by Victor Davis Hanson
After outlining some “bad” trends — the conservative abandonment of budgetary restraint, the new liberal-Wall-Street nexus, the rise of therapeutic excuse-making for substandard behavior — I now offer three “ugly” trends. These are not merely bad, but sort of creepy as well. Don’t despair — I’ll end with some good developments on the next posting.
I) The Corruption of the Press. We have no media — at least as we once knew it. Somewhere in late 2007, it disappeared entirely, and became something akin to the old Pravda, or the livelier Baghdad Bob’s broadcasts, or the rants of Lord Haw-Haw. (We got everything from Judith Warner about the dreams of women having sex with Obama to “I felt this thrill going up my leg” Chris Matthews).
For the short-term thrill of ensuring the coronation of Barack Obama, it gave up all hard-won standards of journalistic objectivity — so much so that it is hard to adjudicate whether the rise of the Internet alone, or the clear bias of the print media, has nearly destroyed the newspaper industry.
Few any longer connect with a Newsweek editorial, a Time essay, a riff from NPR, or commentary on PBS. The front pages of the New York Times orWashington Post are op-eds in thin disguise. The faculty of the Columbia School of Journalism is not objective. We live in an age of affluent, rather inbred ironists who punch in at the Ministry of Truth, and the result is that about half of the population still wakes up every morning and sighs when they turn on the television, listen to the radio news, or read the newspaper, “He’s lying” or “She’s biased”. The utopian ends of social egalitarianism for the new media lords justified the tawdry means of distorting reality.
Now we have those in Congress talking about saving the newspapers by making them “non-profit,” tax-free entities that will drop political endorsements! That rather insane notion would have three deleterious effects:
1) The papers would become even harder one-sided and Left, once market forces were eliminated and the now soon to be unemployed could find federal media tenure doing, at best, what NPR does, and, at worst, having a sinecure at something public, but analogous to Air America. Oh yes, crede mihi, tax-free newspapers will be very biased.
2) A quasi-public print media will become even more incompetent. Think a very big DMV newsletter. Or perhaps a sort of tax-free sinecure for high-paid federal employees who make more at less stress than their private counterparts. Imagine a tax-exempt, quasi-public New York Times, running telethons, praising their public service investigatory work, begging for donations as they sell cups, plates, hats, etc., with scads of G-15 employees manning the phone banks on money-raising day, a Bill Moyers or senior journalist like Marvin Kalb extolling the courage of the new Times.
3) More fossilization of the economy. Not all the harness-fabricators morphed into tractor producers, but in our new wisdom all newspapers will become — what? I simply don’t know. We are trying to ossify American society at about 1965 in the age of LBJ, as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid prove to be the most reactionary politicians in a half-century.
In the meantime, we are beginning to see that the media is about to add humiliation to its moral failure, as it grasps that once you worship a Messiah, you cannot leave the cult. Mr. Obama tolerates no dissent among the believers. The recent Obama press conference showed what happens to the shunned New York Times or Washington Post once you even consider climbing over the fence of the compound. What were these sycophants thinking as they watched Obama produce all sorts of bogus figures in assuring that tripling the deficit, then halving it will translate into lessening the present red-ink? Again, imagine a sequel to the Wizard of Oz, where everyone goes on thinking that the floating image on the screen with the smoke really is Oz, despite seeing the tiny man behind the curtain with his hands busy with the levers. The media knows what they’ve become, and already have seen the flip side of their one-eye Jack — and is now trapped in culthood.
II) Universities. Uglier still is what is going on in universities. Higher education in the humanities has devolved into a sort of indoctrination/reeducation camp, on the following apologia: the corporation, the family, the church, the military, the government are illiberal. So in our precious, rare chance to have the nation’s youth for a brief four years, we the professoriate have to offset, balance, offer an antithesis to these dominant conservative cultures. So, presto, we cannot be biased since we the anointed are the corrective to the bias.
Science and math hold out (it’s hard to suggest a postmodern Pythagorean theory would pass muster, or houses could rest on ideological constructs of phallocentric power machinations), and still ensure America’s universities are world-class as the partisan, ossified humanities departments piggy-bank on the reputation established by others.
We sadly assume that the higher one’s office in the university — full professor to dean to provost to president — the more likely one has mastered doublespeak. There are no longer real contentious issues, there is only one correct all-encompassing ideology — America’s history is largely race/class/gender exploitation; gay marriage and abortion on demand are civil rights issues of our times; diversity and affirmative action trump disinterested examination of merit; greedy capitalists have smoked the planet for their limos and private jets; improving student “profile,” not demonstration of character and competence, ensures promotion.
The odd thing is that those who excel at all this don’t even seem happy about it. They are empty suits, proverbial ‘hollow men’ without belief who have about as much self-respect for their habitual falsity as the Wall Street guy at AIG who assures his investors his company’s liability is manageable. After all, you cannot make $100,000 a year for 9 months work, with lifelong ensured employment, full benefits, and no daily audit — and seriously believe that you are perennially manning the barricades at the tip of the revolutionary spear.
What might yet restore the university? Transparency would be a small start. Release the test scores, grades, etc. of those who are admitted (we can do that without the individual names). Suggest, in this new age of AIG-accountability, that those institutions that take public funds release full budgetary figures, not percentages, but real detailed expenditures. Cut public funding off for students after four years. Replace tenure with five-year renewable contracts. Have exit exams for graduating seniors (half might well flunk basic benchmarks for math and fundamental English).
As it is now, most colleges expect alumni to give blindly — assuming that they are to remain unaware of the nature of the faculty profile, the content of the curriculum, or the activities of the universities — on the premise that any would-be donor, had he known what his alma mater was up to, would not like to subsidize classes like “The poetics of the low-rider,” or faculty like Ward Churchill (most colleges have a few), or $50,000 and up paid out for a 45-minute “I hate Bush” rant by Michael Moore at the student union, or 139-5 faculty senate votes (like Saddam’s plebiscites) on extraneous issues like gay marriage. Yes, there is humor in higher education. Nothing is weirder to see a provost head-nod among a wacked-out faculty meeting, then put on a suit and rush off to a five-star restaurant to reassure an aging capitalist that the university is a steward of American values. It reminds me of Petronius’s description of Croton.
III) Europeanization. I don’t know quite what the allure of Europe is for the American Left. But it seems to be that more of us will soon all be working for the government, habitually striking, hunting out that rare capitalist in hiding for a shake-down, and bitching over our weary 35 hr. work week.
Yet without hardship, challenge, and hope, the individual dies daily. Once the government ensures that all your needs will be taken care of, from your teeth and joints to job and retirement, ennui sets in, and with it the cargo we see in Europe — pacifism, cynicism, the loss of transcendence marked by atheism and childlessness, and worry about what others have rather than what you aspire to.
A Dutch friend once asked me why we Americans work 2-3 jobs. I replied to leave something better for our children than what we inherited. He answered, “But why? They will be taken care of by the state.” But if one does not have a vision of building something big, a thing that will last, endure, or at least appreciating such audacity in others, then we will be sentenced to live crummy, little lives of punching in at the government clock, perennially worried that someone else has something marginally better in our view than what we were allotted. It’s like running a race in which the goal is that all the runners cross the finish line at the same time, corner-eyes fixed on each other, scared to death that some trouble-maker might bolt out ahead.
So strange (or not so strange, after all?) that the liberal impulse in postwar Europe led to millions living in nearly identical houses and apartments, driving the same sort of cars, thinking about the same (their parties are like the feuds and squabbles among the Democratic Party here at home), and exuding the identical teen-age petulance when events belie the gospel.
We can see what Europeanization leads to: you worship at the altar of the goddess Pax, but hate the United States for still having a military that saves postmodern you from premodern others. You praise diversity, but are terrified of unassimilated Middle East Muslims thriving in your midst, who unlike you, really do believe in something and it’s not Western liberalism. You praise openness and tolerance, but demonize anyone who questions orthodoxy, whether it be global warming or the efficacy of state redistribution. You rant about class and privilege, but live private lives of secret values predicated on status, aristocratic pedigree, and rank.
Europeanization is so at odds with human nature that it bifurcates it — a false public face, a cynical private one. (I used to love living in Greece, going to the beach in the summer as a student and seeing all these socialist public power, phone, water, bank, etc., vans parked as their left-wing employees “got away” for some downtime around 2 PM — or being told I could hire a public worker after hours for cash for a phone installation rather than wait 9 months on “the list”.) Marxist at the day-job, conniving entrepreneur in the night hours.
It seems that in just 60 days we are heading that way — fast. These gargantuan deficits will require the most insidious taxes (on everything, as in the age of Augustus) we have yet witnessed, to make up the soon to be $20 trillion national debt. Universal health care, college for everyone, government jobs will mean a vast array of technocrati and less-skilled overseers and guardians. Less defense, higher taxes, more social spending, bigger government will expand the public sector to such a degree that to dismantle it will result in the sort of European mass protests and strikes we see daily in Greece or France when a poor fool like Sarkozy thinks it could be 1950 again, and wants to head-off pension insolvency, or bring back a 40 hour work week to the subway drivers.
The one positive? Have any of you met a disenchanted European who emigrated to the States, or lives a life of near isolation in Europe? They are almost hyper-American in their free market and democratic zeal. So full of anger at what their nation under the E.U. has become, they appear nearly fanatical in their allegiance to the free market, merit, free-thinking, liberty, and Western traditions. I have met dozens and they are the most remarkably competent individuals that I have come across in my lifetime — sort of the last few with unsnatched bodies dodging the zombies of Europe. I only wish we would offer instant citizenship status for these highly educated, highly trained, highly motivated but disconnected Europeans. We could lure 20 million in one fell swoop if we offered fast-track legal American citizenship — and reap the technological and entrepreneurial dividends for a half century to come.
Next posting. The good — and there are lots of good developments. So don’t despair.
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson