Without A Vision, The People Perish

N.B.: I wrote and published this on my previous blog, What’s Left In The Church, on June 11, 2012. I am reprinting it here because I was reminded today these words and ideas are still important, particularly in an election year.

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I do not doubt that every traveller must remember the glowing sense of happiness which he experienced, when he first breathed in a foreign clime, where the civilized man had seldom or never trod. – Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.  – Neil Armstrong

I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you. – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Fifty years ago, Pres. Kennedy gave the commencement address to the students at Rice University in Houston, TX. He said, in part:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Just last week, Pres. Obama gave the commencement address to the students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He closed with a call to work for his vision for their future:

Look, here in America, we admire success. That’s why a lot of you are going to school. We work and study for it. And if folks aren’t willing to help themselves, we can’t help them. But America is about more than just protecting folks who have already done well, it’s about giving everybody a chance to do well. It’s about hard work and responsibility being rewarded. (Applause.) It’s about everybody having the chance to get ahead and then, reach back and help somebody behind you so that everybody has a chance. That’s what makes us strong.(Applause.) That’s what makes us strong.

So if you agree with me, I need your help. Some of these folks in Congress are a little stubborn. So, I need your help. You’ve got to tell Congress, don’t double my rate. Call them up, email them, post on their Facebook wall, tweet them. (Laughter.) We’ve got a hashtag — #dontdoublemyrate. (Applause.)

Never forget that your voice matters. I know sometimes it seems like Washington isn’t listening. And, frankly, Congress sometimes isn’t. But we’re talking about issues that have a real impact on your lives, real impact on your futures. Making education more affordable, that’s real. Making homes more affordable, making it a little easier for you to make your mortgage payments — that’s real.

Building an economy that works for everybody — that’s real. So I need you all to stand up. I need you to be heard. Tell Congress now is not the time to double the interest rates on your student loans. Now is the time to double down on the middle class. Now is the time to build an America that lasts. Now is the time to work together, to put people back to work and strengthen our housing market and help our veterans. Let’s get this done. (Applause.)

Let’s remind the world why the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth.

Having just finished Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, what struck me the most was the reality that we Americans no longer consider embarking on any kind of daring mission. The best we can hope for, it seems, is a promise that we might, some day, reacquire the wealth we lost in the collapse of the financial industry and subsequent recession.

Our politics, like so much else in American life, has become small. The visions we are offered in this Presidential election year are contrasting predictions of collapse should one or another party control the apparatus of government.  Even the state is viewed as some hostile force. Once upon a time, we Americans believed it possible to take up a challenge, knowing the dangers were all very real and very great. We did so, however, precisely because they were challenges. We did so because we had leaders who appealed to a vision of ourselves as rising above the technical, political, and economic challenges we would face.  Now, we are told we cannot “go to the Moon and do these other things” because they are both hard and expensive.

A generation that turned its back on Kennedy’s vision had many good arguments on its side.  The role of the Cold War in the decision; the history of imperialism, American specifically but human in general; the demand of other issues much closer to home, not least the wasteful, useless carnage in Vietnam.  For all these arguments made some sense, there were other, far more compelling reasons to continue our space program.  Not the least of those reasons were those made clear by Kennedy himself: these are challenges, and we Americans do not shrink from challenges.  Even though this particular phrase does, indeed, hide much evil and death – the same appeal very often invokes our history of conquest and near-genocide over the native populations; our humiliation of defeated Mexico and what amounts to the theft of a third of their national territory; the on-going American Imperial projects in Latin America and the Pacific – yet it also appeals to a new vision of ourselves.  A vision of Americans working together on a grand project that will benefit the human race.  While we might chuckle at Kennedy’s insistence that we Americans should be first because, well, we’re Americans, what has the loss of this particular sense of ourselves gained us?

When the British Admiralty sent the H.M.S. Beagle on its mission, it did so with the understanding it would be long, and dangerous, and that the payoff would be even further down the road as new maps, new and better clocks, and new navigational charts would need to await both the return of the ship as well as an assessment by those who would need time to study them.  They made the investment, however, because they understood it would benefit the British nation in the long run.

There is no part of our globe left to discover, no empty spaces on any map to fill.  Space, however, offers possibilities not just for us Americans, but for all people.  We, the pioneers of successful interplanetary space flight, now sit on the sidelines.  We have no vehicles in production to return us to space under our own power.  We have no plan for returning Americans to space under our control, in our vehicles.  Even the mention of a return to human space flight is met with derision, as Newt Gingrich discovered during the Republican primaries this past winter.

I doubt very much it would be possible to offer a vision of a new American Space Program.  Our political class, as a rule, is terrified of anything that sounds like “government spending”.  The guardians of our national dialogue are ready to pounce upon those who even suggest a return to space.  All the arguments – technical, political, economic – against such a thing would flash around the web and through newsrooms, all the while pundits chuckling behind their hands at such silly notions.

What does this say about who we are as a people?  Are we really that willing to laugh at the thought that the United States should picture itself at the forefront of new discovery and exploration?  Are we that willing to dismiss the possibility there may yet be places where many people might yet want to be the first upon which to stand?  Do we think those who dream such dreams are little more than the butt of sad jokes?  All we are currently offered by way of some consoling vision is the comfort of material gain.  We see so many threats around the globe, we no longer believe it possible to do much more than keep them at some arm’s length, staving off the eventual disaster.

We have become more than cowardly.  We, as a people, have become blind.  We have lost the ability even to celebrate that which is best about all of us as a people.  We stagger through our days, hoping only that the collapse will come tomorrow, grateful at the end of each day that we have reached it safely.

Quite apart from all the other reasons a reinvigorated human space program is a great idea, it offers the possibility that we Americans might remember how much we can do so well.  For now, all we are told we do well is make money, a past-time that is thwarted either by the interference of corporate giants or government bureaucrats.  If this is all any of us, whether private citizen or public official, can offer as a vision of American greatness, it may be too late even now to stave off the inevitable end.

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