The Biggest Story of 2004
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/16/04
The Ozymandias Syndrome is what I call people or events that
people obsessed with the now indulge in. Basically, many believe that such &
such thing is of major import & relevance, yet even with a few years
distance things clarify. To use past examples- doesn’t the impeachment of Bill
Clinton over fellatio seem utterly silly, now? Even to those who brought the
charges against him? Not only was it a waste of money, but in light of the
current wars it makes that President’s lies pale in comparison to our current
1’s. But, let’s get a little grander. I would argue even such an event as
the Vietnam War was, retrospectively, only a minor event in world history. There
was no great stake, save some American corporations vs. crumbling Communist
edifices. Did it compare to the World Ward- or even Korea, the touchstone event
of the Cold War?
Let’s get even grander- what even of the last century do you think will be the top story of historians in 1000 years? Granted, historians often flub such things with linear Functionary mindsets vs. more probing Visionary mindsets needed for such- a good example was the incessant listmania of Y2K. I recall many lists over who was the most important person of the last eon. Inevitably, the same suspects topped the lists- William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, & Charles Darwin. Putting aside the Dead White male European biases, these lists suffered from a far worse ill- a chrono-provincialism. Import, usually determined by influence, would almost necessitate that earlier figures would more easily influence later 1s. Shakespeare would have been just another Elizabethan sonneteer without several centuries of historical drama behind him, which he refined. Freud combined medicine & philosophy- but without the Enlightenment’s greatest lights he’s just a borderline quack. Albert Einstein- hello Sir Isaac Newton. As for Thomas Edison? Perhaps the most disposable of all- there were reams of inventors before & after who worked on many of the same things. Darwin, likewise, had reams of antecedents, not to mention Alfred Russel Wallace, who actually was ahead of darwin in many respects re: evolution. To me, the biggest single influence in the last eon was Genghis Khan- the 12th Century terror.
Before him there were no indications in the 6000 year history of Gobi Desert life any of the tribes would develop a high civilization. Then, within 20 years, 1 man- Temujin (Khan’s real name)- united the warring Mongol-Turkic tribes, conquered China, founded the largest nation (by area) in human history, & fundamentally reshaped all that came after via his organizational genius & genocidal ruthlessness. Without him the Chinese Empire may not have been kowed into centuries of xenophobia, may have continued junk explorations of America & spread into the Andes & Western North America. Without his establishment of the Mongol Empire, there’d be no infrastructure for the descendant Ottoman Empire. That Empire acted as a secular bulwark against the expansion of Classical Islam into benighted Europe. Without the Ottomans Islam may have displaced the Papacy, forcing its withdrawal to Scandinavia & status as a regional Arctic cult. The ramifications are easy to discern, with just a bit more extrapolation. All would be different if 1 Mongol decided he preferred farming to horseback riding, decided to stay in his familiar valley & forsake a Khandom centuries before.
Fortunately, for every rare Temujin there are 999 replaceable Edisons. Through a similar lens, let me give you the biggest story of the last century, & arguably, in human history. It was Neil Armstrong’s Apollo landing on the moon. Yes, we’ve seen wars before, & great inventions. The Cuban Missile Crisis was close, but no cigar. While the Internet is a major development, is it not merely the Gutenberg Press of this era? Medicine & the human genome decoding are big events, but merely the apex of millennial research. The landing on the moon was the big leap out of our ocean. Indeed, on a planetary scale, it has to rank with the simian descent from the trees, the 7 Great Extinctions, the sojourn of life onto land, the start of life, & the formation of Earth, itself.
So, accepting my premise for taking the long view, what news event of this year will be granted top dog status in a few decades, a century, or even during the listmania of Y3K? The Presidential race? Please, neither Bush nor Kerry are large figures. Whoever wins, can anyone imagine them to be an FDR, Lincoln, or Washington? How about the wars? Am I the only person who chuckles over the specious comparisons of Al Quaida to the Soviets or Nazis as global threats. They’re more like a religious Mafia, & should be treated that way. They’re last gasps of fanaticism in the Moslem world that resents being dragged into the modern West’s McWorld. It’ll take a few decades, but younger Moslems will see the futility of the struggle, like the youth in Iran who, less than a quarter-century after the imposition of a theocracy, resent & openly rebel against their masters. The Moslem youth yet born will lust for Western movie starlets, desire lives of modern leisure, sneer at elders who pretend solace is in books of myth, dank caves. 9/11 wasn’t a declaration of war on the West, but a paroxysmic admission of defeat. No, they’re fleas on the global history elephant- look how quickly most Americans accepted & shrugged off 9/11. Let’s try a more global view- perhaps the genocide in Sudan? Unfortunately, it’s too typical- & lacks a ‘sexy’ name like Middle Passage, Wounded Knee, Holocaust, Gulag, The Great Leap Forward, or Killing Fields. The re-armament of Russia? Please. Turkey’s admission to the EU? Getting a little desperate now, eh?
No. Here’s the real top story- the X Prize. Long after George W. Bush takes his place alongside Millard Fillmore & Franklin Pierce as forgettable Presidents, the 1st non-governmental spaceflights will rank just under the moon landing, with Sputnik & the Wright Brothers 1st flight, in the history of aerospace. Why?
It’s obvious that the only reason we ever sent men into space in the 1st place was a dick-waving contest with the Soviets. Sans that spur, do you think government would really have had the vision to invest in such endeavors. Look at the decades since, especially since the Soviet Empire fell. No, wonkishness & myopia dominate governments. As much as I hate to admit it, given my detestation for corporations, it’s only their insatiable greed that will propel us further into space. Thrill-seekers, & investors will lead the way. The settlement of humans on the moon & Mars will not be driven by science, at least in its purest forms, but by the desire to build Disneylands in space. This is nothing new. Did Ferdinand & Isabella bankroll Columbus out of a desire to map the world? It’s just in those times it was near impossible to fund voyages without royal funds & imprimatur. The same was true re: spaceflight a few decades ago.
No longer: enter the Ansari X Prize! This was a $10 million award for the 1st private spaceflight that could successfully launch & land the same ship twice within 2 weeks. In case you missed it due to the Presidential debates, the baseball playoffs, or the war coverage, this very event occurred last week. SpaceShipOne, a rocket plane, followed up its 1st successful flight last week (9/29/04) with the clincher this week (10/4/04). The venture was bankrolled by ex-Microsoft domo Paul Allen’s Mojave Aerospace Ventures, & the ship designed by Burt Rutan. The ships took off & landed in New Mexico’s Mojave desert- the epicenter for the aborning private space industry. Already, the dickwaving has begun, as rival billionaire, & Virgin Atlanticowner, Richard Branson, is planning on launching his own space tours, with tickets going for $190,000 a pop. In typical venture capitalism bravado Branson is already calling his yet-to-be-built fleet Galactic Ships. Allen & Branson are not alone. 3-4 other American enterprises- losers in the X Prize- hope to compete for tourists with rates almost ˝ as low as Branson’s stated fee. Russian & Australian interests are also aiming to compete.
Already, subsidiary industries are revving up- the ideas of space hotels, 1st broached in sci fi pulp tales of the Great Depression, are seeking- & getting- speculative investment. No, this is not akin to the cryogenic fad of the last few decades- this is serious investing. While the 1st generation or 2 of potential thrillseekers will doubtlessly be the affluent, there are hopes that the industry can become affordable to the bourgeoisie before mid-century. If so, this same strategy of speculation will merely be the 1st that will carry us through the solar system & to the stars. Given the rate of extrasolar planet hunting, & plans for greater & greater telescopes to detect other ‘earths’, it seems likely that a future Allen or Branson will be the 1s to bankroll interstellar & faster-than light travel research & voyages.
There’s even a burgeoning X Prize Cup- sort of a spaceflight version of the America’s Cup for yachting. X Prize-worthy spaceships will compete for cash awards in categories like fastest turnaround, top altitude, & ‘coolest looking ship’, among others. The hope is that such an annual event will spur interest in the layety that they, too, can hope to get into outer space in their lifetime. Yet, history shows that rich cocksman like Allen & Branson cannot be given total green lights. If this is to be an industry it will need to be regulated, & this, more than technology, may slow down the timetables. Still, given the 4+ decades since the 1st human space flights have not yielded any tangible benefits for the public, my money says that the next 4 decades of private investment will see much more progress in opening up the human dreams of space than the last 4 have, with public money. Yet, there needs to be an admission that there will be Challengers & Columbias in this industry, as well. This is why at least 1st generation passengers will have to sign waivers of liability when they take off.
Still, it’s a small price to pay, given the risks, to advance the human cause. Perhaps when I’m an old fool, & care not whether I live or die, I’ll be able to afford such a trip, as prices fall. Regardless, mark 2004 down as 1 of those years like 1969, 1492, & 1066, that’s likely to stand out to future historians, long after the colossal wreck of George Ozymandias Bush is forgotten.
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