Politics & Policy

Sandy’s War

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a march organized by the Women’s March Alliance in Manhattan, N.Y., January 19, 2019. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)
The Green New Deal makes every progressive an armchair general

‘This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) says about her so-called Green New Deal. The marketing material published in support of the concept — and that’s all the Green New Deal is: an advertising campaign without a product — offers what passes for soaring rhetoric anno Domini 2019, calling for a “new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II.”

This is Sandy’s War.

In my forthcoming book, The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics, I consider an observation from Erich Fromm, the Marxist-Freudian social critic whose Escape from Freedom was required reading only a generation ago. (It remains worth reading.) Fromm believed that the disruption of the medieval social order by the early stirrings of what we would come to call “capitalism” left Europeans of all classes uncertain and anxious about their status: social, political, economic, and religious. He connected this to the rise of Protestantism and also to the genesis of something much more relevant to our own disruption-convulsed culture of social-media obsession:

This underlying insecurity resulting from the position of an isolated individual in a hostile world tends to explain the genesis of a character trait which was . . . characteristic of the individual of the Renaissance and not present, at least in the same intensity, in the member of the medieval social structure: his passionate craving for fame. If the meaning of life has become doubtful, if one’s relations to others and to oneself do not offer security, then fame is one means to silence one’s doubts. It has a function to be compared with that of the Egyptian pyramids or the Christian faith in immortality: it elevates one’s individual life from its limitations and instability to the plane of indestructibility; if one’s name is known to one’s contemporaries and if one can hope that it will last for centuries, then one’s life has meaning and significance by this very reflection of it in the judgments of others.

One of the more amusing psychotic delusions of our time is that reputation is quantifiable, and that this quantum represents a mathematical identity with one’s human value in toto. Talk-radio hosts boast about their audience size or their podcast downloads as a stand-in for credibility; Donald Trump brags (and, often enough, lies) about the size of the crowds he draws or the ratings of broadcasts with which he is associated in a way that very much calls to mind simpler male boasts involving ordinary rulers, and at the same time he mocks the “failing New York Times” — which is not actually failing at all — as though the truth or falsehood of its reports were reflected in its circulation numbers. Similar jibes were pointed at the much-missed Weekly Standard, even as people of no particular account believe themselves to be figures of some consequence because they have as many Twitter followers as a B-list film actor. Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s admirers — and more than a few of her critics — note approvingly that she is a capable user of Twitter, as though this somehow liberated her from such quotidian congressional concerns as knowing how a bill becomes a law or what it is the House of Representatives in fact does. Max Boot, whiling noting her deficiencies, admiringly describes her as a “social-media blackbelt.”

These people are unknowing followers of Bishop Berkeley, who insisted: “To be is to be seen.” The vice associated with that appears in exaggerated form in the manners of Millennials who cannot drink a cocktail or eat a dessert without photographing it, publishing the photograph, and anxiously minding the tally of how many people — and people of what status — engage with it. Appropriate word, engage — it is one part business and one part romance: a “prior engagement” can mean two very different things. (That is true of many words in these weird times: Architectural Digest used to write about such-and-such an architect or designer and “the space he shares with his partner, Bill” and it was never clear whether they were in business together or in bed together. Thank goodness for gay marriage.) The disastrously unsuccessful social experiment of the early 21st century has been attempting to substitute hundreds or thousands of superficial and transitory instant relationships for genuine community and family, which require time and a different kind of effort to cultivate. Like Fromm’s medieval burghers, they live in a time of uncertainty and status anxiety, and so they seek big, important things to which to attach themselves: big crowds on social media, big crises in politics. Which is to say, the passionate and fanatical denunciation of “climate deniers” or billionaires or Mike Pence’s wife is only the Instagram photo of the braised beef cheeks at Hunky Dory in political disguise: consumption that literally could not be more conspicuous.

Eric Hoffer, author of The True Believer, offered observations similar to those of Fromm, linking what would become the two most powerful forces in our community life today: glory and hatred:

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both.

Related — and, again, the application to the contemporary mode of social intercourse associated with social media is obvious — Hoffer writes:

Glory is largely a theatrical concept. There is no striving for glory without a vivid awareness of an audience. . . . The desire to escape or camouflage their unsatisfactory selves develops in the frustrated a facility for pretending — for making a show — and also a readiness to identify themselves wholly with an imposing spectacle.

“Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” is, at 16 syllables, a mouthful. The day before yesterday, she was “Sandy,” a pleasant-seeming young woman who liked to dance, worked in a bar, worried about her family, and chafed that her advantages and elite education (Boston University shares Case Western’s academic ranking and is significantly more expensive than Princeton: Is there a more appropriate preparation for life in Washington?) left her struggling, obscure, and unsatisfied. And so she set after glory and personal significance in politics, to which she is relatively new — the hatreds and grievances she dotes on are obvious enough and familiar enough that one assumes she has been in possession of those for some time. They are not newly acquired.

If you spend enough time around politics and/or media, you have seen this figure before. Years ago, a young woman beginning what would turn out to be a successful turn on the Washington cursus honorum asked me, earnestly: “Is it wrong to want to be famous?” I asked her what she intended to do with the celebrity she sought — for what purpose did she want it? “Why?” The question obviously had never occurred to her. I might as well have asked her why she wanted two eyes rather than one. She has a lot of Twitter followers now.

War is the most ancient avenue of glory, but it isn’t for everyone: Many of our progressive friends believe that American military might is a force for evil in the world, and that the military itself is malevolent, backward, and hateful. But there are war substitutes and war analogues to be had. My friend and colleague Jonah Goldberg is the poet laureate of “meow” — the Moral Equivalent of War — and its baleful effects on our political thinking and discourse. The concept, he writes,

has been the central idea of American liberalism for over 100 years: from John Dewey’s “social benefits of war,” to Woodrow Wilson’s “war socialism,” to FDR’s explicit embrace of martial organization to fight the Great Depression, to the New Frontier and the War on Poverty, straight up to Barack Obama’s call for America to be more like Seal Team Six. Instead, I just asserted it in a single sentence. The idea can simply be understood as the progressive version of nationalism, minus the word “nationalism.” When you say, “We’re all in it together” or, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” you’re making a nationalist argument, even if you think, as so many liberals do, that the word itself is icky.

While many causes associated with the moral equivalent of war are well-intentioned and honorable in spirit (fighting poverty, conservation, etc.), the problem with the idea itself is that it is totalitarian — in a psychological, if not always in a political, sense.

Meow has many cynical political uses: If every political opponent is the moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler, if every political initiative tantamount to D-Day, then there is much that can be excused in the way of underhandedness, rhetorical excess, demagoguery, and the like. As Goldberg reminds us, war and war alone has been the great champion of socialism, because it provides an emergency pretext for the authoritarian project of reorganizing an organic society in accordance with the necessarily synthetic model decocted from ideology, bias, bigotry, eccentricity, and the self-interest, always unavoidable, of the planners empowered with drawing up the blueprints of this or that brave new world or utopia.

And, hence, the Green New Deal: Our war, requiring a “new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II.” Under whose command? That of Field Marshal Sandy, of course.

About the details of the Green New Deal, such as they are, there is not really much to say. On Friday, I spoke with one of the world’s leading authorities on North American building practices and asked him about the plan to “retrofit” these structures in the service of a “net-zero energy” agenda. Neither “scathing” nor “derisive” quite captures his response. He has been involved in a number of net-zero retrofits and understands how complex and expensive they are — and how they can destroy a building when done poorly. Ask a farmer, an aerospace engineer, the manager of an electric utility, or a truck-driver about these highfalutin’ schemes and sentiments and you will get another superfluous proof of Robert Conquest’s maxim — “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best” — and Williamson’s First Law: “Everything is simple if you don’t know a f*****g thing about it.”

But the call for a World War II–level national deployment in the service of an old, tired, hackneyed, shopworn Democrat-socialist wish-list is not about reversing the trend of climate change (China and India operate independent of American policy) or even about redistributing wealth or aggrandizing the power of petty politicians, as attractive as those things are to the low-minded and meretricious class of people who can hypnotize others — and very often themselves — with shiny objects found in any gutter. Field Marshal Sandy needs a great cause to which to attach herself, lest she return to being only Sandy, obscure and unhappy and of no consequence — or at least no consequence obvious enough for someone with her crippled understanding of what life is for.

In times of war and crisis, or other instances of high drama, life is dominated by public affairs, and it is in public life that one seeks glory and meaning. But ours are not times of that kind, however much we insist on trying to convince ourselves that they are. These are times of relative peace and plenty. In times such as these, the ordinary thing would be for Cincinnatus to return to his plow, and domestic affairs would take their rightful place at the center of life, including at the center of a community life of which politics is only a minor part. But private life has been much diminished by the decline of marriage and family, and by the abandonment of institutions ranging from churches to social clubs. Private life also has been colonized: partly by the social-media culture that treats every afternoon latte or trip to the beach as subject matter for a running documentary of limited interest, and also by an expansive and metastatic form of politics that insists that the personal really is the political, to the extent that there is no sphere of genuinely private life at all: If you happen to be the parent of a kid who was standing near another kid who had an expression on his face that somebody didn’t like, then there very well may be an organized political campaign to ruin you economically, as in the matter of the children from Covington Catholic visiting Washington a few weeks ago. Domestic life is not happy, satisfactory, or even safe.

And so we have the grand game of make-believe and moral dress-up, in which Field Marshal Sandy rallies her troops on Twitter in the service of a half-organized bouquet of slogans and prejudices that no mentally normal adult — and there are still a few of those around — takes quite seriously. The purported goal of the great national deployment isn’t the point — the deployment itself is. It is an excuse for a great deal of noise and running in circles and excitation and displays of Very High Moral Seriousness that is its own reason for being. Sandy’s war is not a struggle over the future of Earth — it is only a struggle over the future of Sandy, and all the other Sandys out there in the great vast wilds of America, waiting tables at TGI Friday’s or grinding away in the obscurity of some master’s program in women’s studies, sure that however things were supposed to turn out, they weren’t supposed to turn out like this, a mess of loneliness and pointlessness, all dressed up for battle with nowhere to go and no comfort but Netflix and Facebook and Twitter, little fixes of dopamine just strong enough and frequent enough to keep the addicts upright and sedated enough that they do not begin asking the really difficult questions and demanding answers.

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