A village on the frontier: The subtleties of space symbolism and rhetoric
by Dwayne Day
|What both the New Horizons flag-waving and the Scientific American article remind us is that symbolism and rhetoric are closely tied to the ability to influence.|
“Jingoism” came up in a space context around the same time in an article in Scientific American by Linda Billings titled “The Inexcusable Jingoism of American Spaceflight Rhetoric.” Authors rarely get to pick the titles of their own articles, and Billings may not have picked hers. Notably, despite the title, the article itself never used the term “jingoism.”
Billings’ primary point, which was a good one, is that “rhetoric matters” and it can have negative impacts when it comes to addressing non-American audiences or trying to create cooperation. But the article was sloppy and poorly argued. It equated the words of space activists and their organizations with US government officials’ words and actions, which are not the same thing. It failed to recognize that American presidents and NASA leaders are more careful, and have not used the same kind of rhetoric that the author found so objectionable. It failed to recognize that actions are also more important than words. And finally, it did not acknowledge that bolstering an American audience can be more important than placating a non-American one.
What both the New Horizons flag-waving and the Scientific American article remind us is that symbolism and rhetoric are closely tied to the ability to influence. They impact the ability of the United States, NASA, and space activist groups to portray their activities and goals in a positive light. But symbolism and rhetoric can have both positive and negative connotations, sometimes at the same time, and depending upon the audience. Furthermore, this cognitive dissonance might not be inherently bad.
The symbolism and rhetoric of the space age is as old as the space age itself. John F. Kennedy tied the space program to frontier imagery, which was also important to his presidency. Notably this occurred at a time when westerns were still popular on television and at the movies, and the Western frontier still had many positive connotations, albeit frequently distorted and romanticized. Only later would the Western frontier begin to lose some of its sheen and American culture begin to recognize that there might be different interpretations of western expansion—for instance, the views of Native Americans.
The frontier is much more of an American concept than an idea or image that resonates in other cultures. Europeans might be vaguely familiar with the expansion and settlement of the American West (at least through our cowboy movies), but Europe was settled thousands of years ago, and all memory of that expansion—the European frontier—has been lost. There is no romanticized mythology of the very first people to live in what we now know as Norway, Germany, or France because they lived long before anybody recorded such things. Thus, while talk of a “frontier” evokes certain images and emotions in Americans, the word has lesser ability to take root beyond American borders because the cultural context is either different, or missing entirely.
By the 1970s, another bit of rhetoric became attached to the American space program: colonization. In 1976 Gerard K. O’Neill published The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. It was followed in 1977 by two other books: Stewart Brand’s Space Colonies, and T.A. Heppenheimer’s Colonies in Space.
|Symbolism and rhetoric can certainly have positive or negative influences beyond American borders. But they also have value within American society as a whole.|
Whereas Americans had no problem with the word “colonization” because the country’s colonial experience was in the distant past and is generally viewed as prelude to the creation of the American nation, many other parts of the world have a bad view of “colonialism,” viewing it as an exploitative relationship that they suffered under relatively recently. This was certainly true in the 1970s when some of the last African colonies were ending, but space activists were putting “colonies” in the titles of their books. Even today people in many nations in Africa, as well as places like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, recoil at the word “colony” (and Native Americans have a different view of it as well.) Thus, if your goal is to spread the word about humanity’s future in space to non-Americans, using “colony” is not the best way to do it. This is probably why by the 1990s people in space activist communities largely switched to “settlement” rather than “colonization” in their writings (although notably, a 1977 NASA report was titled Space Settlements: A Design Study; maybe ahead of its time in more ways than one).
Symbolism and rhetoric can certainly have positive or negative influences beyond American borders. But they also have value within American society as a whole. American groups like the Space Frontier Foundation and the Mars Society use frontier language because it resonates with their primary membership, Americans, and they have little interest in appealing to Europeans, Africans, or Asians. This may be a weakness—they preach to their own tiny choir—but there is logic to it. When President Obama delivered a speech on space exploration at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2010, he also referred to “seeking new frontiers,” because this term is inherently part of the American spaceflight and research and development lexicons.
There is nothing particularly wrong with Americans appealing to American emotions and cultural imagery. A few Europeans might have cringed at the photo of the scientists waving American flags at the Pluto encounter, but certainly many Americans—who actually paid for the mission with their tax dollars—looked at that photo with pride. Why should their pride be less valued than some Europeans’ sensibilities? New Horizons and the data it returns is in some respects an American gift to the world, so it is unfair to criticize the fact that it is wrapped in the red, white and blue.
Furthermore, Russian or Chinese citizens and even their leaders may have seen that photo and been reminded again that this was the United States accomplishing something that no other country has so far been remotely capable of achieving. They may resent the American space program, but they also have to respect it. Symbols and rhetoric are not simply two-edged swords that can appeal or repel: they have many more dimensions than that, not all of which are readily apparent in the moment. The photo of the American flag on the Moon remains a powerful symbol of the United States’ economic, technological, and managerial capabilities even 46 years after it was taken.
However, one should not get too carried away with focusing on the language and the rhetoric and symbolism. For future relationships it will be less important than actions. Whereas space advocacy groups may have difficulty spreading their message beyond American shores if they are not careful about their language, the US government’s influence is going to depend far more on what the country, and its space program, actually do than what anybody says. If foreign space powers consider cooperating with the United States they are probably going to be far more influenced by things like American capability, reliability, and dependability than rhetoric. They need to be able to trust that the United States will not suddenly cancel a future cooperative space effort, as happened in the recent past. They are probably less likely to be influenced by symbolism and rhetoric, although these things will affect the overall political and social environment in which decision makers operate.
There was one other example this past July of how language can be carefully employed that provides an interesting contrast to how Americans have used it in their space efforts. At a speech at a United Kingdom space conference, the new director-general of the European Space Agency (ESA), Johann-Dietrich Wörner, said that he would like to see a “village on the Moon” in the near future.
|Whereas space advocacy groups may have difficulty spreading their message beyond American shores if they are not careful about their language, the US government’s influence is going to depend far more on what the country, and its space program, actually do than what anybody says.|
When asked why he used the word “village,” Wörner explained: “The expression is somewhat misleading, but I like it. People believe I want to create some houses, a street, a church and a town hall. It’s not that. Village for me means different actors joining together in the same place—be it different states, individuals or private companies—to establish an infrastructure on the Moon that has the ability to do first-class fundamental research.”
Wörner admitted that although the word was misleading, he nevertheless deliberately chose it. But why “village” and not some other word? Whereas “village” is a more common term in Europe, it is used relatively rarely in the United States: Americans live in cities and towns, not villages. But village also creates a peaceful and idyllic image. Whenever NASA officials have discussed returning humans to the Moon for more than short periods of time they have used terms such as “base” or “outpost,” which evoke military facilities in hostile territory, and fit well with frontier imagery. Again, the cultural context of the speaker is important, but Wörner deserves credit for his conscious word choice.
If there is a lesson here, it is that perhaps the next time a space activist takes the stage, or a speechwriter drafts an address, they might think not only about their immediate audience, but beyond that audience as well. But that is no reason to stop waving the flags.