Independence Day is a good time to reflect on the direction of the nation. One who respects national traditions tends to aim these reflections from the perceived point of view of the Founders. However, the Declaration of Independence itself tells us that we the people are largely the masters of our own political destiny, “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form”, as to us “shall seem most likely to effect” our “Safety and Happiness”. So it has been, for better or worse, for each subsequent generation of Americans. I propose then to take as the basis for our reflections not the distant past, but a narrower perspective: that of my generation, which grew up in Ronald Reagan’s America. How have we, and how shall we lay the foundations of our political destiny? Upon what principles, according with what forms, have we and shall we effect our safety and happiness?
Those who grew up in 1980s America may well feel things are not as they should have been. We grew up in a world where the greatest public tragedy of our childhood was not madmen ramming airliners into buildings, but teachers, scientists and pilots perishing in the Challenger space shuttle as they attempted to broadcast a science lesson to us from space. The difference between these two tragedies is the defining difference of our times between civilization and barbarity. The heroes who died on the Challenger did so risking their lives doing the work of human progress. The victims who died on September 11th, 2001 did so because of the acts of barbarians doing the work of human regress.
The Challenger mission was not just a science mission, as were previous NASA missions. Its’ unique goal was to popularize the space program and make all Americans a part of it from childhood. The space program, often carried on solely for the sake of science, was to take its first step towards becoming a truly national activity. All of America’s schoolchildren were to take an active part of this. Space was to become a familiar domain, not a scientific abstraction. The tragedy of the Challenger explosion was that this did not happen. True, President Reagan gave possibly the best speech of his presidency in tribute to Challenger’s crew, but looked upon from the present day, the Challenger disaster was a culmination of the imaginative daring of the space age and a harbinger of worst things to come for mankind.
How many young Americans of the 1980s did not grow up in a popular culture saturated with the firm conviction that, within our life-time, humanity—under the American flag—would be living in space? Children’s cartoons were full of space travel as a regular human activity. The Transformers movie of 1986 gave us a glimpse of the “distant” future—2005, where humans lived in space. We had optimistic visions of life in space like Star Wars, and deeply pessimistic ones like Alien. Thoughts of the future were connected with questions of man’s relation to technology. Some welcomed the coming age of scientific progress, while others feared it. Yet the debate was always confined to a view of the future that saw our lives defined by mankind as destined for the cosmos. Nobody could have ever dreamed, back in my little elementary school in Cambridge MA, that our future lives would be defined by hordes of madmen intent on slitting the throats of infidels and shooting girls who went to school.
That this is an over simplification is true, but do not let that lead to an underestimation of its validity. I grew up in a world where the Challenger was our first step towards a future of mass human space travel. Now, waking on July 4th, 2013—I live in a world on the verge of extinction on account of a cryptic vision of a IXth century religion. The contrast is as shocking and depressing as one can possibly conceive. It is as though we have awoken with Charlton Heston on the Planet of the Apes. We can try to comfort ourselves with a more sophisticated view of history. We can tell ourselves that had America not constantly intervened in what Ronald Reagan called the “irrationality of middle eastern politics”, our civilization may not be so at risk. We can try to understand what the CIA called the process of “blow back”—a process from which most of our experienced terrorism has allegedly resulted. We can and indeed should ponder a great many aspects of our current problems. No matter the conclusions we arrive at, no matter the different policy approaches we try, one sad fact remains: here we are in 2013, trying to figure out what to do about a religious war that could eventually employ chemical, biological or nuclear weapons against our civilization. Back when I was a boy in 1985, as my classmates and I tied condolence cards to balloons that we released into the sky to honor the crew of the Challenger, I could never have imagined that as an adult citizen, I would be grappling with the dilemmas of a global conflict over religion.
Few of us may remember this, but the late 1970s and early 1980s was a time when America was preparing for the second phase of the space age. Americans had been to the moon and back several times. NASA was developing its new space “shuttle” program, meant to provide for what could essentially be considered a bus to space. However, the most exciting research and development of that era was the work of the late, great physicist Gerard O’Neill. O’Neill had pioneered an entire mass space colonization system. Using select Lagrange points close to the Earth to provide a static point of placement, O’Neill developed the concept of dual cylindrical space colonies placed rotating abreast each other in order to facilitate gravity. Each cylinder housed inverted bio-spheres (instead of seeing the sky when you looked up, you’d see the proverbial “other side” of your colony). The colonies would be built using raw materials from a previously constructed moon base. The materials would be catapulted from the moon to the designated Lagrange points via a cannon-like mechanism O’Neill developed for the purpose. O’Neill was also convinced that a successful space colonization program had to be profitable. O’Neill’s vision gained some popularity as well as select Congressional support. Hearings were held, NASA research rants provided and attempts to get the program off the ground initiated. The brilliance of O’Neill’s vision was to populate space with ordinary human beings as a means of solving Earth’s most pressing political problems and preserve the human species. Despite political opposition to his program, O’Neill was recognized for his bold vision and appointed by President Reagan to the National Commission on Space in 1985. Sadly, nothing more came of his vision than Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Japanese science fiction saga Mobile Suite Gundam.
At this point, some readers may be thinking that all of this sounds a bit far-fetched, to say the least. Certainly, if told that a science class broadcast from space were a goal of national policy, many Americans of long ago may have felt Challenger to be a far-fetched prospect too. Yet—consider this: how far-fetched, how fantastical it would have sounded if someone told us back in 1985 that the dawn of the XXI century would see men with box cutters, invoking a twisted, cultic version of a IX century religion, bringing down towers in one of the world’s most advanced cities? How far-fetched it would have sounded if we were told that upon being liberated from a cruel dictator, the people of Iraq would proceed to blow one another up over religious and ethnic differences? How bizarre it would have sounded to say that whole communities exist where girls are routinely doused with acid for reading and going to school. How tragic it would sound if it seemed that the only way to save our civilization was to leave those people be, in the hopes they would leave us be and liquidate one another in an unending orgy of pseudo-religious violence or to venture to transform their souls from barbarism to self-government via a global imperial enterprise? True: perhaps Gerard O’Neill’s vision was far ahead of its time, but it was in the direction of a humanity that, for all its difficulties, had forever left behind the perspective according to which societies were organized under the banner of pseudo-religious fanaticism. The fact that, a mere two decades after Dr. O’Neill’s passing, America is at war with pseudo-religious ideologues and without a space-worthy ship is appalling and depressing.
It is true that this simple dichotomy between the promise of Challenger and the barbarism of the present pseudo-religious wars is perhaps too simple. America managed to execute the Apollo space missions during a terrible war in Vietnam, and even the promise of the Challenger mission was overshadowed by the nuclear tensions of the Cold War. Nevertheless, as we survey our country and our world today we find America without a functional space delivery vehicle, with Americans forced to use Russian rockets to reach the International Space station. We find no endeavors to colonize the moon; and while private enterprise is making great strides towards lowering the costs of orbital space tourism (down from 20mln USD for a flight on the Russian rockets to 200,000 USD on Richard Branson’s ships and only 90,000 USD on a competitive line), we have made no progress towards an authentic mass national migration to space. The one recent US Presidential candidate who proposed creating a 51st state on the moon was laughed at for his outlandish idea. For the foreseeable future, space will at best remain the domain of scientists and celebrities.
While space colonies and states on the moon are apparently laughable according to popular wisdom, nation building in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq are considered perfectly sane, pragmatic ideas. Thus an entire generation—my generation—has seen the blood and treasure of post-Cold War America spent in the middle east on the utopia of using military force to transform cultures long rooted in ethno-religious tribalism into democratic societies. My generation does not live in a world where the political debate rages over the best means to colonize space, but over how best to stop bored, privileged people from reading moronic tripe on the internet and deciding to use a pressure cooker to blow up Marathon runners. How can this be? How can a civilization, having reached such heights of wisdom as to now be capable of traversing the cosmos, decline of its own volition—with no great external force working upon it—into conflict for no great glory, no egoism, but against something so primal and evil as the politics of radical pseudo-religion springing up on its own shores?
It is as if Leo Strauss’ dire prophecy in response to Alexandre Kojeve’s optimism regarding the triumph of the Global Homogenous State were indeed fulfilling itself before our eyes: Strauss claimed that when and if mankind reached a state of perfect recognition for each individual, then no more rationales for conflict existed—human nature would nonetheless not be eliminated. Man, Strauss taught, would kill for nothing. Nihilism would be his motive. As Strauss wrote in his Restatement on Xenophon’s Heiro:
It is perhaps possible to say that the universal and homogenous state is fated to come. But it is certainly impossible to say that man can be reasonably satisfied with it. If the universal and homogenous state is the goal of History, History is absolutely ‘tragic’. Its completion will reveal that the human problem, and hence in particular the problem of the relation of philosophy and politics, is insoluble. For centuries and centuries men have unconsciously done nothing but work their way through infinite labors and struggles and agonies, yet ever again catching hope, toward the universal and homogenous state, and as soon as they have arrived at the end of their journey, they realize that through arriving at it they have destroyed their humanity and thus returned, as in a cycle, to the pre-human beginnings of History. Vanitas vanitatum. Recognitio recognitionum. Yet there is no reason for despair as long as human nature has not been conquered completely, i.e., as long as sun and man still generate man. There will always be men (andres) who will revolt against a state which is destructive of humanity or in which there is no longer a possibility of noble action and of great deeds. They may be forced into a mere negation not enlightened by any positive goal, into a nihilistic negation.
Can we deny that these polar opposites, identified by Strauss decades ago, now constitute our practical reality: we do live in a global and homogenous state. Recognition of fundamental, basic democratic rights of individuals are everywhere taken for granted—even if only verbally or on paper. We quarrel over the extent of recognition or the best means by which to extend recognition in practice. We are, for all practical purposes, a world that is becoming more globalized and more homogenous. This process is in fact taking its toll on our humanity. For our homogeneity is more and more the homogeneity of boring, spiritless commercialism and vulgar pop culture. Differences of poetic-religious magnitude evaporate; the cult dies out. In their place arises the cynic, the satirist, the pompous and arrogant Last Man of Nietzsche’s work, who is focus-grouped, prefabricated, a composite materialist, outsourced, assembled: Eliot’s Hollow man.
Yet we seem to have no practical alternative within reach. For the Last Men, the Hollow men, are pacific. They tolerate one another precisely because they are de-spirited to such a degree as to have nothing left to fight over. While this harmony is certainly cause for celebration, it is also cause for alarm. Men who are de-spirited do not fight—yes—but they also do not reconcile, nor do they really love. And so we proceed in our lives as citizens of the global and homogenous state, divided into those who are more sensitive and thus despondent of this de-spiritualizing malaise and those who remain oblivious, as if content to reside in “The Matrix”. We dare not tear down this great global and homogenous order for fear that its alternative may be worse. Yet the order—so long as it persists—tears itself down by virtue of its dehumanizing effect.
Abreast the global and homogenous state, we find Strauss’s Nihilistic negators, who do indeed practice “mere negation not enlightened by any positive goal”: namely the terrorists. Be they the perpetrators of 9/11 or the Boston Bombers, these people—for all their supposed grievances—were the epitome of nihilism. For within the global and homogenous state, a venue exists for all grievances to be recognized. Mature adults understand that for a host of complex reasons, grievances which may be dear to us, logical, ethical and pressing, are not always redressed adequately—even if they are heard. This realization is juxtaposed, amongst responsible citizens, with a firm grasp of the reality that to use these inadequacies as an excuse to lash out against “the system” in a violent way is, at the end of the day, to kill concrete innocent individuals; children, women, the elderly—randomly. Such violence is also never creative, it adds nothing to the structure of human order, and its consequences may be to suffocate that order by breeding paranoia. Yet, no matter how great our progress, Strauss taught us that:
if it were true that in the universal and homogenous state, no one has any good reason for being dissatisfied with that state, or for negating it, it would not yet follow that everyone will in fact be satisfied with it and never think of actively negating it, for men do not always act reasonably.
So goes our world, as we celebrate two hundred and thirty-seven years of American independence. So appears the challenge of my generation. So comes the question: will the next few decades—when we who now exist on Earth still have the real means to effect its destiny—be a time dedicated to the mission of the Challenger space shuttle, with the promise that mission held out to my generation when we were children, or will the next few decades be full of stories about deranged terrorists, the majority of whom do not want for food or shelter, and the carnage they inflict on a civilization that grows weary of itself and finds itself indulgent and crude?
Isaac Asimov, one of America’s most prolific humanist writers, recognized long ago that space colonization was not merely a necessity for humanity’s physical survival, but that it was above all a spiritual necessity. Asimov dealt widely with theoretical dilemmas of the global homogenous state as they would eventually be perpetuated throughout any eventual human space colonies. He found a solution to these dilemmas through the thoroughly American spirit of the pioneer entrepreneur. His ideal polis, as represented by Baleyworld in his amazing Robot series turned away from technology and towards a combination of the rational with the thymotic in man as a means towards alleviating the dehumanizing tendencies inherent in scientific society. In short: he romanticized space.
This imaginative vision is at once a profoundly conservative one, for at its heart is the quest to preserve the permanent things that compose the core of human civilization against the forces of what Strauss identified as “mere negation not enlightened by any positive goal.” Space colonization coupled with a national program of space migration would see the flowering of constitutional republican government throughout our galaxy, with its attendant components of arts, religious practice and all other worthy types of human endeavor. It would be the first true step towards what Pope Benedict XVI called “the cosmic liturgy.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.