Friday, March 15, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 14: A Giant Leap

A Giant Leap
by Randall Auxier

There was no internet, needless to say. That gave the US government a kind of control over images that we can barely imagine today. No one fully understood the power back then. I like watching the characters in Mad Men as they gradually discover what images can do when disseminated throughout an affluent mass culture. The government seems to have had some early inklings of the power invested in these media, but not enough to keep it off television when Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses were turned on the children of Birmingham. And they failed to understand the likely effects on young people of watching a war on television, the war they would be expected to fight. They didn't understand that by 1968 Walter Cronkite was more credible than any government.

But when it came to the moon shot, the government got the memo. They knew what message they wanted to send. Here is Neil Armstrong, American pioneer. He was carefully chosen by his government to exemplify everything noble, decent, brave, brilliant, adventurous, and most of all independent in the “American spirit.” He was chosen because he knew how to keep his mouth shut, too. He managed to do that until he was near the end of his life, when he really felt he had to speak out against President Obama’s plan to privatize the space program. No one ever doubted Armstrong was a Republican, but to have the American Right criticizing the Left for privatizing a government program is ironic, to say the least. Pictured also, looming upper left, is our technological achievement, and center stage, bathed in pure white light, is the flag. It looks interestingly windblown considering the complete absence of wind on the moon--an indication of foresight more likely than fraud, I think; they must have consulted Don Draper on this point.

The space programs of the super-powers struck fear into the hearts of everyone, pretty much, but the fear was tinged with hope and awe. Apart from the military advantages that are too scary to think about, there was the race to see whether the “loyalty of free men” or “Soviet class consciousness” would prevail in this greatest of all races –the race for the meaning of freedom. Nothing in human history comes close to this contest for the meaning of freedom. That, friends and neighbors, was the giant leap. Any sensible person knows that winning or losing the space race isn’t proof that one form of government is superior to another, but there is something inexorable in the symbol above, something that cannot be reasoned away. Ecce homo. It is a fact. Either that picture would exist or a different one with a very different meaning, featuring a different flag. I don’t know how the Soviet Union would have chosen to present the moment, but I’m sure they thought about it. A lot. They might even have gotten the windblown effect, although I'm guessing not. That seems like an American touch to me.

No one disagreed with the Soviets about the meaning of freedom more profoundly than Barry Goldwater. He prophesied their downfall in his famous acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1964, saying: “I can see and I suggest that all thoughtful men must contemplate the flowering of an Atlantic civilization, the whole world of Europe unified and free, trading openly across its borders, communicating openly across the world.” That seems to have happened. But Goldwater added: “This is a goal far, far more meaningful than a moon shot.”

Hmmm. Is it?

I was a kid and too young to understand all this when it was happening, but memory is a tricky companion in the best of us. It seems to me now that the moon shot won the Cold War, not in fact but in the more important arena of hearts and minds. The rest was not easy, but the Soviet image, and hence also its social philosophy, never recovered from this picture. It is so visceral and powerful that it portends, indeed, partly causes one course of history instead of another. The moon shot was the symbol of the giant leap, but it was not the leap itself. Goldwater missed this one. I think about how much Goldwater and JFK really had in common and I don't wonder that the rest of the world cannot distinguish our Democrats from our Republicans. Goldwater criticized the war in Viet Nam that night, which had not been formally declared and hadn’t had a chance to become entrenched in the conservative mind. He blamed all of our wars on Democrats, which, up until Nixon bombed Cambodia, seems to have been supported by all of history. The story is rather different now, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s hands are clean.

Some people say that Goldwater lost the election that night and also initiated our present culture wars. Others say that Bill Moyers famous TV ad showing a little girl who is about to be vaporized by a nuclear explosion is what defeated him. Some say it was his association with segregationists. I think Crispin Sartwell makes an interesting point when he suggests that Goldwater knew the nation would not accept a third president in the space of one year. Kennedy’s assassination made it impossible for anyone but Johnson to win that election. Seeing this as the reality of things, Goldwater decided to do what he really wanted to do, which was speak his mind as fully as completely as he could.

Sartwell, an anarchist of the libertarian stripe, admits that he admires Goldwater’s “integrity,” and by this he means that we (the public) could believe that Goldwater believed what he was saying, whether we agreed with him or not. And he may have been the last politician on the national stage about whom we could feel certain of that. Somehow, after the 1964 election, things changed. Maybe the Bill Moyers ad was the turning point, the moment when the parties realized that persuading people to vote against the candidate they feared was better strategy than appealing to hopes, aspirations, or dreams of the MLK fabric.

There was an old fashioned sense of integrity: we stick with who we are, with what we know, with our own experience, learning, roots and convictions, even if it costs us friends, elections, money, or even our freedom and our lives. That idea of integrity seems completely absent from public and civic life today. It may be dying in private life too. I have been disappointed, as I have aged, at the willingness of people I thought were good to put self-interest ahead of truth, or simply to be unable to see the difference.

Today, integrity seems to be defined by the fear that we will be “called out” about who we really are, that the world may learn the truth about us. Integrity today only means that our enemies can’t dig up any dirt on us and the stuff they fabricate doesn’t stick. No one seems to believe that anyone would hold to truth if it means great sacrifice. But the fear of being “called out” is a pretty flimsy line of defense for one’s character. If we are morally decent because we fear the censure of others, can anyone’s character survive the fickleness of collective emotion? Most of all, whose character can hold up when mass fear is driving opinion? If anyone can hold firm, it won’t be due to the new-fangled sort of integrity. I want to look next at the issue of civil rights from this pivotal moment in US history. So much of what we face today was set in motion between October of 1962 and November of 1964.

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