On "Moon Shots" and the New Mythology

Retired Representative Patrick Kennedy got a nice little boomlet of media coverage last month with his push for a new "moonshot" - a la his famous uncle's push for a moon landing. This one, he says, would take us inside the human mind, unlocking the mysteries of mental illness.

Kennedy's familial ties add some resonance to his call. But he is hardly the first to evoke John F. Kennedy's lunar vision in pressing for a new, game-changing initiative. And the metaphor has, no doubt, lost much of its power with repetition. Gary Stix, at Scientific American, suggests as much with a recent blog post, excerpted here:

Moon shots, and their rhetorical equivalents, have become recurring (and perhaps detrimental) memes in the scientific community. At its current pace, the ongoing War on Cancer will probably far outpace in length the Hundred Years War. And The Decade of the Brain (the 1990s) will be followed, in endless loops, by new 10-year increments, each of which merit being slapped with the same label. 

Bad things happen when we start down this road. As George Orwell noted in "Politics and the English Language" the misuse of words corrupts clear thinking: "As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse." Orwell suggested getting rid of every word or idiom that has outlived its usefulness. "Moon shot" and similar metaphors are ripe for retirement.

Here, a belated plug for my cover story from last week's Phoenix, "The Big Think," which examines the new IDEAS Salon convened by Providence designer Seth Goldenberg.

The story asks a series of questions about the innovation conference industry - think TED, PopTech, and Davos: are these forums democratic? Can they accomplish all that much? But I digress. The point I want to make here is that the thinkers brought together by Goldenberg and tasked with identifying the "essential questions" of our time have tentatively identified, as one of those questions, this: What are the new narratives, what is the new mythology, for our era?

Metaphors are exceedingly powerful in public affairs. If the "moonshot" metaphor - a half-century old and undoubtedly tired - is ready for retirement, what next?

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