by Victor Davis Hanson
Such a Prudishly Crass Society
I was watching cable television about 5 PM on a Friday night, channel surfing between commercials on the Western station.Sandwiched between regular cinema programming were several channels with what could legitimately be called light porn motifs. I then surfed through a confessional about phallic enhancement and a couple talking about herbal remedies for impotence.
Once I got out of that channel cluster, and went into the 200s, here and there came up infomercials on everything from how to buy foreclosures with no money down, how to get out of credit card debt, how to avoid taxes, and how to default on housing payments without hurting your credit. The talking heads looked just like those hawking natural Viagra a few channels earlier, and indeed were hawking the same instant gratification, sober faces advising radical conduct.
By the time I got back three minutes later to the Western channel, the Maverick episode was extolling the virtues of honesty and keeping one’s word. Television, in other words, is a cesspool. To channel surf through it to find an old Western, one has to take an antiseptic shower afterwards.
Are We Victorians or Libertines?
I bring this up because I am somewhat baffled by the reaction to this week’s news. Take poor Governor Sanford. The only excuse for the hysteria over his trip could be possible use of state funds for personal travel, or taking vacation time without logging it in, or unauthorized leave. All are serious breaches of professional conduct.
But “adultery” during a separation? This entire popular culture transcended fornication years ago when it decided that tampons, Viagra, and Extend were fair game for commercial television. Our children know more about sexuality than our grandparents.
Can one think of very many politicians who were not guilty of some sort of adultery — Ted Kennedy? John Edwards? Bill Clinton? Newt Gringrich? Rudy Giuliani? John McCain? In a California governor’s race or during the Presidential primaries the oddity is always the non-adulterer. I am being descriptive not sermonizing.
Our greatest icons — Jefferson, JFK, FDR — at times conducted private affairs in a manner that this society would have sensationalized, a society that in fact is far more tawdry and without the decorum of the past.
I don’t know the circumstances of the Sanford marriage, but the notion that a culture that has deified sex, only to become “shocked” in Casablanca-like fashion that an official would reflect contemporary values is surreal. If this were 1910 or even 1950, I too would be shocked; but once our culture chose to elevate sex to Olympian status, why does it insist on Plymouth Rock reactions to the logical result of its own values and emphases?
How Did Mr. Jackson Live so Long?
I am sorry Michael Jackson passed away, but baffled when sober commentators pontificate about what the “autopsy findings” will bring, and note his sometimes bizarre behavior. Does one think?
Again, with all due respect, it was hard to see clips of Michael Jackson in a normal mode — without the singer grabbing and/or pointing to his genitals or whispering in an infantile voice. (Another strange thing was to see Jackson on mainstream television at an awards ceremony gesticulating in a genital-obsessed fashion that apparently was just “dance” and good fare for senior citizens as if it were Ed Sullivan hour again).
I don’t think many of us have ever invited small boys over for conversation in our bedrooms, or traveled with a small city across town. He seemed in a perpetual drug daze, whether holding a child over a balcony or wearing pajamas to court. That surely took a toll in addition to the travel and performance.
“Drugs? — I’m Shocked!”
Once again, we idolize a rather troubled, odd icon, and then are surprised that he perishes after an injection of Demerol. I have had about 10 major kidney stone episodes and two operations. On one occasion I was given an injection of Demerol in a Greek hospital and immediately entered into a zombie-like, four hour trance. The notion that any living person could inject Demerol while on antidepressants, muscle-relaxants, anti-anxiety drugs, and another opiate pain-killer is a testament to one’s constitution — or luck that he could survive one day of such torture. (Had we given Jackson’s cocktail to the Gitmo prisoners, well, fill in the blanks…). So, the mystery is rather how did Mr. Jackson live so long? A quarter of that drug regimen would kill most of us instantly. Again, popular culture idolizes certain postmodern traits and then turns Victorian when their tab comes due.
The Worst of Both Worlds
The point? We live in an age without rules only to reinvent them at a whim. A prudish society does not invest billions in Botox, reconstructive surgery, and sexual enhancement; yet a Gomorrah does not demand public contrition for sexual intercourse outside of marriage. I am not passing moral judgment as much as confused about the consistency, and puzzled over what are the exact rules, if any any more.
In the old days — sin being ageless and inherent in human nature — FDR simply kept his private life private, and most in the media complied. In a better age, the fact that he died near someone not his spouse was incidental and went unreported. Most in theory might object to the President’s adultery, but in fact did not care to know — inasmuch as they did not know the full details of the Roosevelt marriage and did not demand to find out.
We live in a Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde world-stifling prudery without the resulting prim and proper behavior; free love without the accompanying absence of shame and social stricture.
California Baffles Me Too
Here it goes again: The state has unbounded natural wealth. It has the nation’s largest population. Its economy is the most diversified. California should be awash in cash, given that both its income and sales taxes are also the highest in the United States. Instead its deficit is also the largest in the nation.
Economists, of course, have explained why the state is broken — and their exegeses are truly multifaceted, a perfect storm of sorts: State government is far too large. Employees enjoy pensions and compensation far above that found in private enterprise. Spending exceeds the rate of growth and inflation. Plentiful oil is not drilled; rich farmland is taken out of production; available timber is not always logged; nuclear power is shunned; key roads are delayed; natural wealth is considered nature’s, not man’s; yet men are not to live natural lives.
We spend more on criminal justice and incarceration than any other state. Entitlements are more generous than elsewhere. There are nearly five million illegal aliens in the state; Los Angeles is the second largest city of Mexican nationals in the world, with the accompanying expense of thousands of illegal aliens without legality, English, or higher education. A brain drain means that 300-400,000 workers with specialized skills and/or BA degrees in disgust leave the state each year; nearly an equal number of those without education enter.
Regulations on business are far too complex and burdensome, and geared toward employee litigation. I could go on, but all this is well known. Daily columnists write about “California — the Canary in the Mine.” They shower us with statistics about the above, with the theme that we already know where Obamanomics will soon lead.
I write only to suggest that many of us do not need statistics, but long ago sensed the state was unsustainable. Here are some of the symptoms that struck me the last few years.
I watched the UC and CSU systems create untold numbers of new administration jobs, staff them with incompetents that had no market value in private enterprise, and lavish $100,000 salaries with generous benefits as they contributed nothing to the teaching of students.
I would see four or five in the parking lot get into their state cars (I remember the local scandal of the mammoth administrator SUVs replete with boat hitches and tow packages) and wonder — how can a state afford a million dollars for that bunch who bring us nothing in return? (California Rule One: Most California executives would gladly work for two-thirds of what they receive, given the absence of commensurate offers from the private sector).
Worse, when the inevitable budget cuts came, these same four would send us memos, advise us to warn the public, and terrify the electorate with stories of social collapse if taxes were not raised to “save the kids.” In response, they would lay off the Russian professor, cut the part-time history teachers (all gifted, teaching for us for ten cents on the dollar), and then decry a “greedy voter.” (California Rule Two: To save the superfluous, the essential will always be cut.)
We in the state soon were used to the modus operandi. A well-paid functionary threatens financial Armageddon unless taxes are raised, issues edicts cutting essential services, and then sort of chuckles when proposed cuts incur hysteria: the subtext being that you will burn in your homes, be mugged on the street, have no garbage service unless you continue to pay me $150,000 a year — with a $100,000 pension for life to administrate, counsel, adjudicate, pontificate, and excoriate.
The problem was not just that there were too many employees per se, or even too many overpaid employees (many in fact were hard-working and underpaid), but rather too many who simply did absolutely nothing constructive at all at the top of the pay scales. (California Rule Three: There are no private counterparts to California’s top state jobs.)
About 1995 I walked into a packing-house of a friend — dozens packing fruit, fork-lift driving, and engaged in frenzied production to ensure all of us fresh produce. The owner mentioned that four regulators had come that day: one to inspect the fruit (fair enough), one to check safety (sorta fair enough), one to monitor minimum wages (kinda sorta fair enough), and one to inspect chemical storage. All in theory necessary, all costly since the regulators were far better paid with state cars than the workers.
When I pointed that out, my friend laughed and added that three of his employees (he pointed to them) had sued him for various disabilities and work-related injuries over the past two years: he could not fire them, they were back at work, and apparently quite healthy. I thought at the time: this is all wonderful in a perfect world, but who shall pay for it all? (California Rule Four: The more someone toils to keep the state going, the more the state tries to destroy him.)
An Hispanic student from Phoenix once complained to me that he paid three times the level of tuition as did many resident illegal aliens in my class, and added when he went to central services to object, they instead advised shortcuts on obtaining California residency so that he too could obtain discounted tuition. (California Rule Five: The state that nourishes you incurs disdain rather than loyalty.)
I gave a talk years ago in the Santa Barbara hills and joked to the audience that I was glad to see there were still a few oil platforms out in the bay. Not silence, but furor followed that bad joke. Yet as I left, as I mentioned once before, the parking lot was full of SUVs. Where did the gas come from?
This weird “they” is what killed California, the notion that somewhere in a room a group of plutocrats sits on bags on ill-gotten gold and can be dragged out and forced to cough up bullion in tough times. Do we believe that the Big Four of Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins, and Crocker are still around, hoarding half of the state’s resources? (Rule Six: No matter how broke California becomes, there is always someone else somewhere who can and should pay for others.)
Once during a brief teaching sojourn at Berkeley, a biology student struck up a conversation. He was talking about a class he had that dealt with the ecology of San Francisco Bay. I heard what I realize only now was an early explanation of why we are idling thousands of acres to keep the Delta smelt alive: this strange combination of utopian demands for pristine landscapes coupled with the assumption that 36 million daily can go down to a Whole Earth co-op and buy cheap, organic fruit in abundance. (California Rule Seven: Stopping production for environmental reasons nevertheless should result in increased production.)
What killed California-the same old schizophrenia we see everywhere in our want-it-all society: I expect A to be provided by B, and, if not, I will blame “them.”
©2009 Victor Davis Hanson