Back in 1939, a fearful year when history’s deadliest war began, famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov published a short story envisioning a future spaceflight that would orbit the moon and return its crew safely to Earth. Asimov imagined the far-fetched voyage taking place just four decades later, in 1978.
The fanciful futurist was too cautious. It was exactly 50 years ago this week — at Christmas, 1968 — when human beings first blasted themselves free from their planet’s gravity and circled another world.
Prelude to the better-remembered lunar landing the following summer, the yuletide journey of Apollo 8 may have made a bigger impression at the time. It certainly did, as I’ve noted before, on a certain 16-year-old.
Some of it was the moment. All this year we have been commemorating 50-year anniversaries of historic 1968 events. And often they were disheartening events — from the bloody Tet Offensive in Vietnam, to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, to deadly riots in cities across America and violent chaos in the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic National Convention, and much more.
America by the end of 1968 was frightened, angry, bewildered, divided — much as it is today, probably worse.
And, yet, there were differences.
One contrast was that, while the self-doubt that plagues America to this day had first seemed to seize the culture in the 1960s, the country then still felt a kind of hangover of self-confidence, a sense of what Franklin Roosevelt had called a “rendezvous with destiny.” Americans chose to do things like going to the moon, John Kennedy had declared in 1962, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
America today is in many ways a better, more just, more tolerant nation than it was half a century ago. But there really was something “great” about America back then that one wishes we could have “again” — a greatness of heart and spirit and daring.
Another difference in those days, dramatized by Apollo 8, was a comparatively open, innocent, unembarrassed public religiosity through which a kid was frequently reminded (sometimes warned, sometimes nagged) about an even greater greatness at the very bottom of things.
On Dec. 24, 1968, three astronauts orbiting the moon beamed a grainy Christmas Eve television broadcast back to a weary world, saying “the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to … all of you on the good earth.” They took turns reading the creation story from the first 10 chapters of Genesis.
Naturally, even then, a lawsuit followed from scandalized atheists. It was America, after all. But the litigation went nowhere.
The essential message of Apollo 8 was pretty much the enduring message of Christmas — that despite what is always a world of trouble, there remain things to believe in.
The world needs something to believe in these days, too — maybe more than ever. Large practical problems abound. Fierce disputes rage over social policies and economic theories and political philosophies. But the tumult and discontent that have spread across continents under the diagnosis of “populism,” or “nationalism” or “xenophobia,” reflect in some ways and some degree a hunger for something less tangible, for meaning, belonging, identity and a cause beyond one’s self.
It can be a dangerous yearning, as the world has long since learned. But today’s twin crises afflicting modern conservatism’s market-driven globalization and modern progressivism’s inclusive internationalism suggest that today’s leaders need to find better ways of touching the hearts and spirits of their peoples.
French President Emmanuel Macron came close to at least identifying the problem only six weeks ago, not long before street protests in Paris and elsewhere (the worst unrest in France, it’s said, since … 1968) swept his presidency into what he has labeled the “malaise” of our time. Amid Trumpism in America, Brexit chaos in Britain and the rise of anti-immigration anger far and wide, Macron had become the dashing cosmopolitan paladin of enlightened liberal multinationalism when the populist wave overtook him, too.
Speaking on Nov. 11 to commemorate another profound anniversary, the centenary of the First World War armistice in 1918, Macron had lashed out at the resurfacing of “old demons,” saying “patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism.” He saluted the vision of “France as a project … carrying universal values.”
Grand philosophies on the march truly are among the historic glories of France. But do people even there really give their all, their lives, only for “universal values” — or do they find more meaning in, and sacrifice everything more willingly for, their native land, their people, their way of life?
Early 20th century British journalist and philosopher G.K. Chesterton wrote and puzzled extensively over the problem of patriotism vs. nationalism. He faulted advocates of British imperialism for being unpatriotic in that they “loved England because she is strong, not because she is England.”
Chesterton also disdained the kind of one-world internationalist who claims to love humanity while despising so human a passion as “local preference” — special devotion to one’s own.
Chesterton argued that the world will never defeat nationalism of the wrong kind by denigrating patriotism of the right kind. We will, never, he wrote, kindle “mutual love among nations” by “insulting every nation” — by “telling the English that Nelson is all nonsense, or the Scots that Wallace is a myth, or the French that Joan of Arc is dead and done for, or the Americans that Bunker’s Hill is not worth bothering about.”
It’s like “insulting a man in order to make him more friendly,” Chesterton wrote.
Patriotism of the right kind is a little like the way most of us love our dogs. I don’t love my dog because I believe he is the best and most beautiful dog in the world. I love him because he’s mine. My devotion to him is no more rational than his devotion to me. That’s what makes it indestructible.
And that is why I don’t have to dislike your dog to cherish my hound completely. Those who truly love one dog hardly ever meet a dog they don’t approve of. So it is with sound patriots and “mutual love among nations.”
There are no easy balancing solutions on trade or immigration, or between shouldering world leadership as opposed to focusing on domestic concerns. But part of the unsettling mystery of Trumpism and all the world’s other nationalist stirrings is the way, not least on such issues, a reckless new breed of leaders tap deep and neglected wells of meaning and feeling.
Leaders with better intentions must learn to do the same.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.