Yesterday I tromped around the battlefield at Gettysburg, though “tromped” is a bit misleading, since anyone who goes to the battlefield does most of the exploration by car. It’s not actually a field. It’s 6,000-something acres. The town itself is embedded in the battlefield. I drove out to where the first shot was fired and then drove back on the Chambersburg Pike, trying to imagine what Lee saw as he approached the battle, having missed the first day’s action. Gettysburg had so many improvised elements. It was a high-speed collision with minimal tactical planning. The best view of the battlefield may be from West Confederate Avenue (not called that then!), along Seminary Ridge, where the line of cannons aiming toward Cemetery Ridge (the Union line) gives you a sense of the scale of the battle on the critical third day, when the folly that was Pickett’s Charge turned the war forever in favor of the North. (Discuss.) What was Lee thinking? He was thinking valor and dash could overcome the numerical superiority of the enemy. He was thinking that the southern fighter had an edge over his northern counterpart. Or maybe he wasn’t thinking well at all. Longstreet was shunned for generations by southerners but after The Killer Angels and “Gettysburg” the movie he is viewed as the guy who called it right. Bad idea, that charge. Should have pivoted around to the right to put the Army of Northern Virginia between Meade’s forces and the capital. (Discuss.)
Obviously I’m working on a story, and here’s what I need to know: Why do battlefields have the power to entrance us? So maybe not everyone has that feeling. Maybe it’s just the buffs who stand there in a trance. I’ve often been struck by the way a Civil War battlefield is the very opposite of the Civil War itself. They’re so serene. They’re orderly. There are informational signs everywhere. I would not be surprised to learn that Gettysburg is a giant no-smoking zone (will check). But for those of us who have read a lot about these battles — and who know about the Peach Orchard, and Little Round Top, and Culp’s Hill, and so on — there’s something powerful about seeing the actual place, and just standing there. You think: This was the place. These were the rocks. This was the view. And all the smoke and dust and fire and blood and gore, you impose that yourself. Because it really happened. And ultimately it was really tragic. (Discuss.)
Here’s what I typed up for Chris Cillizza for his Fix blog, a kind of week in review:
Chris asked me to do some kind of week-in-review thing for The Fix, and stupidly I forgot to tell him that I know nothing about politics these days and don’t even know which team is in first place in the standings. I blame the debt ceiling that turned into the fiscal cliff that then turned into the sequester. Lost me. Couldn’t go on. Felt PAINFUL to keep paying attention. Stalemate seems to have become intrinsic to the Washington political process. It’s like Tic-Tac-Toe, a game that at some point you just can’t play anymore. Ideological purification limits the outcomes of negotiations, which are further limited by an adversarial culture in which winning is all that matters. We’ve reached the point where, to invert Clausewitz, politics is war by other means.
I saw the other day that the president wrote a check to the Treasury, returning a portion of his salary in a gesture of solidarity with federal workers who are going to be furloughed as part of the sequester. But the story ran inside the paper, and I saw no photograph. Mistake. You need a visual. And forget returning a portion of his salary: He should shutter the White House entirely, and start working out of a tent. The White House staff should set up its own Hooverville on the mall, or under a bridge. I want to see the shot of the White House Chief of Staff warming a hot dog over a can of Sterno. Be creative, people!
Also this week we paused to consider the threat of total nuclear obliteration. This came from North Korea, and the threat of “merciless nuclear attack” made me wonder if it would interfere with my plan to go to the ballpark. In general, when a nuclear-armed country declares that it’s going to destroy you, you’re supposed to be alarmed, but at any minute North Korea may declare that it’s going to put astronauts on Pluto. You have to suspect that the best North Korean scientists have spent too many years under orders from on high to invent a perpetual motion machine, or an anti-gravity device.
Speaking of kooky: We were reminded this week that many Americans hold beliefs that could be described as eccentric, if not eyeball-poppingly insane. You saw that poll about the conspiracy theories. The Republicans should be worried about the fact that most of their supporters think global warming is a hoax. Another striking data point: 4 percent of voters think “lizard people” are secretly running the country. I remember, years ago, talking to people in Las Vegas who believed that they were from the Pleiades, and they told me that the warm-hearted Pleiadians had always had trouble with the aliens who were reptilian. But as a rational, scientific person, I assumed this great conflict between the Pleiadians and Reptilians was confined to outer space. If the battleground has shifted here, that’s a big story.
Gun control is in the news, with a lot of action in the statehouses. There was an item in the Fix, by Scott Clement, pointing out that 90 percent of Americans support the expansion of background checks for gun purchases. The blogger asked why this wasn’t a slam-dunk issue. He noted that there are very few issues with 90 percent of the people on side. Reading this, my hand shot up. I know the answer! Call on me! The answer is: For the other 10 percent, this is the single most important issue in the entire universe and will determine how they cast their votes. Poll stories sometimes miss the passion differential.
This week I did a story on dark matter, and antimatter. In the comment thread, people got tangled up in their usual debate about Republicans and Democrats and government spending and science and religion and so on. One of my blog’s regular commenters, ScienceTim, posted a comment that got a lot of “likes”: “You know, folks, not every aspect of life needs to be viewed through a political lens as either conservative or liberal. The AMS is about winnowing away false ideas to leave us with a better approximation to truth. It is true whether or not you believe it, and whether you like the result or not.” Great point. Though I’d add that, for some reason, antimatter does make me think of today’s Republican Party.
When matter collides with antimatter they are mutually annihilated, and what do you know, we’re back to the sequester!
Did I mention going to the ballpark? The Nats look like the best team to take the field since Alexander the Great went into Persia. But the Boys of Summer were playing in conditions suited to outdoor hockey. Sitting in the center field stands, under the scoreboard, I kept worrying that my beer would form a layer of ice at the top. And such pricey beers! At the Red Loft bar, they were charging 10 dollars for a single fancy microbrew. That’s probably a sign that the economy is back, rather than a sign of imminent Apocalypse. Still, I remember when 10 dollars on a Friday night could buy enough beer for everyone in the school parking lot. Maybe the Obama administration could come up with a program to subsidize beer purchases for young people who don’t have enough money and older people who have too many kids in college. Let’s end the suffering. Because sometimes you need a second beer. Just thinking out loud here, reviewing my week.