Beyond the moon shot

To the Heavens
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 8, 2011

Retired Congressman Patrick Kennedy has enjoyed a nice little boomlet of press coverage in recent weeks with his push to raise billions in private and public money over the next decade for brain research.

A "moon shot into the mind," he calls it.

The "moon shot" metaphor refers to his famous uncle John F. Kennedy's call, 50 years ago, for the nation to land a man on the moon. And he is hardly the first to invoke that call to national purpose.

Indeed, it is striking that, a half-century later, we've failed to come up with something more suited to the times.

Richard D. Anderson, Jr., a political science professor at UCLA who has written about metaphor in politics, says the elemental appeal of the moon helps to explain the lasting appeal. Think of how long sun metaphors — a sunny mood, a sunny smile — have lasted.

The moon, he adds, is up. And upness connotes high aspirations, joy.

Still, after countless calls for a new moon shot, the metaphor has doubtless lost some of its power. Why, then, does Patrick Kennedy's invocation seem to work?

"It really matters who the messenger is," says Wendy Schiller, political science professor at Brown University, "and whether they can claim ownership of that metaphor."

Kennedy, for obvious reasons, can claim ownership. And his own personal struggles with addiction and mental illness make the brain research push all the more credible.

But he is the rare case. What of the rest of us, who haven't seen a truly powerful political metaphor since, perhaps, Ronald Reagan's "morning in America?" Could something new be in the offing?

Schiller isn't all that hopeful. In a nation as divided, cynical, and digitally distracted as ours, developing a grand, unifying meme might require a moon shot of its own.

  Topics: This Just In , John F. Kennedy, Patrick Kennedy, UCLA,  More more >
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