More on American exceptionalism



In my continuing exploration of the ideology of American exceptionalism as it’s embedded in U.S. space exploration rhetoric, and following on my last blog post of 2013, I’ve just re-read the late, great Seymour Martin Lipset’s 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. I recommend it.

“The United States is a country organized around an ideology which includes a set of dogmas about the nature of a good society. Americanism…is an ideology in the same way that communism or fascism or liberalism are isms,” Lipset wrote. “The nation’s ideology can be described in five words: “liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” Lipset explained how this belief system shaped, and continues to shape, our nation’s organizing principles and political institutions. And he observed that the only way to understand our own organizing principles and political institutions is to examine it in comparison with the organizing principles and political institutions of other nations. With the exception of the former Soviet Union, “other countries define themselves by a common history as birthright communities, not by ideology.”

I’ll take a crack at describing the two edges of the “sword” of American exceptionalism as I see them. The bright-and-shiny edge is about freedom and opportunity. It’s about being a leader and setting a good example to the world. The dark-and-jagged edge is about U.S. global dominance – being “the world’s only superpower” in the military, economic, technological and, of course, aerospace arenas, being the leader. It’s about promoting capitalism and development, whenever and wherever possible, according to the principle that those who get there first get the most.

I kept thinking as I leafed through Lipset’s book that, on the surface, American exceptionalism as it appears in space exploration rhetoric looks bright and shiny – it’s about the U.S. leading in space exploration for the benefit of humankind. Beneath that shiny surface, though, is the economic neoliberal/libertarian ideology embedded in space exploration rhetoric. I’ve written about this ideology before – for example, in this post. This ideology embraces space as a wide-open frontier, open to exploitation and colonization, ripe for “commercialization” unfettered by government oversight. (My most popular blog post of last year took yet another look at the ever-dangerous frontier metaphor.)

And now the Obama administration is promoting the idea of corporate asteroid mining promoting the idea of corporate asteroid mining. Yikes.

What the rest of the world calls liberalism, “Americans refer to as ‘conservatism’: a deeply anti-statist doctrine emphasizing the virtues of laissez-faire,” Lipset explained. The late economist Milton Friedman, an inspiration to the Reagan administration, was a leading ideologue of 20th century American “liberalism.” This ideology inspires today’s economic neoliberals and their more extreme libertarian cousins.

For a taste of this thinking, see Friedman’s 1970 piece in The New York Times Magazine, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Friedman, author of Capitalism and Freedom, among other things, dismissed the idea that businesses have any responsibilities other than making money. “In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible…. The doctrine of ‘social responsibility’ involves the acceptance of the socialist view that political mechanisms, not market mechanisms, are the appropriate way to determine the allocation of scarce resources to alternative uses.”

Let “the market” run our lives? I don’t like it, one bit.

And now we have so-called asteroid mining companies claiming they’re going to exploit the alleged material wealth of our solar system for the benefit of humankind as well as for profit. I don’t buy it. (Meanwhile, Planetary Resources has hired Gephart Group Government Affairs – former congressman Dick Gephart’s D.C. firm – to lobby for it.)

As I’ve said before, I’m dismayed by the Obama administration’s uncritical embrace of this libertarian-style thinking about space exploration and development, so-called commercial space flight and all.

At last year’s Goddard Symposium, sponsored by the American Astronautical Society, John Olson, then a senior staffer with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, offered “White House…perspectives” on “national space policies and priorities for prosperity, progress, and protection.” The aim, he reported, is “bringing space into Earth’s economic sphere.” (This message was delivered to previous Goddard symposia at least twice by George W. Bush’s White House Science Adviser John Marburger.) It is a national space policy goal, according to Olson, to “energize competitive domestic industries.” It is a policy principle to enable a “robust and competitive commercial space sector.” And, of course, “leadership in space is a national priority.”

In an October 2013 speech to the Eisenhower Institute of Gettysburg College, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden once again described the U.S. as “the world’s leader in exploration…. [T]o the rest of the world…NASA and our nation’s aerospace community are doing incredible, unbelievable things. I am happy to be part of this field and to lead the world’s strongest space agency… We are absolutely following both the spirit and the letter of the Space Act…to benefit our nation, to make the most use of our emerging capabilities and develop new ones, in short to create a new world.”

Back to Lipset: he noted that exceptional “does not mean better.”

I wish that this administration – and the aerospace industry it supports – would rethink and at least turn down the volume on this old rhetoric. At a time when the U.S. needs to be building sustainable partnerships with other nations in order to continue exploring space, “USA, #1” is not an especially useful opener to productive conversations.







2 Responses to “More on American exceptionalism”

  1. Karl Hallowell Says:

    “Let ‘the market’ run our lives?”

    You should write instead “Let ‘the market’ enable us to run our own lives?” The point of a market is to enable useful actions, via trade, not to “run lives”. That is reflected in that most market activity is voluntary. Sure, there are involuntarily imposed issues, such as externalities (like pollution), but these are routinely dealt with in real world markets.

    I gather a common thinking about markets is that they’re forcing us to do things because we need stuff. But in that case, would it really be better to need something which you can’t obtain because no market exists to provide it to you?

    Moving on, it’s nice that Obama wants to promote commercial asteroid mining. My issue with this is not that asteroid mining for profit is somehow bad. It’s not. But rather than spending public funds on this sort of thing, especially by NASA, has a rather poor return on investment (especially given that this activity probably is still in the Power Point stage).
    “At a time when the U.S. needs to be building sustainable partnerships with other nations in order to continue exploring space, “USA, #1” is not an especially useful opener to productive conversations.”

    Finally, I think international “sustainable” partnerships are a red herring. They can work and they can also fail hard. I’d say that CERN and the ISS are examples of each. But there are other ways to do activities in space. Private enterprise is a huge way.

  2. More on manifest destiny | doctorlinda Says:

    […] of our future in space”, October 8, 2014; “More on American exceptionalism” – “More on American exceptionalism”, February 13, 2014; and “Private property rights in space: still a bad idea”, November […]

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