Why We Need to Remember that the Eagle Landed Forty-four Years Ago.

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Once upon a time there were dreamers, people who believed we could go beyond the boundaries of everything we know and think we know.  They had been around for centuries – explorers like the Chinese admiral Zheng He, who not only sailed throughout Asia, but led trade expeditions on behalf of the Chinese emperor Zhu Di throughout the middle east, Africa, essentially all of the known world, decades before Christopher Columbus even dreamed of sailing west.  Zheng He and his voyages were fantastic, they developed wealth for the empire, as well as immeasurable prestige.  Ultimately, the Chinese turned inward, away from these voyages, going as far as making construction of ships and long distance voyages a capital offense.  China concluded that there was no benefit in looking beyond what was observable, what was beyond their grasp.  With this in mind, is there something we can take away from this on July 20, 2013?  In a word, absolutely.

Today we celebrate the 44th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon, a landing that a mere decade before was itself a fantasy.  When NASA landed the lunar module known as “The Eagle” it meant that the space race was “over.”  But there was something more important going on.  The “dreamers” had a victory, and it wasn’t just for them, it was for everyone.  It was for the thousands who had worked on the space program, and believed that, even in the failures of the early NASA launches, striving to exceed one’s grasp was worthwhile.  It was a victory for everyone who looked to the stars and dreamed and imagined “what is there?”  It was a victory for progress.  It was a victory for the notion that we can accomplish great things.  It was in every way, as Neil Armstrong put it “one giant leap for mankind.”  Forty four years later though, could we accomplish such incredible things?

Obviously this is a loaded question.  Can we?  Of course – after all, as ComputerWeekly.com noted last year, there is more computing power in a memory stick than in all of the Apollo computers combined, so ability, yes, have it.  But could we, as a society, as a culture, accomplish such a massive project?  One where the benefits to all mankind are so obvious?  I’m not sure I can say a resounding “yes.”

First, we live in a bitterly divided partisan political culture in the US.  While the 1960s political culture was devolving before our very eyes, the idea of liberal consensus enabled the possibility of all of the disparate of society and the political realm of the US to come together in pursuit of this common goal.  Americans generally do NOT accept a common series of assumptions about our “system” or the inherent good behind it, nor do we accept that we are all working toward a common end and that we are all in it together.  This is distinctly not the political climate today.  It simply would not be possible to get behind a common goal, convince all Americans of the benefit, fund it, and carry it out.  As one of my friends said today, one group would block it because they’d be convinced that this was an effort to  colonize space and give the Martians voting rights.

Moreover we live in a society now that is terrified of intellectualism and growing in our knowledge.  My state (Texas – preposterous, given our connection to the space industry) voted $262 billion in educational spending cuts that affected textbooks and supplemental materials in science curricula in grades 5-8, particularly in laboratory materials in biology, physics, and chemistry (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2010/09/texas_could_see_cuts_to_textbo.html).  There has been a massive problem nationally in finding credentialed science teachers, leading to decreased performance of students.  On top of that, we have a culture that in many corners decries intellectual curiosity, and denies science.    There were 13,950 peer-reviewed articles that confirmed global warming, while 24 rejected the hypothesis that humans are contributing to an accelerated rate of global climate change.  80% of  Americans believe in angels; while 38 percent of Texans rejected evolution in its entirety, 30 percent believed dinosaurs and man roamed the earth together (another ten percent) were unsure).  My point is we do not respect science in the United States – couple that with partisanship, I just cannot fathom a scenario where in 2013, we could begin and carry out a program to put a man on the moon.

We’re a nation that in 2013 has gone through precisely what happened in China in the 1400s.  With the death of Zhu Di in 1424, Hongxi ascended to power, and quickly suspended Zheng He’s voyages.  The initial rationale was that they cost too much.  Ultimately however, the “treasure ships” were decommissioned and sold off for firewood.  The empire developed a social attitude that looking outward for adventure and knowledge was essentially a sin, and everything that was legitimately worthwhile was to be found in China, the “middle kingdom.”  They became everything the US is today – closed minded, no longer intellectually curious, risk averse.

ImageOn a completely unrelated note, I would be remiss if I did not note the passing of one of journalism’s true giants, Helen Thomas.  She was a pioneer, always prepared, and never afraid to tell our political leaders they were full of shit.  Despite the insane attempt to paint her as a anti-semite in 2010 she held to her convictions and showed more courage than the people she covered could ever hope to muster.   She will be sorely missed.  R.I.P.

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The Trayvon Martin verdict has angered me like very few events have.  I watched a fair amount of the trial on various outlets, and read most of what was available on the trial and the case.  With the benefit of my training as a historian and within the context of race relations past and present,  I’ve come away with a few conclusions.

1) The right to stand one’s ground clearly applies quite unequally
2) Anyone who claims that we live in a post-racial society is delusional
3) Why on earth should people remain calm?

Point number one:  The Trayvon Martin case was not the only one to deal with the issue of  “Stand Your Ground” – lost in all of the talk about whether George Zimmerman had a right to stand his ground, a Florida judge ruled that Marissa Alexander, who had an order of protection against her ex-husband, did not have a right to stand her ground.  In ruling that her warning shot when he trespassed in her home did not meet the legal standard, the judge sentenced Alexander to twenty years in prison.  But putting aside Alexander, we have been arguing since February 2012 about whether George Zimmerman had the right to stand his ground that fateful night against Trayvon Martin.  We entertained theories, stories about how the conflict went down, where Zimmerman’s gun was, and any number of silly ideas, all of which boiled down to one thing:  George Zimmerman feared for his life, and had every right, even in the face of a police dispatcher telling him to stand down, to stalk, and eventually murder Trayvon Martin.

But we forgot something.  What about Trayvon Martin’s right to stand his ground?  George Zimmerman, an armed man, following Trayvon Martin, in a vehicle.  Why was Zimmerman following him?  Because Zimmerman didn’t recognize him?  Zimmerman thought he looked suspicious?  Zimmerman’s own account corroborates all of this, and it scared George Zimmerman.  And yet, as “scared” as Zimmerman was, we are told to ask “isn’t it reasonable that Zimmerman was scared?”  But we are not to question that maybe Trayvon Martin had every right to be fearful that night too.  We’re not supposed to ask, “exactly what is wrong with Trayvon Martin turning around and saying ‘Why the hell are you following me?’”  Trayvon Martin we’re told was not supposed to be scared, the tired old bullshit story of “if you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.”  Well Trayvon did have something to fear that night – an armed man following him, who was already “afraid,” and was playing cop, even after being told by the police to leave Trayvon alone.  Did Trayvon duck out of sight?  Did Trayvon ultimately confront George Zimmerman and ask if he had a problem?  Did he even end up on top of Zimmerman?  I think yes, on all counts – but were I being stalked, I think I might have a similar problem as Trayvon Martin.  With of course one BIG difference.

Point number two:  So what, George Zimmerman didn’t recognize Trayvon Martin?  It’s not a crime to be the new kid in town, or visit a town in which you don’t live, is it?  Well, no…unless apparently there is a string of break-ins, committed by people who happen to be the same color as you, and an armed vigilante is roaming the streets.  Then, if you happen to be unrecognizable, and the wrong color, walking in a pattern that doesn’t make sense to the vigilante, all bets are off.  Trayvon Martin, plain and simple was “guilty” of one thing that night – being Black in Sanford, Florida, nothing more.

I can assure you, if I had been in Trayvon Martin’s position, and someone were stalking me the way Zimmerman was stalking Martin, I might dart between houses or under trees (perhaps even more so if it were raining).  I might have a question or two if I came face to face with my stalker.  I know someone who has military and martial arts training and they said they guarantee they and Zimmerman would have had words.  But there’s a big problem here – Zimmerman never would have been following me, or my friend for that matter.  I’m white, in my forties, I don’t fit the mold of scary for a vigilante like Zimmerman.  I’m not young or black, and even though I wear hoodies, I doubt I would have been a target.  The problem of how to understand all of this and what to make of it was put heart-breakingly best by another friend of mine who wrote of the verdict in terms of her son, “I wonder what my 15-year-old, 6 foot tall, athletic son who is black and loves hoodies and skittles and walks to stores will think of this?  I wonder what I, as his mother, am supposed to tell him?”

Now, I know many people who believe we are in a post-racial society – they’re not very bright.  Essentially the jury said last night that George Zimmerman’s right to be afraid, and to stalk Trayvon Martin trumped Martin’s right.  Think about the words that were used to describe what happened.  Martin was “suspicious” and “looked like he was on drugs,” in addition to his trademark hoodie, which concealed virtually anything Zimmerman could have seen, making much of this supposition.  Now – Zimmerman may have been multi-racial himself, may  have even been involved in community protests following the beating death of a homeless man.  That doesn’t mean that Zimmerman didn’t have pre-conceived thoughts about Trayvon Martin, based entirely on his appearance – we know this because Zimmerman’s attorney TOLD the jury he did in his closing argument:  He told the jury to put themselves in ZimmTrayvonerman’s position and asked “wouldn’t you be scared of Trayvon Martin?”

Point number three:  Many will disagree with me, and I’m prepared to accept that.  I’ve been hearing pre-emptive calls from Al Sharpton, the police chief of Sanford, and Jesse Jackson, all urging people to refrain from violence, urging calm and allowing justice to prevail.  Well, how is “justice” working out?  There needs to be a change, and simply waiting around and allowing the system to work is not an option.  In the 1960s, many groups understood this – the Deacons for Defense, a regional defense group emerged as a response to similar conditions, as Lance Hill ably demonstrated in The Deacons for Defense:  Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement.  Hill wrote “by refusing to protect the Black community, the white establishment had inadvertently forced the Black community to arm itself and assume responsibility for its own defense.”  Nothing short of the same thing happened last night in the George Zimmerman verdict – the establishment said it is okay to kill young Black men, so long as you claim to feel threatened, and more importantly, the law will not protect that same young Black man from an aggressive, armed stalker.  What message are African Americans to take from this?  Am I calling on violence?  No, I’m not calling for angry, uncontrolled, unfocused rage, as a riot would imply.  But I am saying that signing petitions calling on the Department of Justice will not work.  That’s asking for the same system to examine itself and determine that they got it wrong, which I don’t think is likely.  What is much more probable is that real, direct action stands a better chance at forcing change.  It’s now time for outrage.  If some of it happens to scare the hell out of the establishment, so be it – the time is now to demonstrate anger, not calm.

“When people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.”

– Malcolm X