Calling Dr. Pangloss

We never had it so good – right?

by , December 18, 2009

I thought it might – just might – be a parody, a spoof, a weak attempt at irony. But no, it turns out that Nick Gillespie, the former editor of Reason magazine, and now chief honcho over at something called "ReasonTV," is absolutely and incredibly serious about his contention that We Never Had It So Good. And why, pray tell, are we supposedly so blessed? Well, it seems that nerdy geeky-looking white kids now have some really really cool computer games to play, while their parents make the rounds looking for work during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. And – hey look! – we have Netflix, not to mention all those hundreds of new television stations: the vast wasteland has assumed continental proportions.  Hurrah! And computers are here, they’re inexpensive, and the government can spy on us oh so much more efficiently now than ever before. Isn’t progress wonderful? I’m sure Dr. Pangloss would agree.  

There’s something more than just a little off over at Reason magazine, these days, and in the libertarian movement more generally, when a former editor and self-proclaimed "libertarian" can even try to pull off this Pollyanna routine with a straight face. After all, the past few years have seen the worst assault on our civil liberties since the passage of the Alien and Sedition Act.  The US government can now "legally" read our emails, spy on our finances, and jail us indefinitely without a trial, without even filing charges and without telling anyone. A veil of secrecy hides what our rulers are up to, and things have gotten worse not better under Obama.  

On the home front, the term "big government" seems a redundancy, as Washington centralizes, consolidates, and expands its power over every aspect of our lives. On the overseas front, the reach and destructive energy of the World’s Sole Superpower shows every sign of increasing beyond the dreams of Napoleon and Alexander combined.  

To top it all off, we are staring economic collapse in the face, as the world economy reels, the dollar declines, and close to 15 percent of US mortgages are either in foreclosure or well on the way. Meanwhile, the balance of wealth is shifting away from the productive private sector, and  towards the tax-eaters, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. Crony capitalism reigns supreme. This is cause for celebration if you fit into any of these three categories, but for the rest of us – especially for libertarians – it’s an unmitigated disaster. 

Oh, but our life spans are increasing, according to this Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm video. Which means we have that much longer to watch the world succumb to demagoguery, state-worship, militarism, and perpetual war. Oh, goodie! What a glorious prospect that is!  

What world is Señor Gillespie living in? 

The short answer is: the wonderful world of Washington, D.C. It’s easy to see how an inhabitant of that city might get such a counterintuitive idea in his head. The place is jumpin’ ever since Obama took office, and no wonder, what with the pay of government "workers" going through the roof even as the real earnings of Americans stay the same or decline. Real estate markets all over the country are unceremoniously collapsing – except those close to the Imperial City and its suburbs, where housing prices are up. Everyone who’s anyone wants to be near the epicenter of power. 

The American meritocracy has gone into reverse, and the very worst are rising to the top. While the rest of the American economy is imploding, the armaments industry is booming as never before. Monsters are heroes, and heroes – nonexistent (not counting Ron Paul). America, once a beacon of liberty to the world, is a sinister looming presence, whose machinations are widely distrusted and feared. The old gods are overthrown, and Ares is enthroned on Olympus, where he’s commandeered Zeus’s thunderbolts and taken to hurling them at Washington’s direction any which way, without regard for either morality or the real national interests of the United States.  

This country has gone through bad times before, and yet there was always a core of resilience, a solid cultural basis on which to rebuild and revive our flagging fortunes. This time, however, there is a general atmosphere of cultural rottenness that stinks to high heaven and infects the very air with its pustulence. The rot is epitomized by the Gillespie video, in which material things are glorified above all else: life is all about having a better video game. All the better to lose oneself in fantasy while the world descends into a new age of moral barbarism, and culture becomes massified, vulgarized, and narcoticized. The state of our culture reminds me of Alexandre Kojève‘s description of the human condition after "the end of history" comes to pass: 

"Men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, would perform concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas, would play like young animals, and would indulge in love like adult beasts." 

Such creatures are easily herded, tyrannized, and turned into "human" cattle. Indeed, Kojève’s prediction that human discourse would soon come to sound like "the buzzing of bees" has already come true, as anyone who pays attention to the emanations of the nation’s leading pundits can attest. Once the modern hive-mind has settled on an idée fixe – say, Iraq’s "weapons of mass destruction," or the inevitability of Hillary Clinton – the "buzz" drowns out all contrarian opinions, along with reason and common sense.  

Politically and culturally, we have two classes that are increasingly in conflict: the common ordinary hoi polloi (e.g. you and I), who are increasingly discontent, disoriented, and dissenting from the Panglossian "you never had it so good" propaganda that’s beamed at us day in and day out – and, on the other hand, the elites, who really never did have it so good,  living, as they do, in the lap of government-subsidized and bailed-out luxury. The American nomenklatura is every bit as corrupt as was its Soviet equivalent, except that, in our case, the sheer scale of the corruption is much greater, as there’s more wealth to loot, more power to seize. 

This combination – a venal, vile ruling class,  and a volcanically angry middle and lower class majority – is an explosive one, and it’s only a matter of time before some random spark ignites a firestorm. Our condition represents not only a threat to the US, but to the world at large, because we are, after all, a world-spanning empire. The seismic forces that are rocking our world are already reverberating internationally, playing havoc with the fate of nations. War is the favorite diversion of rulers who seek to draw attention away from troubles at home and re-direct it toward imaginary "enemies" abroad, and this familiar scenario is playing itself out once again – ironically, but unsurprisingly, during the presidency of a man who masqueraded as the "peace" candidate and an agent of "change."  

Yes, "change" is surely in the air, but decline, too, is change. So get out those video games, turn on the television, and contemplate the prospect of a long and vacuous existence – because you’re going to need all the diversions you can get. 

We are in the midst of – or, really, at the doorstep of – one of the most volatile, and potentially destructive periods in our history as a nation. That anyone can even think of peddling some Panglossian vision of unlimited "progress" and smug complacency at such a moment is proof positive that no idea is so absurd that it cannot inspire adherents.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN 

I see that Reason magazine managing editor Jesse Walker has written and posted an interesting piece, "Five Reasons for  Optimism," which – unlike Gillespie’s Netflix commercial – actually makes a substantial argument for long-term optimism, while acknowledging that the past decade has been a disaster. Go check it out.  

A reminder: I’m still writing daily commentary over at The Hill, Capitol Hill’s newspaper of record.  The last one, in response to the question "How would you grade Obama’s presidency?", provoked a lot of comments: go check it out. And here‘s more.

Read more by Justin Raimondo