A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
As any four-year-old (or Rupert Murdoch) will tell you, it’s easy to shut things down. All you do is say, “It’s over!” and quit doing whatever it is you’re doing. Fait accompli! For example, last week we saw the end of a couple of things.
There was the end of the Harry Potter movie franchise. After what seems like 35 years and 8 (or is it 10?) movies, Harry and the gang finally faded to black seriously. For a while there, I thought they were doing Hogwarts on the instalment plan and were going to end up graduating with Archie and Veronica: Hermione pregnant and the Weasley boys all looking miserable. Don’t get me wrong: I love Harry Potter, but in literature, he can remain a student forever; up on the big screen, he aged noticeably. Once Harry and Ron started talking about liability insurance and mortgages, I lost interest. Besides, unlike the original stories, the movies have a sameness that defies description. The Goblet of Fire looks remarkably like The Half-Blood Prince, and, I assume, are both enlisted in The Order of the Phoenix. I just got totally tired of the constant dickin’ around. Unlike the books (which naturally follow each other) the movies run over the same ground, 8 (or is it 10?) times. From the beginning, everybody and his muggle knows who the bad guy is, so why was it left to three rapidly aging adolescents to piece together the mystery? And how come Dumbledore didn’t just round up Hagrid and the rest of the faculty, grab a few dragons on the way, and go kick Voldemort’s ass? Luckily, 100% of the kids who watch the movies have already read the books because the franchise never bothers to explain these finer points.
J. K. Rowlings wrote some wonderful books that brought adventure back to children’s literature. The books are fun for kids, and adults can read them, as well. They aged along with their readers. The movie franchise, however, disregarded what Rowlings was doing and struck out on their own. They decided that — instead of adventure — they’d use some dark-and-stormy-night shenanigans to tell what is essentially a kids’ story. I’m glad they’re over, and in a couple of years, when I get the bad taste out of my mouth I’m going to read the books again and enjoy them.
Last week we also saw the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program. After thirty years and 135 missions, when Atlantis touches down on Mother Earth next week, that’s it: no more shuttles. I’m not really sure how this is going to work, given that they left a couple of folks sitting up in the International Space Station. Honestly, if it was me up there I’d have my suitcase packed and be saying something like, “Hey, guys! Where ya goin’?” Apparently, it’s all good though. The US is just going to pay Russia to haul their astronauts back and forth, at least until Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic gets off the ground — literally. Personally, I’m overwhelmed by the irony. The nation that once shot billions of dollars into the air — just to make sure the first boot on the moon was Neil’s and not Nikita’s — is now asking Nicky to drive the bus! The old comrades who worked on the original Soviet Soyuz program are probably having a couple of vodkas and a few high fives over this one. “Who is doing the laughing now, running dog capitalists?”
The thing is some people are blowing this all out of proportion. They’re saying things like this is the beginning of the end of the American Empire or it’s the high water mark of Western influence over history. Although I fear for the end of the American Empire, I doubt if the death of the shuttle program marks anything. In reality, NASA is finally getting out from under a huge mistake they made after they quit going to the moon in 1972. At that point, they should have abandoned the process of putting people on top of a ballistic missile and gunning them into space. Instead, they should have developed a vehicle that could both take off and land from the relative safety of terra firma, just like Branson is doing (even as we speak.) If they had done that, today, ordinary billionaires would be taking their mistresses on vacations to the Sea of Tranquillity, and Moon Base One would probably have a Trump Hotel and casino. Unfortunately, NASA was so locked in to rockets in the 70s they wasted billions of dollars and 40 years. Now they have to play catch-up — just at a time when Obama and Congress have to start watching their pennies. Oh, well! Better late than never.
Finally, last week marked the end of the News of the World and although everyone applauded, it didn’t actually end; it just changed its name to protect the guilty. You can read about it here.
Endings are easy. It’s beginnings that are hard. The people of South Sudan, the newest nation in the world, are about to find that out.
Wednesday: The nuts and bolts of nation-building in South Sudan.