The International Space Station and the Clash of Civilizations

The international Space Station from STS-130  in December 2010.

The international Space Station from STS-130 in December 2010.

As the operations on the International Space Station now move toward a score of years, it may be that this cooperative venture provides one of the clearest opportunities present for tying nation-states together. One is reminded of the quote from Wernher von Braun, “we can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.” Perhaps the hardest part of spaceflight is not the scientific and technological challenges of operating in an exceptionally foreign and hostile environment but in the down-to-Earth environment of rough-and-tumble international and domestic politics. But even so, cooperative space endeavors have been richly rewarding and overwhelmingly useful, from all manner of scientific, technical, social, and political perspectives.

This is especially true of the International Space Station (ISS). Virtually everyone would agree that astronauts standing on the Moon alongside the United States flag were just as important to the winning of the cold war as reconnaissance satellites and strategic weapons. Just as surely as the Apollo program helped the United States, the ISS serves a critical international role in the post-cold war world.

In the aftermath of international tensions, the International Space Station may prove just as important in the quest to maintain U.S. hegemony—political, technological, and economic—in the world as Apollo had been at the height of the cold war. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a different set of priorities has replaced the powerful secular ideologies of democracy, communism, nationalism, fascism, and socialism that dominated international politics since the Enlightenment. These were not so much new priorities as ancient traditions based on ethnic, religious, kinship, or tribal loyalties that reemerged full-blown in the 1990s as all the great ideologies, save democracy, collapsed worldwide: and even democracy was none too stable outside the West.

Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington developed a powerful thesis to explain what has happened in the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of a bipolar world. The thrust of Huntington’s argument rejects the notion that the world will inevitably succumb to Western values. On the contrary, Huntington contends that the West’s influence in the world is waning because of growing resistance to its values and the reassertion by non-Westerners of their own cultures. He argues that the world will see in the twenty-first century an increasing threat of violence arising from renewed conflicts among countries and cultures basing their identities on long-held traditions.

Astronaut Jerry L. Ross, STS-88 mission specialist, is pictured during one of three space walks that were conducted on the twelve-day mission between December 4-15, 1998. Perched on the end of Endeavour's remote manipulator system (RMS) arm, astronaut James H. Newman, mission specialist, recorded this image. Newman can be seen reflected in Ross' helmet visor. The solar array panel for the Russian-built Zarya module can be seen along right edge. This was just the first of about 160 spacewalks totaling 1,920 work-hours required to complete the International Space Station.

Astronaut Jerry L. Ross, STS-88 mission specialist, is pictured during one of three space walks that were conducted on the twelve-day mission between December 4-15, 1998. Perched on the end of Endeavour’s remote manipulator system (RMS) arm, astronaut James H. Newman, mission specialist, recorded this image. Newman can be seen reflected in Ross’ helmet visor. The solar array panel for the Russian-built Zarya module can be seen along right edge. This was just the first of about 160 spacewalks totaling 1,920 work-hours required to complete the International Space Station.

This argument moves past the notion of ethnicity to examine the growing influence of a handful of major cultures—Western, Orthodox, Latin American, Islamic, Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, and African—in current struggles across the globe. In so doing, Huntington successfully shifts the discussion of the post-cold war world from ideology, ethnicity, politics, and economics to culture—especially to the religious basis of culture. Huntington rightly warns against facile generalizations about the world becoming one, so common in the early 1990s, and points out the resilience of civilizations to foreign secular influences.

Huntington asserts that there are nine major civilizations in the post-1990 era. The dominant civilization at present is the “West,” characterized by the United States, Canada, and the nations of western Europe. There are also Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Orthodox (Russia and other Slavic nations), Buddhist, and Japanese civilizations. Each has different traditions, priorities, and institutions. Each also misunderstands the other civilizations of the world. In the post-cold war era, no matter how seemingly desperate confrontations within these civilizations may seem—such as the trials over northern Ireland—they have little potential for escalation beyond the civilization in which they occur. Confrontations among civilizations, however, have a great potential to escalate into large conflagrations, even world wars. The civilizations capable of forming meaningful ties to other civilizations, creating alliances not just for defensive purposes but also as a means of broadening engagement, have the greatest possibility for thriving in this new international arena. The West, Huntington believes, should give up the idea of exporting its values and expand the possibility of its survival through stronger alliances with other civilizations.

In the clash of civilizations of the twenty-first century, the International Space Station offers a testbed for civilizational alliances. At some level this has already begun. From the beginning the West adopted the project and brought in a second great civilization in Japan. In 1993 the Orthodox civilization, using Huntington’s terminology for Russia and other Slavic peoples, joined the program. Perhaps the difficulty of working with the Russians has been largely the result of these strikingly different civilizations. Brazil and other nations of the Latin American civilization also want to join the program, as does India. China has also made overtures about the desire to become a part of the ISS effort.

Despite the very real challenges that would result from incorporating these new partners into the program, their inclusion would advance the cause of creating alliances with other civilizations. This could serve ultimately as a means of closing the gap between nations rather than widening it. At a fundamental level, the International Space Station would serve the larger objectives of American foreign policy better than many other initiatives that offer fewer prospects for success.

All the promise held out for the ISS in gaining scientific knowledge, technological development, and a hopeful future exploring the solar system may well pale in comparison to the very real possibility of enhancing cross-civilizational relations through this one act of working together to tackle an enormous challenge. The same may be true of the very real costs involved; it is a small price to pay for better international relations, and spending a larger share of the public treasury for the ISS is eminently better than spending it for weapons of destruction. For all the difficulties involved in working with a large group of international partners, the knowledge gained in large-scale cooperative programs will serve the United States and the West well in what looks all the world to be a rise of inter-civilizational rivalries in the twenty-first century.

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An Account of the Evacuation of Nauvoo by the Mormons in 1846

Photograph of Nauvoo in the middle 1840s with the Mormon Temple in the background

Photograph of Nauvoo in the middle 1840s with the Mormon Temple in the background

After a lengthy period of conflict between the Mormons in Nauvoo, Illinois, and their non-Mormon neighbors, they negotiated a treaty, dated September 16, 1846, which gave the remaining Mormons five days to leave the city. A few days after this, on September 19, a correspondent for the Burlington Hawkeye, published in Iowa Territory about 30 miles north of Nauvoo on the Mississippi River, witnessed this evacuation scene and wrote a brief account. He signed the article “CHE MO KO MON,” a Sauk term meaning “White Man,” so his identity is unknown.  His letter to the editor, entitled, “Nauvoo. The Day After It was Evacuated,” appeared in the September 24, 1846, issue of the Burlington Hawkeye.

This article is a very effective piece of writing, largely because of the immediacy that it conveys. The author apparently wrote his account in the sanctuary of the Nauvoo Temple, after witnessing the results of the conflict and the still-ongoing evacuation. He caught the eerie quiet of the deserted streets and the incongruity of soldiers and armaments in a sacred building that proclaimed on its wall, “The Lord is our Sacrifice.” Also, he captured the suffering of hundreds of people by depicting a few cases of distress that came to his attention.

Another notable aspect of this remarkable piece of writing is that the author does not condemn the non-Mormons for their inhumanity or criticize the Mormons for their fanaticism, but rather, he suggests that both were responsible for the human tragedy that he witnessed. A poor widow from Yorkshire, whom he encountered on the street, was in distress not only because she and her family must leave, but also because her husband “gave all his money to the church.” She clearly felt abandoned, if not exploited, by the church and the circumstances of the exodus.

While the author roamed through the defeated and occupied town, he recalled the Mormon prophet, whom he noted had reveled in “military glory.” Also, by referring to Nauvoo as a “doomed city,” he invited the reader to reflect on the reasons for its evacuation. Whoever he was, CHE MO KO MON wrote perhaps the finest newspaper item related to the Mormon conflict in Illinois in the 1840s.


DEAR HAWK—My powers of description are totally inadequate to give your readers any just conception of the “scenes” that now present themselves on every hand in this vicinity.  On either shore of the Mississippi may be seen a long line of tents, wagons, cattle, &c., with numberless wretched specimens of humanity. Since the armistice or “treaty” the Mormons are crossing in almost breathless haste. Three or four “flats” are running constantly, both day and night. This morning, Saturday, 19th, at the solicitation of Capt. Vrooman, of the Fort Madison Guards, I crossed the river from Montrose, to take a peek at this City of Desolation. We proceeded to the Mansion House, where we met with a small detachment of soldiers and a number of strangers. From thence we went to the Temple. On entering the vestibule of this renowned edifice, a singular spectacle presented itself.  The seats of the High Priests of the “Twelve” and of the “seventy” were occupied by a grim visaged soldiery. Some lay sleeping on their “arms,” and others lay rolled up in their blankets.  On every hand lay scattered about in beautiful confusion, muskets, swords, cannon balls and terrible missiles of death. Verily, thought I, how are the holy places desecrated! I thought of old Oliver Cromwell, when he drove the horses of his army through the “cloisters” of the Worcester Cathedral, and appropriated the Baptismal fount as a manger.

I am penning this scrawl to you in the upper seat of the Sanctuary. Over my head there is an inscription in large gold letters, “The Lord is our Sacrifice”; on my right lie three soldiers asleep, resting on their arms—my feet are resting on a pile of chain shot—and a keg of powder, just discovered, lies at my elbow.

I left the Temple “solitary and alone,” to perambulate the desolate city. All was still and hushed as the charnel house.—Not a human being was seen. Houses appeared suddenly deserted, as though the inmates had precipitately fled from a pestilence or the burning of a volcano. Some had windows open and the flowers blooming the casements, but no fair hand was there, and no breath was heard, save the rustling zephyrs of heaven. It appeared as if the vengeance of the Almighty rested upon this doomed city.

Nauvoo, Illinois, as seen across the Mississippi River from Iowa in the 1840s.

Nauvoo, Illinois, as seen across the Mississippi River from Iowa in the 1840s.

I roamed over the vast Parade Ground where, four years ago, I beheld the soi distant “Prophet” review his Legion of 3000 strong, in all the “pride and circumstance” of military glory. Where now is the Prophet?  Let the Plains of Carthage answer! And where the multitudes that shouted hosannas to his name?  Verily, thought I, “truth is stranger than fiction.” I returned again through the desolate streets to the Mansion House. One solitary being, with a child in her arms, stood at the corner of a street, and saluted me with an imploring and almost frantic look.

“Pray, sir, are you one of the committee,” said she.

When I replied that I was a stranger, her eyes filled with tears.  She related her history. Tis soon told, and is the history of hundreds.

We came from Yorkshire, England, my husband died eighteen months after our arrival. He gave all his money to the church.”

“Where are your friends,” said I.

“I have none—not one. The soldiers say I must leave in two hours. This child is sick, and my other is a cripple.” She had flour enough for but one dinner!

On the Montrose side of the Mississippi, many of the scenes were heartbreaking. I stopped at the door of one tent, arrested by the subdued sobs of a young mother, whose heart was broken with grief. By her side lay her infant, a corpse. She had neither friend or relative to bury her child, nor a mouthful of food to eat.

I was convinced that Gen. Brockman, to his honor be it spoken, conducted [the evacuation] with marked distinction and humanity; and the night the army took possession of the city, not a rail was disturbed or a particle of property molested. Although they encamped adjoining an extensive orchard of choice fruit, not a hand was laid upon it. The boat is leaving for Montrose and I must drop my pen. Perhaps more anon from your faithful chronicler.


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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Sex, Sin, and Science”

Sex, Sin, and ScienceSex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America. By John Parascandola. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2008.

John Parascandola, former historian of the Public Health Service, and a veteran of several other public historian positions in the federal government, received the George Pendleton Prize for 2009 for this book, and the award was well deserved. Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America, published by Praeger of the Greenwood Publishing Group, is a seminal work. In it the author presents a fascinating account of how social and cultural factors, in addition to medical ones, helped to shape the way we understand and react to diseases, especially one so publicly charged as syphilis.

In this example—because of its association with sexual promiscuity—social, cultural, moral, and religious factors loom large in its history. As Parascandola shows, syphilis as a disease illustrates the ways in which non-medical factors influence our views of a disease and our reaction to it. He offers a fascinating perspective on the tendency to focus blame for the spread of a disease on particular marginalized groups in America.

Parascandola also discusses the delicate balance between protecting the rights of individuals and furthering the health of the public. These are manifest in numerous ways; right to privacy versus public awareness are central to this concern but are complicated by the hesitancy of Americans to discuss venereal disease openly because it also involves a discussion of sex.

Sex, Sin, and Science: A History of Syphilis in America is a valuable and even-handed work by a veteran scholar of medicine that should help inform public policy.

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Whither Space Astronomy?

The Hubble Space Telescope in Orbit.

The Hubble Space Telescope in Orbit.

The space age provided astronomers an opportunity to expand research far beyond the capabilities offered by ground-based observatories of earlier eras. During the 1960s they began using space-based technology to enhance humanity’s understanding of the universe. In addition to greatly enhanced capabilities for observation in the visible light spectrum, NASA and other institutions supported the development of a wide range of X-ray, gamma ray, ultraviolet, infrared, microwave, cosmic ray, radar, and radio astronomical project. These efforts collectively informed the most systematic efforts yet to explain the origins and development of the universe.

Fundamental to this was the development of a series of Orbiting Astronomical Observatories (OAO), first conceptualized not long after the birth of NASA. Two of these aluminum, octagonally-shaped, solar-powered spacecraft were launched during the 1960s. The first failed less than two days into its mission because of a power system failure, but with the launch of OAO 2 on December 7, 1968, the potential of the program began to pay off as it provided an abundance of information on ultraviolet, gamma ray, x-ray, and infrared radiation, on the structure of stars, and on the distribution and density of matter in the interstellar environment. A series of six Orbiting Geophysical Observatories (OGO) also contributed to this study, as well as to the study of the Solar System, by taking measurements of cosmic rays, particles and fields in the interplanetary medium as well as radio emissions.

Uhuru (SAS-A) was the first in the series of small spacecraft whose objectives were to survey the celestial sphere and search for sources radiating in the X-ray, gamma-ray, UV, and other spectral regions.

Uhuru (SAS-A) was the first in the series of small spacecraft whose objectives were to survey the celestial sphere and search for sources radiating in the X-ray, gamma-ray, UV, and other spectral regions.

One of the exciting projects in this arena was x-ray astronomy. On June 12, 1962, the first rocket was launched using instruments to detect whether or not x-rays were present in any particular quadrants of the galaxy. It discovered a power source in the center. Calculations demonstrated that x-ray emissions from this source were ten times that of the Sun. In July 1963 another instrument package sent above the atmosphere took readings of the Crab Nebula and found intense x-ray activity emanating from it. In December 1970 the x-ray observatory Uhuru mapped about 85 percent of the sky, then located and measured the intensity of 161 x-ray sources. Many of these turned out to be black holes, a truly significant discovery of a segment of space where mass is so compressed and gravity so great that neither matter nor light can escape. Large amounts of x-rays, however, are emitted and can help explain much about the evolution of the universe.

By the early 1970s satellite astronomy had helped to generate a major change in the larger field of astronomy and had reordered thinking on the subject. This occurred in spite of the fact that much of the research was built on the foundations laid by earlier astronomers. While space science did not make news in the 1980s, as the last decade of the twentieth century dawn, NASA moved forward with its “Great Observatories” program and astounded the science world with its findings.

The $2 billion Hubble Space Telescope was the first of these “Great Observatories,” launched from the Space Shuttle in April 1990. A key component of it was a precision‑ground 94‑inch primary mirror shaped to within microinches of perfection from ultra‑low expansion titanium silicate glass with an aluminum‑magnesium fluoride coating. The first photos provided bright, crisp images against the black background of space, much clearer than pictures of the same target taken by ground‑based telescopes. Controllers then began moving the telescope’s mirrors to better focus images. Although the focus sharpened slightly, the best image still had a pinpoint of light encircled by a hazy ring or “halo.”

At first many believed that the spherical aberration would cripple the 43‑foot-long telescope, and NASA received considerable negative publicity, but soon scientists found a way with computer enhancement to work around the abnormality. Because of the difficulties with the mirror, in December 1993 NASA launched the shuttle Endeavour on a repair mission to insert a new camera and corrective lenses for the remaining instruments into the telescope and to service other instruments. During a week-long mission, astronauts conducted a record five spacewalks to repair the spacecraft.

The first reports from the Hubble spacecraft indicated that the images being returned were afterward more than an order of magnitude clearer than those obtained before. For instance, as recently as 1980, astronomers had believed that an astronomical grouping known as R‑136 was a single star, but the Hubble showed that it was made up of more than 60 of the youngest and heaviest stars ever viewed. The dense cluster, located within the Large Magellanic Cloud, was about 160,000 light years from Earth, roughly 5.9 trillion miles away.

A graphic showing NASA's "Great Observatories."

A graphic showing NASA’s “Great Observatories.”

Other “Great Observatories” followed. The Chandra X-Ray Observatory, launched on July 23, 1999, engaged in X-ray astronomy of the universe, concentrating on the remnants of exploded stars and even particles up to the last second before they fall into a black hole. More recently, the Compton Gamma-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) observed the gamma-ray and infrared spectrum. Collectively these great observatories, led by the stunningly successful Hubble Space Telescope, have transformed our understanding of the cosmos.

As Jennifer Levasseur has written, “The tremendous success of the Hubble Space Telescope, COBE, and ESA’s Herschel Telescope supplied even more unknowns about our universe, and perhaps, our first reasons to believe in life beyond this ‘pale blue dot’.” To this one might add the Kepler space telescope seeking extrasolar planets and the SOFIA airborne observatory.

We are, however, presently at a crossroads. Ground-based observatories such as the Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT) near Tucson, Arizona, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile have proven the success of new designs in ground-based observing. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), NASA on-going development in space astromony, has been close to cancellation several times because of technical, cost, and schedule difficulties.

Will there be a new generation of space-based observatories similar to those of the “Great Observatories” constellation? Is such a new generation needed at this point? Might we do all we need to do in astronomical observation from the ground and in air-borne observatories, allowing scientists to forego space-based telescopes altogether. While these modern observatories are enormously expensive, they are certainly less costly and more readily serviced and enhanced than anything in space.

What do you think?

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Core Identity and the Nineteenth Century Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

The Reorganized Church peace seal.

The Reorganized Church peace seal.

I have spent many years studying the history of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), renamed the Community of Christ in 2000. This was the most successful of any of the non-Utah variety of churches springing from the Early Mormon movement. He has long sought to differentiate itself from the much better known and more radical Utah Mormon church. Indeed, the 2000 names change was perhaps the quintessential step in differentiation.

Perhaps the fundamental ingredient in the identity of the early RLDS was that it coalesced out of a group of independently-minded people in the 1850s who had at one time or another stood up in the various factions of Mormondom and said in essence, “up with this I will not put.” Because of this attribute, the RLDS was primarily an inheritor of a legacy of dissent that had been present as a minority movement within the early Mormon church. That legacy had manifested itself repeatedly almost from the very beginnings of the church as members debated the direction of church policy, organizational structure, and doctrinal conceptions.

Because of the uniqueness of its founding, the peculiarities of its early leadership, the fortunes of its environment, and the doctrinal biases of those making it up the RLDS as it emerged in the 1850s, the group embraced and gloried in a moderate expression of Mormonism in the American Midwest. Fundamental to its Weltanschauung was a commitment to greater membership involvement in the church’s decision‑making process. When the Reorganization began to coalesce in the early 1850s and members coming out of this experience affiliated with it, the result was an emphasis on individual and congregational rights and prerogatives, an emphasis that remained strong for more than 100 years.

Joseph Smith III, president of the RLDS church between 1860 and 1914.

Joseph Smith III, president of the RLDS church between 1860 and 1914.

As a dissenting movement, the fundamental ingredient in the RLDS’s historic sense of identity, it had to forge a place for itself in relation but also in opposition to the Utah-based faction of Mormonism. This was remarkably easy to do in the nineteenth century when the group first coalesced. Plural marriage provided the most easily recognizable means of establishing an identity as a Mormon group outside of the Utah faction. Simply put, the Rocky Mountain Mormons embraced the doctrine as a positive good and publicly practiced it until forced to stop by the power of the United States government while the Midwestern Mormons rejected it as an evil prostitution of the legacy of the Restoration.

Plural marriage, with its demonstrable effects everywhere present in Utah, was an issue that resonated in the larger American population, not as an abstruse theological construct but as a concrete social issue. By standing in opposition to plural marriage but still claiming the legacy of early Mormonism, the RLDS made a legitimate place for itself in the nether world between Mormonism and Protestantism.

The easiest period in which the RLDS could forge a reasonable identity as a separate religious institution was between 1852, when Utah Mormons publicly announced that they were practitioners of polygamy, and 1890, when the LDS church announced that it would no longer sanction its practice. Because of its inflammatory nature, plural marriage provided the needed context that set the RLDS brand of Mormonism apart from the Rocky Mountain variety. When that decisive difference between the two churches was removed in 1890 it inadvertently set up the more difficult task of maintaining boundaries between the RLDS and the Mormons that were less easily grasped by both the larger community and the membership of the Reorganization.

The nineteenth century, therefore, represented something of a “golden age” for RLDS identity as the people in middle. RLDS scholar Clare Vlahos observed of this era that “The early Reorganization waited, caught somewhere in between, neither gentile nor Mormon.” Vlahos makes an important but perhaps not altogether convincing case. His conclusion that the RLDS waited and was caught as a people in between the groups implies that this happened by accident and that it was a negative position for the church.

Instead, I would assert, the RLDS membership aggressively defined an identity in this middle place. They saw it as a strength, a way to legitimacy that might not have been possible on one or other ends of the scale. Indeed, in the twentieth century as the church sought to move toward the “gentile” side of the scale and to distance itself from traditional Mormon identity it has found it increasingly impossible to ensure legitimacy as a separate institution.

Perhaps the central theme of American religion in the twentieth century has been its encounter with modernity—the changes to the sets of priorities, assumptions, and values present in larger society as a response to emerging concepts in science, technology, economics, politics, philosophy, and the overall weltanschauung. The response to modernity, according to religion scholar Martin E. Marty in Modern American Religion: Volume 1, fundamentally changed the landscape of American religion in this century.

Present-day Community of Christ Temple in Independence, Missouti.

Present-day Community of Christ Temple in Independence, Missouti.

The RLDS felt this challenge keenly, has it tried to redefine itself upon the landscape of American religion in the wake of Utah Mormonism’s renunciation of polygamy. This process took off during the years following World War II and fundamentally reshaped the nature of the institution in the 1960s and 1970s. Several factors were at play in this process. One of the important ones was the rise in the standard of living of most of the RLDS’s membership. This development perhaps did not cause but it certainly abetted a greater openness to Protestantism and accommodation to modern society than was ever present in the church before. The church as a body began to be more open to the influences of the society around it and in the process it moved into the mainstream secular world of the United States.

As the twentieth century progressed the RLDS shed more of its historic Mormon background. I shall discuss some of that transformation in future posts.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Women, Family, and Utopia”

Women, Family, and UtopiaWomen, Family, and Utopia: Communal Experiments of the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the Mormons. By Lawrence Foster. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York, 1991. 353 pp. $37.95 cloth, $16.95 paper.

I recently reread this book by Lawrence Foster, professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I find it just as compelling today as when it first appeared in 1991. Specializing in the interpretation of the socio-cultural and religious contexts of gender relationships in the early nineteenth century, Foster emphasizes here a discrete collection of essays on this same subject and offers a thoughtful and in many cases provocative investigation into alternative lifestyles among early American communal groups.

Foster goes beyond earlier research in this work by looking at the marriage and family patterns of those three groups and how they might illuminate present concerns over gender and family relationships in society. He suggests that the unrest in the early nineteenth century prompted an intense examination of virtually every social institution of the nation. A central part of that examination revolved around marriage and family life, especially as earlier means of enforcing sexual behavior broke down in response to the pressures wrought by industrialization, western conquest and expansion, and intellectual ferment.

In religion the emphasis on millennialism and Christ’s advent prompted the development of especially radical groups. The Shaker practice of celibacy was an outgrowth of preparation for the coming millennium. Mormonism’s plural marriage system had roots in the same concerns, but was propelled more by the quest for knowledge about humanity’s state after death. The Oneida “complex marriage” system also aimed toward perfection of humanity in preparation for its encounter with deity.

After an introduction Foster included three chapters each on the Shakers and the Oneida community, each raising interesting questions and posing challenging interpretations. It is the four chapters on the Mormons, however, that made the most significant contribution of the book and offers the most insights about present concerns of patriarchy and gender relationships. Partly this is because Mormonism is a highly successful religious sect in the latter twentieth century and partly because Foster carries the story up to the recent stand of the Mormon church opposing the Equal Rights Amendment.

He finds in all of Mormon history, moreover, a greater acceptance of patriarchy and second class position for women than in the other communal groups. with the exception of allowing more than one wife for much of its nineteenth century history, Mormonism’s gender relationships were more in concert with larger American society than either the Shakers or the Oneida community. One intriguing question ( but giving a plausible answer would entail imaginative and probably counter factual investigation: did Mormonism’s acceptance of patriarchy have anything to do with its great success vis-à-vis the other communal groups?

Women, Family, and Utopia is a delightful and useful book, which adds appreciably to our understanding of these early communal groups. It is especially valuable in offering assistance in interpreting family and gender relationships. It will be fascinating to those interested in the early development of communal religions and is a worthwhile companion and sometimes counterpoint to other works reinterpreting the history of American sacred life in the nineteenth century.

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Have You Ever Seen the “Abilene Paradox” in Action?

The Evolution of Modern Man?

The Evolution of Modern Man?

I’m pretty sure you have seen this dynamic, although you may not be aware of it with this name. It is fundamentally a construct of Jerry B. Harvey, now a retired professor of Management at George Washington University. He first described it in 1974 in an article entitled, “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement,” Organizational Dynamics (Summer 1974): 17-34. It is reprinted here.

Stated succinctly, Harvey comments: “Organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to the data they have for dealing with problems and, as a result, compound their problems rather than solve them.” He prefaced his observations with an anecdote about his family’s horrendous trip from Coleman to Abilene, Texas, on a hot, sticky Sunday afternoon in July 1971 to eat at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria. His hilarious rendition of this truly hair-raising incident was punctuated by the realization after the fact that no one in the family had actually wanted to do it. All had supported it because they believed the others wanted to go. Thus was born the “Abilene Paradox.”

Harvey noted that an organization’s inability to manage “private agreement” proved “a major source of organization dysfunction.” He outlined several major symptoms of the paradox at work in organizations; all are presently at work in the boardroom, the bedroom, and just about any other place one cares to look. As Harvey states it, these include:

  1. Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the nature of the situation or problem facing the organization….
  2. Organization members agree privately, as individuals, as to the steps that would be required to cope with the situation or problem they face….
  3. Organization members fail to accurately communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another. In fact, they do just the opposite and thereby lead one another into misperceiving the collective reality….
  4. With such invalid and inaccurate information, organization members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do, and thereby arrive at results that are counterproductive to the organization’s intent and purposes….
  5. As a result of taking actions that are counterproductive, organization members experience frustration, anger, irritation, and dissatisfaction with their organization. Consequently, they form subgroups with trusted acquaintances and blame other subgroups for the organization’s dilemma. Frequently, they also blame authority figures and one another….
  6. Finally, if organization members do not deal with the generic issue—the inability to manage agreement—the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity.

Harvey concluded that these dysfunctions have run rampant and uncontrolled for throughout his studies.

I have applied Harvey’s theory to an article that I wrote on the history of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and I could do the same concerning other research relating to the history of baseball, spaceflight, NASA, and a host of other subjects. Do any of Harvey’s ideas sound familiar to you?

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They Said It Couldn’t Be Done…Really?

What if there had never been railroads?

What if there had never been railroads?

In 1835 Thomas Tredgold, a British railroad designer, said: “that any general system of conveying passengers would…go at a velocity exceeding ten miles an hour, or thereabouts, is extremely improbable.” In 1868 Representative Cadwallader C. Washburn of Wisconsin told the United States Congress, that “the possession of this Russian territory [that is Alaska] can give us neither honor, wealth, or power, but will always be a source of weakness and expense, without any adequate return.”

In 1876 Custer, upon first seeing through field glasses the Sioux Indian encampment at the Little Bighorn River said: “Hurrah, boys, we’ve got them now.” In 1888 Simon Newcomb, the director of the United States Naval Observatory said: “We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” In 1895 Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and President of the British Royal Society, said: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” In 1943 Thomas J. Watson, chairman of the board of International Business Machines (IBM), said, “I think there is a world market for about five computers.” In the summer of 1945 Admiral William Leahy told President Truman about the atomic bomb: “That is the biggest fool thing we have ever done…The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives.”

On 3 January 1956, a little more than a year before the orbiting of Sputnik 1 and the dawn of the space age, the British Astronomer Royal, Dr. Richard van der Riet Woolley, told a press conference that the talk of going into space was ridiculous. “It’s utter bilge,” he said. In 1961 T.A.M. Craven, Federal Communications Commissioner, told a Senate oversight committee that “there is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, television, or radio service inside the United States.”

What does this recitation of inaccurate predictions have to say to the nature of humanity? I have several answers ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous to perhaps the insightful.

First, and most obviously, it suggests that it is probably not a great idea to make a lot of sweeping predictions about what the future holds. From this set of anecdotes to the visions of tomorrow captured in literature, film, world fairs, and amusement parks, the predictors are invariably wrong and in hindsight seem enormously silly.

Apollo 16.

Apollo 16.

Second, in many cases these predictions perhaps proved false because they spurred those involved in trying to overcome the technological challenges the experts said could never be overcome. Perhaps those types of predictions, therefore, serve a useful purpose in focusing attention on the issue and increasing the persistence of researchers. For instance, when the Astronomer Royal of Great Britain announced that space flight was “utter bilge”, as he called it, it steeled several of those in the Space Task Group at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, who were working on the question. That was the organization that conceptualized Project Mercury and the group that moved to Houston in 1962 and settled into what became eventually the Johnson Space Center.

Third, is anything really impossible? These people, all presumably smarter than the average people in their fields, said, “it couldn’t be done.” Their conclusions point up the conventional wisdom of experts at the time. Why did others fail to head their wisdom and dare to dream?

Finally, I am certainly glad that those who dared to dream were not dissuaded by the conventional wisdom of the experts. If they had been deferential enough to listen to the experts we might not have airplanes. If they had believed what Tom Watson of IBM said in 1943, we might have only five computers today. If any number of scientists and engineers had believed the Astronomer Royal we might never have tried to build a spacecraft and traveled even into Earth-orbit, much less to the Moon. When someone of importance says something cannot be done, I believe, then it almost certainly will eventually happen.

Conceptualizing the possibility, furthermore, leads a long way toward making it happen. If one cannot believe that something, choose the subject you wish, is possible, I can guarantee that it will not happen. The first step toward making something a reality is to conceive of it, to visualize it. If it can be imagined, perhaps it can be done. This began to happen with space flight in the 1940s and 1950s and it led directly to the greatest adventure in American history, the exploration of the Moon.

What might happen in the future?

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Body Politic”

downloadThe Body Politic: The Battle over Science in America. By Jonathan D. Moreno. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2011.

There are powerful debates in the land, debates over science and policy, over philosophy and knowledge, 07over the nature of the future and the politics of the past and present. Eugenics, abortion, stem-cell research, cloning, genetically altered crops, global warming, and a host of other subjects in the scientific realm dominate our politics. What are the realities of this debate? What are the stakes of this debate? What are going to be the likely results of this debate?

No one knows the answers to these question, as author Jonathan Moreno makes clear in this basic text on the subject. Science has dominated much of human existence since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century; the twentieth century was essentially the century of physics, in which technologies changed every aspect of live from the atomic bomb to the use of airplanes. The twenty-first century may well be the century of biology. Moreno seems to think so and emphasizes those themes in this book.

Along with this emergence of biology as the scientific theme with the most interest in the modern era, there is also an emergence of a bio-political process that influences every aspect of biological science. Moreno draws the stark lines between left and right in this debate. He contrasts greens with conservatives, transhumanists with bioconservatives, technoprogressives with modern-day Luddites. He also draws the themes as not so much over the actuality of the biological issues as about the potentials for abuse. Are genetically modified foods really dangerous? There is no evidence to believe such, but there is a strong opposition that exists regardless. Is stem cell research truly about destroying lives? Of course not, but there is a sense in certain quarters that a fetus is a full-fledged life that must be protected.

These contentious issues have a long history and Moreno seeks to illuminate them. How significant is the intersection between science and democracy in American life? This is a useful orientation to the subject of bio-politics but is a long way from a detailed study of the subject.

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The Mystique of the Space Suit

Astronaut Jerry L. Ross, STS-88 mission specialist, is pictured during one of three space walks that were conducted on the twelve-day mission between December 4-15, 1998. Perched on the end of Endeavour's remote manipulator system (RMS) arm, astronaut James H. Newman, mission specialist, recorded this image. Newman can be seen reflected in Ross' helmet visor. The solar array panel for the Russian-built Zarya module can be seen along right edge. This was just the first of about 160 spacewalks totaling 1,920 work-hours required to complete the International Space Station.

Astronaut Jerry L. Ross, STS-88 mission specialist, is pictured during one of three space walks that were conducted on the twelve-day mission between December 4-15, 1998. Perched on the end of Endeavour’s remote manipulator system (RMS) arm, astronaut James H. Newman, mission specialist, recorded this image. Newman can be seen reflected in Ross’ helmet visor. The solar array panel for the Russian-built Zarya module can be seen along right edge. This was just the first of about 160 spacewalks totaling 1,920 work-hours required to complete the International Space Station.

Wherever astronauts go, from the beginning of the human spaceflight program to the present, they have been characterized by their uniform. Nothing sets astronauts apart from ordinary Americans more than the physical existence of a space suit, and in this instance the astronaut as “everyman” is both affirmed and denied for they bounded from the rest of society by this symbol. Often described as a “spacecraft for one,” space suits exist as highly complex, technical systems. For the wearer of a space suit, it represents protection, a life-line extending into the depths of outer space, but for the public, who never see the space suit in person, it exists as a symbol. As such it embodies dreams and beliefs about who and what we are, and what we may become.

This even goes so far as to suggest our connections to our larger environment of Earth, the Solar System, and the universe. These concepts are not just projected onto the material space suit, but are contained in its physical construction and invested in the astronauts who wear them. Consciously or subconsciously these beliefs and philosophies are constructed through space suit design and manufacturing and then by their use of astronauts. Once in operation the physical object projects these philosophies onto the world around it; the space suit is a highly charged, metaphysical object that affects both the wearer and the observer.

The astronaut in his space suit accentuated the body of the individual, making those who flew on the Apollo program seem much larger than life, much stronger than they were, and much more virile than they might have been. Due to the embodied beliefs and philosophies conjured by these suits, the astronauts facilitated new possibilities of understanding for those with whom they came into contact.

In both fact and fiction, the space suit has been a core representation of the astronaut, essentially a knight’s armor worn heroically as the individual conducts his noble mission. More than any other single artifact of the Moon landing program the Apollo space suit represented the values that supported Americans going into space in the first place. It symbolized and reified the utopian desire to colonize the Solar System and make a perfect society at a new and pristine place beyond the corrupt Earth.

It also stood, as cultural historian Debra Benita Shaw wrote, “as a metaphor for the transcendent power of scientific ingenuity and technological know-how….It is thus a significant icon in contemporary cultural representations of the body in both outer and terrestrial space.”

As an enduring icon of Apollo, the space suited astronauts on the Moon conjured images of power and masculinity far beyond that actually present. The anonymity of those astronauts, with their visors down similar to medieval knights made them even more mysterious and attractive. Without intending it, the space suit became synonymous with a set of values referring “to heroism and thus to the Cartesian (masculine) subject identified by the Proper Name but the Name itself becomes curiously disconnected from the individual to which it actually refers.”

At some level, therefore, the Apollo astronaut in his space suit projected the image of the hardbody of masculinity that author Susan Jeffords narrates in Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (1994). This image became prevalent in the 1980s, but Apollo anticipated that later development by twenty years.

By being consumed by a space suit, as Donna Haraway has pointed out in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991), the astronaut essentially became a cyborg as an iconic space suit established the relationship between human and machine. Cyborg ontology is a critical element of thinking about the duality of this relationship, confounding the sense in which bodies move in apposition to the technology

Additionally, Megan Stern’s analysis of visored astronauts in spacesuits suggest that they are essentially anonymous, a screen on which anyone might project any attribute from fantasies of heroism to submission. Therefore, the Apollo astronauts in their suits became screens for the whole of America to project its hopes, wishes, fears, and horrors. Each astronaut felt this keenly, as they have lived out the remainder of their lives in the glare of American fame and the sense of expectations never fully satisfied. Unable always to reflect the qualities of strength, authority, and rationality so often projected on them, the astronauts have displayed a fragility since Apollo that is both perplexing and troubling for many who see them in later years.

Marina Benjamin further described this in Rocket Dreams: How the Space Age Shaped Our Vision of a World Beyond (2003) when she encountered three Apollo astronauts at a celebrity and collectors show. She wrote that they were “just like movie stars; they burned brightly in the glare of publicity when they were offered good parts to play and then, when the roles dried up, so did they.” Their space suits, however, represented the triumph of technology over living organisms. Those suits dominate the essence of what it means to be an astronaut; they have since Apollo and continue to do so today.


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