Column: In Search of Good News

On or about Nov. 5 (depending upon which hemisphere they were floating over), the crew of the International Space Station reported that they had tacos made with freshly picked chili peppers. They grew the peppers on the space station from seeds. None of the crew had eaten a fresh vegetable for more than six months, and the meal prepared with these home-grown vegetables got rave reviews from all members of the orbiting crew.

Last month, William Shatner took a brief but memorable journey to the edge of space, going where no 90-year-old man had gone before. The sight of James Tiberius Kirk stepping out of a real space ship for the first time was exhilarating and long overdue.

Just over six years ago, the United States completed a 10- year mission to fly by and photograph Pluto, the icy world at the edge of our solar system. The principal camera on board cost an estimated $25 million and, given the technical advances achieved since the satellite was launched, it had little more resolution than the camera on a typical iPhone. Nonetheless, the view of our distant neighbor was as spectacular as it was informative, but the real message sent back from this remote observer was that America could do the recently unimaginable, even if it took more than a decade for the mission to be accomplished.

These remarkable achievements, though unlikely to have substantial effects on the future of humanity, support the view that America is not regressing to the Stone Age. Watching the evening news, one may find it difficult to believe that we are not a nation of violent mobs with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) erratically manipulated by phenomenally wealthy heads of special interest groups. 

Our scientific accomplishments, great and small, give me comfort and reassurance. If we can get a camera to send us pictures of Pluto and get chili peppers to grow while orbiting our planet, we can certainly get clean water to Flint, Michigan, and develop treatments for the next coronavirus. We still have the intelligence and resources to give us a future.

Many will argue and have argued that these space adventures are absurdly expensive and of no lasting value. The money could have been spent on universal healthcare, housing, and hunger relief. We could have switched off fossil fuels and built a pipeline to carry water from the rain-soaked east to the drought-stricken west. The list of alternative expenditures is literally endless, but these multibillion-dollar space adventures provide something that America desperately needs along with lower carbon emissions, better pandemic responses, and fewer weapons of mass destruction: they provide good news.

The national news is a constant drumbeat of doom and gloom. Inflation is at more than 6%. Friends and allies are still trapped in Afghanistan and are being hunted by heavily armed men convinced of the virtue of their cause. The U.S. Congress is addressing multi-decade systemic problems at a pace that makes glaciers look like Olympic sprinters.

A teenager shot three people with a military-style rifle, killing two and crippling one, and the judge presiding over his trial insists that those shot may not be referred to as victims, but may be called rioters, looters, or arsonists if there is any evidence to support those labels. 

Three white men chased and killed an unarmed black man jogging through their neighborhood.  They were not initially charged with a crime, and their current trial is likely to yield verdicts similar to that handed out to George Zimmerman when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The defense attorneys for the three have argued that there are too many black jurors [there is only one of 12], and one attorney has even objected to the presence of “black pastors” in the courtroom. Racism prevails.

The current president’s approval ratings are low, presumably because nothing has improved substantially since he took over less than a year ago. Implicit in that assessment is the recognition that the state of the Union was in poor shape when he moved into the White House. Even before the moving vans pulled up to the new president’s temporary public housing, the prior resident was calling on his supporters to go with him to Congress to deliver the message that they should nullify the election and install him as the rightful occupant of the White House.

As it turned out, he did not accompany them to storm our cathedral of democracy, the Congressional buildings. (Heel spurs apparently limited his ability to lead as they had previously limited his ability to serve). History tells us of numerous occasions on which that maneuver has succeeded in other countries. History also tells us that the longterm consequence of that shift away from democracy is the installation of tyranny.

The Constitution expected Congress, not the president, to do the heavy lifting. Congress was supposed to institute essential laws to manage each national problem as it arose and to allocate money to get the job done. The president was the designated executive, the person responsible for implementing the acts demanded by Congress.

Unfortunately, Congress has evolved into a body more focused on its perks and privileges than on its job description. The name of the game is getting re-elected again and again. If this means appealing to an electorate that prefers a dictatorship or a theocracy or an oligarchy or even a monarchy over a democracy, so be it. From outer space, it is easy to see how this nation, that has accomplished such wonderful things and that has the potential to achieve so much more, could fall apart like squabbling heirs to a family fortune.

Looking down from outer space, we see a nation shattered by racism, special interests, economic inequality, prejudice and numerous other divisive forces. The Constitution was designed to deal with these challenges, but it started with the assumption that the citizens of our nation would inevitably reach compromises that served the general welfare. 

Current events suggest this was a miscalculation. The Constitution has needed repairs for more than two centuries to assure the preservation of a democracy for all the people for at least two more centuries. Perhaps our children will have the wisdom to fix this document’s deficiencies and enable our nation to achieve much more than it already has. We need a fresh crop of ideas to provide a harvest that all of us can enjoy.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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