Neely Young: Ether And Other Myths

Andrea Barrett’s Archangel is a short story in which a popular science writer in the 1920s tries to explain Einstein’s new theory of relativity. That theory contradicted the belief in what was called the “ether of space,” which caused many disruptions in the spitural world.

Ether was a concept devised by a Frenchman named René Descartes in which he described a medium that propagated the undulations of light and electricity while also transmitting the pull of gravity.

Ether could not be seen or touched, but it was a belief shared by many scientists and the general population. They thought ether was a home for “ethereal” beings, a place where the souls of our dead ancestors spoke to us. We know in the 21st century that the ether theory is absolutely wrong, but it was accepted belief at the time.

In our present political world, we live in a hyperactive environment with many similar ether misconceptions. One is the use of a quote from Shakespeare: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The line sums up people’s frustration with frivolous lawsuits, ambulance chasing and other supposed excesses. The quote is plastered on coffee mugs, T-shirts and posters to make fun of and put down the legal profession. Yet Shakespeare meant to praise lawyers, not disparage the profession.

The line comes from the bard’s Henry VI, in which rebel leaders are trying to overthrow the government. In the play, lawyers are portrayed as guardians of the law standing in the way of a mob of hooligans. Lawyers are the good guys, according to Shakespeare. Good then and now. Perception many times is not reality.

Another “ether” misconception is the idea that food stamps only benefit people on drugs, those who have entered the U.S. illegally or people who just don’t feel like getting a job. Congress has made cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and many state legislatures, including our own, have tried to place restrictions on those who receive food stamps. Yet, like the “ether of space,” most of this perception is not true.

A recent study by the nonprofit Feeding America pointed out that more than 46 million people in the U.S. live in what is called a food-insecure household. Many work multiple low-paying jobs, are military families, are out of work because of being laid off or are young college graduates. Undocumented immigrants, by the way, are ineligible for SNAP benefits.

Our state was recently ranked next to last in unemployment – Mississippi lags behind us – so we have plenty of workers available for new jobs and many, if not all, would rather work than be on food stamps. 

Another false notion is that chambers of commerce are responsible for the illegal immigration problem in America. According to the Department of Homeland Security, more than 400,000 people living in Georgia are not considered U.S. citizens. Recent editorials in some local newspapers blaming chambers of commerce for the situation are unfounded.

For many years, I have been a member of chambers of commerce all over the state. I have covered some of them in news stories. I have never seen a chamber of commerce program of work or any document, plan of action or directive that encourages business leaders to “actively recruit non-U.S. citizens” to work here in Georgia.

Because some people believe it is their local chamber’s fault that this situation exists, state legislatures, including ours, have punished the business community by enacting strict laws that make it hard to obtain business licenses.

To be a legal business here, the owner or president has to fill out a lengthy form to prove he or she is a citizen of the United States. The document asks for proof in the form of driver’s license, passport or birth certificate, and may ask for the person’s social security number.

All of these forms from thousands of businesses have to be sent to state, city and county governments. It is a mountain of paperwork and has the underlying effect of saying that you are not welcome in the state of Georgia if you are from another country or suspected of employing non-U.S. citizens.

Another common perception is that all members of our state government and legislature are dishonest. This is not true. Many are lawyers and are good people. (Just ask Shakespeare.) But some of the laws they pass suggest that they may be on “ether” some of the time.

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