Friday, June 1, 2007

Barack Obama, Mars and the idea of West

Barack Obama's family history may seem plucked from a cycle on the It's A Small World ride--his mother, born in Hawaii to a pair of restless Kansanans; his father, yo-yoing between America and his native Kenya--but it is just one more retelling of the classic American frontier story, argues Larissa MacFarquhar in a profile of the presidential hopeful for the New Yorker.

Of Obama's maternal grandfather, she writes,

After a few false stars and eloping with a restless girl, he did what men of his type iconically do: he moved west. He moved to California, then to Seattle, and then, finally to the last frontier, as far west as he could go without ending up east again, to Hawaii.

How did it all turn out? As Obama points out in his memoir, his grandfather ended up physically distant from Kansas but psychically just where he started. His traveled paid off only in chronic disappointment.

Writes MacFarquhar,

Innocence, freedom, individualism, mobility--the belief that you can leave a constricting or violent history behind and remake yourself in a new form of your choosing--all are part of the American dream of moving west....But this dream, to Obama, seems...a destructive craving for weightlessness.

Some would argue that our drive to go to space--to open the new west, the new frontier--is just the next natural step in our cultural restlessness, and that it will be a similar letdown: That once we get to Mars, the Moon, wherever, we'll find what Obama's grandfather found--we can change our surroundings, but we can't change ourselves.

I like to think that this isn't the case--that new places, new discoveries, and the process of exploration itself can be transformational. Whether this hunch is enough to justify sending humans out into the solar system--well, scientists and their administrators have always been hesitant to justify their work in such abstract terms. Stephen Hawking, the newest initiate into zero-G, argues that we need off-Earth colonies to ensure the survival of the species. Few others in the scientific establishment would take quite that tack--they'd point to technological spinoffs, economic benefits, international competitiveness, that sort of thing.

And as for Obama: One might ask whether, if it weren't for his family's history of restlessness, we would have ever arrived where he is today. Perhaps you need to experience motion to know the value of staying put.

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