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Whitey on the Moon (Revisited)

09.15.1998 | SOCIETY

If the nearly one million stamp collectors and assorted civic-minded Americans who cast votes in the Post Office's "Celebrate the Century" ballot are the real arbiters of history, then all this worry about raving Weathermen Professors seems a bit unwarranted. The subject under consideration was the 1960s, and the United States Postal Service passed the mike to the People to decide which events would commemorate the decade. After a brief tallying period, the number one response recorded was for the successful moon landing of Apollo 11 in July, 1969.

The Sixties? The Moon? It is actually rather easy to forget that we landed on the moon during the 1960s, and the voting seems to represent an oblique desire to forget the reality of a decade that, after all, would be best represented by a molotov cocktail.

Bombs, of the homemade gasoline or Dupont napalm variety, were not among the choices offered. While the Vietnam War was included in the "People and Events" category, it was swamped beneath such items as Shopping Malls, Barbie, The Twist, Lasers, and--everybody's boldest memory of the decade--Televised Golf.

True, "Americans Demonstrate" appeared alongside "The Kennedy Brothers," but the verb 'demonstrate' didn't quite catch the revolutionary zeitgeist of a time in which machine guns were mounted on the White House lawn and cities burned from Newark to Watts. In any case, there will be no stamps commemorating these 'demonstrations'--the category was beat out by The Super Bowl.

When I first saw the pamphlet while waiting in line--a pathetic attempt at a psychedelic aesthetic asking "How do you picture the 60s? Is it Woodstock? The Green Bay Packers? Man on the moon? Or the Twist that really gets ya groovin'?--I had a brief vision of a write-in campaign producing a clenched fist, Stokeley's mug, or an immolated monk. But choices were pre-selected to the desired affect, and Neil Armstrong now represents the period that the Trilateral Commission famously called a 'crisis of democracy.'

All of which reminds me of one of the few interesting articles Ayn Rand ever wrote, a 1970 piece called "Apollo and Dionysus." In it, she declared the two forces coined by Nietzsche to represent 'the fundamental conflict of the age,' with Cape Kennedy and Woodstock embodying both principles in 'pure, extreme, isolated form.' Nevermind the fact that she stupidly conflated the New Left and the Counterculture, or that she learned everything that she knew about both phenomena from the New York Times. She was onto something in recognizing the world historical significance in these events. For her, the moon landing was the apotheosis of reason, logic, mathematics (if not free market economics), while the smelly rock festival was the best that inhuman, emotional, anti-technology freaks could ever hope to achieve. Her judgment upon the youth movement was severe, and no doubt her icy pubes, long shaved into the shape of a dollar sign and preserved with the help of the latest cryogenic advances, are standing up in salute in the grave as smart, decent people have chosen rationality over atavistic Woodstock, which sat dreamily next to "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" on the ballot.

Reason/Emotion was not the only axis up for debate in the 1960s, however. There was that whole Left-Right thing, too. And in this we find the real significance of the Moon Landing as top vote getter in the race to represent that decade. For the moon landing, with all it's symbolic splendor, was ultimately a colossal, extremely expensive diversion. It was Eisenhower himself, under whom NASA was founded, who said he was as curious as the next guy about what was on the dark side of the moon, but that he would be damned if he was gonna spend ten million dollars to find out. It ended up costing much more than that, of course, with most of it going right back into the clichéd, but very real, military-industrial complex that subsumes the Department of Energy and NASA.

Micheal Harrington's book The Other America set much of the tone for the 1960s, calling attention to the suffering that was only aggravated by vast governmental outlays for pork-barrel R&D vanity programs like the Apollo flight. This was best captured by Gil Scott-Heron, who will not be appearing on a stamp anytime soon.

Taxes takin' my whole damn check,
Junkies make me a nervous wreck
The price of food is goin' up,
An' as if all that crap wuzn't enough:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon.)
Her face an' arm begin to swell,
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Was all that money I made las' year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come their ain't no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey's on the moon.)
Y'know I jus' bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon.)
I think I'll sen' these doctor bills
(To Whitey on the moon.)

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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