A “Moral Equivalent of War” for Tomorrow: A Renewed Space Program
In light of my recent post extolling the altruistic virtue of scientific pursuit and advancement, I want to call attention to the work of astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, and his recent pitch before the U.S. Senate for a renewed commitment to NASA and to the American space program.
Tyson is brilliant, and charismatic, and actually hilarious (I’ve seen him perform with the awesome comedian Eugene Mirman, and he’s been great on the The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and on Real Time with Bill Maher). And I think he’s on to something here. Because I think that even from a pro-market capitalist perspective, a renewed commitment to America’s space program will create jobs, and inspire a nation in the midst of doldrums. “How much would you pay to launch our economy?” He aks. “How much would you pay for the universe?” That’s a stimulus we can all believe in.
If the words sound familiar, maybe it’s because you heard every Saturday evening at 7 PM while growing up, as I did. Only then, they were spoken by Patrick Stewart, and sounded like this: “Space: The Final Frontier…”
As an American historian, I can’t but think of Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous “frontier thesis” of 1893, where he argued that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” Change the words “land” to “space” and “westward” to “upward” and perhaps we can have a new frontier for America to explore, one that advances not rugged individualism (even though, as conservatives forget, the westward settlement was heavily subsidized by the government) and oppressive colonialism (as it certainly did against the Native peoples of America) but peaceful scientific exploration and collective economic growth.
But as a blogger for a site named after a William James essay, I’m reminded even more of James’ 1906 essay on “The Moral Equivalent of War.” In the spirit of the Progressive Era, James thought America could channel the energy, order, and discipline of military endeavours towards more peaceful, and less destructive manual labour. By conscripting America’s men off “to coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers,” James thought America could develop a more cohesive, moral, and productive citizenry.
Though I’m a big fan of mandatory national service programs, I’m not sure this is the answer now. But James’ principle, that the energy of the military need not be directed to martial pursuits, is a very good one. This relates to Tyson’s claim that, despite the inspirational nature of JFK’s words, America’s past glories in space came largely because a commitment to fighting the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Well, America is still at war (whether the government admits it or not), but US fighting in the Middle East has not channeled the dreams of the country’s young scientists, and the nation’s brightest minds have been heading off to Wall Street.
In 1906, James admitted that “mankind cannot afford to adopt a peace economy.” The same was true during the Cold War, the same is true today. But today America’s enemy is not the Soviet Union, or even militant Islam: it is recession, plutocracy, inequality, and perhaps worst of all, complacency. These are enemies worth fighting. This is Tyson’s call to arms. Like a war on “terror,” this war is more difficult to fight, because it is being fought against abstractions. But outer space, despite its vastness, is concrete. A passion for discovery in the stars can bring Americans together, and can indeed bind America with the rest of the planet. Looking upward and outward can, perhaps paradoxically, help fight social ills at home. And even for curiosity’s sake, I think it’s worth it. To quote Jean-Luc Picard, as I’ve written before, “let’s see what’s out there.”