Thursday, July 16, 2015

Plutonauts or Plutocrats? Whom shall we choose to lead our nation?

This week we are finally a nation of Plutonauts.  Americans have sent an object from Earth to Pluto and sent back startling images of that frozen ball's mountains rising 11,000 feet above its surface.  The New Horizons project was led by NASA with help from Johns Hopkins University, Cal Tech, University of Colorado, Southwest Research Institute, Jet Propulsion Laboratories, the United States Postal Service, and a host of other American scientists and institutions.  But it almost did not happen, because of our broken American politics, dominated by plutocrats empowered by dog whistle politics.  

We have a stark choice presented by the news of this month: will we commit our country to exploring to build a brighter future or mining racism for political advantage of the wealthiest men in our society?

For all my life, I can say that the United States of America has been the dominant culture of exploration on planet Earth.  My earliest television memory was the 1969 moon landing.  I have been to Cape Kennedy, and loved the Air and Space Museum.  I watched with tear-stained eyes as Challenger fell in fiery pieces.  I have been a frequent watcher of Cosmos, a lover of the Big Blue Marble and Earthrise.  I love the Hubble’s pictures.  Yesterday, I marveled at pictures beamed back from beyond Neptune.  In my lifetime, our spacecraft have gone from orbiting the Earth to exploring our solar system.  There is no thing which America has accomplished of which I am more proud than these feats.   We are the only nation which has explored all the “planets” of our solar system. And yet, I know that most of my fellow Americans have no interest in the moon, the planets and the stars.  And who can blame them.

From all our screens, boxes and phones, the urgent daily news commands our attention.  A political appointee abuses his office.  War mongers fulminate.  Arms dealers cut checks.  Fanatics kill innocents.  Lobbyists legislate loopholes.  Courts favor the wealthy.  Social media raises up today’s new talent.  Tabloid journalists brings down yesterday’s old talent. News trucks chase senseless tragedies.

But the heavens call out to us.  When are you coming out here?  Are you going to spend all the Earth’s resources killing each other over the Earth’s resources? 

Brilliant American scientists like Fran Bagenal and David Stern have heard this call and responded, dedicating their life’s work to promoting space exploration.  They know that exploring space can teach us about life on Earth, and life beyond Earth.  As data from Pluto and beyond roll in over the next 15 months, Scientists will rewrite all that is known about the object formerly known as Planet X.  Named Pluto upon suggestion of 12 year old Venetia Burney from Oxford, England by the American astronomers who discovered it, it was recently demoted in status as dwarf planet.  But the new data shows that Pluto is over 760 miles across, it may be promoted to planet once again.

Whether Pluto is a planet or merely one of the largest of the heavenly host of dwarf planets swarming around the edge of our solar system is not my primary concern.  Whether you call them planets or dwarf planets, they are new worlds. The fact that we are set to explore them gives me hope for our future as a nation.  Reading the headlines from my daily newspaper give me the reverse feeling.

Today’s News and Observer covers the news from Pluto on page 9.  The front page lead article details efforts by North Carolina’s current legislative leaders to prevent Confederate Monuments from being removed without legislative approval.  Per the article, the purpose of the bill is to defend such monuments from “the fad of the moment.”  

“This bill has nothing to do with what’s happened with the Confederate flag, but I think that’s a good reason we need something like this – to stave off the flames of passion,” said Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican who chaired Wednesday’s committee meeting. “This is why the General Assembly will still be able to remove or replace these items if necessary. We’re supposed to be ones who do not get caught up in the fad of the moment.”

Racism is no fad of the moment, but one of the defining features of America.  Calling out a racist society to change is no fad, it is the long arc of history which bends toward justice.  As a white man growing up in the United States of America, I have been given advantages by racism and sexism.  American sexism and racism was built into our Constitution and has persisted in our formal institutions long after we revised that document to reduce the fundamental hypocrisy of our founding.  While the Declaration we celebrated two weeks ago, declared that all men were created equal, the drafters of our Constitution compromised that principle.  

Rep. Speciale is wrong to argue that we should defend the “Silent Sams” from the flames of passion, because those statues were erected to fan racist passions and to secure the hold of Jim Crow over public spaces. In North Carolina, most of that Jim Crow work was done by the Democratic Party, with endorsement of the editorial pages of the News and Observer.  In 1898, the Old Reliable’s editorial cartoons were as racist as any KKK flyer from the 1960s, more so because they represented the views of the insurgent political party.  After an armed white mob overthrew the elected government of Wilmington in 1898, Silent Sams started popping up all over the place.  The one on UNC’s campus was installed in 1913, to the tune of Dixie played by the University Band.  Silent Sam kept watch to the North while UNC-CH remained open to white males only for decades.  A member of the UNC-CH faculty, Dr. William George, was a leader among the racist power structure which dominated the Old North State's economic and political life, including the Patriots of North Carolina. At its height, over 20,000 dues-paying members of this group dedicated to maintaining "racial purity" and fighting to maintain racial segregation were working to dismantle the progress being made nationally on civil rights.

Racism is the defining landscape of politics in North Carolina and throughout the United States for two centuries and counting. Bill Moyers was an aide to President Lyndon Johnson before becoming a journalist.  He wrote that shortly after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, he told Moyers that the Act had delivered the South to the GOP for a generation.  His successor, President Richard Nixon, proved Johnson was unduly optimistic.  The Southern strategy was born and still is going strong after its fourth decade, and dog whistle politics continues to roll on along.  Which brings me to plutocrats.

Plutocrats long ago learned to use coded messages to garner political support from radicals while maintaining a face of public respectability could help them get people to vote against their own economic interests.  In the 1950 Democratic Primary for the North Carolina Senate, voters were given a flyer captioned "White People: Wake Up" which warned voters that Franklin Porter Graham favored "mingling of the races" and steered them to vote for Willis Smith because he would "uphold the traditions of the South."  

As Louis Rubin observed:
“Conversely, those who have flattered their self-esteem and confirmed them in their prejudices have been able to manipulate them to vote and act contrary to their own economic and political interests.  During the antebellum period the rank and file of the white population permitted the planter establishment to conduct the South’s national politics with a single-minded emphasis upon the protection of chattel slavery, even though their own economic interest was by no means best served by such protection. During the late 19th century the efforts of populist reformers were frustrated because the spectre of black domination was evoked to keep white voters from bolting the Democratic Party and supporting efforts to make the state governments responsive to the needs of disadvantaged agriculturalists.”     See “W.J. Cash After 50 Years” 

And Congress is in on this problem in a big way.  One simple way to empower the oil and gas plutocrats is to use political power to silence scientists in government agencies and cut off funding to research universities.  This experiment in plutocracy was the dominant political theme of Vice-President Dick Cheney's reign and has moved over to Congress, thanks to widespread gerrymandering.  Now the nation which won the race to space is throwing the victors under the bus, because the fossil fuel plutocracy is afraid of science.

There are no plutocrats supporting NASA.  Plutocrats love war.  Plutocrats incite racism. Plutocrats worship at the holy altar of consumerism and drive out any heretics from its temples.  War, consumerism and racism all tend to accumulate wealth and power in the hands of a few based on the work of the many.  Plutocracy is powerful so long as it can project an orthodox and dominant belief in scarcity as the defining principle.

Exploration has just the opposite effect as plutocracy.  When humans have discovered new frontiers, they find new resources.  Whenever they have explored, they have built better tools.  Whenever they have explored, they have proved the profound truth spoken by the great poet Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” 

The politics of our nation is held hostage to the plutocrats. Just as the plutocrats of Wilmington in 1898 employed dog whistle politics to take down a city government, modern plutocrats use dog whistle politics to claim our state houses and our Congress.  Our future as plutonauts was cast in doubt by the price tag of the mission.  When the budget swelled to just over 1 billion dollars, NASA cancelled the project.  In the end, the mission was accomplished for $720 million.

Now I certainly can understand that money is tight and that $720 million could help a lot of people, but while NASA was cutting corners, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was going on a buying spree.  They sought to buy 1.6 billion rounds of ammunition.  According to Fox News, the DHS proposal included efforts to buy hundreds of millions of expensive hollow point rounds, costing about $1.60 each, putting the ultimate ammo tab at more than $2.5 billion once the acquisition was finalized.  Rather than being appalled that we would spend so much taxpayer money on bullets, the plutocrats expressed concern that the U.S. Government was trying to corner the market.  In other words, the dog whistle went out that the Obama army was coming to take your guns away.  Rather than debating guns versus butter, the plutocrats raised support for guns to arm their supporters.

We have a choice as human beings.  When I first saw the picture of Earth taken by astronauts on Christmas Eve of 1968, I felt my heart leap into my throat.  There was the globe, defined as it had been made, by beauty.  The globe now resting on my desk is defined by war.  Are we going to follow the plutocrats, or the plutonauts?  Are we going to be a nation of war-mongers or explorers?  Led by plutocrats or Plutonauts?

As for me, I prefer the explorer path.  It leads us to see that we are more alike, than we are unalike.  America can lead the world in that direction, or it can lead the world to its destruction. 

Perhaps Maya Angelou said it best:  
Human Family by Maya Angelou

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I've not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England's moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we're the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.


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