Belmont Club

Poets For Pluto

In a little over a day the New Horizon probe will make its closest approach to Pluto. Nadia Drake of National Geographic notes the spaceship has navigated its way across billions of miles by following the stars.

“Second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning,” Peter Pan told Wendy as they sailed toward Neverland. Though the story is a fairytale, navigating by starlight is a tried-and-true method for crossing oceans on Earth as well as the vast cosmic sea. …

Riding aboard New Horizons are two star cameras, each aimed in a different direction.
“They’re used for determining which direction the spacecraft is pointed in, or where all the cameras and instruments are oriented,” Rogers says.

Ten times each second, the cameras snap images of their starfields. They compare those images with an onboard map of more than 10,000 stars. Based on that information, the spacecraft can figure out if it’s tipped up or down, or slightly swiveled.

Accompanying the story is a wonderful graphic showing Pluto, as we now know it to look. It coincidentally resembles the covers of 1950s pulp science fiction stories: a mysterious world hung on a limitless backdrop of stars, with a dauntless spaceship from earth closing on it — the kind future kids once signed up for: with rocket ships, wonder machines, planets, stars, evil monsters, pretty girls.

Instead of that future we got political correctness, Islamic extremism,Western bankruptcy and Donald Trump. Nobody wants the future any more. It’s the eight century everybody likes.  Maybe we’re getting what we deserve. Steven Miller argues that the imagery surrounding Trump is like the mirror of our minds; it reflects our true likeness. Donald functions like a civilizational portrait of Dorian Gray, recording who we are instead of how we wish to appear. Trump exists precisely because modern civilization, including his so-called critics, need him to exist.

In 2008, egged on by a media swooning with romantic feelings of hope and change, the country made a willful decision to elect an unqualified celebrity to the Oval Office. Since then, America’s number one export has been fame and its politicization: we have politicized fame. Advances in social media have made intolerable and talentless pop stars and D-list cable attention leeches alike into permanent fixtures of pop culture, and have rendered the concept of “statesmanlike decorum” extinct. Now a President slinging a selfie stick or a candidate doing Simpsons impersonations are just a web-click away. Pop singers are humanitarians. Reality TV stars are political scientists. And funny (albeit creepy-looking) clowns in bowties are climatologists. The 2002 California gubernatorial recall race, which if you recall saw Arnold Schwarzenegger beat out a porn star and and a muppet resembling Arianna Huffington, turns out to have actually been a prescient instruction manual for our national politics.

The cumulative product of this suppurating confluence of culture and politics into one befouled cesspool is Donald Trump. He is the candidate that only this country, at this point in time, could create. The media phenomenon surrounding Trump didn’t just materialize overnight. It’s been metastasizing for years in the bowels of Fox News, E! and NBC. Donald Trump is basically the (somewhat) humanoid embodiment of that river of pink mood slime growing and flowing under the streets of New York City.

Alfred Noyes’ epic introduction to his three volume poetic history of science makes an interesting counterpoint to Miller’s essay. In November, 1917 George Ellery Hale invited the English poet to the first test of the 100 inch Mount Wilson telescope. There on the summit Noyes stood, awestruck, as the observatory dome opened its eye  to the bowl of the sky.  The themes of his subsequent work wrote themselves on that height handed down, as it were, from the pinpoints of light themselves.

The Observatory

At noon, upon the mountain’s purple height,
Above the pine-woods and the clouds it shone
No larger than the small white dome of shell
Left by the fledgling wren when wings are born.
By night it joined the company of heaven,
And, with its constant light, became a star.
A needle-point of light, minute, remote,
It sent a subtler message through the abyss,
Held more significance for the seeing eye
Than all the darkness that would blot it out,
Yet could not dwarf it.

The experience did what all good science fiction does: it filled Noyes a sense of identity and wonder. There came to Noyes the concept of “They” — almost exactly the opposite of the Belmont Club’s notion of “Someone”. “They” were the individuals who would stride forth to find the truth, to converse with God.

In the last book of his trilogy  he describes “an ocean liner … is battling through a raging storm. A little girl is mortally ill. The ship’s surgeon prepares to operate, but with little hope … luckily, the captain knows from the wireless news that a top specialist from Johns Hopkins is on another liner 400 miles away – within wireless range … When the poet asks a casually-met fellow-passenger, “You think they’ll save her?” the stranger replies, “They may save her,” and then adds enigmatically, ‘But who are They?’ Reflecting, the poet realises that They are all the seekers and discoverers of scientific truths through the ages – people like Harvey, Pasteur and Lister in the field of medicine or Faraday, Maxwell and Hertz in the development of the wireless.”

Have you no song, then, of that nobler war?
Of those who strove for light, but could not dream
Even of this victory that they helped to win,
Silent discoverers, lonely pioneers,
Prisoners and exiles, martyrs of the truth
Who handed on the fire, from age to age;
Of those who, step by step, drove back the night….

The healers and the binders up of wounds,
Who, while the dynasts drenched the world with blood,
Would in the still small circle of a lamp
Wrestle with death like Heracles of old
To save one stricken child.
Is there no song?

“Is there no song?” None. And if you wrote one it would never make the Top 40. What we have in its place is amplified atonalities of fame, sex and money. There are no bards left to persuade us to wrestle with death like “Heracles of old to save one stricken child”.  Instead we have Dr. Farid Fata, Medicare fraudster, who never met anyone who didn’t need chemotherapy, even people completely free of disease, for as long as he could bill the government for it.

The Fata case, which is being investigated and prosecuted under the direction of a task force run jointly by the federal departments of Justice and Health and Human Services, is highly unusual. Typical Medicare fraud cases involve health care providers billing the government for services that were never delivered. Some fraudulent providers buy Medicare ID numbers on the street. Others pad billings to increase profits or procure medications to sell illegally. Many are found out when federal investigators spot anomalies in their billings. But Fata appears to have been charged after whistleblowers approached federal authorities with information that he was potentially injuring patients just to up profits. McQuade, whose office has prosecuted numerous Medicare fraud cases in Detroit, says she’s seen lots of schemes but “nothing as egregious as this.

According to a criminal complaint filed on August 6 and based on an investigation by the FBI, Fata routinely prescribed chemotherapy and other drastic medical interventions for patients who were either healthy, or ill but in need of alternate treatments. He did so purely to increase his own income, according to prosecutors, who say Fata billed Medicare for some $150 million in services between August 2010 and July 2013, some of it fraudluently. The complaint, based on interviews with several nurse practitioners, medical assistants and an oncologist who worked for Fata, reads like a horror novel.

Fata represents a world in which there is always a “Somebody” and never a “They”.  Ironically it wasn’t the government that found him out but one Burmese doctor, who risking his job, found allies in a nurse and Fata’s administrative manager to bring the whole thing crashing down.  “Someone” missed the pitch.  It was one of the “They” who hit it out of the park.

Today it is fashionable to disparage the sense of wonder that  formerly made us look up at the sky as “a lie: [which] reflects white American fantasies about nature, machines, and the frontier … The American mythological apparatus must be comprehended thoroughly to be handled, or dismantled, effectively”.  Wonder is as bad for us as Wonder Bread.

Consequently we have effaced the sky. That is a dangerous direction in which to look.  And all we have left is lucre, display screens and genitalia.  According to that point of view, the future is unfolding as it should: sans alien monsters, sans daring men, and sans poets for Pluto.


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