Richmond’s Spaceman

Since the new year this space has had a rather serious and perhaps slightly dry tone, so here’s an effort to lighten up (a little).

RTD readers have been treated to a veritable Ross Mackenzie love-fest in the last couple of days. Sunday’s Commentary section devoted two full pages to a personal interview with the retiring editor, as well as a batch of Mackenzie’s favorite literary quotes. This was followed up by one of his patented, touch-on-as-many-things-as-possible-in-brief columns on Monday.

All this time with Ross has generated some insights. Readers have learned that MacKenzie has never had another job other than that of editorial writer; that he’s lived in Goochland for all of his 41 years in the Richmond area; that he feels comfortable referring to himself in the third-person; and that he thinks of himself as both a “diaskeuast” and a “feuilletonist.” (First prize to anyone who can accurately define both those terms; no googling or dictionary-consulting allowed.)

We also learn that Mackenzie believes that working women are one cause of declining newspaper readership, that (like some of the characters in the interesting new flick “Little Children”) he favors castration for sexual offenders, and that he might be the only editorialist in the nation who is perfectly cool with how the Saddam execution went down.

We’re not even going to attempt making any kind of comprehensive assessment of Mackenzie’s impact on Richmond in this space, though a comment on one particularly unpleasant part of his legacy is in the works for next week.

For now though, we’ll try hard to stay positive and find some points of connection with Mr. Mackenzie. It was interesting to read that Mackenzie is disturbed by excessive CEO pay and “the ridiculous degree to which we are becoming little more than products” and that he recognizes that the city-county jurisdictional divide in greater Richmond isn’t working too well. (Mackenzie suggests that Richmond give up its city charter and merge with an adjacent county; that might not be the worst possible solution, but what county would have us?) I’m also not totally opposed to his proposal for a year of mandatory national service.

The most interesting part of Mackenzie’s most recent comments, however, is his evident appreciation of science fiction and his passionate belief in human space exploration. I’m not exactly a science fiction buff, but I read my share of Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury as a kid, and have been a lifelong fan of the British TV series “Doctor Who,” so Mackenzie’s interest in sci-fi at least provides some basis for trying to connect with and make sense of this guy.

It also raises all kinds of interesting questions about the depth of Mackenzie’s interest. Does Mackenzie read women sci-fi and fantasy writers, like Ursula LeGuin, Marge Piercy, and Margaret Atwood? Does he attend sci-fi literary conventions, and if so how does he fit in with the other participants? What are Mackzenzie’s views on the vital question of whether we should create a race of robots to serve us? And if humans were to encounter and be enslaved by an alien race, or the Earth were to be destroyed by a random meteor, what theological conclusions would Mackenzie draw from those events?

I don’t expect answers to those intriguing questions anytime soon, but it’s clear there’s a connection between Mackenzie’s interest in science fiction—and his willingness to quote sci-fi writers as authorities on the human condition—and his belief in manned space exploration. (Probably one or two readers of this blog would be happy to have Mackzenie lead the way himself on humanity’s next jaunt to outer space.)

What justifies Mackenzie’s belief that we should make space exploration a major national priority? A belief that it’s human destiny.

That’s kind of cool. It’s great to see someone so excited about the possibilities of the unknown. And frankly, I’d rather have Mackenzie and kindred spirits exercise their appetites for “manifest destiny” in the bloodless cold of outer space rather than in more hot wars on the other side of the world.

Nor do I disagree with the project of pursuing human space exploration—not because of any particular view about human destiny, but because I’d like there to be a backup plan for the species on the off-chance that we burn up or blow up the planet at some point.

I do, however, wonder whether Mackenzie actually regards a quasi-theological conception of human destiny as a firm, generalizable basis for public policy making. And I wonder why (to echo the old cliché) Mackenzie regards a massive effort to enter space, but not a massive effort to end global extreme poverty and prevent the thousands of preventable, needless deaths that take place every day, as a better expression of the human spirit.

Nonetheless, I’d be happy to read more of Mackenzie’s musings about space and human destiny in the future. As far as I can tell, it’s about the only topic he can write about without betraying any trace of meanness, condescension, or contempt. When the topic of space comes up, it’s as if a transformation comes over Mackenzie, allowing this most un-Zenlike of writers to let go of his anger towards the world, in favor of a Zen-like tranquility and a sense of sheer wonder and humility.

It’s kind of cool to see.


Published in: on January 9, 2007 at 3:08 pm  Comments (7)  

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  1. Ross Mackenzie was the most…what shall I say…’emphatic’ writer I’ve ever seen. I have read his columns since I was a little kid. I still believe Mackenzie had the most influence on whatever writing style I do have. (And I hope he isn’t offended by that!).

    When reading Sunday’s ‘personal interview’ column, I was most surprised to find out that he actually DOES believe the over-the-edge, hard line views he’d pounded into each editorial page. All the while I thought he was only trying to get a ‘rise’ out of readers. But he is serious about those things. Mackenzie’s a Spaceman alright.

    Yet he’s one of my all-time favorite writers — of any form or genre. RT-D was lucky to have had him.

  2. May I suggest using gender-neutral language in your column? Instead of “manned” space exploration, perhaps “space exploration by people/humans/men and women/whatever.”

    The use of “manned” to refer to both genders seems odd for your column and someone of your political perspective.
    Just a thougth!

  3. Fair comment, and I’ve edited one of instance of “manned” that was unnecessary. You’ll also see however that I use the term “human space flight” etc. a couple of times, etc.

    “Manned space flight” and “manned space exploration” are pretty much the accepted terminology within NASA/DOD world for what we’re talking about, so in a sense I was just going by convention. I don’t disagree that the convention is problematic.

  4. Ross MacKenzie as “Spaceman” is certainly an appropriately descriptive moniker.

    In the aforementioned interview he said he was “a moderate, a classical liberal, a contemporary conservative with a foot in both the freedom (or libertarian) and virtue camps.” And, after some justification, MacKenzie continued, “If you don’t like my self-description, call me whatever you like.”

    I have often called MacKenzie things that may not be reprinted here; I’m glad to finally get permission, though second-hand.

    You have done a fine, if curiously constrained, job in describing him, and have whetted our appetites for next week’s column…

  5. Offline a reader asked whether Mackenzie’s statement in the interview that the RTD’s reader trend is in fact positive is accurate.

    According to a November ’06 news report, the RTD apparently did increase circulation 0.6% in the last year.

    However, the long term trend is negative. In 1996, the paper’s DAILY circulation was about 208,000; in 2004 it was about 185,000. The latest, Sep. 2006 figure was over 181,000 for M-F and 187,000 for Sat. In any case, that’s a decline of over 10%. So any recent uptick–and I hope it is unticking, I love newspapers and don’t want to any of them go under–has to be seen in context of the overall trend of the past decade.

    Go here for some relevant data:

    has numbers from 2004, and follow the links to get the ’96 data. FWIW, the RTD’s circulation rank fell from #53 to #56 over that same time period.

    The most recent numbers from ’06 can be found via a search at this site:

  6. Mr. Williamson,

    I found interesting your fact of RT-D circulation dropping from 208,000 -to- 187,000 subscribers, during the interval 1996-2004.

    I’d now like to find out how many ‘natural’ deaths there were (in that interval) within RT-Ds vast realm of delivery. There’s probably a correlation there. Its common knowledge that most newspaper addicts are older, if not downright elderly, people.

    Media General, I’m sure, is now trying to excite the younger reader. And I’m just as certain this new quest is the primary reason for the recent changes in the staff — some of which you’ve noted here. I hope they succeed.

  7. Many younger readers prefer the web for news, though the concepts of circulation and readership are probably different online. For example, does it count as having “read” the RTD if a blog links to a story, and is that circulation?

    Finding comparable ratings for online newspapers is tricky. Nothing that I found goes beyond the top ten and so the RTD is absent. The 2005 Nielsen/NetRatings on online news readership are still interesting, especially in showing the effects of consolidation of news organizations into powerful groups like yahoo, google, and the NYTimes.

    These ratings count “unique visitors” and average time spent on a particular site.

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