Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Lingua Franca

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.  As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

-Genesis 11

While the sequence of events is skewed and the time frame of the biblical account of the birth of the splendid variety of languages we human beings speak may be off by a hundred thousand years, give or take a few millennia, it is very possible that all our languages come from one single, very ancient source, a long-lost proto-language.

Flash forward a thousand centuries to 1870's Bialystock, Poland, (in those days part of the Russian Empire), where L.L. Zamenhof had an idea. Perhaps influenced by this passage from Genesis, especially the part about nothing being impossible for humans, Zamenhof was dismayed that his town was separated by four distinct groups, all speaking different languages and no group particularly fond of any other. He concluded that perhaps the reason for the discord, not only in his home town but around the world, was the lack of a common language.

So he invented one.

Zamenhof's invention, Esperanto, was never intended to replace any language, but rather be a universal second language, simple enough that anyone could learn in a reasonable amount of time. The brilliance of his idea was that people conversing in Esperanto would (theoretically anyway) be on an equal plane with one another as no one would have the disadvantage of speaking a foreign language to another person speaking in their native tongue.

A utopian idea? You bet it was. With the decline of old empires and the dawn of new ones, the old world order was rapidly changing in the nineteenth century and the era was rife with idealistic thoughts about how best to go into the future. 

Esperanto is not at all unique as a language fabricated to become a common second language designed to unite disparate groups of people. Swahili which has been around since the 18th century, is a combination of many of the Bantu dialects and other languages found in East Africa, along with the languages of the colonizers and foreign traders, namely Arabic, Persian, English and Portuguese thrown in for good measure.  As the lingua franca of much of East Africa, there are approximately 98 million speakers of Swahili, making it the 14th most spoken language in the world. It is the official language of Kenya, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania, the latter of which has many people for whom Swahili is their first language.

Bahasa Indonesian is a language that combines mostly Malay with Javanese, the two most widely spoken native tongues in Indonesia, along with several of the hundreds of other languages and/or dialects, depending upon your definition of the words, found in that great archipelago nation. Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1949 and the language was created to unite the incredibly diverse soon-to-be-nation. At nearly 200 million speakers, Indonesian is the 10th most spoken language in the world. 

To encourage their spread, Swahili and Bahasa Indonesian are grammatically speaking, simplified versions of their parent languages. In the case of the latter, modern Indonesian was simplified to the point that many Indonesians avoid it in favor of their mother tongues, as the invented official language of their nation is often found to be insufficiently expressive.

The same cannot be said of Italian

But like Indonesian and Swahili, "Standard Italian" is the lingua franca of the Italian peninsula plus the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, a region with many dozens of local dialect/languages of its own. Also like Swahili and Bahasa, Italian was cultivated, although to a much lesser degree, taking the lion's share of its substance from the Tuscan language that was spoken in Florence in the 13th and 14th centuries, while also paying homage to other regions, from the languages spoken in the Piedmont in the far north of the peninsula, to the island of Sicily in the south, and even extending into present day France and the language of Provence, in Italian, Provinciale.

The person credited with this and who thusly was bestowed with the title: "The Father of the Italian Language" was none other than the poet Dante Alighieri.

The lingua franca of Dante's time, at least in the intellectual and literary world of Europe, was Latin. Like his predecessors and peers,  Dante wrote in Latin. But around the turn of the 14th Century, Dante wrote an essay, also in Latin titled De vulgari eloquentia (On the eloquence of the vernacular), where he extolled the virtues of the language of the people, commonly referred to as "Vulgar Latin", specifically that of the Italian peninsula and Sicily. What impressed Dante, was that the people's language was continuously evolving, speaking both of the people and the time and place in which they lived, while Latin stood still, both literally and figuratively carved in stone. As such the vernacular languages provided a means of expression unthinkable in the ancient language.

While he was still working on De vugari eloquentia, for political reasons Dante became permanently exiled from his home town Florence, which likely forced him to stop work on the project. 

Instead he began putting his ideas into action by writing what would become his magnum opus, the epic poem La comedia, his three stop trip into the afterlife. Written primarily in Dante's native Fiorentino, the verse of the poem is augmented with Siciliano, Piedmontese, Provinciale, and other languages the author felt best expressed his intentions for the poem at any given moment, including Latin and even noelogisms, made up words, when existing words didn't serve his purpose.

La comedia profoundly influenced the work of the subsequent generations of writers in the peninsula, most notably Francesco Petrarca (whom English speakers refer to as Petrarch) and Giovanni Bocaccio, the two of whom along with Dante would become known as the "Three Crowns" of the Italian language. From that point on the language crated by Dante and his successors would become the de facto literary language of the Italian peninsula.

It would be another 400 plus years for the literary language to become the official language of Italy. That took place in name only, in 1861 with the region's unification into one country. It would take nearly another century before the language of Dante would achieve a critical mass of acceptance as the true lingua franca of the country, which came along with the advent of greater mobility and mass media. Dante's Italian is currently the 25th most spoken language in the world with almost 28 million speakers. 

With the creation and implementation of lingua francas. like most linguistic developments, there are two sides to the coin. On the one side, common languages unite people, ideally anyway. On the flip side, once that happens, the old language/dialects they replaced lose much of their relevancy and may in time, be swallowed up by the common language. With that is not just the loss of a language, but also the loss of the culture that created the language. 

This is an issue that has existed for as long as diverse human cultures have come in contact with one another. 

Only recently have there been efforts made on an official level to slow down the wave of disappearing languages. The government of Spain for example officially recognized four languages spoken there as co-official languages of the country, in addition to its official-official language, which with over 500 million speakers, is the fourth most spoken language in the world. 

The co-official languages of Spain are Catalan, Galecian, Basque, and Aranese. This is a good thing because Spain which for decades languished under the repressive dictatorship of Francisco Franco, effectively banned the use of any language other than the lingua franca of the country, Castillian Spanish. On the flip side, there are dozens of other languages spoken in Spain not invited to a seat at the table of languages by the Spanish government, thus are relegated to the kids' table of regional dialects.

So what's the difference between a language and a dialect? That my friend is a loaded question. What it boils down to is that it depends if you're talking in purely linguistic terms, or in Socio/Political/Economic terms. 

The best and most famous distinction I know of comes tongue-in-cheek from the Yiddish linguist Max Wienreich, who attributed the following comment to an audience member at one of his lectures: 

A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot. 
(A language is a dialect with an army and navy.)

In other words, it's a language if the government says it is, otherwise it's merely a dialect, not deserving of any special recognition. 

But in reality in the case of Spain, with the exception of Basque which is an anomaly, linguistically speaking, Castilian Spanish is no different from Catalan, Galecian, and the plethora of other dialect/languages traditionally spoken in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Romania, in that they all derive from Vulgar Latin. So in a pure linguistic sense, all of  these are no more than dialects of Latin. The difference is that the Latin dialects commonly known as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Rumanian, all have the official stamp of approval from their respective governments, the ones with the armies and navies. 

Interestingly enough, many native speakers of the official language of Spain, including some Latin Americans, recognize this reality and address it by claiming that their mother tongue is not español (Spanish), but in fact castellano. 

So anyway, whatever happened to Esperanto?

Well it did get off to a good start, especially after World War I when the international trauma after the so called "war to end all wars" created for a brief period, a universal desire for piece and cooperation. Consequently interest in the language spread worldwide. 

It would be the French who put the kibosh on Esperanto for a brief time anyway, after a resolution was put forward in the League of Nations that the language be adopted for use in the league. Ten member delegations voted in favor of the resolution and only one, the French, voted no, supposedly out of fears that boosting Esperanto would mean the French language would lose its status as you guessed it, a lingua franca.

But the real blow to Esperanto came as a result of the rise of nationalist totalitarianism in Europe in the thirties. Not surprisingly, Hitler was opposed to it, even mentioning Esperanto in his manifesto Mein Kampf, calling the language a conduit for both an international Jewish conspiracy (as Dr. Zamenhof was Jewish), and Bolshevism. But the Bolshevists themselves were not too enthusiastic either, as along with bans of Esperanto in Nazi Germany and Spain under Franco, Stalin also put his heavy boot down on the language in the Soviet Union.

After the Second World War, Esperanto had a revival of sorts on the international stage as the newly formed United Nations gave it its lukewarm support, although it never officially adopted Esperanto as an official language of the organization. 

Today Esperanto is alive and well, some may say even thriving. It is spoken in all corners of the world, although it's a far cry from being the international lingua franca that Dr. Zamenhof dreamed of. It's hard to say exactly how many speakers of the language worldwide there are, estimates range from one hundred thousand to two million. How many of those are actually fluent speakers is even harder to say.

There may not be many of them but the folks in Esperantoland (yes that's a real term), are certainly enthusiastic. Here's a link to a website promoting the language.

But let's get serious, does Esperanto ever stand a chance at being a global lingua franca?

Sadly, even if its advocates can convince about a billion or so people around the world to learn the language, there would still be one major roadblock, English. 

For better or worse, English has a few things going for it that make it an ideal global lingua franca for our day, which is exactly what it is. 

The most obvious is that a LOT of people already speak it. It's estimated that over 1.1 billion people speak English, more than one eighth of the world's population. As such, English is the most spoken language in the world, with Mandarin Chinese a close second. An even more telling number is that only about a third of the number of English speakers, speak it as their native language. That means almost 800 million people have learned English as a second language. 

Secondly, as languages go, unlike Mandarin, English is relatively easy to learn, although not nearly as easy as Esperanto.

Probably the most compelling reason why English is the de facto lingua franca of the world today is that people want to learn it. Why is that so? Well yes, in part because so many people speak it in the first place, knowing the language improves one's chances of success in an increasingly global economy. 

But there's far more to it than that. Not only were the British relentless colonizers who imposed their way of life and their language on much of the world, but they and their former colonies were and continue to be wildly successful exporters of an extremely valuable commodity, popular culture. 

That point was driven home to me recently when I discovered the web site called Radio Garden, which I highly recommend. The site, (it's also available as an app), presents a Google Map 3D image of earth, where you can scroll to any location on the  planet where there are people, and listen to the available streaming radio stations from that city or region. In my humble opinion, this is one of the most delightful applications of the internet I've ever encountered. My hope was to listen to the tremendous variety of cultures and languages the world has to offer. But what became immediately apparent, was how similar radio programming is throughout the world, much of it devoted to the playing of pop music, the vast majority of which is in English. On Radio Garden, you have to make an effort (which is well worth it) to find radio stations that don't sound exactly like the stations we have at home.

To further the point, a couple years ago when we were looking at colleges with our son, we had encounters with students at two different schools who by pure chance were both women from Bangladesh, both of whom came to this country for the first time when they began college a few years earlier. In both cases the young women spoke English with barely a trace of a foreign accent; if someone had told me they were from Chicago, I would have believed it. When I brought that up to my son and posed the question of how these two in such a short time could speak English like native speakers, he had a two word answer for me, "the internet." He didn't have to say out loud the third word, "stupid" but it was implied.   

These young women are by no means unique. They were drawn to this culture and this language because it is everywhere, you simply cannot escape it, wherever you go on the  planet.

By the same token, Esperanto has a few things working against its becoming an international lingua franca. 

For starters as I said, relatively few people speak it. That alone shouldn't discourage advocates as those prospects could change in subsequent generations. But I'm afraid they won't because...

Esperanto has no culture to speak of. Its advocates would argue that I'm wrong, that whenever two or more people get together to speak a common language, there exists a culture, to which I agree. But let's be serious, it's hard, even insulting to compare any of the plethora of world cultures that have existed for centuries or more from the six continents (sorry Antarctica), with a group of enthusiastic people getting together to speak an invented language while playing games, dancing and taking ukulele lessons. Don't get me wrong, I find the idea of a universal second language to be a noble one, compelling in every sense of the word. But as it stands now, Esperantoland is more of a club than a culture. 

Any expert on teaching languages will tell you that the most necessary component in successfully learning a new language is motivation. And the two most important engines behind motivation, as I see it anyway, are necessity and passion. You can have one or the other, preferably both, but I'm afraid without either, forget about learning a new language.

Some examples:

Perhaps the job you love requires you to either become bilingual or hit the road. That's a strong motivator. Or you're a student who has just moved to a foreign country where you don't speak the language and are forced to attend a school where nobody speaks your language. Another painfully strong motivator. People in such situations tend to be very efficient language learners. As for the best language learners in the world, children learning their first language, failure is simply not an option. Unless there is a cognitive issue interfering with the acquisition of language, the success rate for children learning their first language is practically 100 percent.   

For every student studying a foreign language, there may be a different reason to learn that particular language. But one thing is constant, language and the culture that spawned it are inseparable. 

I've mentioned before in this space that I'm studying Spanish. My favorite YouTube Spanish teacher is a guy named Juan Fernandez. Years ago he left his native Spain partly because of the difficult economic situation there, but also because he had a burning desire to learn English. Why? So he could speak the same language as John Lennon. It may sound like a trivial reason, but sometimes that's all it takes. Maybe you have a passion for French cinema which inspires you to learn French. Perhaps you want to read Dostoevsky the way it was written so you learn Russian. Or maybe you fell in love with someone from Beijing and you decide to learn Mandarin. 

The problem with Esperanto is that no one needs to learn it, at least in our day. As for the passion to learn it, well, all I can say is to each her own.

Sadly I'm afraid the only way Esperanto will become the international lingua franca is if one day the world will be taken over by a global dictator who decrees that all the earth shall learn and speak it. Somehow I don't think that is exactly what Dr. Zamenhoff had in mind.

So like it or not, we're stuck with English as the world's de facto lingua franca which it will remain until it's not. 

That's not such a bad thing, after all. given the fact that a large majority of English speakers already are not native speakers, the chances of an encounter between two people for whom English is their second language is very good.

But still, doesn't it give an unfair advantage to native English speakers? 

Well as I said above, like every linguistic event, it's a two edged sword. We native English speakers tend to be notoriously bad at learning other languages. Why? Because we don't need to. That may sound arrogant but it isn't; the necessity to learn other languages as I said above is one of the great motivators to learn other languages.

And for many reasons much too numerous to go into here, being multi-lingual, as the majority of the world is, is a great advantage to everybody.

So no, I would say having our native language being the lingua franca of the world puts us native English speakers at a distinct disadvantage. 

But there is hope for us. It is predicted that in a generation or two, another language will take over as the international lingua franca, probably one of the languages that already is widely spoken around the world. It could be Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic or Russian. Some say even French might make a comeback, putting the franca back into lingua franca so to speak. 

Or I may be wrong and it might turn out to be Esperanto after all.

If you happen to be one of those people who cringe at the thought of learning another language, then you might want to root for Esperanto. Because it's a heck of a lot easier to learn than any of those others.

Nu, mi finis homojn, adiaŭ kaj feliĉa lernado!

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Color Blind?

The Fox sportscaster Chris Meyers got himself in a bit of hot water after a tweet he posted on June 4, 2016, shortly after the death of Muhammad Ali. This is what he wrote:

When you saw #Ali you didn't see color you didn't see religion you saw a gentle man who was a strong fighter,a Champion you could believe in

Other remarks coming from media outlets in their obituaries of the three time heavyweight boxing champion of the world claimed that Muhammad Ali "transcended race and religion."

Those comments, harmless as they might sound to the uninitiated, were remarkable in a couple of aspects. 

First of all, Ali defined himself by and championed his black heritage more than any public figure of his time. He never made any secret of his membership in the Nation of Islam, in fact for a time he became the public face of that controversial group. Responding to the idea of a racially neutral Muhammad Ali in an article for Jezebel at the time of Ali's death, writer Kara Brown penned an article titled: "If You Don't See Blackness, You Didn't See Muhammad Ali."

When I first read Meyers' tweet five years ago, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he must have been too young to remember Ali in his prime: the cocky, immensely proud black man known in some circles as "the Louisville Lip", but only the older Ali, the most recognized person in the world, who under the influence of a devastating illness, had softened a little around the edges. 

Well it turns out Meyers is my age, and I'm old enough to remember all the way back to when Ali still went by the name Cassius Clay.

Maybe he just wasn't paying attention. 

And what on earth does it mean to "transcend race and religion"? After five years I still don't get that. Did anyone eulogizing Mickey Mantle feel the need to write that when you looked at the late ballplayer, you didn't see that he was a white guy, or that he transcended his religion, whatever that may have been?

Certainly not. 

Putting it another way, if you didn't see a black man when you saw Muhammad Ali, what would make you even think of mentioning it in the first place?

Could it be that what Meyers and the rest of the presumably white writers who penned those remarks really meant was: "Muhammad Ali may have been black and a Muslim, but despite that, we liked him anyway"?

Other than complete ignorance of the man on their part, that's the only reasonable conclusion I can make.

There in a nutshell, is the problem with the absurd idea of "color blindness" when it comes to race. 

I thought of this a couple weeks ago when I spotted an article on the web called "Colorblind is the Moral Ideal." The premise of the article is that the real racists in this country are people who make race an issue, not those who like the writer, supposedly ignore it. In the words of Dennis Prager, the author of the piece:

Colorblind means one does not believe a person’s color is in any way significant.

My first thought after I read the first sentence of the article...

There is little that reveals the immorality and dishonesty of the left more than its labeling the term "colorblind" racist. 
...was how far Prager would get into his piece before he mentioned Martin Luther King.

It took him about 250 words.

Far right wing rants are nothing if not predictable.

The far right has become enamored with Martin Luther King. I've gone on and on about the subject in this space and you can read why they love him so much here. Of course they don't totally embrace the late civil rights leader, rather cherry pick random comments here and there. Here Prager selects one line from one speech, the part about his dream of the day his children would be judged by their character rather than the color of their skin. 

Who could argue with that?
According to Prager, the left does by rejecting the idea of color blindness. In doing so in his opinion, they are also rejecting Martin Luther King.
But judging a person by his or her race is not the same as being conscious of race. I never heard Dr. King suggest that we should all strive to be color blind in regards to race. Quite the contrary, that would mean disregarding our history of slavery, genocide, racism, forced segregation, disenfranchisement, and many other shameful acts imposed upon black people and other minority groups in this country. That would mean ignoring the fact that being black in America is still today a different experience than being white.

Hmmm, you don't think ignoring all that unpleasant stuff is exactly why the ultra right promotes color blindness in the first place do you?

Then comes another predictable argument in their arsenal, comparing the left to the KKK:
The worst racists — defenders of slavery, supporters of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan, just to cite American examples — were the least colorblind people. Color is the one thing they and all racists see in people. Precisely because they defined people by their color, they justified their subjugation of black people.

The left’s insistence that color is important is one of the most racist and anti-human doctrines of our time. It was precisely when America was most racist that people’s color was deemed most important. Why would we want to return to that time?
Insisting that race is important is itself "racist, and anti-human"? I would argue the exact opposite.

On the contrary, insisting that (beyond our basic humanity) we're all the same, insisting that race plays no role in society, insisting that the black experience in this country is no different from the white experience, is living in a state of denial as big as the state of Texas.  

But hasn't so much changed in the last hundred and fifty odd years since the end of the Civil War, and even in the last fifty odd years since the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. King and others? After all, we've had a black president. 

To that last point I would respond, yes we did, and look at whom we elected in response to the presidency of Barack Obama. If I were forced to say something positive about Donald Trump's time in office, it would be that by making open racism acceptable again, he uncovered a cancer in our society that many white people, myself included, had mistakenly thought was in remission since the seventies. Of course black folks were never under that delusion.

Like any disease, the chances of eradicating it are much better when it is discovered and confronted. 

The color blind folks implore us to ignore the disease of racism.

Of course it's ludicrous to claim that anyone is really color blind. Noticing someone's color is as natural as noticing someone's gender, their age, their accent, their height, girth or lack thereof, and all sorts of other characteristics of individuals. It's embedded in our DNA and goes back to our Stone Age days and beyond when society was centered around the immediate clan. Anyone outside of that group posed a potential threat and making detailed observations of strangers contributed to the well being and indeed the survival of our our bygone ancestors.   

It's just like other subconscious responses to the outside world that were once beneficial to our ancestors. Increased heart and breathing rates during stressful situations for example, gave our bygone ancestors the extra strength and endurance to help survive things like the proverbial sabre tooth tiger attack. However, a racing heart and hyperventilation doesn't do us much good during a typical modern day stressful situation such as having to speak in front of a large group of people. Nevertheless the response lingers on within the recesses of our reptilian brain cores, the part of our brain that controls our instincts, and there's precious little we can do to stop it. 

But through training, practice and effort, we can mitigate it, and possibly even use that extra adrenaline rush to our advantage.

This reminds me of a discussion I was involved in years ago while leading in a group of Catholic students studying to receive their sacraments. The topic was the greatest virtue we as humans are capable of, forgiveness. As I was blathering on as is my style, a deacon piped up and told the students that not only we as Christians are expected to forgive all the bad things people do to us, but also to forget them. 

At that point a young priest from Kenya, one of the wisest people I've ever known, disagreed with the deacon saying that while forgiveness is well within the scope of our capabilities, it is humanly impossible to selectively erase the contents from our memory banks like we can a computer's. In other words, we can will ourselves to forgive, but not to forget.

Moreover, where is the virtue in forgiveness if we can't remember what we're forgiving?

In much the same way, we can't will ourselves to be color blind, we can will ourselves to control our reactions both outward and inward when we encounter people whom we regard as different from us.

Fear of the different is also a trait we inherited from our ancestors who lived eons ago, and lingers to this day in our primitive brains, just as appetite and sexual desire do. But our brains have evolved considerably since then, and we certainly don't have to live as hostages to those fears and impulses. 

While we may not be able to completely avoid our deep seeded fears, we can control them. Just as forgiveness helps us mitigate our inability to selectively forget, virtues such as curiosity, compassion, empathy, and perhaps above all, critical thinking, (all of which came along much later in our own evolution), help us mitigate our fears of the different.

So instead of fearing our differences, we may embrace them.

It's been known for a long time that the gene pool of any species is strengthened through diversity and weakened sometimes to the point of extinction through over homogenization. In other words, you cannot create a master race by selectively breeding from one small group of people as the Nazis liked to believe, only a defective race. In much the same way we all benefit psychologically, spiritually and intellectually from our exposure to people from many different backgrounds, cultures, experiences, beliefs and yes, even opinions.

Why on earth would anyone want to be blind to all that?

That is precisely why I value living in a diverse neighborhood of a diverse city and why my wife and I chose to raise our children here.

I probably won't be around to see it, but I have faith that one day most people of good will, will be able to look at their fellow human beings and honestly say: "I love you because of who you are", instead of in spite of who they are.

That will be the day when we will have finally put our reptilian brains back into the recesses of our minds where they belong.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Dan Quayle: Elder Statesman and Defender of our Democracy

Until very recently, there probably has not been a more maligned holder of high public office in this country than the 44th Vice President of the United States, J. Danforth Quayle

From the get go, Quayle was lambasted as a lightweight, both intellectually and for his lack of political experience leading up to his election to the second highest office in the country, "a heartbeat away from the presidency" as they like to say. To this day, he is probably most famous for an exchange during a nationally televised debate with his rival, Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen. During the debate Quayle was asked if his lack of experience would be a hindrance, especially if he for one reason or other had to take over in the role of Chief Executive. Quayle correctly responded that he had the same amount of experience in Congress as John F. Kennedy had when he ran for president (not vice president) in 1960.

To which Bentsen replied:

Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy. 

Quayle, clearly shaken, responded that the remark was uncalled for. 

Which honestly, it was.

But in politics, decorum is thrown out the window, there was nothing new about it then and as we can see thirty plus years later, it has only gotten worse. 

It was a pithy line that brought the house down and has stuck in the annals of political discourse ever since and probably will, rightly or wrongly for eternity.

Called for or not, in truth, Quayle had no one to blame but himself as he had been making the comparison with Kennedy for quite some time, and the team preparing Bentsen for the debate was ready for it. With that in mind, if you watch Bentsen as Quayle is making his remarks, you can see from the look of satisfaction and mock indignation on his face, that he's ready to move in for the kill. 

As the commentators in the linked clip suggest, that one remark would define Quayle in the minds of the American public forever, and set the tone for the coverage of him during the next four years. Every gaffe or malapropism, and there were several of them, were magnified tenfold by the press, pundits and late night talk show hosts. Despite winning that particular election with his running mate, George H.W. Bush, his one term as Vice President would mark the pinnacle of Quayle's political career. He would make a couple attempts at running in the Republican primary for president, but never received more than a handful of votes.

Quayle eventually entered the private sector and disappeared from the public spotlight, save for appearances at official events such as presidential inaugurations and funerals. Quite honestly if you asked me before this week if Dan Quayle were still alive, I'm not sure if I'd have been able to tell you.

Boy has that changed.

Dan Quayle's name has surfaced again thanks to a new book by Bob Woodward (his third on the Trump presidency) and Robert Costa. The book, Peril, scheduled to be released next week, chronicles the closing days of the Trump administration and opening days of the Biden administration. 

Peril describes the exPOTUS's reaction to his election loss to his successor as nearly hysterical, leaving him bent on retribution and revenge. The part of the book that has been drawing the most attention deals with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, and his profound concern for the stability and sanity of the Chief Executive. Kind of like a General Jack D. Ripper in reverse, Milley trying to lessen the damage of a "rouge" president, inserts himself into the chain of strategic command, and personally contacts his counterpart in China to assure him that the United States had no intention of attacking that country with nuclear (or other) weapons. He also made it clear to the military brass beneath him that they were to answer directly to him and not the president. I must point out that there is no evidence that the former president actually had any inclination to attack China. 

The part of the book that has garnered the next amount of attention deals with former Vice President Mike Pence and what many consider to be his finest moment, his refusal to kowtow to the wishes of his boss and the thousands of people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th demanding to hang him, by officially certifying the November 3rd election that resulted in the exPOTUS's defeat, and of course his own. At the resumption of the Senate session to affirm the election after the violent events of that tragic, deadly day in our nation's capital, with uncharacteristic determination and anger in his voice, Pence delivered these words to his colleagues, the country, the world, and most pointedly his soon to be exBOSS: 

Thanks to local, state and federal law enforcement, the violence was quelled, the Capitol is secure, and the people's work continues. We condemn the violence that took place here in the strongest possible terms. We grieve the loss of life in these hallowed halls, as well as the injuries suffered by those who defended our Capitol. And we will always be grateful to the men and women who stayed at their posts to defend this historic place. To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today, you did not win. Violence never wins. Freedom wins. And this is still the People's House. As we reconvene in this chamber, the world again will witness the resilience and strength of our democracy. For even in the wake of unprecedented violence and vandalism at this capitol, the elected representatives of the people of the United States have assembled again on the very same day to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. 

Then after invoking the Almighty's blessing, Pence with even more determination and anger in his voice defiantly said: 

Let's get back to work. 

It was the most stirring minute and half of political rhetoric delivered by an American politician in a good long time, and will probably live long after most of us are gone. Mike Pence will and should be remembered by those words. 

Which is a good thing because before that moment, Pence was best known for being Donald Trump's obsequious lapdog and number one enabler. Perhaps the moment he was known for best, OK second to the fly landing on his head during his debate with Kamala Harris, was the time when at the behest of Donald Trump, he and his wife flew to Indianapolis for the sole purpose of walking out of a football game in protest as players knelt during the National Anthem. 

The truth is, as far as lightweights go, next to Mike Pence, Dan Quayle looks like Joe Frazier.

No lightweight he, "Smokin' Joe" Frazier delivers a devastating left hook to the greatest heavyweight of them all, Muhammad Ali.


The book gives us a little bit of the backstory behind Pence's decision to do his job as proscribed by the Constitution, and not the bidding of his boss. It turned out that up to that fateful day, Pence did everything he could to see if it was within his powers to do exactly as he was told and appease the exPOTUS.

A deeply religious man, one can only assume that after consulting the lawyers and parliamentarians and getting no help, Pence got down on his knees and did not a little praying. It would be his Gethsemane moment if you will, invoking the good Lord's help in letting the cup of scorn from his fellow Trumplicans and possibly much, much worse, pass from him.  

Apparently that day there would be no divine intervention in store for Pence.

So he called Dan Quayle. 

Why Quayle you might ask. Well he was in a particularly good position to offer advice in this situation as he was only one of three people alive who had to as vice president, authorize an election in which he lost. The other two were Walter Mondale (who passed away this April) and Al Gore, both Democrats. Pence probably figured getting advice from those two would be like Jesus taking advice from the Sanhedrin or the Romans. In addition to being a fellow Hoosier, Quayle is a Republican of good standing.  

According to the book, Pence pressed Quayle for a long time about all his options in opting out of certifying the election. 

Yet again he got nowhere.

A frustrated Pence brought up voting irregularities in Arizona which could prove cause, at least to delay the certification and send the election back to the states. 

Quayle told Pence: "I'm in Arizona, trust me, there's nothing here." 

Pence brought up other issues, mostly the fruit of the steadfast work of Rudi Giuliani.

Quayle told Pence: "Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away," 

Then almost to the point of desperation Pence said: "You don't know the position I'm in,"
"I do know the position you're in," Quayle responded. "I also know what the law is. You listen to the parliamentarian. That's all you do. You have no power."

And that was it. Despite being told on January 5th by Donald Trump that if he didn't refuse to certify the election the next day, Trump would stop being his friend (as if he ever was), the die had been cast. The rest as they say is history. 

So what do we make of this? Is Dan Quayle a hero for making Pence see the light and do the right thing? And in this new light, is Pence even more of a coward than we thought for groveling at the feet of Trump all these years doing everything humanly possible, even to the point of throwing our entire election system out of keel simply to gain his favor? 

It's all about politics, obviously, and ambition. Both Quayle and Pence had higher aspirations than vice president and both those men's aspirations were dashed almost as soon as they took the oath of office. Neither man ever got much respect, especially Pence who was continuously mocked by his boss for his over-the-top piety. 

It was easy for Quayle to offer sensible advice to Pence because he left the fray years ago and had nothing to lose politically speaking. It was the same advice I'm sure that 95 percent of the Republicans currently in Congress would have given Pence, were they not scared to death of Trump, his base, and the prospect of losing their job to a true believer in the next primary. 

Nevertheless I am grateful for the wisdom Quayle offered Pence, even if it was of the "duh" variety. It makes me long for the day not so long ago when we could differ on ideology yet come together as a nation and rally around a higher cause, our democratic-republic. 

As for Pence, well  I'm not so sure. Was his almost pathological sycophancy to the exPOTUS based upon ideological grounds or purely self-interest? In either case it was certainly a catastrophic miscalculation on his part, as it has been for nearly everyone who has ever gotten close to Trump. Did Pence honestly believe there could be any good result for him had he stood in the way of certifying the election? Yes it would have caused more chaos (music to the ears of his exBOSS) and a constitutional crisis delaying the inevitable. But the crisis (if not the chaos) would have been quickly resolved in the courts, and his actions would have certainly been deemed unconstitutional. History would have taken a very dim view of him for that disgraceful act.

Despite his hesitancy, Pence did the right thing in the end, which is all that really matters right? He stood up not only to Trump, but to the hooligans the exPOTUS sent to the Capitol to intimidate and very likely do him harm. That alone took cajones. Then on inauguration day, Pence stood solemnly on the platform in front of the west portico of the Capitol Building, the lone representative of his administration witnessing a sacred tradition in this nation, the peaceful transfer of power. Meanwhile his soon-to-be former boss was scuttling out of town like a rat deserting a sinking ship.

Solely because of his actions this past January 6th and 20th, as it stands now, history will look more favorably upon Mike Pence than we do now. Today the Trumplicans consider him a traitor and his politics are too right wing for practically everyone else. I have little doubt that his political career is finished. 

The good news is he can now hold his head up and look his children and grandchildren in the eye.

That alone is worth far more than all the political power on earth. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

Almost two years ago I wrote this post about a group of people who reject logic, common sense, and three millennia worth of collective human knowledge.  I'm talking about the people who believe the earth is flat. 

It's hard to say how many people actually believe this, harder still to determine if they are serious or are just pulling our leg. But an article from Forbes suggests only two thirds of American millennials believe without question that the Earth is a sphere. 

Here I'm reproducing a chart from the article which breaks down a 2018 YouGov poll into age groups and the degree to what people believe, or don't: 

There are lots of things to get out of this, the most striking for me is that the older the you are, the more likely you are to believe the earth is a sphere.  

One explanation is that the oldest demographic on the chart, those of us 55 and older, lived through the era of the race to the moon. Many of us were watching TV on Christmas Eve, 1968 as the crew of Apollo 8 became the first people to circle that desolate planet (as it was classified by the ancient Greeks). As they came around the far side of the moon for the first time, they caught their first glimpse of earthrise. In doing so, those astronauts became the first human beings to view our beautiful planet in all its spherical splendor from outer space. And living vicariously through the eyes of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders, we earthlings sitting at home upon terra firma, also bore witness to that unforgettable sight, looking at ourselves from some 300,000 miles away.  

Through all of the turmoil of the sixties those space launches captivated the imagination of a generation, well a good number of us anyway, as each mission had truly gone to places "where no man had gone before." 

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that only six percent of us who lived through that time have any question about the shape of our planet, after all, six percent probably equals the number of our fellow Americans who either figuratively or literally live under rocks. 

My guess is that subsequent generations who were not inundated by a daily dose of space news as we were fifty plus years ago, focused on other things, and a lot of them simply didn't spend time thinking about the true nature of our planet and its celestial neighbors.

Nonetheless if this poll is to be believed, 34 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 not being absolutely certain about a fact that educated human beings across cultures have accepted and understood for nearly three thousand years is a staggering number, one that depresses me to no end. 

Of course, believing the earth is flat does not make it so. I suppose the earth really doesn't need to be round for most folks unless their work depends on it, such as airline pilots looking for the shortest distance to get from Point A to Point B. That's why you fly close to the north pole when you travel from say, Chicago to Dehli as my wife did a few years ago, rather then over Africa as a standard Mercator projection map would suggest.*

And believing that space travel is a hoax as many flat-earthers do, isn't going to make things such as the internet, GPS, trans-oceanic TV broadcasts, or ATMs go away, even though those things we've all come to depend upon and take for granted, would be non-existent without satellites orbiting around a spherical earth, 

So I guess one could say that people being ignorant about something as esoteric as the shape of our planet really isn't that big of a deal.

Or is it?

The troubling part of all this is the means by which these global agnostics have come to their opinions. It's not just them, there has been a disturbing trend of late to jettison critical judgement in favor of motivated reasoning to come to all sorts of conclusions that have no basis in reality. As we'll see, this can have terrible ramifications for our civilization.

For starters, I believe wholeheartedly that a skeptical mind is a healthy mind. I come from a generation whose mantra was "Question Authority" and for a while in my teens I even sported a button that said just that, By authority I don't just mean the powers that be like parents, teachers, school principals, bosses and politicians, but also folks in fields of endeavor that normally command high levels of respect such as doctors, scientists, historians, journalists, and so on.

Learned and dedicated as they may be, all of these are human beings capable of error, and merely having their imprimatur upon something, regardless of their standing in their particular field, needn't or shouldn't be taken as gospel truth. Any good scientist will tell you that science doesn't have the definitive answer for anything, rather it settles on the best answer until a better one comes along. 

As I pointed out in my earlier piece, the idea of questioning scientific facts, even ones that have been understood for quite some time isn't by itself a bad thing. Asking ourselves something like, "how do we actually know the true shape of the earth?" and then honestly addressing that question is quite useful as it forces us to ahem... think.

Which is exactly what I attempted to do in my piece, going step by deliberate step through some of the process of how we came to know, and yes I mean to know beyond any doubt, even without the benefit of the testimony and photographs of people who witnessed it first hand, that not only is the earth a sphere, but that it is a planet just like Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the rest, revolving about the sun, which is historically an even more controversial subject. 

Not surprisingly. the flat earthers have rebuttals, proposing alternate explanations that contradict a plethora of logical conclusions made over the millennia.

As for what should be the slam dunk empirical evidence of the true shape of the planet, the eyewitness accounts and photographs of our planet made from space, flat earthers have no real explanation. Instead they pull out what has become the all too prevalent method these days to explain the unexplainable, the conspiracy theory. The eyewitness accounts and photographs they say are all fake because the space programs that several nations have participated in, both independently and collaboratively for well over sixty years, are all hoaxes. 

Now I don't flat out reject all conspiracy theories. For example, while I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of JFK, I don't completely rule out the idea that someone may have helped him carry it out. However I don't believe there was any deep seeded conspiracy involving organizations such as the KGB, CIA, FBI or the PTA, all of whom (well almost) have been accused at some point or other as having conspired to kill the president. 

Why don't I believe that? Certainly not because something like that couldn't happen, but because nearly 58 years after the event, not a single credible person involved in any conspiracy has come forward to come clean. The likelihood of all that time passing after one of the most publicized crimes of the last century without someone, anyone of the multitude of people who would have had to have been involved in the kind of conspiracy people suggest coming forward, is evidence enough for me that there was no conspiracy, beyond perhaps a very small handful of individuals.

By the same token, at least tens of thousands of people of many different nations directly involved in the various space programs over the years would have had to have been in on the space hoax. The fact that not a single one of them has stepped forward to fess up since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, should make the whole idea of this particular conspiracy a non-starter to any reasonable person.   

So why do people cling to conspiracy theories when they're improbable like the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory, or preposterous like the space hoax theory?

I have a simple answer, because they want to believe them. In the case of the former, people find it existentially unacceptable that the course of human history could be so drastically altered by the act of one person, a solitary gunman. I get that.

Perhaps similarly, the image of our world becoming smaller and more insignificant as scientists discover the universe as being more expansive by the minute, is equally unacceptable to some. I get that too. It's difficult and sometimes painful to have your world view shattered before your eyes.

All of us at some point have had our world view shredded to pieces. Some of us get over it and move on while others, not so much. 

The latter are the people for whom facts tend to be what they want them to be, not necessarily what they are. 

As I said above, believing the earth is flat does not make it so. The laws of nature, that is to say physics, chemistry, biology and the other natural sciences, could not care less what we think or what we do. So there's no real harm in lay people believing the earth is any shape they want it to be. 

On the other hand, there are serious consequences if we go on believing for example that our actions regarding the environment will not have drastic implications for life on this planet. Nature does not care one iota about what we think, it doesn't care about about protecting life, it's not sentimental, it has no morals, ethics or value system. Nature simply reacts.

We have empirical evidence of this, real life models such as our closest planetary neighbor Venus, on the effects on the environment of greenhouse gasses which are increasing on this planet at an alarming rate. That planet is shrouded by an atmosphere consisting of about 95 percent Carbon Dioxide which permits the heat from the sun to penetrate it, but not escape. Consequently the surface temperature of Venus is around 900 degrees F. The atmospheric pressure at the surface of Venus is about ninety times that of the earth's at sea level. We know this because the several space probes Soviet scientists sent to Venus over forty years ago, sent back valuable information about the planet for a few minutes until they were crushed by the Venusian atmospheric pressure and melted by the intense heat. Some scientists believe Venus was not always this way, that perhaps at one time eons ago, Venus had an environment much like that of the earth's, including oceans of water.

We may never know exactly what happened to make Venus such an inhospitable place, but we do know conclusively that its extreme temperature is a direct result of the overabundance of CO2 in its atmosphere. On earth, nature has provided a balance that keeps our CO2 levels in check. If you recall your high school biology, animals consume oxygen and release CO2 into the atmosphere while plants do exactly the opposite. In the last centuries, one of the byproducts of human industry has been the production of copious amounts of CO2, while global deforestation on a massive scale has removed much of the planet's capacity to keep CO2 in check. It doesn't take a brilliant mind to put two and two together to understand that if left unchecked, this is a recipe for disaster. Given the extreme weather events we've been experiencing of late, we are at this moment are more than likely reaping what we have sown, but as yet, only on a small scale.

These are not opinions, but verifiable facts we have known about for a long time. I first learned about the threat of greenhouse gasses on our environment way back in high school in the mid-seventies.

Yet climate change deniers abound, contradicting the conclusions of the vast majority of the world's scientists, simply because they want to.  

Since I wrote my original piece on the flat earthers, two events have taken place that dramatically illustrate the very real dangers of rejecting critical thinking in favor of motivated reasoning and its first cousin, willful ignorance. The first was the COVID pandemic. Despite dire warnings of the devastating effects of the virus in Asia and Europe in the first months of 2020, the US under the so called leadership of its former president, did nothing to prepare the American people for what was coming. That president even referred publicly to the virus as a hoax, long after knowing not only that COVID was very real, but that it could be spread by airborne particles, making it far more contagious and deadly than originally thought. Then after the spread of the virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and people started to get sick and die in this country, that president and his minions continued to downplay it, fighting tooth and nail against common sense life saving measures such as social distancing and wearing masks, claiming those to be violations of personal freedom. Consequently, the United States had one of the worst COVID responses anywhere, including the highest number of fatalities of any country in the world, a dubious distinction which continues to this day. 

The irony is that the one thing regarding the pandemic the former president did do while he was still in office, was tout the eventual rolling out of a vaccine. Once the vaccine came out, the by then former president got himself at the head of the line to receive a shot, but did so in private, (unlike other former presidents), presumably so as not to draw attention to his successor's efforts to get as many people vaccinated as possible. Up until recently, that former president had not lifted one finger to try to convince his supporters, many of whom still believe his original claims that the virus is a hoax, to get the shot, leading to even more unnecessary suffering and death. When he finally came out at a rally in Alabama last week and sheepishly suggested the crowd get vaccinated, they booed him, so he backpedaled.

The other devastating event inspired by willful ignorance that caused people to lose their lives and threatened to tear apart our democracy to boot, was inspired by the former president's erroneous claims about the last election. It's likely that the majority of the people who broke into the Capitol Building last January 6th, really believed that the November 3, 2020 election was "stolen" from the man who goaded them on before their deadly rampage on our nation's most sacred monument to democracy. So their presence and their violent actions to prevent Congress from certifying the results of a free and fair election were an attempt in their eyes to protect the integrity of the electoral process. Their supporters consider them heroes. 

The problem is their beliefs were based upon a lie, nothing more than the baseless claims of the defeated president and only a small handful of his minions (as the majority of his minions abandoned him on this issue).. There is not one shred of evidence that votes cast fraudulently had any effect on the outcome of the last election. Then why did the insurrectionists believe the president and not the hundreds of boards of elections across the country, many of them overseen by Republicans who made it abundantly clear that this was one of the cleanest presidential elections in history, not the courts, many of them overseen by judges appointed by the exPOTUS who determined there was no legitimacy to the former presidents claims, or even his ever faithful Attorney General who knowing a lost cause when he saw one, decided to preserve the last milliliter of integrity he had left? 

They believed the president because they wanted to. 

Just the other day, months after the election, I read an interesting question on the web: It was this:

 Where is the evidence that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election?

To me that is very much like the question "where is the evidence that the earth is round" in that it questions something we have taken for granted for a very long time. I can't remember a time in my life which has seen a good number of elections, where someone would have sincerely asked that question nine months after an election. Still like the flat earth question, I believe it's one worth addressing, if only to set the record straight.

Since 1789 when George Washington was first elected president, Americans by and large have put trust in an election system where citizens cast their votes in a secret ballot, other people count those ballots, tally them, then declare a winner based upon the candidate who received the most votes. Still other people check the work of the vote counters. It's not a perfect system to be sure, such as system does not, nor will never exist. 

After the declaration of a winner, the loser has the opportunity to ask for a recount. If the result is close enough, the candidate does not even have to pay for the recount. Beyond that there are other resources available to the loser of an election, most of them involving the courts. 

But very rarely does it come to that, candidates traditionally have excepted the fact that there can only be one winner of an election. Losers are expected to be gracious, if not magnanimous in defeat, which they usually concede when it looks like they no longer have a chance of winning, more often than not, the evening of the election. Moving forward they encourage their disappointed supporters to get behind the winner for the good of the nation.

The 2020 presidential election was not a close one, Joe Biden won the popular vote by ten million votes. In the real arbiter of presidential elections, the Electoral College, Biden won that by exactly the same margin that Donald Trump won in the previous election. If you recall, Trump claimed his electoral victory in that election to be a massive landslide.

Despite losing handily in 2020, the exPOTUS has refused to this day to concede defeat, going to extraordinary lengths to hold onto power, long after all the legal measures available to him ran out. That includes several investigations, recounts, and lawsuits, all of which failed to turn up any evidence of the kind of irregularities that would have made any difference in the election. 

The bottom line is this, as we can't have every single voter publicly declare his or her vote live on TV to be viewed and counted by all, we need to put some trust into the election system and the people who manage it. Otherwise no one will accept the outcome of any election, and our Democratic Republic system of government will grind to a halt. What will replace it is too ominous to think of. 

People acting in bad faith, and among those I include the exPOTUS, know full well that casting serious doubt in an election system gives them the opening to cause all kinds of mischief as they have already done and will continue to do if they are not stopped.

Even before the ex president, mistrust of authority of all kinds was at an all time high. Thanks to his herculean efforts to do cast doubt among his supporters, it has risen astronomically since then.

The good news is that because of technology, never in history has access to information been more readily available for just about anybody to form reasonable, sound and rational opinions. 

The bad news is that never before has there been more access to dubious information that can be used to justify and promote any cockamamie belief known to man.

It's that last part that has emboldened many thousands individuals who have viewed a YouTube video or two about a particular subject, to claim their opinion on the subject is on a par with that of someone who has spent a lifetime studying that subject. then boldly going to places no one has gone before, proudly declaring their willful ignorance to anyone willing to listen.

And it turns out there are plenty of listeners. That doesn't bode well for our democracy, our planet, or maybe even our species.

As I said above, it's useful to question everything, even theories put forward by learned experts in any field of endeavor. But that is where critical judgement, the mortal enemy of motivated reasoning comes in.

They say the true sign of intelligence is not how much we know, but appreciating how much we don't know. Just as it's important to question everything, it's also critically important to give people who know more than us, their due.

As anyone who has ever tried to speak to someone in a foreign language they hardly know finds out, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

At some point, we all have to put at least a modicum of trust in the "experts", because questioning authority is not the same thing as rejecting authority. 

Otherwise if we don't, we're all in a heap of trouble.

* Ah but wait! Here's one version of the flat earth proposed by its advocates which places the North Pole at the center of a disc from which the lines of longitude radiate. On this map the shortest distance between Chicago and Dehli indeed takes one over the North Pole. But my question is this, what if you wanted to fly from Rio to Sydney? On this map, the shortest distance between those two cities in the Southern Hemisphere also takes you above the North Pole!


Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Life Imitates Art

I don't have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time while America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. 

This quote comes toward the end of the novel Shoeless Joe, written by the Canadian author W.P. Kinsella

It's a delectable couple of lines, I especially love the bits about the blackboard eraser and the steamrollers. One certainly cannot deny those are apt metaphors for describing the history of this country. 

But what about the baseball part? Those of us who are devotees of the game certainly believe that too. 

In the book, those words come out of the mouth of J.D. Salinger, yes that one, who is sucked unwillingly at first, into a cockamamie scheme (as it seems on the surface) of the book's protagonist Ray Kinsella.

That scheme is for Ray to devote a few acres of his Iowa farm, which he can ill afford to give up, into a baseball field which he builds by hand, by himself, in order to attract the spirits of long departed ballplayers to play upon. In the book they're not just any dead players, but players who in life, for one reason or other had not completely fulfilled their ball playing dreams. The first group of spirit players to show up were the eight members of the Chicago White Sox who were banned from the game after they took money from gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. That group includes the title character of the book, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, one of the greatest hitters the game has ever known. Jackson serves as the go-between for Ray and his fellow players. 

The real J.D. Salinger who had nothing to do with the creation of the book, was replaced by the fictional author Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) in the movie Field of Dreams which is based on the novel.

In the climatic scene of the film, against the strains of inspirational music, the character of Mann reciting a cropped version of Salinger's inspiring soliloquy from the book, is crosscut between the disdainful words of Ray's brother-in-law Mark who is trying to buy the farm. The scene is set on the ball field that Ray has tirelessly worked to build. The ballplayers are all there, visible only to the audience and to those in the film who believe. 

As Mark is an agnostic, he walks through the field completely oblivious to the action going on around him. While the killjoy relative tells Ray that he'll be ruined by the next sunrise if he doesn't give up this godforsaken nonsense and sell the farm and all his dreams along with it, Mann, a true believer, tells Ray that people will come to his field, other true believers who will hand over their hard earned money for the privilege. 

You can watch the scene here.

It's the classic struggle between the heart and the head, between hope and despair, dreams and reality, a purely cinematic moment designed to pull every ounce of heart string out of the viewer, as is just about every other scene in Field of Dreams.   

Evoking one of the  indelible scenes from the movie,
members of the White Sox and the Yankees
enter the "Field of Dreams" before their game in Dyersville, Iowa,
August 12, 2021 - Reuters

The population of Dyersville, a town of about 4,000 in northeast Iowa, tripled last week as it hosted the first of what promises to be many "Field of Dreams" major league baseball games. The game was played upon a field constructed especially for the purpose, adjacent to the original field built to be the set for the 1989 movie, which has since become (to some folks anyway) a classic.

Fittingly, the teams chosen to face each other in the first major league baseball game ever to be played in the state of Iowa, were the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees, the team whom we learn in the book, was particularly despised by Ray's dad, John. The senior Kinsella, was himself once an aspiring ballplayer whose spirit ends up playing on his son's field of misfit athletes.

Part of the inspiration for the event was the tradition begun over a decade ago of playing selected National Hockey League games outdoors in baseball parks and football stadiums. 

Much of what turns off people to professional sports these days is the crass commercialism and ungodly sums of money involved in the games. Beyond the novelty factor, the idea was to strip away much of that, well the appearances of it anyway, and bring the sport closer to its roots. By that I mean play the game in its purest form, as it once was played by children, or adults pretending to be children. Anyone who has ever played pickup hockey on a frozen pond knows exactly what I'm talking about. 

Same with baseball. It doesn't have to be a pristine field carved out of a cornfield, the game could be played in a schoolyard, a city park, a vacant lot, or just about any space big enough to contain most of the balls hit by the strongest hitters will do. Here in Chicago where there was limited space available for ball fields, they made the ball ridiculously big so it wouldn't travel too far. If you couldn't come up with enough players to field two teams, the game was adaptable for any number of players. And if you could only come up with two players, you could just play catch, an infinitely satisfying activity and bonding experience, especially between a parent and child.

That, is baseball at its purest. 

These days it's rare to see kids in the schoolyards, parks or streets playing improvised games like New York stickball or pinners and fastpitch in Chicago. Many kids prefer to stay inside and play baseball on the computer. Those who do play real baseball, play the organized variety, complete with coaches, umpires, uniforms, and well tended fields. Don't get me wrong, in the right hands, that kind of baseball is most satisfying both to watch and to play. In the wrong hands, that is to say, when adults get too much in the way, it can become a nightmare. 

That's especially true in the more competitive travel leagues where parents expect a payoff for their efforts, at the very least getting their kid good enough at the game to earn them a free ride in college through a sport's scholarship. For their part, many of the coaches at this level care more about winning than anything else, including the health, well being, safety and sanity of their players. 

The sad truth is, unlike what Terrence Mann says in his soliloquy, baseball and other sports do not represent all that is good.

That's just a myth. 

In his novel, W.P. Kinsella takes great pains to compare baseball to a religion. And like any religion, baseball is filled with myths, including its own creation story.

The location of the most significant temple to the game, The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, is a testament to the power of baseball mythology. 

Comforting as the image may be, baseball was not born in the idyllic little town in upstate New York in 1839. That was a story based on scant evidence concocted by the powers that be in the game at the turn of the last century who wanted to make it be known far and wide that baseball was purely an American game, born and bred in the USA. 

The reality is that baseball was around far longer than that, having evolved from an English children's game called rounders which was itself a spinoff of cricket. It has no particular ties to rural life, it was played in big cities, small towns and down on the farm alike.

But there's a history in this country of disdain for cities and a romanticization of rural life that goes back to Thomas Jefferson and beyond which is what makes carving a baseball diamond out of a corn field so appealing to many Americans. In the novel, Kinsella the author paints a bleak picture of urban life. During his namesake character's road trip to New Hampshire to find J.D. Salinger, he stops in Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh to go to ballgames, and has nothing good to say about any of those places.

Would Field of Dreams have been so heart warming had Kinsella the character built his ball field upon a weed strewn vacant city lot with ghost players materializing out of abandoned buildings? Perhaps, but it would have been a much different story.

I find it ironic that in the movie, the character of Terrence Mann as played by a black actor tells Ray that baseball represents our past and reminds us of all that once was good, while standing in front of a field populated by only white players, which reminds us that all was not good with our country and with baseball. In their time of course, black players were not allowed to play "organized baseball".

As an aside, my major criticism of both the film and the movie is they dropped the ball in that respect by not addressing the issue of the color line in baseball. All they had to do was introduce a few black players from the era into the mix. After all, they more than anyone, were denied the right to fulfill their baseball playing dreams.

Perhaps the game played last week in Iowa was sort of a redemption for the movie and the novel as many of the players on the teams appearing on the field through the cornfield just as they did in the film, would not have been allowed to play in the big leagues one hundred years ago because of the color of their skin. 

As far as baseball as a religion goes, strange as it may sound, I kind of buy into that. Back when I was involved in the Catholic Church, I spoke with several people who lamented the fact that they never felt the rapture as many Christians do, of being swept away by the Holy Spirit. I never felt it either but frankly the very idea scared the pardon the expression, bejeezus out of me. But several times in my life, I have been swept away in pure rapture by the game of baseball, especially when it involved my son.

After not taking the game seriously for years, baseball was reborn for me while sitting at the ballpark with my pregnant wife and it dawned on me that one day I'd be playing catch with my boy. It came to full fruition fourteen years later when as a coach, I witnessed him pitch the last inning of his house league team's championship season, retiring the side in order. It happened again when together we watched the Chicago Cubs win the World Series. And again when he rode upon the shoulders of his best friends after he won the home run derby at a picnic commemorating the end of their last baseball season together. And yet again when toward the end of our best summer ever of playing and watching baseball together, on a perfect evening after a ballgame at beautiful PNC Park, we stuck around after the game as parents and kids were invited to go onto the field to play catch. We didn't bring along our gloves so we just stood there and watched. I'll never forget the look on his face as we caught a glimpse of each other. No words were exchanged at that moment but I know we were both thinking the same thing: 

Is this heaven? No, it's Pittsburgh.

A lot could have gone wrong with the game last Thursday night, it could have rained. Or a player could have been seriously injured as happened last night in a game here in Chicago. Or it could have been a lousy game. Or a bull could have gotten loose and started charging the players. Fortunately none of that happened, although the bull might have been kind of cool. 

The Sox got off to a big lead which they held until the ninth inning with their closer Liam Hendriks coming in. But the damn Yankees staged a two out rally in the top of the inning and took the lead. Then it was the White Sox turn and catcher Sevy Zavala coaxed a one out walk. Up came Tim Anderson to the plate and he took Zack Britton's first pitch on the outside corner to the opposite field for a walk off home run. Redemption indeed as well as sweet justice as Anderson is the only US born black player in the White Sox starting lineup. In his typical fashion, he stood there and admired his drive disappearing into the corn stalks in right field, then went on to celebrate as he rounded the bases. 

The traditionalists may have not been happy by that display of pure joy but all in all, I think the baseball gods were pleased.

The next day my boy and I talked about the game. I mentioned that Kevin Costner (the star of Field of Dreams who was instrumental in the conception of this game) looked a little lost to me when he came out onto the field before the start of the game, as if he got off the wrong exit on I-80, looking for the Farm and Fleet. 

But then I said when the players began appearing from the corn field out in center field, I got a little misty eyed. 

"So did I" said my son.

We're obviously both true believers.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Wally Funk

Say what you will about Jeff Bezos, but he did one incredibly cool thing regarding his trip into space last week aboard his own rocket ship, he invited Wally Funk to join him,

Wally Funk
In case your feelings about the current  billionaires' race to space range from blase to shitting bricks pissed off and you haven't been paying attention, Wally Funk is a pilot who in the early sixties was chosen to be part of a group of women who were tested to see how they would fare during space flight. The tests ran concurrently with the Mercury Program, the United States' first foray into manned space exploration. 

I guess it's appropriate to use the term "manned" here because in the end, the program that Ms. Funk took part in was ignobly scrubbed and the United States wouldn't send a woman into space until 1983 when Sally Ride climbed aboard the space shuttle Challenger for her first of two missions, both aboard that ill fated spacecraft. Ride joined NASA after seeing an ad in her college newspaper soliciting women to become applicants for astronaut training.

Much like everything during the early days of the space race between the US and the Soviet Union, the USSR was way out in the lead as their first female Cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova ventured into space inside her Vostok 6 capsule in June of 1963. Having orbited the earth 48 times in just shy of three days, Tereshkova logged more hours in space than all seven of the American Mercury astronauts combined. She remains the only woman to have flown a solo mission. 

The group of women which included Ms. Funk, took part in a privately funded  initiative called "The Women in Space Program" which was conceived in order to test whether women would make good candidates for space travel. It all began when the program's founder, Dr. William Lovelace who designed many of the tests that NASA used on their candidates for the Mercury Program, invited the highly decorated pilot Jerrie Cobb to take those same tests, all of which she passed. Lovelace's friend, Jacqueline Cochran, another noted pilot and businesswoman, agreed to finance a project that would test more. In all about 25 women, all elite pilots in their own right, were recruited for the project. Thirteen of the women passed the same insanely rigorous tests as the seven men who were chosen for the Mercury Project.

That is until Phase III of the tests which would have been held at the Naval School of Aviation Medicine. After Jerry Cobb took and passed all those as well, the Navy cancelled the tests as NASA, who was not  involved in the project, refused to sign off on it. 

There were a plethora of reasons why NASA might have been reticent to include women astronauts. Some were legitimate concerns (all subsequently put to rest) about how the female anatomy would handle space travel. Along those lines, probably the number one concern was menstruation in a weightless environment. I know that sounds ludicrous, simply a pretext to exclude women, but in space, an environment where even farting is cause for concern, no stone can remain unturned. Another cause for concern was how space would affect a woman's fertility. Apparently it doesn't. Then there were the  typically male concerns such as whether a woman's natural temperament, especially during her period, might prove problematic during a space flight.

On the other hand, the chief motivator for the study of the Women in Space Program, was the idea that there might be several advantages of having women astronauts over men. For example on average, women are smaller then men, they eat less, and consume less oxygen. As prosaic as that sounds, all that adds up to a significant reduction in cargo weight, meaning less fuel required per astronaut, a precious commodity in space travel. Women were also found to do better than men in isolation tests suggesting that they would fare better on very long missions such as a trip to Mars.

But all that would be way in the future and NASA had in the early sixties one and only goal, to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade as President Kennedy proposed during his speech before Congress on May 25, 1961, and no obstacle was going to get in its way.

Perhaps the biggest red flag of all for the ever PR conscious space agency was public opinion. I don't have the stats to back this up, but my guess is that despite the tens of thousands of young American women or maybe more at the time, tingling to get a chance at becoming an astronaut, the very real prospect of sending a woman to her death on a space mission, even if she willingly accepted the risk, would have been unacceptable for the majority of Americans at the time, and almost certainly would have killed the program. 

Pretexts aside, all that was moot. NASA's ace in the hole for not allowing women in space was the requirement imposed on them by President Eisenhower, that candidates for the astronaut corps all be selected from the ranks of elite military test pilots. By elite I mean jet pilots and guess what? The military did not allow women to fly jets in those days. 

Now it must be pointed out that in reality, at least during the Mercury program, there was little flying involved on the part of the astronauts as the flights were controlled remotely from the ground. The original astronauts in fact had to lobby for systems inside their capsules that would enable them to control the spacecraft, if ever so slightly. As I pointed out in my last post, the very first Mercury astronauts were chimpanzees, both of whom I'm guessing never flew planes, let alone jets. Truth be told, the original astronauts didn't need to be pilots at all, (Valentina Tereshkova wasn't) let alone jet pilots. Like practically everything involved with the space program in those days, the jet pilot requirement was pure PR. 

But rules are rules.

However there was another requirement that was waived for one of the male astronauts, a college degree, something John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, did not possess at the time.

Cobb and her fellow astronaut hopeful Janey Hart hoping to take advantage of that Glenn exception, appealed to President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson (who oversaw NASA) and the issue was brought before a special Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics who examined the possibility that gender discrimination may have played a role in the matter, (ya think?). 

Among those testifying before the committee against having women astronauts was none other than John Glenn himself.

 At those hearings, Glenn said:

The men go off and fight the wars and fly the airplanes and come back and help design and build and test them. The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order.

As unenlightened as those words sound today, Glenn, definitely a man of his time, wasn't too far off base, at least in describing the social norms if not necessarily the reality of 1962 America. If you're not old enough to remember, take a look at the way popular culture prescribed gender based roles for men and women. It was a world filled with women who served predominantly as homemakers married to professional men. They had names like June Cleaver, Laura Petry, and just plain Jeannie whose fictional partner whom she called Master, was an astronaut. 

Perhaps the baddest pilot of all,
Jerrie Cobb, who when all was said and done,
in William Lovelace's rigorous astronaut tests
finished in the top 2 percentile of all
potential astronauts, male and female. 

What you never saw on TV or in the movies movies in the late fifties and early to mid sixties were bad ass female pilots with names like Myrtle Cagle or Wally Funk, or physicists turned astronauts named Sally Ride. That name did however serve as the refrain to a very cool soul tune from the era made famous by Wilson Pickett called "Mustang Sally."

But it wasn't just pop culture where women's options were limited. Check out this video of clips of John F. Kennedy press conferences and see how he dismissive he was of the woman reporter who sincerely questioned him about promoting equal rights for women in this country.

That reporter, Mae Craig, a highly respected veteran journalist who marched with Suffragists in the twenties, implied in her question that despite working hard to promote the rights "of others", the Kennedy administration was doing little to advance the rights of women. As you can see from Kennedy's response, the issue of equal rights for women was simply not taken very seriously by him, or for that matter mainstream America in the early sixties.  

Mae Craig's question to the president turned out to be prophetic insofar as women astronauts were concerned. While Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin and should have opened the doors for women astronauts, it didn't. It would take another eight years when an amendment was added to the title which granted women the right to legal representation in their quest to become astronauts. Consequently in 1978, NASA dropped its requirement that astronauts be jet pilots and started recruiting female candidates for the corps, precisely the time Sally Ride found the brochure that would change her life.  

Since Sally Ride's first mission in 1983, as of a week ago, 51 American women astronauts have flown into space.

Last Tuesday, Wally Funk raised that number to 52. Coincidentally that day was the 52nd anniversary of the first "manned" lunar landing, 

At age 21, Funk was the youngest member of the Women in Space program and one of the 13 who passed all of the astronaut tests given to them. She also passed equivalents of the Phase III tests, having taken them privately, outside of the naval facilities.

Her background was similar to that of her fellow Women in Space members in that she fell in love with planes and aviation at a very early age, in her case at about the same time that she learned to walk. She had her first flight lesson at nine, and received her pilot's license, AND became a professional pilot at 19. 

Wally Funk was thwarted from pursuing her dreams to their fullest her entire life because of her gender. Perhaps it started in high school when she wanted to take electives in shop and technical drawing but was told she could only take home economics classes. So she did what any sensible person would do, she left high school early and enrolled in a college where she would thrive. I guess you could do that in those days. 

Later when she applied for a job as a commercial airline pilot, a position she was more than qualified for, she was rejected on the pretext that there were no rest rooms for women in their training facilities.  

And on and on. Yet despite that, up to this point by all accounts she has led a very rewarding life in the field of aviation including high level positions in both the FAA and the FTSB. 

I say up to this point because clearly she's not finished. As she emerged from the capsule after her brief encounter with space last week, she was clearly exhilerated but bemoaned the fact that the experience was way too short and couldn't wait to do it again. Long before Bezos asked her to accompany him aboard the maiden passenger flight of his spacecraft, Ms. Funk put down a deposit to fly aboard Richard Branson's spacecraft when it goes into service shuttling passengers for brief trips outside the earth's atmosphere. That spacecraft unlike Bezos's, is a space plane, controlled by two pilots who like the old Space Shuttles, guide their craft to a landing on a runway rather than a capsule parachuting to the ground.

As part of the competition between the two billionaires, perhaps Branson will top Bezos by asking Funk to take over the controls in one of his space planes. 

Now THAT would be sweet justice.

In that vein, John Glenn finally got the comeuppance he deserved for the words he spoke at that hearing so many years ago. For twenty three years he held the record as the oldest person, at 77, to have been in space. Wally Funk at 82 beat Glenn's record last Tuesday. Given the current push to send paying customers into space, I'm sure that record will not hold for long. I also wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Ms. Funk breaks her own record. 

Wally Funk's list of accomplishments in aviation as well as other fields is too numerous to list here but in case you're interested, as you should be, you can read all about them here.

Today she is only one of two surviving members of that elite group of pilots who participated in the Women in Space program who long after the fact, received the moniker "The Mercury 13". 

Ironically, most of the members of The Mercury 13 never met one another during the project as their tests were held separately. Many of them finally got together on the occasion of the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-63, the first shuttle mission to be piloted by a woman, Eileen Collins. Here is a photo of them taken at Cape Canaveral in front of the launch pad in 1995:

Seven members of the Mercury 13 from left to right:
Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Ratley,
Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman.

The total number of women of all nationalities who have logged hours in space is 65.* Needless to say all of them owe their careers to these pioneers of space and the rest of their remarkable bad ass comrades. 

Here in alphabetical order, is the list of the Mercury 13:

Myrtle Cagle, Jerrie Cobb, Janet Dietrich, her twin sister Marion Dietrich, Wally Funk, Sarah Gorelick, Jane Briggs Hart, Jean Hixson, Irene Leverton, Jerri Truhill Sloan, Bernice Stedman, Gene Nora Stumbough,  and Rhea Woltmann.

In reflecting on the women who could have been astronauts, Mercury Astronaut Scott Carpenter had this to say:
"NASA never had any intention of putting those women in space. The whole idea was foisted upon it, and it was happy to have the research data, but those women were before their time."
That's for sure.

* Sadly, Christa McAuliffe, NASA's first civilian on a space mission is not counted among the 65 because her one mission which ended tragically aboard the Shuttle Challenger, never technically made it into space.

Including McAuliffe, a total of four women have lost their lives during space missions. The other three are Judith Resnik, McAuliffe's crewmate aboard Challenger, and Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Clark, both of whom perished as a result of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. 

Tragic as the loss of their lives was, the lessons learned from the mistakes that led to the catastrophic accidents that caused their deaths have helped make space travel a little less risky for their successors. 

I have no doubt that to a woman, each of them would look at their ultimate sacrifice that way.

They and their crewmates who perished aboard Challenger in 1986, and Columbia in 2003, fourteen in all, will never be forgotten.