Saturday, July 11, 2009

Nostalgia for an America That Once Was

In these days of Hope and Change, which are increasingly short on hope but scarily long on change, and that not for the better; in these days of change, those of us obtuse enough to prefer the virtues and distinctions of a better, vanished country are feeling nostalgic for a robust America, sure of itself, and not in need of an Apologist in Chief to go round to our enemies talking softly, throwing away the stick we once wielded, and attempting to emplace a therapeutic state to anesthetize the nation's pain. There are many ways to tabulate our decline as a nation, many of which have found their way onto this blog, it being the habit, I suppose, of conservatives not only to desire to conserve what has been hard won, but perhaps to be overly suspicious of the new. David and I attempt to point out here what is worth keeping of the old (much), and what is worth accepting of the new (not much).

It is an interesting paradox then, or perhaps a mere irony, that a nation unhealthily in love with the New, the Next, and the Novel, has at the same time become increasingly averse to risk, seeking primarily through the magic of legislation to remove the possibility of all sorts of harms, from manufactured items to services offered, from environmental catastrophes to man-caused disasters, in the words of one of our foremost Ministers of Risk Aversion.

This month of July marks an anniversary of one of the most spectacular--perhaps the most spectacular example of risk taking by an America unafraid of risk, and this year marks a generation-defining 40th anniversary of that event. I speak of the lunar landing of July 16, 1969, prior to the birth of most of you reading this. America was a different country then than the one you know, even though most of the social and cultural pathologies we struggle with today had their genesis in the '60's. What we still had then that was superior, that has not been passed down like most of the rest of the patrimony of self indulgence bequeathed by the baby boom generation (my generation) was the confidence--and the absolute courage in the face of enormous, incalculable risk--to proclaim to the world that we would put a man on the moon before the decade was out.

In a joint session of Congress in 1961, President Kennedy announced it in these words: ‘First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.’ He went on to say, and I'm paraphrasing from memory, that "we choose not to go to the moon and the other things we are doing because they are easy, but because they are hard."

That was electrifying then, and electrifying now. We demonstrated to the world--most especially the bellicose Soviets--that our achievement potential far exceeded anything they or anyone else in the world could hope to attain. The American way--ordered liberty under law, free markets and capitalism, and the largest possible scope for individual achievement, made us the indisputable hegemon of the globe, one which could be trusted for enlightened leadership not only politically but technologically. It is one of the accomplishments that will forever define America at the height of it powers, able to lead humanity and advance human history, and only the most purblind critics dismiss the value of the space program to America's sense of itself.

I remember that July night 40 years ago when the Apollo 11 mission touched down on the moon, a gripping historical event for a teenage boy just awakening to the wider world. My authoritarian father, never one to waffle on bedtimes, or much of anything else for that matter, let me stay up to watch the epochal event on television. We could hardly believe it, floundering for words adequate to what unfolded so agonizingly slowly through the night. I understood my father in a different way after that night, having shared a first ever event in the history of mankind, watching as he showed outwardly the same pride, astonishment, and philosophical reserve I was feeling myself. The whole nation knew it was touch and go, that any number of catastrophic failures could render the transmission mute, the staticy black and white picture dark.

I was thus taken by the nostalgic and elegiac "Monochrome" (listen here, track 24), a song by a ninety's era band, The Sundays, which describes another man's youthful experience of America's greatness and history's advance in July of 1969. David Gavurin, the writer, even titled the album "Static and Silence", pointing to Monochrome as the important track on a cd mostly comprised of the usual Brit pop inanities (albeit nicely styled inanities).

It's four in the morning, July of '69
me and my sister
crept down like shadows
they're trying to bring the moon down to our sitting room
static and silence, and a monochrome vision

They're dancing around
slow puppets, silver ground
and the world is watching with joy
we hear a voice from above and it's history
and we stayed awake, all night

And something is said and the whole room laughs aloud
me and my sister, looking like shadows
the end of an age as we watched them walk in a glow
lost in space, and I don't know where it is

They're dancing around
slow puppets, silver ground
and the stars and stripes in the sand
we hear a voice and it's history
and we stayed up all night

They're dancing around
it sends a shiver down my spine
and I run to look in the sky and
I half expect to hear them asking to come down

Oh, will they fly or will they fall?
to be excited by a long late night.

Give a listen to this song, and get a feel for what America was capable of when she was confident, on the move, leading the world and history--and able to inspire people the world over.
Will America ever surpass this achievement? Not with leaders stuck in a "post" mentality--postmodern, post-Christian, post-America-as-world-leader. Parodoxically, or perhaps merely ironically, it will require a renunciation of progressivism and a resurgence of conservatism to make America a risk taker again, by reverting to the past virtues that made the true audacity of a moon landing possible.

David adds:

This clip includes Kennedy's moon challenge before the joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, but also the image of the moon landing that Harold saw on TV. Read the text of it here.

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."

-- John F. Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961

Here is Kennedy's 1962 "We Choose To Go To The Moon" Speech:

"Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, 'Because it is there.' Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked."

-- John F. Kennedy, Rice University, Sept. 12, 1962


Nolanimrod said...

Emotional event. I cried, and had to take the announcer's word for it about what Armstrong said, because it sounded like "skritch, pat, an, heap pat blind."

If most of your visitors weren't yet born in '69 it's really good you're here. In '69 the choice was U.S. News and World Report or TIME.

Harold Kildow said...

Nola-nimrod(?) are you in New Orleans? just wondering...

Yes, but back in '69, US News was a decent magazine--I used to read my dad's when it came in the mail.

I remember being astonished later at the beautiful full color pictures NASA made available of the mission, compared to the grainy black and white--mostly white as I recall--television transmission of that night. Curiously, I don't actually remember the Armstrong "one small step for mankind" line from that night.


Benjamin Shaw said...

Something I saw no reference to with regard to the celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing was the following: The Moody Blues' album To Our Children's Children's Children was written in celebration of that event.