It’s been 50 years since we first landed on the moon. It’s been 46 years, seven months, and four days since we last departed from there.
When President Kennedy first announced the goal of landing on the moon, it was a literal “moon shot.” The announcement came mere days after Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space during a 15-minute suborbital flight—we had yet to even put a man in orbit.
President Kennedy’s goal would require NASA to learn to put a manned spacecraft into Earth orbit and return it safely, conduct rendezvous and spacewalks, perform trans-lunar injections, achieve lunar soft-landings, and bring vehicles back from the moon.
It would require the development of rockets bigger than any built before, sophisticated suits to protect astronauts from the harshness of space and sustain their lives, and innovative technology and software to control precisely the complex and exacting navigational requirements.
The attempt was literally unprecedented.
But we did it.
Despite the massive technical and scientific challenges, it took America just eight years, one month, and 26 days to fulfill Kennedy’s promise. NASA’s budget for the duration was just $3 billion shy of the $40 billion that Kennedy had called on the country to pledge for the moon shot.
Imagine that—a government agency completing a project under budget and ahead of schedule.
The program was not without opposition. Two years after Kennedy’s announcement, former President Eisenhower stated, “anybody who would spend $40 billion in a race to the moon for national prestige is nuts.” In early 1969, mere months before the historic landing, a poll found that only 39 percent of Americans were in favor of the Apollo project. Among the reasons that 49 percent opposed the program: “God never intended us to go to space.”
The Apollo program and its supporters plowed straight through the opposition. They had a goal and they’d be damned if a little bit of negative opinion would stand in their way. It was something that America had to do and something that America would be proud of doing.
And they ended up being right. By now most, if not all, opposition has faded with the years. Even the most hardened cosmopolitan globalists, anarchistic libertarians, and identitarian separatists must get a small kick of nationalistic pride when they remember that we are the only country to ever land people on the moon.
But that pride has become inextricably mixed with nostalgia. It is no longer pride for what America is. It is pride for what it was.
We don’t do real moon shots anymore.
What Happened to Us?
President Obama’s Cancer Moonshot received $1.8 billion to be spent over seven years—just under 0.01 percent of the yearly federal budget, compared to the nearly 5 percent we spent yearly on NASA during the height of the Apollo program.
We aren’t even willing to make substantial outlays of time, effort, or money to deal with the substantial, concrete issues we have.
When $8.6 billion—just under 0.2 percent of the federal budget—is too high a price to pay to secure our borders and some start arguing that we should just give up because illegal immigrants will enter the country anyway, we know that we’ve lost our resolve.
But this downward trend has been with us for a while, in spite of temporary reversals.
President Carter was not entirely wrong when, in 1979, he said that America was facing a “crisis of confidence.” And he was not wrong to point to the moon landing, then just 10 years past, as a symbol of America’s strength. Nor was he was not wrong when he called America’s people, values, and confidence the greatest resource of the country saying that we would have to renew all three lest we fall to “fragmentation and self-interest” and turn to “worship” of “self-indulgence and consumption.”
Unfortunately, Carter had the charisma of a damp mop cloth and inspired about as much confidence as Lehman Brothers in late 2008.
But the malaise that the nation felt in the late 1970s was tame compared to what was to come. The United States, much like the Apollo program, may have been a victim of its own success.
After the emotional fervor surrounding Apollo 11, the subsequent missions drew far less interest—for many, the moon (if not space) was conquered and all that was left were the technical details that were best left to the scientists. The nation lost interest.
Similarly, many believed after the end of the Cold War that the major ideological struggles of human history had been resolved and anything left was best left to the technocrats. History effectively was over. And with no more ideological battles to wage, Americans felt increasingly entitled to kick their legs up and indulge in the material signs of our prosperity. Having won the fight, why would we risk the spoils on anything as intangible as an abstract goal?
As Francis Fukuyama argued, the “struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism” was being replaced by “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.”
He even mused that the “very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”
But it was never clear that history actually ended.
The Crisis of Our Elites
It is far more plausible that America’s so-called elite—enraptured by the cornucopia of cheap money to be gained from globalization—wanted to rationalize their complete abandonment of their neighbors and fellow citizens. They bought indulgences for their residual guilt by throwing money at supposedly oppressed groups and prostrating themselves on the altar of wokeness.
But now, the body politic is waking up, shaking off the false consciousness of political correctness and leftist cultural hegemony, and starting to see the reality of our current predicament. And America’s so-called elite, which once believed that they lead the country, are learning that they were the tail wagging the dog and that populism can be a bitch.
The sweet lullaby of the end of history and the fairytale of the “developed nation” have given way to the harsh reality that the United States has been falling behind economically, culturally, technologically, and spiritually and that our current national security and our future freedom hang in the balance.
Everyone knows that we are in tremendous debt. Last year alone, we paid more than $500 billion just to service the interest on the debt. But this—no matter what the libertarians and deficit-hawks tell you—is not fatal by itself. There are far more important threats we face that few in the media want to stress. Perhaps sustained attention to these issues would raise the obvious question of why we have done so little to ameliorate them and why the experts have been loath even to acknowledge their existence.
We face a formidable threat in China—a country we have systematically underestimated and treated the way a parent might treat a petulant teenager. A slap on the wrist will not stop their systematic theft of intellectual property, manipulation of currency dynamics, and exploitation of our trade policies.
But until President Trump’s election, economists and technocrats, enthralled by the prospect of “the endless solving of technical problems” of bureaucratic trade negotiation and the perpetual paychecks such tasks could produce, did not dare rock the boat lest the price of some crappy and lead-ridden toy from China jump 20 cents. The risk and the paperwork weren’t worth it.
Where Do Their Loyalties Lie?
We face uniquely powerful and fundamentally un-American tech companies that are intent on silencing opinions with which they do not agree. Companies that have worked with foreign governments to create censored search engines, only stopping after intense public scrutiny in the United States. And companies that have faced increasing scrutiny for sharing sensitive technology for potential military applications with foreign entities.
These companies have smartly paid off most of the main institutions in Washington, D.C. and have hidden behind a wall of insufferable libertarians and free-marketers who would rather see conservatives trashed and censored by the big tech companies than cross the sacrosanct principle of the invisible hand—these are the same people who seem to forget that “Ma Bell” was broken up by the Reagan Administration.
We face a broken education system with rising tuition and diminishing value. Americans have taken out over $1.5 trillion in student loan debt with the federal government owning nearly 92 percent of the debt. The government apparently seems intent on repeating the same mistakes that it made with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ahead of the Great Recession. At least those loans had some underlying collateral that could be recovered. Good luck monetizing that 20-something’s bisexual Native-American pottery degree.
Even our most elite colleges are breaking. At Yale, I saw some of the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by madness, spending weeks arguing whether [email protected] or Latinix was the less-gendered term to replace the masculonormative Latino. The classics are casually tossed aside with scorn—what could we possibly learn from Aristotle? He didn’t even have Snapchat!
The elite educational institutions are cynically cashing in on their brands and churning out many mediocre students who cannot reason themselves out of a paper bag and are far more interested in following the beaten moneyed path than having an independent thought.
How Do We Dig Out of This Hole?
We have recently seen progress on all three of these challenges. Trump has held a firm negotiating stance with China, in spite of all of the hand-wringing and lamentations in the press. Republicans in Congress have started appreciating the threat of the large tech companies and have begun to grapple with their Heritage and Cato foundation talking points to find some way they can address the actual problems in front of them while still getting money from the Kochs. And we’ve seen increased skepticism of higher education and some substantive attempts at reform.
Good. Let’s keep fighting.
But even these problems pale in comparison with the fundamental upheaval our entire world has seen over the past century. An upheaval that few are willing to acknowledge.
Technology, increasing social volatility, and an enlightenment-inspired skepticism of tradition and the past is changing how humans live at a pace that we haven’t seen before. And though we have been debating the increasing pace of modern life for a long time, there’s no doubt that information technology and our immersive devices have produced a quickening. It remains to be determined whether the benefits outweigh the costs—and this determination largely falls to us.
Our Societal Challenge
The rise of birth control, the sexual revolution, the various waves of feminism have all fundamentally shaken society. Women have played an increasingly prominent role in the professional sphere and a diminished role in the domestic sphere. The dominant culture pressures young women to have high performing careers and shames stay-at-home mothers. In spite of a slight reversal in recent years, the share of stay-at-home mothers has fallen dramatically over the past 50 years.
Mobile phones and other interactive devices with screens and access to the internet, all fairly recent inventions, are now ubiquitous. Social media, less than 20 years old, has become an important fixture in our day-to-day social interactions. The average American adult now spends more than 11 hours per day engaging with media on their screens. Many parents now give screens to young children to keep them entertained and to help with education. This is a profound change in the way that people interact with each other.
All sorts of behaviors and orientations, once stigmatized, have been normalized and gained widespread prominence in popular culture. Homosexuality and transgenderism are now widely supported by most in the mainstream. Dissenting voices that criticize the normalization of such orientations are typically punished harshly and socially ostracized. Recreational drug use and frequent premarital sex have become commonplace and are regularly depicted in media with many technological tools facilitating both.
These are not necessarily entirely bad things. They are also not unquestionably good things either. But our inability to speak openly about the changes or to have a free exchange of opinions about the various changes is, undoubtedly, an evil. Such profound changes are certain to have positive and negative side effects—if we are only allowed to speak of the positives, the negative effects will fester and metastasize.
Our decades-long inability to have open conversations and debates about these trends is in part a byproduct of the belief of many that we have reached the end of history and liberalism has won the ideological fight.
Of course, many in the mainstream orthodoxy have claimed liberalism for themselves and have constructed highly convenient definitions for the ideology. Nevertheless, if the ideology won and any further fighting is merely between those states and individuals “still in history” and those already at the end of history, what self-respecting pseudointellectual wouldn’t want to stand squarely at the end of history?
A Shallow End to History?
And so, eager not to be left behind, the “woke” among us accept whatever manifestation of liberalism is fed to them by the academics in their ivory towers and view any dissent with scorn. “Educate yourself,” they sneer as they clutch their copies of The Atlantic, The Nation, and The New York Times—the scriptures of their expert oracles in the Church of Wokeness.
Not content with deconstructing the present and distracting us with petty stupidity that pushes us ever closer to another civil war, they have started deconstructing the past. Most recently, telling us why the Apollo program was sexist and misguided.
All of this is rich, coming from people who have never landed themselves on the moon and would likely have to call AAA to change a flat.
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.
This language would be considered racist, ableist, chauvinistic, and imperialistic by many in the same party that nominated its author, John F. Kennedy, nearly 60 years ago.
During the 2016 election, many people asked when America had been great. They pointed to the countless sins of the past and smeared our entire history from top to bottom. But history is not that simple. It is not a simple fable of good versus evil with wooden two-dimensional characters.
America was great when it helped win World War II. It was great when it landed a man on the moon. It was great when it built the Interstate Highway System. America was great when it had confidence in itself and didn’t spend its time mired in remorseful, brooding, nostalgia, cataloging all of its wrongs and agonizing over missed opportunities.
America needs hustle. It needs spunk. It needs another goal to tackle. And it needs the heart to want to win.
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