This has been an unusually depressing election campaign, even by recent American standards. The overwhelming emotion among our political classes and pundits appears to be bitterness, laced with weary fake-outrage. There's been almost no attempt at even feigning optimism. No "Morning in America." Hardly any sign of that happy can-do spirit.
Are we just finally succumbing to fatal levels of angst? Do Americans just not believe in a bright future any more? And what would it take for the United States to feel cheery again?
Top image: Abandoned power plant in Maryland, photo by Studio Tempura on Flickr.
Google the phrase "American malaise" and you'll see plenty of pretty recent instances. A lot of this has to do with our ongoing econom-ick. But not all — there's also just a sense that America is no longer in a position of leadership. And a lot of this has to do with our declining position in science and technology. Writing back in 2010, Mort Zuckerman said:
Even the wealthiest and most highly educated are anxious at the decline of America's competitiveness. We seem unable to produce new generations of qualified leaders in the fields of science and technology. Our government has been incapable of addressing the nation's problems rationally and constructively. We are haunted that the world is catching up with America; the sense of uniqueness and self-esteem that has been a part of our national character since our founding-and has been amplified since World War II-is steadily eroding.
And that still seems to be a fair summary of at least some of what underlies our national feeling of bleh. In his convention speech, Mitt Romney even mentioned the Moon landing, saying that when he was young, "To be an American was to assume that all things were possible. When President Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the Moon, the question wasn't whether we'd get there, it was only when we'd get there." Although Romney went on to insist that Neil Armstrong spirit is still alive, there was still a lot of wistfulness in those long past-tense paragraphs. Obama, meanwhile, derided the whole notion of "blind optimism," as the antithesis of informed hope.
And yet, we do live in an age of wonders. As Warren Ellis points out in a recent speech called "How to See the Future," you're living with technological wonders:
We hold up iPhones and, if we're relatively conscious of history, we point out that this is an amazing device that contains a live map of the world and the biggest libraries imaginable and that it's an absolute paradigm shift in personal communication and empowerment... If I were sitting next to you twenty-five years ago, and you heard a phone ring, and I took out a bar of glass and said, sorry, my phone just told me it's got new video of a solar flare, you'd have me sectioned in a flash.
The only reason we don't see the insanely futuristic nature of our world is because of "manufactured normalcy," our tendency to believe we're in "a static and dull continuous present." Photo by Martin Abegglen/Flickr.
And there's no denying it: Our technology has improved by leaps and bounds, both in the sense of gadgets and in our ability to treat the most horrific diseases. So why don't we feel more optimistic, when even greater technological breakthroughs maybe just on the horizon? Maybe it's because Americans are hardwired to think of optimism, not in terms of shiny toys, but in terms of exploring new physical territories.
Which is why the Space Age was more optimistic than the Internet Age.
Star Trek might be the most famous burst of Kennedy-esque optimism about space travel ever created. And at the start of every Star Trek: TOS (and TNG) episode, the Captain of the Enterprise intones the words, "Space: the final frontier." What does that even mean? A frontier is a boundary between two countries, like between France and Belgium, or maybe an outer region that's still being settled. Calling space a "frontier" seems to imply that there's something on the other side of space.
But when Captain Kirk calls space a "frontier," he's actually referring to America's myth of The Frontier. Our cherished legend about our Westward expansion, when people swarmed across the prairies in wagon trains. Captain Kirk wasn't alone in describing space exploration in terms of the Frontier — former astronaut John Glenn used the F-word in a famous 1983 speech as well. And as Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy note in their book Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution and Interplanetary Travel:
Quintessential American novelist James A. Michener employed the frontier analogy in two articles written for Omni magazine in the early 1980s.... he explicitly compared the NASA space program to the westward movement in America during the ninteenth century. He praised the American sense of pioneering and argued that the next such challenge was in space. "A nation that loses its forward thrust is in danger," he warned; "the way to retain it is in exploration."
As much as the Pilgrims and the Revolution, that Westward migration is a key part of American's foundational myth, and it feeds our self-image as rugged, self-reliant individualists who go where there's nobody to watch over us or tell us what to do. And yes, the myth has some problematic aspects to it, especially that whole Manifest Destiny thing with its "yay white people" and "fuck yeah genocide" aspects.
But the Frontier and the Western exploration are intimately linked with scientific progress in the American mythos. In one of the most important speeches about America's heritage in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that "to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics," including "inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things," and of course individualism. The Frontier, we're told, made us inventors.
The trouble with Westward expansion is eventually you hit an ocean. The West becomes the land of Beverly Hills Nannies and Portland zinesters, not rugged individualists. (The Portland zinesters might be individualists, but we'll leave it to you to decide whether they're rugged.) Maybe Americans just can't get that excited about progress, unless it plays into that narrative, of exploration and expansion. We want to seek out strange new worlds and new civilizations. We want to boldly go, not boldly carry around the latest widget.
Now we come to the hard part — the pundit-izing.
There are actually all sorts of reasons why Americans no longer feel as optimistic about technological progress (or life in general), including 1) the decreasing availability of cheap energy sources, 2) the rising environmental costs of progress, and 3) the fact that the rise of high-tech warfare has coincided with the increasing tendency of our victories to be Pyrrhic. (The fact that I'm posting this on 9/11 is purely a coincidence, by the way — but it may be an apt one.)
But the lack of a new "Frontier" definitely seems to be a part of the problem. And we can't just deal with it by declaring something to be a frontier, like "frontiers in medicine" or "frontiers in cellphone gaming." So here are a few completely half-baked suggestions:
1) Find a way to create a virtual frontier
Thus far, the internet has allowed us to explore — but we've mostly been exploring ourselves. We've been making connections with other people and finding out stuff we'd never have learned otherwise, too — but a lot of the time the internet feels as though it's extending our person-hood outwards, into a virtual realm. There hasn't yet been a virtual world that you could feel rugged or pioneering while exploring. (Sorry, Second Life.)
How far off are we from having a cyber-y environment that is real enough, and maybe scary enough, to make us feel like we're bravely stepping into new, unexplored territory? Maybe a decade or two?
2) Get our asses to Mars, or to the asteroid belt
It may well be the case, as everybody suggests, that sending robots into space is more scientifically valuable than sending more of us overgrown monkeys. But there's no substitute for the visual of a human stepping on another rock, unimaginable miles from our own. And Mars offers plenty of great visuals. Returning to that great Warren Ellis speech:
The Olympus Mons mountain on Mars is so tall and yet so gently sloped that, were you suited and supplied correctly, ascending it would allow you to walk most of the way to space. Mars has a big, puffy atmosphere, taller than ours, but there's barely anything to it at that level. 30 Pascals of pressure, which is what we get in an industrial vacuum furnace here on Earth. You may as well be in space. Imagine that. Imagine a world where you could quite literally walk to space.
But also, if it actually turns out we could mine the asteroid belt as James Cameron and others seem to believe, that would be a hell of a prospecting mission for us to watch.
3) Come up with a brand new narrative
This is the hardest one, and would require a brand new Frederick Jackson Turner, and probably a brand new Kennedy as well. There's no shortage of great stories about Americans using our ingenuity and determination to make something happen, that aren't about going to a new physical location: We broke Europe and then rebuilt it again! We cured the shit out of Polio! We invented the tentpole movie! And so on. You'd just have to be able to find a story of American triumph that people can invest in, the way they invest in the frontier, that can be sold as a template for future greatness. And find a way to spin it into a story about individualism even though — like Americans on the frontier — these are almost never stories about somebody doing something alone. Any ideas?