Editorial: 7.6 billion ways to see the world

  • President Ronald Reagan works at his desk in the Oval Office of the White House on May 24, 1985. AP

Sunday, October 15, 2017

‘When you stop to think that we’re all God’s children, wherever we may live in the world, I couldn’t help but say to him (Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev), just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from some other species from another planet outside in the universe. We’d forget all of the little local differences we have between our countries, and we would find out, once and for all, that we really are all human beings here on this Earth together. Well, I don’t suppose we can wait for some alien race to come down and threaten us, but I think that between us we can bring about that realization.”

President Ronald Reagan said those words on Dec. 4., 1985, in a speech to students and faculty at Fallston High School in Fallston, Md. It wasn’t the first or the last time he would raise the theme of global unity in the face of alien invasion. In fact, he would do so again two years later and on a much larger stage – the 42nd session of the U.N. General Assembly.

As far as thought experiments go, the scope of Reagan’s utopian fantasy is limited. Even if the United States and the Soviet Union had joined forces to repel an alien invasion, who’s to say that the newfound cooperation wouldn’t collapse as soon as the common enemy was vanquished. It seems unlikely that a global brotherhood, even one forged by an existential threat, would have been enough to dissolve the ideological underpinning of the Cold War.

But Reagan’s vision is beautiful in its simplicity. He was offering a divided world a single lens in which to view humanity, if only for a moment.

More than three decades after Reagan’s Fallston speech, America seems as internally divided as it ever has. Globally, peace cannot be established, even theoretically, by two superpowers hashing out differences at a table in Geneva. The idea of war as a conflict among nation states died a fiery death on Sept. 11, 2001.

The world is so divided, in fact, that even Reagan’s proffered lens is inadequate. In a war between humanity and an alien race bent on its destruction, it would be anybody’s guess what side ISIS and its ilk would choose.

For that matter, it’s difficult to say what kind of lens it would take to unify Americans alone – black and white, man and woman, Republican and Democrat, rich and poor – if only for a moment. Because in 2017, the people of this country can’t even agree on what constitutes a true national tragedy.

Would a manned space mission energize the nation as it did in the 1960s? How about a medical moon shot in the form of a cure for cancer or some other scientific discovery that exceeds the collective imagination?

It’s hard to say, so maybe we should broaden Reagan’s thought experiment.

The Earth is home to 7.6 billion people – 7.6 billion children and former children born into circumstances not of their choosing. All arrive on the planet free of hate and judgment, but with every moment of life the lens through which they view the world is shaped and reshaped by their experiences. Each human lens is as unique as a fingerprint but infinitely more complex.

And so nobody – nobody – can know what it is like to be someone else. The failure to see that most basic truth is the essence of division.

Maybe this wider lens, like Reagan’s, is not without imperfections, but if you hold it just the right way you can see the fault lines of human relationships with brilliant clarity – if only for a moment.