The following is from a sketch of a novelette intended to mimic John Lukacs' book A Thread of Years
, only being instead a series of vignettes of the "future" instead of the past. This dialogue between two imaginary commenters follows a snip from Firestar
, namely the first test-launch of a Plank on a secret facility on Fernando de Noronha. The scene supposedly takes place in AD 2000 and since the events have long been superseded by reality, the future status of my own 'thread of years' is now problematical. We are dreadfully behind schedule.
I should write faster.
I may end up doing it anyway, but change the years involved....
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“Ah, yes. The well-known scene on Fernando de Noronha. You have picked a fitting image to start the new age with. The beginning of cheap access to space.” Cheap is a relative term; but that is not why I have chosen this vignette.
“Why then?” Because it marked a turning point of another sort. It marked the beginning of the ebb of the Phildelphianizing of American society.
“An awful word. You will explain that, I think.” The cult of safety was a very Philadelphian thing. It marked the city as different from New York, or even Boston. That was partly the Quaker influence, as Lukacs observed. ‘The desire for safety, sometimes so rigid as to be uncomfortable.’ And very often coupled, as he also noted, with a lack of foresight and with a reluctance even to discuss unpleasant things.
“That is not much of an explanation. And besides, those who pushed for safety -- and I know you are speaking of the asbestos panic, the dioxin panic, and other millenarian episodes of the fin de siècle
-- These people seldom exhibited a reluctance to discuss unpleasant things. Indeed, the problem was often to get them to shut up.” You are not being entirely fair to them. Remember, the cult of safety found its acolytes in all walks of life, not only among the professional doom-criers. Most people never shouted or demonstrated or brought suit; but they held the belief that nothing bad should ever happen to them and that, if it ever did, someone else must be at fault. At least their lawyers said so.
“A cheap shot, that.” But worth the cost. Now, there were some genuine problems. As the frontiers of knowledge advanced, we learned of hazards that were previously undetectable, but no less real. Yet gradually the desire for safety, for ‘not rocking the boat,’ grew to include how your neighbor painted his house, or overhearing unkind words spoken by others. People clamored for laws to protect them from other people’s speech, and from their awful tastes in decoration. But when I said there was a reluctance to discuss unpleasant things, I meant the reluctance to discuss. When people are too comfortable with their beliefs, contrarian views can be discomfiting. To cite some troubling examples, at Penn, at Rutgers, at Cornell, and several other campuses, politically conservative student newspapers were sometimes stolen and burned.
“You are saying it was an age of liberalism run amok?” Hardly. There is nothing liberal about burning newspapers or books. It was not the politics that mattered, so much as the desire for safety and comfort, and that includes safety in one’s beliefs. Liberals were not alone in that desire, only more articulate. There were things that made conservatives uncomfortable and which they, too, thought they could legislate away.
“And the test flight changed all that...” You sound skeptical. No, the test flight changed nothing in that sense, but it did symbolize the change.
“Ah, your well-known penchant for symbolic events.” If you insist. What mattered most about the test flight -- and, you’ll note, what most bothered the watchers -- was not proofing the design, but that a man had risked his life to do the proof.
“That was a generational thing. The test pilots were younger. They were more inclined to take a chance than their elders.” Certainly. The “Latchkey Generation.” They were raised almost without parents. Some of them no doubt thought they were living on borrowed time to begin with.
“The ‘Mean Streets’?” In part, perhaps. But remember what the poet wrote:
“Our parents took pills not to have us/A third of us never got born.” What do a few risks matter when just being born means you’re a survivor?
“I think that’s a stretch. Besides, how does that square with the cult of safety?” Remember, I said that the desire for safety was often coupled with a lack of foresight. For example, when some mothers in New York kept their children home because insulating asbestos had not been removed from their schools, the children spent the day playing stickball in the streets of Manhattan. Paradoxically, the search for lower risks often created higher risks.
“Very well. But I think you have missed a point in your vignette.” And what is that?
“That if the ship did not hear the telemetry and crashed, the telepresent operator, rightly or wrongly, would bear the onus of failure.” And so he sneaked aboard from self interest? Perhaps. But I like the explanation his colleague gave. He said that his friend climbed into the test ship ‘because that is what he does.’
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