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Pyle: How 'A Space Odyssey' explains Mike Lee

Published September 27, 2013 5:20 pm
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You may have the feeling that recent goings-on in our nation have become so weird that neither policy analysis nor historical precedent serves to explain them. You may think that grasping current events requires a resort to fiction. Perhaps even science fiction.

As Master Obi-Wan might say, I sense it, too.

The utter derangement of a handful of influential people in Washington, including Utah's Sen. Mike Lee, and their willingness to commit any form of fiscal mayhem in order to destroy the Affordable Care Act, was described in one Public Forum letter last week as downright Ahabian in its madness.

Logan's Vince Eccles quoted Ahab's speech from "Moby Dick," the one that includes phrases like "to the last I grapple with thee," and "for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."

Mr. Eccles may actually have read all the way to Chapter 135 of Herman Melville's Great American Novel, and come by his knowledge of the end of the Pequod honestly. Most of the rest of us are more likely to recognize the phrases as uttered by super-villain Khan Noonien Singh, in his obsessive hunt for the Great White Enterprise in the second Star Trek movie.

If you prefer your sci-fi allusions a little more intellectual, a better understanding of what's going on in Washington might come from Stanley Kubrick's milestone "2001: A Space Odyssey."

The movie came out when I was in the seventh grade. I loved it. But I didn't get it. Until a few weeks later, eavesdropping on a conversation in which a particularly brainy ninth-grader explained that the reason the only really human character in the whole movie, the computer called HAL 9000, went nutty and killed all but one of the astronauts onboard the Jupiter mission was because it — he — was trying to cover up a lie.

(As evidence that this kid knew what he was talking about, I offer the fact that he won a Pulitzer Prize 15 years later for reporting on the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race — the subject of another Kubrick film.)

Only the computer knew that the real point of the mission was to trace to origin of a signal, beamed to the moon a few months earlier, that was the first real evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth. But, because the powers that be in that fictional universe thought most people would freak out at such news, they kept it a secret, and programmed HAL to keep it a secret, even from the astronauts whose safety and success were supposed to be his primary function.

HAL's paranoia grew until he announced that the ship's communications link — the link to the people back on Earth who had programmed him to lie — was about to fail. When the astronauts couldn't find anything wrong with it, he said, "I would recommend that we put the unit back in operation and let it fail. It should then be a simple matter to track down the cause."

But, as the crew was in the process of carrying out that experiment, HAL went over the top and started offing astronauts.

Some of the less mental elements of American conservative thought — e.g. columnist George Will and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake — have suggested the same response to Obamacare: Put the unit back and let it fail. Then diagnose the problems and fix them.

Lee, though, is apparently among those who aren't going for that approach because, like the more paranoid parts of HAL's holographic memory, they don't think there really is a fault in the AE-35 unit. They just don't want it to work. And, if they have anything to say about it, they won't let us back in the ship to fix it.

Got that?

Now, about that giant National Security Agency data farm, under construction in Salt Lake County, which may or may not already be sucking up terabytes of personal data about every single one of us. Anybody else thinking of "The Return of the Jedi," when the second Death Star was thought to be vulnerable, because it was still under construction, but turned out to be fully operational?

No, George, only you

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, was raised by a man who found the world made more sense if viewed through the lens of a good Zane Grey novel.


Twitter: @debatestate




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