggers that I deeply respect include Marcy Wheeler and Andrew Sullivan. Neither Marcy nor Andrew though would qualify as traditional journalists but rather interpreters of the news gathered by others. Cronkite, like all journalists, was a person with his own biases that only occasionally leaked out in the form of editorials. Cronkite though was not afraid to investigate an issue, although while anchorman he delegated most of this work to his staff. He was an imperfect perfectionist, always striving to provide America with the best-informed information available on a particular news day. It was reflexive in him and we could tell. That is why America trusted him. We never got that sense about his replacement Dan Rather. At least Cronkite could tell us, “That’s the way it is,” while all Rather could come up with was a pithy “Courage.”

Cronkite proved that trust must be earned in order for it to be placed. Cronkite earned the trust of millions of Americans through his fanatical devotion to objectivity and insistence on quality shoe-leather journalism. What was neat about Cronkite is you never got the sense that he had a bloated ego. On camera at least, he came across like someone out of a cold shower: relentlessly measured and sober. During the scary years of The Cold War where the stakes were often life itself, you could not trust much, but you could trust Uncle Walter.

Who should we place our trust in now, if anyone? It is unlikely that we will ever see that level of trust again in a television journalist, simply because to have it you have to have both a very large audience and be a journalist at your core. Technology has made the former very hard to acquire, and journalism as I studied it in the 1970s is almost gone. More of us are comfortable having our news served to us with spin, be it from the obviously right-wing Fox News or the obviously left-wing MSNBC. CNN claims to hold the middle ground yet populates its shows with cast of characters paid to show their biases. The closest I can find to high quality journalist on CNN is Campbell Brown. She is much nicer to look at then Uncle Walter, but even she is no Uncle Walter. On the radio, National Public Radio has some terrific hosts, but they are faceless. Hosts like Robert Siegel sound terrific but are faceless. You cannot stare them in the eye and get a sense of their soul, like you could with Walter Cronkite. Nor is it clear how much of what they present on the air they direct. Uncle Walter was in charge of the CBS Evening News. On NPR, it appears the producers direct the work.

The Washington Post asked prominent and not so prominent Washingtonians who they think should inherit Cronkite’s mantle of trust. The results were pretty disturbing and included Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Anderson Cooper and Jon Stewart (please!) I like Barack Obama too but before I put Cronkite levels of trust in him, I would like to see how he did with four years as president. Oprah is energetic, empathetic and certainly filthy rich. Do I trust her to provide the insight and informed judgment needed in the 21st century? Not a chance, even if she did do much to make Obama our first African American president.

I can think of some non-journalists who I think can rise to Cronkite’s level of trust. These are typically people who tell us uncomfortable but true things about ourselves and our world that we do not necessarily want to hear or take to heart, but which we know in our heart are nonetheless true. And they have also earned a level of trust through actual deeds.

My number one choice is Nelson Mandela. He spent twenty-eight years in prison for his convictions and has a moral authority probably second to none in the world. Mandela, 91, while a great moral authority, does not claim to have any special understanding of the United States and our particular situation. Yet he is probably the most singular, inspiring and trustworthy living worldwide figure since Mohandas Gandhi. In many ways, I think he surpasses Gandhi, who himself was a very peculiar man. As I learned, in the process of trying to make things better Gandhi often made things worse. Mandela is a gentle and compassionate soul whose moral leadership moved the toxic Apartheid state of South Africa into a modern pluralistic state. In the process, he has inspired and revered by billions worldwide.

My number two choice would be the Dalai Lama. Popes come and go, some better than others and some worse, but the Dalia Lama (whoever he is in his latest incarnation) is consistently compassionate and demonstrates a saner and more sustainable way for human to live and the world to thrive. Buddhists though rarely get much respect because they are so unnoticed. Yet Buddhists are often full of great insight and wisdom. To my knowledge, Buddhists have never caused any wars and have always strived to live simply and compassionately. Like Mandela, the Dalai Lama has little to say to America that we want to hear, nor is he vested in the issues of our day.

My number three choice is actually my number one choice because he lives among us. He is a surprising choice because during the years that Americans got to know him best, he was not terribly popular. His name is Jimmy Carter. He is often telling America things that we do not want to hear, but he speaks with great moral authority, is grounded in our culture and our values and has the humbleness that Cronkite manifested on camera as well as a compassion for all suffering people.

What is truly great about Jimmy Carter though is that when he speaks we know in our hearts that he is right. He is right, for example, when he told us that Israel is engaged in a slow genocide on the Gaza Strip.  President Carter is now 84 years old. Given the actuarial tables he will probably not to be with us much longer. For those of us who find it hard to trust in a nebulous god we can neither see nor feel, we look for examples among us of the best that we can be. For myself, I can think of no better person to place my trust in now that Uncle Walter is gone than in Jimmy Carter.

May Jimmy, like Uncle Walter, live a long life. May we Americans learn much from him in the time we are fortunate to have him with us among the living. Like Walter Cronkite, we are unlikely to see the likes of him again.

And that’s the way it was

The Thinker by Rodin

Forty years ago, I was a twelve-year-old boy whose voice had yet to change living in Endwell, New York. Like most Americans I was glued to my TV set because what appeared to be the most monumental event in the history of mankind was underway: man was about to land and walk on the moon! 1969 was a crazy time. It made no sense that such an epic achievement was taking place amongst the chaos of The Vietnam War (which was going badly), assassinations and great civil unrest. Fortunately, absconded in our upstate New York suburb we were largely insulated from these events. We could however gaze into the night sky, look at the moon and marvel that our species was about to land and put a foot on the lunar surface.

On July 20th, 1969, the day astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, the network coverage was nonstop. All the networks had continuous coverage but like most Americans we were tuned into our CBS affiliate. Why? Because the moon landing was being covered by trusted news anchor and space nut Walter Cronkite. Between many commercials from The International Paper Company (“where good ideas grow on trees”), Uncle Walt and his space buddies (which typically included astronaut Wally Schirra and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke) gave us the inside scoop. They were amply assisted by the CBS animation department, which created animations of events that we could not see live, like the landing of Eagle on the moon. (As I recall the simulated landing happened at least thirty seconds before the actual landing.) Americans may have been culturally divided but on July 20th, 1969 we were all watching TV or listening to the radio. It was not just America; it was the entire world. This triumphant event was simply not to be missed.

Yesterday, veteran CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite finally passed into the great hereafter at the ripe old age of 92. Wally Schirra died in 2007 at the age of 84. Arthur C. Clarke is still among the living at age 90. America’s space program, which reached its zenith on July 20th, 1969 is now nearing its nadir. The space shuttle is about to be retired. A next generation vehicle to take Americans into space is years away, at best. This means that soon for the first time since the 1960s the United States will have no way to put a man into space.

In many ways, July 20th, 1969 will probably be seen as the United States of America’s greatest moment. Since then America has felt like an empire in decline. In 1969, the universe seemed within our grasp. If we could put a man on the moon, we said, why not a man on Mars? Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, in a recent Washington Post op-ed, called for putting men on Mars by 2031. In reality, we could put a man on Mars by 2020 if we summoned our collective will. It would actually not be that large an engineering enterprise, at least compared with putting a man on the moon. In ten years, we went from Alan Shepard’s suborbital spaceflight in a Mercury capsule to putting a man on the moon. During the 1960s, we discovered that as a nation we could focus on what seemed like this crazy national goal and within a decade actually achieve it. In 2009, we struggle to even summon the will to limit our nation’s greenhouse gases.

What the hell happened? Part of the problem was that after the moon landing there seemed to be no satisfactory encore. Subsequent landings seemed anticlimactic, even though the later landings were far more interesting. By December 19, 1972 with the end of the Apollo 17 mission, our interest in exploring the moon largely ended. NASA tried to reinvent itself as a more practical agency. It reused surplus Apollo hardware and sent Skylab into earth orbit. The Skylab launch was the last time a Saturn V would rocket into space and I was five miles away to witness it. NASA then created the space shuttle as a next generation reusable space vehicle. Unfortunately, the space shuttle proved to be a great idea in theory, but not so much in practice. It was complex, hard to maintain and magnitudes more expensive than anticipated. At one point NASA was saying they could get cargo into orbit on the shuttle for $200 a pound. Each shuttle flight now costs in the magnitude of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Today, marginal crowds of tourists will show up for a shuttle launch. By becoming commonplace, shuttle launches have lost their fascination. In fact, our manned space program today is a product of 1970s engineering. The people who inspired us to marvel in the space program, like Walter Cronkite and Wally Schirra, are largely dead or retired. With so many pressing needs and our government vastly overextended, there appears to be little will to reinvigorate our manned spaceflight program.

Our modern triumphs in the manned spaceflight program these days are somewhat muted and amount to the International Space Station, now actually close to completion. This is just as well because the space shuttle is the only vehicle big enough to ferry its largest components. The ISS too is largely being taken for granted. Its research is of marginal value. It is most useful simply as an exercise in learning what is required for people to live in space for long periods. It turns out that piecing together an international space station in orbit is hard work. It is also challenging to keep it in orbit. Rocket and satellite debris careens around in near earth orbit. The ISS needs occasional boosts so it doesn’t fall back into earth. What is its future? You would think that after investing about a hundred billion dollars we might want to keep it orbiting, but NASA has plans to de-orbit the ISS in 2016. Apparently, it cannot find the money to maintain it beyond then, so it might as well fall back to earth. With the shuttle’s retirement, we have to depend on Russian space capsules to service the ISS anyway.

The truth is the nation’s manned spaceflight program is on critical support. It is not clear that there is the political will to ensure that the United States maintains a manned spaceflight program at all. We have had great and sometimes stunning success with unmanned spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond. Unless the dynamics change quickly though, the future of manned spaceflight may belong to the Russians and the Chinese.

We simply have lost interest. But perhaps, if enough Americans take the time to appreciate the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon, we will summon our collective will toward more manned space exploration of our universe.