The Truth, Mainly - 11/07/2005

Newton theory explains politics?
by Leon Satterfield

Let's begin with a physics lesson. Or at least with a retired English teacher's understanding of a physics lesson.

It happened a year ago last summer as I was trying to tie my little sailboat to a dock in a lake in Colorado. I had, quite expertly I thought, sailed my boat to within about 20 yards of the dock and then lowered the sail to paddle the rest of the way in.

I was about three feet away from the dock when a sudden wind came up and began blowing my boat back out to sea. My paddling was insufficient to buck the wind, so I made an ill-considered decision: I would jump the three-going-on-four feet to the dock and with the tow rope in hand then pull the boat in and tie it down.

Three and a half feet is not a long way to jump. You can probably do it right now. From a standing start I can broad jump nearly four feet and I figured a mere three-and-a-half feet jump would be a piece of cake.

So I stood up and jumped. At the apex of my leap I noticed somewhat proudly that the boat was no longer underneath me. But then I further noticed that the dock wasn't either, and that instead of propelling my body to the dock, I'd propelled the boat away from it. Underneath me there was only water.

And that's what I landed in.

It was over my head. When I came up, people were watching me. Some of them were laughing, and the woman in charge of the marina came out to the end of the dock, grabbed my hand and helped me out of the water.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Fifty years ago," I would have said if I hadn't been shivering so hard, "I decided to be an English teacher."

My wife was watching from the car. She'd been a speech and theatre major and she found what she'd just seen highly entertaining slapstick. By the time I'd stopped shivering, she'd stopped laughing and told me what happened and why.

"Isaac Newton," she said, "explained it back in 1687 when he pointed out that for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction."

"Hah?" I said.

"When you jumped off the boat," she said, "you were trying to go north but you didn't go anywhere but up. Your jump made the boat go three and a half feet south out from under you, and when you came down there was nothing there except water. It was a very funny thing to watch. I wish we'd caught it on a video tape. It would make the grandkids wet their pants laughing."

It's taken me only about a year and a half to see the humor of Newton's observation. And that's why I'm finding our current political scene such a hoot. Let me spell it out.

The original action: the Bush administration from its beginning has advertised itself as a Christian enterprise. As Ron Suskind wrote in the N.Y. Times just before last fall's election, the president has "this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do….This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about al-Qaida and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded—they're extremists, driven by a dark vision….He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms the need for analysis…."

The Newtonian equal and opposite reaction: a website that argues that "Jesus is a liberal" and prints biblical passages supporting the counter argument—like "Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God (Matthew 5-9)."

And more of Jesus' words: "Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5-39)." And "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you (Matthew 5:44)."

And so forth.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Newton's notion that every action has an equal and opposite reaction won't be surprised at the rising anger level in our politics.

Especially when both sides claim the authority of God, Jesus, and Holy Writ.

What we all need is a good stiff shot of humility. I'm pretty sure I heard God telling me that in the middle of the night—just before He appointed me His Spokesman.

Or maybe it was just that nectar and ambrosia I had for a nightcap.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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