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Star Trek: The Antidote to Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy

On August 24, 2020, NYU John Brademas Center and NYU Votes presented an online discussion between two ex-Republicans:

Anne Applebaum, Staff Writer at The Atlantic; Senior Fellow of International Affairs and Agora Fellow in Residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; author, Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

Moderator: Max Boot, Columnist at the Washington Post; Global Affairs Analyst for CNN; Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations,

The topic was Applebaum’s new book:

In the United States as well as around the globe, democratic institutions have begun to deteriorate, while authoritarian movements continue to gain traction. Anne Applebaum, journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, argues that this trend should come as no surprise given the “seductive lure of authoritarianism.” In her new book, Twilight of Democracy, Applebaum focuses on the surrogates who enable autocracy.

What role do writers, academics, journalists, and other members of the cultural elite play in the ascent of nationalist rule? To what extent are these figures propelled by ideology versus their own financial or political gain? And what patterns emerge when we observe weakening democracies across the world from the U.S. to Poland?

During the conversation, Boot noted Applebaum’s fairly pessimistic view on democracy’s fate. The book definitively states that we are living through the twilight of democracy right now; there is no question mark in the title. She is not raising a question about the present, she is making a statement about it and it is a negative one.

In her response, Applebaum left some room for hope. She declared that she doesn’t do predictions. However if her book is a statement on the present twilight of democracy, then there is no real need of predictions: the dye is already cast. Applebaum considers it irresponsible for people in her generation to be pessimistic because that is not fair to the younger generations. Her book should be treated as a warning and not a prediction. Democracy could die but it is not inevitable that it will die. She asserts that decisions made now can affect the outcome. Her responses suggest the title should have ended with a question mark. I wonder who made the decision for the bolder more shocking title.

Boot followed up by inquiring from where does the threat to democracy emanate and what is the appeal of authoritarianism? Applebaum responded by raising the issue of uncertainty. People prefer something more predictable and certain for the future compared to the fragile and unstable world in which we live. As a result people are distressed over future.

Earlier in the discussion, Applebaum had mentioned two specific events leading to the current uncertainty particularly for conservatives like herself but not only for them. The first followed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. That was a triumphal moment for a generation of conservatives, a time of great optimism. Unfortunately the complacency in the 1990s afterwards was misplaced. The result was a loss of certainty in the inevitability of democracy.

She did not specifically refer to the current situation in this discussion. For the President of the United to be subordinate to the Russian leader who has a free hand to violate American presidential would have been a shocking concept after 1989 had it even occurred to anyone.

The second date was 1999 especially for Republicans but also for all Americans. The country went from celebrating what had happened in the decade just ending to a world where we often are no longer talking to each other. Along those lines, the article “Our Love Is Forever, as Long as We Vote the Same Way” in the Sunday Styles section of the NYT (August 30, 2020) reports on this very issue in a quite personal way. Dating companies now are obligated to include a line on political preferences given the impossibility of pro- and anti-Trump people to talk to each other. Once upon a time Mary Matalin and James Carville were the example of an unusual political couple. Now George and Kellyanne Conway are the mystifying couple. They recently had to take a timeout from politics for the sake of their children, their family, and their marriage AND THEY ARE MEMBERS OF THE SAME PARTY!

Applebaum added that in this new millennium people feel disappointed with what has happened for themselves, for their country, or both. Drawing on her own experience, she observes that the Polish thought the transformation of democracy would be better than it had been for themselves in their career and their country. She concluded that when you really feel disappointed, it can lead to radicalism. People become angry, convinced that there is nothing left to be done, that democracy has failed. Consequently disruptive change is needed.

There was more to their conversation than presented here. Still the major points are clear. The old order of the Cold War is over. Regardless of one’s position in that confrontation, it provided clearcut alternatives. You had a decision to make about where you stood. That decision provided meaning and purpose in life. Now everything seems up the air. Uncertainty dominates. Fear follows and that can lead to bad things. Very Bad things. Not to worry. Only I can save the country.

People deal with uncertainty in multiple ways. One way is to create certainty in the mind. For example, pilots train on simulators. They practice again and again. They learn how to recognize a dangerous condition. They learn what should be done in a perilous situation. They practice, practice, practice until it becomes so ingrained that that they can even land a plane ON the Hudson River if its engines are clogged with birds. The police practice and practice as well but not for dealing with the mentally ill, domestic disputes, or facing intensely emotional and overwrought people in a crowd.

At the end of the movie Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson exhibits another form of mental preparation. After the successful landing of John Glen in a risky space flight, the Kevin Costner character asks her if we are ready to go to moon. She replies, “We’re already there.” She had seen the future in her mind again and again and was quite confident that it could be reached in the real world. The only question was when that world was going to catch up to her mind.

Imagining the future is one way of preparing for. We live in dystopian times so it is not surprising that our science fiction reflects these circumstances. We see a future of hate not hope, nightmares not dreams, conflict not peace. The more overwhelmed we are by the present, the more willing we are to accept drastic solutions, solutions that won’t work but which may give peace of mind for the moment without the use of drugs.

Science fiction like those simulators can help prepare us for the future. It has the possibility of generating hope. The one that did that in a way no other ongoing series did was Star Trek. The show was not just about special effects or entertaining stories. It expressed a confidence about boldly going where no one had gone before, about a confidence in facing the unknown, about a willingness even eagerness to engage the future. All these attributes and desires are lacking in a world where we have the dark carnage relentlessly promulgated by the Trumpicans and the relentlessly toppling of our past by the Woke.

We are not a Starship Enterprise country today. We cannot communicate with each other yet alone live with each. The intensity of distrust and hate ratchets ever upward making our time the twilight of democracy. Kirk’s hero was Lincoln, a name used and abused today by people who are full of malice and reject America’s vision as the last best hope of humanity. Neither candidate seeks to inspire us; we are a country without vision. Still even people who are not science fiction fans know the message of Star Trek. I suspect they yearn for a candidate who can overcome our fear of fear itself with the message that best is yet to come.

Hidden Figures, The Right Stuff and the Coronavirus: Who Will Tell the Story?

"A Great Success Story" (AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The movies Hidden Figures and The Right Stuff offer related but distinctively different views of the Mercury Space program in the early 1960s. They both tell the story but they are not exactly the same stories. The Right Stuff based on a popular book of the same name focused on the astronauts themselves. The very title of the book and movie has become part of the American culture. The subjects and events of this book and movie tended to be known to the general public with a special shout out to ace pilot Chuck Yeager who did not become an astronaut.

By contrast, Hidden Figures portrays a less known facet of the space program. Its subjects are three women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who work as “computers,” people who do computing. More importantly they are Negroes or colored people. Black people had not yet become first Afro-Americans, then African Americans, and people of color. These changes in terminology are part of American history.

Like The Right Stuff, Hidden Figures reveals a very American way of life, just a different one. The lives of the three lead characters and the people with whom they engage are stories of family, education, church, and service to country. It is a story of people who embrace the American dream as much as the astronauts in The Right Stuff do. The difference, of course, is the opportunity to live the American Dream. In the movie, one black woman gains access to the previously restricted education system for the graduate credits she needs to qualify for a NASA position. A second black woman learns to master the new IBM mainframe computer which uses keypunch cards. For some people, that computer may seem like something from the Stone Age when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The third black woman, naturally gifted even as a child, calculates critical flight plans. All three succeed without becoming public figures until the movie.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie occurs when an off-screen voice calls out that astronaut John Glenn is in trouble in his mission. Everyone rushes to see a TV set in a storefront window in their rural community. “Everyone” means all the people of the community, black and white, standing together as one.  This scene is a marked contrast to the newsreel shots from both movies of people lined up along the beaches in Florida. These views are often distant shots but the overwhelming impression is that the people are white. It turns out black people cared about the American space program too.

Whether or not everyone would even gather today to witness what was occurring live in space or on earth today is more problematical. I think of those stock movie scenes where everyone is shown simultaneously reading the latest issue of local paper with the headlines about the subject of the movie. Now many of those newspapers don’t exist (see Spartacus, Local History, and Local Newspapers) and people tend to look down at their palms holding a device instead. I think of the scenes of the people in the Times Squares of the world watching and cheering as Matt Damon is rescued from Mars and wonder if the world could really gather as one anymore.

Other questions occur. Is the Kevin Costner character real or a Hollywood (composite) creation? I don’t know. He has a lot of good lines and is of almost to-good-to-be true character. My favorite scene follows the one when he learns there are no colored bathrooms in the white complex. That necessitates Katherine Johnson having to go a half-mile, sometimes in the rain, to the colored complex to relieve herself.  When she has to explain to Costner why she disappears for so long during the day, she explodes in a tirade. That scene may be great Hollywood, but even if the Costner figure is real, an extended impassioned one-sided tirade by a subordinate, a subordinate female, a subordinate black female seems more Hollywood than real. I could be wrong.

The tirade isn’t my favorite part. It is the scene afterwards where Costner takes a crowbar to “Colored Women” bathroom sign. After knocking it down, he walks away announcing the new NASA policy eliminating the separate and unequal bathrooms (missing paper towels in another scene) by race. He walks away uttering the immortal lines, “At NASA we all pee the same color.” It’s not quite “If you build it, he will come” or “the right stuff,’ but I like it all the same. It reminds me of the scene in To Sir with Love, where Sidney Poitier is cut during a fight and bleeds. One student observing the bleeding teacher says something to the effect of “Did you think he bled ink?” Sometimes you can deliver strong messages with just a few words about body fluids. But did this scene really happen?

Another great scene where I wonder if it is true or not occurs during a briefing. Katherine Johnson impresses on Costner her need to attend the briefing. She is the only female and the only black in the room. The question stumping people is the calculation to determine precisely where the decision has to made for the go-no point of re-entry and where the capsule will splash down so the navy can be in position to recover it. The image of Costner handing Johnson chalk to perform the critical calculation live before an audience of big shots including John Glen is identical Michelangelo’s painting at the Sistine Chapel of the hands of God and Adam. That parallel is not coincidental.

Kevin Costner handing Katherine Johnson chalk to calculate John Glenn’s trajectory (Amazon)

That scene starts a sequence. When the issue of landing coordinates arises in the preparation for Glenn’s flight, Glenn asks Costner to have “the smart one” check the numbers. Johnson has just been reassigned back to the Colored Computer Building and been married, two status changes. Now a white male has to make the run to the Colored Computer Building and not to relieve himself but to have her, the black computer, verify the landing coordinates that the IBM apparently erred on. Both the black female and the white male run back to the white area (why couldn’t the white male run back alone?). Once there, Costner gives Johnson access to the Mission Control Center. As best I recall, there were no females or blacks in the Control Room in The Right Stuff.  Both were present and more when Matt Damon was rescued.

So, how much of this is real and how much is Hollywood? I don’t know if any journalist or historian has compared these two movie versions of the specific incident of John Glenn’s flight. It certainly would be interesting to know.

“Who will tell the story” presumes there is one story to tell. In the real world, that often is not the case once one goes beyond some very precise details: yes, John Glenn did orbit earth and his mission was aborted. At that point, people then start making choices about what to include in the story they want to tell and how they will tell it. The coronavirus provides a current example of the challenge of “who will tell the story?” What story will be told and who will tell it?”

A long long time ago back on April 5, I wrote a blog Current Events and Local History on the challenge to history organizations to collect the history of the coronavirus as it was occurring around them.

         Historians Investigating the Coronavirus Pandemic

I did not send this blog to the media or political distribution lists. I noted the efforts of some European museums to gather this information. I reported on the initiative of the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) to request that the municipal historians in the state collect such information. These gatherings did not mean simply collating government press releases or clipping articles where local papers still exist, it meant asking people to journal or express in some way, even daily, their experiences during this crisis. I sent this blog to my history lists in New York and New England close to four weeks ago now.

I also sent a revised version of this history blog to the New York State Board of Regents. I received two replies. One a brief thank you. The second was an email not only to me but to Chancellor of the Board, Interim Commissioner of Education/President of the University of the State of New York, and the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education among others.  In the email, the Regent notes the “request for students to offer journal documentation of their experience living through this pandemic crisis, from their perspective, for history.” The Regent specifically asks these three individuals for suggestions on how to reach out to teachers and students to go about achieving this ends.  I don’t know what will come of this effort, but I am sure once students do return to school they will have stories to tell about what they did last summer and spring.

But what about for American as a whole? Who will tell the American story(ies) on the coronavirus? Yes, there will be a White House version touting the great success of America’s greatest President of successfully winning this war and we will be rockin’ by July. Yes there will be a Congressional Commission documenting the complete and total failure of the inept, incompetent, self-centered, ignorant, simpleminded immature child who was the worst President in American history. That’s quite a range of options. We are witnessing the battle to tell the story of the coronavirus in the United States and there is a good chance at least 405 of the country will believe two completely contradictory stories. If you think teaching the Civil War can be challenging imagine the dilemma for teachers and school districts who have to choose between the pond-scum-slime and our Lord and Savior, the Chosen One Blessed Be his Name versions. So the questions for the country isn’t simply who will tell the story but what story(ies) will be told and how will they divide America even more.