July 21, 2009
July 20 1969 is one of those dates that many of us remember. I was 7 then. We had a black and white TV with a cherry wood casing and yellowish buttons and dials. There was only one TV channel and most of the time it was airing not Slovenian but Yugoslav programs. However, TV Ljubljana was perhaps the only TV station from behind the iron curtain that had a live transmission of the moon landing. One of the commentators was an engineer, a colleague of my father, otherwise specializing in geology and earthquakes.
Yes, it was a big step for mankind. Are we still making steps or do we prefer sitting in the pub?
In June I visited the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Hollywood has this ability to show space travel, rockets, and shiny equipment as if they were out of this world. But in a museum you see the real stuff. A computer that has less capacity than the processor in my microwave. The knobs, the buttons, the wiring, the clothing and zippers, primitive even compered to my skiing outfit. It all looks so fragile and this makes the endeavor of NASA and the astronauts all that much grander. It was far from a sure thing. It was a gamble. But a controlled, engineering gamble where the odds were a matter of calculation. Done with a slide rules and gut feeling not by googling on MacBooks.
I felt the same when seeing the replica of Santa Maria a few years back. It is not a ship. It is, by today’s standards, a boat. But humanity dared to venture into the unknown with that. Had they asked Sancho Pansa then, I’m sure he would have opted for more farm subsidies, cheaper wine and better chairs at the local pub, instead of shipbuilding.
Today we do not get transmissions from the moon. If there was one, it would be competing with some 100 other TV channels and a zillion clips on YouTube that would make even the Brüno movie an example of decency, good taste and intelligent humor. What would our kids watch? I would not bet on the moon. They might follow it on Twitter, together with what cereal Judy had for breakfast.
And we, adults, are not reaching for the moon anymore either. Yes, we need to eradicate poverty, provide a good school to everyone and an opportunity to find a job or create a business. But is it really the only political priority that everyone has beer and sausage, soccer game and a week in Mallorca?
In the recent months I am listening to the discussions on the follow up to the Lisbon Strategy. Which was fairly benign and unambitious to begin with. If there was any reaching for the stars, it would quickly be taken with a large dose of good old Brussels cynicism. It would say “Europe, the most … whatever … in the world”, but not take it seriously. And the debates today are how to make it even more … well … close to the citizen and such that would not stick in anyone’s throat. Close to that citizen, that is in love with Michael Jackson and Lady Di. That citizen, that may still give us votes if we would use the word “sustainable” or “modern” but would punish the term “structural reform”.
What happened to the idea, that politics should lead the public opinion, and not vice-versa. Why do we have citizens and voters like that? What happened to addressing issues and problems head-on? Did we do a mistake down the road? I wish we could change the way politics can be done in Brussels. That a would-be barroso would stand up and say:
“Ladies and gentlemen we hava a crisis at hand, and some bumpy road in the decades ahead of us. There is no time to waste. We can’t live on 20th century savings and 19th century delusions of grandness. We need change. We need reform. Deep. Painful at first. Yes, you heard me right, structural reform. And a third industrial revolution. Not in order to be able to provide beer and sausages for everyone, but for Europe that gave birth to Columbus, von Braun, Shakespeare, Tesla and Eiffel to be great again. Europe, not this or that member state. Medicines in my reform proposal are not pleasant, but hey, lets make use of the fact that I do not have to be elected by the citizens. I can be the bad guy. I can do the right thing, not what the fans of Michael Jackson and Lady Di would love me for. If you want me for the job, appoint me now. Or I’m out of here! There is work to be done.”
I guess a guy like that would get a few raised eyebrows. A silent pause. Then they someone would say in a loud voice: