One day he calls us to the moon and on to Mars. "We may discover resources on the moon or Mars that will test our limits to dream," he says. The next day he lays a wreath at the grave of our most famous dreamer, Martin Luther King, Jr. That's George W., master of the symbolic gesture.
Dr. King would have understood. He knew a thing or two about symbolism.
And the symbol he used better than any other was the word "America." His
dream was a dream for all Americans, a future all of us could share.
He never asked white Americans to change our own dreams or values or vision of what our nation should be. He asked us only to live up to our own ideals and be what we claimed to be: the land of the free, where every person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What could be more 100% apple-pie American than that?
Dr. King summed up his dream in the unforgettable image of black and white children joining hands to proclaim the essential American ideal -- freedom -- in the words of an old "Negro" spiritual: "Thank God Almighty, we are free at last." If you whites want to be what you claim to be, he said, you'll have to hold blacks' hands and use words that blacks invented. That is pure genius. As a master of symbolism, he was second to none.
But Dr. King was also a very practical political leader. He had his own thoughts about space travel. "If our nation can spend 35 billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and 20 billion dollars a year to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth."
That was not just fancy rhetoric. In the same speech, in 1967, he called for the government to provide every American a guaranteed annual income. And he backed it up with hard-headed economics. Poverty is caused by "dislocations in market operations and the prevalence of discrimination," he explained. If we want prosperity for ourselves, all our people "must be made consumers."
"The poor transformed into purchasers" would be free to get better housing and education, because they'd be able to pay for it. The multiplier effect would bring that money back to the rest of us in higher incomes. The costs we all share to pay the price of slums and illiteracy would fall. And he cited economist John Kenneth Galbraith's estimate of the annual cost of a guaranteed income: exactly the annual cost of the U.S. mission to the moon.
If Dr. King were alive at 75, wouldn't he be asking us the same question: Do we really want to spend tens, maybe hundreds, of billions on space travel while 20% of our children are growing up in a poverty that we all pay for, one way or another? A guaranteed annual income makes as much economic sense now as it did in 1967, and far more sense than journeys to outer space.
Why isn't it happening? Perhaps because, when white Americans talk about freedom, they usually don't mean what Dr. King meant. For most whites, freedom means a fantasy of pure go-it-alone, do-it-yourself individualism. It's the freedom to get rich, and to starve. It's freedom from all limits. It's the kind of freedom we imagine our ancestors found out in America's very own version of
Never-Land: the frontier.
Now there is only one frontier left, the final frontier: space. In his speech to NASA, Bush conjured up a dream of space travel representing "the finest values of our country: daring, discipline, ingenuity and unity." He talked about Lewis and Clark, "the risk-takers and visionaries." "The desire to explore and understand is part of our character." Exploring space "lifts our national spirit," the president concluded.
He also talked about all the knowledge we would gain. But he couldn't say quite what it might be: "We'll make many technological breakthroughs. We don't know yet what those breakthroughs will be. But we can be certain they'll come."
This is the same man who said, before 9/11, "We know we have enemies. We don't know who they are. But we know they are out there." Maybe that's just a coincidence. But maybe it says a lot about why Bush thinks space travel lifts our national spirit.
The old fantasy of the frontier is not just about free rugged individuals getting free of dislocations in the market and discrimination. It's also a dream of conquering nature and the enemies who lurk behind nature's every tree and hill. The frontier myth makes sense only if there is an enemy to test yourself against, to let you show your daring, discipline, and ingenuity by giving the enemy a simple choice: surrender or die. On the frontier, it's the freedom of the civilized versus the freedom of the "savages." And the civilized have the guns to insure their victory. That sense of victory is what lifts our national spirit.
Bush thought that Iraq would be his great frontier. Now that it is turning into his creeping quagmire, he is counting on the symbol of space to make us forget Iraq, and the shrinking job pool too.
Dr. King would not want the president to get away with it. In his 1967 speech, he linked an imperialist U.S. war and economic dislocation directly to the wasteful moon mission. Today, he would remind us how all the pieces of the dismal Bushite puzzle fit together in the same way.
And he would remind us that those little black and white children did not join hands to conquer an enemy. They would not need any conquest to prove their freedom. Indeed, Dr. King knew that they, and we, would not be truly free until we realize that we have no enemies. We have only fellow travelers on this spaceship earth, who need our resources, our care, and our love to let them fulfill their dreams just as we would fulfill ours. It is the suffering of our fellow human beings that truly tests our limits to dream, dreaming of our unlimited opportunities to help alleviate their suffering. That's the final frontier.
So much of the suffering is caused or increased unnecessarily by America's urge to conquer. If conquest is the only way we can lift our national spirit, we are truly the poor of the earth. If we want the kind of freedom that Dr. King dreamed of, the kind of freedom that can let America fulfill its highest promise, we have to do it right here on earth.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. email@example.com