Magazine | July 9, 2012, Issue

Uncle Sam Meets Aunt Jemima

The Voyager spacecraft has reached the edge of the solar system, and is now poised to become an undocumented resident of the galaxy beyond. Impressive! It contains a record that has a small speech by Jimmy Carter. Depressing. It’s like imagining aliens discovering a ruined Earth in the distant future and finding a can of Billy Beer as the sole evidence of civilization. Horrible to think that it might crash on a primitive planet, and centuries from now we find a civilization that worships a toothy deity in a sweater and imagines the devil as a killer rabbit.

That’s if anyone finds it: The spacecraft will reach the nearest star in 40,000 years, or roughly half the length of President Obama’s recent Ohio speech about the economy, and even then they may not be able to read it, unless someone can dig out an old turntable.

It is a remarkable accomplishment, and demonstrates that gummint is awesome so let’s have a lot more, okay? That was the message from the president’s Ohio peroration, in which he cited the Hoover Dam and the moon shot as things WE did together via the nimble digits of federal authority. A stern rebuke to all those tea-party types who quiver in a constant state of agitation over the prospect of a useful hydroelectric project.

So, we’re going to Mars, Mr. President? No. We need to focus on the things we need to do today, like expanding syrup awareness.

Let’s back up. Hoover Dam? Hah! Just try to build one today. Environmentalists — who hate any dam not constructed by a buck-toothed aquatic mammal — would discover that the project would have a disparate impact on the breeding habits of the red-speckled amoeba, without which the entire biosphere would collapse so quickly Jon Corzine would issue a low whistle of admiration. We might be able to return to the moon, but this whole “one step for mankind” business is ableist and sexist. It would have to be an inclusive voyage, with Elizabeth Warren riding down a wheelchair ramp to the moon’s surface.

The Interstate Highway System was an example of WE doing something big, but highways encourage the suburbs, which are bad because constant exposure to lawn-mower exhaust turns people into Republicans, and because freeways encourage gasoline consumption, which leads directly to polar bears drowning and the Atlantic Ocean lapping at 42nd Street. (Any day now.) The only big things left to construct, in Obama’s view, are invisible bureaucratic apparatuses that control your life. That’s pretty cool, but they make for bad photo ops. The laws and regulations of the Good Things for Everybody Act of 2014 may barely fit on a 2-terabyte hard drive, but it’s a lousy backdrop for a speech.

Some of these big things contain a multitudinous array of wonders. Let us consider the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012, which does not reform agriculture, grow any food, or create any jobs. Hence the name. Be assured it contains impenetrable passages, probably along the lines of this:

The floor price of a soy bean, soy-related, or soy-adjacent substance as defined by the Agriculture Nomenclature Clarification Act of 1934 (as amended by the Obfuscation Protocols of 1974 and 1984) shall be no less than 90 percent of the baseline established by the optimal price as averaged between a.d. 1112 and 2011, unless the peak per-bushel market rate advanced on a weekly basis by less than 12 percent per shoobity floobity doobity (see also, Cosby amendments), etc.

#page#Translation: Here’s a check.

But what about pancake topping? you ask. Does the bill address rich, delicious fluids that enhance our pancake experience? Rest easy. The Hill reports that Chuck Schumer has added an amendment that specifically addresses the gaping, shrieking hole in the nation’s syrup-awareness problems: “The amendment allows the secretary of Agriculture to introduce grants to states and tribal areas in an effort to promote maple syrup production through education and research, natural resource sustainability within the maple syrup industry, market production and efforts to expand maple sugaring activities.”

Thank heavens there’s education and research, so we don’t fall behind China, which plans to put a maple tree on the moon in 2017.

Popcorn gets a handout, too: The Market Access Program, a $200 million Ag Department subsidy, gives $250,000 to  the Popcorn Board, which raises awareness about popcorn, possibly to locate the one person in America who is unaware of popcorn, and thinks Orville Redenbacher was a World War I flying ace. It’s possible that the government may tie this into some anti-bullying initiative that promotes popcorn awareness while addressing self-image problems of gay adolescents, and fund some videos under the theme “It Gets Butter.” You could oppose it, if you’re a homophobe who hates farmers.

So that’s us, then? Once a nation that flung objects into deep space, now a broke and bloated society that dribbles dollars around to tell people popcorn is nutritious and delicious? It’s easy to say we don’t do anything big anymore, but who’s this we, really? Take away the declinists and defeatists and the anti-exceptionalist transnationalists who regard the country as a big hunk of dumb wood in need of some whittlin’ down, and you’re left with the people who do things like put a tiny computer in everyone’s pocket that not only phones for pizza and takes high-def movies but downloads the most recent photos from our craft on Mars. That changed the way we live. That is a big thing.

We have a car on Mars, you know. That’s rather American. And if it finds a giant lake of syrup, we’ll send humans! If only to prop up the price.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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