Sunday, November 29, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MARS


 (published as "Looking at Earth from Space" in China-US Focus, November 2020)


Now is a good time for the US and China to get serious about a joint mission to Mars. Russia is a natural partner, too. The earth, currently embroiled in pandemic turmoil and political delirium, desperately needs to take a bracing look at itself from afar. 

By looking at our globe from the heavens, we gain a perspective that puts petty nationalism in its place. Looking at the earth from afar, a beautiful, eye-catching blue-and-green ball cloaked in gossamer veneer of swirling white clouds, is a reminder that we all live on the same finite planet. The boundaries that men kill and die for are not indelibly etched, but barely scratch the surface. Even the Great Wall of China is invisible from space to the naked eye. 

A small news item easily lost in the increasingly frantic, negative, and fanatic 24/7 news cycle concerns a call for US-China cooperation in space. 

Going against the general tide of media-driven opinion and emotional nationalism, which posits China as public enemy number one, is Charles Bolden, the former head administrator of NASA. 

Bolden wants China and the US to cooperate in space, and step number one is to overrule or get around the Wolf Amendment which bars federal funding to any space collaboration with China, effectively barring China from the Space Station. The protectionist legislation, promulgated in 2011 while Bolden was the head of the US space agency, has tied the hands of NASA administrators for a decade now. 

The space station would be an ideal environment to practice cooperation and iron out technical incompatibilities. As it did for the divergent space programs of the US and Russia, the orbiting laboratory is a suitably neutral place to bring contending programs closer together, transcending political differences in the spirit of science. 

The next obvious step would be cooperation on Mars. 

Putting a joint mission to Mars is a gargantuan task, but no less so than going at it alone, because politics can get in the way of science. But for each nation to have its own space program imposes unforgiving costs and deprives the push into space of international camaraderie and the synergy of cooperation. 

The history of US-Russian cooperation in space is proof positive that two countries, erstwhile enemies with uneasy political relations, can benefit from cooperation. 

Common sense calls for it, and natural science does not recognize national boundaries. 

The quest for knowledge has from time immemorial been built on borrowings and exchange, not just the shoulders of giants, as Newton would have it, but hand-in-hand cooperation, too. Isolation, parochialism, and irrational thinking hinder the development of knowledge beneficial to all. Indeed, in times of chaos, armed tension and strife, it is all the more important that artificial but forbidding walls are surmounted, and doors and windows of international perception are kept open.  

At this current historic moment of unprecedented presidential bellicosity, when Donald Trump uses the platform of the White House to make racist jabs about China, blame China for all US woes, and threaten to make China “pay,” it is important for saner minds to prevail, for the center to hold. 

It’s time for people who see through the craziness of the current moment to speak up for a saner, safer world. 

Millions of ordinary Chinese and Americans do so every day, albeit quietly, cherishing the ties that bond and differences that fascinate between cultures, but it is less common in the corridors of power where differences of race and nation are being exploited for crude political benefit. 

While at NASA, Bolden was no ordinary pencil-pushing bureaucrat. He is a US military veteran and an experienced astronaut. He flew four missions on the US Space Shuttle, logging 680 hours in space, including a joint Russian mission onboard the Discovery. He served as NASA’s chief administrator for eight years during the Obama administration– so he’s well-versed in the politics of space as well. 

He acknowledges that the current US president and congress stand in the way of that happening, but he makes a clarion call for more cooperation, confident that it is the best way forward. 

Bolden cites China’s successful soft landing of Chang’e on the far side of the moon as a pioneering accomplishment that everyone can be proud of. It’s not just about China, any more than the July 1969 landing on the moon “for all mankind” was just about America. 

Speaking to China Daily reporters, Bolden expressed the hope that the US and China would cooperate in space, but for that to happen, political protectionism needs to ease. 

Bolden has long struggled against the politicized legislation of the Wolf Amendment, calling it a "significant legal constraint" and "hindrance" to joint US-China space should be “relaxed or reversed.” 

What’s more, time is of the essence.

"My firm belief is that we should integrate China into the International Space Station program. It doesn't have a lot of time left," Bolden said, referring to the planned retirement of the ISS in a few years. Working together on the aging space station would help China "avoid some of the mistakes that were made with building the International Space Station."

National space programs cannot be instantly integrated, if only because the go-it-alone ethos has led each nation to develop some unique features and idiosyncratic standards, but such technical challenges can be bridged. The Shenzhou, inspired by the technology behind Russia’s Soyuz craft, has no easy way to dock at the American port on the space station but could be adapted to dock at the Russian port thanks to the similar technology.

After the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011, the US lacked launch capability for sending crews into space and for almost a decade had to rely solely on “getting a lift” by Russia’s Soyuz capsule to transit space and earth.

It’s a testament to the value of international cooperation that the sturdy Soyuz capsule, launched atop powerful Russian rockets based at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, made it possible for Americans to access the American-built space station.

Undeterred by its years in the Wolf Amendment wilderness, China has pressed ahead, developing its spacecraft and developing plans for its own space station. Named Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, China’s space station is expected to be up and running around 2022. The timing is critical because the US-built International Space Station, while a technological wonder, is getting creaky and is due to be retired in 2024.

If the US station is mothballed and the Chinese space station does not proceed as planned, there may no longer be any space station left for the world’s scientists to work on.

What’s more, how can the extremely complex and dauntingly expensive mission to Mars be contemplated if nations don’t pool resources, ingenuity and knowledge?  For Mars to happen– if it is ever to happen– cooperation has to take place on earth first.

"Who thought Nixon would ever go to China?" Bolden slyly asked his Chinese interlocutors. Perhaps the question puzzled them. While the “Nixon-in-China” meme has long been a shorthand way for Americans to say it’s time to think out of the box, the phrase takes on a new, ironic meaning in the present context.  

Nixon succeeded in bridging the then-formidable political chasm between the US and China by boldly making a trip to Beijing. 

Now the challenge is to bridge the widening gap between the US and China by boldly joining Beijing to make a joint trip to Mars.



Monday, November 9, 2020

WHEN WINNING IS LOSING AND LOSING IS WINNING

 




The unhinged mental state of the US commander in chief remains a clear and present danger and of global concern, even as he goes kicking and screaming in what is supposed to be a peaceful transition period. Let’s us not forget that this unreasonable man fired his Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, for opposing the deployment of US troops against US citizens. In his stead, he has appointed Christopher Miller, a counter-intelligence special operations man, skipping over the next in line, the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

 

Is it possible that Trump still has access to the “nuclear football?”

Is it sensible to allow a man so inherently unstable and intemperate retain tactical control of the world’s deadliest arsenal?

 

The aftermath of a US presidential election is, in normal times, a moment to muse about possible new policy directions of the candidate who prevailed at the polling booth. But these are not normal times and instead the world watches with bated breath as the US shows signs of cracking up from within.

 

China has yet to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden, perhaps wary of Trump’s ability to wreak havoc in the two months remaining in his term, since China is a frequent target of his wrath. Russia is watching on standby as well.

 

Meanwhile, nations with traditionally close relationships with the United States, including England, Canada and Japan have already offered the ritual congratulations as expected in the aftermath of a presidential election. Even hard-core Republicans close to Donald Trump have urged him to recognize, grudgingly if not graciously, Biden’s victory at the polls, as officially announced on November 7, 2020

 

But Trump instead, is proving himself a loser. He somehow manages to ruin everything he touches, even democracy itself.

 

The vain leader’s unwillingness to yield in the face of facts not to his liking has put his nation on cliff’s edge, dangerously in abeyance. A catastrophe waiting to happen. Shell-shocked Americans await with bated breath, while an underwhelmed world looks on with bemused puzzlement, derision and fear.

 

What happened?

 

Why wasn’t the man who lies, cheats and steals as a matter of course, the man who routinely polarizes, incites violence, and spews intolerance not been clearly repudiated at the polls.

Why was he not swept away in a massive landslide?

 

How can such a venal politician still have millions of supporters in a supposedly advanced nation with a vigorous free press and a robust democratic tradition?

 

Historians will ponder this painful paradox for years to come.

 

By all indications, Joe Biden is beyond any shadow of doubt the winner of the popular vote, and if the popular vote was all that counted, it might well be over now.

 

Due to historic peculiarities of the American “democratic” system, the difference of a few thousand votes at the state level can flip an election, even with one candidate way ahead of the other nationally. 

 

The Electoral College makes it possible for winners to lose and losers to win. It’s happened twice in recent times, in the Bush versus Gore contest of 2000, and the Trump versus Hillary contest of 2016. This system is deeply flawed, and when the contest is a close one, it is downright infuriating.  

 

The unsettling prospect of both sides claiming victory, one by the polls, the other by spurious claims and trumped up legal challenges is due in no small part to the fecklessness of the sore-loser in the White House who goads his followers to believe that his loss is their loss and that losing is not an option.

 

Already Trump supporters are being prepped by incendiary tweets, and cheerleading from Trump-friendly media to alternately declare victory or cry foul in a way that screams, “losing is not an option!”

 

If losing is not an option, it’s not democracy. If one side concocts a false win, it’s authoritarianism.

 

Recounts have been demanded. Court challenges and lawsuits are already being put in play because even a hopeless lawsuit takes time and drags things out for a loser who doesn’t want to accept the inevitable.

 

Once Pennsylvania showed an early Trump lead, the president tweeted, “Stop the Vote” yet perversely pressed for more vote-counting in states where he was behind. This is characteristic of his hypocritical character.

 

As if the conflict between the slam-dunk popular vote and a power-drunk incumbent is not bad enough, red and blue America, badly in need of bridging differences, are instead being triggered to continue on the road to civil war.  The way Trump seems to look at it, if he doesn’t win, nobody does. 

 

After a joyous day of dancing in the streets and sighing a collective relief about the madness of the erratic Trump administration coming to an end, conflict is being stoked again by partisan political operatives and pro-Trump media outlets, pitting the slanted worldview of one against the world.

 

It’s not just opinions that differ, in the red and blue precincts of America; even basic facts can’t be agreed upon. Whether it’s about Covid, climate change or counting votes, consensus remains elusive. There’s scant comfort in the neutrality of math and legal checks and balances when lies have as much currency as truth.

 

What a tragic mess.

 

America was never the beacon on the hill it pretended to be, but it did enjoy global popularity and prestige after World War Two. Yet over time, imperial self-regard and a culture of violence at home and abroad has worked to erode much of the moral ground it once possessed. But only in this most recent election cycle, has the very democratic system of the world’s “leading democracy” come into question.

 

Observers look on with horror and amazement as the US President, a powerful world leader promise to take the country down if he doesn’t get his way. His willingness to cheat, lie and steal his way to get what he wants is legendary. He offends common courtesy, common sense and common decency by tweet-blasting petty complaints, documentable lies, intemperate takes, confused facts.

 

Two days after election day, a pouting, whining, truculent Trump went on TV, using the bully pulpit of the White House, to claim he had been cheated, even though a win was not statistical viable at that point. Spouting lies and betraying a weak grasp of reality, he cast aspersions on Detroit and Philadelphia, known for large minority populations, and proceeded to incite his followers to protest any result not in his favor.

 

The clownish petulance would be funny, worthy of a late-night comedy sketch, or the theatre of the absurd, were the stakes were not so high.

 

 

Trump is unlikely to make any progress on the legal front because he has no case. But he can make trouble, delay transition and perhaps even provoke a crisis to increase his emergency powers.  

 

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has observed that the US has not been so divided since the 1850’s, a period which was prelude to the Civil War. The sense of a shared national project and respect for fellow citizens across the political divide is at a nadir

 

Both warring tribes tend to see the other as the enemy, fueled by the echo chambers of two parallel media ecosystems, one red, the other blue.

 

The election of 2020 has become the Schrodinger’s Cat of elections.

 

The candidacy of the loser is simultaneously dead and alive.

 

But the counter-intuitive patterns of particle physics are not sustainable in the political arena. The cognitive dissonance is mind-cracking. If the losing side does not concede defeat, the whole system will break down.

 

Political collapse of the world’s most powerful country is not out of the question, and if it should crash and burn, it will be the most dangerous country as well.

 

Even if nothing apocalyptic happens, the leadership vacuum of a prolonged impasse will have unintended consequences around the world.

                                                                                                                       

Come what will, the bitter fruits of the election of 2020 will muddle US politics, and the way American power plays out in the global arena, for many years to come.

 

 

 

Friday, November 6, 2020

THIS LAND WAS YOUR LAND, THIS LAND WAS MY LAND, BUT NOW IT'S ELECTORAL COLLEGE LAND


 


(see November 9 post for update)

 

Trump has proved himself to be a loser who ruins everything he touches, even democracy itself.

 

The vain leader’s unwillingness to yield in the face of facts not to his liking has put his nation on cliff’s edge, dangerously in abeyance. A catastrophe waiting to happen. Shell-shocked Americans await with bated breath, while an underwhelmed world looks on with bemused puzzlement, derision and fear.

 

What happened?

 

Why wasn’t the man who lies, cheats and steals as a matter of course, the man who routinely polarizes, incites violence, and spews intolerance not been clearly repudiated at the polls.

Why was he not swept away in a massive landslide?

 

How can such a venal politician still have millions of supporters in a supposedly advanced nation with a vigorous free press and a robust democratic tradition?

 

Historians will ponder this painful paradox for years to come.

 

By all indications, Joe Biden is already the winner of the popular vote, and if the popular vote was all that counted, it might well be over now.

 

Due to historic peculiarities of the American “democratic” system, the difference of a few thousand votes at the state level can flip an election, even with one candidate way ahead of the other nationally. The Electoral College makes it possible for winners can lose and losers to win. It’s happened twice in recent times, in the Bush versus Gore contest of 2000, and the Trump versus Hillary contest of 2016. This system is deeply flawed, and when the contest is a close one, it is downright infuriating.  

 

The unsettling prospect of both sides claiming victory, one by the polls, the other by spurious claims, is due in no small part to the fecklessness of the sore-loser in the White House who goads his followers to believe that his loss is their loss and that losing is not an option.

 

Already Trump supporters are being prepped by incendiary tweets, and cheer-leading from Trump-friendly media to alternately declare victory or cry foul in a way that screams, “losing is not an option!”

 

If losing is not an option, it’s not democracy. If one side concocts a false win, it’s authoritarianism.

 

Recounts have been demanded, most especially in key states such as Wisconsin and Michigan where the margin of victory appears razor-thin, and court challenges are likely in Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.

 

Once Pennsylvania showed an early Trump lead, the president tweeted, “Stop the Vote” yet perversely pressed for more vote-counting in states where he was behind. Hypocrisy much?

 

As if the potential conflict between popular vote and Electoral College vote is not destabilizing enough, red and blue America rely on conflicting news outlets and partisan media, pitting the slanted worldview of one against the other.

 

It’s not just opinions that differ, in the red and blue precincts of America; even basic facts can’t be agreed upon. Whether it’s about Covid, climate change or counting votes, consensus remains elusive. There’s scant comfort in the neutrality of math and legal checks and balances when lies have as much currency as truth.

 

What a tragic mess.

 

America was never the beacon on the hill it pretended to be, but it did enjoy global popularity and prestige after World War Two. Yet over time, imperial self-regard and a culture of violence at home and abroad has worked to erode much of the moral ground it once possessed. But only in this most recent election cycle, has the very democratic system of the world’s “leading democracy” come into question.

 

Observers look on with horror and amazement as the US President, a powerful world leader promise to take the country down if he doesn’t get his way. His willingness to cheat, lie and steal his way to get what he wants is legendary. He offends common courtesy, common sense and common decency by tweet-blasting petty complaints, documentable lies, intemperate takes, confused facts.

 

On Thursday evening in DC, a pouting, whining cry-baby Trump incapable of conceded a fair contest, went on TV, using the bully pulpit of the White House, to claim he is being cheated. Spouting lies and betraying a weak grasp of reality, he cast aspersion on Detroit and Philadelphia, known for large minority populations, and proceeded to incite his followers to protest any result not in his favor.

 

The clownish petulance would be funny, worthy of a late-night comedy sketch, or the theatre of the absurd, were the stakes were not so high.

 

The unhinged mental state of the US commander in chief is a clear and present danger and of global concern as long as a man so unstable remains in control of the world’s deadliest arsenal.

 

He threatens to bring governance to a standstill.

 

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has observed that the US has not been so divided since the 1850’s, a period which was prelude to the Civil War. The sense of a shared national project and respect for fellow citizens across the political divide is at a nadir

 

Both warring tribes tend to see the other as the enemy, fueled by the echo chambers of two parallel media ecosystems, one red, the other blue.

 

The election of 2020 has become the Schrodinger’s Cat of elections.

 

The candidacy of both is simultaneously dead and alive.

 

But the counter-intuitive patterns of particle physics are not sustainable in the political arena. The cognitive dissonance is mind-cracking. If the losing side does not concede defeat, the whole system will break down.

 

Political collapse of the world’s most powerful country is not out of the question, and if it should crash and burn, it will be the most dangerous country as well.

 

Even if nothing apocalyptic happens, the leadership vacuum of a prolonged impasse will have unintended consequences around the world.