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Space Case

Peggy Noonan loves nothing so much as an official tragedy to contextualize , and this weekend’s shuttle disaster — never mind what you may have read at WashingtonPost.com about the shuttle landing safely, those internet sites are not reliable — gave her ample opportunity.

In “The Days of Miracle and Wonder“, Noonan appropriates Paul Simon lyrics to discuss yet another “searing reminder of American heroism.” Ironic, is it not, that heroism as defined by the Columbia incident and 9/11 means that you end up dead? Never mind that the Israeli wasn’t explicitly American; US taxpayers paid so much of his salary throughout his career that we have at least a proprietary interest in the Colonel.

Enough of all that, for now, anyway. Because Noonan has what amounts to tenure in the corporate press, she can write a fragmentary reverie about Saturday’s events and have it pass as the official version of acceptable grief. Noonan described Bush’s “blunt words” as “explicitly God based”, because his speechwriter stuck in some quote from the Book of Isaiah to impart gravitas. Mr. Bush’s “thoughtstream”, to hear the former Reagan speechwriter tell it, leads “straight to the spiritual”

Yep, Peggy, he’s Jesus with a security clearance. Wasn’t Bush the governor of Texas who mistook executions for sitcoms? The puppet gets up and reads some canned mush about why “mankind is led into the darkness”, and we’re supposed to squint until we see an actual statesman behind the microphone? Peggy, please.

Noonan’s piece isn’t simply a well-rehearsed gushing about Bush’s innate spirituality, however. She intends — or WSJ intends for her to — provide a definitive reaction to what essentially is a media tragedy. The Columbia may have exploded, but NASA didn’t undercut newscasts with mawkish strings. That was Fox News. The US puts a military full-court press on the rest of the world, with all the death and destruction that implies, and rather than address the issues of expansion and empire honestly, we’re supposed to be transfixed by manufactured tragedy.

Noonan alludes to the idea of tragedy being served up when she discusses the 1986 Challenger disaster. She describes “schoolchildren across the country were watching the Challenger go up, they were watching on TV sets and in auditoriums, because Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, was on the flight. The children saw it all. It was supposed to be part of American schoolchildren learning about space, that’s why the schools were showing it live. It was a learning tool. . . and the children learned more than anyone would have expected.” About bravery, about the “everyday courage of astronauts. . . all the Americans doing big and dangerous things in the world–members of the armed forces, cops and firemen, doctors in public hospitals in hard places.”

The children indeed learned more than they expected that day in 1986, Peggy. I was in eighth grade just then, and remember all the Challenger jokes being told by all of us who weren’t deaf-mutes. You might remember them as well; if not, I’m sure they’re on the Internet. There was an impromptu assembly a week after the disaster about the “inappropriateness” of such jokes; though it was allowed that they were defense mechanisms, they were of course beyond the pale.

People assumed that the jokes were defense mechanisms against the tragic loss of those brave souls, or whatever the phrase of the day was. Looking back, though, I think they represented people internalizing lessons about their relationship to government. Those folks in uniforms, however heroic they seem at the time, end up dead. For a moment of ephemeral glory before the media cycle is finished churning their bodies and souls within its gaping maw.

All the corpses are forgotten eventually, Peggy. The original Challenger crew. The corpses who died for stalemate in Korea and Vietnam. Those who have met their ends in Afghanistan, liberating the pipeline route from those who live on it. Those who are about to meet their ends; those poor bastards who signed up for this government’s war against evil, who had no clue it was all smoke and mirrors.

ANTHONY GANCARSKI, author of UNFORTUNATE INCIDENTS [2001, Diversity Inc.], accepts email at Anthony.Gancarski@attbi.com.