Tuesday, April 12, 2011

From muskets to rockets

Today marks a memorable day in history. The Civil War finally got started at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, 150 years ago.

And 50 years ago today, the first man in space was a Soviet, Yuri Gagarin.

Incredibly, the cause of the first event is still debated. The second event sent shocks waves across America and was somewhat ignored in this country until recently, like today.

As for the Civil War, we always hear the baloney about "state's rights," as in, it's a state's right to send more than 600,000 to their deaths for no reason other than it's a state's right to do so.

Time magazine devoted a recent cover to our nation's "squirmishness" about the central fact of the Civil War: It was about slavery.

I  learned about slavery and the Civil War in grade school. It went like this: The country divided up in blue and gray teams for the purpose of killing each other because the South wanted to keep their slaves and expand slavery while the North opposed those things.

Yet, many Americans, particularly in the South, are still in denial about this. You can see why Southerners prefer code words like "state's rights" and "secession," because they sound benign. Slavery does not.

But, why do reasonable Americans still avoid the slavery issue when discussing the reason for the Civil War?

Part of the reason is that by admitting we legally allowed slavery in this country, it strikes at the very core of our nation's soul. It mocks our most popular phrase written by a major Founding Father: "All men are created equal."

Jefferson wrote that line in the Declaration of Independence even as he, and other Founding Fathers owned slaves and didn't consider females their equals. Obviously, they weren't so forward-thinking afterall.

No, they were hypocrites. Jefferson even fathered children with one of his slaves.

This is not to say that the Founding Fathers didn't create a good country. But, it didn't become truly good until the Civil War, when slavery was abolished. It didn't get better until it allowed women the right to vote in 1920.

The reputations of the Founding Fathers are forever tainted because of slavery. That fact is uncomfortable for most Americans, including me. But what it means is that yes, we should be grateful to our Founding Fathers, up to a point. And no, we shouldn't use them as a crutch: "What our Founding Fathers intended ..."

It also means that our Constitution is an imperfect document. Always was and always will be.

We must always strive to get better as a nation and that is the fundamental lesson of the Civil War.

As for the Gagarin, he was viewed in this country as an enemy, not a hero, in 1961. He was an atheist, a Commie-Pinko and dang it, he beat us into space. Not only that, he orbited the earth well ahead of us. John Glenn didn't do it until almost a year later.

(And to think that Galileo was convicted of heresy on this day in 1633 for claiming the earth orbited the sun.)

What Gagarin and the Soviets achieved was, indeed, mind-boggling. The Soviets were also the first in space with Sputnik in 1957. After that jolt, American kids had to go to school longer so we could catch up to the Soviets. My school day went from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Or was it 7:30 to 3:30? It was so long ago, I can't remember.

Yes, we caught up to the Soviets and far surpassed them, no thanks to me or my longer school day.

The Soviet Union collapsed and we finally got to know more about the cosmonauts that competed against our astronauts. Check out this little story in Time about Gagarin. When you consider how inferior the Soviet equipment was compared to NASA's hardware throughout the Space Race, you have to marvel at the guts of Gagarin. I've enjoyed reading comments in recent stories about Gagarin and it's great to see him be treated as a hero and not a villain by people in this country.

What's really amazing about the concurrence of the Civil War and Gagarin's orbit on this day is that they're only separated by 100 years. The world went from horse and buggy to Mercury and Vostok just like that. It was definitely the most incredible 100 years in human history.

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