When reading James Lileks, I often picture him at a fireworks display - head decisively angled up, lost in wonder and lofty dreams, above the rest of us as we sweat and complain about the heat. The trick is to watch his eyes; if you're careful, you can see them shift from side to side as he makes sure that everyone is watching him and is suitably impressed.
High rhetoric that appeals to our grandest conception of ourselves, couched in the language of folksy wisdom, is something that James has become very good at. Good enough that he can, with what would look like justification if you held it cocked at the right angle, characterize the hoots of his critics as merely the result of cynicism and base nature.
Which isn't such a bad thing, as far as it goes; high rhetoric stirs the blood and temporarily lays a template of purpose -- or at least nobility -- over the seemingly haphazard experiences of our lives. There's a reason people still read Shakespeare, and it isn't a love of Elizabethan dress.
But as the Greeks realized, rhetoric is a tool, not an indication of correctness. Show me someone who thinks differently -- who thinks that grand vision and skillful use of language are innately good -- and I'll show you someone who has never read Mein Kampf.
Rhetoric must sometimes be shot down in order for the truth to be discovered, and the best tool for that purpose is cynicism.
When dealing with politics, cynicism is absolutely essential - politics, after all, is about deciding where money is going to come from, and where it's going to go to. Thus, the eternal question of the cynic ("What's in it for me and what's it gonna cost?") is, in many cases, exactly what needs to be asked.
But politics, from time to time, can also be about something greater, about banding together for some common purpose.
As in most things, some sort of balance between the two extremes is necessary. Too much cynicism, and you become paranoid or disgusted or both, and more likely than not you drop out of the public discussion. Too much idealism, on the other hand, can blind you to reality.
Where, then, does one draw the line?
Since childhood, I have been fascinated with space. From science fiction shows and books as a kid, to reading about the real thing as a bigger kid, to learning about the details behind the space program as a teenager, to reading about the geopolitical background of the space race as a college student - fascinated. As someone who takes incredible pride in the achievement we made both as a country and as a species on July 20, 1969, I can say without reservation that I am in favor of a manned mission to Mars.
When you read both science fiction and science fact, it is impossible to not fluctuate between "We can probably do that" and "We won't ever be able to do that."
But if you're like me, as you watch technology progress even in your own lifetime, everytime you finish one of those cycles, you end up a little more optimistic.
Putting a man on Mars would be an enormous step in the direction of "We will do that."
On the timeline of human exploration, Mars is next. We will get there someday, and I'd prefer that day be sooner rather than later.
That is why the Bush administration's recent announcement of a mission to the moon and then to Mars enrages me.
One could reasonably ask why, if I am so proud of John F. Kennedy's challenge and the eventual fulfillment thereof, do I not approve of George Bush's even more daunting charge? The answer is deceptively simple: Bush shared his plan 11 months before an election; Kennedy shared his four months after his inauguration.
The dream of space and new frontiers, then, is relegated to the status of Bush's Crawford ranch. Both are campaign props -- one to make him appear a brush-clearing common man, the other to make him appear a visionary -- and both should incense those who possess the real thing.
Those who remain unconvinced of the deep dishonesty of this proposal need only look at the proposed funding for the program - $12 billion over five years, a laughably low sum for a project of this magnitude. If the President was serious about a project that people knowledgable about such things lowball at $500 billion, he would do what Kennedy did - immediately start pressuring Congress for the money and talking about where it's going to come from. The real money, not a few billion dollars here and there.
But he isn't, and so he won't. Given the massive deficits created during his Presidency, Moon/Mars (I refuse to refer to this proposal by its official name, "Kennedy II" - I find the association offensive) is the equivalent of losing your job and telling your wife you're going to take her to Paris so she won't leave you. Not actually taking her, mind you, but telling her you will.
Lileks says that Moon/Mars is not a zero-sum game - that by embarking on this journey, we aren't necessarily passing up the chance to heal spinal cord injuries or somesuch.
He's right. Political promises aren't a zero-sum game. One can crank out brave and noble proposals all day long without consequence. Hey, what say we get rid of poverty? (Hooray!) How about we wipe out illegal drugs? (Hooray!) And rid ourselves of all disease! (Hooray!)
But accounting is a zero-sum game, and pretty words don't pay for solid rocket boosters or heat shielding tiles. A project this large cannot be sustained without gargantuan amounts of money, money that has to come from somewhere. As we're running a deficit, it has to come at the expense of something else, either now or in the future. Does the President want to go to the moon badly enough to repeal any of his tax cuts? No. Does he want to go to the moon badly enough to cut entitlement programs? No. Does he want to go to the moon badly enough to cut education funding? No. Does he want to go to the moon badly enough to cut the defense budget? No.
Actually, I shouldn't put words into the President's mouth - maybe he does want to re-instate the estate tax, gut Medicare, slash education funding, and reduce the Pentagon's budget. I myself believe he (or the ideological warriors to whom he is beholden) ultimately wants to do the middle two.
But he won't say it. He will not go in front of the American people and tell them that they can choose -- that in the end, they have to choose -- Moon/Mars or tax cuts, Moon/Mars or Medicare, Moon/Mars or education, or Moon/Mars or defense. He won't say any of those things, because he knows what the answer would be.
Instead, he talks about Moon/Mars the way he talked in 2000 about the budget surplus - as though it can exist without fiscal discipline and the sacrifice of something we want.
James Lileks should ask himself what happened to those surpluses - and "trifecta" is not a valid answer.
What should be a noble endeavor, one that can indeed inspire us and push us forward, has been immeasurably cheapened by this bit of political theater, and any supporter of the President who secretly dreams of mankind going out into the unknown should feel betrayed.
In the end, I understand and agree with Lileks' point of view - something you won't hear me say very often. It would be a great feeling to know we were finally going back out there. Would, that is, if I for one minute thought that that was the President's actual intent. But it is supremely obvious that this is not a serious proposal. It is instead a bit of rhetorical ammunition tossed to his allies for use against his enemies. And why not? The propaganda practically writes itself. With Moon/Mars, people like Lileks can take a break from calling Democrats appeasers and traitors in order to call them bean-counting Luddites and spoilsports.
But opposition to Moon/Mars is, at its core, neither a struggle against progress nor an attempt at playing budget cop. It is instead a refusal to be deceived when a man who wants something from us shouts, "Hey! Look over there!"
I, too, like to look at the stars, James; but if someone tries to pick my pocket while I'm doing it, they're getting their jaw broke.
And that, I think, is the proper balance.