I recently watched the unveiling of Elon Musk’s planned mission and, eventually, colonisation of Mars with a kind of rapturous childlike awe. I admit, it’s a personal interest of mine and I share Elon’s (very obvious) conviction that the only way to ensure the long-term survival of the human species and therefore intelligent life and consciousness (as far as we’ve discovered it), is for the human race to become a multi-planetary species. It remains to be seen how practical SpaceX’s plan and timeline are, but it was a fascinating presentation and they appear to have innovative solutions for many of the commonly cited challenges of such a mission.
Unfortunately, I made the mistake of reading the coverage of the speech in The Guardian and foolishly allowed my eyes to drift below the threshold of the comments section. Even by Guardian standards, this was a particularly depressing experience – a cesspool of regressive anti-humanism and mindless ad hominem attacks. It somewhat took the edge off my initial elation from the presentation itself.
Now I am not going to waste my time writing an entire piece on how unpleasant comments sections are (that dead horse has already been flogged into an equine jelly) but there is something about reactions around this subject in particular, grand future plans for humanity, charismatic dreamers and human endeavour, that reflects a broader point. I wondered why some people had such a visceral reaction to this. I recalled a conversation I’d had with a good friend the last time I was in London some months ago. She had been living in the UK for a number of years and, among her less positive observations about the culture, was the British tendency towards “Tall Poppy Syndrome” – the desire to put down those who raise their heads above the socially enforced basal level of acceptable mediocrity.
“My least favourite English expression”, she went on, “is “he’s a bit up himself isn’t he?””
During my time in the UK I noticed the same thing but, while the British, with all their characteristic reserve and stereotypical admiration of the familiar and comfortingly banal, often display an amplified version of this, it is by no means a uniquely British phenomenon nor would I want to attribute such a nasty and backward trait to any single nationality (not to mention one that I share!).
It has become fashionable, even purportedly “moral” to attack your own species and espouse a cynical and fatalistic view of our future.
I would, however, classify it as a primarily Western phenomenon and goes hand-in-hand with the regressive anti-human, anti-meritocratic thinking characteristic of our modern cultural malaise and it has been going on for some time. A few years ago I wrote an article about the importance of human space flight partly to address previous conversations I had had with people spouting these kinds of views. It has become fashionable, even purportedly “moral” to attack your own species and espouse a cynical and fatalistic view of our future. Unfortunately, I was not at the time equipped with the vocabulary needed to label this for what it was: “virtue-signalling”. Just let that sink in for a moment, talking about your hatred of your species, your delight in our possible extinction (because the world/universe would be better off without us) and cutting anyone down to size who dares to imagine a nobler vision for our species is actually a fairly popular way to peacock your virtue and morals.
Allow me to give you a few examples from The Guardian comments.
Many simply aimlessly attacked Elon Musk himself:
“I can’t wait until Musk finally blasts himself off to Mars and we won’t need to hear about his cynical publicity stunts any longer
“I fear Mr Musk is over compensating for some deep rooted psychological issues, consciously or otherwise?”
“He should put himself on the first mission. His messianic activities – which are impacting the rest of us (and the environment) in ways that are not always positive – are getting tiresome.”
A surprising number even equated him with Donald Trump for some bizarre reason:
“People are becoming fixated with strange men like Elon Musk. Hell, one of them is running for President of the United States of America!”
“And people think Donald Trump is delusional.”
“If he just gets himself there and stays, that will be enough for me. But he could earn extra points by taking Trump with him. They could just sit there all day long, trying to convince themselves that they matter.”
While others simply used this as an opportunity to whine about how terrible the human race is:
“Leave Mars alone. It doesn’t deserve to suffer mankind.”
We also see here the very common justification for regressive tall poppy attacks – the use of whataboutery around “issues.” This generally takes the form of “what about poverty?”, “what about climate change?”, “this is a waste of money you should be focusing on social issues” or other such irrelevances. The environmental angle is perhaps the most powerful trigger for the regressive anti-humanism that runs through this thinking. It gives people an excuse to write off the human race as some kind of unclean plague and allows them to wallow in their own self-hatred rather than engage critically with the issues we face as a species – it is simply lazy thinking. I addressed this at length in my previous article on the subject (though the embedded video gives a brief and poetic summation of the implications), suffice it to say that anyone who has actually done their research on the history of space exploration and its implications for scientific and social progress would not resort to such tactics without wilful dishonesty.
Of course, one of the main preoccupations of these Tall Poppy lumberjacks is a loathing of ambitious and successful individuals. Note the use of the word “messianic”, a very easy way to belittle your betters is to accuse them of having a “Messiah complex.” The conflation of Musk with Trump is also very telling indeed. It suggests that anyone with grand ambitions is an arrogant, loudmouthed ego-maniac. I have never met either Donald Trump or Elon Musk, but the way they present themselves in public is night and day. If anything, Musk’s public persona is an indication that ambition needn’t be shackled to arrogant celebrity. I have watched many of his interviews and presentations – he is quiet, measured and, at times, even comes across as hesitant or shy. Whatever comparisons they make, or psychological or personality defects they attribute to people like Elon Musk, the intent is the same – the desire of an individual to make a significant impact on the world through their own endeavour and initiative must be pathologised, shown to be something abnormal and unseemly.
Mankind does not make significant progress by waiting at the threshold of our next great discovery for the slowest among us to catch up. Great visionaries and geniuses have always played pivotal roles in each small step and every giant leap. Attitudes that belittle ambition and grandiose vision for no reason other than the belittling itself are retrograde and suicidal, an evolutionary dead-end. I am happy to leave those people in the dust to contemplate their self-fulfilling prophecy while the rest of us set our sights firmly on the stars.
“There’s a new world next door. And we know how to get there” – Carl Sagan
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