PR for the Universe

Ehrenreich and von Hoffman

PR for the Universe

Ehrenreich and von Hoffman

PR for the Universe
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Oct. 29 1998 9:18 PM

Ehrenreich and von Hoffman

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My dear Nick,

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Please forgive the stream of filth that spewed from my computer on the last transmission. I picture you coming in all ruddy and hale from milking the sugar maples, or whatever it is you do there in Maine, sitting down at your screen and gagging to discover thereon such notions as fellatio, impeachment, sexual harassment, and Newt. No doubt your family members, peering over your shoulder, thought you were tapping into the Internet's rich veins of pornography rather than contributing to a political journal so staid my friends called it Straight and sometimes Granite. Never again will the phrase "electoral politics," with its overtones of corruption and debauchery surpassing that even of the Caligula administration, pass these lips, which I bite in contrition even as I speak.

Let us turn then to loftier matters, such as our man in space. CNN devoted the entire day to him, gleefully reporting that 300,000 Americans gathered on the beaches of Brevard County to observe the launch, many of them moved to tears. In short: a successful "rally event," in the sense of mass synchronized emotional display. I was gratified to see that the newscasters have almost given up on the idea that there is any remotely plausible scientific rationale for the journey. Well, not entirely. There was some brief talk of the need to more deeply study "weightlessness," but such studies could obviously be undertaken in the CNN studios themselves, with no need to ever venture outdoors. Mostly though, the bright-eyed fellows who bring us the news were fulsomely praising this venture as a "big boost for space." Think about it: Except in Hollywood's hands, the universe has been a big disappointment, incapable of coughing up even a credible fossil Martian microbe, never mind the multi-mouthed monsters that so bedevil Sigourney Weaver in the interminable Alien series. The universe has let us down, is the message, but maybe the Glenn launch will give it some positive PR for once.

Now I too would like to see the universe get a little more respect, but is this geezer caper really the way to go about it? We learn from one of Frank Rich's recent columns that a 32-year-old was fired from her Disney writing job for pretending to be 19, and that the more elderly Hollywood writers are busily dumbing down their resumes to conceal any sign of wisdom or accumulated experience. Think of how the very word "old" has come to mean tiresome and ripe for euthanasia, as in "Monica-gate (whoops, sorry about that slip!) is getting old." In fact the word is so repulsive that it is considered tactful to use the intensive instead: There are "older women," for example, but strangely no merely "old" ones. My fear is that, instead of making the universe seem hip or chic or fun, the effect of this mission will be to be to finish it off. Even Hollywood will drop space, sending Sigourney instead into a cavern to be bitten by bats, and my own chances of docking on Alpha Centauri will dwindle to zip.

Barbara Ehrenreich is contributing editor at theProgressiveand author of several books, including Blood Rites. Nicholas von Hoffman is a columnist at theNew York Observer. His books include We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against.