Friday, August 20, 2010

The Way It Wasn't

There is a rising tide of conservative (of both the neo- and paleo- varieties) commentary centered around one main theme: Obama is ruining the country. Which is to say, even though things weren't perfect up until his inauguration, they were still basically OK... but Obama and his henchmen intend to change all that, and they are doing so with upsetting rapidity. In fact, we may be past the point of no return, which means we're doomed! And, how did "we" ever let things come to this sorry pass?

Well... the first problem with this idea is that it comes up every time there's a Democratic president, going at least as far back as FDR. And yes, each of them contributed to the slow descent to where we find ourselves today... but being on the verge of socialism, collectivism, and tyranny is nothing new. We were at that point during FDR's time, and Truman's... maybe not so much JFK's, but definitely Johnson's... Carter's in some ways... certainly Clinton's... and now Obama's. Which is to say, we've been on the same "verge" for decades now... but somehow never seem to completely fall into the black pit of despair. For one thing, at any given point one can always say that things were better before -- so they couldn't have been completely bad at that time, could they?

There are numerous possible reasons for all of this. One is what Thomas Sowell called "the quest for cosmic justice". Compared to this idea, any actual state of society is severely flawed and lacking... and the impatience to see all that is bad washed away and replaced by all that is good lends a certain perspective to things. It's often expressed as "the good old days" (as opposed to now) -- and the feeling seems to be, the quicker everything falls apart completely the quicker we will be able to enjoy a new, more perfect world. And there might be some validity to this idea during times of major war, for example... but as a prescription for thinking about more normal times (which these are, believe it or not) it's sorely lacking. Where is it written, for example, that things always have to be getting worse, and on all fronts? Much more likely is a world of paradox where things are getting worse and better at the same time -- as Charles Dickens so famously implied. And, in fact, one's overall notion as to the direction in which things are changing is totally based on one's values and priorities. If you believe in massive government, for example, things are going your way right now.

Another aspect of this "cosmic justice" search, as I've discussed before, is the striving to create heaven on earth, rather than waiting for a very uncertain "world to come". This, of course, is the materialist/secularist point of view... but one wonders what value system they are falling back on in order to prescribe utopian schemes for just those few years that any one individual spends on earth. Isn't it all ultimately futile, or absurd? But few of them ever come to that conclusion. People will die to get to heaven... but they'll also die so that everyone else can go to hell on earth (as was the case in China under Mao). I think if you roll despair together with hatred for humanity you take in about 80% of the motivation of most collectivists.

But lest we get too far afield -- I started out talking about the conservative critique of present-day society and its trends. And it's one thing to gin up nostalgia for an era that one has no experience of... that predates one's birth. But I'm also talking about nostalgia for the era of one's childhood (whenever that was), or youth (ditto), or young adulthood (ditto)... or just last year, or last month, or yesterday! It seems that no era is too short or too recent to be assigned some variation on the "good old days" descriptor. The world when Reagan was president was a much better place, don't you know... but it was even better under Eisenhower... and so on. Well, I remember the world of Eisenhower and, although it wasn't bad, there was a whole lot that needed improvement -- and some of it actually has been. So it has not just been a steady downhill slide. Heck, the liberals all have "Clinton nostalgia" -- you know, balanced budgets and all that. Well... tell it to the Branch Davidians, is all I can say. And of course there is that deity named John Kennedy, who almost (allegedly) got us into a nuclear war. And so on. Depending on your values and priorities, you can assign virtually any point in history as the "best ever", and any other point as the "worst ever"... and the way people's minds tend to work, the "worst ever" title has a funny tendency to fall right on the present moment, with astounding precision. Obama is worse than he was a year ago... or last month... or last week. But frankly, I consider this way too simplistic. It's the result of either having too little discernment in the past, or too much hypersensitivity in the present, and in both cases too little historical consciousness. An example of too little discernment in the past would be to have ignored everything that was wrong with JFK and his administration (for liberals) or everything that was wrong with Reagan (for conservatives). And as for too much hypersensitivity? Three words: Ground Zero Mosque. OK? This is the biggest non-story to come down the pike in a long while, and we have plenty of way more important things to worry about. But it fits quite nicely into many people's need for evidence that things are just getting worse day by day. And yes, I'm as fond of pointing out trends and absurdities as anyone else... but I've never quite fallen for the notion that there is much uniformity to history or to current events. The random and chaos factors are much too strong... much too predominant in many cases. I mean, did Clinton bomb Belgrade because of Monica? If so, that's a level of absurdity and chaos that I don't think any historian, politician, or diplomat could have predicted... and yet it happened. How many of our recent presidents have been what they call "accidental"? There are some systematic aspects to the process of selecting leaders, but many random ones as well -- many more than people like to think. The fact that they ultimately all wind up pursuing the same misguided policies is not a reflection of uniform quality so much as uniformity in how they are, let's say, "developed" by their masters. There really is a certain degree of diversity in the backgrounds of various presidents -- but that gets ironed out in no time once they take office... or, more likely, before they take office, or before they're even elected. In other words, they all wind up "Manchurian candidates" --all brainwashed on some level and turned into robots to some extent. I believe the evidence for this is overwhelming... but again, what you're looking for has a great influence on what you'll find. The inherent risk of the "conspiracy business" is that if you look long enough and hard enough at anything, you'll start to see a conspiracy. Maybe it's just an optical illusion, like the ones they publish in kids' books. So a patient gathering of evidence, and an insistence on logic, even if it's about illogical things... and on reason, even it it's about absurd things... those are the best insurance against going too far and thus becoming non-productive (as many of the web sites out there seem to have become). And of course, it never hurts to ask not only the "what" questions but also the "why" questions... also known as the "cui bono?" questions. That is about as fruitful a strategy as I've ever encountered; it's a powerful tool when it comes to separating the merely likely from the wildly improbable (also expressed as "Why would anyone bother?").

And when it comes to what I call "misguided nostalgia", no one is more of a master at it than Pat Buchanan -- with whom I agree about 95% of the time. But he expends way too much effort regretting the passing of an America that, by and large, never existed... and if it had, it might not have been all that wonderful and perfect. It's a Norman Rockwell/Ideals/Bettman Archive/Currier & Ives vision... a walk in the park on a Sunday afternoon... the old lamp lighter... you know the jam. It's a sepia-toned longing for a "better, simpler" time -- but frankly, I don't know how many of the people who were trapped in that era considered it either better or simpler. They were probably complaining that they weren't living in an even earlier era... and so it goes. Now of course Buchanan's emphasis is on government, and politics, and morality, and public behavior, and on "values", and so forth. And it is true, as far as that goes, that we do not enjoy the rank hypocrisy of earlier eras - people, even politicians, are much more likely to say what they really think than they might have been a couple of generations ago, and they seem to be pretty much unabashed in their behavior. You'll find none of the traditional moral preaching emanating from the White House or Congress these days -- it has all been replaced by scoldings about "fairness", "global warming", and what not. And yet, overall, the degree of mass deception by the government has, I think, gotten neither better nor worse -- it has just morphed from one agenda item to the next. For Wilson, it was the "bosch"; for FDR, Pearl Harbor; for LBJ, the Gulf of Tonkin... and so on, right up to the present day. There is always that one big hammer which the leader of the day can use to pound the citizenry into a state of stupor and blind obedience. And every big lie, or hoax, has a thousand smaller lies and hoaxes that go along with it, to fill in every possible gap in the story. The government is, in effect, a monolith of lies... but there is nothing new about this; it's simply in the nature of the beast. And there is nothing new about moral turpitude... only that it might be a bit more public and blatant and showy than it was in previous times. And the citizenry of 100, or 200, years ago were just about as foolish, and as easily misled, as they are now. The difference, if any, lay in the leadership. Good leaders can turn foolish people unto at least semi-respectable works... but evil leaders will reinforce all the worst qualities of the public, and can hardly be overcome by those sectors of the public that still have some intellectual perspective and some moral standards. Once a dictator -- or a dictatorial system -- is in place, it is extremely difficult to dislodge; one usually has to wait for a slow devolution or wasting away -- a process that can take decades, or centuries. Recall, for example, that China technically has the same regime today that it did under Mao... but the differences are staggering. Likewise, we have the same regime that we did under George Washington. I mean, has there been a violent revolution? Are the founding documents not still considered as such? But again, the differences...

So what I'm saying -- to Pat Buchanan and anyone else who will listen -- is, forget about nostalgia, forget about comparisons, and forget, even, about "trends". Just figure out what is right and do it. Yes, the founding fathers, and documents, will have much to say about this, but let's not mistake any of that for the reality in this country, even in the early years. People are no more fallible now than they have ever been, and concupiscence has ruled over many minds for eons. If we can't appeal to the citizenry on the basis of principles and ideas, then all of our appeals to "the good old days" will be in vain.

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