Monday, September 15, 2008

Forgetting How to Dream

Dr. Robert Goddard with one of his first rockets.

In 1926, Dr Robert Goddard was ridiculed as a crank when he proposed that human beings could travel to the moon and return. He began to build prototypes of the liquid fuel rockets that he believed would make the trip possible.

Here's what happened 43 years later.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, 1969

I wonder if an enterprise like this is still possible.
My partner Michael describes the United States as a big Ford LTD, a great car back in 1966, but one that's completely unworkable now. We cling to the old car because it's what we know, and the thought of changing cars frightens us. He says that we've forgotten how to dream, how to imagine anything better than what we have. We're so preoccupied with clinging to what we've got, always afraid that someone is going to take it from us, that we've forgotten all our hopes and expectations.
It looks like the USA is about to replace Portugal as the most backwards of First World countries. Everyone knows the embarrassing statistics on crime, infant mortality, illiteracy, etc. More seriously, we have been overtaken by China and Europe in science and technology. We are no longer the leader in those fields. Foreign grad students are no longer coming here in the same numbers, not because of our new found xenophobia, but because they see us as behind the rest of the world.
Even in fine art, a field that we never take very seriously (unlike the rest of the world), we've been overtaken by the Chinese whose talent now rules the international art exhibitions and markets.
A lot has blown up in our faces over the last 40 years starting with Vietnam. The Space Shuttle has lasted longer -- and killed more astronauts -- than Projects Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and the Soviet space program combined. The Civil Rights movement ended legal segregation only to find it replaced with de facto segregation. On September 11th, terrorists scored a major victory, bringing down a symbol of American greatness and panicking us into just the kind of paranoid state they hoped to create. And now, we watch helplessly as more blood and treasure is being squandered in another dubious war.
We've become resigned. We've decided that it's all hopeless, that the politicians, the parties, the process are all the same, and it's all been bought and paid for by corporations that are all way more powerful than we are. The 1% that own and run all the rest of us have us by the nads whenever we think that way. They want us to think that it's all hopeless, that we should worry most about hanging on to whatever little we have left (while they quietly pick our pockets). They keep playing us, dangling terrorist alerts and threats of unemployment and foreclosure in our faces to keep us in line. And remember what Stendhal once said about resignation, that it's that stupid form of courage where we allow ourselves to be hanged without one murmur of protest.

I remember visiting Cape Canaveral a few years ago and taking the tour through the Space Center, a place that lives on memories of past glories. I came away missing the old Soviet Union. No, I didn't miss brutal Communism, I missed our competitor. We had not only a political and military competitor, but a real moral challenge as well. The Soviets constantly goaded us to try to be better than we really were. Everyone knows about the Space Race, but the Civil Rights movement had its Cold War dimension. The Soviet propagandists had a Roman holiday with American racism and segregation laws, and used them with great effect among African and Asian nations. It was that constant propaganda victory by the Soviets that helped pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. Even the now much maligned National Endowment for the Arts had a Cold War origin. The perceived trashiness of American culture was more grist for the Soviet propaganda mills. Even though Americans are reluctant to admit it, their self-image of national greatness is bound up with matters of culture and fine art (as it is with every other country). In the mid 1960s, the Federal Government decided to create a program (small by most standards) to encourage artists and arts programs.
We have those same challenges now. We don't seem to be nearly as interested as we once were in meeting them. Now, we simply withdraw into petulant resentment over how others perceive us.
We also forget that the turmoil of the 1960s was driven not just by anger over segregation or the Vietnam War, but by expectation. The American military and civilian experience in World War II, awakened expectations in large segments of the population that went unmet until the 1960s.
The Civil Rights movement, the Second Feminist movement, the Latino awakening, even the Gay Rights movement were all driven by expectations created in WWII. And as DeToqueville reminds us, expectation is the spark of revolution.

We won't get anything better than what we have now until we start expecting something better. We won't get any improvement in the standard of living for most Americans until we can see it in our imaginations and expect it. We won't get any return to any leadership role beyond brute military force until we expect it. We can blame the politicians all we want. We can blame our corporate masters all we want. But, in the end, it's up to us to make the difference.


it's margaret said...

Thank you for the word of hope and inspiration. And please thank your beloved for such a wonderful image of "what's wrong."

Anonymous said...

It's so very important for you to keep saying and painting these things. Positive creative imagination is so often greeted with cynicism. All I need is a scrap of bread to keep me going, and you just gave me my serving for the day. Thank you.

In case you missed it, there is good news at black sheep's. Often we need to take up where the news media leaves off (they do have to make a profit, after all).

ht to blacksheep and amyj

Anonymous said...

"We cling to the old car because it's what we know, and the thought of changing cars frightens us. He says that we've forgotten how to dream, how to imagine anything better than what we have. We're so preoccupied with clinging to what we've got, always afraid that someone is going to take it from us, that we've forgotten all our hopes and expectations."

And the Lehman Bank & c. going down wouln't make it any better.

June Butler said...

"Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.--Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

And there was the Edsel, the dream that turned into a nightmare.

You're so right, Counterlight. We've lost it for now, and, I fear, for the near future. What the more distant future holds, I can't say.