Tag Archives: Ronald Reagan

Challenger’s legacy

challenger

“The shuttle blew up.”

When my friend Robbie told me that in the afternoon of January 28, 1986, I thought he was kidding.  I may have even said “You’re kidding,” in response.  For a ten-year-old who’d been fascinated with space exploration and NASA ever since he first asked his father what those little twinkling lights in the night sky were, and indeed for a country accustomed to unqualified success in the exploration of space, it was a kick to the gut.  The Space Shuttle Challenger, lost only a few moments after launch on a beautiful Florida morning.  How could this have happened?  Over the months and years that followed we’d learn about SRB’s, Morton Thiokol and O-rings and shake our heads at the realization that a faulty piece of rubber could have cost the lives of seven courageous astronauts (including the first schoolteacher in space) and dragged the triumphant American space program into a downward spiral of limited ambition.

It’s perhaps a lingering tragedy of the human experience that we quickly become inured to being awed, that the miraculous can become routine in the course of time.  The Apollo program ended when the voices questioning its cost finally became the majority, when it seemed that after achieving the ideological goal of beating the Soviets, the moon was “been there, done that.”  And the shuttle looked more like the beginnings of the starships we’d watched whipping across the galaxy in our favourite science fiction adventures, but its missions had become predictable, stale – Challenger and her sister ships were workhorses instead of explorers, deploying satellites and touching down again like an orbital version of FedEx.  Forgotten, largely, in that routine, was how dangerous space flight remained, even after nearly thirty years.  Until 1986, no American had ever died in space – the fire that claimed the lives of the three Apollo 1 astronauts occurred during a routine test on the launch pad.  Even the infamous Apollo 13 “successful failure” returned its crew unharmed.  It was inconceivable, even as we looked at that strange image of the two-pronged trail of smoke in the sky that such a thing could happen, given the reach of our technological genius.  When it did, we were shattered, and we stepped back.  And failure became a meme – telescopes broke, probes disappeared without trace and Columbia broke apart, killing its entire crew (including another first, the first Israeli astronaut), on re-entry in 2003.

Twenty-seven years after the Challenger tragedy, the space shuttle has flown for the last time.  In a political climate where the number one obsession is deficit and debt, the expensive notion of space exploration, where the financial return on billion-dollar missions is difficult to explain to the Tea Party congressmen who control NASA’s budget, is unpalatable to say the least.  Yet the promise and the appeal of what waits up there remain potent and meaningful, and retain their ability to stir the soul and set dreams alight.  Over the last several weeks Canada’s astronaut Chris Hadfield has been tweeting from the International Space Station, offering stunning pictures of our world from high above, where one cannot see a single trace of war, hunger, poverty or pop star shenanigans – merely the peace of a beautiful planet.  Hadfield nearly broke the Internet with his much-retweeted exchange with William Shatner, advising the “Captain” that he was in standard orbit and detecting signs of life.  When considering the scope of the universe beyond our little world, our recurring conflicts over lines on maps and ever-dwindling resources seem to be the apex of Lilliputian pettiness and futility.  Yet we still hope.  Could the final frontier unite us as everyone who’s ever seen an episode of Star Trek hopes it will?  Could we at long last stop obsessing about who has the most toys and instead devote those energies toward a higher pursuit?

It seems to me that when Challenger died, much of our collective imagination went with it.  We chose to cut back, to scale down, to play things safe.  To outsource much of the work and the risk to the same Russians everyone was once desperate to defeat in the cosmic theatre.  When it comes to the exploration of space, we think small, cheap and forgettable.  Newt Gingrich absorbed his fair share of ridicule for suggesting during the GOP presidential primaries that the U.S. should try to build a lunar colony, and as far-fetched as that might seem, so was John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1961 that America intended to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by the end of the decade.  Between promise and realization it took 8 years.  What’s even more frustrating is that when Kennedy spoke those words, scientists had no idea how to accomplish the task.  Today, we have all the technology we need to get us back to the moon or to Mars or even beyond; we lack only the will to do so.  (The cynic in me believes we might get there faster if one of these heavenly bodies is proved to contain vast reserves of oil.)

In his commemorative address offered to the nation on the evening of January 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan spoke about the sacrifice of the Challenger crew and promised that they would never be forgotten; that the exploration of space would continue.  Yet I don’t believe that the lethargic careful dipping of our toes into the interstellar ocean is paying tribute to them in the way the substance of Reagan’s speech intended.  We should be doing more.  If humanity is fated to disappear from the universe without ever spreading itself beyond the confines of the pale blue dot it inhabits, it will be solely because of our lack of will.  Do we truly want our epitaph to be a Douglas Adams-esque pronouncement like “Galactic Chickenshits”?  Or is getting the chance to touch the face of God, as Reagan described it, worth the risk?  The Challenger crew believed it was.  The Columbia crew believed it was.  Deep down we know it is too.  The greatest tribute we can pay those who have lost their lives is to make their sacrifice mean something – to go on, to shake off the creep of apathy and to continue charging toward the blinking lights in the night sky on a tail of flame, carried by our science and propelled by our dreams – for they, like the spirits of the Challenger crew, truly have no limits.

Fun with words: Update your dictionary

Photograph by Henry Lim.

There are too many fascinating words in English that don’t get used very often.  Our vocabulary tends to be limited to the scope of our daily lives, and the mundane exchanges of forgettable pleasantry that pass for typical conversation.  If the Inuit have a hundred different words for snow, English has a billion permutations of how to talk about snow in a workplace elevator.  Still, our language is full of tricks and tropes that allow us to use these same old words in exciting new ways.  You’ve probably used many of these without realizing what you were doing (or writing) at the time.  But much as a famous technology company would assure you that “there’s an app for that,” in English, there’s a word for that as well.  These are some of my favourites, and I hope they shall find greater use in the future:

  • Portmanteau – From French for “carry your coat,” this is a word that originates as the combination of two separate words in order to describe something new, like how combining smoke and fog gives you smog.  Some popular examples include breathalyzer, jazzercise, soundscape, televangelist, bromance, and, regrettably, bootylicious.
  • Mondegreen – Refer to my previous post on misheard lyrics – this is the term for those.  It was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in an essay in Harper’s Magazine in 1954, referring to a 17th Century poem called “The Bonny Earl O’Moray,” in which a stanza reads:  “They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, and laid him on the green.”  Wright heard the latter phrase as “And Lady Mondegreen.”  The key to a true mondegreen, according to Wright, is that the misinterpretation must improve upon the original; hence, my father’s (in)famous misreading of Hall & Oates’ “The woman is wild, ooh” as “Poobulasquaooh” probably doesn’t count.  (See also:  “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”)
  • Anacoluthon – Familiar, if not immediately, to any man in trouble with his wife, this is the term for a phrase where the grammar is broken.  “It was just a – I didn’t mean to – I’m so sorry.”
  • Apophasia – Politicians love this one, for it lets them slag their opponents without seeming like they’re doing so on purpose.  This is when you say you’re not going to mention something but end up insinuating it anyway.  Ronald Reagan used it to great effect in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale when he said after being challenged that he was too old to be President, “I am not going to make age an issue of this campaign.  I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”  Or “You know, it’s not true, all that stuff they say about Phil being a lying, sleazy, unprincipled, back-stabbing, philanderous, greedy old opportunistic horse thief.”
  • Mumpsimus – Anyone who insists on saying “nucular” is guilty of this grammatical offense – the term for a habit adhered to obstinately, no matter how many times evidence shows it to be in error.  It comes from a story about a monk who mispronounced part of the Latin Eucharist and refused to change it to the correct version because he’d been doing it his own way for forty years.
  • Paraprosdokian – I just learned this one yesterday and I’ve saved the best for last.  This is where the second part of a sentence unexpectedly causes you to reinterpret the first part.  You could almost call it the Groucho Marx, as he was a master of it:  “I’ve had a perfectly lovely evening – unfortunately, this wasn’t it.”  Or the other famous quote, usually interpreted to be said by or about Winston Churchill depending on where you read it:  “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

There you have it – six fun terms to expand your vocabulary – not that they’re likely to help when you’re stuck in that elevator on a snowy day.  Perhaps “anacoluthon” might spring to mind the next time you find yourself struggling for words in a difficult situation.  You could even try to relax the tension of the moment by pointing it out to your sparring partner.  I disavow myself of all legal responsibility therefor should you then get summarily punched in the face.

P.S. Thanks to the Great Encyclopedia of Earthly Knowledge for its customary assistance.

In search of lost leaders

I paraphrased that from Marcel Proust – a name any candidate for office drops at his or her own peril, lest they be labeled an out-of-touch, latte-sipping elitist and snob.  I haven’t read A la recherche du temps perdu – my experience of Proust is confined to multiple viewings of the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I did however slog my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses earlier this year.  (Spoiler alert:  the last word is “yes.”)  I didn’t read it so I could say I did whilst peering down my nose at the teenage girl devouring her dog-eared copy of Twilight.  I read it out of a sense of curiosity and wanting to enrich myself, and as a writer, wanting to learn from one of the masters.  Will it have any discernible impact on my own writing?  Can’t really say.  But the point wasn’t to reach a definitive goal.  It was to simply add another ingredient to the bubbling stew of my intellect – a concoction of memory, schooling, experience and opinion from which (hopefully) pours forth something of value.

Pardon me as I pause for another sip of my venti decaf mocha hazelnut frappucino.  I mention this as I watch the unfolding of two election campaigns with the memory of a third only a few months old, and bemoan the race to the bottom that each has become.  If there is a singular thread that runs through my handful of postings here, it is a profound belief in the capability of human beings at their best, and an equally profound disappointment at humanity’s choice not to exert its potential.  It’s a bit like watching Superman choose to sit on his porch with a beer just because he doesn’t feel like doing anything today.  Except instead of today it’s been the last 30 years.

Jimmy Carter was crushed in his bid for re-election by a guy who galvanized America with a bold, inspiring message.  The message wasn’t about the incredible things that America had done when it pulled together and shared sacrifice, like winning the Second World War or landing men on the moon.  No, it was that their government sucked.  (It remains frustrating to me that anyone can win election to office by decrying the office itself, but there you go.)  Ronald Reagan preached that government needed to be reined in, cut off at the knees, drowned in the bathtub.  This message resonated so deeply, coupled with the other side’s failure to articulate a decent rebuttal, that it has informed the political discourse in the U.S. ever since.  It’s disappointing to see even President Barack Obama buy into Reagan’s fallacy as he describes his battles with a Congress full of people who literally hate his guts.  The debate has moved so far to the right that those of us on the other side feel like we’re a yard from our own end zone with 15 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter.

The rebuttal should be that government works when the right people (pardon the uncomfortable pun) are running it.  And that is, subliminally, something that most people do agree with.  People want leadership.  “Strong leader” is one of the most important factors when pollsters take the temperature of the electorate’s attitude towards candidates.  Yet the atmosphere has become so trying that truly great leaders won’t even make the ballot, let alone win.  Television and 24/7 media scrutiny played on endless repeat with panel discussions, five-day-long specials and exclusive interviews has made it so that only the blandest folks can survive the onslaught.  An email used to circulate a few years ago where you were given three biographies and asked to pick which you thought would make the best leader – only after you’d picked were you given the names.  I don’t remember the exact details, but basically, the first was a drunk, the second was a cripple and the third was a squeaky-clean vegetarian customs clerk.  Based on the bios you always went for the clerk, only to discover that it was Hitler – while the former were Churchill and FDR respectively.

We’ve seen plenty of prospective leaders undone by the smallest gaffes.  Howard Dean, the progressive governor of Vermont who was leading in the early 2004 Democratic presidential race, was finished off by media overreaction to an exuberant scream he gave during a rally-the-troops speech to his supporters.  Not a sex scandal, illegal nanny or even a misfiled income tax return.  A scream.  Michael Ignatieff, the highly-regarded writer, educator and public intellectual, led Canada’s Liberal Party to its worst-ever defeat after being hounded in attack ads and the press for having lived several years abroad.  Again, he hadn’t fathered a kid with the maid or been caught snorting cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  He was attacked for having lived outside the country.  No one can say what kind of leaders these guys would have been had they won.  But the circumstances of their undoing merely reinforced the meme that safe and bland is a winning strategy.  In fact, you don’t have to be a strong leader at all – you just have to say you are over and over again and people will start to believe it, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, or lack of any evidence of leadership qualities at all.

If we are defined by our mistakes, and our character shaped by our reactions to them, what can be said of people who don’t make any?  How is someone who grew up in comfort and was parachuted into his career by his country club father, someone who has never had to take risks and has never experienced the ache and disappointment of loss and personal failings ever supposed to empathize with the plight of drug addicts or the homeless, or the simple working man who has to scratch for every dime to feed his family?  How is that person supposed to unite the differing interests of a vast country and guide them into a new and better era?  When you occasion to wonder why we haven’t gone back to the moon, or to Mars, or really progressed very much further in our evolution, you have only to look at the mediocrities we’ve entrusted to lead us – people with no imagination, no soul, no capability of looking beyond the end of the spreadsheet.  Politicians cruise to landslide victories on promises of nothing more than tax cuts.  We then act surprised when they don’t deliver anything else.

If someone is capable, if they are intelligent, if they are curious, if they have lived a learned and compassionate life, if they have a sense of humor, if they have experienced the world beyond their borders, if they believe in the ability of government to unite and do good, if they are driven to challenge and enrich themselves, and if the cruelties of regret have forged the gravitas of statesmen, then quite frankly, I don’t care if they have snorted cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  I’m more likely to admire them for admitting that and making light of it rather than succumbing to the papal-like finger-pointing of the media and the opposing party.  We need to remember that the best of us are broken in some way, and that by demanding perfection in candidates we won’t get leaders, we’ll only get managers – those guys who in the private sector become terrific assistant vice-presidents but never really impact anybody’s life but their own.  I hope to be more than that, and I hope we are one day again led by someone who is more than that.

So maybe I will pick up that copy of Proust after all.  And hopefully, a future leader is doing so right now as well.