by Victor Davis Hanson
From the Sanctimonious to the Ridiculous
I think sometime this year elite radical environmentalism died. And at about the same time perished also the notion of the man in the mansion as the man on the barricades. Let me explain.
We all know that Al Gore has become a near billionaire through tirelessly warning the Western world that our daily habits have ruined the planet and nearly doomed us. Gore argues that what we take for granted — the too large homes in which we live, the carbon-spewing cars that we drive, the superfluous vacations and energy-hogging appurtenances that we enjoy — are all pernicious to the environment, and unsustainable.
That advocacy — expressed through investments, partnerships, advertising, movies, lectures, books, private companies, ads, and essays — has made Al Gore fabulously wealthy. The recent Climategate scandal concerning fudged science did not affect the religion of Gore, LTD.
Nor did the horrendous natural ash cloud that blanketed Europe — and in unprecedented fashion shut down all European air travel for days — remind a humbled Gore that sometimes nature in a second has the destructive power to alter the very way we live in a way that man does not over decades.
No, what ended the gospel of Gorism was Al Gore himself.
In this context, the recently purchased Gore second mansion at Montecito, in Oprah country, is of some national interest. Why would Gore purchase a second energy-guzzling estate, replete with several fireplaces, fountains and bathrooms, when he was stung so badly about his hypocritically profligate energy use in his Tennessee compound, his houseboat, and his private-jet junketeering? Does he understand that his newest mansion is a sort of volcanic ash-cloud that has now overwhelmed Earth in the Balance, Inc?
Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
The answer is sort of important, because it is emblematic of the decline of liberalism over the last thirty years. Collate the anti-capital rants of a zillionaire currency speculator George Soros, the green sermons from a late Ted Kennedy who stopped a wind farm from marring his vacation home’s views, a John Edwards of “two nations” fame constructing a Neronian Golden House, a Tom Friedman warning of the consumer habits that lead to a hot, flat earth from a 10,000 square foot English-style estate of the sort that 18th-century English barons built after successful careers in the Raj, the comic case of Jeremiah Wright moving to a mostly white golf course to dream up more sermons about “white folks’ greed runs a world in need,” or a $5 million-a-year earning Obama — with all his expenses picked up by the government — lamenting out loud why rich people seem to want ever more money they don’t need. Some spread the wealth around.
We can call this malady Gorism — living not merely at odds with your zealotry, but living entirely against your zealotry — and it seems to reflect a few assumptions of the modern progressive elite that are not mutually exclusive:
a) Penances and Indulgences. A life professed spectacularly at odds with one lived seems a psychological mechanism akin to medieval penance. The sinner finds exculpation through loud confession of, or material payment for, his sins. And the payment is not just for past hypocrisies, but works preemptively — in the expectation of present and future enjoyments to come once the pay-as-you-go formula is established: one new docudrama about a polar bear trapped on a melting ice shelf, one new mansion in and about Santa Barbara.
The more spectacularly Mr. Gore’s veins bulge, the more he hits the high notes with “digital brownshirts” and “he lied to us!,” and the more he weeps over shrinking ice caps and coastlines on the rise, the more these manors — and others to come — become morally acceptable. In other words, gallantly bearing the environmental cross more than earns the Gores’ hot tub and Pacific view. By now, given the decade of Gore’s indulgences, I think he can do just about whatever he pleases and still enter the green fields of Elysium.
b) The Guardian Mystique. Plato’s Guardians at least took on some sort of sacrifice as the price to dictate to others. Our new ones do not. Al Gore has convinced himself that if he is to triple his productivity on our behalf, he really must, from time to time, endure a ride on a private, carbon-spewing jet — to ensure that there are fewer carbon-spewing jets.
If he were to fly commercial economy class, just imagine the cramped quarters, the bad food, the missed flights that would all result in one less documentary, one less speech — and soon an extra degree or two in global warming. A John Edwards cannot get the details right on universal, socialized medicine for the poor, unless he has something like “John’s room,” a 4,000 sq. ft. hideaway within the Golden House, where the mix of calm and electronic appurtenances allow him to work efficiently on our behalf.
Obama can talk of “redistributive change,” “spread the wealth,” and “at a certain point you’ve made enough money” (e.g., did Obama last year stop at $3 million?) — but only if he is freed up from the worry of making ends meet.
In other words, anointed progressives all need a little help if they are going to suffer and work so hard on our behalf. Think Hadrian’s Villa and our emperors writing out imperial directives on our behalf among colonnades and songbirds.
c) The Disconnect. A third element is classic narcissism, or delusions of divinity. The Julio-Claudians somehow convinced themselves that they were godlike and different from mere mortal Romans, and therefore their tastes were actually quite mundane given their deification (sort of like Trimalchio’s ice during a Pompeian summer). Al Gore since 2001 has been given such attention, made so much money, exercised such influence, and experienced such adulation, that by now he really does see himself as a sort of Zeus on Olympus. In that context, a $9 million second cottage is nada — and neither is a week on a Gulfstream 550. John Kerry’s fleet of SUVs and nearly a dozen retreats for us are sumptuous, but for Sen. John Kerry nothing all that great. In other words, elite progressives surround themselves with elite progressives. While they seek psychological exemption for their excess, and while they justify their sumptuary indulgences as necessary perks for their public benefaction, they also very soon simply lose touch. By now a hilltop home at Montecito for an Al Gore is no more than a tract house for the rest of us.
d) The Right Does it — so Why Not Us? At one point, Al Gore defended his indefensible hypocrisy by snapping that at least he was putting his money where his mouth was by investing in green technologies — sort of like a Mafioso defending his vast drug empire by confessing to an occasional snort or two, or Louis XIV defending Versailles by claiming at least he did not build such a palatial compound in Great Britain. In other words, the elite left — cf. Bill Clinton’s nearly decade-long tawdry global jetting to hit the $100 million figure for honoraria, or Chris Dodd’s taste for ill-gotten Irish cottages, or Charles Rangel’s weird tax-free Caribbean rentals — sees that aristocrats and oligarchs on the right live lives of excess all the time. And these selfish conservatives are people who aren’t even for universal healthcare, affirmative action, or cap and trade! So if the Republican elite can be bad and still live the good life, why can’t the left too who is so good?
And the Wages of All This?
I have referred in the past to the old farming adage of “an upfront crook” being preferable to a smoother hypocritical one. In the early 1980s, Sun-Maid Raisin Cooperative, in the months leading up to its bankruptcy and confiscation of the growers’ revolving fund, used to send us slick brochures, praising its overpaid executives, and a bloated and overpaid work force, who both were “working for the farmer” — e.g., the poor bankrupt raisin growers who thought a cooperative meant shared sacrifice in order to achieve greater long-term profitability. But very soon, we all noticed that the hard-nosed, legendary private packers, who despised cooperatives and those in them, were paying farmers more in upfront money for a ton of raisins that our hallowed Sun-Maid communitarian enterprise ever did over two years. When my blasphemous neighbor quit Sun-Maid and sold for cash, he laughed to me, “You’ll always do better with an upfront crook.” He was right.
I think we can deal with Richard Fuld and the Goldman-Sachs bunch. Ken Lay at Enron was a caricature of a conservative sybarite. All were identifiable for the moral obtuseness and a certain sort of unapologetic greed.
But the combination of liberalism with excess wins the additional charges of insincerity and hypocrisy — and seems to make natural human indulgence all that much more distasteful and hard to criticize.
It is difficult to adjudicate which is worse — greed or hypocrisy. Was a Timothy Geithner more odious because he sought to shave off for himself a few thousands from his taxes, or because as a soon-to-be Sec. of the Treasury and formerly high federal official, he was doing things that his offices are supposed to ensure others do not?
Yet the resulting combination is far greater than the mere sum of the two parts. You see, professed liberal humanitarianism and old fashioned “get mine” breed cynicism among the populace. If one were to believe Al Gore that there is a danger of manmade global warming and we all need to cut back, one might well lose faith when one sees that Al Gore lives differently from the way in which he has convinced you to live. And if one sees that the advocates for forced equality most certainly don’t want to be forced to do anything they advocate, then what are we left with?
Nothing on the national scene has proven more ironic than to see a thin liberal veneer masking traditional self-interest. Crusty conservatives of the more honest sort justified their own riches by the old, much caricatured notion that their hard work and brains trickled wealth down to us poorer that otherwise we would not have; or that they fight in a free arena and anyone brave enough to go out there and battle the lions is likewise free to enjoy their sort of rewards; or that life is inherently tragic and unfair — some succeed and others fail — and to ensure an equality of result usually entails a despotic enforcer and a growing pile of corpses.
I think I prefer an up-front profiteer to Al Gore’s sermons from Montecito. It was why I too finally left Sun-Maid.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson