TCS Daily


Elites No Longer Scratching America's Itch for Exploration

By James Pinkerton - July 23, 2001 12:00 AM

It's an irony that on the same weekend that protestors at the G-8 meeting in Genoa, Italy, were demanding an alternative to "globalization," an international team of astronauts continued the slow but steady work of building an alternative to this globe--out in space. And yet few seem to notice. It might not be a surprise, of course, that anarchists aiming rocks at cops didn't take time to look up and think about genuine alternatives; as is often said, those who oppose trade and growth aren't really radicals, but rather reactionaries.

Yet it is a continuing source of amazement that contemporary intellectuals, those who pride themselves on freethinking forward-mindedness, are so oblivious to the future beckoning overhead. It wasn't always this way; once upon a time, the elites were at the forefront of exploration and discovery. But today, the hope of future expansion for humanity seems to be held hostage by the constricted imagination of those who dominate contemporary policy discourse.

To be sure, NASA and the worldwide consortium behind the International Space Station Alpha are a long way from creating an alternate planet, but they are getting there. The space shuttle Atlantis, launched earlier this month, carried a 6½-ton air lock and four 1200-pound gas tanks needed to pressurize it; Alpha's 58-foot robot arm hoisted the equipment into position and astronauts Michael Gernhardt and James Reilly assembled the apparatus in three space walks. Pretty neat. And to think, just a century ago, man had yet to take his first powered flight into the atmosphere.

But if we've made a lot of progress in the last 100 years, we've seemingly regressed in just the last 30 years, at least relative to what was possible. As an example, consider the film "2001: A Space Odyssey," released in 1968. Even though men had not yet landed on the moon, the Stanley Kubrick movie took it as an unremarkable premise that flourishing lunar colonies would exist by the beginning of the 21st century; indeed, a regular shuttle service would zip passengers back and forth. Of course, none of that happened; just a dozen men walked on the moon from 1969 to 1972. But slowly-very slowly-a new reality is taking shape; the Alpha space station heralds a new permanence in space. Indeed, the fact that space activity is routine today speaks to the maturity of the technology involved; the issues limiting space endeavor aren't technical, but rather financial.

And, of course, intellectual. While cable news carries shots of rockets launching and astronauts floating, the op-ed pages and non-fiction book racks rarely have much to say-and almost never anything positive to say-about NASA, let alone the larger concept of outward-boundedness. That is, what constitutes a "serious" discussion of "important" issues is confined to a narrow range of concerns, as defined by the left-of-center consensus of the cultural and political gatekeepers.

Consider, as a negative case in point, the New York City-based author Zachary Karabell. A few years ago he wrote a well-received history of the 1948 presidential campaign, and he has been teaching at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts, and Dartmouth. And now he has written another book, A Visionary Nation: Four Centuries of American Dreams & What Lies Ahead, for which he received favorable blurbs from such distinguished opinion leaders as David M. Kennedy and Fareed Zakaria. But there's a problem.

For one thing, there's the title, which seems to promise a sweeping look at four centuries of U.S. history--and a further look ahead, at least for a century or two. But instead, the book is a rehash of American history, told from a vaguely liberal perspective--that ends, not with a bright forecast of something new, but rather the dull hope that America will move a bit to the left, politically, in the next decade.

Karabell starts off strong. He notes the "utopian impulse" that animated early American settlers, devoting an entire chapter to the geographic expansion and "Manifest Destiny" of the late 19th century. Moreover, he espies a continuity of sorts between the pioneers of the past and the New Economy innovators of the present. He even makes a passing reference to John F. Kennedy and the space program of the '60s, noting also that among various "imagined futures" was Robert Heinlein's sci-fi expectation of late 20th-century moon bases. In other words, Karabell knows that American history was all about exploration and expansion; yet as he makes clear, he doesn't think such mighty themes are relevant to the American future.

That becomes apparent in his final chapter, in which he climaxes his chronicle of American destiny with a little pitch for the Democratic Party. And not the historic Democratic Party of Thomas Jefferson or Kennedy, but rather the Democratic Party of, say, Bill Clinton and Robert Reich. In that spirit, he describes the America of today: "The gap between rich and poor continues to grow...increasing numbers of people lose jobs, never to find permanent employment again...people isolate themselves in privately guarded communities... environmental degradation worsens as government loses its capacity to coerce companies to abide by regulations." These are scenarios that Reich has put forth more cogently in a slew of books, starting with The Work of Nations, which was published a decade ago.

Karabell's political platform, which he half-heartedly disguises as an historical prognostication is, not too surprisingly, moderate liberalism. In the future, guided by such experts as Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, and Robert "Bowling Alone" Putnam, we will find "spiritual fulfillment, intimate relationships, and community."

If Karabell had set out to write yet another communitarian tract, and given it an appropriately pedestrian title such that it would fit comfortably alongside the works of, say, Amitai Etzioni and Michael Sandel, he would not now be getting thrashed within the domain of Pinkertonspace.com. But if he chooses to invoke the hugeness of American history as a hook, he should realize that hugeness is required of him, too.

Such an expanse of vision, in keeping with Karabell's own subtitle-"Four Centuries of American Dreams & What Lies Ahead"-would begin, perhaps, with Sir Walter Raleigh and John Winthrop, would tell tales of various visionaries in the four hundred years since, and would surely end with at least some inkling of what lies ahead-including not just the inward meditations of ivory-towered social scientists, but also the outward constructions of astronauts such as Michael Gernhardt and James Reilly of the shuttle Atlantis.

It could be argued that Karabell's constricted prophecy is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, if the current crop of public policy intellectuals can limit the national conversation to a narrow and recycled range of issues, then America's Manifest Destiny in space will never get a hearing. But Karabell notwithstanding, the lesson of U.S. history is that America's expansion can be slowed on occasion, but never stopped altogether.
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