The space race as single combat

With the decline of archaic magic, the belief in single combat began to die out. The development of the modern, highly organized army and the concept of “total war” seemed to bury it forever. But then an extraordinary thing happened: the atomic bomb was invented, with the result that the concept of total war was nullified. The incalculable power of the A-bomb and the bombs that followed also encouraged the growth of a new form of superstition founded upon awe not of nature, as archaic magic had been, but of technology. During the Cold War period small-scale competitions again took on the magical aura of a “testing of fate,” of a fateful prediction of what would inevitably happen if total nuclear war did take place. This, of course, was precisely the impact of Sputnik I, launched around the earth by the Soviets’ mighty and mysterious Integral in October 1957. The “space race” became a fateful test and presage of the entire Cold War conflict between the “superpowers,” the Soviet Union and the United States. Surveys showed that people throughout the world looked upon the competition in launching space vehicles in that fashion, i.e., as a preliminary contest proving final and irresistible power to destroy. The ability to launch Sputniks dramatized the ability to launch nuclear warheads on ICBMs. But in these neo-superstitious times it came to dramatize much more than that. It dramatized the entire technological and intellectual capability of the two nations and the strength of the national wills and spirits. Hence … John McCormack rising in the House of Representatives to say that the United States faced “national extinction” if she did not overtake the Soviet Union in the space race.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 124–5 (ellipses in original)


Fighter pilots’ hazardous lifestyles

More fighter pilots died in automobiles than in airplanes. Fortunately, there was always some kindly soul up the chain to certify the papers “line of duty,” so that the widow could get a better break on the insurance. That was okay and only proper because somehow the system itself had long ago said Skol! and Quite right! to the military cycle of Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving, as if there were no other way. Every young fighter jock knew the feeling of getting two or three hours’ sleep and then waking up at 5:30 a.m. and having a few cups of coffee, a few cigarettes, and then carting his poor quivering liver out to the field for another day of flying. There were those who arrived not merely hungover but still drunk, slapping oxygen tank cones over their faces and trying to burn the alcohol out of their systems, and then going up, remarking later: “I don’t advise it, you understand, but it can be done.” (Provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker.)

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 37 (italics in original)

Mabee on Sojourner Truth and Frances Gage 2/2

If friends and students of Truth wish to reassess their views, they might stop depending on Gage’s report as if it were reliable, and depend instead on the reports of the speech that were published at the time, especially the fullest one, in the Bugle. If not as dramatic as Gage’s report, the Bugle report is terse, portrays Truth as speaking in a folksy style that rings true, attributes to her some of the provocative ideas that Gage’s report attributed to her, and is much more likely to be authentic:

One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the Convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President said with great simplicity:

May I say a few words? Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded; I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights [sic]. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much as any man, and eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now.

As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint and a man a quart — why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much — for we won’t take more than our pint’ll hold.

The poor men seem to be all in confusion and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have women’s rights give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble.

I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept — and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and woman who bore him. Man, where is your part?

But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, and he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1993. p. 81–82. “[sic]” in original.

Mabee on Sojourner Truth and Frances Gage 1/2

[Frances] Gage‘s report, gradually becoming well known, wove myths about [Sojourner] Truth, myths that helped build up Truth into a heroic figure. Nevertheless, we must ask whether the frequent uncritical use of Gage’s report in recent years has led to misleading interpretations not only about Truth and her place in history, but also about early black-white relations at large.

When we compare Gage’s 1863 report of Truth’s speech with available records written in 1851 soon after the event, the comparison suggests that we should heed Gage’s own warning that she had “given but a faint sketch” of Truth’s speech. The comparison suggests that, unless evidence to the contrary shows up, important parts Gage’s report regarding the atmosphere of the convention, the contents of Truth’s speech, and the effect of the speech on the convention should be considered false. The comparison suggests that Gage, the poet, intended to present the symbolic truth of Truth’s words more than the literal truth; that Gage, the novelist, imagining that Harriet Beecher Stowe was looking over her shoulder, felt pressed to make Truth’s story more compelling than it was; that Gage, the passionate advocate of blacks’ and women’s rights, embellished her report to strengthen the causes she favored, imposing her own ideas and expression on what Truth said. Disappointing as it may be, the comparison makes it unlikely that Truth asked the thrilling question, “Ar’n’t I a woman?“, the principal words by which Truth is known today.

If we depend on contemporary accounts as more likely than Gage’s to be reliable, then we perceive that when Sojourner Truth began to speak, there were no signs of panic, no hissing, no mobbish opponents whom she could overcome. Then we find that Truth’s words, unadorned, if less dramatic and smooth than Gage wanted them to be, did not make her the one star of the convention, as Gage indicates, but nevertheless made her impressive.

When Truth’s biographers, following Gage, say that she turned the convention around from opposing to favouring women’s rights, we have to suspect that they may be telling us more what Gage wanted us to believe than what really happened. When recent writers on women’s and blacks’ history claim that white women advocating women’s rights were hostile to black women’s participation in the women’s movement, and they base their claims especially on Gage’s account of the supposed hostility to Truth at Akron, we have to wonder whether they are distorting history. Unless evidence to the contrary turns up, we have to regard Gage’s account of Truth’s asking the “Ar’n’t I a woman?” question as folklore, like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. It may be suitable for telling to children, but not for serious understanding of Sojourner Truth and her times.

Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York University Press, 1993. p. 80–81

Some of what I’m reading

My two TA jobs are keeping me fairly busy, but I am also reading a diverse set of interesting books:

Naoki Higashida’s Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man’s Voice from the Silence of Autism: the second book written by a young autistic man who can only communicate verbally to a very limited degree but who writes using an alphabet grid on a computer. He mostly writes about his life experiences and his views on how people with autism should be understood and treated.

Chris Turner’s The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands: discussing the history of Canada’s bitumen sands, life through the booms and bust in Fort McMurray, and the major climate and energy policy questions facing Canada and Alberta.

Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage: the first part of a three-part series set before the His Dark Materials trilogy. Starts with doings in an around Oxford at the time when Lyra is an infant.

Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta’s Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements: part of the key reading list for my PhD thesis. Along with working on the pre-interview phases of my research (while awaiting ethical approval), I need to make a more determined effort to progress through the background reading identified in my proposal.

There are also a heap of books which have been in progress for ages, from What is History? to Yiddish for Pirates.

I also have some reviews to write, including for Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History and Environmentalism of the Rich.

History’s unpredictable paths

Columbus could not have foreseen the results of his search for piperine, Magellan was unaware of the long-term effects of his quest for isoeugenol, and Schönbein would surely have been astonished that the nitrocellulose he made from his wife’s apron was the start of great industries as diverse as explosives and textiles. Perkin could not have anticipated that his small experiment would eventually lead not only to a huge synthetic dye trade but also to the development of antibiotics and pharmaceuticals. Marker, Nobel, Chardonnet, Carothers, Lister, Baekeland, Goodyear, Hofmann, Leblanc, the Solvay brothers, Harrison, Midgley, and all the others whose stories we have told had little idea of the historical importance of their discoveries. So we are perhaps in good company if we hesitate to try to predict whether today there already exists an unsuspected molecule that will eventually have such a profound and unanticipated effect on life as we know it that our descendants will say, “This changed the world.”

Le Couteur, Penny and Jay Burreson. Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History. Penguin, 2004.

Related: Learning and teaching

Learning and teaching

Thesis proposal reading continues to dominate my information diet, but I bought a couple of unrelated books today.

Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson’s Napoleon’s Buttons — recommended by my friend Myshka — describes the influence of seventeen molecules on human history. I’m about 60 pages in and have been finding it entertaining and reminiscent of James Burke’s Connections television series (he also talks a lot about coal tar and the rise of synthetic chemistry) and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire.

I also got Naoki Higashida’s Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man’s Voice from the Silence of Autism, which was recently reviewed in The Economist.

Term time is rapidly approaching. In addition to my PhD research, I will be working as a teaching assistant for a second year “U.S. Government and Politics” course, which I did previously in 2013/14. I also applied for TA jobs in “Introduction to Peace, Conflict and Justice”, “Quantitative Reasoning”, and the “Canada in Comparative Perspective” course I have helped teach three times already. I’m done with coursework and comprehensive exams, so a double TA load should be manageable. It’s pretty important given that I haven’t had a paycheque since the spring, and my funding package as a sixth-year student is cut in half.

Contentious politics scholars can be inconsistent with their definitions

For analyzing climate change activism, the contentious politics theoretical framework associated with Doug McAdam (a sociology professor at Stanford), Sidney Tarrow (a professor of government and sociology at Cornell), and Charles Tilly (formerly a social science professor at Columbia) has much to recommend it. In particular, it incorporates many explanatory factors used in the related social movements literature (like the construction of meaning through frames, seeing protests as performances, and the importance of political opportunities and mobilizing structures) while also looking at phenomena broader than social movements, including revolutions.

One just criticism of the literature is that terms are not rigorously defined and consistently used. Ideas like “cycles of contention” are central to the literature, but every author seems to think of them a bit differently, and the same person even uses the idea differently in one text as opposed to another.

I’m only partway through, but so far McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s book Dynamics of Contention seems to demonstrate a lot of the problematically obscure language use within the literature. Generally, I find that this literature is best when it sticks closely to empirical cases, rather than wandering out into broad theorizing. Long discussions of abstract nouns like “mechanisms” versus “processes” versus “episodes” can be especially hard to draw useful inspiration from.

I have a stack of other contentious politics books picked up from the library today, with the aim of further fleshing out the theoretical framework for my proposal and finding additional examples of methodologically similar research.

Mitchell on “Carbon Democracy”

A surprising oversight in Timothy Mitchell’s generally-insightful Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil is how he gives relatively little consideration to static versus mobile forms of fossil fuel consumption. He strongly emphasizes the production and transportation logistics of coal versus oil, but gives little consideration to special needs for fuels with high energy density (and sometimes low freezing points) in transport applications from cars and trucks to aircraft and rockets. People sometimes assume that oil demand and electricity production are more related than they really are, especially in jurisdictions where oil is mostly used as transport fuel and for heating (both areas where little electricity is generally used).

At a minimum, I think it’s important to give some special consideration to the needs of the aerospace and aviation industries, especially when pondering biofuel alternatives. Also, we need to try to project things like the deployment rate of electric ground vehicles in various applications, when trying to project how the forms of energy production and use in the future affect politics and low-carbon policy choices.