Apollo 11 and Us

We dream of soaring…

Sunday night I watched the new Apollo 11 documentary by Todd Miller. At first, I was really into the show. When the Apollo 11 mission happened I was just starting high school and had been a big fan of the space program going back to Project Mercury. Watching a Saturn V lift off has always induced a profound sense of awe in me.

But I was increasingly struck by how white it all was. And male, but really, really white. That diluted the joy I was feeling with some deep regrets about how we act still today over what are basically paint jobs and some minor accessories.

Given where we find ourselves these days, 50 years hasn’t brought as much progress as it should have. We’re still really stupid about paint jobs.

And that’s all they are is paint jobs.

Race is a story we tell. The truth is there really is no such thing as “race” — any two healthy humans can have children, regardless of paint job. Race is something that is literally only skin deep.

Let me walk that back just a little: There are some small biological differences that matter mostly in the context of medicine. There are specific cases (leukemia, for instance) where research using only white people misses important facts.

This is even more true with regard to gender. Obviously, studies using only males miss important facts that pertain to the females of the species (regardless of that species).

So when we get down into the weeds of biology, there are some differences, but the biological similarities completely overwhelm them. When it comes to being people, that’s all we are: just people.

§

I’m old enough to remember the racial unrest of the 1960s.

I remember watching the riots and the marches on TV. I remember predicting civil war by 2001 — the poor, the non-white, the disenfranchised; I assumed they’d rise up. How could they not?

But a degree of legal and social progress, both for race and for gender, seems to have seduced us, to have lulled us into complacency.

I remember how proud I was in 2008 when we elected Barack Obama. I remember thinking that maybe we’d finally arrived.

But the reactions, the push-back, from the Cro-Magnons of our society made it starkly clear we were — and are — still mired in this racist bullshit. That fucker we let be POTUS now leads the pack.

Don’t forget about his racist housing policies. Don’t forget about him and the Central Park Five. Don’t forget about him and the birther movement (just another political BM).

Alligators never drain their swamp.

§ §

It has always been that bullies try to draw lines between “me and mine” versus “you and yours” using anything they can find.

Those lines become a wellspring for racism, misogyny, nationalism, attacks on religion, bigotry of all stripes. In many cases, the hatred is directed from an attempt to define “the other” — the imagined barbarian at the gate.

Ultimately, it’s fear: of change, of the unknown, of having to share (of not having enough).

There is an illusion — a lie — that if we eliminate the other, if we can all be one thing, then we’ll get along great and do great things.

After all, there it is: a bunch of white guys decided (for very political reasons) to go check out the Moon and they did it. And it was pretty amazing. Totally awesome.

But, hey, guys. You left behind your brothers and sisters, and I’m not okay with that.

The movie Hidden Figures (which I highly recommend) offers a view of what it was like for talented women of color. It also implies how much better it could have been had we been smarter.

So much talent and ability was squandered.

§ §

The thing is, firstly, that past unity and togetherness was a lie. There was just as much shit, just as much strife. But on different counts and more codified into the social fabric.

High or low, there’s always a bully who wants more than their fair share. In every group, there’s some backwards tribal asshat that just can’t get along.

In our history, to our shame, besides people we kidnapped from our ancient birthplace, Africa, we’ve made into “the other” the Irish, the Japanese, and the Jewish. Now it’s the Middle East and Islam.

[Jews, Christians, Muslums,… for the love of the same god of Abraham you all claim to love and worship… Get. Your. Shit. Together. And. Work. It. Out. The way y’all are behaving is the opposite of what Yahweh/God/Allah commands. It’s different paths up one mountain, you idiots.]

Weirdly to me, it seems that we’ve even defined as “the other” people with red hair — the dreaded, and probably sinister, “gingers” (which I think, along with white people getting sun tans (and all the other appropriation, especially the music), speaks to how some of this involves jealousy).

§

Secondly, group unity is what we make of it.

Which is better: the unity of a group of like-minded people who want to explore space (or do whatever big exciting task), or the unity of a group of people united by the accident of genetics?

You know how you can pick your friends but not your family? You can’t pick your race or gender, either. We’re not automatically bound by these things.

How better to be closely bound by interests.

And loosely bound by our interest in the human race — the only “race” that matters.

Because if we don’t grow up and starting seeing paint jobs like we see eye color — as a slightly interesting minor attribute — then I promise you this is gonna be it for the human race.

Forget space; we’re going nowhere.

§ §

Baseball went through an evolution we need to repeat in the large.

There was a time of segregation in baseball, but it became impossible to ignore that some of the best players were in the Negro Leagues — there was a vast amount of talent excluded from The Show.

Then came Jackie Robinson (and the actual first, Moses Fleetwood Walker), and baseball has been better for it ever since.

Not just because it’s inclusive, that’s a nice moral win, but the actual game is better for having the best players possible.

§

There is a Yin-Yang of “pure” versus “composite” — neither of which is inherently better or worse.

If we’re talking about gold or diamonds or water, then “pure” is probably a property we’d like to see. If we’re talking about strong flexible materials, then “composite” is more likely a better attribute.

Metal alloys are often better than pure metals.

Groups of people, because we’re much more complex than atoms of gold or carbon, benefit from being composite, from being diverse.

As the example of baseball shows.

As almost every social experiment shows.

The USA, after all, has always been a composite, a rich stew.

Granted, the variation at first wasn’t much, white Europeans, highly male dominated, but diverse within that narrow group.

Over time, to our benefit, that diversity grew, and of course there were, and are, growing pains. Some of that pain was strong in the 1950s and 1960s, and it traced its roots to our country’s beginning. Echoes of it clearly remain.

We’ve got plenty of room for growth.

§

My family moved to Inglewood, California, in 1967, and I lived there until The Company transferred me to Minnesota in 1984.

The Watts riots were in 1965; Inglewood is the Los Angeles suburb directly west of Watts. When we moved there, those who could afford it were moving out of Watts, many of them closer to the ocean in Inglewood.

That triggered a “white flight” situation in Inglewood. The positive feedback effect of which is that the suburb transitioned from being mostly white to being racially mixed.

That was my high school environment. Very chaotic. Very racial.

Transitions are always hard. It’s easy to long for the before picture when nostalgia insists it was all much better. We overlook the pains of the past sometimes. We forget pain; it’s built in to us.

The country seems stuck in transition, unable to get past it into acceptance. Electing Barack Obama gave me such high hopes that we’d finally matured, but the counter-reaction has dashed most of them.

§ §

Watching the Apollo 11 movie in the current political context was doubly evocative for me. I really enjoyed seeing that footage again and reliving those moments.

The beautiful lift-off footage was as stirring for me as always. There’s nothing like a Saturn V launch. I can watch those clips over and over.

I’d forgotten how they set down the lander with only 16 seconds of fuel remaining (due to having to fly beyond a boulder field). I’d also forgotten how short their time on the Moon actually was (under 24 hours).

But every shot of the mission control room — white guys (an occasional token white woman). And every shot of the crowd: all white people.

Talk about conflicted.

On the one hand, one of our greatest human achievements. On the other hand, we excluded a whole bunch of people.

§

I want to believe in a different future.

But our history seems to get in the way.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “Apollo 11 and Us

  • Wyrd Smythe

    In case my rambling made the point not clear: Racism is stupid, wasteful, tribal monkey behavior. Racism is rancid.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    We seem to be wired to exclude the other, but there are signs of progress. A colleague of mind lost a child, a horrible tragic event. The funeral was yesterday. He’s black and it was at a historically black church. But he had tons of friends and colleagues from every race there to show support. During the services, I was struck by how much had changed just since I was a boy. It’s hard to imagine a scene like that in 1975, at least in south Louisiana.

    Of course, this was a mostly college educated crowd. And unfortunately, churches generally remain the most segregated part of life in the south, although there are non-denominational churches where things do get mixed up.

    I need to check out that Apollo 11 documentary.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I saw it on Hulu, but I think it’s also on Prime. One thought I had while watching was about how humans use our brains to survive in every niche on Earth… And off it!

      My condolences to your colleague. Outliving a child is one of the greatest tragedies a parent can experience.

      Yeah, the ship of state turns slowly when it turns at all. It does seem humanity generally gets better. I’ve always wondered about a correlation between intelligence and morality.

      I’ve wondered that especially in the context of alien visits. Stephen Hawking famous suggested aliens visitors would be bad for us. Star Trek had the Prime Directive that, while often conveniently ignored or slid around, was at least a nod towards the problem. Would galactic travelers just see that as smart? (It seems to depend largely on the reason for exploration. Explorers are one thing, but resource miners would be another.)

      In any event, I wonder if the reverse is true: Do we need to solve our moral issues before we’ll be capable of the investment required for space exploration? Exploring near systems is a hundred-year project. Going beyond requires serious longevity from a civilization. Something we have yet to see on Earth.

      Speaking of exploration, we were talking about Mars recently. I read an article today about a study showing the radiation problem is much worse than thought. Long term exposure to low-level radiation (in rats) caused noticeable behavior and brain changes.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I actually tend to think that Hawking was right. If we ever encountered an alien intelligence, it probably wouldn’t be good for us. It’s always possible that there could be an interstellar civilization that has learned not to exploit other intelligent species, but it doesn’t seem at all inevitable, and overall lessons from evolution don’t seem encouraging.

        Fortunately (unfortunately?) I doubt we’ll ever have that kind of encounter. Life may be abundant, but it seems like intelligent life is extremely rare. Our nearest intelligent neighbors may be cosmologically distant.

        On interstellar exploration, I seriously doubt it will be anything done by biological humans. Our AI progeny will likely be the ones who do it. If we’re lucky, that might eventually include uploaded humans. If not, we may have to be content with what we receive back from our interstellar AI network.

        I saw that same story about the radiation. Crewed Mars missions seem increasingly irresponsible until the travel time is down to a few weeks, and the first mission can go and return relatively quickly.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…it doesn’t seem at all inevitable, and overall lessons from evolution don’t seem encouraging.”

        True. But as we so often have to recognize, that’s a case study with an N=1.

        But probably moot, because…

        “Life may be abundant, but it seems like intelligent life is extremely rare.”

        Exactly. We may well be alone in the galaxy, which effectively means we’re alone in the universe.

        “On interstellar exploration, I seriously doubt it will be anything done by biological humans.”

        Agreed. The interesting question might be the extent to which we merge with our machines so we can go out there for “ourselves.”

  • Lee Roetcisoender

    I just watched American Experience: “Woodstock, Three days that defined a generation”. There is a compelling lesson to be garnered from the success of that event. (In this context, success is measured by the lack of violence and the ability to coexist in difficult situations without conflict.)

    The organizers hired the Hog Farm commune who’s leader was known as Wavy Gravy as the security force on this project. The security team referred to themselves as “Please” officers, which meant they “managed” difficult situations by treating people with dignity and respect instead of the heavy handed-ness of law enforcement. And guess what, human beings have the innate ability to reciprocate.

    As a paradigm, law enforcement was never on the docket of the security team, it’s only objective was to manage the chaos……. As a culture, we can learn something from the experiment of Woodstock by moving away from a model of law enforcement to one of simply managing the chaos. I can guarantee, that most humans beings have the innate ability to reciprocate, Woodstock is the proof of that model….

    • Wyrd Smythe

      [It’s worth mentioning, for those who might not know, that Woodstock, in August of 1969, was just one month after the Moon landing.]

      That was on PBS, right? I saw parts of the same show. (And, of course, you and I were around when it actually happened. I remember the coverage, but was a few years too young to even dream of going.)

      “The organizers hired the Hog Farm commune who’s leader was known as Wavy Gravy…”

      One of my favorite quotes is due to Wavy Gravy: “The meek will inherit the Earth….. The rest of us will go to the stars.” 😀

      “And guess what, human beings have the innate ability to reciprocate.”

      Most of them, anyway. It’s those who won’t go along that are always the problem.

      As I wrote in the post: “High or low, there’s always a bully who wants more than their fair share. In every group, there’s some backwards tribal asshat that just can’t get along.”

      It has been my experience throughout life that this is true.

      “I can guarantee, that most humans beings have the innate ability to reciprocate, Woodstock is the proof of that model…”

      As you just said: “…most humans…” It’s the few who won’t that ruin the proposition.

      Woodstock was a wonderful model of what’s possible, of how high we can grasp, but almost everything else (including most music festivals) are models of why Woodstock was a shining jewel of an exception, one of those rare perfect moments in history.

      I would love it if we matured enough to have a far less constrained society, but I’m not sure that’s possible without losing something fundamental to our nature. It’s a point Captain Kirk often made (a point SF in general often makes): we humans are so amazing, in part, because we’re such assholes. It’s part of our drive and, thus, part of our greatness.

      But I do think a good education — being taught to actually think — is our one saving grace. Our intelligence is our curse, but also our potential solution.

  • rung2diotimasladder

    Unfortunately “inclusion” as a policy tends to give the impression that those minorities participating wouldn’t otherwise be able to hack it. For my part I wouldn’t appreciate it if, after getting hired for a highly sought-after position, I found out there had been a concerted effort to hire women over white men. It could be that I would’ve gotten the job anyway, on my own merits, or even that my being a woman was a deal breaker in a situation where all else was equal, but I wouldn’t know. I’d feel as though I’d had an unfair advantage and didn’t really belong.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “For my part I wouldn’t appreciate it if, after getting hired for a highly sought-after position, I found out there had been a concerted effort to hire women over white men.”

      It’s a complicated topic, in part because some people like a little help whereas others resent it.

      There was a guy who worked in my building. Had a wheelchair. One day the sidewalk was covered in snow and slush, and I could see he and Pepper (his dog) were struggling. So I offered him a push. He accepted, but mentioned he usually didn’t appreciate help. I agreed and mentioned I wouldn’t normally have offered it.

      I cherish my independence and like doing things for myself; I totally get not liking help I haven’t really earned or wouldn’t normally need.

      So I tend to agree with you, but there are times when it seems right.

      One way I look at it, if I wanted to build up my arm muscles equally, since my left arm is noticeably weaker, I’d need to devote more effort to it than to my right arm. It’s a matter of trying to level and unlevel playing field.

      That all said, making it public policy makes it even more complicated. OTOH, forcing moral behavior on people often results in ugly pushback. OTOH, public policy can sometimes (eventually) sway public opinion.

      I think I would want to see it used in only the most egrigious cases — situations where the “left arm” was in need of serious help.

      I think inclusion ultimately has to come more from our hearts than our laws. What we need is a clearer moral view — the good old Moral Compass!

      p.s. In the next post, the tune “Crowded Table” speaks exactly to the kind of “from the heart” inclusion we need.

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Moral Compass indeed! My god, where are we with that?

        Yes, it’s a tricky thing. I guess I’m one of those who resent public policies that try to sway public opinion, even if it’s in the right direction (not sure it is). Maybe this is why my Republican friends and I get along? Because I despise political correctness too? That said, I differ from my Republican friends in that I’m not against public policies as such, or what they would call “big government” or “socialism,” but I think it goes too far when it tries to dictate what we should think or tries to suppress speech (like when a woman is considered a “victim” of sexual harassment if she overhears a co-worker’s offensive speech). Maybe that makes me really more of an old school hippie liberal than a millennial. (Or maybe I’ve been indoctrinated by all that sixties music I grew up listening to?) 🙂

        Will check out your next post! Sorry I haven’t been keeping up. I don’t even have a good excuse…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Moral Compass indeed! My god, where are we with that? “

        It’s easy to wonder. You know how Earth’s magnetic field reverses sometimes? I sort of feel like our moral compass got reversed; things seem so upside down.

        It certainly seems correlated with our growing materialist view of reality, but who can say if there’s any linkage. Growing relativism seems to have undermined our moral foundation — we no longer really believe in anything.

        “I guess I’m one of those who resent public policies that try to sway public opinion…”

        I don’t generally like legislation (but sometimes, for instance smoking in public spaces or offices, I see it as a form of protection). I’m more okay with direction and motivation.

        Focused government-sponsored ad campaigns can be effective. One of the greatest dips in cigarette smoking in the USA was due to one. I’m okay with leaders leading, but forcing behavior through law needs to be considered carefully.

        Take something like abortion. There are two moral positions in conflict, so does government take a stand on one side or the other, or just stay out of it (in which case, then who decides? doctors? the AMA?).

        So, yeah, super tricky!

        “Sorry I haven’t been keeping up. I don’t even have a good excuse…”

        Things have their season. Maybe you’re just not into it anymore.

        (There are certainly days when I wonder why I’m still here.)

      • rung2diotimasladder

        Relativism—I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Maybe that’s what unites this country? Trump supporters and radical liberals alike have a tenuous relationship with truth. No wonder we’re in a pointless battle over who’s feelings should take priority. That’s what happens when we give up on objectivity.

        On abortion, since there are two moral positions in the conflict, it does get sticky. But I think the government must take a stand on it, unfortunately. Still, why can’t we just compromise by drawing an arbitrary line? After X months, no go? (That said, I don’t have much sympathy for the feminist “it’s my body” argument or for the religious argument, so maybe that’s why I have no problem with compromise.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “That’s what happens when we give up on objectivity.”

        Exactly. Our culture has become focused on feelings, opinions, and experiences.

        That last one becoming strong as the economic environment makes owning things more difficult and less desireable. Even I, who resist the trend away from ownership, have a growing collection of videos, music, and books, that I don’t own in the fullest sense of the word.

        So we’re placing a higher and higher value on experiences that people can have. For instance, through AirBNB you can rent a night in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. People have died trying to get the perfect unique selfie.

        “Still, why can’t we just compromise by drawing an arbitrary line? After X months, no go?”

        Works for me. Many fertilized eggs don’t take hold, so I have no problem with the first month, and no real problem with the first trimester. After that we may be in special cases territory.

        I do think having something growing inside you does give you a certain sovereignty over it. (I even think parents have a certain degree of sovereignty over their children until the kids move out.) I joke that that extends to life and death (the old, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!”), but there is a dash of truth to the joke.

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