Sport is a good symbol in the fight against ISIS, but science is far better. The free world must unite around a common project that not only holds scientific and liberal values at its core but also, crucially, projects them out across the world - Mars is that project.
The surge of Islamic State and in particular the terrorist atrocities in Paris have created a reflexive yet understandable need in people to seek out symbols of both hope and solidarity.
First came the beaming of the French flag onto buildings and monuments across the world, representing the three ideals of the French Revolution - Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. This was a good start. These are ideals that our imperfect democracies must always aspire to especially in times of conflict.
But then bizarrely many within the media voiced their belief that sport was the institution that could not only best symbolize these ideals but also function as a tool in the fight against Islamism and the terrorism it spawns.
Whilst they have a point overall this claim is seriously flawed. Yes, sporting events are symbolically important to a society. They provide pleasing, therapeutic spectacles that create a sense of unity by being as intuitively beautiful and profound to us as music, mountain views and stunning architecture are.
This is where the power of sport lies: it enables us to transcend our terrestrial grievances and unite around a common pleasure, leaving us with little to argue over besides who performed the most beautifully - at least for a time anyway.
But paradoxically the main strength of sport is also its main weakness. It creates only a feeling or sense of unity with little of the actual substance. In truth sport is just an empty vessel that can be held up and be claimed to represent values but doesn't actually play a role in creating and only a small role in maintaining them. Take the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a case in point.
It's worth remembering that the results of football matches don't actually have any real-world consequences apart from the odd outbreaks of thuggish violence. The long-term positives are limited mainly to the tiny slice of super elite and freakishly talented athletes.
Deep thinkers on the problem of western born jihadists - Graeme Wood and Maajid Nawaz - point out that both the alienation of western Muslims and the influence of Islamist ideology are important factors in their radicalization. We must be honest in admitting that ISIS offers a false promise, but an alluring one nonetheless: A meaning rich apocalyptic battle of good versus evil in which the actions of each participant really matters.
The liberal west must offer a counter project of equal grandiosity - one that works as an antidote to both Muslim alienation and radical ideology.
In my opinion that project is the one of...
Making Martians and the Colonization of Mars
I know what you're thinking.
How the hell can you jump from Sport to Mars like that?
This is pure science fiction. Let's focus on things we can actually achieve.
I hear you.
A few months ago I would have even agreed with you.
But what's really crazy is that a colony on Mars, one million people strong by the end of the century is not just likely but a practical certainty.
I don't have the time to go into why this is the case. If however, you're interested in seeing the extraordinary evidence that backs up this extraordinary claim then please go take a look at this breath taking piece by Tim Urban titled, "How (and Why) SpaceX will colonize Mars" and prepare for your mind to be blown.
Instead, allow me to just summarize the three main reasons - as I see them - for why we must go to Mars as soon as conceivably possible:
1. It is a common project for the whole of Humanity with scientific and liberal values at its core.
2. It is inspiring to the next generation who are at present increasingly looking upon the future, and their place within it, with weary eyes.
3. Most importantly, it will, like all leaps in the human story, provide us with novel unexpected solutions to old seemingly unsolvable problems.
Why is it a common project for the whole of Humanity with scientific and liberal values at its core?
Firstly, because the main aim of Colonizing Mars is to protect the whole of Humanity from potential disasters on Earth: comet impacts, supernovae, super-viruses or super huge arseholes pressing the nuke button. Having a fully fledged civilization on Mars will be akin to having an external hardrive that backs up human knowledge in the event of a catastrophe that would have otherwise thrown us back to the stone ages, or worse, extinguished humanity permanently.
Why is it scientific and liberal?
We don't have to go into why it's scientific because, well, it's obvious. But it's important to point out that science and liberalism go hand in hand. They both stem from humans realizing that most of the claims of religion were total bullshit and that as a result we were largely ignorant to the true nature of reality.
Due to this ever-continuing principle of self-criticism - which is the foundation of the scientific method - this has begun to change. The proof is all around us. We have learnt more about the universe, and our ability to manipulate it, in the last 350 years (the dawn of the Enlightenment) than the entire 200,000 years of human ignorance that came before.
Why is it inspiring to the next generation?
I mean again do I really need to explain? It's fairly self-evident. A society of kids wanting to be the next Neil Armstrong feels me with hope, whereas a society filled with kids wanting to be the next David Beckham, Kim Kardashian or [insert vapid celebrity] fills me with dread.
When humans went to the moon it was a victory not just for the USA but also for the entire world. It was a giant leap in Mankind's project to master the world around it. When we see footage of Armstrong on the moon we feel it in our bones that this is good and true and beautiful.
Let ISIS shout "Join our caliphate, Muslims only!"
Let us shout instead "Join our colony on Mars, all welcome!"
Now that's a symbolic victory if I've ever seen one.
Why will it provide us with unexpected solutions to old problems?
To illustrate this point allow me to draw an analogy with the last great colonisation of a new land: the colonisation of America.
When the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin sat down to author America they asked themselves this question: Given this blank canvas upon which we have to draw how best can we organize government to benefit us all?
Their conclusion was to place the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of the individual as the bedrock when organizing society.
The result of this?
The oldest democracy in the world.
The American dream.
The ever-expanding circle of rights for women, gays and all other minorities.
The ever-rising escalator of knowledge and technology.
Had you asked anyone about the abysmal way women were treated 500 years ago the answer would have been "this is how it has always been". In other words, this is an unsolvable problem. Shut up. Be quite.
Liberal-democracy proved this lazy assumption wrong. The experiment of the USA proved this wrong. It proved this wrong by following the Enlightenment script - by forming government around individual rights and being constantly open to criticism.
All of this was achieved on a blank piece of paper in Philadelphia in 1776.
Just imagine what we could come up with on the blank red canvas of Mars today!