Neil Armstrong

Today his family held a private memorial service for Neil Armstrong, who died last week at the age of 82. I’ve read a lot of the tributes to the first man to walk on the moon that have been published in the past week, and have a little to add.

I never met Neil Armstrong, but I’ve always looked up to him. As a kid I paid a lot of attention to the space program, and when my dad was transferred to Houston in mid-1966 I started to feel like I was a part of it since I lived where the astronauts lived, but I really don’t remember Armstrong’s name sticking in my mind until it came time for Apollo 11. I was 12 years old that night in 1969: I was on the floor at home in front of our family’s first color television, straining to comprehend through the static-y images and voices just what was happening as the Eagle landed, and then as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the moon. Although that summer I was laser-focused on making the Little League all-star team (I didn’t), as I sat on the floor that night I really felt like I had done something great, had somehow helped make that moon landing possible.

When the ticker tape parades I saw on television were over, Armstrong faded from view; it turns out, that’s what he wanted. And that’s a big part of why I’ve respected him over the years. I realize now that Neil Armstrong probably wasn’t any braver than any of the other astronauts for making that flight—every other astronaut wanted the assignment, and many lobbied for it to have the chance for a prominent place in history. Although he’s been highly praised as being among the finest pilots at NASA, his colleagues weren’t slouches at the stick. But Armstrong wasn’t after glory or recognition: he wanted to fly, to do new things; he wanted to do his job, and he didn’t want to become the center of attention.

He personified the American ideal of the strong, silent type: the guy who was the best at what he did and loved doing it, who wanted to make a contribution to society, who didn’t want to brag about it later or feel like he was taking too much credit. Highly talented, well educated, capable and confident, with a sense of adventure and a sense of humor, and not an overinflated sense of himself. I have always been proud that it was that kind of man, that kind of American, who took the symbolic step into the future on behalf of the rest of us, from all the scientists and engineers who made it happen to all the 12-year-olds who felt like they were making that first step themselves.

So today—ironically, the day of an actual Blue Moon—on the day his family says farewell to him, I want to say thank you to Neil Armstrong for his part in opening up the future for our species, and for being the kind of man and leader in whom our country can take quiet pride. And I plan to follow his family’s honest and good-humored suggestion about how to honor him:

For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.

Separating the symptoms from the syndrome

Had enough already of the economy, jobs, and Medicare as political issues?  Are you ready for some good, old-fashioned, divisive social issues, guaranteed to split Americans along religious lines?  That’s what evangelical Christians do, and with the election getting closer there should be no surprise that a new round is erupting.

The Republican National Convention is next week; this week the platform committee approved a plank regarding abortion that pretty much falls in line with the party’s position on that issue over the last few platforms: no abortion, no way, no how…and no exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest.

“Faithful to the ‘self-evident’ truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed,” said the draft platform language approved Tuesday, which was first reported by CNN. “We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”

I’ll give them this: that’s the only intellectually consistent anti-abortion position possible—if an unborn child has a fundamental right to life, there can be no exception that would permit that right to be “infringed.”  But that’s a hard line to take, and those exceptions have been included in many laws outlawing abortions because, to most people, it doesn’t seem fair for the government to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term when she didn’t choose to become pregnant, or when the pregnancy itself threatens her life and health.  Unless you don’t believe that women deserve the same treatment under law as men, in which case, well, that’s tough luck for the little lady.

Is it just coincidence that this comes up as a Missouri congressman stuns us with the concept of “legitimate rape”?  Probably; more’s the pity.

Let me give Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., the benefit of the doubt.  When he answered a question about permitting abortion in the case of rape (KTVI-TV’s complete report is here), and said that he understood pregnancy as a result of rape was rare because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” I think he was trying to say that he believes that most of the pregnant women who claim they were raped are lying about having been raped, not trying to suggest that there is such a thing as “legitimate rape” as opposed to “illegitimate rape.”

In other words, he was demonstrating his ignorance.  That’s what’s driving a large part of the reaction, but what’s driving the rest—the portion from within the Republican Party—is that Akin looked stupid on a national stage, thereby threatening the GOP’s takeover of the U.S. Senate in this election, and opened up a crack in the extremist positions of the Republican Party for all the rest of us to take a peek.

We should not be fooled that Akin’s statement, merely because it is so offensive and quickly retracted or clarified, is a mere slip. It actually represents the worldview of Akin and many like-minded Republican colleagues. His comments are part and parcel of a view of civil rights, women’s rights, and science that should be antithetical to a modern society. It reflects a worldview that has held up progress on too many serious issues, a form of know-nothingism for the modern era, a rejection of the very notion of learning.

There’s little doubt that the “conservative” forces that have taken control of the GOP have a wide-ranging agenda driven by their adherence to the belief that America is a Christian nation that needs to be evangelized, to be “taken back” from the forces advocating the constitutional principles of a secular, inclusive, civil society.  What was once the party of Lincoln, of Roosevelt, even of Reagan, has moved so far to the extreme that it’s left a lot of its old membership behind.  (Let’s make posting examples of that a new parlor game, shall we—who wants to go next?)

Republicans…conservatives…evangelical extremists…organizing themselves to support and promote their beliefs, is absolutely their right, without question; speaking out against that myopic vision of our country is a right, too.  A right LZ Granderson exercised today…

Some social conservatives talk of protecting religious freedom, but what they are really seeking is a theocracy that places limits on freedom based on a version of Judeo-Christianity that fits their liking.That language is also being considered for the GOP’s national platform.

And John Avlon, also

So the real scandal is not just the sincere stupidity of Akin’s statement — it is the policy that undergirds it, enshrined in the Republican National Platform. The problem is bigger than politics, and that’s why it is worth discussing in this election, even when Akin is off the front pages.

…just to name two; I’ll be looking for the slightest excuse to post more.

Today Akin apologized for his comment and confessed he does understand that, yes, rape can cause pregnancy.  He also defied his party (from a safe perch behind Mike Huckabee’s microphone) and said he will not resign from the Senate race against Missouri’s Democratic incumbent senator; the applause and the apoplexy resume.  But Akin is not the issue…he’s only a symptom, and one to which an attentive citizenry needs to pay attention.

I don’t want to wait for an excuse to post this gem

…although, God-man knows, there’s likely to be one sooner rather than later:

TDB Godman straightens it out

Thanks to Tom the Dancing Bug and

Just like a little love, campaign truth is hard to find

You hold your breath…you make a wish…and you’re disappointed when it doesn’t come true.  And then you remember that things don’t happen just because you wish them to.  Such is the case, not very surprisingly, with the level of discussion this week in the race for president.

Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan (no relation) as his running mate last Saturday was greeted as good news by some people positioned all along the political spectrum, from those tea party members and fiscal conservatives who love his budget plans to those more liberal folks who believed his serious interest in issues would spark a real debate.  How long did that last?

Until Tuesday.

If we can all agree that Joe Biden is to oratory what Spam is to steak, we can agree that his inelegant comment to a mixed-race audience in Virginia was not meant to invoke the specter of slavery.  Yet that was all Romney and Ryan had to say—that the Democrats were running a campaign of hate—even before that evening’s newscasts hit the air.  (I do give them credit, though, for how well they can operate with the threshold set so low on such a finely-tuned sense of outrage.)

Tuesday also featured some well-prepared interviewers catching Romney surrogates on their indefensible claim about Medicare cuts under Obamacare.  This piece on Mediate has all the links to both occasions: CNN’s Soledad O’Brien with John Sununu, and Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume with Ryan himself, as each of them tried to pass off the latest Republican mischaracterization (to be kind) of the impact to Medicare funding under the Affordable Care Act.  Just nailed them, which was amusing; watch the clips.  The partisan noisemakers can’t really slough this off with the standard allegation of liberal media bias—we’re talking BRIT HUME here!  If FOX NEWS was schooling your VP, you got to make allowances that just maybe CNN was playing it down the middle, too.

But the best thing I saw on Tuesday, from the perspective of trying to keep the facts straight, was an interview on Slate with the author of The New New Deal.  Journalist Michael Grunwald went looking for the truth about the impact of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress in early 2009, designed to help get the country’s economy rolling again.  His conclusion: the stimulus bill worked.

Not that everything in it worked, or worked perfectly, not that there weren’t problems or some waste and fraud.  But mostly, the stimulus bill did what it was designed to do; it can be argued that the economy hasn’t done better because the stimulus was too small, although Obama could never have gotten Congress to go for more.

…the stimulus was supposed to create jobs at a time when jobs were vanishing at a terrifying rate. Nonpartisan economists agree that it helped stop the free fall; job losses peaked the month before it passed, and the economy dramatically improved once it kicked into gear. But even after the dramatic improvements, the unemployment rate was still sky-high and rising; an economy can do a lot better than losing 800,000 jobs a month without doing well. Ultimately, the stimulus was a 2.5 million-job solution to an 8 million-job problem.

To the extent that Obama’s opponents will argue that Grunwald’s story is biased, he replies:

I don’t think my book portrays the Republicans as “vicious,” but I do show—thanks to a lot of in-depth interviews with GOP sources—how they plotted to obstruct Obama before he even took office. I show how the stimulus was chock full of stuff they claimed to support until Jan. 20, 2009—not just things like health IT and the smart grid and energy efficiency and scientific research, but the very idea of Keynesian stimulus. Every presidential candidate in 2008 proposed a stimulus package, and Mitt Romney’s was the largest. So I do spend a fair amount of time chronicling Republican stimulus hypocrisies. (Readers might enjoy the backstory of Sen. Judd Gregg’s short-lived nomination to be Obama’s commerce secretary.) In general, I’d have to say my reporting backs up the Norm Ornstein-Thomas Mann thesis that the Republicans have gone off the policy deep end—denying global warming, denying Keynesian economics (except when it comes to business tax cuts and defense spending!), trashing Obama’s government takeover of health care and also his Medicare cuts, drumming stimulus supporters like Crist and Specter out of the party.

Read the interview; the book is just coming out this week.  I want to hear this story—we should all want to hear this story, and other stories—from someone who hasn’t already sold out to one party or one candidate.

We’ve debated a bizarro-world stimulus that does not exist. And I think that’s true about Obama, too. I don’t think he comes across as “brilliant.” I think he comes across as a pragmatic left-of-center technocrat who wasn’t interested in pursuing lost causes, but basically tried to do what he said he would do during the campaign. He wasn’t a policy entrepreneur with new policy ideas, but he did his best to get 60 votes for old policy ideas that made sense, and then pushed his administration to put them into action as cleanly and competently as possible. And I did a lot of reporting in the bowels of the bureaucracy and around the country to show how change has been playing out.

I tried to tell the story as fairly and honestly as I could. But I didn’t try to be balanced for the sake of balance. When politicians were full of shit, I tried to point that out.

That’s what we need more of from reporters.  Dutifully transcribing the opinion of the spokeshuman from one party and then the opinion of the spokeshuman from a second party doesn’t get us the truth; what the political parties have to say is designed to benefit the parties, not to promote truth.

Demand more

I’ve been trying like hell to ignore the presidential campaigns, and with a good deal of success: mostly, because I cannot conceive of what a life without respite from politics would be like, no matter how important the office or how laudable the candidate; and, because the modern campaign is so completely full of crap that my intelligence cannot put up with the constant insults.  C’mon, really—there’s no good reason for nearly-continuous presidential campaigns, unless it’s to occupy the attention of the leaches who feed on the blood that runs those campaigns and prevent them from bothering decent people in the off years.

To the second point, I refer you to a column I ran across today at that makes the point that we, the vast unseen unwashed American voting public, deserve better campaigns than the ones we get.  David Rothkopf uses the current flap over Harry Reid’s unsubstantiated accusations about Mitt Romney’s tax payments to make his point:

But of course, this is one dust-up that will never end. Because in modern politics it seems the goal is to constantly find ways to smear the opposition, facts and decency be damned. That’s the reason the birther lie endures. That’s the reason that John Kerry, whose military service was distinguished, could be besmirched by the “swift boaters” and a host of political opponents who hadn’t anything like his record of service. And because both sides do it to one another, it is considered to be fair play.

Rothkopf points out a few examples of the bipartisan hypocrisy attendant to campaigns today, and to be candid they are nothing that most people haven’t shaken their heads about before.  But he does something better, more constructive, in offering specific reminders about the things that are not getting proper attention amidst the quadrennial Great American Pie Fight.

America is facing unprecedented challenges. Our economy doesn’t work the way it once did. It is growing more slowly. It is rebounding from crisis more slowly. It is not creating jobs as it has. It is not creating wealth for the population at large the way it used to. Inequality is growing. Our competitiveness is faltering even as competition is growing.

(Wait for it, conservative extremists…he’s making a point here about the things that we “exceptional” Americans can do.)

A new energy mix can free us of dependency on dangerous nations, create jobs and a cleaner environment at home. Our economy is well poised to lead a “Third Industrial Revolution,” driven by high value-added manufacturing in which intellectual capital, the kind we create especially well, is the critical input. We protect that capital better than many of our competitors, too.

We’re in a position to remake our infrastructure, as must be done thanks to very low interest rates, if only we could come to understand the difference between spending and investing. We need to rethink our convoluted tax structure, our broken fiscal system, our corrupt campaign finance system and the way we defend ourselves and project our force worldwide. It is beyond arguing that we need to do something about gun control in this country.

Rothkopf’s lament is that we should be debating these question, not the minutiae that passes for “issues” these days, and I agree.  These are the kinds of things that Americans used to have serious discussions about, used to reason together about and find solutions for, solutions that benefitted society as a whole.  It can be that way again if we really want it to be…if we’ve got the courage and the attention span to make it happen.  Now is as good a time as any to start work on that.