Ham, the first primate astronaut

Then they led him out again, trying to get him near a mockup of a Mercury capsule, where the television networks had set up cameras and tremendous lights. The reporters and photographers surged forward again, yammering, yelling, exploding more camera lights, shoving, groaning, cursing—the usual yahoo sprawl, in short—and the animal came unglued again, ready to twist the noodle off anybody he could get his hands on. This was interpreted by the Gent [the news media] as a manifestation of Ham‘s natural fear upon laying eyes once again on the capsule, which looked precisely like the one that had propelled him into space and subjected him to such severe physical stresses.

The stresses the ape was reacting to were probably of quite another sort. Here he was, back in the compound where they had zapped him through his drills for a solid month. Just two years ago he had been captured in the jungles of Africa, separated from his mother, shipped in a cage to a goddamned desert in New Mexico, kept prisoner, prodded and shocked by a bunch of humans in white smocks, and here he was, back in a compound where they had been zapping him through their fucking drills for a solid month, and suddenly there was a whole new mob of humans on hand! Even worse than the white smocks! Louder! Crazier! Totally out of their gourds! Yammering, roaring, brawling, exploding lights beside their bug-eyed skulls! Suppose they threw him to these assholes! Fuck this—

At some point in the madhouse scene out back of Hanger S, a photograph was taken in which Ham was either grinning or had on a grimace that looked like a grin in the picture. Naturally, this was the picture that went out over the wire services and was printed in newspapers throughout America. Such was the response of the happy chimpanzee to being the first ape in outer space … A fat happy grin… Such was the perfection with which the Proper Gent observed the proprieties.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 223–4 (italics and ellipses in original)

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)

Related:

Ghosts of the Ostfront

I’m surprised I have never mentioned Dan Carlin’s historical podcasts here yet. I got a lot out of “Blueprint for Armageddon“, his six-part history of WWI (source of this account). Listening to his thoroughly-researched and passionately-delivered work has led me back to a number of books by serious historians as well as primary accounts. Those include G. J. Meyer’s A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 which I have gone through more than once as an audiobook and Ryan Cornelius’ The Last Battle about the fall of Berlin in 1945.

On the Greyhound trips to Ottawa and back, Myshka and I listened to three of the four episodes in “Ghosts of the Ostfront” — a macabre but instructive account of the Nazi-Soviet war from 1941 to 1945.

There are lots of reasons to be interested in the eastern front in WWII, but the familial connections were at the forefront of my mind. The series does a good job of explaining the situation faced by those in countries between the two great powers during the war, including all those who became double victims oppressed by both the Soviet and Nazi autocracies.

Carlin and his research and production team have lots of other great stuff, from a free discussion with favourite historian and thinker James Burke to his detailed history of the life of Genghis Khan to the unbelievable story of the Anabaptist takeover of Munster in 1534. His preference for the bloody ought to be noted, but to me his work doesn’t seem to revel in violence for its own sake but more to try to discern the broad lessons of history.

Galicia Division controversy

The National Post is reporting on controversial Canadian monuments to Ukrainians who volunteered to fight with the Waffen-SS starting in 1943. A large number of those who fought in the division immigrated to Canada after the war, aided in part by intervention from the Roman Catholic Church. While the immediate context of the controversy is critical comments from the Russian embassy (possibly with questionable motives), some of those quoted advocate more critical thought within the Ukrainian community about the wartime roles of their compatriots:

“It would be refreshing and perhaps a form of self-healing …” writes University of Alberta professor David Marples in a 2007 book on “heroes and villains” in Ukrainian national history, “if Ukrainians could offer a conception of their recent past that looked at all aspects of these events, recognizing in passing that heroes could be criminals.”

One of the monuments in question is at St. Volodymyr Cemetery in Oakville, Ont. It commemorates a major battle, the Brody, fought by the Ukrainian Galician Division of the German Waffen-SS against the Soviet Red Army, during which more than three-quarters of the Ukrainian soldiers perished.

The article also describes potential involvement of future Galician Division soldiers in anti-Semitic actions and war crimes. A spokesperson for the B’nai Brith is quoted saying that they would oppose future such monuments, but do not object to the existing ones remaining in place.

The article mentions the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada (Deschênes Commission) which concluded in 1986 “that members of the Galician Division who immigrated to Canada hadn’t had charges against them substantiated”. I was once able to briefly speak with a former commission member at a Massey College event, but he did little but reiterate the high level conclusions of the commission.

I should read Marples’ book.

Modern board games

Here are a couple of interesting journalistic accounts of complex modern board games:

They both emphasize games that seek to accurately model military conflicts, particularly “A Distant Plain“, which is about the post-2001 intervention in Afghanistan.

A few years ago, I tried to convince the student government (Lionel Massey Fund, or LMF) at Massey College into buying a game called “Persian Incursion” which sought to model an Israeli attack against the Iranian nuclear weapons program. They rejected the proposal as too expensive and controversial. It would be interesting to try a game like this sometime, but no board game café where I have asked yet has carried them.

A new MacBook Pro or a nice digital SLR

Reporting on the Credit Suisse Research Institute’s global wealth report, The Economist explains:

If the world’s wealth were divided equally, each household would have $56,540. Instead, the top 1% own more than half of all global wealth. The median wealth per household is just $3,582; if you own more than that, you are in the richest 50% of the world’s population.

Even for those who believe that it’s ethical for your wealth to be determined by the amount of economic value you create for others, the evidence that high wages are deserved is weak (especially for top executives).

New big dams in Canada

Some earlier comments discussed the Site C dam project in B.C. Today, B.C.’s NDP government committed to finishing the $10.7 billion project.

Like the Muskrat Falls project in Labrador, this is a multi-billion dollar project facing extensive criticism from environmentalists and Indigenous people.

On the one hand, it is desirable to get as much low carbon generation as possible. On the other, these projects seem to represent continued Indigenous exploitation by Canadian governments (ignoring the standard of free, prior, and informed consent from UNDRIP), and it’s not clear there aren’t lower cost options which are equally desirable from a climate perspective. Loss of glaciers and summer snowpack might also have a catastrophic effect on hydro production.

Plea bargains

In several important ways, the plea bargain system in American courts perverts justice: encouraging prosecutors to pile on charges in hopes of frightening defendants into bargaining, and forcing those being charged to consider falsely pleading guilty because the punishment that would arise from going to trial and losing would be massive.

Nonetheless, The Economist reports that plea bargaining is spreading, from 19 countries in 1990 to 66 now. In federal courts in the United States, “close to 100%” of convictions arise from plea bargains. Less than 3% of federal court defendants go to trial.

The flaws with plea bargaining dovetail with other injustices, from the insufficient provision of public defence lawyers to the structural discrimination embedded in discretionary prosecution and exploitation of civil forfeiture.

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