Bush’s Reality vs. Reality
Along with tens of thousands of others, I marched through the Hollywood streets on February 15. Later, I read about demonstrations around the world in which millions across the US, Europe, Latin America, Middle East and Australia stated the same simple message: no war. Nonsense, says the President, as his boys and girls (not men and women because they, like the Prez, have yet to mature) continue to push the world’s leaders and the UN to agree to his plan to make war on Iraq or else...
"Appeasers", Condoleezza Rice called us. W’s National Security Adviser, evoking British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 sell-out of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, lumped ten-plus million people she didn’t know into one cowardly package.
The news coverage of the millions of people who demonstrated throughout the world against war was scant in comparison to the ensuing media blitzkrieg surrounding the space shuttle Columbia tragedy. Two weeks before, Bush personally led Americans in mourning, which endured for over a week, for people he didn’t know or care about. Until the news flash of its breakup in the sky, I hadn’t even acknowledged that NASA had launched another Columbia shuttle.
"Too bad", I said. "Sorry those people died".
I tuned in to National Public Radio where the urbane voices of the hosts inundated me with pseudo science about crystals and foam and wings and re-entry problems. Then they broadcast repetitive but somber speeches filled with empty rhetoric about heroism. Behind the orations, NPR placed funeral music and the hosts inserted bromides about "helping a grieving nation cope with the tragedy".
That night and for successive nights TV anchors and hosts repeated their trite homilies, flashed photographs of the dead astronauts on the screen and repeated the instant myth: All America was in mourning.
Just to check I called five people.
"Are you in mourning? I asked a medical doctor friend.
"Who died?" she said.
I called a professor, two lawyers and a construction worker with the same question. Not one even thought about mourning for the people on the space shuttle.
The media replayed W’s sincere tones about the "brave heroes" and the vital importance of our space program and how dedicated he was to that program. Listening to Bush’s semi staccato delivery, emotion dripping from almost every phrase, one would have thought that he knew each astronaut personally, had been a surrogate uncle to most of them, followed their careers and, of course, the orbit of their flight.
But as Matthew Engel reported in The Guardian (2-4-03), Bush had "never before visited the space centre in Houston, even when he was governor of Texas. And his only known speech emphasizing the importance of NASA was made at a campaign stop in 2000 near Cape Canaveral".
"The hypocrite has certainly learned to read speeches", I remarked. The newspapers filled their pages with funeral stories, "human interest" pieces that lacked humanity and were boring, and long reports with little concrete data about what might have caused the shuttle to break up.
Similarly, the media carried sparse details about NASA itself. Yet, the tragedy should have unlocked the door for reporting about this once famous government agency. The government, I learned from non-US sources, has relegated most of the space shuttle operations to the private sector. The companies involved in major war production for the coming Iraqi campaign, Boeing and Lockheed, now own and run about 92% of the program. The taxpayers still fund some of it, but thanks to the disaster, Bush has promised to increase the budget; our taxes paid to them for a program he barely mentioned before the tragedy. Indeed, Bush, like Clinton before him, reduced NASA's budget. But a February 2 Reuters release reported that "a senior administration official said Bush would boost funding for the space agency by almost $470 million to $15.47 billion in his fiscal 2004 budget".
As a result of the Columbia catastrophe, the media also introduced us to a new TV personality: Sean O'Keefe, NASA’s head man, the guy who has the job we all admire, tough budgetary management of a loosely run agency.
It turns out that Dick Cheney got him the job and that his attempts to apply harsh accounting procedures took precedence over costly safety measures. Florida Senator Bill Nelson who once flew on the shuttle called the delay on safety upgrades on the space shuttle "inexcusable". But the media didn’t dwell on that possibly ugly side of the event. The cutbacks had begun before O’Keefe arrived.
Nor did the press underline the fact that in 2002 the panel on safety warned about how budget reductions would jeopardize shuttle safety. Under tough guy O’Keefe, NASA dropped five of its safety board members and one other quit in disgust. Panel chair Dr. Richard Blomberg warned a congressional hearing last April, wrote Engel, "That cutbacks were `planting the seeds for future danger’".
A small discussion began after the Columbia accident about the value of the space program, but quickly the false patriotism clichés drowned the dissenting voices. What value does the space program have? Pure science? That might convince me. But most of the commentators just prattled on about the potential for industry, the importance of the United States having the edge for a space weapons program and denying others the possibility of playing the lead role.
Look back, I wanted to scream at the endless drum roll of dull voices giving their "amens" to the words of Bush’s speech writers. Americans went to the moon because they feared the Russians might get there first. In those balance of power days, the race for first place in everything provided the incentive for science and exploration.
I still remember the Challenger and how the government never really investigated its disastrous 1986 launch. I remember the school teacher who rode on the ship and genuine tears of her students at the funeral. I didn’t understand the value of the space program then. I didn’t oppose it because I thought that it would produce scientific discoveries that would increase human understanding. I still think that space exploration might do that; but not if defense companies and the current imperial government write its science agenda.
When you wipe away the phony Bush tears, and others who didn’t know the deceased, but somehow felt close to them anyhow - after they died - you might find that the national mourning period related more to increasing funding for the companies that own the shuttle flights and specialize in defense contracting. It had little to do with genuine feeling for those who perished. Bush played the tragedy as a tear jerker. He hasn’t shed a tear for the Iraq children who have died as a result of the 12 year old sanctions imposed by the UN and enforced by the United States that have blocked key components of chemo therapy cocktails and other medical necessities.
A friend wrote me from Baghdad about how parents take their kids to amusement parks to relieve the tension as they wait for massive US bombing raids that will kill thousands and destroy all semblance of routine. The letter reports how Baghdad residents fear that US bombs will again destroy their water and sewage treatment plants as they did in 1991 and thus induce the spread of diseases like typhoid fever.
Get a grip on reality I warn myself, not Bush’s tearful reality regarding the astronauts, but reality.
Copyright 2003 Progreso Weekly