Our Sputnik Moment: Obama’s Great Misunderstood Allegory

Jan 28 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

In a speech not exactly bursting with sound bites, the most evocative takeaway from President Obama’s State of the Union address is turning out to be the phrase “Sputnik Moment.” This is what the media mentions when discussing the speech.

If only to explain what the phrase means.

Sputnik was the first piece of hardware sent into space. The Soviets sent it there in 1957, the same Soviets who had in 1956 said “We will bury you.”  We know now it was an empty threat and not even an accurate translation of what Khrushchev said, but at the time we had no idea what lay behind that iron curtain, and Sputnik only fueled our fears. Though we sent our own hardware into space in 1958, our fears didn’t abate. President Kennedy took those fears and used them to launch NASA and our own space exploration program, which would later be the first to send an astronaut to the moon.

Calling up the example of Sputnik does several things. It lets the President avoid explicitly saying that we are currently getting our butts handed to us by other countries, including China, who are ahead of us on many new frontiers. But it also reminds us that we have been bested by other countries before.  Obama reached into history to find an example of when falling behind became an incentive to excel.

He found a great allegory, but many people don’t recognize it. Why?

Well, it happened 53 years ago, so you’d have to be about 63 or older to remember the actual Sputnik event. That lets out most of the baby boomers and everyone born later, including President Obama, born in 1961.

Didn’t the rest of us learn it in U.S. History? I could have, but I didn’t.  I went to high school in the late 1970s. Our books were current right through Watergate, but modern history was at the end of the book, and we always seemed to come to the end of the school year right around Yalta.

What about since then? Hasn’t Sputnik and the space race become part of our national mythology?  Well, putting a man on the moon has, but Sputnik has not. Our national narrative, especially on the right, casts the United States as a country that has never been bested. Sputnik doesn’t fit the narrative.

In literature, a character that is too perfect is ridiculed by the name Mary Sue. Mary Sues are the best at everything, never have problems, never feel regret or doubt, and never learn anything new. In literature, Mary Sues are boring because the character doesn’t learn, overcome, and grow. In history, they are dangerous for the same reason.

Some of the biggest blunders this country has made were undertaken with Mary Sue hubris.  So, yes, the very reason that people had forgotten or never knew about Sputnik is the very reason we all should know about it. We are not perfect. We are not invincible, and whether we struggle to achieve or slack off, we will face the consequences.

This is the opposite of what the extreme right wing tells people. Right wingers still insist that Americans are Mary Sue, best at everything and infallible, superior just by existing. The right has taught people to be proud even in their ignorance and demand that everyone else come down to their level or be branded elitist.

Michele Bachmann represented herself as Tea Party spokesman Tuesday night, but even with tired old warnings that already have been disproven many times, she doesn’t truly represent the Tea Party as much as Sarah Palin. I don’t relish bringing up Palin, but when she dismissed Obama’s Sputnik metaphor as “a WTF moment” and started rambling about donut chain Spud Nuts,  she retained the title Queen of Ignorance.

Which brings us back to President Obama’s call to action. To regain first place—and just to reanimate our economy—we will have to work hard, but we also need the right tools: money, manpower, and education.  President Obama has already done a lot to improve education, both quality and access. His call to do more and to elevate the status of teachers drew big applause.

We can’t fix education just by fixing access, cost, and procedures. We have to have the best substantive curriculum, and that means we must change our own narrative to a more honest one.

We are not infallible, and we are not afraid to face our own weaknesses. We can make mistakes, but we can learn and grow from them. We have to become a people who know the significance of Sputnik.

In using the example of Sputnik, President Obama challenged us to embrace a more honest narrative and challenge ourselves to accept and learn from the mistakes we make as a nation. If we insist that we are perfect the way we are, then nothing will change.

Sputnik vs. Spud Nuts. That’s our real wake-up call.

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