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Let History Come to You
The inactivist manifesto.


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Jonah Goldberg

So last week I wrote a semi-autobiographical screenplay entitled “Girth of a Nation,” but that’s not important right now. I also wrote a column last week titled “Just Do Nothing” in which I argued — not coincidentally — that Congress should do nothing to fix the stock market and corporate America. Just to be clear, what I said was that since the choice was between Congress trying to do everything and Congress doing nothing, Congress should opt for nada.

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Anyway, this prompted a reader to suggest that I start calling myself an “inactivist.” I posted his e-mail in The Corner (the NRO forum which all attractive and intelligent people read everyday because it makes them wealthy, popular, and cool). I threw out a few jokes, suggesting that this new grassroots movement of inactivity could demand “stasis rights!” and carry an impressive list of “inaction items.” Our motto could borrow from Bart Simpson’s campaign for class president: “My opponent says that are no easy answers. I say he’s not looking hard enough!” And so on.

This, in turn, launched a chain of posts that culminated with my e-mail box being jammed with more suggestions for inactivist bumper-sticker slogans than you could shake a stick at (though I’ve stopped shaking sticks at things as it causes Cosmo the Wonderdog considerable distress: “Why are you shaking that stick? Put that stick down and I will bite it and shake it as I would a squirrel or other vermin. I think that would be more fun than this pointless stick shaking. Does that stick have something which tastes bad on it that you are trying to shake off of it? Is that why you are shaking it? Here, give it to me, and I will remove the offending substance — if it is, as you say, bad tasting. I would like to confirm this myself before I allow you to shake the substance off that stick. Sometimes I do not altogether trust your opinion when it comes to what is, or is not, good tasting. But, please. You must first stop shaking that stick! Please. Give it to me! Why are you shaking it! Tell me! Stop it. Stop it now….”)

I’ve received several hundred suggestions for inactivist bumper-sticker slogans and, as befits the situation, I’ve been slow to read them. Still, I like some of them quite a bit:

Visualize me ignoring you.
How about “let’s not.”
Don’t honk if you can’t be bothered.
Don’t Act, NOW!
If not now, whenever.
Leave well enough alone
Slacking: It’s not just for kids.
YOU Save the Whales!
Practice Random Acts of Self-Restraint.
Ask Not.
Future Site of Political Statement.

And so on.

IT’S NOT THE LAZINESS PER SE
But there’s a problem. Many readers segued too easily from celebrating inactivism to championing outright sloth. For example, “Practice Random Acts of Self-Restraint” is a fine inactive motto. But “They can have my channel changer when they pry it out of my cold, dead hand,” while very funny is off point. “Don’t Mess With Stasis,” doesn’t quite rhyme but it’s got the right idea. “Think globally, act loafally,” meanwhile, has the wrong idea — except insofar as it mocks people with stupid bumper stickers.

The funny thing is that inactivists are actually very active people. I would bet that — this is a broad generalization-the folks who find inactivism politically appealing probably work harder and are more successful then people who find conventional activism attractive. Inactivists didn’t boycott the Million Mom March simply because they had better things to do. They stayed home because they believe the Million Mom March was a vast, peripatetic parade of propaganda. Inactivists don’t fail to mobilize solely because we’d rather watch a rerun of Matlock than chant for vegetable rights and peace at city hall. We actually don’t believe in vegetable rights. We want our carrots to remain as chattel.

I agree that sloth is funny. And I suppose that’s why so many people want Homer Simpson to become the inactivist spokesperson. I laugh whenever I hear Homer Simpson speak admiringly of Teamsters: “Oh, I always wanted to be a Teamster. So lazy and surly… mind if I relax next to you?” And his campaign slogan when he ran for garbage commissioner was pretty good. “Can’t someone else do it?” The best line from that episode was when he told Springfield voters “Animals are crapping in our houses and we’re picking it up! Did we lose a war?” But still, Homer’s wrong when he tells his kids “You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: Never try. ”

DOING NOTHING RIGHT
There’s actually a very serious philosophical point behind inactivism and for a movement which requires no actual movement (remember: Grass roots don’t move), we might as well get the justification right.

The “Just Don’t” school holds that most problems solve themselves. If nobody else will solve your problems for you, you will be far more likely to fix your own problems. This is a naturalistic philosophy in that it embraces the natural order of things. No creature — except for man — takes responsibility for the ecosystem it lives in. Sharks eat as much as they can eat. Birds fly where they want to fly. Bears crap in the woods without so much as a “by your leave” from park rangers. Everybody does what they do and the ecosystem achieves balance because of it.

Markets work the same way, most of the time. Few people think about the national or even the local economy when they buy a microwave oven. Sure, they are concerned about how the economy effects them, but they do not care whether their purchase will harm or help the GDP in anyway. And yet, by buying a microwave oven so he can reheat his spicy Jamaican beef patties from 7-11, Joe Slacker contributes to the GDP.

Similarly, Wall Street is not punishing incompetent or criminal corporations out of a sense of justice or because Washington says it should. In a sense it’s not punishing these companies at all. Rather, millions of individual investors are taking their money back because, like bears in the woods, that is what investors do when companies reveal they are not worth what they are worth. Wrongdoers feel punished, because that’s how life works when you screw up. God was very clever to set the system up that way.

Now, I’m neither a materialist, objectivist, nor Social Darwinist. I very much believe people and groups should help their fellow man. I respect and admire activists who go out and clean up the woods and read to blind kids and clean graffiti from parks and so on. But we’re talking about a very specific sort of activist here.

For example, years ago I reviewed a terrible book for The Public Interest by a professional campus activist named Paul Loeb. He wrote that the problem with volunteer projects is that they “take the heat off of corporate and governmental leaders who continue to slash human resources while America’s problems steadily bleed. They can lead service volunteers directly away from asking how America’s root social choices continue to betray the very communities they work to serve.”

In other words, I wrote in the review, running a midnight basketball program is fine just so long as it doesn’t keep the movement from lobbying the federal government to run one.

These are the sorts of activists I despise for their arrogance and stupidity. This type of leftist wants to get things done, but only if the government does it. Forget the fact that this sort of thinking is really the imposition of personal morality on the federal government, it’s terrible public policy.

Take the slacker with the microwave. Maybe the kid needs the microwave. Maybe it’s imperative for him to have one because he can’t afford a conventional oven. Who knows? And, frankly, who cares? The point is that it would be a disaster if the federal government got into the business of providing people with microwaves. Microwaves would become more expensive, people who didn’t need them would be getting them and taxpayers who could use their money more productively would be paying for them. The best way to solve the problem is for the slacker to solve it himself. Indeed, he may solve his larger problem (being a slacker) in the process. This principle holds true with all of life’s necessities: prescription drugs, cars, homes, public education, domesticated gnus, whatever. If he needs help, he should start with his family, then his friends, then his neighborhood church, and so on, in ever-expanding concentric circles of mooching. When your brother borrows money, he can’t default on the loan nearly as easily as he can when he borrows it from the government — and there’s a lot less paperwork.

I don’t want to get into a big repetitive screed about the moral and economic efficiencies of capitalism and federalism, but I should say that inactivists do not advocate letting the poor rot. They do believe, however, that the government may not be the best agent for helping the poor. And, more importantly, they do not believe that well-meaning activists in Volvos necessarily know what’s best for poor people. The same principle holds for the environment, gay rights, gnu liberation, and so on. If gays, for example, want to be treated like everybody else, they can achieve this goal the same way Jews, Irish, and everybody else (except blacks and women) did: one community at a time. If San Francisco wants to put “whatever floats your boat” on the official seal of the city, so be it. But when you decide that the values of San Francisco should be imposed by the federal government on Biloxi, Charleston, or Austin, you’re going to create a lot of problems.

Anyway, I’ve written about a lot of this before and in much greater detail. So let me wrap up. When Calvin Coolidge said “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business,” he didn’t mean he was proud of doing nothing. Rather he was proud to have worked hard to keep the government from mucking things up. When he said, “When you see ten problems rolling down the road, if you don’t do anything, nine of them will roll into a ditch before they get to you,” he didn’t mean you should spend your life lying in a hammock ignoring problems. Rather, he meant that you should dedicate yourself to fixing the problems that you can and should fix. If you try to fix too many things or the wrong thing, you will make everything worse.

Inactivists believe, I think, that fixing the world isn’t a game or a hobby or something you do because you have self-esteem problems. We don’t believe that putting an earnest bumper sticker on your car makes you particularly special or intelligent. We don’t think that concern for an issue is a substitute for intelligent thinking about that issue. We do believe that time and patience are just as important and useful as urgency and passion. As conservatives, we respect Russell Kirk’s sixth canon of conservatism: “Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress.” And, as inactivists, we recognize, to quote Robert A. Heinlein, that “progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.” But that doesn’t mean we celebrate laziness for its own sake.



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