Monday, January 27, 2020

Billie Eilish, Demi Lovato Shine at Troubled Grammy Awards


Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Last night CBS-TV telecast the 62nd annual Grammy Awards from the Staples Center in Los Angeles — billed as “the house Kobe Bryant built” because the arena was originally built at least in part to host the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team when Bryant was one of its stars. By a freak of timing, Bryant had just been killed in a helicopter crash that day along with his daughter and seven other people. So the Grammys largely became, in a weird but appropriate way, a tribute to a celebrity and his tragically premature demise even though the music world the Grammys supposedly honor and the sports world in which Bryant thrived are normally miles apart.
If nothing else, this gave the Grammy participants and organizers something legitimate to mourn over and took attention away from the latest scandal surrounding the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which puts on the Grammys: the sudden either resignation or firing of the group’s first female executive director, Deborah Dugan, four days before the show. Last December Dugan filed a 46-page complaint against the group alleging she was sexually harassed by general counsel Joel Katz, and also that NARAS wanted to re-hire former director Neil Portnow as a consultant despite an outstanding rape charge against him by a female recording artist. (Portnow’s predecessor, Michael Greene, was also forced out over sexual harassment allegations.)
My source for the story was the Hollywood Reporter at The article explained that the Dugan issue threatened to cast a cloud over the awards show — particularly since one of the sins she’s accusing NARAS of is rigging the awards and the live telecast so female artists (and probably not just female artists!) are being boosted with awards and appearances on the show based on whom they’re sleeping with. At least two major women singers ended their performances last night by walking into the audience and singing the final verses directly to much older men in the front rows.
Being able to honor Kobe Bryant and turn the ceremony largely into a memorial tribute to him, even though he had nothing to do with music (unlike some other major athletes these days, Bryant blessedly didn’t think he could sing or act, and therefore didn’t try to do those things in public), gave NARAS and the on-air talent a way out of having to confront the latest Grammy scandal. Bryant’s death united the crowd both at Staples Center and on TV in mourning for a celebrity tragedy instead of thinking, “Who’s been sleeping with whom to get this award?”

Billie Eilish the Night’s Big Winner

The top awards at the 62nd annual Grammy Awards came to a prodigiously talented Irish-American singer-songwriter named Billie Eilish. I first encountered her when I bought her CD as part of a bunch of discs I picked up one night at a Target store (which since the demise of most brick-and-mortar record stores under the lash of the Internet has become one of the most convenient places to pick up CD’s of current mainstream pop) and I’m not sure why. Having the same first name as my all-time favorite singer, Billie Holiday? Putting a provocative cover on her release: a photo of her with long black hair and a baggy white outfit draped over what’s either a white piano or a white couch? Or giving her record a philosophical title: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
My first impression when I actually played Eilish’s disc was, “If Tori Amos made a drum-and-bass record, this is what it would sound like.” It’s a sound that’s hard to characterize — if you look it up on Apple Music’s Gracenote database it gives Eilish’s genre as “Electronica,” and there are certainly elements of electronic dance music in it. But the sound Eilish and Finneas, her brother, producer and co-writer, have created is a haunting blend of low-frequency dance-pop bass lines; bits of guitar, piano and synth used as ornaments, Eilish’s own multitracked vocals and a matter-of-fact singing style that projects richly — if sometimes self-consciously — “poetic” lyrics.
Yes, like just about every woman singer-songwriter who attempts depth in both her music and her words these days, there are elements of her great predecessors — not only Tori Amos but Joni Mitchell before her and Melanie before her. (I still think Melanie is one of the most savagely underrated artists of the 1960’s; she’s remembered — if at all — only for hippie-dippy anthems like “Beautiful People” and “Brand New Key,” but she wrote a lot of songs about the darker sides of human existence and sang them in a wrenching soul voice matched, among white women singers in the 1960’s, only by Janis Joplin’s. If you like Cyndi Lauper, Jewel, Lorde or any of the other white women today who sing enervated songs in high ranges with fast vibratos, you’re liking Melanie whether you know it or not.)
I hope whatever Deborah Dugan has to say about the process by which the Grammys are awarded — and how NARAS, in her telling, is an organization that makes Harvey Weinstein’s operation look like a model of feminist sensitivity by comparison — doesn’t take away from Eilish’s achievement. She won Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year (for “Bad Boy,” shared with her brother, Finneas O’Connell) and Best New Artist. Despite the unfortunate green patch she splashed on her hair — she looked like the guy in the Dr. Seuss story Green Eggs and Ham threw out the green eggs and they landed on her head — she presented herself on the show as an artist, not a sexpot.
She also seemed overwhelmed by the attention she got. Both she and Finneas said that they never expected their album to sweep the Grammy Awards. Neither, quite frankly, did I. I thought she’d have a career like Tori Amos’s, releasing delightfully enigmatic albums at regular intervals and building up a cult following without making it into the major music marketplace. I didn’t think music this complex, this individualistic, this unique and this beautiful was going to land its maker on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Eilish is probably the most off-beat Grammy Album of the Year winner since the Canadian band Arcade Fire. This seems like one time the much-maligned NARAS — whom I still haven’t forgiven for giving the 1984 Album of the Year award to Lionel Richie’s All Night Long instead of one of the two ground-breaking masterpieces released that year, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain — got it triumphantly right.
Not, of course, that there won’t be crabbing. Doubtless there will be some complaints from the hipper-than-thou critics at the Los Angeles Times that once again the NARAS voters have failed to give Album of the Year to a rap (or “hip-hop,” to use the euphemism for rap by people who like it) release. There will also probably be people who will claim Lizzo, the giant African-American soul belter, should have won Album of the Year and Best New Artist, and claim that she didn’t because NARAS is racist.
But from what I’ve heard of Lizzo (whose silly stage name sounds like a cheap knock-off laundry detergent you buy at 99¢ stores or in Mexico), she isn’t doing anything Aretha Franklin didn’t do better before her, or Dinah Washington didn’t do better before Aretha did. Lizzo’s great, but we’ve heard her music before. Despite the influences — not only the ones I mentioned but the ones Eilish has copped to: rapper Tyler, the Creator (who won the 2019 Best New Artist Grammy I thought should have gone to the searing R&B singer H.E.R.), Childish Gambino, Avril Lavigne (another of Melanie’s artistic daughters!), Earl Sweatshirt, Amy Winehouse, the Spice Girls and Lana Del Rey — Billie Eilish is unique.

The Song-by-Song Countdown

In previous blog posts on the Grammy Awards I’ve mostly given a song-by-song countdown on the various musical performances incorporated into the show. As the Grammys have evolved the pretense that it’s an “awards” show has become weaker and the showcase numbers by major musical stars have become the show’s point. What’s more, the range of musical styles showcased has become narrower and narrower: the brief appearance after the “In Memoriam” segment honoring the people the music industry lost in 2019 of a band billed on screen as “Orleans Street” but advertised in the narration as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing the classic New Orleans funeral song, “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” it was a flashback to the days when the Grammys at least acknowledged, via a token song, the existence of classical and jazz.
The show was hosted by Alicia Keys, a talented singer but one with an exaggerated reverence for her own talents: she sang several numbers throughout the show, including a moving a cappella version of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye” as a tribute to Kobe Bryant (which was nice) and a lo-o-o-ong tribute to the Grammys themselves (which wasn’t). The show opened with Lizzo — taking a slot that in previous years has gone to Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, U2, Don Henley and Billy Joel, among others — doing what appeared to be a medley of songs called “I’m Crying ’Cause I Love You” and “Shampoo and Brush Get You Out of My Hair.” I loved her form-fitting outfit — like Adele, Lizzo is a “woman of size” and isn’t afraid to show it off — and the fact that she plays flute as well as singing. Vocally she’s a great soul belter, and if anyone wants to do a biopic of the great 1940’s-1960’s gospel singer Mahalia Jackson she’d be a good casting choice — but she’s still a great practitioner of a familiar style.
After Lizzo’s opening and Alicia Keys’ Bryant tribute, the next artists up were country singer Blake Shelton and his current squeeze, Gwen Stefani. I’m not a fan of Blake Shelton and I don’t find him sexy at all — I was astounded when he won one of those “Sexiest Man Alive” awards — and I still can’t understand how this homely, not particularly talented and uncharismatic man has managed to get two far sexier and more talented singers, Miranda Lambert and Gwen Stefani, to fall in love with him. (“Maybe he has a big dick,” said my husband Charles.) At least I can hope that they’ll break up and Stefani will make a great album about it the way Lambert did.
Next up, after Keys’ interminable Grammy salute, were the Jonas Brothers doing a surprisingly good song called “What a Man’s Gotta Do,” which isn’t the slice of mindless machismo one might expect from the title. Afterwards came a rap number of mind-boggling pointlessness and pretentiousness from Tyler, the Creator — not only did he take the 2019 Best New Artist Grammy H.E.R. deserved, but his stage name is so egomaniacal I couldn’t resist joking to Charles, “Now we know God’s last name” — along with Charlie Wilson and some genuine musical talent from a great group, Boyz II Men, attempting to redeem what aside from their sweet vocal harmonies was a pseudo-musical mess.
After that was a musical salute to Prince led by Usher — who was actually a good choice — with former Prince associate Sheila E. and someone else whose name I missed. They did some pretty obvious song choices — “Little Red Corvette” from 1999, “When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain, and “Kiss” from Parade (the soundtrack album to Prince’s self-directed film flop, Under the Cherry Moon) —but did them better than just about anyone besides their creator could. Then Camila Cabello, who had opened the 2019 Grammys with her ridiculous tribute “Havana,” came out with a surprisingly different song choice, an intense ballad called “First Man.” “I like her better when she’s channeling Melanie than when she’s channeling Gloria Estefan,” I commented.
The next song up was one of the most powerful and emotional selections on the program: an aging but still attractive Tanya Tucker, her voice ravaged by the years but still powerful, doing a song called “Bring ’Em Home” in which she bids her lover to bring her flowers while she’s still alive instead of waiting to send them to her funeral after she croaks. Brandi Carlile, one of the greatest current talents in country music, appeared with Tucker but only as her piano accompanist; part of me wishes they had done a duet but part of me realizes the song was more powerful with Tucker alone; like Loretta Lynn in her later recordings, Tucker summoned up her history to drive the song home with maximum impact.
After that came Ariana Grande, a singer who’s impressed me not only for her noble response to the terrorist attack on her concert in Manchester, England on May 22, 2017 — instead of either canceling her tour (which would have made it look like a victory for the terrorists) or continuing it (which would have made her look insensitive), she scheduled another concert in Manchester, made it a benefit for the victims’ families, and closed it with a moving version of the classic “Over the Rainbow.” She wasn’t on the 2019 Grammy Awards because she wanted to perform a song from the CD she had just released, and Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich wanted her to do a song from the previous album she’d been nominated for.
Last night she did a medley of songs that included, at least according to my best guesses of their titles, “Kiss Me and Take Off Your Clothes” (I like role-reversal songs in which it’s the women telling the men to get down to business and have sex already!), “Imagine My World,” “My Favorite Things” (yes, the Rodgers and Hammerstein “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, but with additional lyrics that turned the song into a sexy Madonna-esque romp — just how she got the famously protective Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization to let her do that is a mystery to me), “Gimme the World” and “Morning Love.” I like the idea of Ariana Grande better than I actually like her act, which seems to be yet another attempt by a baby diva to step into Madonna’s seven-league stiletto heels.
Next up was Bille Eilish’s number, which was just her and Finneas doing a simple performance of a song whose title I noted as “I Like It Like That” — doubtless it was called something else on her album but I can’t identify it without a recording of the show with which I could compare it to the CD — and then there was a reunion of the rock band Aerosmith with the pioneering rap act Run-D.M.C. (back when rap still had the potential to develop into a genuinely powerful and sophisticated musical form instead of hardening into a disgusting set of braggadocious clichés about how many women the singer has fucked, how many cops he’s killed, how many Queers he’s bashed and how much money and “bling” he’s accumulated) that started with Aerosmith alone doing “Living on the Edge” (a better song than I remembered it) and the Run-D.M.C. collaboration “Walk This Way.”
After that there came another unlikely collaboration of screaming-queen rapper L’il Nas X (he couldn’t even come up with an original name!), one-hit wonder country singer Billy Ray Cyrus (who’s had the indignity of seeing his daughter Miley have a longer and more lucrative career than his!), Diplo, the Korean “K-Pop” boy band BTS and someone else whose name I didn’t catch on the song “Old Town Road.” The song set a record by remaining Number One on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart for 19 weeks — though one wonders how much that had to do with the lack of competition — and the Wikipedia page credits L’il Nas X with inventing “country-rap” as a genre (haven’t these guys heard any of Johnny Cash’s many talking songs?). Frankly I’ve liked some of the covers better than this version — though I suspect the Grammys crowded the song with too many guest artists — and Johnny Mercer did the same basic concept better with “On the Nodaway Road” in the 1940’s.
After that came one of the most powerful, wrenching moments of the show: Demi Lovato singing her heart out on a song called “Anyone.” The announcement of her performance stated that she had written the song just a few days before a terrible crisis in her life — just what the crisis was wasn’t stated but, according to a post-Grammys article by Spencer Kornhaber on The Atlantic’s Web site ( , it was a drug overdose that led to her hospitalization. Backed only by a piano — like Tanya Tucker and Billie Eilish, she eschewed the insanely elaborate productions that studded the show and made some segments (especially Tyler, the Creator’s) virtually unwatchable — she tore into a song about her history of depression and how everything she’d tried, from music to substances, hadn’t been able to heal it.
Kornhaber read the song as connected to her O.D. and her relapse into drugs after six years loudly proclaiming her sobriety: “I tried to talk to my piano, I tried to talk to my guitar  / Talked tomyimagination / Confided into alcohol / Itried and tried and tried somemore / Told secrets ’til my voice was sore.” My only modification would be that Lovato has a long history of delivering emotionally raw and flabbergasting performances that shatter the usual anodyne character of awards shows. I searched my blog for my references to her and found that again and again — the Ray Charles tribute at the White House on March 1, 2016; “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” on December 31, 2016; the “Hand to Hand” hurricane relief mini-telethon on September 12, 2017; and the 45th annual American Music Awards on November 19, 2017 — I’ve praised Lovato for blowing away the pretensions of such occasions and delivering raw, emotion-ridden, soulful performances.
Next up was a tribute to slain rapper Nipsey Hussle, an L.A.-based performer who got literally caught up in the crossfire of the long-standing rivalry between the Bloods and the Crips gangs. To me, as someone who generally can’t stand rap and who had never heard of Nipsey Hussle before he was killed, Hussle’s murder was just more evidence of the fundamental evil behind most rap: the genre is so committed to extolling the “virtues” of crime and killing that even someone who tries to communicate a positive message through rap and use the money he made from it to better his community will ultimately fall victim to the vicious, anti-social nature of the form.
Among the artists who paid tribute to Hussle last night at the Staples Center (which had also been the site of his memorial service on April 11, 2019, 12 days after his murder) were John Legend, Meek Mill, D.J. Khalid, Kirk Franklin and (via a clip from one of his videos) Hussle himself. After that Rosalía, a Latin music sensation, did a couple of songs in Spanish (I couldn’t make out many of the words beyond “A ma cantar” and “La noche liber”) which were good attempts to incorporate flamenco music, including the traditional way of singing it, into modern pop — but I think I’d rather hear real flamenco than Rosalía’s rescension of it.
Then came one of the surprises of the night — introducing the award for Song of the Year Smokey Robinson and the country group Little Big Town did an a cappella version of the classic “My Girl,” which Robinson wrote for The Temptations back in 1964. (Actually he wrote it for his own group, the Miracles, but the Temptations managed to wrench it away from him.) Robinson is surprisingly well-preserved both physically and vocally; as I told Charles during his segment, watching him now it’s hard to believe he had his first hit, “Shop Around,” 60 years ago.
The next number was Alicia Keys doing her third number of the show (how’s that for over-exercising a host’s prerogative? The more she showed off her ego, the more I thought the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made the right move by doing away with a host at all), “Underdog,” with Brittany Howard, the powerful lead singer of Alabama Shakes and an excellent solo artist in her own right, behind her. Alas, Howard only played guitar behind her and wasn’t allowed to open her mouth — much the way Tanya Tucker treated Brandi Carlile in her segment, but without the power of Tucker’s vocal that made up for it. After that H.E.R. (true name: Gabriella Wilson) did a song I noted as “Sometimes” that to me was great but didn’t live up to the scorching performance she’d given on last year’s Grammys — though Charles identified H.E.R. as the artist on the program of whom he’d most like to hear more.
Then former Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt — her famous red hair starting to get streaked with grey — came out and did “Angel from Montgomery,” but only did one verse of it because she was introducing it as a tribute to its composer, John Prine, one of this year’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winners. Then Gary Clark, Jr., whose style is perched between neo-blues and neo-Hendrix, did a great song called “This Land Is My Land” that was the title track of his most recent album and was one of the few openly political songs on the show.
Though there were a handful of very veiled anti-Trump statements on the program, there was almost none of the Trump-bashing we’ve seen on other awards shows, at least partly because even more than other branches of entertainment, music is controlled by gatekeepers (especially in the channels musicians need to get their music out, like radio and streaming services) who are on the Right of the political spectrum. Frankly, these days the most politically progressive songs are coming from people like Willie Nelson, Steve Earle and Neil Young who are already way past their commercial primes and therefore can afford to piss off the people who control much of what we hear.
After a moving “In Memoriam” segment and the Trombone Shorty/Orleans Avenue/Preservation Hall performance of “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” the Grammys lurched to their overdue end (the show was blocked for 3 ½ hours and still went 20 minutes over), with what has been billed as a tribute to music education. One of the few unambiguously good things NARAS has done is not only lobby public school districts to maintain their music programs in the face of the so-called “back-to-basics” movement, which holds that the schools’ job is to teach reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic without any of those humanistic and politically suspicious frills like art and music, but also give grants and awards to particularly stellar music programs.
To communicate this message, the 62nd annual Grammy Awards entrusted a head-spinning list of talents — Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, classical violinist Joshua Bell, Ben Platt, The War and Treaty (a Black duo of whom I inevitably joked to Charles, “Which one is The War and which is Treaty?”), Lee Curran, Guy Clark, Jr., Black ballerina Misty Copeland, classical pianist Lang Lang, and an orchestra and dancers selected from music students across the country — to perform a song from the 1980 musical film Fame. The moment I heard that I dreaded that I would hear another dreadful slog to Irene Cara’s hit song from the film, “Remember My Name.”

Instead they did the film’s spectacular closing anthem “I Sing the Body Electric,” a phrase with an interesting history. It began as a line in a poem by Walt Whitman, then was used by Ray Bradbury as the name for a science-fiction story about domestic robots, and later the title of the second (and best) album by the 1970’s jazz-rock group Weather Report. Here it came out as an anthem to hope, and while the plethora of guest stars (including two musicians from the classical world the program otherwise totally ignored) weighed it down and seemed too consciously intended by Ehrlich (who was directing his 40th and last Grammy Awards telecast) to create a “Grammy moment,” it still moved and brought this lumbering beast of an awards show, with the palls of Demi Lovato’s near-death, more sexual scandals from NARAS and the insanely macabre end of Kobe Bryant, to a powerful and affirmative close.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

mmm … peach …mint

How Impeaching Donald Trump Will Just Help His Re-Election


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

NOTE: “Mmm-Peach-Mint” was a novelty flavor introduced by the Baskin-Robbins ice cream company in the summer of 1974 as a commercial tie-in to the House Judiciary Committee’s deliberations on impeaching then-President Richard Nixon.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said Friedrich Nietzsche — in a line later appropriated by singer Kelly Clarkson. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, I compared Donald Trump to Antaeus, the giant whom the Greek hero Herakles (you probably know him better by his Roman name, Hercules) had to fight as one of his 12 legendary “labors.” The problem was that Antaeus was the son of Gaea, the earth mother, so every time Herakles knocked him to the ground, he got back up again, refreshed by a boost of strength from his mom. The only way Herakles could defeat Antaeus was by holding him in mid-air with one hand while beating him up with the other, so Gaea couldn’t come in contact with him and give him the strength to keep fighting.
The most amazing aspect of Donald Trump’s weird life is his uncanny ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. He did it in 1991, when the banks who had loaned him money to build casinos in Atlantic City were about to foreclose on him and force him into bankruptcy — until they realized that the casinos would be worth more with Trump’s name on them than without it. So they cut a deal by which he could keep his name on the casinos and collect a royalty from it, but without having anything to do with running them. The deal energized Trump’s businesses; realizing he could make money merely by leasing his name without the bother of actually building or owning anything, he did many more such deals and raked in huge amounts of money for doing absolutely nothing.
Trump snatched victory from the jaws of defeat again in 2016, when the release of his conversation with Billy Bush on the set of Access Hollywood — with Trump’s proud boast that he could have his way with any woman he wanted because “when you’re a star, they’ll let you do anything” — one month before the election caused panic within the Republican Party. Veteran GOP professionals and strategists panicked, thinking there was no way the American people would elect a President who had openly and proudly boasted of committing rape on national TV. There was even talk of taking Trump off the ticket and putting up his running mate, Mike Pence, for President. Instead, Trump stayed on the ticket and ultimately won the presidency in the Electoral College despite getting three million fewer votes than his principal opponent.
And he’s about to do it again as he becomes only the fourth President against whom impeachment has been recommended to the House of Representatives. Andrew Johnson — a Tennessee Democrat whom Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln put on the 1864 ticket as a symbol of national unity — got impeached four years later, and escaped conviction by one vote in the U.S. Senate. Richard Nixon resigned rather than face near-certain impeachment by the House and removal by the Senate. Bill Clinton, like Andrew Johnson, escaped removal because, though 55 Senators voted to convict him on one of the articles of impeachment, his impeachers couldn’t muster the two-thirds Senate vote required under the Constitution.
Donald Trump will have no problem staying in office. He will not only escape Senate conviction, he will do so by a far larger and more substantial margin than either Johnson or Clinton. On December 12, 2019 the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend to the full House that Trump be impeached — but they did so on a strict party-line vote, with all 21 committee Democrats voting for and all 17 Republicans voting against. The vote to impeach Trump in the full House is likely to go along similarly strict party lines; a few Democrats may buck the party and vote against impeachment but no Republican is likely to vote for it because if they do, they’ll immediately be purged from the party the way Right-wing Tea Party Michigan Congressmember Justin Amash was after he merely said he favored the House launching an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump.
Likewise, Trump will have no trouble surviving the Senate trial. With the U.S. Senate split 53 to 47 in the Republicans’ favor, 20 Republicans would have to cross party lines to vote to convict him and remove him from office. That would be 20 more Republicans than will actually vote against him. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has made it clear he is actively coordinating impeachment strategy with Trump and his attorneys to make sure no Republicans defect. Instead of an impartial juror — which is what Senators are supposed to be when they try an impeachment (they even have to take a special oath to do that, above and beyond the oath they had to take to assume office) — McConnell clearly sees himself as a partisan floor manager, working to make sure a bill that would be hostile to his party and its leader gets defeated.
But even before McConnell admitted publicly that he was “in lock-step” with Trump and his legal team fighting the impeachment, there was virtually no chance of any Senate Republican defections. The reason is that Trump has such a total “hold” on the Republican base that any GOP Congressmember or Senator who dares defy him — especially on such an existential issue as his ability to continue in office — would instantly be writing his political obituary. Any Republican House member who votes to impeach Trump, or any Senator who votes to convict him, will instantly draw a pro-Trump primary challenger and get thrown out of office before he or she has a chance to make it to the general election.

Impeachment Makes Trump Stronger

What’s more, being impeached by the Democratic House and acquitted by the Republican Senate will only make Donald Trump a stronger, not a weaker, candidate in November 2020. Trump has managed to build a cult of victimhood that he shares with his base voters. For someone born to as much money as he was (even if, as I suspect, Trump’s fortune is considerably smaller than he says it is — one of the real reasons I think he is fighting so hard to keep from having to release his tax returns), Trump has an amazing amount of status anxiety and grievance. Fred Trump, Donald’s father, was a reasonably successful developer in the outer boroughs of New York City — but the Trumps weren’t considered part of New York’s “A”-list because they hadn’t cracked Manhattan.
When Donald took over, aided by attorney Roy Cohn — former chief of staff to the notorious Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) and later so unscrupulous a lawyer that the New York State Bar disbarred him a few months before he died of AIDS complications in 1987 — he did manage to do real-estate deals in Manhattan. But he still didn’t get the respect and awe he wanted from his fellow 1-percenters. Instead he was regarded as a tabloid figure, a sort of “trash celebrity” who made headlines with his adulteries and published ghost-written “autobiographies” like The Art of the Deal and Surviving at the Top. Trump eventually landed the job hosting the “reality” TV show The Apprentice, which presented him as the most successful and intelligent super-capitalist of all time, but he still felt so much status anxiety, so much fear that he’s really a little man (and a lousy businessperson) under all the braggadocio, he felt the only way he could counteract his fears of inadequacy and inferiority was to run for, and win, the biggest prize of all: the U.S. Presidency.
Trump’s status anxieties, fears, hatreds and prejudices found a perfect match in the huge voter base the Republican Party built out of the wrenching political changes of the 1960’s. As the Democrats, once the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, switched sides on the race issue and became the party of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many white working-class voters who had previously been loyal Democrats started to change their views. They saw the Democrats extending the reach of New Deal social programs to African-Americans and other racial minorities, and believed this would mean money and social access would be taken away from them and given to people of color. They also saw the anti-Viet Nam War movement and wrenching social changes of the 1960’s — particularly the sexual revolution, drug use and the hippie culture — as direct attacks on the values they had been taught to revere and live by when they grew up.
Confronted by the independent Presidential candidacy of openly racist, reactionary Alabama governor George Wallace, which threatened to split the Right-wing working-class vote aroused by racial and social prejudices and enable the Democrats to win the 1968 Presidential election, Richard Nixon and Democrat-turned independent-turned Republican Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) cooked up the “Southern Strategy.” That meant that with the Democrats having given up on being the policy of racism and cultural prejudice, the Republicans would take on those mantles and embrace racist promises and policies. The “Southern Strategy” worked even better than its authors intended: it reversed the Presidential outcome from Lyndon Johnson’s 61 percent victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 to a combined 57 percent for Nixon and Wallace against Democrat Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent in 1968.
It also set the stage for the Republicans to become what political scientist Samuel Lubell called the “sun party,” the party that sets the agenda, dominates the electorate and relegates America’s other major party to “moon party” status. That doesn’t mean the “sun party” wins every election, but it does mean that when they lose they don’t stay out of power very long, and they’re able to block any major changes the “moon party” tries to make on the rare occasions they make it into power. Since 1968 the Republicans have won eight Presidential elections to the Democrats’ five, and a series of increasingly Right-wing Republican Presidents — Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and now Donald Trump — have slowly but surely remade the country in an ideologically Rightward direction.
There are limits to that analysis. The Republicans — especially since the 1980 election, when the so-called “Moral Majority” and succeeding organizations on the Christian Right first established themselves as a major part of the GOP base — have had a lot more success with the Libertarian economic part of their agenda than the social part. While a series of tax cuts biased in favor of the rich has severely weakened government’s ability to level the playing field economically or do much in the way of infrastructure and other social investments, women in most states still have the right of reproductive choice and Queer people can marry each other. It’s not surprising that a movement largely funded by the super-rich would tackle the super-rich’s economic priorities — mainly, to make America’s distribution of wealth and income even more unequal in their favor — before they’d fulfill the demands of the Christian Right.
But overall the Right has become far more powerful and influential than the Left, not only nationwide but worldwide (though that’s a topic for another article). And they’ve done it largely by nursing the status anxieties of working-class voters who used to support Left or center-Left parties but now see those parties as representing ethnic minorities, immigrants and others who are “taking our jobs away.” At least part of the Rightward transformation of America has been the transformation of the U.S. media, which began in 1987 when Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ended the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” that had previously required broadcasters to present both sides of controversial issues.
As music radio shifted from AM to the better-sounding FM band, the entire AM radio band became dominated by talk shows. Not all of them were political, but the ones that were were almost entirely strongly Right-wing in orientation. Eventually the stars of Right-wing radio — Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Mark Levin, Roger Hedgecock et al. — built huge followings by using the same rhetorical style Senator Joe McCarthy had used before them and Donald Trump would pick up later. It’s a combination of self-righteousness, a bullying style that openly sneers at anyone who disagrees, a conspiratorial world view that doesn’t admit the possibility that anyone might have a different opinion without being part of some group with a nefarious anti-American agenda, and an overall appeal in which the host tells the listeners that they are part of an embattled “real American” minority under siege by the forces of progressivism who want to take away their jobs, their schools, their guns and the God-given “right” of white men to rule.
Trump has won the huge following he has — about 40 to 45 percent of the American population — in large measure because he’s the first Presidential candidate who talks like a host on AM talk radio or Fox News (which brought the voice of talk radio to TV in 1996 and has remained the highest-rated cable news network ever since). Like the talk-radio and Fox hosts, he portrays himself as the victim, endlessly put upon by dastardly “plots” seeking to undermine the good work he’s doing on behalf of America — or at least on behalf of the Americans he considers part of his coalition. Like Antaeus, he gains strength from every attack against him because he can cite it as yet more evidence that “they” — the progressives, the liberals, the Democrats, people of color, immigrants, “uppity” women, Queers — are out to get him.
When Rush Limbaugh first started gaining his nationwide popularity, many listeners told reporters they liked him because “he says what I think.” Like Trump, Limbaugh told his audiences that they shouldn’t be ashamed to be prejudiced against people of color, feminists or Queers; instead, they should be proud of those attitudes because those were the attitudes that had made America “great.” Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” tied right into the attitude of many white working-class voters that they had lost something the Democrats, people of color, immigrants and “free-traders” had taken away from them: not only the good-paying factory jobs that had once sustained them but the unquestioned sense that men were superior to women, whites were superior to people of color, and Queer people were so far beyond the pale they should stay hidden in the closets, be arrested and, when exposed, do the “honorable” thing of killing themselves.
Trump has played the victim card again and again and again during his candidacy and his Presidency. Every time he’s faced a serious challenge, from the Access Hollywood tape to Robert Mueller’s investigation into his campaign’s alleged “collusion” with Russia to the current threat of impeachment, he’s denounced it as a “witch hunt” by people who simply hate him and want to get rid of him no matter how much harm that will do to “our Country” (a word he always capitalizes in his tweets). Like the 18th century French King Louis XIV, who famously said, “L’etat, c’est moi” (“The state? It is I!”), Trump equates his own interest with that of America as a whole and regards his enemies as vicious, irredeemably evil and out to destroy him and thereby hurt the “Country.”
A number of commentators have noted the huge numbers of angry tweets Trump has sent out about impeachment as evidence that he really doesn’t want to become just the third President to be formally impeached by the House and tried by the Senate. Don’t believe it. Trump saying “Please don’t impeach me” is like Br’er Rabbit saying, “Please don’t throw me in the briar patch.” Just as Br’er Rabbit wanted to be in the briar patch because all the goodies he wanted were there, Trump wants to be impeached because it will provide him the ultimate victim card, the final proof that the dastardly “They” are out to get him by any means necessary — and therefore his base needs to rise up and not only re-elect him but do so by a landslide margin.
One Democrat who realized from the get-go how dangerous it would be for her party to impeach Donald Trump was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Ever since her party regained control of the House in November 2018, Pelosi had been trying her damnedest to put the brakes on any consideration of impeachment because she knew that with no chance that Trump would be convicted in the Senate, all an impeachment would do is rile up Trump’s base and make his re-election easier, not harder. As Trump openly defied the House and Mueller’s investigation in every way he could think of — including instituting a blanket prohibition on White House staff talking to Congressional committees or providing them documents, thereby blocking Congress from doing its constitutional job of “overseeing” the Presidency — Pelosi kept short-circuiting the demands of other House Democrats to take up impeachment because she knew how devastating it would be for her party and its chances of defeating Trump in 2020.
But Donald Trump, a man who mistakes forbearance for “weakness,” responded to Pelosi’s reluctance to impeach not by stepping back from his anti-democratic treatment of Congress, but by ramping it up. On July 25 — just one day after Robert Mueller effectively closed out his investigation by testifying inconclusively before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees — Trump was at it again, calling Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky and threatening to withhold military aid Ukraine desperately needed in its war with Russia unless Zelensky ordered investigations of former vice-president Joe Biden, (so far) the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination against Trump, and Biden’s son Hunter. Trump also asked Zelensky to announce investigations into loony-tunes Right-wing conspiracy theories that it wasn’t Russia that hacked the 2016 U.S. election, but Ukraine — and they were trying to help Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump.
Trump’s pattern of responding to attacks with defiance has continued to this day. In a bizarre column in the December 15 Los Angeles Times (, law professors Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq of the University of Chicago and David Landau of Florida State University wrote, “Once impeachment begins, most presidents are likely to refrain from the controversial behavior — be it outright corruption or subverting foreign policy for a political campaign — that precipitated the process.” Not Donald Trump. As the House Judiciary Committee was debating impeachment, Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani — who himself is under investigation by the Southern District of New York — was in Ukraine interviewing government officials seeking derogatory information on the Bidens for a documentary film he’s making for a Right-wing Web site.
Trump himself said in one of the impromptu press conferences he likes to give on the White House lawn, when asked if it was appropriate for him to tell the Ukrainian President to investigate one of his political rivals, “I think Ukraine should investigate the Bidens.” He added that China should also investigate the Bidens because Hunter Biden got a seat on the board of a Chinese company after he left the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. As a number of commentators have noted, Trump seems to think that the way to answer being accused of something illegal, like asking a foreign country or its nationals to help his political campaign, is to do it again, and this time to do it in public, telling his people that he’s so unafraid of any consequences, and so convinced he did nothing wrong, that he’ll do it again in plain view.

Impeachment and the Democratic Presidential Candidates

Trump’s chances for re-election are zooming upward not only because it will be yet another victim card he can play to mobilize the base, but also because the Democratic Party is, as usual, screwing things up. First, the Democrats overconfidently assumed that Trump couldn’t win the 2016 election — and indeed he wouldn’t have if the United States were really a democracy, since three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump. Instead, the framers of the Constitution deliberately made the U.S. a limited republic in which, as James Madison wrote in Federalist #10, elected representatives would “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.”
Thus the framers created a structure in which no individual citizen would vote directly for any office higher than a member of the House of Representatives. U.S. Senators would be chosen by state legislatures (until 1913, when the Constitution was amended to provide for direct election of Senators) and the President would be chosen by an electoral college whose delegations would meet separately in their own states. One of the ways the Republican Party has become and remained the dominant “sun party” force in U.S. politics since 1968 is they’ve shrewdly used and exploited the anti-democratic features of the Constitution — the Electoral College, the guarantee of two Senators to each state regardless of population, and the near-absolute power of state legislatures to decide who can (or can’t) vote and to draw up the districts by which House members are elected.
The Democrats are slowly but surely throwing away whatever chance they had to defeat Donald Trump at the polls in 2020. First, they allowed too many candidates to enter the race. The Republicans made that mistake in 2016, but it didn’t matter because Donald Trump seized the initiative and won an early (and lasting) advantage over the Republican base by being more open and out-front in his bigotry than his opponents had dared. No Democrat in 2020 has managed a similar lightning emergence from the crowded field. If you’re a Democrat, no matter what tendency within the party you identify with — militant progressive, cautious left-of-center, moderate or economically conservative and socially liberal — there’s more than one candidate for you.
In 2016 progressive Democrats didn’t have to choose between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren because Sanders only decided to run after Warren decided not to. Now they’re running against each other, thereby splitting the progressive vote and paving the way for a moderate. Or, rather, they would be doing that if there were a truly viable moderate candidate — which there isn’t. Joe Biden began the campaign as the Democratic frontrunner largely because of his association with Barack Obama; he’s run so openly and blatantly an appeal to return to the Obama years and to get politics off the front pages as much as possible that I’ve joked his campaign slogan should be, “Make America Boring Again.”
One of the grim ironies of the Trump impeachment is that Joe Biden’s political career is collateral damage — because Joe Biden in 2015 did exactly the same thing to Ukraine that Donald Trump did in 2019. In 2015 Biden went to Ukraine to meet with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and demanded that he fire the country’s general prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who at the time was leading an investigation into Burisma Holdings, the Ukrainian energy company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter then sat. Biden told Poroshenko that Ukraine wouldn’t be getting $1 billion in loan guarantees the U.S. had promised them unless Poroshenko got rid of Shokin. Four years later, Trump called the current Ukrainian President, Volodomyr Zelensky — who’d won with 70 percent of the vote largely over allegations that the Poroshenko administration was corrupt — and essentially told him he wouldn’t be getting U.S. military aid for his war with Russia unless, among other things, he reinstated the investigation Shokin had launched against Burisma and the Bidens.
It’s true that, as USA Today reporter Courtney Subramanian explained in a story published October 3 (, there are extenuating circumstances in Biden’s case that don’t exist in Trump’s. The European Union and the International Monetary Fund wanted Shokin out not because they thought he was too aggressively investigating corruption, but quite the opposite: they didn’t think he was investigating it aggressively enough. Ukrainian activists like Daria Kaleniuk of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, also thought Shokin was an impediment, not a help, to the fight against Ukraine’s endemic corruption. “Civil society organizations in Ukraine were pressing for his resignation,” Kaleniuk told Subramanian, “but no one would have cared if there had not been voices from outside this country calling on him to go.”
But as the old expression goes, “When you’re explainin’, you ain’t campaignin’.” If Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, every Republican and Republican-leaning opinion outlet, including talk radio and Fox News, will be hammering away at the argument that the Democrats are being total hypocrites, impeaching Trump and threatening to remove him from office for something it was Biden, not Trump, who did. Already Viktor Shokin has written letters and sent them to Republican political operatives, and it would not surprise me at all if Shokin either appears in Republican campaign videos (like the “documentary” Rudy Giuliani was just in Ukraine shooting) or, worse yet, comes to the U.S. and appears on stage with Trump to finger Biden as the “real” culprit in attempting to influence Ukraine for his own personal advantage.
Despite their plethora of candidates, the Democrats at this point have no one running who has a real chance of unseating Trump. If they nominate Joe Biden, the Republicans will destroy him over his own dealings with Ukraine and whatever else they can dig up in his past and that of his family (including Hunter’s history of alcohol and drug abuse, which already got cited by Republican Congressmember Matt Gaetz in the impeachment hearings). If they nominate Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, Wall Street and the other members of America’s 1 percent, who regard Sanders and Warren as existential threats, will either sit the election out or actively support Trump. It will be 1972 all over again: an early moderate front-runner done in by Republican dirty tricks and a progressive nominee crushed by the real power centers in American society.
Hence the panic among corporate-friendly Democrats and their desperate search for a new candidate — including the emergence of Michael Bloomberg as at least the third mega-rich nominal Democrat (after Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang) who’s trying to buy the nomination with his own personal fortune. The irony is that we know the kind of Democrat who’s been able to win Presidential elections since the Right-wing realignment of 1968 from the three people who have — Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — and yet no one like that is running this year.
Carter, Clinton and Obama had several things in common. They were all relatively young, good-looking and charismatic, but they had substantial political experience in important positions: Carter and Clinton as state governors and Obama as a U.S. Senator. They all had the knack of making themselves seem more progressive than they really were: they looked progressive enough to appeal to young voters but not so progressive as to scare Wall Street and unite the super-rich against them. They were all able to carry at least some Southern states: Carter and Clinton by being white Southerners themselves and Obama, in the years before the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, by getting enough African-American voters to overcome the Democrats’ ongoing disadvantage among Southern whites.
You see anybody like that in the Democratic race today? I sure don’t. (Sorry, Pete Buttigieg, but being mayor of a small college town in Indiana doesn’t count as substantial political experience.) Frankly, I was hoping Virginia Senator Tim Kaine would run — he was Hillary Clinton’s running mate but somehow managed to avoid being tainted by the scandals surrounding her, he helped make Virginia the one ex-Confederate state Trump didn’t carry in 2016, and while he’s not a hard-core progressive by any means he’s been progressive enough he could conceivably pull off the balancing act between moderate and progressive Democrats that helped elect Carter, Clinton and Obama. But Kaine became one of the few Democrats with a national reputation who didn’t announce for President in 2020, and without him or someone like him in the race Trump’s re-election is looking more and more likely every day.
And if Trump does win in 2020, goodbye to American democracy. The U.S. will likely join the growing list of countries run by what I call “Dark Nationalists,” dictators who take power in constitutionally legitimate ways but then rule basically as autocrats, abolish all avenues for political dissent, launch openly discriminatory campaigns against minorities, foreigners and anyone else they don’t consider “truly _____ ” (insert name of country here). The list includes big countries like Russia, India, Brazil and (since its most recent election) Great Britain, as well as smaller but still important countries like Turkey, Hungary, Poland and the Philippines. Trump’s re-election would pave the way for a new world order in which the U.S. and Russia would be fast allies, spreading the gospel of anti-democracy around the world and supporting fellow Dark Nationalists in France, Germany and any other nation with the right level of social discontent.
Impeaching Trump will only make this bleak future more likely. It’s true that it’s not clear just what alternative they had: not impeaching Trump for at least one of his seemingly endless series of violations of the U.S. Constitution would send a signal that from now on, that sort of Presidential behavior is A-OK. The problem is that impeaching him and then losing the trial in the Senate — especially losing it to a phalanx of Republican opposition — will have the same result. Trump will proclaim the result as “a complete and total exoneration,” just as he did with the Mueller report, and ride it to either another narrow Electoral College victory (Trump could well become the first person elected President by the Electoral College while losing the popular vote twice) or — especially if the Democrats nominate Sanders or Warren and the ruling class mounts a no-holds-barred ideological offensive against them — a nationwide landslide.

And once a re-elected Trump starts abusing the powers of his office again — and he will — the Democrats will have nothing they can do to stop him. Trump will likely still own 2 ½ branches of the U.S. government: the Presidency, the Senate and the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will likely rule in favor of Trump’s contention that he can declare absolute “executive privilege” and shield himself from any Congressional attempts to investigate him or hold him accountable. They won’t be able to impeach him again because such an attempt will have zero political credibility. The old saying goes, “When you strike at a king, be certain that you kill him.” The Democrats struck at Trump when there was no way they could kill him — and as a result, he will not only survive impeachment, he will be stronger for it.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Robert Kuttner Agrees with Me: Don”t Call Latinos or Latinas “Latinx”

I hate, loathe, detest and despise the term “Latinx,”which is now afflicting newspaper pages like a plague as a supposedly gender-neutral term to describe people of Latin-American ancestry. It's an even worse example of political correctness run amok than the term “LGBT,”“LGBTQ”or “LGBTQ+” As I wrote in an unpublished letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times when I first started encountering the barbaric term “Latinx,” “What on earth is a ‘Latinx’? How do you pronounce it? And since when did folks with same-sex attractions or nontraditional gender identities get tagged with those ever-lengthening and increasingly obscure initials? I’m a Gay man who resents being called an ‘LGBTQ+ person.’ These are examples of what George Orwell meant when he said the purpose of political language was to conceal, not express, meaning." So it was nice to read this e-mail from American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner, who not only can’t stand the term “Latinx” but shows that most Latinos and Latinas can’t stand it either — and that use of the term “Latinx”could actually drive Latinos and Latinas away from the Democratic Party and the progressive cause in general.

NOVEMBER 6, 2019
Kuttner on TAP
How to Lose the Latinx Vote. The term Latinx is supposedly needed as a gender-neutral word to describe voters of Latino or Latina origin. For the most part, pressure to use Latinx comes from Anglo radicals and liberals, not from Hispanics.

Now, a reputable pollster has confirmed that most Latinos and Latinas—98 percent, to be precise—don’t like the word.

For starters, Latinx violates the architecture of the Spanish language. Spanish solves the gender problem in its own way—using a to indicate female, and o to signal male. You got a problem with that?

Moreover, Spanish seldom uses the letter x. When it does, the x is sometimes pronounced like the Spanish j, with the sound kh, as in the word xeres, meaning sherry; other times it is pronounced like a soft s, as in the famous floating gardens of Xochimilco.

There is also the problem of how to pronounce Latinx. When it first appeared, some people pronounced it la-tinks'; others pronounced it lateen'-ex, rhyming with Kleenex. Apparently, the preferred pronunciation is latin-ex', rhyming with Malcolm X. But there is no way to pronounce it that is consistent with spoken Spanish, which never ends words with the letter x.

Reports indicate that most Hispanic people experience the imposition of this ultra-PC word as culturally ignorant and insulting. Classic gringo.

In the Los Angeles Times, a Hispanic writer noted that outlets that used Latinx found their pages “flooded with negative reactions, with some calling the term ‘ridiculous,’ ‘stupid’ and ‘offensive.’”

Latinx was formally rejected by the Real Academia Española, the official committee of Spanish linguists that preserves the language’s integrity.

Meanwhile, President Trump, who characterized Mexicans as rapists and criminals, stands to lose the Hispanic vote big-time. Unless of course liberals screw that up with cultural condescension. Candidates, take note!

The great Mexican patriot Benito Juárez said, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz”: “Peace is respect for the rights of the other.” Latinx fails that test. ~ ROBERT KUTTNER

Friday, August 23, 2019

Why Aren't We Still Going to the Moon?


Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Apollo 11 (CNN Films, Statement Pictures, Universal, 2019)
First Man (Universal, DreamWorks, Perfect World Pictures, 2018)
Chasing the Moon [episode 1] (Robert Stone Productions, 2019)
Man on the Moon (CBS-TV, aired July 16, 2019)

At the end of Apollo 11, the documentary on the July 21, 1969 landing of human beings on the moon made by CNN Films, released theatrically and then shown on TV on the 50th anniversary of the actual event, one of the three astronauts — it’s not clear which one — is heard on the soundtrack speaking of “mankind’s insatiable curiosity to explore the unknown.”
But if humanity (to use the non-sexist term) has an insatiable curiosity to explore the unknown, you’d never know it from the outcome of the Apollo moon program. After Apollo 11, six more rockets were launched by the U.S. with the intent of putting more men (and yes, they were all men; the U.S. didn’t send a woman into space until 1983, 20 years after the Soviet Union did) on the moon.
Ironically, the only one of these missions that achieved lasting fame was Apollo 13, and that’s because it was the only one that didn’t get to the moon. Instead, a malfunction in the spacecraft made it touch-and-go as to whether the astronauts would even make it back to earth safely, and their heroic struggle to improvise a means to return by using their equipment in ways it wasn’t designed for made the Apollo 13 astronauts worldwide heroes and led to a book by the mission captain, Jim Lovell, called Lost Moon that was eventually turned into the hit film Apollo 13.
The extent to which the heroics of going to the moon in 1969 had turned into something seemingly banal and dull was summed up by a line in the script for Apollo 13. One of the officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls up a news executive at a TV network and asks why they aren’t giving Apollo 13 the wall-to-wall media coverage they gave Apollo 11 — or, indeed, any news coverage all. The network guy responds, “You’ve made going to the moon seem as exciting as going to Pittsburgh.”

A Boy in Love with the Space Program

I was born September 4, 1953, which means I was seven years old when humans first went into space. I had followed the coverage of rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida and gnashed my teeth with frustration that the launches always took place at 7 a.m. Florida time — which meant as a California boy I had to get up by 4 in the morning (on a school night!) to see them “live.” I usually didn’t make it up that early, though I tried.
Nonetheless, I devoured every piece of information I could get on the space program. I remember using my allowance money to buy a couple of paperbacks on it, including one whose “cover boy” was Alan Shepard — technically the first American into space, even though they just shot him up on one of the Army’s old Redstone rockets for what they called a “sub-orbital” flight — meaning that the spacecraft went up across the sky in an arc and then came down again after only 15 minutes. This happened on May 5, 1961, nearly a month after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space — and the first actually to orbit the earth in a spacecraft, something an American didn’t do until John Glenn on February 20, 1962.
I remember getting two books on the actual NASA space program and then buying a third which disappointed me because it was merely a collection of science-fiction stories. I remember giving up on this book because my seven-year-old mind couldn’t make heads or tails of the third story, Henry Kuttner’s “The Iron Standard.” I ran across that story again in a collection of Kuttner’s works I found in the 1990’s and this time found it absolutely brilliant even though I had a hard time with its politics: it’s about a crew of Earth astronauts who land on the planet Venus, bring free-enterprise capitalism and smash the Takomars, the socialist hierarchies that previously ran Venus’s economy.
Later on my mother signed me up for a children’s book club and, among other things, I eagerly ate up Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mike Mars” series. This posited that in addition to Project Mercury, the astronaut program everyone knew about, the U.S. government had set up a second, secret program of younger men called “Project Quicksilver,” and the heroes were a boyish Anglo guy named Mike Sampson — nicknamed “Mike Mars” because his initials spelled out the name of the Red Planet — and a Native American sidekick named Johnny Bluehawk. The villains of the piece(s) were Rod Harger, the spoiled rich brat of a super-wealthy man who was determined that his son would be the first human in space; and Carl Cahoon, a.k.a. Tench, the thug Harger, Sr. hired to sabotage the other astronauts to make that happen.
So when my age was still in single digits I was excited about the prospect of humans going into space, landing on the moon and eventually reaching out to Mars and beyond as anyone else. My attitude began to sour — like a lot of people’s — as the 1960’s ground on and the very fabric of life on Earth seemed to tear in unexpected ways. President John F. Kennedy — who had proudly proclaimed in 1962 America’s commitment “to send a man to the moon and bring him back safely to the earth” — was killed when I was 10 years old, attending a private grade school and was actually in the playground at recess when the announcement came.
I was already a committed supporter of the African-American civil rights movement — thanks almost entirely to my mother, who was highly active in it as a white supporter of Black civil rights until the movement turned in the so-called “Black Power” direction in 1966 and decided they neither needed nor wanted white supporters. I was at the dinner table while my mother and stepfather watched the TV news and argued about civil rights and the Viet Nam War, which I’d already decided by 1965 (the year my mom and my stepfather broke up, largely over their political differences) I was against. I remember having arguments about it in junior high school with my playmates (to the extent I had any — I was a pretty lonely, introverted kid and frequently the victim of bullying) and smiling to myself when we ended up in high school together and they started coming around to the anti-war position.

Radicalized and Disillusioned

Gradually the ferment of the times won me over to what became the orthodox position about space from progressives and Leftists: that the space program was a colossal waste of money and resources that could better be used against poverty, racism and other problems here on Earth. The new, more cynical attitude I and my friends had towards the space program was probably summed up in a line by satirical singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer on his album That Was the Year That Was, in which he said the government was “spending $20 billion of your money to put some clown on the moon.”
Oh, there were times I got excited about it all over again, including the fascinating program a NASA representative gave at our junior high school (the horrible neologism “middle school” hadn’t been coined yet) explaining exactly how the Apollo spacecraft would work, including the division of the actual moon craft into three sections: the “Command Module,” “Service Module” and what was then called the “Lunar Excursion Module,” the only one of the three parts that would actually land on the moon. Later, apparently someone at NASA’s P.R. department thought the name “Lunar Excursion Module” sounded too frivolous and it was shortened simply to “Lunar Module,” but the acronym “LEM” survived as the colloquial name for the craft.
I got excited all over again on the night Apollo 11’s lunar module actually landed on the moon. The first thing that was broadcast about this momentous event hooked my cynicism when a newscaster announced that the first thing the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, had done when they touched down on the moon was “jettison waste material.” “Oh, great,” I thought. “We finally get to the moon, and what’s the first thing we do there? Throw out our garbage!”
Nonetheless, that night I went to the home of a young woman who was leader of our radical high-school group, the Student Party for Self-Direction, which was still meeting though it was summer and school was out. There was a blurry black-and-white TV in the room where we were meeting and, like just about every other TV set in the world, it was tuned to the live coverage of the moon landing and we got to read the epochal chyrons, “LIVE FROM THE SURFACE OF THE MOON” and “LIVE FROM MOON,” as two spacesuit-clad figures walked onto the lunar surface, left the big footprints of their space boots on the moon’s grainy, sandy surface and put up an American flag made of plastic. An ordinary cloth one would not have billowed appropriately because the moon has no atmosphere.
We even sent out for ice cream to the local Baskin-Robbins and got their last supply of “Lunar Cheesecake,” a special flavor for the occasion that was lime-green and, as I recall, didn’t taste very much like cheesecake. (Five years later, when the House Judiciary Committee was debating articles of impeachment against then-President Richard Nixon over his role in the Watergate cover-up, Baskin-Robbins would come up with a similar occasional flavor, “Mmm-Peach-Mint.”) We had the properly cynical attitude towards the achievement we as progressives and radicals were supposed to have — but we were still jazzed enough about the experience not only to watch it on TV but get excited about it.
At least part of the problem was that NASA sold the space program in a way that put the astronauts and everyone else involved on the wrong side of the generational divide. From the very start of the astronaut training program NASA had chosen military test pilots, mostly from the Air Force but some from the Navy as well, as having what author Tom Wolfe later called “the right stuff” to lead the U.S. into space.
As the 1960’s wore on and as the war in Viet Nam seemed to soak up young people’s lives and society’s resources without end and without purpose (novelist Norman Mailer summed up the war’s seeming pointlessness by calling one of his books Why Are We In Viet Nam? even though the plot only indirectly dealt with the war), many young Americans (particularly men like me who were approaching draft age and therefore had to deal with the dilemma of whether to fight it willingly, flee the country or risk prison to resist) developed a resistance to all things associated with the U.S. military.
The extent to which NASA sold itself as exemplar of the “old American values” of patriotism, loyalty and moral certitude was shown dramatically in a film clip of astronaut Frank Borman, who as leader of the Apollo 8 crew had been one of the first humans to orbit the moon even though they didn’t land on it, speaking to an audience of students at a major college. Borman gave a full-throated denunciation of all those horrible student radicals who were challenging their professors, the school administrators and the norms of society as a whole — to the cheers of most of his audience and the boos of a few.
The clip is contained in the third part of the three-part PBS documentary Chasing the Moon, the only one of the four films shown on American TV the week of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 that attempted to show the moon landing in its political context: the high-tension Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union that had animated its beginning and the divisions within America that had undermined support for it by the time it actually happened.

“Just the Facts” — Or the Nuances as Well

“Facts are nothing without their nuance, sir.”
— Allen Ginsberg, poet, testifying at the Chicago conspiracy trial, 1969-1970

During the 50th anniversary week of the Apollo 11 mission — which I had forgotten was actually eight days long since it took over three days each way to get to the moon and back — I got to see four films about it with dramatically different “takes” on Apollo 11 and the abrupt halt to human-staffed space flight just over three years later. Chasing the Moon, a three-part, six-hour documentary written and directed by Robert Stone, was shown on Dutch TV cut into six one-hour segments. Its principal character was Wernher von Braun, whom Tom Lehrer wrote a savagely brilliant song in which he referred to von Braun as “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience.”
Von Braun started his career in rocketry in his native Germany. Nazi Germany, to be exact; he ran the experimental German rocket base at Peënemunde which developed two weapons that so impressed Adolf Hitler that by 1944 he thought they would turn the tide of the war and enable Germany to win. One was the V-1, nicknamed the “buzz bomb” by the residents of British cities who were bombed by it. The V-1 was what would now be called a “drone” — an unmanned jet-powered aircraft that flew itself into the ground and blew up, creating an explosion similar to a bomb dropped by a piloted aircraft but without the risk that British anti-aircraft gunners could shoot it down.
The other “vengeance weapon” was the V-2, the world’s first guided missile, which drew on the best rocket technology available to drop warheads on cities (particularly London and the Dutch city of Antwerp). After the war the U.S. and the Soviet Union treated both the V-2 rockets and the staff that had developed them as war booty. Von Braun was one of the leading scientists in the U.S. rocket program, and his research project used captured V-2’s and worked out ways to improve them. Von Braun also thought rockets could be used to launch people into space — an idea he got from fellow German scientist Hermann Oberth, who in 1923 had published a novel called By Rocket Into Planetary Space and five years later served as scientific advisor to director Fritz Lang for Woman on the Moon, a 1928 film that depicted a successful lunar landing and for which Lang, seeking a dramatic way to show the rocket being launched, invented the countdown.
Von Braun became the foremost U.S. rocket scientist and was instrumental in developing the spacecraft used in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo human-staffed space flight programs. His goal was to land humans on the planet Mars, and according to some reports he over-designed the Saturn V, the rocket that propelled Apollo 11 to the moon, so it would be powerful enough to reach Mars as well. He was also dogged by questions about his Nazi past, particularly whether he had used slave laborers at Peënemunde and had known about the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. Tom Lehrer’s song about him directly referenced his role in developing the V-1 and V-2:

“Some have harsh words for this man of renown,
But some say our attitude should be one of gratitude,
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun.”

Indeed, von Braun became such an American hero that in 1960 a movie was made about him, I Aim at the Stars, directed by J. Lee Thompson and starring German actor Curt Jurgens as von Braun. Not surprisingly, Robert Stone’s Chasing the Moon gives a much more jaundiced version of von Braun, as well as stressing how much the so-called “space race” was a part of the Cold War. Stone’s film notes that, despite making that bold public declaration that the U.S. would commit itself to sending a man to the moon and bringing him back, President Kennedy was actually doubtful about the expense involved.
He was persuaded to stay the course because the Russians were also presumably racing to the moon, and they’d already beaten us at launching the first artificial satellite and putting the first man in orbit around the earth. Whatever the cost, Kennedy’s advisors told him, we had to pursue the moon flight lest we lose yet another heat of the space race to the Russians — and have to face not only the blow to our national prestige but also the possible use of the moon as a military base by which the Russians could attack us on earth.
Sometime in the 1960’s the Russians, quietly and without fanfare, the Russians gave up on sending people to the moon. Chasing the Moon showed that it wasn’t for lack of trying — they actually built a lunar landing vehicle similar to America’s LEM, but it crashed on initial tests. (So did ours, by the way.) So by the time Apollo 11 went up on July 16, it was in a “race” on its own. One of the big reasons the U.S. human spaceflight program petered out after Apollo ran its course was that, with the Russians no longer competing in the “space race,” there were no longer any competitive points to be scored in the overall Cold War by making it to the moon ourselves.

Not Getting in the Way of the Story

While Robert Stone’s six-hour documentary Chasing the Moon attempted to put the U.S. space program in general and the Apollo missions in particular in a perspective steeped in historical and cultural nuance, CNN’s 93-minute Apollo 11 — first released theatrically by CNN Films in association with Universal, then shown on CNN’s TV network on July 21, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — was a “just the facts, ma’am” presentation. Director Todd Douglas Miller made his film almost exclusively from NASA’s official footage of the mission — much of it in brilliant color and crystal clarity, far better than the blurry black-and-white of the images we got “live” — and didn’t saddle his film with a bunch of talking heads explaining the significance of it all. Virtually the only voiceover we got was from Neil Armstrong, the first human on the moon, in an interview he gave shortly after he and his crew got back.
About the only filmmaker’s trick Miller used to “goose up” his story and heighten its emotion was the background music by Matt Morton. Using a lot of percussion effects and mostly avoiding theremins, synthesizers and other clichés of movie “space” music, Morton did his job mostly sparingly. Still, there are times — especially when we’re also hearing the recorded voices of the astronauts and others in the crew communicating with each other and Mission Control in Houston, Texas (a site chosen for political reasons to make Texan politicians, including Lyndon Johnson, vice-president under Kennedy and president for five years after the assassination) — when one wishes Morton would just shut up.
Apollo 11 is a movie that offers a window into another time and place. Not only does the computer equipment at Mission Control seem laughably antiquated today — some of the scenes show NASA’s engineers calculating rocket trajectories with slide rules, an analog computing technology which disappeared virtually overnight after the pocket calculator was invented and first marketed — almost all of them smoked like chimneys while they worked. Also, virtually all the Mission Control crew were white men. As the camera pans over Mission Control we see one Black man and one woman.
When CNN showed Apollo 11 on July 21, 2019 they followed up one of the screenings with a mini-documentary on that woman, JoAnn Morgan, who’s quoted on her Wikipedia page as saying she "would remain the only woman there for a long time." Morgan recalled that for her first 15 years with NASA, “I worked in a building where there wasn't a ladies’ restroom. … [I]t was a big day in my book when there was one.” Until then, she explained on the CNN mini-doc, whenever she needed to use the restroom one of the military people who were providing NASA’s security had to stand guard outside the restroom to make sure no male tried to use it while she was in there.

Courageous Hero or Cog in the Machine?

I got to see Apollo 11 twice in two days: once while it was on CNN and once the day before when the person who runs the monthly Mars ( and Vintage Sci-Fi ( movie screenings in Golden Hill showed it on a double bill with First Man, the 2018 biopic of Neil Armstrong. When I first heard that this movie was being made and Ryan Gosling would star as Armstrong, I hailed it as the fulfillment of my wish that after his long string of movies as weirdos — The United States of Leland, Stay, Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl, The Big Short, La La Land, Blade Runner 2049 — some Hollywood casting director would finally hire Gosling to play someone normal.
Well, yes and no. First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle in a straightforward manner totally unlike the flash and razzle-dazzle of his star-making film La La Land and written by Josh Singer based on a biography of Armstrong by James R. Hansen, doesn’t exactly tell the tale of a man to the hero’s mantle born. Gosling’s performance is a matter-of-fact reading of a man whose life was so colorless, and who was so seemingly content to be just another interchangeable cog in NASA’s great machine, Neil Armstrong enters Gosling’s line of weirdos by being almost totally unmoved by doing something that will make his name live in the history books as long as human beings survive.
Neil Armstrong was a U. S. Air Force test pilot — and though he had resigned from the service and was technically a civilian when he flew on Apollo 11, you could take the man out of the Air Force but you couldn’t take the Air Force out of the man. Armstrong’s understated taciturnicity and the whole infrastructure NASA had built to get him and Buzz Aldrin to the moon and back made it difficult — though they tried — to cast him in the lone-hero mold of Christopher Columbus and Charles Lindbergh, two historical precedents a lot of people cited at the time.
The Apollo 11 mission was rehearsed for years, on the ground, in the air (among the most grimly amusing moments of First Man are the tests in which Armstrong attempts to fly the lunar module to a successful landing at a test site on Earth — and fails) and even while it was still going on. One of the things I remember about the coverage of Apollo 11 while the astronauts were in space approaching the moon was the long checklist of drills and tests NASA had put them through, including something called “The Sim” — short for “simulation” — two days before the actual landing.
To me, it was yet one more detail undercutting the whole argument that Armstrong and Aldrin were lone heroes risking their lives like Columbus and Lindbergh. The risks to their lives were real, all right — First Man is almost obsessive in depicting the people who died in various test flights and other experiments on the way to getting humans to the moon and back — but “Mission Control,” the huge organization that was backing them up and was in constant contact with them, told a quite different story from the lone-wolf explorer, out in the middle of nowhere with no source for help if anything went wrong.
Not that there weren’t incidents along the way when things did go horribly wrong without anyone being able to help. The most famous one — and it’s the most chilling scene in First Man — dealt with the so-called “plugs-out test” of the first Apollo spacecraft on January 27, 1967. It’s not clear from the film just what the “plugs-out test” was supposed to test for, or why it was called that, but as any student of the U.S. space program will recall, the test was an utter disaster. A spark in the space capsule ignited the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere and flared into a gigantic fire, incinerating the three astronauts aboard — Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee — as the mission controllers looked on, totally helplessly, from their computer stations in Houston.
Perhaps the strongest and most striking aspect of First Man is how vividly it dramatizes that the road to the moon was paved with corpses, and Neil Armstrong got to be the titular “first man” largely because he survived the disasters that took out the people in line ahead of him for the honor. Writer Singer and director Chazelle gave Armstrong another tragedy, a personal one — the death of his daughter Karen from leukemia at age 2 — and make it his Citizen Kane-style “Rosebud” moment, the event in his life that explains the man he became. In a scene copied almost exactly from the ending of James Cameron’s Titanic, Armstrong even throws his daughter’s I.D. bracelet onto a crevice in the moon just before he leaves.
The proprietor of the Apollo 11 and First Man screening in Golden Hill thought Chazelle and Singer had gone too far in emphasizing Armstrong’s taciturnicity and clear distaste for mixing unnecessarily with other humans. But the real Armstrong was like that, as he revealed in 2005 when 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley was the recipient of one of Armstrong’s rare interviews. Though Armstrong insisted that the famous line he uttered when he first set foot on the moon — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — was his own invention (it always reeked of a Hollywood screenwriter or a NASA publicist to me), throughout the rest of the interview he was his usual aw-shucks, I’m-not-that-special self.
The Neil Armstrong who gave Bradley that interview — rerun on CBS-TV’s special Man on the Moon, aired July 16, 2019 on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s departure (and using the title and some of the footage from a quickie TV special put together by CBS news and narrated by Walter Cronkite shortly after the flight) — was the one Ryan Gosling played in First Man. He has his romantic side — he and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are shown dancing in their living room to an odd 1947 lounge-music album called Lunar Rhapsody long before Armstrong makes it to the moon — but he’s mostly content to be a cog in NASA’s great machine, accepting the assignment of being the first man on the moon with neither trepidation nor enthusiasm, but simply out of a grim sense of duty: this is what they’ve told me to do, so I’m doing it.
Like Apollo 11, First Man suffers from a weak musical score — in this case by Chazelle’s collaborator on La La Land, Justin Hurwitz. It doesn’t help that Hurwitz is competing with the great pieces of pre-existing classical music used by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey (which I would rate as the greatest science-fiction film ever made, and arguably the greatest film ever made, period) for similar action. When the crew of the Gemini program (whose name was annoyingly pronounced “Gem-muh-NEE” instead of “Gem-min-EYE”) practice docking two spacecraft together in Earth orbit — a maneuver crucial to the success of the later Apollo missions — whatever Hurwitz came up with seemed lame and banal compared to Johann Strauss, Jr.’s “Blue Danube” waltz with which Kubrick scored his space-docking scene. And when Armstrong and Aldrin are flying their lunar module, the Eagle, over the moon’s surface looking for a place to land, Hurwitz’s score seemed to fall far short of Kubrick’s choice, Györgi Ligeti’s hauntingly beautiful “Lux Aeterna.”

So Why Aren’t We Still Going to the Moon?

It’s rather an open question, which these four films do surprisingly little to answer. It appears that Richard Nixon decided to cancel the development of future launch vehicles aimed at continuing the moon flights and then taking people to Mars — perhaps out of a Trump-like jealousy over his dashing, romantic, charismatic and tragically doomed predecessor, John F. Kennedy. It couldn’t have been good for Nixon’s ego that while he placed a live phone call to Neil Armstrong while Armstrong was on the moon and Nixon was in the Oval Office, the President showcased most often in the Apollo 11 coverage was Kennedy via his film clip making the promise, now fulfilled, that before the end of the 1960’s the U.S. would send a man to the moon and bring him back safely.
But I would argue that the bizarre abandonment of the moon program and any efforts to send people farther into space — the only time in human history a nation has planted its flag on a faraway country, continent or heavenly body and then just stopped going there after a mere three years — has to do partly with the way NASA publicized the space program and partly with the disillusionment that fell upon the country after Nixon’s fall from office over Watergate and a new mood that undermined the broad-based political support needed to keep such projects alive and funded.
As I noted above, NASA deliberately pitched the space program as part of the Establishment side in the bitter battles raged between it and the burgeoning youth counter-culture in the 1960’s. The astronauts were picked from the ranks of the U.S. military and in particular from its culture of test pilots, the hard-living, hard-drinking macho men who had broken the sound barrier and flown the X-series planes which got the U.S. to the edge of space. They were presented as having the “right stuff” — in the unforgettable phrase Tom Wolfe coined for the title of his book about the Mercury program — and as being everything to which a red-blooded man with traditional family values should aspire.
In a time of ferment in which Americans in general, and younger Americans in particular, were starting to question traditional gender roles as well as traditional racial hierarchies, the astronauts were also presented as “family men.” Their life partners were deliberately depicted in the media as Stepford wives — faithful, obedient homemakers willing to wait patiently for their men to come home from their dangerous missions while they cooked, cleaned, did laundry and sent the kids off to school. Wolfe’s book describes the Mercury astronauts as considerably less tied down by the marital bonds as the image — he even says there were astronaut groupies in Florida who were trying to bed all seven of the original Mercury program members — but that wasn’t what we were told, or sold, then.
By so resolutely marketing space travel as a military man’s game, an exemplar of the order and discipline of the military way of life, NASA drove a wedge between itself and the younger generation that has usually supplied the world its explorers. NASA presented space as an exclusively military preserve at a time when the U.S. military was embarrassing itself trying as best it could to fulfill the impossible mission the nation’s political leaders had set for it in Viet Nam. The young dreamers, afire with thoughts of a better world, weren’t signing up for the space program; they were figuring out ways to avoid being drafted into an unwinnable war halfway across the world.
The convulsive changes of the 1960’s — civil rights movements, first for African-Americans and then for other people of color, women and Queers; the Viet Nam war; the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. —split America in ways that are still being felt today. Much of the appeal of Donald Trump to his base lies in his promise — what he really means by “Make America Great Again” — to wipe out all that nonsense about equality that started in the 1960’s and return to a time when Blacks were still in the back of the bus, women still in the kitchen, Queers still in the closet and the rule of the country by white men was simply taken for granted as a God-given fact.
The disillusionments from the 1960’s and 1970’s — the ignominious end of the Viet Nam war and Nixon’s fall from the Presidency due to the Watergate scandal in particular — ironically boosted the fortunes of America’s political Right. They seemed to convince many Americans, particularly older ones upset by the excesses of the counterculture, that government was no longer to be trusted. America settled into a politics dominated largely by recitations of all the things we couldn’t do — end war, end poverty, end hunger, end homelessness, give everyone access to health care.
This led me, in an editorial I wrote in the 1990’s, to say that if the 1980’s had been the “Me Decade” that enshrined selfishness as a virtue and damned political activism as useless and hopeless, the 1990’s were the “No Decade,” in which politicians and pundits repeatedly said, “You can’t … ” to anyone, in or out of government, who expressed a hope that we could mobilize ourselves collectively and use government to solve any of our major social problems. The cold, clammy rhetoric of politicians from both sides of the partisan divide — notably Bill Clinton’s response to becoming the first Democratic President to lose control of Congress in 40 years, which was to join the Republicans in saying, “The era of Big Government is over” — seemed to relegate big projects like exploring the moon and reaching out to Mars to the province of dreamers and science-fiction writers again.
Instead of vehicles of exploration, the U.S. space program became essentially a trucking service. Instead of building a spaceship to take us back to the moon and onward to Mars, the U.S. built the space shuttle, a craft whose purpose was as prosaic as its name. While thoughts of exploring and colonizing the planets fell by the wayside, private industry had developed communications networks based on so-called “geosynchronous satellites” (an idea first thought up by science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke) that would always be over the same part of Earth no matter where both Earth and the satellite were in space at the moment. The space shuttle’s main task became to deliver such satellites and place them in those spatial sweet spots more cheaply than launching them one at a time on single-use rockets.
Not that presidents since Nixon haven’t occasionally talked about building a new generation of spacecraft and taking humans to Mars. George W. Bush called for it. So did Barack Obama. So has Donald Trump, though his main purpose seems to be to create a Mars mission that will maintain NASA’s existence while he ends its other major program: measuring changes in the earth’s weather patterns and thereby documenting that human beings are changing the climate despite Trump’s dogged and unshakeable belief that they aren’t. Unlike John Kennedy with the moon program, none of the recent presidents who have called for either a U.S. return to the moon or a mission to Mars have expended any political capital on making it happen.
This has led a lot of science-fiction fans and supporters of planetary exploration to hope that the private sector will step in and take over. It’s essentially the plot of the 1950 movie Destination Moon, based on the writings of Right-wing science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, in which an industrialist persuades the CEO’s of major corporations to bankroll a moon mission to make sure that unspecified “enemies” (which in a 1950 movie could only have meant the Soviet Union) don’t get to the moon first and use it as a military base against us.
More recently, the oddball National Geographic production Mars — a TV series which combines a talking-heads documentary on the potential for a human mission to Mars in the present day and a fictional account of such a mission that stretches out over decades, starting in the 2030’s — has presented one super-capitalist in particular, Elon Musk, as the potential savior of space exploration. The hagiographic depiction of Musk in this film, and at science-fiction conventions where his name is mentioned, contrasts strongly with news of the real Musk, a Trump-style B.S. artist whose companies are constantly skating the thin edge of bankruptcy and never quite delivering the super-technologies he keeps promising. Indeed, Musk has been threatened with prosecution so often by the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the misleading (to put it politely) claims he’s made to his company’s shareholders I’ve joked that if he goes to Mars it will be as a fugitive from U.S. justice.
There’s certainly a history of private companies funding programs of exploration in the hope of turning a profit. Most of the British settlements in North America that ultimately became the first United States were bankrolled by private entrepreneurs who hoped they’d make money on exports of grain and other produce from the New World. India was conquered in the 18th century not by the British government but by the British East India Company, which ruled it for a century before officially turning it over to the British state and was even more repressive than the British colonial officials sent to run it after the 19th century handover. King Leopold II of Belgium colonized the Congo not on behalf of the Belgian state but as his personal property, seeking to exploit the Congo’s mineral resources for his own enrichment and enslaving the natives in the process.
But it’s hard to imagine a private company — or even a consortium of them — raising the massive amounts of money it would take to go back to the Moon, let alone to go to Mars, for the highly speculative chances that such missions would ultimately be profitable. This is especially true in the modern era of so-called “activist investors,” who don’t care about the long-term health of the business they buy into. All they’re interested in is the value of their own shareholdings as measured by how the stock price is doing. If a company can be worth more to its shareholders divided into bits and pieces, with its assets used as leverage for loans and its employees laid off en masse, that’s what they will do with it. In a global economy that has turned capitalism itself into a giant speculative game for the 0.01 percent, the idea that one or more corporations might commit to something as chancy as a mission to other planets is preposterous.
So we haven’t been back to the moon, we haven’t gone to Mars, and given the current state of the economy we’re not likely to. Indeed, the next big project the human race will have to undertake is ensuring its actual survival on Earth, given the ongoing assault on the climate and our own planet’s ability to support us long-term. Progressives have called for a “Green New Deal” and compared it to the Manhattan Project that devised the first nuclear weapon, or the Apollo moon project, but it’s considerably harder to sell this effort because it has no readily definable end point. The Manhattan Project devised a usable atomic bomb and dropped it on two Japanese cities at the end of World War II. Apollo 11 landed two people on the moon and brought them safely to earth.
The Green New Deal doesn’t have such a readily definable endpoint — just a bunch of boring-sounding statistics about parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It also has virtually all the major economic players in the world, both public and private, against it. The ruling class we have today, with its short-sighted obsession with their investments’ stock price the next quarter, won’t allow a Green New Deal to come to fruition, especially since in order to succeed it will have to abolish a lot of the habits of late industrial society that have brought the Earth to the brink of no longer being able to sustain human life. Future generations aren’t going to be able to dream about humans living and prospering on other planets; they’re far more likely to engage in a desperate but losing battle to stay alive on this one.