The Ever-Contracting Universe of D.J.T.
On April 29, 1962, President John F. Kennedy (who, as of this past Wednesday has - unbelievably - been gone for 54 years) hosted a lavish black-tie White House banquet honoring 49 Nobel Laureates from the Western Hemisphere. Prominent attendees included then-Canadian Liberal Party leader Lester Pearson, writer (and Nobel Laureate) Ernest Hemingway's widow Mary Welsh Hemingway, Poet Robert Frost, novelist John Dos Passos, literary critics Lionel and Diana Trilling, and two-time Academy Award winner Frederic March, who read excerpts from the works of Nobel Prize winners Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck and George C. Marshall.
In his welcoming remarks to his august guests, President Kennedy (a month shy of his 45th birthday and himself a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer) keenly observed “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Although these words (likely written by Kennedy's Ted Sorensen) are generally well-remembered, what followed is not: “I think the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of peace, are very basic drives and pressures in this life of ours--and this dinner is an attempt, in a sense, to recognize those great efforts, to encourage young Americans and young people in this hemisphere to develop the same drive and deep desire for knowledge and peace."
Talk about a class act. The Kennedy years - that brief interregnum between Eisenhower and Johnson - were frequently called "Camelot," a glittering kingdom where, in the words of C'est Moi:
A knight of the Table Round should be invincible,
Succeed where a less fantasticbman would fail /Climb a wall no one else can climb,
Cleave a dragon in record time,
Swim a moat in a coat of heavy iron mail.
No matter the pain, he ought to be unwinceable,
Impossible deeds should be his daily fare.
Turn the page, advance 54 years, and we now find ourselves in the midst of Camelot's dark and ugly underbelly, as in the words of Seven Deadly Virtues:
The seven deadly virtues, those ghastly little traps
Oh no, my liege, they were not meant for me
Those seven deadly virtues were made for other chaps
Who love a life of failure and ennui . . .
I find humility means to be hurt
It's not the earth the meek inherit, it's the dirt
Honesty is fatal, it should be taboo
Diligence-a fate I would hate . . .
Nowhere does the difference between the Kennedy years and today reveal itself more starkly than in the matter of Nobel Laureates. Where Kennedy delighted in dining with and basking in the aura of the crème-de-la-crème of brilliance and scholarly accomplishment, '45 has turned both a blind eye and a deaf ear to all of them. Simply stated, in 2017, there is no place at today's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the best and brightest in the scholarly empyrean. Why? Perhaps '45, who has on any number of occasions reminded his cadre of followers that he is "a very intelligent person" is simply cowed by their brilliance and fears that they would easily show him up for the brainless blowhard he is. (Actually, they probably would not; they are far too classy a bunch for such bad manners.) Not that such an unmasking would deter his ardent base from believing he is the Great Oz. Perhaps he is playing up to the solid, stolid anti-intellectualism of his political universe, which is largely made up of those for whom climate change is nothing more than a deceitful conspiracy, and the only "Big Bang Theory" they've ever heard of is that which attaches to Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper, rather than Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble. Then too, perhaps he simply does not want to suffer the unprecedented embarrassment of having his invitations turned down. For truth to tell, more than one of the Nobel Laureates was relieved by '45's decision to not have a gala in their honor.
Make no mistake about it: '45's universe, unlike that of Einstein and Hubble is constantly contracting: intellectually, morally and politically. America - indeed, the world - seems to be populated by an ever decreasing number of people and nations who have one thing in common: a need, desire and ability to idolize him no matter what he does or says; no matter whether he is as inconsistent as a major league strike zone or as intellectually vapid are a flat-earther. During the past year or more, a lot of people have come to understand that '45's universe contracts every time an individual, group or cause changes its mind about him. He possesses total recall when it comes to slights, challenges or personal affronts, and clinical amnesia when it comes to any - if not all - his yesterdays. For so many, the only thing one must know about him is that he is rich . . . really, really rich (or so he says).
When I attended university nearly a half-century ago, I took just enough "Physics for Philosophy Students" courses to figure out how much I did not know about physics. I do recall learning something about Edwin Hubble's discovery (theory?) that the universe was not static . . . that it was constantly expanding. This was the find which revealed that the universe was apparently born in a "Big Bang." That when the universe was just ten-to-the-minus-thirty-fourth of a second or so old — that is, a hundredth of a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second in age — it experienced an incredible burst of expansion known as inflation, in which space itself expanded faster than the speed of light. During this period, the universe doubled in size at least 90 times, going from subatomic-sized to golf-ball-sized almost instantaneously. As a student of philosophy, history and political science, I found this terribly difficult to grok. And so, I found myself asking the professor, "If the entire physical universe was the size of a golf ball, what reality existed outside that golf ball sized orb?" When he told me "nothing whatsoever," I tried to . . . as the modern expression goes . . . "wrap my brain around that one." After a sleepless night or two, I decided that there were simply some things better left to the astrophysicists, G-d bless them all. I was better off studying Hume than Hawking.
To the best of my knowledge (which is woefully slight), the question remains: "What reality exists outside a constantly expanding physical universe?" With regards to this week's topic, it is far, far easier to answer the question "What reality exists outside a constantly contracting political universe?" To be certain, the discards include ideals, programs, equality, humanity and long-term vision. And if something is not done over the next several years, '45's "real America" - i.e. his universe - will consist of only those who are mostly white, Christian, highly conservative, terribly rich and highly autocratic. And while I know that JFK was far from a saint (extra-marital affairs, an addiction to painkillers and being the son of a father who was a fascist and likely anti-Semite), at least he did his best to expand the universe in which he lived. And he made us proud to be Americans . . .
297 days down, 1,049 to go.
Copyright©2017 Kurt F. Stone