With all due respect to President Obama, and to Doc Searls, writing in his weblog and much retweeted on Twitter, neither this moment for America nor Egypt for Al Jazeera is “a Sputnik moment.” I excuse Obama for not being able to identify such a time. He had not been born in 1957 when the Soviets launched their tiny, crude satellite. From his photo, Searls looks old enough to remember; but I excuse him, too.
Both of you, let me define a Sputnik moment. It is a moment of national humiliation. Shared by citizens young and old.
Last December, I made this same observation, after Obama talked about a new Sputnik moment to North Carolinians. “So fifty years later, our generation’s Sputnik moment is back. This is our moment,” Obama told the students at Forsyth Technical Community College.
My point then is that we Americans can not have another Sputnik moment because the possibility for shared humiliation has passed now that our society is much more diverse.
Since President Obama has called for that Sputnik moment, again, in his State of the Union–with pundits Sputnik-ing Al Jazeera–I’m thinking I need to go into more detail. Like most everyone among us baby boomers, and like my parents’ generation (and my grandparents’–all passed away), I remember vividly October 4, 1957. What was our reaction?
OH MY GOD! THE RUSSIANS! HOW COULD THEY HAVE MOVED ONE UP ON US! We were supposed to be superior to the Soviets in every way. But now they had done a really cool thing that we had not. It was an autumn of total, utter national humiliation.
If President Eisenhower had asked us to buy bonds to fund our own space program, we would have done it. We would have gone barefoot; we would have given up TV dinners and TV Davy Crockett. What we did do, for a spate of time, was to apply ourselves in the only way we had: to self-betterment. On the job, in school. I was in Middle School then, and I well recall the way in which we children across America turned to math and science. We watched “Mr. Wizard” on TV. We took our school, city and national science fairs seriously. In my family, as in many, after supper the table was cleared for studying, with my dad often re-teaching the math lesson because some years our math teachers were not very good. A teenager who was not stone-cold solid in arithmetic was an inconceivable creature. This is the atmosphere, the shared experience, that produced our first generation of leaders in many fields deep with women, African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, because they were ready with the right training when the once-closed doors to opportunity opened.
When less than four years later President Kennedy launched the Space Program, we were a nation ready to fly.
Moments of national humiliation, and the consequent drive for redemption, do not come along often. Having experienced one, however, I recognize another when I see it. My reaction to the uprising in Tunisia? Egypt is gonna take this hard! That is exactly what I said to myself. Egypt, the cultural center of Arab civilization, had been upstaged by a second-tier Arab power.
Here is the power of a Sputnik moment. The humiliation leads to epiphany, with the galvanizing energy that only epiphanies bring to act on a new sense of purpose.
This is why even ten days ago on Twitter I was calling the uprising in Egypt a revolution. We don’t know yet if it is going to be the Egyptian Revolution. Capital R. But despite the pace of events, eleven days into the uprising, when Hosni Mubarak has refused to budge and his new vice president Omar Suleiman is babbling about foreign provocateurs, and increasingly it looks like stalemate for the time being, nevertheless, a shared resolve has been unleashed in Egypt that cannot be extinguished. However long it takes, Egyptians will get closure for their Sputnik moment, just as we Americans did.
February 3, 2011