President Obama tried to use the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden to get Americans to think big again. The successful end of a 10-year manhunt, he declared last week, was a "testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people."
But Bin Laden's death instead seemed to feed stubborn domestic divisions and conjure thorny geopolitical stalemates. Maybe the president should take a different tack to get the public to embrace the "big things" rhetoric he launched in January's State of the Union address.
Obama is right to try to pump us up. It isn't just the gnawing self-doubt of the past globalized decade that has dampened our national aspirations. Or even the recession, though that hasn't helped. It's the earthbound, utilitarian side of our national character, let loose by our insecurities, that has been strangling our idealism and our imagination.
Historians long ago identified the ongoing tension between idealism and pragmatism that lies at the core of the American character. In 1915, Van Wyck Brooks described the nation's "quite unclouded, quite unhypocritical assumption of transcendent theory ('high ideals')" and its "simultaneous acceptance of catchpenny realities." In 1920, philosopher George Santayana argued that of all the people in the world, Americans had a unique ability to bring realism and idealism into harmony.
A half-century ago, President John F. Kennedy jump-started the can-do side of our national character, leveraging Americans' competitive spirit and our love affair with technology to get us thinking about the great unknown. In less than a decade, we planted the Stars and Stripes on the moon.
Back then, the ultimate symbol of technological advancement was the spaceship. Today it's the newest computerized gizmo.
That shift is powerfully reflective of a change in our values. It seems that these days, we're most excited about technologies that better connect us to each other or better navigate the known world. We pursue links among the like-minded and access to knowledge that has already been catalogued. In other words, we're excited by exploring the universe horizontally not vertically. We've replaced wonder with a search algorithm.
Worse yet, we increasingly see our world through the prism of cost/benefit analysis and risk management. We seek to monetize all aspects of life; I recently saw a study that calculated the economic costs of office rudeness. We constantly ask, "Is it worth the cost?"
In recent years, NASA officials have begun to see that strident utilitarianism as an abiding threat to the future of space exploration. In 2007, Michael Griffin, then the NASA chief administrator, urged people to look beyond what he called "acceptable reasons" for recharging the U.S. space program, to embrace the "real," "intuitive" reasons for going deeper into space.
"The cultural ethos in America today," he said in a speech in Houston, "requires us to have … reasons that pass analytical muster, that offer a favorable cost/benefit ratio that can be logically defended."
The problem is that acceptable reasons alone — national security, economic benefit, scientific discovery — don't fully explain why we should launch ourselves into space. Rather, the true justification for space exploration is that such enterprises "speak abundantly to our sense of human curiosity, of wonder and awe," and because they "lift up human hearts everywhere when we do them."
But perhaps the best reason to once again turn our eyes and our dreams toward space is that it helps defeat what Lewis Mumford called the "idols of utilitarianism." We can't do big things unless we think big. We can't think big unless we allow our imaginations go beyond the mundane. There's nothing less mundane than galaxies far, far away.