Tuesday, July 21, 2009

They can put a man on the moon but...

Two milestones have been reached this week; actually, one milestone and the anniversary of another. It was 40 years ago this week that, astoundingly, America pulled off the incredible feat of putting a bunch of gutsy, brilliant guys into a carefully crafted explosive devise, aiming it at a great big moving target (the moon), and getting them there and back again. Incredible. Profound. Awe-inspiring. It conditioned the psyche of modern man to believe in the greatness of man, the power of the will driven by a cause, and the incredible chutzpah and overarching ability of those cowboy yanks.

This week, too, Pope Benedict XVI unleashed Caritas in Veritate, "Charity in Truth," upon civilization. It is his third encyclical.

As we are just beginning to digest it, we won't have a great deal to say about it in detail. But we've observed before that momentous events sometimes happen in pairs -- one secular, one sacred -- as if juxtaposing one another. We have marvelled at the fanfare given the former, and the neglect, if not outright malignancy, given the other.

In this regard, we're recalling the death of Princess Diana which was, perhaps, The Media Event of the Century (as the century ultimately became), and which occurred right around the time of the passing into eternity of Mother Theresa. As the century ultimately became a media century with celebrity icons, the latter could not be counted upon to boost ratings, sell records, advertising, T-shirts, concerts, or otherwise provide fodder for the insatiable appetite of commerce. In that sense, all was right in the universe.

If the chorus of media is any indication, the collective mind turned briefly (if narcissistically) philosophical, this week -- as philosophical as a collective mind can turn -- and berated itself for the lack of progress of the last 40 years, a condition it concluded could only be remedied by...another "moon shot." Not necessarily (though it's already been proposed) an actual "moon shot," but a Big Goal, something to lift man's collective gaze from his collective navel to the sort-of-transcendent. Not the actually-transcendent, mind you -- nothing deep -- but something more than that collective navel. Another Big Goal or Cause (global warming is looking like a bust). Something that can inspire hope (Obama has not delivered), awe, purpose, stimulate commerce, etc. etc. etc. A kick in the collective seat of the pants.

Putting aside for a moment the utter folly of trying to recreate, by will, the moments of magic past, let's take a bit of the inventory of man's progress, such as it is, 40 years on from that first Big Cause.

The end of the 20th century was a disaster for mankind by pretty much any measure except, perhaps, sheer technological wizardry. In the developed societies, crime was ubiquitous -- and not just people stealing to fill their empty stomachs, either. Gratuitous wickedness made our headlines. In both realms -- secular and sacred. People became nuttier and demanded the sanction of ever more self-destructive activities as "rights." Often, technological wizardry was the useful tool in the hands of the wicked as they imposed their wicked wills upon their victims. And war, too, even just war, became a science-fiction movie that was real.

In the lesser developed countries, dictatorships thrived despite the glaring example of the rise and fall of the Third Reich, the apparent, perhaps temporary, demise of the communist state's biggest bully, and Tienanmen Square. Wealthy nations grew wealthier, poor ones poorer. People still starved. Perhaps we didn't want to see bloated, dark skinned babies in TV ads anymore -- it was so '70's, and there were abundant pickings for fundraising right here at home -- because we were too busy turning our glances away from the faces of missing children on our milk cartons. "School Shooting" earned its place in the vernacular, as did the gruesome "partial birth abortion," the latter with its own, sinister debt to the progress of technology.

There's no need to go on, is there? In the 20th century, Technology was ascendant, and everything else went to hell.

The other event of this week, the Pope's letter, proposes a different kind of Big Cause: the cause of humanity. While that collective mind is gazing from its navel to the stars, the Pope seems to be saying, "love your neighbor. give to the poor. don't cheat in business." Things we all know, and sometimes -- maybe even all the time -- did and yet, if we did, how did we come to this deplorable condition of moral and now even financial poverty? Maybe we didn't really, collectively, do it at all.

The Pope is urgent in this message: Globalization is here. It's a new ballgame and this is no time for cheating and shortcuts. We've seen what these have produced. The old rules no longer apply. The linking of the corners of the globe by information technology has raised the stakes tremendously. The formation, from those corners, of unheard-of power -- capital and influence -- with blinding speed demands diligence in the moral issues because is it only moral fitness that can manage power. Technology cannot. The sheer volatility of the collective sentiment requires the steadiness of virtue to keep the ship aright.

The old rules no longer apply, but the oldest ones still do. Like that first moonshot, the Pope's letter is a sort of carefully crafted explosive device filled with gutsy and brilliant things, and aimed at the moving target -- that spacey habitation -- of the modern mind. And like that moonshot, it has hit its target. The question is, is there anybody home?

It would be a shame if the Pope's message was missed. Its truth is not going away. Either we learn to really love our neighbors in all we do or we're doomed to ever increasing tyranny and technological bondage. B-XVI is the antidote to Orwell. The first moon shot didn't save us from ourselves, why would we expect another one to? And why the dickens would we shoot for the moon when we can't even [insert persistent, unsolved problem of choice].

The Pope has rearticulated and put before us The Big Cause, the Real Cause. We confess that it's not easy to love people who are already so head-over-heels in love with themselves. Compared to this cause, moonshots are a walk in the park.

Note: Please, if you're going to borrow these ideas -- and we know you are -- do the right thing and cite the source.


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