Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Moon

Needless to say, lots of chatter today about the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. I’ve got mixed feelings, some of them deeply personal. My family’s company (absorbed in the late 1970s into a Fortune 500 company) designed and manufactured the parachute release relays for the Apollo capsules, as well as the stage separation relays for the Gemini booster rockets before that. The dramatization of the amperage problems in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 movie was true to life: dad was up all night that week with all his engineers re-running tests to see if the parachute release relay could work on less power.

I was always jealous that my dad got to go watch the launches at Cape Canaveral, while I had to watch on TV back in LA. But dad always said NASA, as a government agency, was a pain to deal with, so he decided against bidding on any shuttle work when that came along after Apollo. There’s probably a lesson there. Then, too, the narrow scientific argument that the moon program was a diversion of scarce engineering talent is probably right. But--the politics of it was so fun.

Lots of folks-Tom Wolfe in the NY Times yesterday,
Megan McArdle in The Atlantic blog today--say it is a failure of imagination that we haven’t continued our space program in a serious way. They are right, but miss one big reason why: contemporary liberalism. I submit for your consideration a passage from my first Age of Reagan volume:

The reaction to the moon landing in 1969 is a good example of national exhaustion and liberal guilt at work. The moon landing had been set out as a lofty goal by the liberals’ hero, John F. Kennedy, and the moon landing was an occasion of national pride and celebration for most Americans. Here, amidst the rubble and gloom of the 1960s, was something that had gone splendidly right. Many leading liberals, however, could only sniff that while the moon landing was undeniably impressive, the money for the moon landing would have been better spent on social problems on Earth. The popular cliché of the time went: “Any nation that can land a man on the moon can [fill in the blank].” (The total cost of the decade-long moon landing project was less than three months’ worth of federal spending for social programs in 1969.) A 25 person delegation from the Poor People’s Campaign, led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Martin Luther King’s successor), came to the Apollo 11 launch at Cape Canaveral “to protest America’s inability to choose human priorities,” while Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield said that “The needs of the people on earth, and especially in this country, should have priority. When we solve these problems, we can consider space efforts.” Even the brother of the man who issued the call to go to the moon, Sen. Ted Kennedy, expressed weariness with the space program: “I think after [the moon landing] the space program ought to fit into our other national priorities.”

Still wish we were going back there, though. And to Mars, too. But we’ve got to nationalize health care first, right?

Discussions - 26 Comments

Great post, Steve!

Steve, I made the same point earlier tonight, when I was discussing why the space program faltered, that radical liberalism effectively eviscerated it.

But Republicans fail to drive that message home, that instead of funding the exploration of the heavens themselves, leftists are determined that American dollars be poured into one social black hole after another.

But I suspect another reason the Left eviscerated America's space program was precisely that it filled Americans with pride, rightful and proper pride in their country. You can't indulge in cultural relativism and simultaneously be proud of America's space program. It's difficult to maintain the fiction that all countries are the same, when some are third world hell holes, and another sends a manned mission to the moon.

There is probably a lesson there. Your father's company was absorbed by a mega-corporation, with whom now NASA does exclusive business. You had a front row seat to understand the ways of monopoly capitalism at work. You could have seen firsthand how those companies are subsidized by the U.S. government for arms sales in the forms of loans, grants, and promotional activities. You could have advocated as to how defense pork handed Raytheon, Boeing, and Lockheed exceeds NASA's annual budget.You could have argued that an enlightened country should nationalize its health care before it nationalizes its weapons sales. But instead you developed a man-crush on Reagan, and the rest, as they say, is pseudo-history.

Dan, what are you talking about? You seem convinced that "cultural relativists" maintain that all countries are "the same." It's one thing to believe that all countries must strive to achieve some grand, progressive goal of free-market democracy w/ flushable toilets and McCafe for all. It's an entirely different thing to take pride in what one's culture achieves. Setting the goal of landing on the moon and accomplishing that is certainly something to be proud of. The mistake would be in claiming that all cultures should strive to do the exact same thing.

You seem prone to such glossy caricatures, though. I suppose your understanding of cultural relativism and your paranoia about the radical left dismantling any and everything Americans take pride in complement each other perfectly in your straw-man-filled mind . . .

I am for Inspiration. Bold Ambitions and New Frontiers...I'm not opposed.

But WHY should we (via our government) go to the Moon again? Mars? After that, do expeditions to the moons of Jupiter become necessary to support, unless you are to be counted as one of Those Against Inspiration?

I've been reading about the Pyramids recently, damn near six millenia old and in fine shape. Why can't we build some more of those if we want big Xerxes-like Inspiration projects? How about this? We could build Pyramids on the moon! Or to make Dan happy, we could carve Mt. Rushmore figures of the founders there (this time leave that nasty Prog Teddy out) that could be seen, if we're really patriotic, by the naked eye by all the world. Personally, I would prefer some form of orbiting fireworks.

But seriously people, at some point the Search for Inspiration becomes a case of Trying too Hard. Cortez knew more or less what he wanted when he went into the Beyond...but what do we want from doing so?

Matt, perhaps you've been in a cave of late, but haven't you noticed that our present President constantly runs down the United States. He goes out of his way to marginalize American achievements, and appears congenitally incapable of praising the United States. In his eagerness to run down America, he resorts to outright historical falsehoods, {id est, that speech in Cairo}. His wife seems to suffer from the same congenital defect, if you recall, she's the woman who said that the "first time" she was "proud of her country" was when her husband received the Democrat nomination. Now be mindful that the woman in question would have been alive during America's moon shot, and would have been alive when America deployed the Hubble Space Telescope.

Moreover, I don't understand the sneer in your tone when mentioning proper sewage. Haven't you ever heard of intestinal parasites, or perhaps you think 3d worlders prefer remaining vulnerable to their predations, and prefer to run off to the bushes instead of being able to use "flushable toilets." Have you any idea the frequency of serious illness in the 3d world that is directly attributable to their sore lack of proper sewage?

And what's with the addition of McDonald's into the discussion via "McCafe"?

I deliberately tried to provoke some Leftists with my comment, availing myself of something of a stretch. And what did you do in response, you ran off and sneered about "flushable toilets."

Carl, I too favour opening space to private enterprise. But ask yourself this, would you rather the government had spent a trill over the last 20 years on the exploration of Space, or would you have preferred to see that same money poured into urban pathology, one social black hole after another. If it was a choice between all of the variations of the "war on poverty" or pursuing JFK's dream of space travel, I'd choose the latter every single time.

Just think where our Space program would be now if instead of wasting all that money we wasted on the Department of Energy, {which hasn't produced a single kilowatt of energy}, we had used but a portion of that money on Space travel.

Come on, Dan. You can do better!

I know this might blow your mind, but believe it or not intestinal health risks can be avoided without installing the same model toilet you most likely own. And this is my point - rather than imagine that I might have visited "third world" countries and actually seen some pretty great alternatives to our sewage system, you just assume that because it's not the way you do it, it must lead to intestinal parasites. Tell me - have you ever actually met anyone from a perceived "third world" country? Ever had a conversation with someone from there in their own language? Or are you content to throw your ideas of what they want and desire into their heads?

Quite frankly, Dan, you didn't respond to my criticism. I think you misunderstand "cultural relativism" as something which rejects cultural pride when, in fact, I would argue that such "relativism" embraces the idea that different cultures can be proud of different accomplishments in their own right. Americans have every right to take pride in our landing on the moon. It would be silly, however, to suggest that in doing so we have achieved something "better" than another culture (which we can't possibly claim, especially while living within the "constraints" of our own socio-cultural assumptions and language games).

And what's with the addition of McDonald's into the discussion via "McCafe"?

I saw a McDonald's bag on the street and it said "McCafe". I wish it was something more esoteric . . .

Wowzers. We are coming from very different places. T-Hag: you have this running theme of presupposing that relativism can be evaluated within a context it rejects (i.e. "Matt is more Christian than a Christian!" or "Matt makes the absolute claim that absolutes do not exist!"). My "standing above it all" is, in fact, an attempt to recognize that I can't do that.

But if you believe in "BoBos", and that cultural pride is comparable to a kid running in a race (or, even more silly, that we can evaluate cultures on a magical, objective "totem pole"), and that you can understand other cultures through your computer screen, I doubt there will be much we can talk about.

Matt: I see what you are saying, and I realize it takes a little bit more oomph than saying "relativism is just relative" to get anywhere on this.

I have no idea what it means to "believe" in BoBos (lol). Less important I think is to evaluate cultures on a totem pole. Well, let me just say this: I don't think the risk we run is in not knowing where we stand, but in destroying a certain brotherhood and nobility that is predicated on us being equal creatures who share a common nature.

I do think (and this was the point of my last post) that there are certain things all human beings demand, and believe the ends of liberty and equality are part of that. I tend to dislike silly things like Fukuyama (OK so democracy is awesome -- can I get back to playing SoCom now?) because I think it hastily dismisses the age-old appetites of the soul and the will to power.

The problem is, our conversation doesn't address these things like human dignity or the rulers vs the ruled, so I don't believe we will, as you say, get very far. If we stick to the straw-man that not everyone is drawn towards the mindlessness of American mass consumerism, that just isn't going to happen. I know we already discussed the Declaration on another thread, but that really is the whole of American life. I guess one thing that irks me is we never ask why someone would reject America: is it "no thanks, I have pride and am content with my own life?" Or does the thing trump anything Wittgenstein has to say because it really is something many human beings from all over the planet informed by different "language games" and "socio-cultural assumptions" have been able to share in?

Matt, I spoke with a third worlder a week ago, he came from Nigeria. Did I speak with him in his native language? No, I wouldn't waste my time on third world lingo, {unless I was in Special Forces and learning such lingo enhanced my effectiveness}.

I did not assume that the lack of "flushable toilets" led inexorably to intestinal parasites, nor did I assume the absence of "flushable toilets" meant a want of "proper sewage." But what is known by hard experience is that the lack of proper sewage leads to all manner of aliments, some of which are life threatening. And the lack of proper sewage is one of the barometers by which one can identify whether or not he or she is truly in a third world hell hole. As for the abstract "great alternatives" to Western sewage procedures, let's hear 'em. Do sewage processing plants proliferate across Africa, or other areas of the third world? Would they even know how to devise such a plant?

Which leads to my point. You said that cultural relativism entails a pride in "different accomplishments." And I concur that as a German should have pride in his country, in his culture, and as an Italian should have pride as well, ------------ so too an American, so too an Englishman. But there's an a priori requirement for GENUINE accomplishment. Wandering through Italy one sees GENUINE, BONA FIDE, LEGITIMATE culture all over the place. It's not the same wandering through the Australian outback, nor wandering through Kenya. Mud huts do not a Versailles make, nor does a complete lack of proper sewage somehow morph into an "alternative" to Western technique.

And yes, the theory of cultural relativism allows for equal cultures being rightfully proud of their different accomplishments, but in practice what we've seen is a constant and comprehensive running down of real Western achievement, and something of a bizarre hyperinflating of non-achievement in non-Western cultures. Here's a for instance, when Obama went to Cairo and imputed all kinds of achievements to islam, which did not originate in islam, ------------------- why did he feel the need to do so, why couldn't he find genuine accomplishment WITHIN islam. Why did he have the need to strip other cultures and civilizations of their due, and attribute their accomplishments to islam? This is but one instance of where the theory of cultural relativism breaks down into a trivialization of Western culture.

I entered graduate school in 1989, the year of the protests at Tiananmen Square. I was first exposed to postmodern theory that year, as some of my fellow students were very much enchanted with it. In the midst of a class discussion, another student--who could only be considered "conservative" when compared to the vast majority of history graduate students--asked what a postmodernist would say to those Chinese students who risked their lives to demand western-style freedom and democracy. Would the postmodernist tell them to go home, that these things weren't worth fighting for, and that they would only lead to consumerism and crass materialism? None of the postmodernists seemed to have an answer.

It is a good thing you studied more about it in the subsequent 20 years, so as not to form your impressions on the basis of some gotcha moment in a classroom. No one's having said anything about an issue in your class does not mean there is nothing to say about an issue. Maybe it is what you are 'listening for' that is skewed. The capacity for light to illuminate depends on the ability of people to hear.

ren: It seems that Dr. Moser chose that anecdote not because he informs himself with "gotcha moments" (though I feel the question was a valid one), but because in the singular event of Tiananmen Square something perhaps universal was unveiled. And, at any rate, I'm all ears right now if you would have anything to contribute to the conversation started twenty years ago that Dr. Moser speaks of.

In order for you to have your little conversation, we would have to pry open some tiny minds to the possible definitions of postmodernism. But let's generally equate that with the idea of the collapse of metaphysical narratives. By that is meant not merely that they have been forgotten or ignored or willfully neglected, but their justifications, legitimizations, and orchestrations have been rendered untenable by a great deal of contemporary science, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, sociology, etc. It seems pretty intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge the force of those bodies of thought, but let's continue. From there we would go on to a necessary discussion of what sorts of phenomenon go into people continuing to hold to such pictures. The power that so-called absolutist frameworks still have on people, even in the face of devastating overwhelming arguments and evidence against them. One sees one's absolutes even in moonwalks, it seems. When Moser says that the postmodernists do not have an answer to his question, it is a political maneuver. Maybe that was the silence marked in the classroom that day. Ok - I'll play. Would the postmodernist tell them to go home, that these things weren't worth fighting for, and that they would only lead to consumerism and crass materialism? Here is your answer: No, the postmodernist would not say that. It is not the case that western democracy inevitably leads to consumerism and crass materialism. It is precisely thinking of such things in terms of inevitabilities in the first place that postmodernism is very good at showing is confused. When he says 'they do not have an answer', what he is probably saying is that none of their answers satisfy what he takes to be a requirement for any such question, namely that they fill the role that some 'absolutes' would just have to play in any answer. In other words, his question begs the question. Maybe the problem lies in what he will count as an answer. Interesting that some questions prevent their answers from being heard, even for 20 years.

Matt: Perhaps you misunderstand the ancient idea of thymotic pride, but it seems to be incompatible with what you present as a pride for one's own. Your version of self-pride is like the kid who gets 40th place in the local 5k race and says that he is happy with his place in his own right; it is sort of like handing out trophies to everyone, or not scoring a t-ball game. Still, everyone knows their place on the totem pole at the end of the day.

I might just be an American addicted to idiotic things like space heaters, chewing tobacco, and Britney Spears, while you might have far more vision and perhaps see well beyond my feeble powers of perception -- but how is it that you are some chosen philosopher able to weave through this so-called tangle of "language games" and "constraints" and "socio-cultural assumptions" to be able to stand above it all and say these things you say? Now granted I have been nailed to the ground I stand on, with little opportunity to travel and see the world, so perhaps I don't know how these things work. But with my personal computer I bought at a chain store and then packed into my fuel guzzling car to take back to my energy consuming house I am able to see life in these places, while they can't see me. And I'm pretty sure if I was them, I'd switch places if I was able to actually see the other side. And trust me, it goes well beyond the hedonistic.

Someone help me out here, but isn't this how the BoBo culture got its start? It was supposedly crass and doltish for one to embrace things like the McCafe, and perhaps in some ways rightfully so. Much better (and reflective of one's values) to drive a Prius than a Hummer. Everyone knows McD's isn't good for you, but how is it that this nation is the first one to have an obesity problem among the lowest classes? Was it the extra 200 g of lard in that McDonalds or McDonalds ability to feed massive amounts of people at a relatively low cost?

These "accomplishments" that you cite (cf. flushing toilets, or rather, alternatives to toilets) seem laughably superfluous and actually add little to your argument for cultural relativism. There is something in back of it that gets closer to the human heart than widgets and petty material goods, but of course you won't go near that.

This creeping relativism seems innocent, but in fact it is closer to a vitriolic nihilism than one supposes. At a very basic level, there is no refuting the things you say when you poison the well by throwing out "constraints" and "language games." How much these weaken the bonds of humanity is another question altogether. It seems there would have to be some common ground to meet on, but who am I to say? Food for thought: was nihilism discredited by the Holocaust survivors, morals and faith intact? Is there something beyond experience that has to do with human nature?

One sees one's absolutes even in moonwalks, it seems.

No, no. Moonwalks are only the pretext of the conversation.

T-Hag: Heidegger, in particular, seems to suggest that his work is largely based on the "classical thought" of antiquity that you accuse the "postmodernists" of ignoring (or, at least, simply throwing aside). Arguably, Socrates could be thought of as having been one of the first to work at deconstructing the metaphysical power structures at play in his particular time/place. So, it's not as though contemporary continental philosophers have turned their backs on what they think to be their intellectual heritage. You just don't agree with their take on things . . .

And Moser did seem to suggest that the postmodern critic would claim that western-style democracy would lead to consumerism and crass materialism.

Okay, never mind the bit about "consumerism and crass materialism." Let's focus on the issue of whether it is possible to consider freedom and democracy as in any way superior to tyranny and dictatorship.

I've actually read quite a bit of postmodern theory, particularly as it applies to the study of history (the work of Keith Jenkins, for instance). As I understand it, the central claim is that there is no such thing as historical truth, only the construction of competing narratives about the past, and that there is no way of determining whether any one narrative is superior to any other. In other words, we must accept the work of Holocaust deniers as equally valid as anything else that has been written on the subject.

Yes. The Holocaust is always the go-to moral lesson historians turn to in order to defend against the likes of Jenkins, Hayden White, and Alun Munslow (among others).

First of all, so far as I understand it, competing narratives of the past can certainly be evaluated for accuracy (which is different than the big-T Truth historian-theorists are worried about). If I was born in 1932 in North Dakota and someone claims I was born in 1996 in Wyoming, the inaccuracy of that statement (according to our socio-linguistic cultural concepts of time and place) can be pointed out. I don't see why Holocaust records, documents, etc. can't be treated in the same light.

Moreover, many of those same historian-theorists would have problems with the claim that they can't pick and choose which narratives are "better" than others. For example, advocates of subaltern histories would probably balk at the creepy simplicity of a typical third-grade social studies textbook (and all the white-man history written into it). It's not so much that we can't pick and choose which narratives we find to be more "accurate" or "better", but that we realize we make such claims within a particular conceptual framework.

So far as I see it, the Holocaust is useful in helping us understand ourselves by reflecting on different narratives about that particular event but that certainly doesn't require us to accept all such narratives as equals. There's a great essay about this by Nigel Pleasants called "The Concept of Learning from the Study of the Holocaust." Good stuff. Five NLT mugs, for sure.

I appreciate the Pleasants reference, Matt. I can't go back and check Jenkins, since I lent my copy of RETHINKING HISTORY to a student a couple of years ago and it was never returned. However, my recollection is that Jenkins does not believe that there is any such thing as "historical accuracy," since there is no such thing as an "answer key" against which a stated "fact" can be compared.

Admittedly, I have not read a whole lot of Jenkins. My work is much more informed by Munslow, White, Ankersmit, and Jameson. But as I read that crew, the subjective context in which we construct the past destroys the idea of one great, historical meta-narrative. It does not mean that we can't apply our contextual "answer keys" (such as a temporal and/or spatial standardization) to particular claims.

The problems for White & Co. are self-deceiving meta-narratives (like a linear understanding of historical causality or cultural exceptionalism) which utilize the past to make broad, moral claims. Studying the archives won't get an historian any closer to "the truth" of the past, but evidence can most definitely be used to construct narratives which may or may not be "accurate" according to different contextual "answer keys."

But maybe I haven't read enough Jenkins. If he believes that there can be no accuracy, at any level, then I would disagree with him (and I think the aforementioned thinkers would as well).

Matt: I'm not bickering, just asking questions. Who believes that there can be one big great "meta-narrative?" Also, what do these new historical theorists think about the Straussian ideas that history might be useful to philosophy, via things like Thucydides?

Plenty of people waste air on the inaccuracies of Thucydides, but they never consider him as serious thinker, a historian-poet; Aristotle says the poet is more philosophic for dealing with the types of things that could happen, while historians are concerned with what did happen: the former deals with universals, the latter with singulars. But is it possible to combine the two, and find within the singular events of history (ie the Peloponnesian War) universals of human nature? This was also mentioned by Hobbes, BTW.

So I guess what I'm asking is this: to what extent is a meta-narrative needed? I realize Strauss isn't the end-all, but is it always impt that the 'facts' out there even are accurate? I'm not saying this in advocation of Holocaust denial, but suggesting that not all people at all times were able to say whatever the heck they wanted as if it were a free society.

Stertinius: Nobody has said on this board that there are inevitabilies, esp. when we speak of self-governance, being the fragile thing that it is.

But anyways, I am very interested in what you have to say. I think that we have gotten into this topic of absolutes mostly because we were talking about (and this started with an earlier thread) a proper reading of the Declaration of Independence. Working on such a high plane, it is easy to think of politics in terms of absolutes, but it is not as if anyone here is denying that people like Jefferson ever had any considerations political in nature that had less to do with philosophy than they did with the distribution of power and pragmatic considerations. He called himself an Epicurean for a reason.

their justifications, legitimizations, and orchestrations have been rendered untenable by a great deal of contemporary science, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, sociology, etc. It seems pretty intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge the force of those bodies of thought, but let's continue

Many of these 'bodies of thought' are only about unleashing the acquisition: for an ancient to even consider that science would ever have anything to do with human affairs would be nonsensical, because science cannot teach wisdom. These particular things, ie psychology or science, can increase power and manipulation - but never do they even begin to look at the distinction between facts and values, the two things that separate the modern and ancient philosophers.

But, detached as this discussion has been from the problem of political philosophy -- the tension between seeking truth, and the best regime -- we have only been looking at something the Founders called a "self-evident truth," that doesn't stand subject to contemporary philosophy and claims itself to be absolute. Once philosophy turned its back on itself, the game fundamentally changed. I believe it wouldn't be a stretch to say that our Founders attempted to establish some form of continuity between ancient and modern thought. But with the 'success' of modernity and ideology, it seems there is little room left for the old-school conservatives. A sad thing too, for something will be lost without us. It might just be overconfidence in the Enlightenment, but idolizing these channels of reason to such a degree while neglecting anything else human will, well, not be pleasant. Once philosophy started promoting "method" it tended to forget the moral questions that the ancients spent time with. Of course, there are weirder things to deal with today than back then, and do I think we have to deal with guys like Heidegger or Rorty? Sure I do. But in order to even understand them it would seem that one would need the basis of classical thought to inform such an understanding. And, yes: absolutism seems to be the beginning. So do we not read Socrates only because its 2009?

I will give the postmodernists credit for undermining the idea of objective "value-free" science. And if you're right, and the pomos really do believe in historical accuracy--that is, they hold that there are such things as facts, but claim that multiple interpretations based on those facts can be equally valid--then there is little to disagree with. Then again, if that's really what they believe, then they're not saying anything that E.H. Carr didn't write (in much more lucid language) over fifty years ago.

But here's the really strange thing about postmodernist history--there are an awful lot of writings about the theory of it, but darn little of it in practice. They seem so concerned with what a postmodern history might look like that they never seem to get around actually to doing it. Could it be that, if the postmodernists are right that everything is text, there's little point in writing it, and even less point in reading it? This may explain why even most academic historians--I'm not talking about popular historians, let alone conservatives--tend to shy away from postmodernism. It's something that gets taught to graduate students in the obligatory Social Theory course, treated reverently in class discussion, and then put back on the shelf to gather dust.

Years ago, Matt, I used to teach an undergraduate course called the Study of History Seminar. We focused explicitly on theory, and covered Marxism, gender, and postmodernism (among many other varieties). I'd say that about 90 percent of the students were completely lost, which is part of the reason that we eliminated the course, but you probably would've loved it. You too, T-Hag.

Dr. Moser & Matt:

Probably the most informative thread I've seen on here in my short time commenting on it. Thank you both! I only wish the threads didn't die out as soon as they got buried, so we could chat some more!

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