Let Us Not Praise Famous Men

            Who are these “celebrity” people we keep hearing about? Where do they come from? What purpose do they serve? Why do they keep intruding upon our consciousness despite our best efforts to ignore them?

            These questions occur to us whenever a celebrity story seeps into the mainstream of news, as during the past week of our civic-minded effort to keep abreast of politics and other important matters. First, our daily diet of right-wing talk radio rants was continually interrupted by reports on the trial of a doctor accused of killing the entertainer Michael Jackson. Then we noticed a headline on the generally useful Drudge Report informing us that someone called Whoopi Goldberg had deemed Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachman unacceptable. Next, several of the conservative news sources we frequent weighed in about a musician called Questlove on a television program called “The Jimmy Fallon Show” serenading the same Bachman’s entrance with a tune titled “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.”

            None of these stories are of great significance to anyone not directly involved, of course. The late Michael Jackson was an extraordinarily talented man, with a fine castrato voice rarely heard these days, but his story is no more tragic than those of the countless other victims of incompetent medical care whose deaths go unreported. We confidently expect and fervently hope that few people out there will ever cast a vote according to the endorsements of someone called Whoopi Goldberg. The “Lyin’ A-word B-word” contretemps is further evidence of how very rude and vulgar our popular culture has become, an important story somehow overlooked by the mass media, but is unlikely to have any noticeable effect on a Bachman campaign that had peaked several months ago with an Iowa straw poll victory.

            We’ve noticed, however, that the constant output of such celebrity journalism does have an unfortunate cumulative effect on the nation’s politics. In the vast high school cafeteria that is modern American society, celebrities are the popular kids,  enjoying an exalted status and possessed of the awesome power to determine who will be the unpopular kids. As in an actual high school, the popular kids of the popular culture wield that power in the worst possible way.

            Anyone to the right of Hollywood and Vine can expect to be the object of celebrity ridicule, while anyone conforming to liberal orthodoxy can expect gentler treatment. The now-forgotten Dan Quayle was an early victim, as was Sarah Palin in more recent years, but Joe Biden is merely joshed as a loveable goofball. The frequent verbal mishaps of George W. Bush were endlessly replayed by the celebrity-packed shows on late night television, with audiences invited to laugh heartily and feel satisfyingly superior to the chimp in the White House, but his successor’s frequent off-the-teleprompter problems are typically ignored. House Speaker John Boehner is now widely known for his tendency to get teary-eyed, while the far more egregious traits of his predecessor, a woman who invited satire as much as any public figure of recent years, were rarely mentioned. The peaceable Tea Party movement was lampooned as a violent collection of toothless hillbillies trying to greedily hold on to their $250,000 salaries, a stereotype that never made much sense to us, while the actual violence occurring at left-wing protests is assiduously overlooked by the many celebrities in attendance.

            Bachman, with her perky Minna-soh-ta accent, house full of children, businesslike good looks and unabashed religious faith, was a natural target of the celebrities. Even more than the usual aversion to her unabashedly conservative politics, Bachman’s conspicuously wholesome public persona guaranteed that the celebrity culture would revile her as the antithesis of itself. Today’s celebrity strikes a rebellious pose, brandishing tattoos, “attitude,” and flamboyant self-indulgence against the stifling restraints of American culture. There doesn’t seem to be much left of American culture to rebel against, and what is still left can’t even restrain a wide receiver from doing a Busby Berkeley-style end-zone dance after every touchdown, but no matter, the celebrity will continue his iconoclastic mission until all of the old icons have been smashed.

            There’s no escaping these celebrity people. We cancelled our cable subscription long ago, limit our rare over-the-air television-watching to the occasional sporting contest or la ate-late-night “Sea Hunt” re-run, and never look past the front pages of the celebrity-obsessed magazines and tabloids that beckon us from the check-out counters at our local supermarket, and still the celebrity culture somehow infiltrates our lives. We recognize such odd names as Snooky, Ludacris,  50 Cent, Lady Gaga, and now Questlove, even if we have only the vaguest idea of what they do, and we sense that they’re somehow partly responsible for the angry sense of entitlement we find among the strangely-dressed young people drawing attention to themselves in public places.

            Conservatives have long sought to counter this influence with their own celebrities, but can only offer B-listers, holdovers from the more square-jawed era of Hollywood stardom, or athletes accustomed to being booed half the time, and that’s hardly a match for the hip and up-to-date star power that helped Obama win the youth vote by landslide margins in the last elections. Sometimes conservatives will make a futile effort to curry celebrity favor, which is why Mitt Romney is yukking it up with Jay Leno, and how Bachman wound up walking onto the “Jimmy Fallon Show” set with “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” blaring in the background, but we think that is also a mistake.

            A better idea would be to flaunt the opprobrium of the celebrity class. The popular kids are the most hated students in every high school, after all, and by early adulthood most people can look back and see with clear hindsight that their opinions were almost always worthless. Newt Gringrich’s adversarial stance toward the press has lately been revving up Republican debate audiences, and no doubt a good many independents, and we believe that a similar rhetorical assault on the entertainment media would work just as well.

— Bud Norman

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Imperfectly Frank

We’ll no longer have Barney Frank to kick around, which we will dearly miss doing, but otherwise the longtime Massachusetts congressman’s announcement on Monday that he won’t be running for re-election is almost unalloyed good news.

Even before his starring role in the 2008 financial crisis and the ongoing economic calamity it caused, Frank exemplified everything we disdain most in American politics. We trust that he’ll create far less mischief as a retiree, but making us even giddier about his departure is the plausible hope that it signals difficulties ahead for Frank-like congressfolk around the country.

First elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1972, the year that state was the only one carried by Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, Frank soon became locally known for tirelessly defending the sleazier denizens of the Boston red light district called “The Combat Zone.” Such efforts, which included an attempt to legalize prostitution within the area, propelled Frank to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980, the year Massachusetts was one of only six states carried by Democratic candidate and incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

After spending his first two terms as a reliably liberal but little-known backbencher, Frank was thrust into national prominence in 1987 when he publicly acknowledged his homosexuality. The unprecedented admission made Frank a poster boy for the identity politics much beloved by Democrats, and it shortly preceded revelations that the male hustler he had been living with had run a prostitution ring out of the congressman’s house. A subsequent congressional investigation found that Frank had not been involved in the business — involvement in a business being frowned upon by Democrats, the mitigating fact of its illegality notwithstanding — but Congress did reprimand him for using his office to fix his lover’s numerous parking tickets and for misstating a few facts to investigators.

Such a scandal would have sunk a congressman in almost any inland district, even with a heterosexual twist to the story, but Bay State voters once again demonstrated their infinite patience with the Democratic Party by continuing to re-elect Frank. With the resulting seniority Frank rose to the position of ranking Democrat on the House Banking Committee, where he inflicted his greatest damage on the country.

When a newly-inaugurated President Clinton started to use the Community Re-Investment Act, Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, and various other tools to get banks to make mortgage loans to lenders previously considered a bad risk, Frank was the policy’s most ardent congressional ally, shepherding the necessary legislation through committee and assailing any skeptics with his characteristic vitriol. When the Inspectors General overseeing Fanny and Freddie warned of an impending disaster in 2003, Frank led the fight against Republican attempts to reform the institutions, then did so again two years when Republicans took another stab at it. As late as July of 2008, Frank — widely touted as one of the smartest men in government — was still telling CNN that, “I think this is a case where Fannie and Freddie are fundamentally sound, that they are not in danger of going under.”

The next time someone tries to tell you how very stupid Sara Palin is, ask him to cite one thing she ever said that was so consequentially dumb as that.

When the sub-prime housing bubble’s predictable and oft-predicted denouement hit the fan a few months later, with Fanny and Freddy heading a long line of institutions seeking a bail-out, Frank’s political fortunes were naturally unaffected. The government’s role in the financial crises was quickly forgotten by the Democrats, their allies in the major media, and even Republican candidate John McCain’s hapless presidential campaign, who all embraced the appealing if illogical story that greedy bankers had ruined the economy by trying to get rich lending money to people who couldn’t pay it back.

The ensuing electoral carnage bolstered Frank’s position as banking committee chairman with overwhelming majorities in both houses of congress and a Democratic president, and he seized the opportunity to take one last jab at the economy with the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. Co-sponsored by the soon-to-retire Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, a longtime co-conspirator in the sub-prime fiasco, with a hefty 848 pages of new regulations and disincentives for the financial industry, the bill passed with only three Republican votes shortly after the mid-term elections demoted Frank to ranking minority member.

Frank survived that mid-term shellacking, but only by 11 points, a squeaker by Massachusetts standards and close enough to make him very cranky with the voters in his characteristically ungracious victory speech. That relatively close call might have influenced Frank’s decision to retire at the age of 71, a mere youngster when measured in Democratic congressman’s years, but we suspect he also found that being ranking minority member isn’t as professionally and financially rewarding as being chairman, and that he’s not very confident he’ll get the old title back any time soon.

Frank might even have worried that he couldn’t keep the title of Representative, a possibility that would have sounded preposterous just a few election cycles ago. In a special Senate election in 2010 Frank’s district was carried by Republican Scott Brown, a damn liberal by a Kansans’ reckoning but a raving right-wing lunatic by traditional Massachusetts standards, and after yet another round of re-districting caused by the state’s declining share of the national population Frank would have had to fight on slightly more conservative turf. By now the government’s role in the economic downturn is becoming widely recognized, even in such parochial outposts as Massachusetts, and at the very least Frank would have been subjected to the indignity of actually campaigning among those ingrate voters.
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As of now Frank is one of 17 Democratic congressmen who won’t be seeking re-election, and nine of those won’t be seeking any office at all. There are seven Republicans who aren’t seeking re-election, but in each case it’s because they figure the time is right to try for a higher office. Frank is not nearly so smart as his media admirers imagine, but he’s plenty bright enough to do this math.

Every silver lining has a cloud, however, and in this case it is the discomfiting fact that the new ranking minority member of the House Banking Committee will be Maxine Waters.

— Bud Norman

Those Persistent Prairie Populists

Nestled between the Wichita Public Library and the Century II concert hall in downtown Wichita, Kansas, just a few blocks west of the small park where the “Occupy Wichita” bunch have been hilariously holding forth, you’ll find a statue of Mary Elizabeth Lease, the firebrand activist still famous in these parts for advising the Kansas farmer to “Raise less corn and more hell.”

Lovingly rendered in bronze, with Lease looking lovelier than in any known photograph, the statue reflects the lingering affection Kansas’ beleaguered liberals feel for the days of the “prairie populists.” The movement caused quite a ruckus throughout the plains states during the late 19th Century, even scoring a few electoral victories in the prairie populist hotbed of Kansas, and that brief era of relevance still inspires hope in the region’s more radical lefties.

Thomas Frank’s stupid-but-best-selling “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” oozed with nostalgia for those glorious days. Some of the plains’ self-styled progressives name their internet sites for the “Prairie Populists.” The press applies the same sobriquet to almost any Democrat who manages to get elected in the big red splotch in the middle of the country, presumably as a compliment. Every bleeding heart in the state of Kansas still beats a bit faster at the mention of Lease, “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, Annie Diggs, William Alfred Pfeffer, or any of the Sunflower State’s other prominent leaders of the movement.

One wonders, though, while gazing upon the bronze likeness of Lease in her long skirt and upright collar, what she and her compatriots would make of their worshipful descendents.

They would likely be flattered, if slightly frustrated, that their agenda has been so little changed over the past twelve decades. The prairie populists stood for The Common Man, ever ready to do battle against the big financial interests, railroads, Sears Roebuck & Co., and the moneyed elite in general, and wanted to nationalize many industries and regulate the rest into submission. Change “The Common Man” to “The 99 percent,” substitute Big Oil or some other corporate villain du jour for the railroads, replace Sears with Wal-Mart, and it’s basically the same thing you’ll hear today at an “Occupy” encampment, Democratic convention, or any other gathering of radical leftists. Lease’s most famous oration, a little ditty from 1890 titled “Wall Street Owns the Country,” apparently requires no changes whatsoever, as it is presently being widely circulated through the internet by a large number of admirers.

Though the song has remained the same, the singers somehow strike us as different.

The original prairie populists were an undeniably colorful, endearingly eccentric, and indisputably proletarian lot. “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, an erstwhile steamship captain and failed farmer who represented Kansas for three controversial terms in the House of Representatives, earned his nickname after ridiculing the silk socks of his Republican opponent, a railroad attorney with the suitably aristocratic name of Col. J.R. Hallowell. Annie Diggs, secondly only to Lease as Kansas’ most prominent distaff populist, and who was said to have disliked Lease intensely, helped organize the Kansas Women’s Free Silver League. William Alfred Pfeffer, who represented Kansas for one term in the United States Senate, was famed for his beard, an epic collection of whiskers the likes of which had not been seen since Old Testament days. After the disputed election of 1893, a slate of Populist candidates decided they had won a majority in the state’s House of Representatives and simply took up residence there, then armed themselves against the angry Republicans and Shawnee County Sheriff’s deputies who tried to evict them.

Lease, also known in the Kansas press as Mary Ellen Lease, for reasons we cannot ascertain, or Mary “Yellin’” Lease, for reasons we can readily imagine, was similarly picaresque. Although she spent her early years in upstate New York, and was genteel enough to have been a founding member of the Hypatia Club, Wichita’s oldest and most exceedingly respectable women’s organization, Lease had worked the Kansas soil as a farm wife and was sufficiently earthy in her language to rile up the crowds of disgruntled sodbusters who filled auditoriums across the region to hear her speak. The “raise less corn and more hell” quote is by most accounts apocryphal, but it suited her well.

Such hard-luck biographies and unabashed bumpkin-ness gave the original prairie populists’ skin-the-rich rhetoric an authentic angriness that the leaders of today’s Democratic party cannot match. Try to imagine the multi-millionairess Nancy Pelosi flying in on her private jet, racking up a big government-paid bar tab and some guaranteed loans for her brother-in-law along the way, then firing up the farmers in some dusty western Kansas fairground. Or the well-married John Kerry, last seen parking his yacht in Rhode Island to avoid the taxes of his native Massachusetts. Or prep-schooled Barack Obama, whose only experience of hard country living is Martha’s Vineyard. The closest thing to a “Sockless” Jerry Simpson that the Democrats have today is “Pantsless” Bill Clinton, who did pass through a hardscrabble Arkansas boyhood on his way to Georgetown, Oxford, and million-dollar speaking fees.

The various left-wing protesters that have lately popped up around the country are apparently intended to provide some of the old authenticity, but they strike us as miscast for the role. The original prairie populists were glaringly rural, for one thing, and we expect that if any “occupiers” were to try their hands at milking a cow or other acts of agriculture it would provide the nearby country folk with the heartiest laugh they’ve had since the hippie commune days. Unjust as it may seem, a tattooed “studies” major whining about his student loan debt will never elicit the same public sympathy as weather-beaten son-of-the-soil testifying with a Gary Cooper twang about the banker who took his daddy’s farm.

One might venture a hope, then, that today’s prairie populists will be no more successful than their forebears. Thomas Franks’ “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” pretended that populist radicalism was Kansas’ natural inclination, suppressed in recent years by a nefarious Republican plot to prey on the state’s gauche religiosity, and his revisionist history is widely accepted among the local liberals, but in fact the populist heyday was merely a brief and largely inconsequential interregnum in the Republicans’ more or less continuous domination of the state.

The populists never won even 40 percent in a statewide election without joining forces with the Democrats, who were still reviled by the populists and most non-populist Kansans as a party of slavery and rebellion. They never did nationalize the railroads, whose omnipotent power waned with interstate highways and over-night air delivery, or restrain Sears, which we understand is still in business, or win the free coinage of silver, which was one of the dumbest ideas ever proposed. The prairie populists’ efforts to take down the barons of Wall Street are still ongoing after 120 years, and 99 percent of the country is still the common man. The most significant policy they were able to impose on the country was Prohibition, one of the movement’s several religion-tainted causes that today’s liberals prefer to overlook.

Prairie populism started to fade away just as it hit its peak in the 1890s, largely as a result of rising commodity prices and a commensurate decline in rural outrage. Its departure was hastened by William Allen White, the revered editor of The Emporia Gazette, and his famed editorial “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” a title later appropriated by the aforementioned Franks. A masterpiece of vituperative Kansas journalism which propelled White from small town anonymity to national prominence, the essay ridiculed the populists’ resumes of failure and their defiantly low-class ways with language that still aptly describes the remnants of the movement: “Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle, who can’t pays his debts, on the altar, and bow down and worship him. Let the state ideal be high. What we need is not the respect of our fellow men but the chance to get something for nothing.” Even more convincingly, White catalogued the immense the economic damage the prairie populists had inflicted on Kansas with their relentless rhetorical and legislative attacks on capital and business.

As the prairie populist movement faded away in the early 20th century, so did its headline-grabbing leaders. “Sockless” Jerry Simpson was eventually ejected from Congress by the voters and wound up in the real estate business. Annie Diggs moved to Europe, where her all of radical positions save Prohibition found a more sympathetic audience, before ending her days in Detroit. William Alfred Pfeffer lost his Senate seat to another populist, ran a failed campaign for governor, and spent his last days as a little-known writer in Grenola. The populist slate of legislators who fought the “Legislative War of 1893” wound up ceding their control of the House chamber to the Republicans after a Supreme Court ruling, and have largely been absent from the capitol ever since.

Lease gradually became disillusioned with the prairie populists, and when trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt won the presidency she declared victory and returned to her original affiliation with the Republicans. After a divorce in 1902 she moved back east to live with her daughters, and history tells us little of what she did with her time from then until her death in 1933. We like to think she devoted most of her considerable energy to the sorts of blessedly apolitical good works done by the Hypatia Club, which erected the aforementioned statue of her as thanks for the long, cold carriage ride she endured to found the organization. The Hypatia Club doesn’t raise much hell, but its good works endure.

–Bud Norman

On Europe’s travails

We’ve been following developments in Europe’s sovereign debt crisis mostly through the British press, which seems to be the only press over there with the common courtesy to publish everything in English, and as best we can discern from these reports the Europeans are utterly screwed.

With great effort we resist the slightest feeling of schadenfreude about Europe’s woes, and not just because it’s a German word. There are no doubt a few fine people left over there who don’t deserve an economic calamity — we fondly recall an affable Finnish exchange student at Wichita State University who used to hang out at Kirby’s Beer Store, and a fey young Englishwoman we briefly dated — and we’re mindful that the continent’s pains are certain to be felt here. Nor is America in any position to gloat, having been heading down the same profligate road for the past 80 years and with the accelerator to the floor for the past three.

All of us right-wing crackpots are entitled to a slightly assuaging sense of vindication, however, and a faint hope that Europe’s problems will have a salutary effect on America’s politics. At the very least, we happily anticipate that we’ll be hearing a lot less about the way they do things in Europe.

Anyone who has discussed politics or culture with a liberal during the post-war era has heard more than one can be expected to bear about the way they do things in Europe. In Europe they have universal health care, you know, and lavish pensions for the old folks. The poor are generously provided for in Europe, and the rich are pilloried in public squares. Unions rule in Europe, and workers are never fired. Nobody bothers with that God stuff in Europe, and voters there respond to revelations of a politician’s infidelities with a worldly shrug. There aren’t so many noisome children in Europe, and those that do exist drink earlier, stay longer in school at government expense, and retire at a younger age. In Europe the women go topless on the beach.

These fun facts are often offered as first-hand observations fresh from an obligatory tour of the continent, and always as proof that this is the way America simply must do things. We recall a conversation about capital punishment a while back with a journalist friend who seemed genuinely pained to tell us that America isn’t eligible for European Union membership as a result of the practice, as if the most compelling argument for its abolition was a chance to sit at the smart kids’ table. While poolside this past summer we heard a young mother defend Obama’s generous allotment of vacation days by noting that it was roughly in line with the average Dutch worker’s, which she regarded as the definitive amount required for a civilized person.

Our reading of Henry James and numerous other expatriate authors inform us that this prejudice dates back to our nation’s founding, and has persisted through 200 years of American ascendance and European decline. We suspect that’s because this epidemic Europhilia isn’t an inferiority complex, as some observers describe it, but instead provides those in its grip with a pleasant sense of superiority to all the backwards Americans who don’t share their Old World sensibility.

As unabashedly backwards Americans, we have argued in vain for many years against this strange preference for all things European. We have no quarrel with certain women going topless on the beach, but otherwise the superiority of the European way has never been apparent to us.

By most accounts the health care in Europe is universally shoddy, and those generous pension systems require an ever larger percentage of the private sector’s capital. The welfare state’s massive subsidies for the non-productive, and its heavy taxes on anyone adding value, has bred an indolent, riot-prone population. Making it impossible to fire a worker makes employers reluctant to hire one. Cap-and-trade has merely shifted industry to other countries, the cars are small because the streets are laid out according to the exigencies of medieval ox cart traffic, and those windmills are ugly and don’t generate much power. The post-Christian era has produced an ideological vacuum filled by a self-loathing moral relativism and a dangerously confident Islamism. Those children that the Europeans haven’t had aren’t polluting the planet, but they aren’t paying into those pension systems, either, and the continent’s rapid demographic decline is at the root of the current troubles.

These arguments come with decades of unemployment and gross domestic product statistics to back them up, but so long as the European model rolled along and the checks kept clearing the Europhiles always had ready answers. If everyone’s getting the same shoddy health care, then the dream of social justice has been achieved. Why be so mean as to take money from the old and give it to a private sector that will just create more wealth with it? The riots are righteous, unemployment is painless, and when it comes to saving the planet it’s the thought that counts. Who’s to say that moral relativism and Islamist terrorism are bad? What immigration problems? The population decline can be solved by more immigration, and they’re bound to come where such generous welfare systems are provided.

As for those GDP numbers, we’re told that in Europe they don’t measure quality of life by such crude terms — not like some crass materialist workaholic Republican hick would do — but rather by the glasses of fine wine consumed at a charming little sidewalk café while flirting with a potential paramour as exotic accordion music wafts along on the warm Mediterranean breeze.

To those in the final stage of Europhilia, such a care-free attitude is further proof that Europe’s culture is as superior as its political and economic systems. Never mind that people only travel there to see the buildings that have somehow survived the wars and the paintings that were painted more than a century ago, or that Europe hasn’t produced a single cultural product that has found favor with an international audience since ABBA broke up way back in the bell-bottomed jumpsuit days. Don’t bother asking why, if European movies are so great, they have to be subsidized and protected from foreign competition and none of them have Jimmy Stewart in them. There’s no point in arguing that Americans are also free to take it easy, a freedom we here at The Central Standard Times have availed ourselves of frequently, and that there’s also something to be said for the freedom to work harder than the other man. Don’t waste your breath noting the conspicuous absence of a European Hank Williams. The Europhile looks at an effete and decadent European culture and find it contrasts nicely with the rip-roarin’ and upright hayseed American way, then waves off such arguments with a dismissive hand gesture and replies that it’s the way they do things in Europe.

Which leads us to wonder what the American left will say now that they don’t do things that way in Europe. Spain has just tossed out its greener-than-green Socialist government. Great Britain is asking its university students to pay more of their tuition, widespread rioting notwithstanding. France is cutting budgets and raising retirement ages. Italy, more fearful of the international bond market than the strikers and rioters in its streets, is slashing spending. Greece is glumly accepting whatever budgetary measures its new German rulers see fit to impose as a condition of that country’s economic rescue. It’s not just the massive welfare state model the Europeans are jettisoning, either: The leaders of the big three economies have all declared multiculturalism a failed project, and some of the continent’s beloved intellectuals are even questioning the “Tyranny of Guilt” that Europe has imposed on itself in the post-colonial era. This is the dawning of the age of austerity in Europe, and it is difficult to see it see as anything but an admission that the European way of doing things has failed.

The American left will no doubt be determined to see it differently. Just three short years ago their decades-old dream of transforming America into a European-style welfare state seemed tantalizingly within grasp, and it would be uncharacteristic of them to let the mere collapse of the European welfare state model cause any reconsideration.

The left’s exculpatory version of events in Europe hasn’t fully emerged yet on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, but a careful reading of their reports reveals the outlines of the coming argument. The ancien regime of America’s media have devoted suspiciously scant space to Europe’s economic crisis, at least outside of the financial pages, where the coverage has been appropriately obsessive, but the reports have all identified the major players in the ongoing fiasco — Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Silvio Berlusconi, et al — as “conservatives,” and the continent’s last surviving Keynesians are always given a few quotes to argue for another trillion euros or so of stimulus and round-the-clock printing of money in the basement of the European Central Bank. We expect that in the near future we’ll hear our Europhile friends insisting that Eutopia could have lasted forever if only those darned right-wingers hadn’t prevailed and the Europeans had only kept on doing things they way they do things in Europe.

It might even sell, at least well enough to temporarily fend off attacks on our own massive welfare system. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, when a flood of declassified documents and newly freed citizens revealed the full horror and brutality of communism, the left rehabilitated that ideology’s reputation so successfully that the hammer-and-sickle and Che Guevara’s scowling face are now chic fashion statements. A similar public relations effort for the far more benign European nanny state model might even prove easy.

The only problem we can foresee for the left’s rationalization is that it is ridiculous. After so many years of hearing about the way they do things in Europe, most Americans now understand that Europe’s so-called “center-right” parties are conservative only by European standards. No western European leader since our beloved Margaret Thatcher has dared to challenge the basic premise of the welfare state, and none of the current crop are remotely conservative enough in the American sense of the word to survive a Republican primary here in Kansas’ fourth district. The left’s last-ditch economic prescriptions are also likely to prove a hard sell. The idea that that a debt crisis can be solved with massive amounts of new debt is so plainly ridiculous only an intellectual would believe it, and anyone familiar enough with European history to recall the Weimar Republic and its unpleasant aftermath will know why the Germans are so reluctant to quantitatively ease their way out of this mess.

Europe is imposing austerity not because its leaders have a conservative malice, or revel in the hatred and rioting of their constituents, but because they have no other choice. The underlying assumption of the European project, that you can have fewer and fewer people doing less and less work and still enjoy constantly rising standards of living, simply does not work. No amount of fine wine, deal-making or rioting can alter this ruthless reality.

This lesson has an obvious implication here, where the national debt tops $15 trillion and the government has promised its citizens several times that amount in goods and services that it doesn’t have the money to buy, but not so obvious that everyone will see it. An “Occupy” protest movement continues to demand more, more, more; the Tea Party protest movement demanding less, less, less remains an object of ridicule; and even a super-committee of caped congressmen can’t find even a few measly billions to cut from the budget. The current administration is striving to emulate every mistake made by the Europeans, from government-run health care to carbon regulation and “green jobs” to a mushy multi-culturalism, but not so busily that that the president and his Treasury Secretary can’t take time out to lecture the Europeans about the need for even greater debt and currency devaluation.

The international edition of the magazine Der Spiegel provides a round-up of the continent’s editorials mercifully translated into English from that awful German language, and it reports that Europeans were predictably annoyed by Obama’s lecture on the way we do things in America. They quote the financial daily Handelsblatt thusly: “These are suggestions that have already failed to work in the U.S.” The supposedly “center-right” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is said to have written that “The gloomy state of the economy is putting a dampener on Obama’s future prospects. The optimism of the past is gone, replaced by a cheap search for a scapegoat.”  Süddeutsche Zeitung, described as “center-left” even by the standards of Der Spiegel, wrote that “…his criticism of the EU was simple electioneering.” They also this re-printed this nugget from Bild: “The president’s scolding is a pathetic attempt to distract attention from his own failures. How embarrassing.”

Backwards Americans that we are, the only thing we hate worse than hearing some damn foreigner tell us about the way they do things in Europe is knowing that, for once, they’re right.

— Bud Norman

Happy Thanksgiving

We don’t want to take up much of your time today with our usual gloomy but wry observations, so let us just wish you a happy Thanksgiving and send you back to the table with your family and friends. We urge you to eat, drink, be as merry as possible, root for what’s left of the Big XII, and be thankful to God for all that is well.

Oh, and by the way, let us offer thanks to all of you who have conveyed kind words and good wishes for our humble efforts here. They are much appreciated.

— Bud Norman

What’s the big idea?

So we’re sitting here trying to think of a great new idea to write about, and it dawns on us that there are no great new ideas.

Look in any corner of the modern world — in our politics, arts, literature and entertainment, fashion, commerce, even the formerly fertile fields of science and technology — and one is struck by the conspicuous absence of the big idea. In every area there is an abundance of small ideas, perhaps more of them than ever, and some of them pretty good, but nothing grand or overarching. Time might provide another perspective, but as of now it’s hard to guess what future historians will call this the age of.

The absence of a great new idea is perhaps most alarming in politics, where the need is most dire and pressing.

Just three years ago the great new idea was supposed to be Obamaism. At this disgruntled moment it’s hard to recall the giddy optimism many people invested in candidate Obama back in ’08, but suffice to say that it made the Beatle mania of ’64, the Elvis hysteria of ’56 and the Mao craze of ’49 seem a mild crush by comparison. Mark Mortford, writing for The San Francisco Chronicle, gushed like a love-struck schoolgirl that Obama was “a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on this planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment.” The filmmaker and sneaker spokesman Spike Lee predicted that “you’ll have to measure time by ‘Before Obama’ and ‘After Obama.’” The Danish magazine Politiken went so far as to write that “Obama is, of course, greater than Jesus,” a brash statement even in post-religious Europe.

That the Obamaism of ’08 was actually nothing more than the vague concepts of hope and change, a promise not to be like that nasty George W. Bush, and a few florid bromides delivered in a sonorous baritone, did little to diminish this enthusiasm. Few evoke such messianic rhetoric after three years of an Obama presidency, however, with his remaining supporters making only the more modest claim that, well, it could have been worse. Anyone who follows the president’s golf, basketball and party schedule now knows that he’s more of a light worker than a Lightworker; it’s looking as if we’ll speak of the pre-Obama and post-Obama eras the same way people speak of Before the Fall of the Roman Empire and the ensuing Age of Darkness; and it’s now an old joke that at least Jesus could put together a good cabinet.

Whatever the merits of Obama’s ideas, which must be too subtle for us to detect, there’s no plausible claim that they’re new. Obama has added a few innovations to Keynesianism, such as funneling the money through Democrat constituent groups and big contribution bundlers, and never paying off the debt, but the underlying economic theory is the same that John Maynard himself was peddling to Roosevelt back in the era that stubbornly remained The Great Depression no matter how much money was spent. The rest of Obama’s domestic agenda basically reprises the same big government, bureaucratic, redistributive agenda that the left has been pursuing since before the Great Society or even the New Deal, all the way back to the dawn of the Progressive Era at the beginning of the past century.

Even the administration’s much-touted “green economy” initiatives, advertised as unprecedented, were largely borrowed from soon-to-be-bankrupt Spain. So far the results are no more encouraging here, where even the White House numbers show that the government-created “green jobs” are costing about $5 million apiece, which is a lot of green when you’re trying to get back to full employment without going broke. The Solyndra debacle and assorted other scandals show that the program was corrupt as well as inept, adding insult to economic injury, and no longer can anything colored “green” be a cause for the age.

Some are disappointed that Obama hasn’t veered far enough left, and they noisily make themselves known, but they also have nothing new to offer. The only cause that truly unites them is to soak the rich, and that idea dates back as far as the Neanderthal days, when one caveman noticed that his neighbor had a nicer cave, fancier bearskin and more fertile cavewoman, and decided to rectify that social injustice with a club. This idea hasn’t produced a single successful society in all the years since, unsurprisingly enough, yet its appeal apparently remains timeless.

Those to the right of Obama enjoy the rhetorical advantage of not having to pretend that their ideas are new, and instead make it a selling point that their plans are tried and true. The contemporary conservative doesn’t offer brilliant new ideas about what to do, only commonsensical suggestions about the stupid old ideas we should stop doing, such as appointing a National Labor Relations Board that prevents the building of new factories, generally making life miserable for businesspeople with taxes and regulations and heated rhetoric, and spending money like a drunken Kennedy in a whore house. All of this sounds quite reasonable to us, but it might not suffice when the exorbitant entitlement bills and debt payments soon come due.

When it all comes crashing down, don’t expect to be compensated by a golden age of popular culture such as the one that accompanied the last depression. We rarely pay attention to today’s artists and entertainers, preferring to live in the black-and-white, monophonic past, but during our occasional forays into the contemporary scene we note they are as bereft of a big idea as the politicians, businessmen and just plain folks they routinely sneer at.

In the dismal year of 1939 the Hollywood movie factories churned out a classic a week, while the filmmakers of the moment, who fancy themselves free-spirited artists unshackled from the bondage of the soul-crushing studio system, resort to comic books, video games, amusement rides, and fondly forgotten sit-coms for inspiration. Something good pops up from time to time, but we find it’s not worth wading through the dreck to get to it. This might well be a symptom of our advanced age and grumpiness, but the dwindling box office receipts, declining ratings for Oscar telecasts, and other anecdotal evidence suggest we’re not the only ones bored by the movies.

We’re old enough to remember the ‘70s, when all sorts of people would passionately discuss the latest offerings from Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick, and other directors deemed important by the serious-minded movie-goer, and we can’t help noticing that such conversations now rarely occur. During a recent visit to a local bohemian haunt our conversation with a group of youthful hipsters somehow got around to the contemporary cinema, and after hearing their half-hearted endorsements of this sniggering sex comedy or that special effects-laden action-adventure flick we asked if any of them had recently seen a truly great movie. The question provoked blank faces from all, and one young woman finally admitted that she wasn’t familiar with the concept of a truly great movie. She seemed worried that a truly great movie might make one think, which would defeat the purpose of watching a movie.

A similar paucity of new ideas, and commensurate lack of public excitement, pervades the contemporary music scene. We state this observation without fear of being called a geezer because no one we know, not even the most hyperbolic concert promoter or most addle-brained teenager of our acquaintance, argues that this is a great era of music. The decline in is glaringly apparent across the broad spectrum of the once great American music, from Broadway to gospel, traditional country to “urban contemporary,” jazz to classical, and especially among the ungracefully aging genres of youth music.

Rock ‘n’ roll is now 56 years old, if you mark its birth with Chuck Berry’s first appearance on the charts, as we do, yet is still embraced with rote enthusiasm by would-be teenage rebels as a viable antidote to impending adulthood. In 56 years jazz music went from Buddy Bolton’s low-down New Orleans blues to Miles Davis’ highfalutin “Kind of Blue,” at which point we began to lose interest in the genre, but rock ‘n’ roll has followed a much different evolutionary arc. In a mere 20 years rock ‘n’ roll went from the then-shocking sounds of Elvis, Buddy, Chuck and Jerry Lee through the acid-drenched antics of Jimi, Janis and the hippies to the aggressive punk, hip-hop, and heavy metal styles of the ‘70s, a dizzying progression that reflected the era’s rapid rate of social change, but has since crawled along at a barely discernible pace. Punk is now old enough to have attended the funerals of many of its original proponents, yet is still performed regularly in dives across the country by countless indistinguishable bands that sound just like 1977 and think they’re striking a blow against ossified tradition. Rap music is at least as old as the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” a 12-inch vinyl single we purchased in a ghetto record store back in ’79, but for many a young person born long after that date it is still the newest idea in music.

What we observe of the fashion scene, both on the street and through the media, reveals the same trend toward recycling that we find in music. The young folk aspiring to be hip, up-to-date, and “cool” basically mimic the styles of the beatniks, hippies, punks, or other mid-20th Century counter-culture movements, with plenty of obligatory tattoos to express their individuality, or they try to look like the rap video versions of a criminal. Older folk no longer interested in hipness are now free to wear whatever they want, whenever they want, a freedom that apparently extends and cut-off jeans and t-shirts emblazoned with dirty jokes to funerals and weddings. Nattier sorts are sticking with the traditional suits and ties of the past century, which is fine by us, but we can’t help recalling from the science fiction of our youth that we’re all supposed to be wearing shiny silver space suits by now.

When we look upward to the ivory towers of high culture, we find that the avant-garde hasn’t advanced much beyond its post-World War I ideas of shocking the squares, subverting the established order, deconstructing civilizational concepts, and all that post-modern jazz. Today the squares are watching the notorious “two girls one cup” video on the internet, listening through their I-Pods to rappers who issue profanity-laden calls to kill whitey, and wearing cut-off jeans and t-shirts emblazoned with dirty jokes to funerals and weddings, all of which suggests that the squares are no longer shockable, and that the century-old project of subverting the established order and deconstructing western civilization has succeeded so thoroughly that artists ought to turn their attention to devising a suitable alternative.

No such ideas are readily apparent in the increasingly self-segregated “arts community,” however, and would likely be widely ignored even if they did exist. There is no living artist who holds the household name status that Picasso so thoroughly enjoyed as recently as our childhood, even the more high-brow general interest magazines rarely bother to report on the latest offerings of the art world, and the rare occasions when you read about art in what’s left of the daily press it’s usually a story about angry artists demanding the government funding that is desperately needed in lieu of a paying audience. From time to time we’ll ask our culture vulture friends what we’re missing as a result of falling out of the gallery-going habit, and even they are hard-pressed to point to anything new they would consider remotely great.

At least the artists can console themselves that those hated philistines in the world of commerce are just as lacking in new ideas to peddle. Even such an austere lifestyle as ours entails an occasional visit to the mall or one of the big discount stores, where we’re always overwhelmed by the deluge of new products, but even in the dazed state induced by such a cornucopia we can’t help noticing that there’s nothing new on the shelves that we just have to own. Consumer electronic gizmos are continually being improved, to an extent that would impress Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers or any other character from the futuristic fiction of the recent past, but none of these improvements are the least bit epochal. The latest televisions merely bring the same hackneyed courtroom dramas and smutty sit-coms into high definition, cell phones aren’t a satisfactory substitute for a face-to-face conversation, no matter how many people seem to think so, and I-Pads are simply smaller lap-tops.

We mostly blame bad government policies for the current economic sluggishness, but concede that even the most adept stewardship of the economy will have trouble stimulating a sustained boom without a big, new idea to bring to market. The last few centuries have accustomed us to look to science and technology for the latest economy-jolting innovation, but at the moment even those amazing eggheads in the white lab coats seem to be coming up short of a big, new idea. They might be on the brink of something big — we read some mind-boggling reports about nanotechnology, and an old friend who now runs a genetic engineer program at a major university assures us that “we’re doing some Frankensteinian stuff” — but it remains to be seen if it will have the same salutary economic effect as less complex but highly consequential ideas as steam engines, light bulbs, automobiles, airplanes, and indoor plumbing.

Our complaint about the lack of new ideas is nothing new, of course, and dates as far back as the book of Ecclesiastes, which more eloquently lamented that “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Still, this conspicuous absence of the big, bold, age-defining idea is in unfamiliar to our young country, which always had an independence to achieve, a Union to save, a manifest destiny to fulfill, an Axis or Soviet tyranny to defeat, or could rally around an American Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Sexual Revolution, or rock ‘n’ roll records that spun at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute. Within our lifetimes we have heard the adventurous calls of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, Gene Roddenberry’s Final Frontier, or The Gipper’s Morning in America, and we had come to expect that there would always be something similarly big going on in the U.S.A.

The reader is entitled at this point to ask what big, new ideas we have to offer, and our only response is to shrug and admit that we don’t have much. We do, however, have a theory about where to look: When the welfare state comes tumbling down under the weight of sovereign debt and societal indolence, look under the heap of rubble. Start digging through all of the old, bad ideas that have accumulated over the past century, discarding everything that’s too expensive, simply doesn’t work, or is just too bossy, officious, and silly to put up with any longer, and keep going until you get to the bedrock ideas of individual liberty, self-reliance, Judeo-Christian morality, and the kind of rugged individualism that can’t be purchased as your local tattoo shop.

These aren’t new ideas, of course, but once re-discovered they’re likely to lead great new ideas as they always have in past. We expect they could rejuvenate our democracy, spur new industries and economic growth, inspire art of the truth-and-beauty variety, and it might even get the kids to hitch up their britches and turn their ball caps around, or make a good movie.

That would be big.

–Bud Norman

Liberty, equality, phooey

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” is a swell-sounding slogan for a French Revolution, especially when spoken with a mellifluous Francophone accent, but as a policy it will always be impracticable.

Wherever the people are at liberty to act according to their abilities and ambitions, their unequal talents, drive and luck will inevitably ensure unequal economic outcomes, while any attempt to enforce economic equality will necessarily involve restraints on the liberties of the more talented, driven and lucky. Neither option, of course, does much to foster fraternity. For proof of this thesis we point to the past many millennia of human existence.

Despite such abundant evidence, however, many people persist in pursuing the ever-elusive goal of economic equality. Indeed, the egalitarian impulse has lately asserted itself with an annoying ubiquity. From the highest office in the land, where the president rails against “fat cats” and corporate jet owners, to the daily protest at your local park, where laptop-wielding college kids and scruffy homeless folk wave hand-lettered signs against the damnable “one percent,” the indisputable and previously unremarkable fact that some people are better off than others has become the most talked-about issue of the day. There’s no avoiding it even in friendly encounters with fellow citizens, no matter how hard one might try to steer the conversation toward weather, local sports teams, or other anodyne topics.

Did you know that income inequality in the United States is wider than in Tunisia or Egypt? Even we were happily unaware of this until a recent curbside chat with a very earnest young woman, who also informed us in a grave, indignant voice of several other third world hell-holes that have also achieved a greater degree of social justice than our inequitable land. We were willing to take her word for it, as it seemed plausible enough, but admitted to her that we didn’t share her apparent concern. On the contrary, we replied, her rankings suggested to us an inverse relationship between the level of social equality in a country and how much we would want to live there.

We confessed to the young woman that we have the normal human interest in how much money we make, and the normal human preference for more of it, but are disinterested in how much others make, and unperturbed by the possibility that they might be making much more. The young woman was clearly baffled by such insouciance, and as she walked away she could be heard muttering that she just didn’t get it.

Her undisguised suspicion that we must be nuts not to be enraged is typical of the modern egalitarian. A few years ago one of those periodic psychiatric studies purporting to prove that conservatism is a mental disorder specifically cited a “tolerance of inequality” as one of the more alarming symptoms of conservative derangement. Go ahead and call us nuts — you won’t be the first — but we take the view that a tolerance of inequality is actually vital to one’s mental health, as there will always be enough of it out there to drive anyone crazy. We harbor a suspicion that the inherent inequality of man has in fact driven many of our countrymen certifiably crazy, which accounts for the state of our politics, but we’ll leave it to some shrink with no political prejudices to determine why some people tolerate income inequality calmly and others do not, and which of them are sane. In the meantime we listen to the arguments for outrage with heightened interest, and find them unpersuasive.

A young man we recently spoke with at a neighborhood coffee shop explained to us with great intensity, perhaps caffeine-induced, perhaps not, that the vast riches acquired by the wealthiest one percent of the country allowed them to bribe government officials and thereby control the other ninety-nine percent. His proposed solution was to vastly expand the power of government officials to determine society’s winners and losers, which somehow didn’t seem right to us, but we also found his conspiracy theory dubious. We couldn’t think of anything that we do or don’t do because of rich people’s control over us, and are often accused of being completely out of control. This might just be a touch of that “false consciousness” the Marxists are always babbling on about, but the intense young man couldn’t think of any examples, either.

Even if the richest one percent did have some sick reason to pick on little ol’ us, we couldn’t imagine them acting in concert to do so. The latest census counted more than 300 million people in America, so by our public school math there are more than three million people in the richest one percent, and we don’t believe that the economic interests of any three million people ever neatly converge. Among that one percent you’ll find both the notoriously libertarian Koch brothers and the infamously leftist George Soros, who seem to agree on little except their opposition to the Iraq War, which even their combined wealth was unable to prevent. In that top one percent you’ll also find plenty of doctors and lawyers, the dogs and cats of the elite professions, as well as numerous high-tech gurus seeking government-enforced monopolies for their incompatible technologies. The one percent includes some industrialists who can’t afford compliance with environmental regulations, other industrialists who gleefully ancipate that potential competitors won’t be able to afford the proposed regulations, and a few insurance moguls who worry that if all that climate change stuff is actually true they won’t be able to afford having any industry at all. The rich can bribe politicians to their hearts’ content, and no doubt often do, but they’re not all going to get the same return on their investment.

Several outraged egalitarians we have encountered claim that the economy is suffering because the rich have hoarded their money, presumably in a giant underground vault where they swim in it â la Scrooge McDuck, and won’t allow it to circulate among the hoi polloi. We’re stumped trying to think of any reasons why the rich would do this, however, except for an increasingly reasonable fear that public opinion and the current administration will collude to take it all, which can be more easily be remedied by a strong dose of rock-ribbed Republicanism than by four more years of soak-the-rich rhetoric.

Politicians who appeal to the public’s antipathy for the rich will often make the argument in terms of fiscal responsibility, a catch phrase calculated to pierce the hardest conservative heart, and argue that confiscatory tax rates on the wealthiest Americans are needed to balance the government’s budget. This argument is hard to refute, not because it is valid but because the refutation requires talk of the Laffer Curve, Hauser’s Law, capital flight, and other soporific economic theories that explain the counter-intuitive but empirically demonstrable fact that higher taxes don’t necessarily yield more revenues. Even those hardy souls who stay awake through such arcane concepts must be numerate enough to grasp the mind-boggling figures of the national debt and the cumulative wealth of the richest one percent, and to calculate that the former greatly exceeds the latter, and many an American will find it much easier to go ahead and resent the rich.

A few steadfast egalitarians still dispute that there is any tax rate beyond which the government will receive less revenue, which assumes that those greedy and solely self-interested rich bastards will continue to work just as hard, take just as many risks, and write just as many paychecks even when they know it will all be taken from them. This also doesn’t seem quite right to us, and causes us to wonder if increased government is really what this is all about. When finally overwhelmed by the evidence that some taxes go beyond the optimal and become counter-productive, the egalitarians will simply ignore the economic consequences and couch their argument in terms of something they call “social justice.” Such thinking is not just limited to the ardent young liberals we encounter on our social rounds, either.

Our first inkling of the mischief that Barack Obama might wreak on the nation’s economy came in 2008 during a primary debate against then-rival Hillary Clinton, when he was asked why he supported increasing the capital gains tax rate despite long experience showing it would actually reduce government revenues. Obama did not dispute the premise of the question, which cannot be seriously disputed, but said he would nonetheless seek a capital gains tax hike for “purposes of fairness.” That is, he concedes the government will have less money available for everything from national defense to inner-city midnight basketball leagues, and that is because there is less job-creating economic activity, but he nonetheless insists it will be worth the cost so long as the rich suffer. We tried to reassure ourselves at the time that he was only kidding, but he continues to pursue that policy even today.

This seems to us a peculiar notion of what’s fair, but it is pervasive today, intruding itself not only into economic policy, but in education, where embarrassing disparities in test scores provoke howls of protest against testing, and in every corner of the culture, where a severe non-judgmentalism forbids discrimination in any sense of the word. It is good that a society insists on each citizen’s equal right to free speech, religion, a fair trial, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, no quartering of soldiers in their homes, and so forth, but we think it takes egalitarianism too far to insist that everyone be equally poor, stupid and pedestrian.

Yet there is no doubting the sincerity of the modern egalitarian, which is always conspicuously displayed for the benefit of any passersby. They’re often quite eloquent, in fact, when rhapsodizing about the equality of man, and how each of us is so very special in our own unique yet equal ways, and how all of us fine folk are entitled to an equal share of society’s bounty. It takes years of public schooling, a steady diet of pop-psychology self-help books, several seasons of non-competition in “everybody plays” soccer leagues, and thousands of dollars worth of college credit hours to believe something so glaringly stupid, but thanks to the miracle of modern culture we now have millions of people agreeing that the late Steve Jobs and that kid in the drive-thru window who can’t quite grasp the concept of “hold the mayo” make equal contributions to society and should therefore receive equal remuneration.

The modern egalitarians are a bossy bunch, too, usually the same ones trying to tell you what kind of light bulbs to use or which car to drive, how much salt to put on your French fries and what to cook them with, where to set your thermostat, or who not to shoot. This indicates to us that their preference for equality over liberty has as much to do with a disdain for the latter as a passion for the former. They seem particularly uninterested in their right to become obscenely wealthy, perhaps because of some noble disdain for worldly goods, more likely because of self-doubt and insufficient ambition, and it’s unsurprising they wouldn’t defend the right for someone else.

Although we run into these people often enough here on the prairie, they are apparently even more common in other regions of the country. All the outcry about corporate jet owners and the villainous Koch brothers strikes an especially discordant note here in Wichita, Kansas, where corporate jet-making and Koch Industries are the bedrocks of the local economy, but in our experience people throughout the plains are of a similar mind. Plains people tend to prefer liberty to equality, which explains the big red splotch in the middle of the past several electoral maps, but we’re not sure why.

Perhaps the wide open spaces of the prairie, the great emptiness pregnant with possibility, inspires a yearning for liberty that the denizens of more densely-populated cities never feel. It might be a frontier tradition, handed down generation to generation by the rugged-as-limestone old cusses who settled this inhospitable land to unabashed rednecks now proudly waving their Gadsden flags at tea party rallies and not giving a hoot what the rich folk do.

Maybe it’s the fact that so many prairie folk still go to church, where the Good Book warns rich people about camels and the eye of a needle but also warns the rest of us about envy, covetousness, and trusting in a final judgment. Even the prairie people who think that’s just a bunch of Abrahamic hooey seem to find some satisfaction in their godless belief that we’ll all be equal in the end.

It might be that class distinctions just aren’t so galling here as they are in other parts of the country. We’ve spent enough time walking the sidewalks of big cities to observe how they might exacerbate the normal human instinct to hate that guy with the nicer things. When the regular guy is descending into a jam-packed subway car en route to a high-rise apartment building indistinguishable from a subterranean ant colony, and he sees the blue suit-wearing guy with the brief case getting into a limousine on his way to a swank suburban mansion, he’s understandably willing to sacrifice a few liberties he’ll never avail himself of anyway for a bit of retributive equality. When the regular guy has a highly-leveraged degree in queer studies or conflict resolution and the rich bastard in the blue suit was probably a business major, the sense of injustice can become downright maddening, and proved by recent events in Zucotti Park.

Class distinctions aren’t so stark on the plains, and are more easily ignored by even the lowest-paid workers as they drive their automobiles to stand-alone homes decorated with the logos of beloved football team. There are no restaurants here that only the super-rich can afford to eat at, even if they are free to dine there daily rather than yearly, and anyone who presumes to debut his daughter at a debutante ball will be laughed out of town as a pretentious poser. Even the snobbiest among us share the common bond of knowing that the rest of the country is laughing at us.

We prefer the prairie way of thinking, of course, but we’re mindful that we’re out-numbered here and won’t necessarily determine the national course. This is worrisome, because the drum-beat for a class war grows steadily louder across the land, and hard times are conducive to resentment, envy, and a sense that the liberty to prosper isn’t going to come in handy.

The notion that rich people have plenty of money and we ought to just take it from them isn’t a new idea that somehow never occurred to anyone until Obama and the ones who had been waiting for themselves along. That idea is as old as humanity, and has been tried many times, and has never worked. At best it ends with the slow decline of an Argentina or Spain, at worst it ends in a Reign of Terror, the gulags or the killing fields.

— Bud Norman

Our glum zeitgeist

Among the many photographs depicting the various protests that have recently occurred around the country as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, one in particular caught our attention. The shot depicts a sparsely bearded, fashionably disheveled neo-hippie holding a crudely lettered sign proclaiming “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.”

Profanities will not normally be allowed here, but in this case the message seemed worth quoting without asterisks or other expurgations that might blunt its full effect. At once enraged, incoherent, illiterate, vulgar, and without the slightest suggestion of a helpful idea, the sign perfectly expresses the essence of the recent protests. Although we would likely disagree with the sign’s author about the causes of our discontent, or any other subject which might come up in a conversation, we must further concede that he has quite accurately, and with a certain inelegant succinctness, summed up the spirit of our age.

Things are, indeed, in a very bad way and hogwash.

We don’t just mean the state of the economy, as one might expect, but also pretty much everything else about this particular moment in our civilizational march into history. From our politics to our popular entertainments, from the highfalutin ideas promulgated by our intellectual class to our street level encounters with fellow citizens, all seems in precipitous decline. This might sound like the grumblings of a grumpy old man, which we admittedly are, but if any young whippersnapper out there still remains hopeful, well, let him deny the heaps of evidence piling up around us like so much protest debris at an “Occupy” encampment.

The continuing lousiness of the national and global economies is evident everywhere. One can read it in the official statistics, which range from desultory to grim, but these attempts to quantify the economic anemia understate its depressing quality. A starker measurement can be seen in the increasing number of panhandlers showing up in parking lots across Wichita, Kansas, or on the embarrassed face of every seventh person ahead of you in the grocery store checkout line as he pays with a food stamp card. You can hear it in a realtor’s weary lament about copper thieves descending on the many vacant houses that go unsold, or the angry rants of debt-laden youngsters as they look in vain for a job that will lift them out of their parents’ basement.

More worrisome, for a country whose optimism was once considered incurable, is that so few of us expect the conditions will get noticeably better during our remaining days. Many of us, in fact, see an increasing likelihood that it will get even worse, perhaps catastrophically so. Our government’s inexorable and exponential growth, its mounting debt and descending credit ratings, the ever more fantastic entitlements it promises to the public, as well as the public’s hardening sense of entitlement, all seem to put us on an irreversible trajectory toward Greece, where the birthplace of democracy slowly burns as the populace riots for money that simply isn’t there. The same people who sneer at the notion of “American exceptionalism” will no doubt claim that America is somehow an exception to the unrepealable economic laws that have debtors bailing out debtors across Europe, desperately trying to save their dream of European Union and stave off a continental depression, but they can offer no reasons why that should be so, only calumnies against any who dare question the unsustainable status quo.

There are no doubt solutions to our problems, but hardly anyone on either side of the ideological divide expects our political leadership to find them. All but the most doggedly devoted Obama supporters we know will now admit that things haven’t changed as they’d hoped, and those who nonetheless plan to vote for him again will do so not out of love for their former hero but rather out of a red-hot hatred of his opponents. All the Republicans of our acquaintance, meanwhile, make no greater claim for their candidates of tentative choice than that he’s bound to be better than the incumbent, and they’ll quickly add that isn’t saying much.

Nor do our other political institutions inspire confidence. The Republican majority installed in the House of Representatives just one short year ago is routinely assailed by its opposition as parsimonious, intolerant, and downright mean, but the very voters who elected them fret that these Representatives are insufficiently frugal, altogether too permissive, and lacking the ruthlessness necessary to enact the painful reforms needed to prevent a calamitous fiscal crisis of the Third World or European varieties. The Democrat-controlled Senate, which hasn’t so much as passed a budget in three years, has few defenders. Faith in the judiciary also runs low, and will dip further among much of the population after the Supreme Court rules on the health care reform bill, regardless of how they decide.

At times such as these when the people cannot look to their leaders, the people must look to themselves. Alas, as we take stock of our fellow citizens today we once again find little reason for optimism.

On one side of the political spectrum we find the various sorts of people in or sympathetic to the “Occupy” movement, a relatively small but annoyingly outspoken bunch whose self-righteously angry voices are amplified by supportive and still powerful mass media outlets. This disparate group runs the gamut from socialists to National Socialists to communists to anarchists-for-big-government, but to the extent it has a discernible unifying political agenda it is Jacobin, sometimes explicitly so, in its calls for class war, redistribution of wealth, and ripping that goose wide open and getting all the golden eggs right now. They always couch their demands in terms of social justice, usually while clearing their throats and pointing toward their chests.

Far off on the other side we can recognize the remnants of what was once called The Silent Majority, no longer silent, no longer a majority, and now known as the “Tea Party.” For the most part these people just want a job, a sound dollar, and a semblance of order, fiscal and otherwise. They’ve crunched the numbers and learned that even confiscatory rates of taxation on the wealthy aren’t going to cover the government’s tab, they understand the likely economic downside of eviscerating the corporations they work for and buy from, and they are temperamentally inclined to let God mete out justice to the rich. They don’t want to see their country become insolvent, they’d be quite happy to do with much less of that meddlesome old government in order to prevent that unhappy fate, and they are therefore regarded by elite opinion as hopeless rubes. Our opinions are decidedly un-elite, and we find the continued existence of such people heartening, but even among these fine folks we hear the occasional wishful thinking that the government checks can keep going out as always.

Occupying the vast middle space of America’s political landscape are people who, for various reasons, haven’t been paying much attention. They are only vaguely aware of the multi-trillion dollar gap between what has been promised them and what they can realistically expect to be delivered, unencumbered by any considered political or economic philosophy, and habitually uninterested in all that blah-blah-blah in any case. These people will nonetheless assert their right to strongly-held opinions, especially regarding the promises made by every two-bit politician of the past eighty years, and in many cases they actually vote, meaning they will play an uncertain role in determining America’s future.

There will never be enough reality shows, Ultimate Fighting bouts or telepromptered speeches about fat cat Wall Streeters to distract these people so thoroughly that they don’t notice things are going as the aforementioned sign-bearer put it, and they have the traditional American instinct to blame whoever occupies the White House, but they won’t necessarily turn out for the Republican alternative come election day. They’re unlikely to leave their climate-controlled homes for the chilly urban campgrounds of the “Occupy” crowd, but they might find themselves sympathizing with its ambiguous grievances and supporting its most foolish ideas.

We don’t mean to be unduly harsh in our assessment of these middle ground people, many of whom are undoubtedly good eggs, and we certainly don’t want to sound like some high-tone philosopher-king tsk-tsking about the simple folk clinging to religion and guns. Their apolitical passions are in many cases admirable and in most cases provide the only pleasant conversations available these days, their blissful ignorance of our dire circumstances is almost enviable, and they’re quite right in thinking that they shouldn’t have to be bothered with the fate of their nation. But neither do we want to romanticize the Common Man with all the dewy-eyed sentimentality of a Soviet realist mural. Most of our fellow human beings are average, tautologically enough, and the average human being is susceptible to envy, sloth, covetousness and all the other failings that were known back in the religious days as “deadly sins.”

These natural human instincts — and we don’t necessarily mean “natural” as a compliment, as is so common these days — are constantly reinforced by our mass communications culture. The middle ground Americans mostly get their news from Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Bill Maher, Brian Williams and other television comedians, or from the brief network news feeds that interrupt their local radio shock jock’s offerings of cacophonous music on the drive home, and all of these sources peddle the same left-leaning line to various degrees. When the middle ground American changes the channel or heads to the neighborhood bijou for an evening’s entertainment he is likely to hear the same arch, ironic, oh-so-post-modern messages about the inherently evil nature of corporations, the obscene wealth just beyond your grasp, and the comic stupidity of those job-holding, church-going, lawn-mowing hicks that are so contemptibly naïve as to still believe in capitalism and the American way. The fact that these cultural products are created by corporations, have made their creators fabulously wealthy, and are possible only by the blessings of capitalism and the American way, goes unnoticed and unremarked.

The movies, television shows, music, and other entertainments that permeate the middle ground of America often have an unmistakable meanness, too. A level of gore once relegated to the grind house is now displayed with sadistic glee by award-winning directors, or endlessly played out on video games by perpetual adolescents. The sappy love songs that survived well into the rock ‘n’ roll era have been replaced by angry screeds against former sex partners. The jokes told by the late night comics are vicious.

We’ll leave it to others to determine if the popular culture is creating or merely reflecting a trend in society, but there’s no avoiding that meanness is afoot. In most cases it is merely annoying, such as the misspelled cussing that litters internet comments sections, or the rude tattoos that scream from the neck of angrily dressed young man at the next gas pump, or the middle fingers raised for no apparent reason by passing motorists, but it also manifests itself in such dangerous fads as the flash mobs beating random passersby in cities around the country. The meanness can be heard on the right in the nasal whine of a Mark Levin or the megalomaniacal rants of a Michael Savage, but such shrillness is more common on the left, which now regards its opposition not as misguided or merely wrong, but as evil monsters bent on racial cleansing, environmental destruction, cannibalizing the poor, and all things uncool.

Beginning with the unrest attendant to the Wisconsin governor attempting to balance his state’s budget, the left’s anger has moved beyond violent rhetoric into actual violence, fueled by the nitro and glycerin combination of angry youths and wizened old union thugs. The internet provides abundant and compelling evidence of angry mobs menacing office holders, shutting down ports, holding hostages, blocking motorists, and in the most recent outrage, pushing a 78-year-old woman down a flight of stairs while invading the peaceful assembly of an opposing organization. All of this is happening while the mobs are still sufficiently well-heeled to tweet their revolutionary plans over cellular telephones and laptop computers, leaving one to wonder how ugly it might get if the worst-case economic scenarios occur. If one might be so old-fashioned as to quote Jesus, “For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?”

We were discussing the events of the day with a bartender of our acquaintance a while back, around the time the London riots and the attacks by black youths on white Wisconsin State Fair-goers were in the news, and we repeated our familiar worry that America will end up fighting it out in the streets to see who’s right and who’s wrong. The young woman at the next barstool apparently overheard something about fighting in the streets and eagerly interjected herself into the conversation, telling us how very eager she was to get it on. Making a fist to illustrate her willingness to rumble, she enthused about the brave new world that she and her fellow hep cats would soon raise from the rubble of America’s vanquished society.

She looked to be ninety pounds or so, girlishly attractive except for the green chest tattoo peeking out from her v-necked t-shirt, and probably an art student. She didn’t strike us as someone who would fare well in a knock-down, drag-out, end-of-the-social-order situation, especially against the deer hunters, high school football veterans, ex-soldiers, and other rough men who would ultimately be drawn into the fray, but we suspect there are enough just like her to be troublesome. There are no circumstances in which we expect the outcome would be pretty.

Any readers who have slogged this far into such a depressing essay are entitled to be asking what we think should be done about this unhappy situation, and for that matter just what we intend to do about it. In keeping with the downbeat tone of this piece, we offer no happier solutions than blood, sweat, tears, capitalism red in tooth and claw, and other austerity measures, and we’ll admit that all we intend to do is write about it.

The great Evelyn Waugh once said of the great Rudyard Kipling that “He was a conservative in the sense that he believed civilization to be something laboriously achieved which was only precariously defended. He wanted to see the defences fully manned and he hated the liberals because he thought them gullible and feeble, believing in the easy perfectibility of man and ready to abandon the work of centuries for sentimental qualms.” We’re no Evelyn Waugh or Rudyard Kipling, another example of our cultural decline, but we’ll do our part to man the defenses for them as best we can. We’ll exhort those embattled souls who see what is necessary, attempt to persuade those open to persuasion, and laugh at those with the upturned chins and the cocksure certainty that this time the revolution will succeed.

–Bud Norman