Thursday, 11 September 2014

Optics

Charles Lindbergh was born in 1902 and was born to fly: look how he stares into the wide blue yonder with his wide blue eyes [L]. He was catapulted to fame by flying from New York to Paris on a non-stop, solo flight in his purpose-built airplane Spirit of St Louis. It took him 33 hours and he landed in the dark at Le Bourget on 21st May 1927.  Apart from insane amounts of adulation and the award of the L├ęgion d'honneur by the President of Frace and the Medal of Honor (USA's highest military honor), the flight also netted the 25 y.o. a $25,000 prize for his achievement, although most of that had been spent already. At least six other contenders for this Orteig prize had lost their lives in their attempts. It was a bit like winning the Nobel Prize: whatever Lindbergh said or did afterwards, it was news.  If it wasn't a total pain in the tits for the young chap it was certainly a two-edged sword and the negative side of celebrity came to roost in the most horrible way five years later when his namesake and son-and-heir was kidnapped for ransom and later murdered.  H.L. Mencken, whom we've met before, called the kidnapping "The greatest story since the Resurrection", and it was followed with ghoulish attention by everyone in America who could read a newspaper. The trial of the scapegoat, Bruno Hauptmann, was a a huge raree-show and head-lining him as "The most hated man in the World" didn't stop everyone sucking up the details.

Accordingly when Lindbergh took a position on America's entry into WWII, he was heard because everyone had heard of him.   Those were deeply polarised times and the propaganda war required simplification of any complex situation.  With two enormous and powerful totalitarian regimes riding roughshod over the European theatre, it was easier for everyone if you claimed "If you're not with us, you're against us". Lindbergh was vehemently against the war and spoke often and at length in support of a group called the America First Committee AFC.  That organisation, founded by the heir to the Quaker Oats fortune in 1940, served as an antidote to the Roosevelt administration which was, although strictly neutral, as partial to the "Allies" as the insignificantly imprtant Irish President Eamonn de Valera. The photo [L] with Lindbergh in the dark jacket got wide circulation in the propaganda mill because the US flag which he is saluting, like all American school-children of the time, has been cropped from the picture. It's dishonest.

Lindbergh was not a scientist and was, like many people of the time, a eugenicist. He was capable of uttering Utter Nonsense "We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races." which he was no more qualified to have an opinion about than the Man on the Brooklyn Omnibus. But because he was a celebrity, such statements were eagerly published: in this case by Reader's Digest.  He also inferred in his autobiography that he chose his wife because she had "strong genes". WTF they are, I am at a loss to explain as a geneticist. They had six children together, which is more than replacement rate even accounting for the grisly loss of No.1. He thought his genes were so wonderful that he got his leg over a lot of women while touring in Europe and sired (neeeeeeharrrghhh) a handful of illegitimate Deutschsprechende children there.  His fame again came home to roost, like with humble August Landmesser, when one of his daughters saw a picture of Lindbergh in a retrospective in the German media and thought it looked a lot like the man who visited her mother's bed occasionally when she was growing up.  Some people get a disproportionate amount of attention and the next hundred years will be spent scraping the floor of Lindbergh's cellar for more murky but titillating morsels.

He didn't believe he was an anti-semite, in the sense that some of my best friends are Jews and he had a lot of respect for Einstein and and could hum several of Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte.  But on this day 09/11/41 Lindbergh got carried away during an AFC speech in Des Moines, Iowa and went a bridge too far by naming The Jews as part of  a cabal that was precipitating America to a foreign war. "I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war. "  Particularly viewed through the Holocaust-tinted spectacles of hindsight this was an unfortunate thing to say not least because it was a solid own-goal in the propaganda war.  But he also said an interesting thing in the same speech "Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation."  He was using this expression to bully Jews into supporting his Peace Platform but I think it is none-the-less true.

The parallel with today's treatment of both homosexuals and people who don't want them to get married is fairly clear. It's easy to be ethical and occupy the High Moral Ground when life is easy and you feel unthreatened. It's a bit more difficult when the enemy is at the gate; that's when you need compassion, which I addressed in the last week in January. It's easier to defuse explosive situations if you dismount your high horse and walk down the hill of moral rectitude to meet The Other.

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