Dear Reader (Including wage slaves for whom this “news”letter is like a window through the pressboard walls of your veal-pen cubicles to the free world of unemployment outside),
A few years ago, I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But that’s not important right now. Around that time, I also wrote a piece for the magazine about the new utopianism of American liberalism. In short, I think you can judge every progressive “ism” by its Utopia. What’s vexing about contemporary liberalism is that it doesn’t admit its Utopia forthrightly. The Marxists were honest about the dream of the classless society blooming from the withered-away state. The Social Gospel progressives openly promised to create a “Kingdom of Heaven” on earth (Obama did once slip and say that we can create a “Kingdom here on earth,” but he’s usually let his followers fill-in-the-blank about why, exactly, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for). To their credit, the transhumanist types are honest about their utopianism; that glorious day when we can download our brains into X-boxes and Vulcan mind-meld with the toaster.
But liberals are annoying in that they have the itch to immanentize the eschaton but neither the courage nor the vocabulary to state it openly. Now, in fairness, the urge usually takes the form of Hallmark-card idealism rather than soul-crushing collectivism. The young activist who recycles Robert F. Kennedy’s line “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why . . . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” has no idea he’s a walking, talking cliché, a non-conformist in theory while a predictable conformist in fact. But he also has no idea he’s tapping into his inner utopian.
Quoth the Serpent, Ever More
As the man who pulled a duck out of his briefcase during a bank-loan meeting said, I hope you’ll forgive a digression. (Though, if you really hated digressions you probably wouldn’t be reading this “news”letter.) You know what else the aforementioned kid with the RFK quote is oblivious to? That RFK didn’t coin the phrase (JFK didn’t either, but he did use it first). The line actually comes from one of the worst people of the 20th century, George Bernard Shaw (admittedly he’s on the B-list of worst people since he never killed anybody; he just celebrated people who did).
That much a lot of people know. But the funny part is the line comes from Shaw’s play Back to Methuselah. Specifically, it’s what the Serpent says to Eve in order to sell her on eating the apple and gaining a kind of immortality through sex (or something like that). Of course, Shaw’s Serpent differs from the biblical serpent, because Shaw — a great rationalizer of evil — is naturally sympathetic to the serpent. Still, it’s kind of hilarious that legions of Kennedy worshippers invoke this line as a pithy summation of the idealistic impulse, putting it nearly on par with Kennedy’s nationalistic “Ask Not” riff, without realizing they’re stealing lines from . . . the Devil.
I don’t think this means you can march into the local high school, kick open the door to the student government offices with a crucifix extended, shouting “the power of Christ compels you!” while splashing holy water on every kid who uses that “RFK” quote on his Facebook page. But it is interesting.
Okay, as the loan officer said when the customer pulled out a second duck, this time from his pants: Enough with these digressions already (by the way, you know Mel Brooks could do a yidishkeit musical adaptation of Breaking Bad called “Back to Meth-Use-Bubela”). Where was I? Oh right. Reno. No, wait; Utopia — which is a lot different from Reno. For starters, Utopia doesn’t have nickel slots and the maids at the Motel Six actually clean the rooms and don’t chew tetracycline gum.
Today’s liberals have a utopian impulse but it only comes out in hints and nods. If you look for it, you won’t find it. But if you relax your eyes, like with one of those posters showing hidden spaceships, it will emerge in plain sight. I think the current model for liberal utopianism is the college campus. Particularly for affluent kids who go to elite schools, college is a wonderful time where you “discover” yourself. And there’s a lot of truth to that. But a lot of kids don’t want that experience to end. The problem is that college is a Potemkin existence. It is only possible because of a vast network of wealth-generating forces off campus and under-appreciated hard-working people on campus. As I put it in the magazine:
There’s a certain kind of elite student who takes himself very, very seriously. Raised on a suite of educational TV shows and books that insist he is the most special person in the world — studies confirm that Generation Y is the most egocentric and self-regarding generation in our history — he is away from home for the first time, enjoying his first experience of freedom from his parents. Those same parents are paying for his education, which he considers his birthright. Shelter is provided for him. Janitors and maids clean up after him. Security guards protect him. Cooks shop for him and prepare his food. The health center provides him medical care and condoms aplenty. Administrators slave away at finding new ways for him to have fun in his free time. He drinks with abandon when he wants to, and the consequences of his bacchanalia are usually somewhere between mild and nonexistent. Sex is as abundant as it is varied. If he does not espouse any noticeably conservative or Christian attitudes, his every utterance in the classroom is celebrated as a “valuable perspective.” All that is demanded of him is that he pursue his interests and, perhaps, “find himself” along the way. His ethical training amounts to a prohibition on bruising the overripe self-esteem of another person, particularly a person in good standing with the Coalition of the Oppressed (blacks, Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, et al.). Such offenses are dubbed hate crimes and are punished in a style perfected in Lenin’s utopia: through the politicized psychiatry known as “sensitivity training.”
But even as this sensitivity is being cultivated, the student is stuffed to the gills with cant about the corruption of “the system,” i.e., the real world just outside the gates of his educational Shangri-La. He is taught that it is brave to be “subversive” and cowardly to be “conformist.” Administrators encourage kitschy reenactments of 1960s radicalism by celebrating protest as part of a well-rounded education — so long as the students are protesting approved targets, those being the iniquities of “the system.” There is much Orwellian muchness to it all, since these play-acting protests and purportedly rebellious denunciations of the status quo are in fact the height of conformity.
But it is a comfortable conformity, and this student — who in all likelihood will go into a profession at the pinnacle of the commanding heights of our culture — looks at this Potemkin world and thinks it is the way things are supposed to be. He feels freer than he ever has or ever will again, but that freedom is illusory. He is, in fact, a dependent: All his fundamental needs are met and paid for by others. This is what the political theorists call positive liberty — when someone else gives you a whole pile of stuff so you can be “free” to do whatever you want.
The elite college kids I have in mind are the most dependent people in the world, the beneficiaries of every kind of affluence, financial, social, even civilizational and yet they think they are independent free-agents.
Wage Slaves, No More!
If you think about it, the spin that Obamacare is awesome because it breaks the iron shackles of “job-lock” is a good example of what I am getting at. Via Charlie Cooke I saw this tweet from the Huffington Post’s congressional correspondent, Michael McAuliff:
There’s an irony in the GOP complaining that ACA lets people quit jobs. I mean, what’s wrong with freedom?
There’s a great swirling maelstrom of philosophical fallacy stretching backwards from this tweet like the funnel cloud of a cyclone extending down and backward from a swirling maw of ignorance [“Push away the keyboard and sit out the next few plays” — The Couch]. It assumes that negative liberty — which right-minded people call, simply “liberty” — is, in Charlie’s words, “a mirage.” Government gives you freedom by giving you stuff. This is the logic that says a refusal to subsidize art is censorship; that the failure to provide housing is the same as denying it; that people have a right to have things provided for them they are unwilling to earn themselves. Or as FDR said “necessitous men are not free men.” So when the government gives you stuff you need (or merely want) it is setting you free.
What I like about McAuliff’s tweet is the light and airy sense of the new to it. As if he stumbled onto an insight about conservative objections to positive-liberty arguments that hadn’t occurred to conservatives before. Never mind that this is one of the oldest arguments in political philosophy. (Just for the record, I don’t reject all of the things associated with positive-liberty interventions by the state, I just reject the notion that humans have a “right” to material goods. The state may have obligations moral or legal, but those don’t amount to universal human rights. That’s because rights come from God not from government. We’re not born with material possessions, but we are born with inalienable rights. Confusion on this point has immiserated millions.)
When Nancy Pelosi says that Obamacare is entrepreneurial because it will let people quit their jobs to become poets, you can see the campus utopianism coming through. Quitting your job is like changing your major from business administration to French literature. “You just make the most of yourself, dear,” Dean of Students Pelosi is saying, “we’ll take care of the rest.” Who is Julia — of “Life of Julia” fame — other than a permanent student with the government operating as a sympathetic R.A. or academic adviser? When you read millennial Lefties like this guy, you can almost hear him trying to convince his Model U.N. buddies to stage a sit-in at the cafeteria. Everyone should have a job if they want one, but nobody should have to take a job they don’t like. From design your major to design your life.
Of course, Utopias don’t exist — the word itself means “No Place.” Which is why I love listening to the supposed champions of the “reality-based community” talking as if, with just a tiny bit of tinkering and a few more tax hikes, everything will click into place. Harry Reid said this week that Obamacare will help achieve the goal of making everyone a “free agent.” This from a voluntary thrall of labor unions — who consider free-agency in any form to be heresy — and the chief protector of Obamacare, which denies Americans the freedom to refuse to purchase a product they don’t want.
Eutopias — good societies, not perfect ones — do exist. We live in one as a matter of fact. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. There always is, and always has been. But when you’ve got a good thing, there is almost by definition, no need to “fundamentally transform” it into something else. The utopian can never fully accept this because the good is always the enemy of the perfect. And it’s true that the perfect is better than the merely good in every respect, save one. It doesn’t, and cannot, exist. And dreaming of things that have never been and asking “Why Not?” won’t change that.
So, I am very happy to report Zoë is doing great. Not only does she seem to have kicked the parvo bug (knock on wood), but it appears that a lot of her weird behavioral issues stemmed from the fact that she was just sick from the moment we got her, poor girl. She’s still a bit too fearful of big dogs and — I am a little embarrassed to say — too obsequious to our cats. If it weren’t so humiliating it’d be sweet. She thinks Gracie (the good cat, as opposed to my wife’s cat) should be her playmate. Zoë kind of does this strange growl-howl when Gracie won’t play with her and then rolls around on the floor while Gracie hisses. The good news is that Zoë is very clearly determined to ethnically cleanse the block of squirrels. Anyway thanks very much for your kind notes and support. Here’s your Zoë pic of the week:
Various & Sundry
Speaking Gigs: I don’t have all the details but if you’re in the Boulder area I’ll be speaking at the University of Colorado on February 25. It’ll be open to the public so mark it in your calendars and BYOW (Bring Your Own Weed). And before that, I will be speaking at the Leadership Program of the Rockies and at the Hillsdale National Leadership seminar in Phoenix.
Very cool map of U.S. states renamed for countries with similar GDP.
My brothers, could this not be you?
Cracked has a list of the three most depressing minor characters in major movies. But it leaves out The Gimp from Pulp Fiction. I understand it’s awkward since the man the character is based on is now the vice president of the United States. But come on.