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The Unappreciated Genius of Neil Armstrong: A Review of James Hansen’s “First Man”

Credit: NASA

Review:

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen

Before filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller called attention to it in his superlative 2019 documentary Apollo 11, few people had probably seen one of the few photos taken of Neil Armstrong on the Moon. A tuft of hair sticking out of his Snoopy cap, a beaming Armstrong looks euphoric in the photograph shot by fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin just after the pair returned to the lunar module Eagle at the end of their moon walk. The almost giddy awe apparent in Armstrong’s eyes and grin stands in contrast to the reserved public persona Armstrong cultivated both before and after Apollo 11’s historic journey.

More than anything else, though that single photo captures both the enigma and the genius of Neil Armstrong – though historian James Hansen’s detailed authorized biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong certainly comes close. Brimming with prolific quotations from his own correspondence with Armstrong, his family, and his NASA colleagues, it’s as close to an autobiography of Armstrong as we’ll ever get – assuming Armstrong didn’t leave an unpublished manuscript stashed somewhere among his personal effects. Though occasionally weighed down by workmanlike prose and a dutiful obligation to transcribe the details of official reports almost verbatim, First Man makes it clear that Armstrong’s laconic professionalism made him the right choice to be the first human to set foot on the Moon.

As Hansen makes clear, Armstrong’s reticence was simply part and parcel of his personality from an early age. From siblings and high school classmates to NASA colleagues and superiors, those in Armstrong’s orbit invariably describe him as preternaturally calm and deliberate in his thinking and actions. Both his brother and a high school friend, for instance, observed that Neil only engaged in activities “on his terms.” Armstrong’s NASA colleagues would later use similar language to describe him, with Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman contending that Neil’s quiet and conscientious nature meant that “when he said something, it was worth listening to.” Likewise, Buzz Aldrin called Armstrong “certainly reserved, deep, and thoughtful. He would not utter things that would have the potential of being challenged later because of their spontaneity.” Apollo-era flight director Gene Kranz was more straightforward: “He had the commander mentality.”

Critics then and now mistakenly took Armstrong’s reserve as a sort of aloof detachment at best and an engineer’s blockheaded unwillingness to contemplate the meaning of humanity’s first voyage to another world at worst. But it was that very sense of equanimity that enabled Armstrong to keep cool under pressure throughout his career as a test pilot and astronaut. It allowed him to keep Apollo 11 in perspective, seeing it mainly as a job to be done rather than dwelling on the epochal nature of the mission. From a technical perspective, these qualities made Armstrong an excellent choice to command Apollo 11. For all its literary shortcomings, Hansen’s detailed account demystifies what’s become an easily misunderstood core aspect of Armstrong’s personality.

But the real insight from Hansen’s biography rests in how Armstrong’s innate reserve made him the right man to take humanity’s first step on another world. Indeed, NASA leadership recognized that Armstrong’s “soft-spoken” character mattered more than his technical skill as a pilot when it came to making the decision of whether he or the Aldrin – who, according to flight director Chris Kraft, “desperately wanted the honor and wasn’t quiet in letting it be known” – would be the first astronaut on the lunar surface. However, even these wider considerations don’t adequately capture what made Armstrong the right person to be the first man on the Moon.

Thanks to Armstrong’s unwillingness to delve into the meaning and import of his own mission, we’ve all been able to fill in the canvas of Apollo with our own interpretations of this stupendous event. As frustrating as it’s been to journalists and writers then and since, Armstrong’s steadfast reticence has meant that discerning the meaning of Apollo became truly shared enterprise in the years and decades that followed that one small step of July 20, 1969. Those of us lucky enough to witness Apollo 11’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations on the National Mall last year can testify to the ways in which American society and humanity as a whole have collectively discussed and deliberated about the meaning and significance of our first journey beyond our home planet. 

That’s not to say that Armstrong was a cipher – far from it. As Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins recalled, Armstrong was not so much unable to reveal his innermost thoughts to others as he was generally unwilling. Armstrong’s own personal take on the meaning and import of Apollo materialized only rarely; during a pre-launch press conference, for instance, he “tentatively” (in Hansen’s words) suggested that humanity was going to the Moon “because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges. It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul. We’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.” That answer may not have satisfied the skepticism of the novelist Norman Mailer, reporting on the mission for Life magazine, but it provides an intriguing humanistic context for Armstrong’s now-immortal first words on the lunar surface: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” 

Despite the faint intimations of humanism implied by this memorable expression – though Armstrong claims not to have given his statement much thought before setting down on the Sea of Tranquility – the first human to set foot on another celestial body refused to impose his own understanding of this epochal event on the world or the future. It was left up to us to determine the meaning of it all, with Armstrong merely providing us with the opportunity to do so. Though Hansen puts all these pieces of the puzzle on the table, he never really puts them together. He only weakly gives a sense that they constitute parts of a bigger picture, but the fact that Hansen collected them all in one place remains a significant achievement. In the end, though, it’s clear from Hansen’s account that NASA chose the right astronaut for the job.

Hansen understandably devotes nearly all of his narrative – some ninety percent – to Armstrong’s life up to his departure from the astronaut corps in the early summer of 1970. Armstrong himself briefly held a position as the NASA official in charge of advanced aeronautical research and development before leaving government altogether in 1971. He then took up a professorship at the University of Cincinnati for the rest of the 1970s before serving on government commissions (like the investigation into the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986) and corporate boards until officially retiring the early 2000s.

Reading Hansen’s brief sketch of his post-lunar life, however, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Armstrong had some difficulty adjusting to life after the Moon. After all, just what does the first man on the Moon do with the rest of his life? While Buzz Aldrin’s public struggle with alcoholism and depression began shortly after he and his two fellow astronauts exited their post-mission quarantine in Houston, Armstrong appears to have faced his own mild form of existential drift in the years and decades that followed his return to Earth. That sense of restlessness comes across in Hansen’s account of the end of his marriage to his first wife Janet in the late 1980s, when Armstrong grew indecisive about his own substantial time commitments – and failed to make enough time to sustain their own relationship.

Indeed, of the three Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins seems to have had the best post-mission experience. After briefly serving as assistant secretary of state for public affairs, Collins became the first director of the National Air and Space Museum and presided over its opening in 1976. His memoir Carrying the Fire stands as perhaps the best – and certainly most literary – account of what it was like to be an astronaut during the early days of human spaceflight.

That obviously does nothing to detract from Armstrong’s storied career or his dual achievement of being the first person to set foot on the Moon and, consciously or not, allowing us to discover the meaning of that one small step for ourselves. Armstrong’s refusal to impose his own interpretation on the events of Apollo 11 then or later stands in stark contrast to the incessant demands for didactic, black-and-white interpretations that we constantly hear today. Saturated in social media, it seems as if we want to be spoon-fed superficial explanations of the happenings that swirl around us as quickly as possible. 

With his own innate quiet reserve, however, Neil Armstrong gives us a different model to follow. We’d do well to emulate his considered reticence and refuse to indulge in the sort of simplistic moralism about current affairs that marks so much of our day-to-day lives. More importantly, in so doing we’ll give ourselves the time and space needed to come to shared and individual senses of meaning about events we encounter. In the end, Armstrong’s example reminds us that calm deliberation can take us far – even all the way to the Moon.

The Rolling Stones and the Wages of Boredom

We live in an unprecedented season of boredom

Not the familiar kind of ennui we all find ourselves experiencing from time to time, but a sort of existential tedium that’s been imposed upon us by the need to contain the ravages of a deadly virus. It’s not that there aren’t ways to endow this tedium with a sense of purpose, but as a society we’ve failed to avail ourselves of any of them – a failing magnified by our inability to cope constructively with the devastating social and economic consequences of the pandemic. While that’s due mainly to a disastrous absence of political leadership of any kind at the highest level, we each bear our own share of responsibility for slipping so unthinkingly into the deep and pervasive collective malaise that’s filled the ensuing void. 

Strangely enough, the soundtrack most relevant to our stay-at-home monotony was written and recorded some five decades ago by the Rolling Stones. Listening to the Stones at this particular moment of shared boredom, it’s not hard to pick up on the overwhelming sense of anomie and listlessness that courses through much of the band’s work. It’s this undercurrent of aimless anxiety that provided the Stones with their creative animus – and what makes the music they made at the height of their powers in the 1960s and 1970s so apropos in our own era of ennui. 

This motivating torpor comes through loud and clear on the band’s first major success, the appropriately titled “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The distorted fuzz of Keith Richards’ languid opening riff provides a fitting prelude to the myriad frustrations with the modern world listed by Mick Jagger. Fueled by the maddeningly contradictory messages he hears from consumer advertisers and an exasperating inability to satiate his sexual desire, Jagger’s central compliant revolves around a state of existential ennui that feels uncannily parallel to that resulting from our own coronavirus confinement. Same goes for “Get Off My Cloud,” another early-era Stones classic in which Jagger describes living in an apartment “on the ninety-ninth floor of my block” and sits “at home looking out the window/Imagining the world has stopped.”

But the band’s animating tedium only truly comes to a head with its seminal 1968 album Beggars Banquet. There, the Stones give full license to the underlying boredom that drives their music. That starts with “Sympathy for the Devil,” where the Stones explore the depravity that results from eternal indolence. It’s as if the sophisticated Satan crafted by the Stones has nothing better to do with his time than cause trouble across human history. For him, this death and destruction amounts to a mere game – though one whose true nature eludes his human audience. An aura of decadent menace surrounds the devil as he demands “some courtesy, some sympathy, and some taste” should the listener ever encounter him. “Use all your well-learned politesse,” he warns, “or I’ll lay your soul to waste.”

Going deeper into the album, the band’s general malaise becomes even more apparent. “No Expectations” and “Dear Doctor” deliver a slow, lazy laments, while on “Jigsaw Puzzle” Jagger “waits so patiently/Lying on the floor.” He’s “just trying to do my jigsaw puzzle/Before it rains anymore.” But it’s on the relatively up-tempo “Street Fighting Man” where the Stones best express their restless boredom. Ostensibly a paean to violent political revolution, the song amounts to an outpouring of aimless frustration when there aren’t any better ways to spend one’s time. (Indeed, boredom often leads to risky and self-destructive behavior.) The narrator claims he personifies disturbance and will “shout and scream, I’ll kill the King I’ll rail at all his servants.” In the end, though, street fighting is nothing more than a release of pent-up energy – in “sleepy London town,” after all, there’s no other way to alleviate boredom “except to sing for a rock and roll band.”

From there on out, it’s only a question of how far the Stones can be driven in their quest to take the edge off their collective listlessness. That’s apparent on songs like “Stray Cat Blues,” an encomium to morally dubious sexual desire on Beggars Banquet, and “Midnight Rambler,” a first person blues narrative about a serial killer on the prowl from Let It Bleed. This ennui-driven exploration of the darker reaches of the human condition probably hits its apotheosis with “Brown Sugar,” the sublime opening track on the Stones’ 1971 masterpiece Sticky Fingers. 

It’s clear in retrospect that the band’s malaise had nowhere more extreme to take them after this depraved triumph, but their languid restlessness still marks the rest of Sticky Fingers. “Did you ever wake up to find,” Jagger wonders on “Sway,” “A day that broke up your mind/Destroyed your notion of circular time?” Likewise, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” exudes agitated ennui from its nasty opening chords through Jagger’s snarling delivery to the concluding jam session between Richards and then-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. “Dead Flowers,” the album’s penultimate track, makes explicit at least one of the wages of terminal boredom: the desperate stupor of heroin abuse.

Indolence continued to fuel the Stones creatively well into the 1970s. On the opening track of 1972’s Exile On Main Street, for instance, Jagger confesses “the sunshine bores the daylights out of me.” The disco-inflected hit “Miss You” from 1978’s Some Girls alludes to the anxious tedium involved in “hanging on the phone” and “sleeping all alone” while waiting for the call of an erstwhile lover; several songs on 1980’s Emotional Rescue hit similar themes as well. Despite the band’s own licentious lifestyle at the time, there’s a certain theatricality behind their musical decadence. Dissolute aspects of their own personal lives aside, it’s as if the Stones suggest that we shouldn’t take them too seriously.

Two of the band’s most well-known songs suggest that’s the case – and provide rays of light amidst the boredom-generated doom and gloom that characterizes much of their work. Perhaps the Stones’ best song, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” reassures us that after all our trials and tribulations – including a “spike right through my head” – “it’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas.” More to the point, “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It)” gives the game away: for the Stones (or Jagger at least), rock and roll can’t solve our existential problems – but it is an exceptionally enjoyable way to fill our time and dispel our boredom, if only temporarily.

That’s why the sonic landscape the Stones created five decades ago is so appropriate for our own day and age. With an endless and aimless lockdown nurturing ennui on a massive scale, perhaps it’s only fitting that a band so fueled by the need to relieve its own boredom gives us our most relevant soundtrack. Indeed, the Stones captured the zeitgeist with their most recent single, “Living in a Ghost Town” – and showed how their enduring preoccupation with existential indolence and what to do with it remain potent today. 

But as much as the Stones once pushed the boundaries of good taste and cultivated a well-earned reputation for raising hell while plumbing the depths of debauchery with their music, they also leave us with good reason for optimism. We may be confined to home indefinitely and bored to tears, but it’s all right: we’ve got rock and roll, and it’s a gas, gas, gas.

Two Roads to the Same Destination: The Rise of Gated Community Politics on Both Left and Right

We live in the age of gated community politics.

This form of politics rests on the idea that the United States and individual American citizens can sequester themselves from the world and each other. It exemplifies a particular sort of moral and political isolationism, an abdication of solidarity with and our obligations to our fellow citizens and humanity as a whole. Whether expressed in a right-wing idiom or a left-wing one, gated community politics both reflects and stimulates the collapse of social trust that’s needed to create and sustain stable and successful societies. Gated community politics  denies the possibility of a shared national life, thriving on and amplifying solipsism while dissolving the bonds that link fellow citizens to one another and the world at large.

Both variants of gated community politics are founded on fundamentally misguided understandings of human nature. That’s most obvious with the right-wing version promoted by President Trump, based as it is on excessive pessimism about human nature and the need to build literal walls to cut ourselves off from others. But it’s equally present on the progressive left in the guise of romantic and utopian beliefs about human nature that find substantive expression in calls for foreign policy “restraint” and, more recently, abolish or defund the police at home. Together, privileged left-wing idealism and entrenched far-right pessimism aid and abet one another, each in their own way stimulating and encouraging the gated community mentality that distorts the way we think about politics and society.

Whatever fine distinctions can be drawn between these two ways of thinking about human nature, in the final analysis they’re two roads to the same destination: the gated political community, isolated from one’s fellow citizens and the rest of humanity. Along the way, these two caricatures of human nature flatten our thinking about our shared human experience and leave us unequipped to deal with the complex, messy realities of politics and human life. No matter our starting point, when we adopt either of these misconceived notions of human nature we’re almost certain to wend our way to the gated political community.

It’s easy to recognize the gated community mentality on the right, particularly in the form of President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy and his repeated pledges to build a literal wall on the border with Mexico. An excessive pessimism about human nature undergirds the right-wing school of gated community politics. It sees humanity as inherently egocentric and misanthropic, with every person and every nation out to take advantage of everyone else. We must therefore shape our own behavior accordingly, building walls to keep others out and arming ourselves to the teeth to keep them away. What’s more, we must do our utmost to take advantage of others before they take advantage of us first.

President Trump’s unfulfilled promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico easily stands as the most obvious and concrete manifestation of right-wing gated community politics. In its attempt to keep undesirables out of the country, the wall both literally and symbolically aims to turn the United States into a gated community. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a better synecdoche for the gated community worldview than President Trump’s “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall.”

Appeals Court Rejects Trump's Diversion of Military Funds for ...
Credit: Doug Mills, New York Times

But the gated community mentality is far more important as the engine that drives President Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy, an attitude that sees the nations of the world as always and everywhere trying to exploit of the United States. In this view, alliances become protection rackets and international trade a matter of exploitation rather than instruments of shared security and mutual prosperity. Witness President Trump’s recent complaint that the “European Union has ripped this country off so much” when it comes to trade, for instance, or his repeated insistence that allies in Europe and Asia pay for American military protection.

In terms of policy, “America First” relies almost solely on coercion. Throwing up tariff barriers and threatening to withdraw from alliances unless other member nations pony up protection money only reflects the narrow-minded, self-serving, and ultimately fearful impulses that lay at heart of the gated community politics on the right. At best, this form of politics cultivates a sense of aggrieved indifference toward the rest of the world. It dissolves any sense of international solidarity among like-minded nations, and reduces the United States to a bystander on the world stage. In consequence, it constitutes both a moral and practical evasion of the complex and difficult realities of international politics. More than anything else, though, the practice of right-wing gated community politics amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy of the highest – and worst – order by acting as if the world really operates in the way President Trump and his fellow-travelers believe it does.

If President Trump actively aims to remake the nation as a gated community, his professed opponents on the progressive left seem happy to reach the same destination – albeit by a different path. Cloaked in idealistic rhetoric, progressive gated community politics are no less destructive than its right-wing mirror image of the bonds of solidarity on which society depends. Nor is it any less founded on fundamentally misguided notions of human nature than its counterpart on the right. 

Indeed, progressive gated community politics rests on romantic and utopian ideas surrounding human nature. Believing humanity to be intrinsically innocent but corrupted by a base and sinful society, at the end of the day progressive gated community politics yields a blithe and privileged anarchism that frequently finds adherents among the relatively well-off upper-middle-classes of society. With a healthy dose of condescending solipsism, this mentality asserts that the American society and the United States constitute the main root of all that’s wrong with the world in some way, shape, or form. As a result, society itself – and “primacy” and “liberal hegemony” in the foreign policy context – must somehow be “dismantled” or otherwise destroyed to clear the way for the progressive utopia that will inevitably and ineluctably emerge from the ruins.

Ultimately, however, this worldview amounts to a counterfeit altruism that can only be offered by those who have the means to exempt themselves from its consequences. It’s no exaggeration to say that this atavistic mode of progressive politics fosters the very conditions that lead to the demand for gated communities in the first place. The emergence of the progressive gated community mentality marks an enormous regression in supposedly left-wing political thinking, a renunciation of the ideals of solidarity and shared citizenship in the name of an allegedly higher morality.

This moral and political isolationism can be found first and foremost in the foreign policy doctrines that fall under the rubric of “restraint.” Advocates of “restraint” assume that a wholesale American retreat from the world will lead to an improvement in the existing state of international affairs. Presuming the exercise of American military power to be the root of all international problems, advocates of “restraint” assume that the removal of said military power can only have salutary consequences for global security and stability. Leaving our erstwhile allies in Europe and Asia to fend for themselves against regional powers like Russia and China will therefore cause few if any problems, allowing the United States to focus more intently on its own domestic problems and inaugurate a new age of global cooperation on problems like climate change. Dismantle “liberal hegemony,” in other words, and the world will see something close to an Edenic efflorescence of peace and security.

But while advocates of “restraint” clothe themselves in righteous rhetoric and take a very different rhetorical path than that taken President Trump and “America First,” their preferred foreign policy approach winds up in the very same gated community. In both cases, America finds itself isolated and alone in the world after it severs the moral and political bonds that attach it to its friends and allies around the globe. Presenting themselves as mere realists, advocates of “restraint” foster a gated community mentality on the left that’s strikingly similar to its counterpart on the right. This gated community may appear more welcoming, but it nonetheless remains walled off and separate from the rest of the world in its own pernicious way.

On the domestic front, notions of foreign policy “restraint” find an uncanny analogue in newly-fashionable calls to defund – or even abolish – local police forces. Even more than advocates of “restraint,” progressives aiming to starve law enforcement of resources exemplify the romantic and utopian assumptions about human nature that animate the gated community mentality on the left. This worldview takes for granted the notion that the state and society themselves constitute the major source of societal dysfunction and, more crucially, that the diminution of public authority does not and cannot logically entail a rejection of the ideals shared citizenship and solidarity necessary for a diverse and variegated society to function even at a most basic level.

Progressive ideologues on the Minneapolis City Council, for instance, voted to abolish the metropolitan police department – but provided three members of the council with private security details in the weeks surrounding the vote that followed the apparent murder of an unarmed man at the hands of the police. The head of the city council has even argued the desire for basic public protection against crimes like armed robbery “comes from a place of privilege.” Likewise, the progressive residents of one Minneapolis neighborhood have found themselves contending with growing public disorder – but refuse to call the police or cooperate with prosecutors on ideological grounds, even when compelled to turn over the keys to their cars at gunpoint. Meanwhile, gun violence on the North Side of Minneapolis continues to take its toll, with over a hundred people shot and eight killed since Memorial Day. Residents of this less well-off neighborhood can catalogue their fair share of problems and issues with the police, but look askance at calls by local progressive ideologues to defund or abolish law enforcement.

From the Balkans in the 1990s to Iraq and Syria in the 2000s and 2010s, the world has seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well. In the absence of a legitimate public authority able to enforce the law and provide a modicum of security, people will seek safety in the confines of narrower and narrower social units based on allegedly primordial identity markers. Those with means to afford private security will avail themselves of it, withdrawing from society and into their own heavily-policed gated communities. Nor does community security provided by one’s neighbors – an alternative offered by more radical police abolitionists – avoid the gated community problem, and indeed may make matters worse. As the philosopher Michael Walzer notes, this sort of “neighborly surveillance” has its own long and sordid history from Calvinist Geneva and Puritan England to Revolutionary France and Maoist China. 

A provincial governor in Heilongjiang has his hair brutally shaved and is forced to bow for hours after being accused of bearing a resemblance to Mao Zedong.
Credit: © Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images

Above all else, though, progressive gated community politics stands as a repudiation of solidarity with one’s fellow citizens and, indeed, the rest of humanity. Its practitioners amputate these indispensable common bonds and fail to envisage – much less consider – the predictable consequences involved. In the pursuit of an idyllic illusion, they unwittingly propose to slip back into circumstances uncomfortably akin a Hobbesian state of nature. Though it may start from vastly different and much more idealistic (though no less misguided) suppositions about human nature than its right-wing equivalent, progressive gated community politics merely charts a different path to the same destination.

So how can we escape the politics of the gated community?

We can start by recognizing the practical implications inherent in both progressive and right-wing manifestations of gated community politics. Both reassure us that we’ll reap nothing but benefits when we cut ourselves off from our fellow citizens and loosen our ties to the rest of humanity. In reality, these forms of politics do nothing so much as dissolve the bonds of solidarity and shatter the individual public-spiritedness so vital and necessary to functioning societies. They constitute a retreat into moral and political isolationism, and an abdication of responsibility and concern for one another as citizens and human beings. In its progressive incarnation especially, gated community politics results in both an ethical and physical withdrawal from society by those who can afford their own protection. As the great labor and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin put it in the late 1960s, left-wing “pseudo-revolutionaries” who advocate utopian political romanticism but “can retreat into their universities and suburbs” when faced with the practical consequences of their worldview “deserve special condemnation.”

More importantly, we can reject the fundamentally misguided beliefs about human nature posited by proponents of gated community politics on both left and right. Neither the excessive pessimism of the gated community right nor the romantic utopianism of the gated community left evince much (if any) contact with living, breathing human beings in all their complexity and contradiction. Nor do they reveal much real regard for actually existing people. A certain solipsism prevails in gated community politics on both ends of the political spectrum, as if the world does not exist outside the mental constructs about human nature they’ve built for themselves. Indeed, these erroneous understandings of human nature serve only to flatten the human experience, reducing it to caricatures that invariably lead to either self-fulfilling prophecies or perverse outcomes. The end result of the gated community mentality across political and ideological lines is an inability – or an outright refusal – to think about complicated moral, political, and policy questions that by their very nature can’t be forced into the procrustean bed of ideology.

To truly escape from the prison of gated community politics, though we need more balanced and refined beliefs about human nature. These ideas would acknowledge the positives and negatives of human nature in concert, considering its strengths together with its weaknesses. As a matter of fact, philosophical and religious traditions have been conceiving and elaborating such ideas throughout human history. The ancient Stoics, for instance, developed a subtle and sophisticated view of human nature that involved the use of reason on behalf of the common good of both the particular society in which we happen to live as well as humanity as a whole. But they also understood that it’s foolish to expect no one to ever do wrong or wrongdoers of any and every stripe not to exist; indeed, the Stoic philosopher-statesmen Seneca and Marcus Aurelius took pains to remind themselves and their literary interlocutors to anticipate encountering such mistaken and misguided people in daily life. This ancient school of philosophical thought offered a nuanced and reflective account of human nature that aimed to delineate it, detail its requirements, and, perhaps most importantly, why we so often fail to live up to it.

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Capitoline Museums, Rome (2019). Credit: Peter Juul

Other philosophical and religious traditions can offer similar accounts of human nature. Though Thomas Hobbes, for instance, remains best known for his deeply pessimistic speculative description of the state of nature, he also contended that humanity could emancipate and protect itself from this dire predicament by delegating authority to a overwhelmingly powerful sovereign state. But the specifics of these ideas about human nature remain less important than the fact that it’s possible to have fully developed philosophical or religious understandings of human nature without resorting to the distorted and simplistic views that undergird the gated community mentality. We’d all be better served by adopting the richer accounts of human nature these ways of thinking offer.

The task before us today, however, mostly involves holding the line against the moral and political isolationism offered by gated community politics across the political spectrum. It’s a difficult assignment, but looking forward it will prove vital to maintain the bonds of common humanity and shared citizenship necessary for any society to function – and function well. These bonds are under active assault from both right and left: the former holds an extremely pessimistic view of human nature that denies such bonds exist outside an exceedingly narrow confines, while the latter advances romantic and utopian notions that only serve to dissolve these bonds. In the end, they’re merely different roads to the same destination: the gated community.

But we can still turn back the tide of gated community politics if we reject the misguided and false understandings of human nature on which it relies. Instead, we can and should adopt and put forward more balanced ideas about human nature that strengthen the bonds of solidarity that unite us with our fellow citizens and humanity writ large. If we shed the moral and political isolationism at its root, then perhaps we can reject the temptations of gated community politics wherever they may emerge.

Records You Should Listen To: “Emotional Rescue” by the Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones - Emotional Rescue [Remastered] - Amazon.com Music

[The second in an occasional series.]

From 1968 to 1972, the Rolling Stones assembled perhaps the most remarkable run of albums in popular music history: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. Just one of these spectacular records would have been the climax of any band’s career, but Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and company reeled off a four consecutive masterpieces over the same number of years. Alongside singles like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women,” these records showcase the Stones at their creative peak – and set an unrealistic standard for all the band’s subsequent work.

Only from such heights could solid outings like 1973’s Goat’s Head Soup and 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll come to be seen as disappointments. But the Stones mounted a three-album renaissance at the end of the 1970s, starting with Some Girls in 1978 and concluding with Tattoo You, the band’s last truly impressive studio album, in 1981. Released 1980, Emotional Rescue often winds up a neglected chapter in the Stones’ last artistic gasp – but it’s a record that deserves more than a footnote in the history of the legendary rock band.

Not that the Rolling Stones have failed to make compelling music since. They’ve produced a number of catchy singles, from “Love Is Strong” and “You Got Me Rocking” in the mid-1990s to “Doom and Gloom” in the early 2010s. Blue and Lonesome, the Stones’ worthy 2016 tribute to the blues genre that first inspired its members all those decades ago, likewise stands out as a fitting capstone to the band’s enormous body of work. For the most part, though, since the early 1980s the Rolling Stones have amounted to the world’s greatest touring band more than a living musical force. In retrospect, Emotional Rescue can be viewed as the second-to-last major creative statement of a career that’s now spanned almost six decades .

The album itself picks up right where Some Girls left off with “Dance (Pt. 1),” a song with an underlying groove and beat reminds listeners of the preceding record’s “Miss You.” Jagger exhorts the band to “get up, get out, get into something new.” But the Stones clearly have no interest in or intention of doing so on Emotional Rescue; they’ll just continue doing what they do best. Richards and Ronnie Wood – who joined the band as its second guitarist in the mid-1970s – provide excellent guitar work, weaving together solos, riffs, and chords effortlessly.

It’s also clear from the start that Emotional Rescue is a summer album, intended for listening during the long, hot, and sticky days from early June to late August. Richards fires off a blistering solo on the aptly-titled “Summer Romance,” while Jagger’s vocals come to the fore on the plaintive, Caribbean-inflected blues number “Send It To Me.” “Let Me Go” is a pleasant enough break-up song, with Jagger listing the ways in which he’s tried to ditch a lover, including: “The bell has rung and I call time.” On “Indian Girl,” fine acoustic work from Richards and Wood backs up Jagger’s languid lament that “life just goes on and on gettin’ harder and harder.” 

From the very moment they burst into public consciousness, the Stones have been driven by a decadent cocktail of ennui and sexual desire. That unstable compound seeps back to the surface on “Where The Boys Go,” where a bored Jagger tells potential female companions that he’s exhausted potential alternatives – playing football, watching television, and drinking to excess – and now embarks on a quest for “a little piece of ass” to divert himself. After all,“where the girls are now” is “where the boys all go.”

The record deftly segues into the desperation blues of “Down In The Hole,” where Jagger aggressively queries whether money actually buys anything of real value. It can’t keep a person from falling “down in the gutter,” reduced to bumming for cigarettes and nylons. Down in the hole, there’s “no escape from trouble” and “nowhere to go.” Richards and Wood knit blues licks together while Sugar Blue plays a mournful harmonica, lending the song an added touch of melancholy.

With a crash of cymbals and a steady bass groove, Emotional Rescue shifts tone with the upbeat title track. Jagger’s falsetto furnishes the song with its distinctive quality as he insists he’ll ride to the rescue of a lover attached to an unworthy partner as her “knight in shining armor” – and on a “fine Arab charger” no less. Sultry saxophone work by long-time Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys rounds out the song.

The Stones return to their central animating concerns with “She’s So Cold,” a tale of unrequited lust expressed with volatile imagery. Jagger fully identifies with his own desire, describing himself as “the burning bush, the burning fire” before outright declaring “I’m the bleeding volcano.” By contrast, the object of his attraction remains “so cold, cold, cold like an ice cream cone” and a tombstone – so much so that Jagger comes to believe she was “was born in an Arctic zone.” A saxophone siren blares midway through the song, layering urgency over the deceptively relaxed guitars of Richards and Wood. Emotional Rescue then closes with “All About You,” a slow dirge to a failed relationship featuring Richards on vocals. 

Why give Emotional Rescue a listen? As a record, it’s a straightforward document of the quintessential rock band refusing to enter the twilight of its career with anything less than a roar. Sandwiched in the Stones’ late 1970s renaissance between Some Girls and Tattoo You, Emotional Rescue deserves a wider hearing from the band’s generations of devoted followers and more general rock aficionados alike. 

Lost in Space: The Squandered Potential of Netflix’s “Space Force”

Steve Carell's 'Space Force' Teaser Trailer Released – Variety

Though the show serves itself up a rich array of satirical targets and boasts a wealth of talent, Space Force never quite reaches orbit. At best, it’s a light-hearted and mildly entertaining diversion from our current national travails. But though Space Force never quite succeeds as a comedy and proves too gentle to serve as real satire, the show nonetheless possesses enough daft charm to endear itself to viewers in its own peculiar way.

Space Force certainly identifies the right satirical targets, President Donald Trump first and foremost among them. Viewers can catch glimpses of a thinly-veiled stand-in for Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, while a character clearly based on Elon Musk and Elizabeth Holmes takes central stage in an late-season episode. But Space Force fails to draw much if any blood. It gives its only decent scratch to the likes of Musk and Holmes when their analogue’s traveling publicist explains that if just one of their promised gadgets works no one will remember their repeated and frequent failures.

That goes double for the more generic archetypes Space Force attempts to lampoon. Self-absorbed social media consultant F. Tony Scarapiducci – likely a riff on the name of short-lived Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci – represents the greatest missed opportunity, drawn too broadly by actor Ben Schwartz to effectively ridicule this particular pseudo-profession. Likewise, the transparent Russia spy who appears early on amounts to a caricature before he fades away in later episodes. Perhaps the closest Space Force comes to effectively here involves one lowly grunt’s attempt to impress the daughter of Space Force commander Gen. Mark Naird (portrayed by Steve Carell) by rattling off a spate of conspiracy theories he’s read online.

Despite its generally inert satirical execution, however, Space Force still contains some bright spots. It’s imbued with an occasional but all-too-infrequent sense of the bizarre that includes a farcical attempt to order a space chimp to repair a just-launched Space Force satellite that’s been disabled by the Chinese. As the always-exasperated and constantly put-upon Space Force chief scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory, moreover, John Malkovich chews scenery with remarkable aplomb. Mallory himself provides a bit of light satire of performative activism when he threatens to immolate himself in protest of a decision to go to war with China on the Moon but then backs away, saying he’s “proven what I wanted to prove.”

Strangely enough, though, it’s Space Force’s intermittent sincerity that becomes its most engaging feature. From the very first episode, Naird places a premium on people as Space Force’s critical element – and not in the human capital argot of business consultants and economists. Pressed to justify Space Force’s budget under hostile congressional questioning, for instance, Naird explains that, in his experience, “money doesn’t matter, people matter.” In the specific case of the Space Force, he contents, those people put their lives at risk “in the pursuit of science to solve our many problems.” Ironically enough, Naird and Mallory do a better job justifying the fictional Space Force than the Trump administration has managed to do in reality.

But there’s the rub: Space Force takes far too many liberties with reality and does so in ways that reinforce popular misperceptions about America’s space program. To start with, the basic premise of the show seems to rest on the assumption that Space Force has absorbed NASA and the rest of America’s civil space program. Referencing the Trump administration’s stated (if unrealistic) goal to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, moreover, the fictional Space Force is tasked with putting “boots on the Moon” in a similar timeframe. These deviations from reality would make sense if Space Force were a sharper satire, poking holes in the very concept of a space force as put forward by President Trump – or presenting the bland and boring reality of the actual Space Force that belies the image both Trump and the show itself have concocted. 

As it is, however, Space Force leaves viewers with fantastical notions of both America’s overall space program and, perhaps more importantly, what human spaceflight takes. At the climax of the series, the Chinese land taikonauts on the Moon and claim the Sea of Tranquility – the site of the Apollo 11 landing – for Beijing. Naird orders a crash program that sees untrained Space Force personnel almost immediately rocketing to the Moon, as if landing humans on the lunar surface were simply a matter of choice rather than one of hard work, intense planning, and lengthy preparation. By its final episode, Space Force winds up debasing the fine rhetoric it put in Naird’s mouth early on.

There’s more to like and dislike about Space Force. Naird’s single-parent relationship with his daughter Erin (played by Diana Silvers), for instance, weaves another strand of earnestness into the show. But it’s undermined by the bizarre decision to include Naird’s incarcerated wife (portrayed by Lisa Kudrow) in the story. It’s unclear at best what purpose her character serves, beyond giving the show’s writers license to make some stale jokes. 

In the end, Space Force squanders its satirical potential. Though the show picks the right targets, it pulls its punches far too often and lets its quarries off with a slap on the wrist. The show’s winning if largely occasional sincerity amounts to a double-edged sword, working against its satirical possibilities at the same time paints sympathetic portraits of a number of its lead characters. John Malkovich’s exquisite exasperation notwithstanding, Space Force gives its inherently absurd premise a gentle ribbing rather than the good-natured pounding it deserves.

Records You Should Listen To: “Parade” by Prince and the Revolution

[The first in what I hope will be an occasional series.]

In 1986, Prince released Parade: Music From the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon. It would prove to be Prince’s last full album the Revolution, the band that backed him at his artistic peak in the mid-1980s. Situated chronologically between masterpieces 1999 and Purple Rain on the one hand and Sign O’ The Times on the other, Parade is an unjustly overlooked gem from Prince’s most fertile creative period.

Parade isn’t just dwarfed by these widely recognized classics, however. It’s also overshadowed by the colorful psychedelia of 1985’s Around the World in a Day, a record that expanded the Prince mythos with “Paisley Park”and gave us the undeniable “Raspberry Beret.” In addition, it certainly didn’t help that Parade had the bad luck to be associated with an unmitigated cinematic disaster that’s more recognizable today as a source for GIFs than its plot or its soundtrack.

To the extent that anyone other than die-hard Prince fans remains aware of Parade today, it’s as the album that includes the superlative single “Kiss.” But Parade – especially the album’s excellent second side – is more than just “Kiss.” In order to capture the sonic subtleties Prince employs with great effect on Parade, it’s necessary to listen actively and attentively to the record as a whole. Indeed, it’s easy to dismiss this album if a you’re not paying attention as you listen. But the music’s well worth the effort involved.

Beyond “Kiss,” Parade contains a number of standout if lesser-known Prince tracks: “Girls and Boys,” for instance, displays Prince’s fondness for lyrics that juxtapose love and lust as horns, guitars, and vocals work together to create a whimsical melody. He closes out the record’s first side with “Venus de Milo,” a dreamy jazz-inflected instrumental driven largely by piano, flutes, and muted horns. It’s a short, slow interlude that eases the listener into the album’s superior second side.

That side starts with a bang: “Mountains” opens with a strong and incessant beat that forms the song’s backbone. A cascade of percussion quickly brings us to a keyboard and guitar riff that fills the space between the beats and drives the song forward. Prince’s falsetto enters to relate the psychedelic story of a lover from “a land called Fantasy” who’s convinced “that another mountain” will appear and “sea would one day overflow with all your tears” whenever “somebody broke your heart.” But rest assured, Prince says: “it’s only mountains and the sea.” The Revolution plays together seamlessly, as evidenced by the song’s breakdown where Prince strips the song down to guitars and drums.

Then there’s “Kiss” – and the song’s introductory guitar riff and opening grunt tells us all we need to know about where it’s going. Here again, Prince’s falsetto works wonders as he expresses his desire to please his lover over a propulsive groove that amounts to funk at its finest. The breakdown brings the song’s infectious guitar strumming back to the fore before transitioning to the twangy, minimalist solo that leads to the back end of the song.

Anotherloverholenyohead” picks up with a brief guitar solo; pianos and a steady beat then join in to create the song’s crunchy main chord. Prince aggressively begs his now-former lover to return to him, reminding her that they “were inseparable” and that he “gave you all of my time.” His lover says she’s had enough, but Prince warns her that she needs “another lover like you need a hole in your head.” After all, she knows “there ain’t no other/That can do the duty in your bed.” Throughout, the Revolution’s female members – keyboardist Lisa Coleman, guitarist Wendy Melvoin, and Prince’s then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin – provide strong backing vocals that nicely complement Prince’s desperate romantic pleas.

Parade concludes with the quiet and delicate “Sometimes It Snows In April,” a mournful meditation on the untimely loss of a close friend. The song’s sparse arrangement consists of a piano, acoustic guitar, and vocals, complemented with a muted horn in the introduction. It’s a slow and introspective number in which Prince reminds himself to “always cry for love, never cry for pain” and that “love, it isn’t love until it’s passed.” Though the subject matter veers toward melancholy, the main guitar and piano through-lines consistently lilt upward and lend the song a bittersweet mood.

Why give Parade a listen? As a record, it’s a complex and often whimsical document of a musical artist at the height of his creative powers. If you’ve already heard it casually and dismissed it as one of Prince’s lesser efforts, Parade certainly deserves a second, closer, and more attentive hearing. Ultimately, Parade is a fine record in its own right – but it’s also an album that makes the already colossal achievements of 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign O’ The Times loom all the larger in the pantheon of American popular music.

Revenge of the Normie Democrat

[This piece was first published on my friend and colleague Ruy Teixeira’s Facebook account. I’m posting it here in order to show the links and references.]

To hear it from political pundits and commentators, in their 2020 presidential primaries the Democratic Party dodged the bullet that felled their Republican counterparts in 2016. Former Vice President Joe Biden emerged victorious amidst a crowded field, vindicating the Democratic establishment against insurgent populists like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. By contrast, horrified Republican elites could do little to stop their radicalized primary voters from handing their party’s presidential nomination to Donald Trump four years ago.

But this narrative both misleads and obscures: Biden’s sudden and swift political resurrection amounted to a revolt of the Democratic rank-and-file against a strident and loud progressive elite. In an inversion of the 2016 Republican primary, Democratic primary voters prevented a hostile takeover of their party by a well-heeled ideological vanguard class with whom they fundamentally disagreed on matters of both style and substance. Call it the revenge of the normie Democrats against the avant-garde progressive Twitterati.

It’s important to distinguish between a Democratic establishment still trusted by normie votes and a progressive elite that exerts influence in political discourse vastly disproportionate to their actual public support. The former consists of Democratic elected officials like former President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in addition to the proverbial party hacks. More than anything else, these elected officials and party functionaries have to win competitive elections and manage fractious political coalitions in order to deliver practical results for their constituents and the public as a whole.

In contrast, the progressive elite consists of professional activists, opinion page writers, and influential academics and think-tankers – many of whom will populate a potential Democratic presidential administration. This elite also includes ideologically-driven elected officials like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez who represent safe state or districts and probably won’t face competitive elections against Republican opponents any time soon. Backed by wealthy donors and philanthropic foundations, this network of progressive elites loudly dominated political discourse on social media as they sought to shift the Democratic Party toward the rarefied worldview prevalent within elite institutions outside the party – and all against the apparent will of regular Democratic voters.

Democratic candidates and center-left institutions that underestimate the centrality of normies to American politics do so at their own peril. Average voters with largely conventional social and political attitudes represent the core constituency for any center-left political coalition that hopes to win elections and govern in the United States. If the Democratic Party and the American center-left more broadly hope for future success, they must stop catering to noisy activists and funders who insist on receiving gestures that only undermine their political prospects. They must instead cultivate the quiet army of normie voters that powered Biden’s primary victory – and could lift Democrats to victory in November and beyond.

Unfortunately, many leading progressive lights have been captured by this loud, influential, but ultimately unrepresentative class of elite activists and wealthy donors. This class has pulled center-left politics apart from two directions: the identity politics of the “woke” left and the democratic socialism concentrated around the camp of Sen. Bernie Sanders. Highly-educated elite progressives ensconced in the upper echelons of the media, academia, and well-endowed foundations constitute the primary source of support for the woke left. Their influence could be seen quite clearly in Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, which became an unwitting parody of woke politics over the course of the primary season. Other candidates like Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Kristen Gillibrand also believed a rhetorical embrace of woke identity politics would deliver them the nomination, only to all drop out of the race before the first primary votes could even be cast.

Likewise, Sanders’s surprisingly vigorous 2016 primary challenge and consistently strong polling ahead of the 2020 primaries led many progressive elites to overestimate the wider appeal of his vague brand of democratic socialism to average Democratic primary voters. Propounded by a number of veteran left-wing activists and fueled by the Sanders campaign, democratic socialists positioned themselves as the inevitable wave of the progressive political future. Thanks in no small part to the highly visible and clamorous contingent of dyspeptic professional activists in its ranks, however, democratic socialism never won over a majority -or even a strong enough plurality – of the Democratic primary electorate.

In short, neither of the most vocal ideological factions in contemporary progressive politics proved popular among actually existing Democratic voters. Former Vice President Joe Biden won the Democratic nomination largely thanks to the strength of his support among black voters, for instance, while Sanders failed to expand his own coalition in a meaningful way. Worse, they may likely be actively harmful to Democratic prospects in November by pressuring Biden to engage in costly political posturing that drives away normie voters. As commentator Josh Barro has pointed out, candidates and institutions have adopted “a wide variety of fundamentally non-policy positions on the culture that annoy the crap out of people” in order to placate internally powerful activist and donor classes.

The drawbacks of this approach are legion. It’s disastrous politically, alienating Democrats from their own voters and heavily circumscribing their attempts to build a wider political coalition. Moreover, it destroys the sense of common national purpose that the center-left must cultivate if it’s to achieve its policy goals. Allowing progressive politics to be dictated by these unrepresentative factions may serve the interests of professional activists and donors, but it does not serve the interests of the Democratic Party, its electoral coalition, or the nation as a whole. Above all, it’s left Democrats and the center-left bereft of compelling narratives of their own and estranged from their bedrock base of normie voters.

In the 2020 primaries, however, the normies struck back by propelling a somnolent Biden campaign to a string of decisive victories and the Democratic nomination. They also revealed just how unmoored progressive elites had become from their own voters over the past five years. Progressives not only badly misinterpreted the 2016 primary results, they stuck with this faulty interpretation in the face of evidence to the contrary. They ignored the normie revolt of the 2018 mid-term elections, where mainstream center-left candidates supported by the party establishment won highly contested races for Congress while those backed by progressive ideologues lost. An excessive focus by the political media on newly-crowned progressive stars like Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley crowded out sober analysis of the actual election results. As a consequence, many progressive elites and prospective presidential candidates alike failed to perceive the rise of an emerging normie majority in American politics.

Indeed, many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates assumed that pursuing the agendas set forth by the woke left and democratic socialists would win them the nomination. This assumption proved false, with Sanders cornering the market on the factional left-wing vote and campaigns that espoused woke rhetoric falling flat among their own supposed constituencies. By contrast, Biden won the support of moderate Democrats and black voters by significant margins, ran competitively with Sanders among Hispanics and Latinos in states like Arizona, and displayed strength in formerly Republican suburbs notwithstanding his strong center-left policy platform. He even managed to bring college-educated and non-college-educated white voters together in his coalition. Along with the 2018 mid-term results, the 2020 presidential primaries ought to put to bed any notions that elections can be won through appeals to woke identity politics or left-wing political purism.

Thanks in no small part to their own primary voters, then, Democrats possess a rare opportunity to build an enduring center-left coalition in 2020 – but only if they embrace the normie politics that animates many of their core supporters. The last several election cycles reveal much about the politics of the emerging normie majority.

Though they may be anathema to the woke left and democratic socialists alike, the politics of the emerging normie majority aren’t difficult to comprehend. To start, normies aren’t besotted with the avant-garde theories of race, gender, or other identity categories peddled by progressive activists and promoted by foundations. Their culturally moderate politics leads normies to accept gay marriage, for instance, while simultaneously holding deep reservations about the excesses of contemporary transgender activism. Normies remain open to ambitious economic programs like adding a public option to Obamacare and substantial investments in national infrastructure, but tend to view expansive progressive left proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All as flights of political fancyAmbivalent internationalists, normies don’t favor disengagement from global politics but remain cautious when it comes to foreign policy. Above all, normies seek a semblance of normalcy in national life that only a competent government and stable political leadership can deliver.

To fully take advantage of this golden opportunity to cement a coalition founded on this emerging normie majority, Democrats and the center-left need to stop being bullied by the demands of the progressive professional activist and some donor classes. Better yet, they should keep the political and electoral strength of these classes in perspective and embrace the normie politics of core Democratic constituencies. That starts with the recognition that activists and donors aim to advance their own points of view and preferred policies rather than build a broader center-left coalition that can win elections. It’s better to take heat from such groups for failing to send the proper signals than to drive away the normie voters that decided the 2018 mid-terms and 2020 primaries.

Make no mistake, Democrats must win over normie voters to defeat President Trump in the upcoming presidential election. White working-class voters, for instance, will still comprise around two-fifths of the national electorate – and even marginal shifts in favor of Democrats among these voters would doom Trump in critical states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Moreover, black and Hispanic voters tend to be more moderate in their political and social attitudesthan the elite progressives who populate activist groups and philanthropic foundations. If there’s any lesson to be learned from the 2020 primary season, it’s that talk of “intersectionality,” “democratic socialism,” and other fashionable concepts failed to mobilize any voting bloc other than highly-educated progressives.

Despite their repeated failures, however, professional activists and donors will still retain the power and influence they have accumulated over the past several years. An emerging normie majority will only coalesce if the center-left stays in touch with political reality and turns back these corrosive and schismatic forces. Democrats must be willing to send positive signals to normies at the risk of bringing the wrath of activists down upon them. More than anything else, the center-left must recognize and accept the reality and electoral power of normie voters – and harness it for constructive ends.

An Astonishing Achievement: The Final Episodes of The Clone Wars

It’s no exaggeration to say that the last four episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars represent the best Star Wars we’ve seen since 1983 – if not the single finest hour of Star Wars ever produced. These final episodes combine stunning action sequences and lightsaber acrobatics with the sort of character drama and emotional intensity never before seen in the Star Wars fictional universe. Taken together, these episodes rank with Star Trek: The Next Generation’s superb televised conclusion “All Good Things…” as among the best series finales broadcast.  But perhaps most importantly, The Clone Wars lead character Ahsoka Tano takes her rightful place as the greatest hero in the Star Wars mythos.

Over the course of just over an hour or so, these last episodes of The Clone Wars deliver an emotional gut-punch unlike anything else Star Wars has given us. These episodes are emotionally intense and even brutal at times, thanks first and foremost to the web of personal relationships we’ve seen Ahsoka develop with Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and clone captain Rex over the course of the show. We’re reminded of the strength of Ahsoka’s bonds in the first two episodes of this last narrative arc, only to see these ties unravel in heartbreaking ways in the last two episodes as a result of events portrayed in Revenge of the Sith.

Indeed, themes of loyalty and friendship established in early episodes make later developments all the more heart-wrenching. Anakin reminds Ahsoka early on that loyalty “means everything to the clones,” for instance, and brushes off her thanks for his support in a tense discussion with Obi-Wan with the response that “that’s what friends are for.” It’s ironic that Anakin first articulates these themes; after all, it’s his turn against the Jedi Order in Revenge of the Sith that puts his friend and former apprentice’s life in mortal danger. For their part, moreover, the clones themselves repay Ahsoka’s own loyalty by betraying her and the rest of the Jedi thanks to the activation of their secret programming.

Ahsoka’s strong relationship with Rex drives the action in the final two episodes – and likely saves her life. Early on in the third episode, we’re treated to a poignant existential conversation between Ahsoka and Rex in which she tells the clone leader that she couldn’t have asked for a better friend. Moments later, Rex is called away to receive orders to betray the Jedi and kill Ahsoka. But his deep ties with Ahsoka cause Rex to hesitate and gives her a fighting chance at survival. Ahsoka later takes a series of exceptional risks to save Rex, taking him hostage and removing the inhibitor chip in his head. Later on, she abandons an opportunity to escape their burning star destroyer in order to prevent their former comrades from overrunning Rex’s position.

There’s much more that’s heartbreaking in these final episodes, starting with Ahsoka’s relationship with her friend and former Jedi master Anakin Skywalker. In a rush to liberate the planet Mandalore and capture the villainous Darth Maul – still alive despite his bisection at the hands of Obi-Wan at the climax of The Phantom Menace (it’s complicated) – Ahsoka and Anakin can’t find the time to catch up personally after some time apart. Ahsoka further forgoes chances to relay messages to Anakin, judging the moment inauspicious. Ahsoka’s faith in her former master when Maul accurately predicts Anakin’s impeding fall to the dark side lends these final episodes of The Clone Wars an emotional weight that the prequels palpably lacked. All these beats add up to a moving final narrative that’s suffused with the sort of pathos rarely present in Star Wars.

More than anything else, though, this final narrative arc succeeds thanks to Ahsoka herself. Her basic humanity and decency come to the fore as her defining character traits, and she proves herself a Jedi Knight par excellence despite leaving the Order of her own volition. She tells Anakin and Obi-Wan that average people have lost faith in the Jedi thanks to the Order’s myopic proclivity to play galactic politics – and that she had too “until I was reminded what Order means to the people who truly need us.” Moreover, it’s clear that Ahsoka sees the looming end of the war as an opportunity to re-join the Order: when she contacts the Jedi Council after taking down Maul, she say’s she’s done her duty as a citizen and not as a Jedi – at least “not yet.” Ahsoka’s complex views on the Jedi Order become clear in her subsequent reflective conversation with Rex: “As a Jedi, we were trained to be keepers of the peace, not soldiers. But all I’ve been since I was a Padawan is a soldier.” 

But it’s in her relationship with the clones that Ahsoka’s humanity shines most brightly. She treats them with the same sort of empathy The Clone Wars itself managed over the course of the series. When she encounters a dying clone trooper on Mandalore, for instance, she holds his hand and consoles him before he dies of his wounds. Ahsoka refuses to abandon Rex even after his programming activates, leading to a brief but affecting scene in which she replies from behind that she’s “right here” when Rex demands to know her location. What’s more, Ahsoka refuses to kill the clones that have been trying to kill her – even when a de-programmed Rex tells her there’s no other way. Finally, in what’s perhaps the most emotionally brutal scene in the whole Star Wars series, Ahsoka silently looks out over the graves of the clone troopers she and Rex fought alongside and then buried in the wake of their betrayal.

In the end, it’s her fundamental humanity that allows Ahsoka to stay true to her own moral code and ethical commitments. This sense of basic decency suffuses her own ideas of what a Jedi Knight and the Jedi Order should be, and guides her actions throughout The Clone Wars – and nowhere more so than in these final episodes. It’s what makes Ahsoka one of the great characters in the entire Star Wars mythos and earns her a prominent place the much wider pantheon of science-fiction heroes. Ahsoka may well have been the first female Jedi to wield a lightsaber, but that’s not why she’s the most compelling protagonist Star Wars has yet produced.

Nor is it hard to understand why The Clone Wars succeeded where the prequels failed: it possessed well-developed characters with close relationships that demanded emotional investment from the audience. But that The Clone Wars succeeded is all the more perplexing given the strong involvement of George Lucas himself in both enterprises. For instance, The Clone Wars portrays Anakin Skywalker as a fully-developed and competent character as opposed to the moody teenager and sullen young adult of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Indeed, there’s far more emotion and character in this final arc of The Clone Wars alone than in the rest of the Star Wars saga combined.

Paradoxically, though, The Clone Wars relies on the prequels for much of its emotional impact even as it transcends them. As an audience, we know what’s coming in these final episodes: the fall of the Jedi Order and the rise of Darth Vader. But we’ve also seen relationships between Ahsoka, Anakin, and the clones grow and mature over the course of The Clone Wars in ways that make the largely unseen events of Revenge of the Sith more tragic. Kevin Kiner’s orchestral score also works wonders here, effectively integrating musical cues and movements from John Williams’ Revenge of the Sith score with more ominous and ambient electronic sounds to create a sense of foreboding across these last four episodes. 

In contrast to the prequels, The Clone Wars establishes real and high emotional stakes for the audience and the characters themselves. These stakes imbue this final narrative arc with an emotional weight and resonance that’s absent from the prequels, and what’s more The Clone Wars earns these stakes in ways the prequels never did. Thanks to the relationships we’ve seen Ahsoka forge with Anakins and the clones over the course of the series, for instance, Ahsoka’s battle against the turncoat clones and her interactions with Anakin pack a far stronger emotional punch than the climactic duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith or the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Vader in the original film

Indeed, the final shot of the series encapsulates this earned emotional resonance: Darth Vader and an army of Imperial stormtroopers come across the site where Ahsoka and Rex buried their former comrades in arms. Vader picks up and ignites Ahsoka’s lightsaber, the very lightsaber he kept and repaired for her after she left the Jedi Order. It’s a silent scene, and rightly so – it successfully relies on our the audience’s awareness of the ties that once bound Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano together to produce the sort of pathos that’s nonexistent in the prequels. Ultimately, it’s the absence of real emotional stakes that transformed those films from the grand tragedy Lucas envisioned into fodder for humorous memes.

The Clone Wars doesn’t redeem the prequels, however; the show stands on its own and ought to receive praise in its own right. These last four episodes gave the series the spectacular and satisfying conclusion it deserved. Though the show’s end closes Ahsoka’s remarkable narrative for now, both she and The Clone Wars as a whole demonstrate just how good Star Wars can be when it hits its marks. I’m personally eager to see more of Ahsoka’s story – what was she up to between her final scene in The Clone Wars and her first appearance in Star Wars: Rebels? What did she do after Rebels? – but that I understand that Ahsoka will only appear again if the Star Wars gods allow it.

But even if we never see Ahsoka again, The Clone Wars has provided a fitting and rewarding send-off to the best Star Wars character we’ve seen. 

Make Politics Boring Again: The Case for Normalcy

[Note: This is twelve percent of an idea. It’s barely even a concept.]

Over the past quarter-century, American politics and our shared national life have slowly but surely descended into derangement. From President Bill Clinton’s impeachment over sexual misbehavior and the Iraq war to chronic government shutdowns and the election of a semi-literate carnival barker in 2016, this decline has only accelerated over time. Safeguards and firebreaks against the absurd and inane in politics and society alike have been dismantled, our national circuit-breakers damaged seemingly beyond repair. 

The politicization of nearly everything in national life stands as both cause and consequence of our collective flight from reason. Politics saturates our collective experience as a nation in unhealthy ways. Political polarization likewise serves as the fuel for its own fire, feeding itself as it continuously expands and consumes whatever crosses its path. Taken together, these abstract phenomena have hit critical mass and started a self-sustaining chain reaction that can only hasten our own national self-immolation.

Indeed, politics itself threatens to swallow us all whole. The great American berserk has finally spun out of control, and the gradual-then-sudden transformation of politics into a constant and ever-present life-or-death struggle bears much of the blame. We’ve made politics a way of life, imposing upon ourselves rigid and dogmatic ways of thinking that flatten out our own national, social, and personal lives. Without so much as a second thought, we’ve excised wider and richer notions of life and experience from our public and our private consciences. We now increasingly define ourselves by and through our politics, when in reality no single facet of our lives can possibly hope to do so.

The coronavirus crisis, however, offers a stark reminder of what truly matters in politics: competence and a concern for the common good. We’re seeing all too clearly the disastrous consequences of our abnormal national obsession with politics and its deleterious place in our public life. Counterintuitively, this crisis shows us that politics must be made normal again – not a dominant or decisive part of our national or personal lives. Politics as a way of life has failed, but politics as a mechanism for substantive change can be made to work once again.

That can’t be done without understanding our present abnormalcy. To start with, our politics has assumed increasingly existential stakes over the last twenty-five years. Indeed, every successive national election has come to be characterized as the most important of our lives. Wittingly or not, we’ve cultivated a pervasive sense of existential dread in our politics that drains us as individuals and exhausts us as a society. This chronic state of constant agitation and anxiety achieves little and costs much: we reduce ourselves from individuals with a variety of views and interests to two-dimensional caricatures. Our thinking about society and conceptions about our shared national life have become narrow, cramped, and mean-spirited. In amplifying the stakes involved in politics beyond all reason, moreover, we encourage extreme stances and excuse unethical behavior. As a result, government no longer functions adequately and cannot serve its primary purpose: solving collective action problems with an eye to the common good, determining what we owe one another as fellow citizens, and resolving disagreements about those subjects – or at least constructively suspending them – without recourse to violence.

As a society and as individuals, we’ve invested far too much of ourselves in politics. In seeking meaning and salvation in politics, we’ve paradoxically made politics progressively more trivial. We’ve allowed our baser instincts and impulses to permeate and corrupt our public life, making it more squalid and sordid than absolutely necessary. By making politics a way of life, in short, we’ve burdened politics itself with far more significance than it can possibly sustain and caused the hard work of actual government for which it exists to grind to a screeching halt.

Politics is at its core a profession, not a way of life – and we’ve confused the two at our personal and collective peril. As a profession, politics is no more or less honorable than any other. But as a way of life, it becomes non-negotiable and intolerant; political disagreement becomes one of the deepest personal attacks an individual can face in life. This phenomenon isn’t exactly new: a century ago, the great sociologist Max Weber distinguished between those who primarily lived “for” politics and those who mainly lived “off” politics. In the latter camp, we find professional politicians and party functionaries who make politics their career and source of income. In the former camp, however, we find individuals who involve themselves in politics because they need their lives to “meaning in the service of a ‘cause.’”

Weber presciently and accurately described the motivations of many who take part in democratic politics today, both in the United States and elsewhere. But he didn’t establish that it’s actually possible for individuals to find meaning in politics, in part because he didn’t set out to make that argument. In his own roundabout way and in his own historical context, however, Weber himself understood that politics as a way of life did not offer the route to personal or collective salvation that many of its adherents think possible. When we try to make politics a way of life that defines who we are as individuals, we lose sight of the fact that we bring our own principles and values to politics rather than the other way around. Politics itself cannot bear the weight of the search for meaning that so many place on it today and throughout history.

It’s therefore incumbent on those of us who have made politics and policy our profession to do our part to make politics normal again, undertaking as best we can to ensure that politics returns to its proper role as a pedestrian but effective means of addressing collective problems. Ordinary citizens in a democracy shouldn’t have to obsess over politics the way we do, much less see it as a field of existential battle that’s joined every single day. More importantly, we all have interests and pursuits into which politics cannot and should not infiltrate or impose itself upon. A relentless and dogmatic drive to freight even the most quotidian affairs of our lives with political portent leaves us blind to the more profound joys and sorrows inherent in our shared human experience.

That’s not at all to downplay or gainsay the importance of participation in public life and politics. Indeed, involvement in civic affairs remains a duty for those of us so inclined to see it as such. The ancient Stoics, for instance, held that involvement in public life constituted a central commitment of their philosophy. But as the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote in his treatise On Leisure, such participation can be limited by an an individual’s own capacity to contribute to public life and the general moral health of the body politic. Equally significant, Seneca offers a more expansive and magnanimous conception of public service as making oneself “useful to others” – including, if all else fails, to oneself. 

Above all, then, politics needs to be conducted in accordance with its proper worth: an important part of social and national life, but not an individual or collective obsession that devours all before it. Even for those of us liable to view political involvement as a duty, it’s far from a categorial moral imperative that supersedes all other responsibilities or preferences at all times. And as Seneca reminds us, there are other ways to meet one’s duties and participate in public life that don’t necessarily involve electoral or formal politics.

We need instead to aim for normalcy in politics even as we approach public policy with ambition and vision. To do otherwise would be to accede to a quite frankly totalitarian demand for an absolute individual moral commitment to politics that’s repressive, alienating, and enervating. The constant mobilization such a mindset requires corrodes the very social bonds necessary for a society to function, and leaves us all exhausted in the end. Indeed, when we infuse everything with politics, politics itself loses meaning and becomes incapable of performing its own basic purpose

Beyond the myriad fixes our national institutions desperately need, we can all take a number individual steps to help make politics boring once again. First and foremost, we must revive the lost art of persuasion – political and otherwise. At heart, this means recognizing our own fallibility and the chance that we might be wrong when we seek to change minds. It also entails an acceptance of disagreement when argument fails to immediately sway our interlocutors. Simply proclaiming our own moral superiority and attacking all those who disagree even in the slightest degree as beyond the pale persuades no one and further rends the already frayed fabric of our national life.

We ought to instead pursue a sort of minimalist agreement in our political debates. The overall aim of our arguments should be to win support for concrete political action and policies, not induce the sort of religious conversion best experienced on the road to Damascus. That requires a willingness to listen to those we hope to persuade, accept the possibility that we may well fail, and assume the risk that we ourselves may change our own minds or modify our own opinions, at least in part. There’s no guarantee we’ll succeed in our efforts to convince others to support our preferred policies or take the sort of political action we seek, but we’re certain to fail if we don’t even make the attempt in good faith.

Moreover, we should do our best to find inspiration in normalcy. That doesn’t mean giving up on big ideas or ambitious projects when it comes to politics and policy. But it does require a strong focus on practicality, in terms of both garnering the necessary political support for a specific policy and then successfully executing it. Often enough, these two elements work together strongly: to secure sufficient political backing for a particular policy proposal, potential supporters need to believe that the project in question can actually be carried out. It follows that we ought to build the broadest political coalitions possible in pursuit of our policy goals – to include even those with whom we might otherwise disagree. That in turn calls on on us to forsake grandiose notions of “revolution” and avoid arrogantly alienating potential partners with our own rhetoric and conduct.

But that attitude only works if we approach politics in right measure. We must neither exaggerate nor underestimate the significance of politics in the wider scheme of things, recognizing it as just one among many important parts of life – not see it lurking everywhere we look. Those of us involved in politics and policy should let people live their lives, to say nothing of living our own lives outside our professional work. Right now, however, we’re drowning in politics because we don’t put it in proper perspective. We fail to realize that politics cannot substitute for what’s truly essential in life: our personal relationships, our philosophical commitments, and the like.

Finally, we shouldn’t ask politics to solve problems that it can’t due to its very nature answer. Politics does indeed need a moral and philosophical dimension; as President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized, citizens should remain “conscious of their individual stake in the preservation of democratic life in America” and do their best to help build a society worth living in. But politics cannot provide either individual or collective meaning in and of itself, much less salvation. Instead, politics should focus on its strong suit: advancing the common good in practical and concrete ways. There will of course be constant debate about what that itself entails, but this forthright exchange of views cannot and should not allow itself to succumb to the temptations of bad faith so prevalent in our contemporary public discourse. We must accordingly resist demands to concentrate our energies on a single original sin that political evangelists of various stripes insist explains everything – all the more so when these proselytizers condemn us as wicked for failing to do so.

More than anything else, perhaps, we should understand that the end is not nigh. Our monomaniacal collective focus on politics as a way of life causes us to see even the smallest political stakes as existential. A sense of politics as a life-or-death enterprise prevents us from even hoping to achieve our concrete policy goals. We must instead cultivate a politics of normalcy – not the complacent normalcy preached decades ago, but a boring yet bold commitment to advancing our political views and policy objectives in correct proportion to their worth in our personal and social lives. As important as it can be, there’s more – much more – to life than politics and public policy. If we’re ever going to make our society one worth living in, we must get a grip on ourselves and restore politics to its proper place in our national life.

Failure Is Not An Option: Crisis Lessons From Apollo 13

Bill Paxton, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Bacon star in Apollo 13 (1995).

Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the flight of Apollo 13, inspiring me and countless others to revisit the mission itself as well as the 1995 film Apollo 13. The movie helped inspire my abiding interest in space exploration, and it’s darkly serendipitous that this anniversary happened to coincide with an ongoing national crisis of extraordinary magnitude. Americans today confront both a pandemic viral outbreak and an economic collapse unseen since the Great Depression at the same time they’ve been saddled with the most incompetent and mean-spirited political leadership in the nation’s history. 

The contrast with the crisis leadership dramatized so effectively in Apollo 13 could not be more stark. So it’s well worth reflecting on what we can learn about coping with and handling exceptional situations and acute crises from this film. Though Apollo 13 is of course a fictionalized account of the mission, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell (portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie) and co-author Jeffrey Kluger both vouch for the general accuracy of the narrative presented by director Ron Howard.

Indeed, the high stakes and time constraints involved make lessons derived from the film all the more worth our while today. Like the proverbial diamond formed under heat and compression, Apollo 13 tautly illustrates the ways in which the stresses and strains of acute crises can bring out the best in us. It also shows we need skilled, driven, and above all competent leadership to obtain that level of performance in high-pressure situations – all qualities in short supply these days.

In that spirit, here are five crisis lessons from Apollo 13.

1. “Let’s look at this thing from a standpoint of status. What have we got on the spacecraft that’s good?” 

In extreme and fast-moving situations – not to mention everyday setbacks – it’s easy and understandable to focus on what’s gone wrong above all else. It’s therefore crucial to accurately assess what strengths and capabilities remain available to confront a given crisis – or recover in its aftermath. That’s what Flight Director Gene Kranz (portrayed by Ed Harris) does when he asks one of his flight controllers to evaluate what systems on Apollo 13’s command and service module still work after an oxygen tank explodes and cripples the spacecraft. This mentality proves indispensable when both the crew and and Mission Control quickly determine that the lunar module can be used as a lifeboat, keeping Lovell and fellow astronauts Fred Haise and Jack Swigert (played by Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon, respectively) alive.

Right now, things in the United States seem especially broken. Medical equipment including ventilators and masks remains insufficient to cope with the numbers of people stricken with coronavirus, due in no small part to President Trump’s indolence and incompetence. Likewise, national testing for the virus remains well behind other advanced economies despite the administration’s promises. Moreover, the relief package intended to help businesses and citizens weather the economic fallout of the pandemic appears to be inadequate to the task at hand. But as inept as virtually all our institutions look at the moment, it’s important to remain mindful of that the nation retains strengths as well – and focus on those that can help ups recover when the immediate crisis passes.

2. “Let’s stay cool, people… I want everybody to alert your support teams. Wake up anybody you need, get them in here. Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.”

In time-critical situations, it’s vital to keep calm and avoid panic by focusing on the actual problem at hand and learning what’s needed to fix it. What’s more, it’s imperative to get a handle on the challenge before attempting to fix it, lest needless and possibly fatal mistakes get made instead. That’s what Kranz tells his flight controllers after they confirm Apollo 13 is venting oxygen from one of its damaged tanks. 

Working the problem also entails calling in as many relevant and knowledgable people as possible to help out. Kranz doesn’t hesitate to tell his Mission Control team to roust other flight controllers; indeed, it’s pretty much the first action he takes once the magnitude of Apollo 13’s predicament becomes clear. Later, Kranz tells his flight controllers and engineers “to find every engineer who designed every switch, every circuit, every transistor, and every light bulb that’s up there. Then I want you to talk to the guy on the assembly line who actually built the thing.” That’s likely a rhetorical flourish, but there’s no reason not to reach out to or consult with anyone who might be able to assist in a crisis scenario – all available hands should be on deck.

We’re only beginning to get a handle on the coronavirus and what will be needed to return society to something resembling normal. Thanks to its novelty, scientific and medical research on the virus remains provisional at best. Social distancing seems to work as a way to drive down infection rates and minimize stresses on national health care systems, at least in the short term. But a coronavirus vaccine seems unlikely to be fielded until next year. Though it’s also still far from clear just how deep the economic damage will run, the International Monetary Fund predicts the world economy will face its worst year since the Great Depression. 

Our political leadership, on the other hand, obviously does not want to grasp the scope or nature of the coronavirus problem – nor does it want to bring as many knowledgeable and relevant people as possible on board to work the problem. President Trump repeatedly downplayed the threat, asserting the virus would “miraculously” disappear, erroneously comparing it to the seasonal flu, or calling it a hoax perpetrated by his partisan rivals. Trump has also flirted with firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and appointed unqualified cronies – including his daughter – to the council charged with recommending when to lift the coronavirus lockdown.

3. “All right, there’s a thousand things that have to happen in order. We are on number eight. You’re talking about number six hundred and ninety-two.”

When lunar module pilot Jack Swigert expresses his concern that Mission Control hasn’t come up with a re-entry plan to his fellow crew members, mission commander Jim Lovell warns him that he’s well ahead himself. Over the course of the conversation, tempers flare and Lovell raises his voice to tell his crew that they’re “not going to go bouncing off the walls for ten minutes, because we’re just going to end up back here with the same problems!” Lovell understands that it’s best to work and solve problems as they arise in a crisis. There’s no reason to worry prematurely and unnecessarily about issues that will inevitably arise in due course. It’s accordingly important to stay in the moment and focus on the immense challenges at hand.

Possessing the attention span of a toddler at best, President Trump seems constitutionally incapable of focusing on the tasks before him – whatever they may be. There’s nonetheless a certain consistency in Trump’s unfounded eagerness to reopen the country’s economy. First, he wanted to lift public health restrictions by April 12 – Easter Sunday. More recently (and perhaps upon seeing his sagging poll numbers), he’s targeted May 1 as the next date he’d like to lift lockdowns across the nation.  Trump’s even attacked responsible state governors for maintaining public health restrictions in order to manage the pandemic, once again singling out his partisan rivals. But there’s no short-circuiting the hard work and patience necessary to bring the coronavirus under a modicum of control.

4. “We’ve got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.”

As Apollo 13 returns home, flight controllers at Mission Control realize that toxic levels of carbon dioxide will soon start building up in the lunar module as the its cylindrical CO2 filters reach capacity. Since the command module’s carbon dioxide scrubbers are cubical and therefore won’t fit into slots for the lunar module’s filters, Kranz advises his team to “invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole – rapidly.” Using only materials available on the spacecraft itself, NASA engineers hurriedly improvise a solution that brings CO2 levels down and saves the crew from asphyxiation. In more general terms, they used what was available to them at a given moment – even it it wasn’t designed for the the task in question.

Here again, President Trump lends us an example of what not to do in a crisis. He failed to use major tools available to the federal government – the Defense Production Act among them – until too late in the day. By contrast, ordinary citizens have risen to the occasion, sewing homemade face masks and donating protective gear to local hospitals and other medical facilities. Likewise, small businesses like distilleries and craft breweries have switched production from alcoholic drinks to hand sanitizer. It’s not hard to imagine how the nation could be galvanized into action with competent political leadership.

5. “With all due respect sir, I believe this is going to be our finest hour.”

Before the command module Odyssey re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, Kranz overhears a NASA big-wig brooding that Apollo 13 could become “the worst disaster NASA has ever experienced.” Kranz responds by taking responsibility for the outcome of the mission, even though it’s unsure. This self-confidence amidst uncertainty echoes the idea put forward by Admiral James Stockdale, the highest-ranking American pilot taken prisoner during the Vietnam War, that it’s vital not to “confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” 

In blunt contrast, President Trump has pointedly refused to fulfill his duties as the nation’s chief executive, let alone take responsibility for his own decisions. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he responded when queried about his administration’s laggard coronavirus testing program. Though unsurprising, this failure to take responsibility is all the more galling with the revelation that his administration starved a pandemic early-warning program to budgetary death in September 2019.

“Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege flying with you.”

Just before re-entry, the veteran astronaut Lovell conveys his respect for his fellow crew members by giving them the highest praise possible. Though a deluge of crises prevented him from walking on the Moon, Lovell still considers it a privilege to have flown with Haise and Swigert in such desperate circumstances. That’s not surprising, considering how severe crises like Apollo 13 can bring out our best and most capable selves.

Apollo 13 provides us object lessons in crisis leadership, from both Gene Kranz at Mission Control and Jim Lovell aboard the crippled spacecraft. Above all else, Apollo 13 lets us know that when all’s said and done we should be able to say that it was a privilege to handle a particular crisis or other similar extreme circumstances with a certain cohort. We may not be able to control the outcomes of such crises, but we can control our responses to and handling of them.

Indeed, crises are pressure cookers that test and reveal our characters as individuals, organizations, and societies. Despite bright spots among ordinary Americans, civil society, and state governments, it’s hard to say much of anything positive about our national response to the current coronavirus crisis. As a nation, we need to recapture and imbibe the spirit of Apollo 13 – both the actual mission and the film – if we’re to lift ourselves out of our dismal current national predicament.