Newt Gingrich has gotten a lot of flak recently for aggressively promoting his vision of a permanent U.S. base on the moon, populated by a sufficient number of citizens to make it America’s 51st state. Politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle seemed to find the idea more loony than lunar.
Republicans lamented the high costs such a big government program would inevitably entail, arguing that Leviathan had grown large enough on Earth without spreading its nefarious tentacles into outer space.
Mitt Romney, ever the cost-cutting businessman, snorted that, “If I had a business executive come to me and say, ‘I wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon,’ I’d say, ‘You’re fired.’” A satellite radio ad by the Santorum campaign called Gingrich’s moon base idea “fiscal insanity” and “another reason true conservatives are uniting behind Rick Santorum.” In a separate op-ed, Mr. Santorum again appealed to the Tea Party shibboleth of fiscal austerity, declaring, “It’s hard to take the Speaker seriously as a fiscal conservative when he puts these extravagant expensive ideas over the economic well-being of the next generation.”
Liberals, wary about the diversion of valuable federal funds away from the fraying threads of the social safety net, also took pains to ensure that Mr. Gingrich’s scheme never leaves the launch pad. In the New York Times, Charles Blow lambasted the former Speaker’s plan to launch billions of dollars into space at the expense of much-needed social programs here at home, calling Gingrich a “virtual supernova of megalomaniacal madness.” Mr. Blow spoke for many space-skeptical liberals when he opined that “the last thing that people who can’t hold on to their jobs and houses here on Earth want to hear about is a colony on the Moon…Earth to Newt: phone home.”
But I’m with Mr. Gingrich on this one. A collective, national venture of grandiose ambition, in which we accomplish something great together, may be exactly what this country needs right now.
Everywhere one looks, especially this campaign season, one sees an America riven by partisan bickering, squabbling viciously over entitlement cuts and tax reform and furiously dividing and subdividing itself into percentage points and classes. We fight over, in the parlance of political science, “who gets what, when and how.”
But lost in all this is any sense of collective purpose — a sense that the country can accomplish great things through the sustained application of determined national will.
In some regard, this is simply a loss of faith conditioned by time and wearying experience. For the last half-century, nearly all of America’s great national projects have concerned either guns and ammo — wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan — or exhausting, enervating battles of another sort in programs like Lyndon Johnson’s failed War on Poverty.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. National pride can be harnessed for good, as it was with the interstate highway system, the Peace Corps and the planting of an American flag on the moon.
As early as June 1978, when he delivered his now-famous commencement speech at Harvard, Soviet dissident and writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn diagnosed the fundamental problems of the West as hyper-individualism, a paralyzing narrowness of vision and the decline and fall of “civil courage” — the willingness of individuals to sacrifice for the greater good. By persistent recourse to an uninspired legalism, he declared, Americans had precluded the opportunity to “urge self-restraint, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd.” He concluded with a passage that sounds as if it could have easily come directly from a description of the Gingrich space campaign:
“A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him, parliament and the press keep rebuffing him…Actually an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, dozens of traps will be set out for him. Thus mediocrity triumphs with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.”
As mercurial, unstable, lecherous and wholly unfit for the presidency as Mr. Gingrich may be, I admire him for his unparalleled courage to dream and dare, to think big and to transcend the confines of “mediocrity…with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.” America could use a symbolic victory to unite us behind something constructive — to be confident, as we once were, that this country can get something done besides drop bombs and squabble.
I look forward to the day when America regains its “civil courage” — the audacity to reach literally for the stars and to individually sacrifice for the achievement of something we do together.
Dream big anytime by emailing Miles at milesu1 “at” stanford “dot” edu.