The Races of Man

W.J. Astore

In the 19th century, many people believed in polygenism, and others used the concept of “the races of man,” where by “race” they often meant species.  At home, I have a framed copy of the races of man taken from an encyclopedia published in the 1890s.  Here’s a photo of it:

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Of course, there’s always an assumed hierarchy to the races of man concept.  White Europeans are at the top, since it’s they who defined and ordered the hierarchy.  Surprise!

In my photo, White Europeans take pride of place in the center, with some swarthy Italians at the top right (I’m half-Italian).  Meanwhile, Polynesian (pink flowers in hair) and Indian (from South America) women are shown with bare breasts.  “Primitives” are primitive precisely because they’re “immodest” in dress, a convention that allowed publishers to show nudity in illustrations and photos without being accused of pornography.  You might call this the “National Geographic” dispensation for nudity.

My college students were often amazed when I told them that science shows that all of us — all humans — came out of Africa.  Far too many people today still think of race as both definitive and as a rung on a ladder, and naturally they always place their own “race” on the top rung.

Even more disturbing is the resurgence of racialized (and often racist) thinking in the United States.  The idea of the races of man and the “scientific” ordering of the same was debunked a century ago, yet it’s back with a vengeance in much of the U.S.

Naturally, those who promote racialized thinking always put their own perceived race at the top.  In that sense, nothing whatsoever has changed since the 19th century and the “races of man” concept.

Disrespecting Science

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W.J. Astore

I grew up on science and the American space program.  My favorite character on “Star Trek” was Mr. Spock, the eminently logical Vulcan science officer.  I loved physics in high school and ended up majoring in mechanical engineering in college.  Later, I got advanced degrees in the history of science and technology, especially as these subjects relate to Christianity.

Suffice to say I have a deep respect and a fond affection for science.  That’s why it pains me to see the U.S. government taking positions against science, and specifically against global warming/climate change.

What disturbs me (among other things) is the denial of facts — the disparagement of science — by high officials in our government.  Denying global warming is like denying evidence of evolution.  People do the latter as a matter of faith — they take refuge in Creationism and Biblical literalism, partly because it’s easier, partly because they’re “true believers,” partly because they don’t trust experts, and partly because it’s flattering to their own self-image as being made in the image of God.  And there are certainly ministers within Christian sects who encourage their followers to reject science — it’s one way for these ministers to bolster their own authority.

The denial of the science of global warming is for some of the same reasons (it’s easier, lack of trust in experts) but largely due to capitalism and the desire for profit.  The ministers of capitalism are not about to cede authority to scientists, not on this issue at least.  There are trillions of dollars of fossil fuels still in the ground, and who wants to leave it there when there’s so much money to be made in extraction?  Damn the long-term costs to the environment and to vulnerable peoples worldwide — full speed ahead on short-term profits!

But as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com, the global environment won’t be deterred by our denial of facts.  Environmental blowback is guaranteed — and will grow increasingly severe — as long as our government continues to ignore or downplay the high costs of burning fossil fuels.

In the aftermath of Sputnik and in the context of the Cold War, our government pushed science as a bulwark to democracy and freedom.  Now that same government is disrespecting science in the name of profitability and economic competitiveness.

As Mr. Spock might say, dissing science is not logical.  Nor will it end well for ourselves or our planet.

The Climate Change War

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Mother Nature doesn’t care about your denials (Josh Addessi at Blogspot.com)

W.J. Astore

It seems Americans can’t rally support for something without declaring a “war” on it. The war on poverty. On drugs. On gangs and crime. On terror. And these wars have become open-ended, or “generational” in Pentagon-speak, with a dynamic of crisis-surge-“progress”-new crisis-new surge-repeat that sustains large bureaucracies and huge government spending.

To these “wars” we must add a new one, notes Michael Klare at TomDispatch.com: the climate change war.  As Texas and Florida were being clobbered by powerful hurricanes, the U.S. military and Homeland Security took the lead role in responding to these disasters, notes Klare.  Yet, even as the U.S. National Security State was mobilized to respond, identifying and seeking to mitigate a root cause of this “war” — the role global warming plays in exacerbating these storms — was and is very much forbidden by the Trump administration.

This is nothing new. As with so many other wars, the U.S. military is deployed to address symptoms rather than root causes. Worse than that, we often deny our own role in creating or worsening those root causes.

With respect to climate change, we Americans have made our choice. We’ve come to believe the advertising slogans that “we can have it all.” We’ve dismissed the dangers of wanton fossil fuel consumption, and indeed wanton materialism in general. Corporations have worked hard to persuade us that global warming might just be a hoax, or at the very least dodgy science. Many of us have willingly bought the message that coal is “clean,” that fracking along with new pipelines are safe and create jobs, even though it’s clean(er) energy like wind and solar that is the better job-creator.

Those are facts that lead me to a different “war” in America, the one being waged against truth.  Basic truths are denied (e.g. that human activity contributes to global warming) in the interests of profits enjoyed by powerful industries. But denial in “war” is not a path to victory (except for the profiteers). Denial is a path only to generational conflict, one that is sure to lead to more disasters and end only in defeat.

So, two things are most definitely certain: the climate change war will be generational. And, much like that other generational war — the war on terror — our military won’t win it. For no one wins a war against Mother Nature — not when we’re going out of our way to piss her off.

The Threat of Nuclear Weapons to America

W.J. Astore

Did you know the U.S. has built nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons since 1945? Did you know the U.S. Air Force lost a B-52 and two hydrogen bombs in an accident over North Carolina in 1961, and that one of those H-bombs was a single safety-switch away from exploding with a blast equivalent to three or four million tons of TNT (roughly 200 Hiroshima-type bombs)?  Did you know a U.S. nuclear missile exploded in its silo in Arkansas in 1980, throwing its thermonuclear warhead into the countryside?

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On more the one occasion, the U.S. has come close to nuking itself

That last accident is the subject of a PBS American Experience documentary that I watched last night, “Command and Control.”  I highly recommend it to all Americans, not just for what it reveals about nuclear accidents and the lack of safety, but for what it reveals about the U.S. military.

Here are a few things I learned about U.S. nuclear weapons and the military from the documentary:

  1. During the silo accident, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) general in charge of nuclear missiles was a pilot with no experience in missiles.  His order to activate a venting fan during a fuel leak led to the explosion that destroyed the missile and killed an airman. (Experts from Martin Marietta, the military contractor that built the Titan II missile, advised against such action.)
  2. Airmen who courageously tried against long odds to mitigate the accident, and who were wounded in the explosion, were subsequently punished by the Air Force.
  3. The Air Force refused to provide timely and reliable knowledge to local law enforcement as well as to the Arkansas governor (then Bill Clinton) and senators. Even Vice President Walter Mondale was denied a full and honest accounting of the accident.
  4. Nuclear safety experts concluded that “luck” played a role in the fact that the Titan’s warhead didn’t explode.  It was ejected from the silo without its power source, but if that power source had accompanied the warhead as it flew out of the silo, an explosion equivalent to two or three megatons could conceivably have happened.
  5. Finally, the number of accidents involving U.S. nuclear weapons is far greater than the military has previously reported.  Indeed, even the nation’s foremost expert in nuclear weapons development was not privy to all the data from these accidents.

In short, the U.S. has been very fortunate not to have nuked itself with multiple hydrogen bombs over the last 70 years.  Talk today of a threat from North Korea pales in comparison to the threat posed to the U.S. by its own nuclear weapons programs and their hair-raising record of serious accidents and safety violations.

Despite this record, President Obama and now President Trump have asked for nearly a trillion dollars over the next generation to modernize and improve U.S. nuclear forces. Talk about rewarding failure!

Threatening genocidal murder is what passes for “deterrence,” then and now. This madness will continue as long as people acquiesce to the idea the government knows best and can be trusted with nuclear weapons that can destroy vast areas of our own country, along with most of the world.

To end the insanity, we must commit to eliminating nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan saw the wisdom of total nuclear disarmament.  So should we all.

An Addendum: In my Air Force career, I knew many missileers who worked in silos. They were dedicated professionals.  But accidents happen, and complex weapons systems fail often in complex and unpredictable ways.  Again, it’s nuclear experts themselves who say that luck has played a significant role in the fact that America hasn’t yet nuked itself.  (Of course, we performed a lot of above-ground nuclear testing in places like Nevada, making them “no-go” places to this day due to radiation.)

Update (4/27/17): I’d heard of Air Force plans to base nuclear weapons on the moon, but today I learned that a nuclear test was contemplated on or near the moon as a way of showcasing American might during the Cold War.  As the New York Times reported,  “Dr. [Leonard] Reiffel revealed that the Air Force had been interested in staging a surprise lunar explosion, and that its goal was propaganda. ‘The foremost intent was to impress the world with the prowess of the United States.’ It was a P.R. device, without question, in the minds of the people from the Air Force.”  Dr. Reiffel further noted that, “The cost to science of destroying the pristine lunar environment did not seem of concern to our sponsors [the U.S. military] — but it certainly was to us, as I made clear at the time.”

The U.S. military wasn’t just content to pollute the earth with nuclear radiation: they wanted to pollute space and the moon as well.  All in the name of “deterrence.”

Two pictures of above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada in 1955

Atom Bomb Blast

Atom Bomb Blast
Here’s a tip, ladies: Wear light-colored dresses during a nuclear war.  They absorb less heat

The USA No Longer Sees Freedom and Liberty as Core Strengths

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Why are we so intent on chopping it down?

W.J. Astore

In the crusade against Communism, otherwise known as the Cold War, the U.S. saw “freedom” as its core strength.  Our liberties were contrasted with the repression of our chief rival, the USSR.  We drew strength from the idea that our system of government, which empowered people whose individualism was guided by ethics based on shared values, would ultimately prevail over godless centralism and state-enforced conformity.  An important sign of this was our belief in citizen-soldiers rather than warriors, and a military controlled by democratically-elected civilians rather than by dictators and strong men.

Of course, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War could be amoral or immoral, and ethics were often shunted aside in the name of Realpolitik.  Even so, morality was nevertheless treated as important, and so too were ethics.  They weren’t dismissed out of hand.

Fast forward to today.  We no longer see “freedom” as a core U.S. strength.  Instead, too many of us see freedom as a weakness.  In the name of defeating radical Islamic terrorism, we’ve become more repressive, even within the USA itself.  Obedience and conformity are embraced instead of individualism and liberty.  In place of citizen-soldiers, professional warriors are now celebrated and the military is given the lion’s share of federal resources without debate.  Trump, a CEO rather than a statesman, exacerbates this trend as he surrounds himself with generals while promising to obliterate enemies and to revive torture.

In short, we’ve increasingly come to see a core national strength (liberty, individualism, openness to others) as a weakness.  Thus, America’s new crusades no longer have the ethical underpinnings (however fragile they often proved) of the Cold War.  Yes, the Cold War was often unethical, but as Tom Engelhardt notes at TomDispatch.com today, the dirty work was largely covert, i.e. we were in some sense embarrassed by it.  Contrast this to today, where the new ethos is that America needs to go hard, to embrace the dark side, to torture and kill, all done more or less openly and proudly.

Along with this open and proud embrace of the dark side, America has come increasingly to reject science.  During the Cold War, science and democracy advanced together.  Indeed, the superior record of American science vis-à-vis that of the Soviet Union was considered proof of the strength and value of democracy.  Today, that is no longer the case in America.  Science is increasingly questioned; evidence is dismissed as if it’s irrelevant.  “Inconvenient truths” are no longer recognized as inconvenient — they’re simply rejected as untrue.  Consider the astonishing fact that we have a president-elect who’s suggested climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China.

Yesterday, I saw the following comment online, a comment that summed up the new American ethos: “Evidence and facts are for losers.”  After all, President-elect Trump promised America we’d win again.  Let’s not let facts get in the way of “victory.”

That’s what a close-minded crusader says.  That the truth doesn’t matter.  All that matters is belief and faith.  Obey or suffer the consequences.

Where liberty is eroded and scientific evidence is denied, you don’t have democracy.  You have something meaner.  And dumber.  Something like autocracy, kleptocracy, idiocracy.  And tyranny.

The U.S. Military in Science Fiction

W.J. Astore

Two weeks ago, I did an interview with TheoFantastique on the military in science fiction. I’d like to thank John Morehead, the site’s creator, for inviting me to answer a few questions on a subject near and dear to my heart.

TheoFantastique: Bill, thanks for making a little time to respond to a few questions related to the subject matter of your article. What are some general observations you have made about the shift in science fiction film depictions of the American military from the post-World War II period to the present?

3175_8dayearth_lgBill Astore: Thanks for inviting me, John. I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s, in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Films of that era were generally critical of the establishment, including sci-fi films. I fondly recall Planet of the Apes with its anti-nuclear message. Also Soylent Green with its warning about over-population, but even more dire was the way in which the authorities hid from the people the true nature of their new food source. Think also of Capricorn One, hardly a great film, but one which exposed a government conspiracy at the heart of the first manned mission to Mars. And Silent Running with Bruce Dern. The basic message was how humans were destroying planet earth, often due to nuclear war or environmental destruction, or both. Finally, Logan’s Run was a favorite of mine, but again the message was how the government of that world hid from the people the true nature of life outside of the bubble.

I remember seeing Alien in the theater and being blown away by the alien “birth” scene. But again the theme of that film was you can’t trust the authorities, who wanted the “alien” at any cost, i.e. the crew was expendable. Think of Outland as well with Sean Connery: yet more corruption among the establishment, this time involving drugs and production quotas in space mining. Here the workers were expendable.

I know I’m digressing from your question, but my general point is this: Sci-Fi films (and stories) are generally questioning (or questing, perhaps). They are usually not pro-military or pro-authority. Put differently, for every Starship Troopers there’s a Bill the Galactic Hero as a counterweight.

Think of one of my all-time favorite films, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The military is completely ineffectual in that film. Worse: the military contributes to the problem. Similarly, in the 1950s lots of films were made about the dangers of nuclear war and radiation. The military usually didn’t emerge in a favorable light in those films, if I recall correctly.

I think this began to change with films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Star Wars could be read as apolitical (“a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”), even if that wasn’t George Lucas’s intent. In Close Encounters, a terrific film that I saw in the theater, the authorities actually know what they’re doing. They greet the alien mothership peacefully, and communicate with music and light instead of guns and nukes. Again, I don’t think Spielberg was making a pro-authority or pro-military film, but I believe he didn’t want to make a political film, a film like The Day the Earth Stood Still.

7ef4082d1After these two films, Hollywood embraced space operas and feel-good movies. There were exceptions, of course. One of my favorite movies is Starman with Jeff Bridges. Again, the authorities only want the alien for the powers he brings with him. Think too of The Man Who Fell to Earth and the way in which his life is corrupted by human excess. Doesn’t he get addicted to television?

The movie that really changed it all was Independence Day, a perfect film in the aftermath of Desert Storm (the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait). Here, of course, the militaries of various countries come together to defeat the aliens, led by an American president who climbs into the cockpit to lead the charge himself. This proved so popular that it’s no surprise George W. Bush tried to replicate the scene in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (his infamous landing on an aircraft carrier, followed by his “Mission Accomplished” victory speech).

TheoFantastique: What represents much of the portrayal of the U.S. and its military, and what does this say back to us by way of reflection on American militarism around the world?

Bill Astore: I think many, if not most, Americans now want to see the U.S. military portrayed in a positive light in films. Since the 1980s, and especially since the 1990s, Americans have been told to “support our troops.” After 9/11, ordinary Americans were taught and told we live in a dangerous world filled with “alien” terrorists, and that we had to submit to authority to combat and defeat those “aliens.”

area51-independence-day-attackSome recent sci-fi films, I believe, have come to celebrate the military, its weaponry, and its can-do spirit of “warriors.” They’ve played it safe, in other words. In some cases, film makers may have curried favor with the Pentagon as a way of securing military cooperation in filming. For example, to secure access to bases, to advanced technologies such as the F-22 and F-35 jet fighters, and so on. It makes their films “sexier” to have such access.

I’m sure some would say, So what? What’s wrong with a summer blockbuster that portrays military action in a favorable light? To that I’d say: reel war is nothing like real war. The best science fiction films — or the memorable ones — inspire us to dream of bettering ourselves as individuals and as a species. And I think the best films still seek to challenge us to be more noble, more benevolent, more compassionate.

TheoFantastique:
How do you feel as a retired Air Force officer about current science fiction’s perspective on the U.S. military?

Bill Astore:
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m glad that films are not universally anti-military. On the other hand, I’m upset that many films tend to glorify battle and war. War often looks very sexy and exciting in today’s crop of sci-fi action flicks. We need to remember that war is bloody awful, and that lasers and light sabers would not make it any less awful.

Check out TheoFantastisque, a meeting place for myth, imagination, and mystery in pop culture.

The Challenger Shuttle Disaster, Thirty Years Later

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The Crew of the Challenger

W.J. Astore

When the Challenger blew up thirty years ago this January, I was a young Air Force lieutenant working an exercise in Cheyenne Mountain Command Center near Colorado Springs, Colorado.  I remember the call coming in to the colonel behind me.  I heard him say something like, “Is this real world?”  In other words, is this really happening, or is it part of the exercise?  The answer at the other end was grim, our exercise was promptly cancelled, and we turned on the TV and watched the explosion.

Our initial speculation that day was that an engine had malfunctioned (the explosion appeared to have occurred when the shuttle’s engines were reaching maximum thrust).  But it turned out the shuttle had a known technical flaw that had not been adequately addressed.  Something similar would happen to the Columbia in 2003: a known technical flaw, inadequately addressed, ended up crippling the shuttle.

When I taught a course on “technology and society” at the collegiate level, I had my students address the non-technical causes of the Challenger and Columbia disasters.  Here is the question I put to them in the course syllabus:

NASA lost two space shuttles: the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003.  Tragically, both these accidents were preventable.  Both had clear technical causes.  In 1986, faulty O-rings on the solid rocket boosters allowed gas to escape, leading to an explosion of the center fuel tank.  In 2003, insulation foam that detached from the shuttle upon liftoff damaged the heat insulation tiles that protect the shuttle from the intense heat of reentry, leading to internal explosions as the Columbia reentered the atmosphere.

Both accidents also highlighted wider issues involving risk management, institutional culture, and control of highly complex machinery.  Before each accident, NASA engineers had warned managers of preexisting dangers.  In the case of the Challenger, it was the risk of launching in low temperatures, as shown by previous data of gas leakage at O-ring seals when the air temperature was below sixty degrees Fahrenheit.  In the case of the Columbia, visual data suggested the shuttle had sustained damage soon after liftoff, a fact that could have been confirmed by cameras and/or a space walk.  In both cases, managers overruled or disregarded the engineers’ concerns, leading to catastrophe.

Question: What do you think were the key non-technical factors that interacted with the technical flaws?  What lessons can we learn from these accidents about controlling complex technical systems?

I wanted my students to focus on issues such as group think, on management concerns about cost and schedule and how those might cloud judgment, on the difficulty of managing risk, on the possibilities of miscommunication among well-intentioned people operating under stress.

I ended the lesson with a quote from Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who had served on the Challenger board of inquiry after the accident.  Feynman’s honest assessment of the critical flaws in NASA’s scheme of management was shunted to an appendix of the official report.  It’s available in his book, “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”

This is what Feynman had to say:

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

It was a devastating conclusion – a much needed one then, and arguably even more needed today.