It was bittersweet to see the photos of the Space Shuttle, piggybacking on a 747, making its final landing at Dulles International Airport this week. As conflicted as I feel about the whole shuttle program, there is little doubt that this final resting place for this piece of Americana may well be more than a museum for what has passed. It could very well become the graveyard of the America we once knew.
For all its many faults, ours has not been a country that dreamed small. Even individuals and small communities saw themselves as part of a far larger, more grand movement. This continent could be made American; the land could be tilled; roads and canals and railroads would knit together its most disparate, isolated places and spaces, bringing the country together. Victorious in a war against the greatest threat western civilization ever faced, we had both the technical know-how and desire to look up and see, in the vast emptiness of the night sky, possibility, even promise.
Having reached the Moon, our eyes and ears roaming even further, going in to orbit became routine, part of the workaday practice of being America. An extension of our best sense of ourselves, the exploration of space was testimony to our willingness as a people to risk much in order to gain much. From the first, faltering colonies on the banks of the James River, this willingness to place our collective selves in the hands of Divine Providence in search of greater gain - sometimes commercial, to be sure, but also seeking a place to live out a sacred calling that differed from those around them, or just to break ground in hopes of building something one's children and grandchildren could continue to build upon - was best expressed by those earliest astronauts going out in to orbit and beyond in craft that, to our eyes, look flimsy indeed. Like the sailing ships that brought our ancestors to these shores, willingly or not, these early spacecraft are a marvel of will over ability, much as the land they founded would become.
That will has withered, however. Rather that risk, we insist that even the maintenance of the most basic parts of the links that bind us, our roads and bridges and rail lines and airports, are just too expensive to manage. Not only do we no longer look up and imagine a future, we barely look out from our homes anymore. Rather than see what we can achieve together, we elect leaders who reflect a fundamental fear that, our greatest achievements behind us, we cannot even hope to hold on to those things that bind us together.
Our politics, like so much else, has become a life in small. We seem a people no longer capable even of knowing our past, let alone learning from both the best and worst of who we have been. Arguments flare up over even the most basic realities of who we have been. These fights, proxy struggles for our identity, show us that we no longer even know who we are anymore. Struggles over race and religion, labor and ideology, demonstrate a fundamental fear among so many of us that our identity is disappearing. Even as our country grows more culturally diverse, taking in to itself more and more of the larger world, ever redefining "America" in wondrous ways, there are far too many of us who rage against any thought that who we are becoming should differ from who we once were. In the process, so much else is lost, the once proud idea that "America" is always a work in progress offering opportunity and, perhaps, real hope, dreaming big and achieving even bigger no longer even a recognizable husk.
We view one another not as fellow Americans who may well see different means toward a common end as a source for positive struggle together. Instead, those things that separate us have become unbridgeable gaps between those who are and are not true to whatever vision of America we see resulting from common work and life. No longer a helpmeet along the way to greater triumph, far too many Americans insist our public life is little more than an obstacle to achieving what we would be far better attempting on our own. This despite the many lessons from the past of the role the state can play, both for good and ill, in helping us along the way to meeting the challenges that face us.
So, even as our common life dries up and our physical infrastructure becomes increasingly abandoned to those who insist we can no longer afford to be a great nation, perhaps the greatest loss we face is the desiccation of the imagination. For all that it is true much of our current greatness was achieved over the trampled bodies of the poor and our African-American and Native American and Asian American fellows, I have long wondered why it became some kind of axiom that bringing these (and so many others) in to our common life, acknowledging the evil we have done as we invite them along as fellow Americans, is some kind of hindrance to a future where we can still dream big, and work toward a common vision of America that brings all of us along.
Why do we even have voices that insist that it is no longer possible to have or do things together as one people? Why do we not join in laughing at people who claim we can no longer afford those things that were built as a common inheritance? Why do we no longer even think it possible to look out from our cities and towns, our prairies and mountains, and see work we need to do together?
More than anything, these are the thoughts that trouble me at the moment. Led for far too long by interests that see private profit over public welfare as the only real end of our common life, we have forgotten that securing the public welfare first is the only way to ensure private profit. Along with this dream-drought, we have harbored far too many who would lie about our history, tell us we were not who we thought we were in order to insure we do not interfere with their gain at our collective expense. Our politics has become shadow play, meaningless ritual without any sense that it serves a larger purpose even as the voices within it have become more strident.
Am I, perhaps, bewailing something that never was? Is it possible that I romanticize too much over a past that never existed, ignoring the millions of victims for whom the dream of America was little more than a device insuring their destruction? Without ever once denying the point, I would insist that the sight of the space shuttle Discovery, not even landing under its own power, heading on to a future as a museum piece in a nation that insists that museums are a luxury we can no longer afford (never mind roads or schools or networks for the free flow of information) is the only evidence I need to demonstrate that, unless we demand an end to it, the voices that continue to call for an end to our common life will drive away the last of any attempt even to dream of something better for all of us tomorrow.