Is it just me, or have the opinion pages at The Los Angeles Times sure gotten a lot more interesting since that fine paper kidnapped two former reason staffers, Matt Welch and Tim Cavanaugh, like the Symbionese Liberation Army snatched Patty Hearst?
Yesterday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day that the U.S. collectively crapped its Cold War pants, a.k.a the day Sputnik I went into orbit, the Times mused in an unsigned editorial smartly dubbed "Satellite vs. supermarket:
A weird feature of the Cold War was America's tendency to choose the few areas in which the Soviet Union excelled and to make them the grounds for symbolic contests. International chess, classical piano competitions, Olympic sports (what red-blooded American hurls a discus?)—those were things the Russians were good at. True to form, the United States reacted to Sputnik with orotund calls to national purpose and a collectivized space program that mirrored the Russian program down to its hybrid military/scientific mission. Just as Sputnik itself was a technological experiment attached to what was originally merely a ballistic missile project, so the first Explorer launch was crammed with equipment—including a Geiger counter that detected the existence of the Van Allen radiation belts, the first important discovery of the Space Age.
The nameless, faceless, breathless (?) writer, the journalistic equivalent of a Charlie X victim, concludes:
In the end, the U.S. tendency to play to its weaknesses didn't matter. The economy was so vast that its runoff alone was enough to swamp the Soviets. The real symbolic victory of the Space Age may not have been Apollo 11 but "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," that paean to American wealth (marking its own—silver—anniversary this year) that posits a nation so rich even a supposedly middle-class Tujunga family has enough junk lying around the house to build a radio capable of communicating with aliens. The "private standard of life" [that idiotic but revered journalist Walter] Lippmann deplored was the base on which the achievements of the Space Age were built—including NASA, a Cold War relic that even its admirers concede is an arcane bureaucracy, and yet one that still manages to do some amazing things.
That's good stuff, I think, and all too true–except for NASA doing amazing things. The real mission of NASA is to waste time, energy, resources, and the occasional life while shredding massive amounts of taxpayers dollars and probably retarding actual development of the field in which it operates. In this, alas, NASA is no different than many other federal organizations.
But more to the point, the Times is simply wrong when it rhetorically asks, "What red-blooded American hurls a discus?" From the first modern Olympic Games, held in 1896, through the 1976 Montreal Games, U.S. men totally dominated the event, winning 14 of a possible 19 gold medals. Most of those golds came before the Soviets competed in the Olympics (the Reds first took the field in the 1952 Games), but from 1952 through 1976 (the last Cold War Olympics in which the Soviets and Americans both participated, save for '88), American men won seven out of eight golds (a Czech took the other).
Four of those golds–from grand Cold War years '56, '60, '64, and '68–belonged to the amazing Al Oerter, the first track and field athlete to win four straight titles and whose triumph over injury and pain is the sort of inspirational story the Olympics managed to produce with stunning regularity.
To be sure, the Olympics don't matter anymore, for all sorts of reasons but especially because the Cold War is as dead as Sen. Larry Craig's resignation. And there's no question the Cold War drove us all mad–mad enough to take chess seriously, at least until Bobby Fisher went apeshit with anti-Semitism. And there's no question that the Soviets lost the Cold War precisely because they wouldn't or couldn't compete with good old American junk culture.
But please LA Times, don't diss the discus. Especially since Al Oerter, that great proxy Cold Warrior who taught a small but touching lesson about human triumph over adversity, died just this past Tuesday, a couple of days short of the Sputnik anniversary.