Joseph Cotto, 7/8/2014 [Archive]

America Suddenly Dreaming Small

By Joseph Cotto

Another Fourth of July has come and gone. Now that the fireworks have ended and the barbecue is long gone, what remains of the holiday? For most, the answer is probably "not much".

That's a pity for all of us.

This year, as with every year, we should pay less mind to theatricals and focus on what really matters: The once and future America.

One story not only illustrates the heights our country's aspirations have soared, it also points out how far short we've fallen of meeting them.

For millions of Americans, Neil Armstrong personified a grand, yet tantalizingly possible dream: the exploration and settlement of outer space.

When he set foot on the moon in 1969, the first man in history to do so, we were on the threshold of a new frontier, a new age of exploration. The United States had indisputably won the space race, and nothing stood in its way of reaching for the stars.

If the average person were asked then whether this country would have a lunar colony — and perhaps even a profitable space tourism industry — by 2014, the answer would have been an emphatic "yes."

If only this were in the cards.

Armstrong's death, which happened almost two years ago, was a tremendous loss for our nation. Not only was he a brave and modest man, he was a symbol of American ingenuity, technological competence, and that fabled brand of all-American optimism.

At the time of the moon landing, the United States was caught in an era of social and political strife. Despite this, we were unified in that brief, triumphant moment when Armstrong took his "one small step."

Could the nation unite that way today? Could we pull off such a bravura feat of bravery, ingenuity, and unbridled self-confidence? Could a huge technological challenge and the spirit of adventure combine to capture the national imagination as Apollo did?

Apparently not.

We dissolved the shuttle fleet with barely any notice, and the elimination of funding for a Mars mission from NASA's budget was met with a collective yawn. Manned space exploration has lost its grip on the national imagination, replaced by — nothing.

Immensely sad as this is, it is well in tune with modern society's tendency to champion mediocrity. Since we live in an age of picking up rocks from the ground rather than reaching for the stars, what else can be expected?

Despite the strife of the 1960s, America was a nation on the move. It boasted public intellectuals such as William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, leaders who dreamed big like Nelson Rockefeller and Eugene McCarthy, and more importantly, a citizenry with soaring hopes and confidence in the future.

Today, America is a country on the move, but its movement is downhill, and at an alarming speed.

We've traded Buckley and Vidal for Rush Limbaugh and Ed Shultz. Ted Cruz and Debbie Wasserman Schultz squabble where titans like LBJ, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon once battled for a nation's soul with huge ideas. Worst of all, the American people are too tired or radicalized to care about the bigger picture. We no longer care about ideas and policies; we care only about partisan politics.

Like our pundits and politicians, we argue over the tactics of our decline rather than strategize for a better future.

The Greatest Generation, of which Neil Armstrong was such a glorious exemplar, remains a societal phenomenon without parallel. Succeeding generations have been unworthy heirs of the former's accomplishments. Indeed, these have preferred to devour what was left to them and treat it as spoils, rather than a cherished legacy to build on.

Maybe there's still time for our past achievements to serve as a blueprint for building a brighter tomorrow.

——-

Copyright 2014 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at joseph.f.cotto@gmail.com.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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