The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in.
− Robert A. Heinlein
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
− Oscar Wilde
In 1961 President Kennedy set a goal of sending a man to the moon before the end of the decade, and returning him safely to earth. He explained that we chose to do this not because it would be easy, but because it would be hard. At the time, his speech seemed inspiring but impractical.
But on July 20, 1969 we landed on the moon. I say “we” because that day all Americans felt we were participating in a historic event. The decade hadn’t ended, but Kennedy’s life had. He was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. Yet when the moon landing occurred, Kennedy’s inspiring speech and forward-looking program was often mentioned. Everyone dies, but people live on in the lives they touched and the progress they inspired.
When we spoke of progress then, we meant real progress − exploring space, curing diseases, and doing other things that advance human knowledge and well-being. But now we mean what so-called progressives call “progress” − making the government even larger and more parentified, and the people even smaller and more infantilized.
Nearly everyone fears death. So why is it that as our civilization matures, we have fewer children? One might think we would have more, in the hope of living on through them. But we become more self-centered, and therefore need to touch fewer lives. And we are less concerned with real progress, because we don’t look beyond our own lives and are unconcerned with the fate of the next generation.
We are so unconcerned that we spend money in the trillions and bequeath the debt to the young and the unborn. Talk about taxation without representation. Even King George III would have been outraged at the thought of taxing the unborn to pay for his lifestyle.
And speaking of trillions, we see another sign of decay. We used to speak of astronomical numbers in connection with astronomy − now we speak of astronomical debt. But of course this isn’t a real debt. We not only don’t have the money, we probably never will have it. The big spenders in Washington know this, or should know it. We intend to default, either openly, or deviously by inflating the currency and repaying with nearly worthless dollars.
This goes beyond extravagance and reaches the level of fraud. Saying we spend like drunken sailors is an insult to drunken sailors. At least they squander their own money. We squander money stolen from others. We spend like Bernie Madoff.
Some civilizations don’t mature – they just age, and not gracefully. Instead of struggling to carve out a new life and settle a new land, people just settle. They settle for a humdrum life. They settle for hanging onto what they have. They settle for having fewer children, or none. They settle for a job rather than a career. They settle for making a living rather than living. They settle for hoping to retire early rather than hoping to live long enough to realize their dreams. They settle for not dreaming.
And if you complain that we haven’t returned to the moon since 1972, they reply, “Who cares?” Surely they don’t. And now, with the retirement of the space shuttle, we not only can’t return to the moon, we can’t even get to the international space station without hitching a ride on a Russian Soyuz rocket. But with the recent animosity of Putin, we may have to hitch a ride on a Chinese rocket. Who knows? Perhaps the North Koreans will have pity and lend us a No Dong rocket. That would be appropriate for our current impotent condition.
Yes, the space shuttle was a contraption, perched atop a bunch of rockets. So after the Challenger and Columbia disasters, why didn’t we replace it with an updated version? Why didn’t we take the next step?
I read science fiction as a teenager, so the thought of exploring space fascinated me. I had no idea whether Kennedy’s goal of landing on the moon within the decade was possible, but I understood that setting a definite timetable served to push the program forward.
And I understood that keeping ahead of the Soviets in space had military implications. Under Kennedy, we spent about 50% of the federal budget on defense. Now we spend 18% on defense and complain bitterly that it is excessive. But how much is national defense worth? How much is our nation worth? How much is our freedom worth?
Rivalry with the Soviets carried with it the chance of a terrible war, but the rivalry also inspired space exploration and other scientific endeavors. Now Russia is only a shadow of its former self. The stimulus of competition is much reduced. Now “stimulus” has an entirely different meaning − spending vast sums we don’t have on half-vast programs that produce nothing except more dependence on government.
Even worse, we have lost the competitive spirit. We felt enormous pride at planting our flag on the moon before the Soviets could plant theirs. Now we feel no shame in having to thumb a ride on a rocket run by a shrunken Russia – if they let us. In this sense, we have shrunk more than Russia has − not in territory, at least not yet, but in pride and self-image. At least Russia has a leader who believes in Russian exceptionalism.
It is ironic that the generation that was taught “self-esteem” in school grew up with less real self-esteem. Yes, they are narcissists with buckets of unearned self-adulation. But earned self-esteem? Pride in actual accomplishments? Not so much.
We built the Empire State Building in 18 months in the depths of the Depression. But 13 years after 9/11, Freedom Tower is still under construction. Automotive journalist David E. Davis Jr. wrote, “When the MBAs replaced the engineers as masters of GM’s universe, everything went to hell.” Similarly, when theoreticians and academics replaced people who actually know how to do things as masters of America’s universe, they drove the nation into the ditch.
Granted, for the last 13 years we have been preoccupied with fighting barbarians who want to drag us back to the 7th century. This has used up money, time, and brain power that could have been used for moving us forward into the 21st century. But the space program had stalled before 9/11. We were already losing our urge to move forward before they began pulling us back.
You can argue that we are now manifesting our innovative skills by making new versions of iPhones, iPads, Xboxes, and other electronic gizmos. But are the new versions really improved, or merely new? In fact, do we need them in the first place? But one point is unarguable: The pace of real innovation has been slowing since the 1970s. Are airline flights faster or more convenient than they were then? Is highway travel faster? Are the activities of everyday life easier? Or are we adding complexity but not usefulness? Are we updating styles but not functionality?
The science fiction stories I read in my youth described various ways that civilization might die. There were attacks by warlike space aliens, epidemics of exotic diseases, collisions with asteroids, the sun going nova, and nuclear wars. Yet it was not the sci-fi authors I loved, but a poet I disliked, who foresaw the real end of civilization:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Is that to be our story? We got to the threshold of space, then pulled back − not from fear, but from apathy. We just lost heart. We had a failure of imagination.
From Rudy Giuliani fighting terrorism, we have descended to Michael Bloomberg fighting big sodas and Bill de Blasio fighting charter schools. From John Kennedy directing NASA to go to the moon, we have descended to Barack Obama directing NASA to “build bridges” to Muslims. Talk about the trivialization of a great nation. Talk about a downward trajectory.
We have regressed from the heroic, self-sacrificing first responders of 9/11 to politically correct, mealy-mouthed, chair-warming hacks. Explore the universe? Look up at the stars? Don’t make me laugh. We don’t even have the guts to look in the mirror. If we did, we wouldn’t like what we saw, and we might do something about it. We might even remember what it felt like to be citizens of an exceptional nation.
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