This week, while attention was fixed on fireworks, both real and presidential, a kind of miracle occurred beyond the rocket’s red glare.
A three-winged titanium barrel whipped at 130,000 mph through a hail of radiation, skimming the clouds of Jupiter before locking into orbit. All while you were digesting your hot dog. Think about that.
The Juno spacecraft had hurtled through the heavens for five years, at a cost of more than $1 billion. Though Jupiter is our largest planet, it is also largely a mystery, thanks to its violent magnetic field.
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“This is the hardest thing NASA has ever done,” Juno’s principal investigator said as cheers erupted at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. By the next day, though, Juno was old news. The public was fixated again on – what else? – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The headlines, the chatter, the rants from your husband’s ex-wife’s otherwise friendly libertarian brother on Facebook – all were consumed, yet again, with the weird political pathology that has overtaken this campaign season. Her FBI investigation, his anti-Semitic symbols. Her support from President Barack Obama, his kind words for Saddam Hussein.
I like a good presidential race as much as the next person. But it feels sick, the way we can’t look away from this campaign. It’s like a big-rig crash or a disfigured face or a corpse on the sidewalk. And, at least on Trump’s side, it’s hardly because the discourse is so riveting.
You blame the media. Fine. But it’s been a long time since Americans were prisoners of a local rag and three networks. News is DIY now, with millions of conversations out there on social media. And look what they focus on.
Last week, I visited friends and family in Southern California; it took maybe 10 minutes over bipartisan cocktails with our old neighbors before someone mentioned the election.
“Stop! No Trump!” a liberal moaned.
“Really, though, what are you going to do? Are you going to vote for that guy?” I asked a moderate Republican neighbor.
“Man, I don’t know,” he said glumly. “This is the worst election ever.”
“I need more information,” said his friend, a center-left woman.
“More information?!? What more could you possibly need to know?” the progressives from the next block cried in exasperation.
“Sorry, I just can’t trust Hillary.”
“Sorry, but Hillary is great.”
I spent part of July 4 reading George Saunders’ brilliant and unsettling report from the campaign trail in this week’s New Yorker. “Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down,” Saunders wrote.
His account of what that now looks like, up close and in person across the country, is gripping. Nice people curse and punch and do things in those rallies that take you aback, and they don’t seem to know why, exactly, but they aren’t sorry. Saunders compares the mood to one he had, early in college, when he was a C student trying to become an engineer and found himself falling further and further behind his much smarter classmates.
“I constructed a world view in which I was not behind the curve but ahead of it,” he wrote. “I conjured up a set of hazy villains, who were, I can see now, externalized manifestations, imaginary versions of those who were leaving me behind; i.e., my better-prepared, more sophisticated fellow-students. They were, yes, smarter and sharper than I was (as indicated by the tests on which they were always creaming me), but I was ... what was I? Uh, tougher, more resilient, more able to get down and dirty as needed. I distinctly remember the feeling of casting about for some world view in which my shortfall somehow constituted a hidden noble advantage.”
That, he wrote, was the America he was finding, fearful and looking to trumped-up moral superiority for consolation, making a spectacle of itself on the campaign trail as the neighbors took sides and gaped.
Well, it’s not for nothing that they say we are all descended from monkeys. But if that were all we were, this campaign would feel like an ordinary thing and we could look away.
We stare because staring is what people do instinctively when something is wrong with the picture. Something unnatural is playing out in this campaign, and it’s not just the presumptive Democratic nominee’s tense smile and the presumptive Republican nominee’s weird hairdo.
Something has made us feel small and convinced us we’re losers. And something else in our nature knows that’s not the whole story.
There’s also a bigger picture, one in which there’s dignity and equality in just being human – and in which knowing that frees us to do things like pick good leaders or build great spaceships or invent a better hot dog or forget engineering and go write for The New Yorker. “Is this a great country or what?” we say when that picture comes into focus.
And OK, so maybe the “or what” has the edge now. But any day, pictures from halfway across the solar system will dodge bolts of violent radiation to make their way, miraculously, to your computer, from a spacecraft named for a goddess who, even through a cloak of clouds, could see her husband’s true and multifaceted nature.
“Now the fun begins,” a Juno scientist said this week, after NASA’s winged wonder hit its target. I hope our better selves will look up and join in.