2020 Vision

Since March 11, we have lived in a hodgepodge of COVID precautions, COVID hysteria, COVID counter-reactions, and COVID exhaustion. 

The coronavirus got upstaged, but did not go away, when the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis touched off a new round of racial justice riots. 

Absorbed as we have been in feeding these sorrows into our national appetite for angst, we gave scant notice to a new light in the heavens.

Comet NEOWISE near its closest approach to Earth. Photographed from Joshua Tree National Park, California, 21 July 2020 by Kalpa Semasinghe. Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The comet popped out of the void on March 27. Since then, it has waxed through almost four months of dawns. Now, in July, after sunset, it is on the wane. 

Soon, it will return whence it came, leaving us . . . here.

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash.

Oh, C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, what tidings do you bring? 

Optics

Last Monday I bought a pair of Nikon 8×30 binoculars. I wanted something my wife, daughter, grandchildren, and I could use in the future. Comets come and go, but birds are perennial. Still, it was the comet that spurred my purchase. 

I wanted to see NEOWISE. 

What if it was a harbinger?

Back in 1961, the Wilson-Hubbard Comet appeared for a few days in late July. 

As I trekked through a cattail marsh to my sleeping cabin at Scout camp, its pale cone of light hung in the sky over my right shoulder. The haunting evanescence, seen by naked eye, has dwelt with me near sixty years.

Night Sky

Even longer ago than that, we lived in a small town in Illinois. We were many miles from Chicago, or even Peoria; light pollution was unknown. Every cloudless night, the black empyrean glinted with a billion gems.  

You could—and I did—lie on the grass and stare at Orion, the Dippers, Cassiopeia, the Seven Sisters, and the teeming brilliance of the Milky Way. 

One summer night I lay on the lawn for hours and saw with my own eyes—as if it had not already been taught in school—that our Earth rotates beneath not only the sun and the moon, but beneath the whole firmament. One by one the constellations sink beyond the west while others creep out from under the east.

Beyond that simple truth, I had no grasp of the thing. Intuition failed me as a natural philosopher.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
—Walt Whitman

Astronomy

In days of yore, the farmers, shepherds, and sailors kept company with the night sky. They looked up to fathom its meaning. They gave its regions fanciful names out of folklore and national myths. 

Ptolemy scans the heavens, guided by Urania, the muse of astronomy. 1508 engraving by Gregor Reisch. Pubic Domain.

They relied on heavenly bodies to guide their ways on Earth.

They saw that the stars hold fixed relations with one another, all but a recalcitrant few that wander as if by whimsy through the celestial field. These few they called “planets”—a name that means “wanderer.”

Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170) worked out a math to map the planets’ paths. This was a feat. 

The challenge was that the planets, as viewed from Earth, seem to halt and go backwards from time to time, apparently at irregular intervals. Unavoidably, Ptolemy’s geometry to account for this oddity was complicated.

In the Middle Ages, Ptolemy’s complex model of planetary motion coexisted with Aristotle’s simple construct of the sky as a sphere of crystal in which the stars were embedded. Aristotle’s notion addressed the changeless reaches of space, while Ptolemy’s pinned down the meanderings of the planets against that space.

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, 1873, by Jan Matejko. Public Domain.

Come the Renaissance: The sky, like all things else, got re-examined. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) wrote a book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium—On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. He hesitated to publish his theory, so controversial was it. When, on his deathbed, he set loose his manuscript, it knocked over Ptolemy’s applecart, placing the sun at the center of the universe and making of Earth a mere planet—just like the tiny ones that blundered about the nocturnal sky, only closer.

Kepler in 1610. Unknown artist. Public Domain.

The Copernican view—which took almost a century to become accepted science—required a new model for the motions of planets. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a human calculating machine, figured the true orbits of the planets, which turned out to be elliptical, not circular as had always been assumed.

Comets

The permanent stars were fixed in crystal and the desultory planets ranged along an elliptical racetrack. 

Comets were something else again.

Noble stargazer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) observed the Great Comet of 1577 and recorded thousands of position fixes as it passed by. The comet’s trajectory did not fit his system, nor Kepler’s, nor Copernicus’s, nor Ptolemy’s. 

It turns out that comets are adventitious travelers from the far reaches of our solar system.

They arrive all of a sudden and make a big splash. Then they depart, leaving us none the wiser.

Still, they have been taken as portents. 

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”

Mark Twain, 1909

Harbinger

On Wednesday, with my new binoculars, I drove west out of Madison. On a curve of County Highway F between Mount Horeb and Blue Mounds, parked cars lined the road. People sat on the roadside bank in lawn chairs, facing northwest, waiting for the show. 

I tucked my Toyota into the parking lot of Brigham County Park and walked back down the hill to the curve where the comet-seekers sat. Without a lawn chair, I lowered myself heavily to the grassy slope and gazed northwest. 

As the sunset faded, the stars came out. Once the sky darkened enough, it was easy to find the comet at some distance below the Big Dipper.

Looking for a reprise of Comet 1961 V (Wilson-Hubbard), I was disappointed. NEOWISE, even through binoculars, was only a vague streak rising from a pinpoint of light. Once my field glasses had found it, I could also see it without magnification, a mere smudge.

Muttering, I walked back to my car. 

And as I trudged uphill to the parking lot, the whole panoply of Heaven arched above me—millions of stars, diamonds on a black velvet sky. It took my breath away. Or maybe it was the hill.

The panoply of Heaven. “Night Sky” by adrianmichaelphotography is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Reaching the parking lot at the top of the hill, I let my breath catch up with me as I scanned the whole sky. Jupiter gleamed above the southern horizon. The binoculars gave me two of its moons, standing off from the planet’s blue-white orb. 

#

Dear Reader, we have imprisoned ourselves in city lights. Away from our industrial glow, the cosmos burns as it always did. But it’s over our heads; we must look up. 

By what lights do we steer? The halogen vapor haze of shopping malls, or the shy twinkles of the universe? 

Back home, I stood in my yard. To the northwest, beyond the man-made glow, hung the same comet we had seen in the country. 

You just had to know where to look.             

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Police

In the spring of 1965 I flunked out of Knox College. The timing of this was pretty spectacular, as there was a war on. 

I lost my student deferment and went to the top of the Draft Board’s list for two years’ service in the Army or Marines. Instead I volunteered for a four-year hitch in the U.S. Air Force. They sent me to Monterey, California, to learn Chinese. 

After learning Chinese, I spent a year on a Taiwan mountaintop, monitoring Chinese Communist radio communications; then spent about fifteen months flying out of Okinawa, grinding away at the Chinese Problem from recon aircraft over Southeast Asia. 

RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. Photo by Tim Felce, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I completed my service in September 1969 and came home to a land I barely recognized. Gone was the familiar America of Walt Whitman, singing its varied carols. In its place wallowed a society designed by, or for, Saul Alinsky and Howard Zinn.

The culture shock was starkened by my having gone immediately from military service to the University of Wisconsin campus at the height of its anti-war, revolutionary, zeal. The serious leftists in Madison, some of whom I got to know pretty well, were dedicated, if mostly amateur, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist agitators. 

Revolution

Turned loose by Uncle Sam, I sought now to redeem myself as a student. This time around, I promised myself, I would shun all-night poker parties and all-day Frisbee flinging. I would hit the books with righteous fervor. Admitted to the university on academic probation, I was determined to clear my name in one semester. 

Meanwhile, the campus of 35,000 students seethed with anger, revolt, socialist machinations, and broken windows.

On the twelfth floor of Van Hise Hall, East Asian and South Asian language students gathered to read, translate, argue, and kibbitz. From a perch nudging the stratosphere we gazed down on ant-like protesters surging at straight lines of National Guardsmen and police. Puffs of white smoke plumed the ground here and there—signs that our homeward treks at day’s end would be tinged with tear gas.

“The Pigs”

One day a young man whose name I no longer recall complained about the police—whom he called “the pigs,” in the argot of the day.

Pig. Photo by BadgerGravling, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“I wish you wouldn’t call them pigs,” I said.

He frowned. “Why not? That’s what they are.”

“No. Pigs are animals; police officers are people. They may not share your ideas, they may be ranged against you in a riot. But they are human beings. If you call them pigs you deny their humanity and make it convenient to disregard their human attributes. They may have a viewpoint  of their own, but you will never bother to consider it, because they’re only pigs.” 

For me, this was a long speech.

Policeman. Photo by rocor, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The young man gazed at me for a moment and said, “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. From now on I will not call police officers pigs.”

A transformative moment, in the midst of the Revolution?  Fat chance.

If this young man was changed by my earnest entreaty, then he was the only one. I soon figured out that I was not made for political battles, or any other kind of battles. I gave up trying to engage intellectually with my friends on the left and shunned politics from that day to this. 

The protesters of 1969-70 opposed the police not only in practice but in principle. Policemen enforced the law. Thus they were tools of the Establishment, defenders of the status quo. The enemy.

Kent State, Sterling Hall

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard members killed four students at Kent State University. Then on August 24, here in Madison, revolutionaries planted a huge bomb that demolished Sterling Hall, a large academic building, and killed a physics researcher.These grim events took steam out of the anti-war movement; but only in January 1973—when President Richard Nixon pulled the U.S. out of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government collapsed, and Ho Chi Minh’s communists took over the whole country—did that movement end.

Pre-Vietnam normality began to seep back into the United States. But the gaping wound in our national fabric did not heal. Fifty years later, we remain mired in distrust of one another, of our government, and of authority in general.

Today’s Crises

“Authority” can mean two different things. Let’s call them “intrinsic authority” and “conferred authority.” 

Intrinsic authority speaks for itself. Jesus was said to have taught “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” When you have a knee replaced, you may rely on the surgeon’s medical diploma; but your go/no-go decision might be based on your gut’s  confidence in the surgeon, not on his formal qualifications. That’s intrinsic authority.

Conferred authority is legal, or legalistic. It is the authority of a city clerk to license a couple for marriage. It is the authority of a president to okay the launch of nuclear-tipped missiles. 

When intrinsic authority and conferred authority coincide, one of the results is a high-trust society. Unfortunately, such coincidence is becoming a rare thing. We give little obedience to conferred authority because we discern no intrinsic authority within it. We jeer our leaders; we defy those to whom they delegate power, including the police. 

Then and Now

The long-drawn-out war of our present day, being fought in Afghanistan since 2001, does not attract the intense interest that the one in Vietnam did fifty years ago. Fewer American troops are involved, none of them are draftees, and Southwest Asia seems even farther away now than Southeast Asia did then. 

Today’s great controversy is not war but race—racism, racial discrimination, white privilege, and the oppression of blacks. But in one way our time does resemble the past: Police and policing stand at the center of the conflict.

I have not heard the term “pigs” applied to police in recent years—not even in the past two or three weeks. They are still regarded as humans, which is good. Recent events, however, paint them as racists—which may be worse than pigs.

Because of this, people keen on public order rush to point out that “most police” are dedicated, overworked public servants and should not be tarred with the brush of racism.

Defunding

But people keen on social justice assert that racism is systemic in our society. They profess that “defunding” the police would be a good step toward redressing the balance. The general public views this concept with horror, so the would-be defunders belatedly explain they do not mean complete defunding but only partial defunding. This satisfies nobody, because some folks really do want to abolish the police, while everybody else thinks the police need more funding, not less.

In all this palaver, what gets lost is any mature reckoning of the unique position that police occupy in our society. 

Mao Zedong in 1963. Public Domain.

The late Chairman Mao got at least one thing right: Political power does grow from the barrel of a gun. That is true always and everywhere. In a free society, we place that gun in the hands of a police officer and expect that officer to exercise conferred authority within limits prescribed by law.

George Orwell in 1943. Public Domain.

George Orwell said, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” Police are the people we hire to do violence on our behalf.

Protectors

What I am getting at is that, while police officers are humans, they are humans of a special kind.

Most of us fall into the category of the Protected. Police officers are the Protectors.

My wife’s cousin was a police officer in a Chicago suburb. He said that within a few weeks of putting on his badge, he had learned to lump people into two categories: good folks and bad guys. And he made this distinction within seconds of entering a situation. Such swift decisions must have included a large reliance on intuition. Was he ever mistaken in his assessments? The conversation did not extend that far. 

Those who have the “take-charge” kind of personality that leads them into law enforcement, and who need to survive in potentially hazardous situations, will most likely develop the same reliance on snap judgments that my wife’s cousin described. 

So when we, the People, lay plans to send out social workers in place of cops, let’s get real. When we modify police training and rules of engagement, let’s remember that police will need to translate their instructions into action in fluid situations. We should not be surprised when they find their powers creatively enhanced by statutes that we had thought would curb their power.

Remember that we license the police to use violence—brutal acts labeled as “authorized use of force”—on our behalf. If we do not wish to confer this authority, perhaps we should completely defund the police; abolish the departments. 

Then all of us, including those who “abjure” violence, would need to become the Protectors for ourselves and our families. Thirty-one states allow firearms to be carried openly. I suppose a general defunding of police departments would bring us back to the old Western ambience of Dodge City. Is that the outcome we seek?

#

What we face, in practical terms, is a need to improve the way we confer authority upon our police officers.

But the greater issue is seldon spoken of. It is simply this: Unless those who wield conferred authority combine it with intrinsic authority, our problems will continue, will intensify, and will multiply.

Intrinsic authority = character. 

There is no substitute for character. Its short supply, in the police and in the whole population, is our real problem. 

When can we start working on that?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author