Junk Politics and the New Reactionaries
by Ari Armstrong, December 31, 2003
One day at "convocation" at the conservative Christian university Pepperdine, I viewed an extraordinary piece of "attack art." (The painter's name is Denny Dent.) Neon colors exploded on a black canvas, until the artist turned over the canvas and it quickly assumed the likeness of Jimi Hendrix, the legendary guitar player of the 60s.
This is a tale of decay. Paradoxically, it is also a story of hope. Mostly, it is a review (and hopefully an extension) of Jeff Riggenbach's 1998 book, In Praise of Decadence. It is a struggle to grasp what is going on in this upheaved culture of ours, and try to anticipate where we're going, or at least where we might be able to go. Coincidentally, it's also timed with the turn of the year. We're beyond 1984, beyond the digital apocalypse, beyond the appointed year of the space odyssey, and headed into 2004, where the truth is strange indeed.
I have some idea what the canvas is supposed to look like when I'm finished, but the image might not be apparent to the reader until I sketch a few stories into place and finally flip the work to reveal a coherent message.
* * * * *
"You're so fat, if you fell you'd crack the sidewalk."
I believe one of the insults went something like that. Some weeks ago, 9News, the most popular Colorado television news program, aired a segment during its main 10:00 broadcast about a fat girl whose former boss made fun of her. Of course the relentless Paula Woodward was on point. The obese woman endured hurtful insults from her boss for months before she finally fed her ego enough to quit (but apparently not enough to compliment her boss on one of his enduring attributes).
Back up and think about that: Colorado's leading TV news source chose as one of its major stories for its main broadcast of the day the complaint of a woman who got called names because she's "calorically challenged." That's the "news."
Apparently, the woman tried to sue her boss, but that didn't fly because making fun of fat people isn't (currently) legally prohibited. 9News dutifully pointed this out, even as it reminded its audience of all the categories of people who are legally protected from insensitive bosses. If saying the word "fag" in the workplace can get you sued, why not the word "fat?" Surely "fat wench" would be sexual discrimination and therefore actionable.
My TV seems to be hooked permanently into the Twilight Zone, an alternate universe in which the trivial edges out anything that matters. But let's pretend for a second that some pathetic boss who calls his employee childish names is a story we should all learn about on the nightly news. Isn't the least 9News could do is to make a little fun of the jerk, so as to discourage that sort of behavior?
Of course not. 9News concluded the boss had broken no law, and therefore his name would be omitted from the story. So what was the story about, then? Apparently the story was free psychotherapy for the overweight woman, one of those cleansing showers of tears popularized by the afternoon talk shows, and an opportunity for 9News to point out calling somebody fat is not currently against the law. The implicit assumption by those at 9News involved with the story is that only those actions explicitly proscribed by law warrant negative publicity. The legal is the moral, and the illegal is the immoral.
* * * * *
According to a December 19 commentary by Paul Jacobs, presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman said recently, "Parents today are being forced to contend with a new threat - big food companies targeting junk food at children... We cannot raise strong and healthy children if the best efforts of good parents all across America are being consistently undercut by corporations looking to profit by spreading bad behavior."
And why not? People can smoke for decades, get cancer, and sue the cigarette companies. Smoking on private property is prohibited by state and local governments across the U.S. Ingesting and trading certain types of plants carry felony penalties and often net prison sentences longer than those for rape, robbery, and sometimes murder. National spending on alleged entitlements keeps expanding, with no end in sight. People can carry a tool of self-defense in most states -- so long as they get permission from the state first. Cities can steal property from one private party and give it to another, for no reason other than to collect more sales tax. Congress now protects us from the dangers of free speech. Congress also protects us from the responsibility of having to decide how to spend a quarter or so of our income (depending on brackets and social engineering). So why shouldn't politicians and bureaucrats protect us from eating fatty foods? Maybe eventually we can have fat police, exercise police, vitamin police, and so on.
In a December 23 article for Reason, Kelly Jane Torrance describes a recent meeting of the American Public Health Association in San Francisco. One button read, "Public Health Is Everybody's Business." Torrance describes a number of national and state proposals to control eating. I can imagine the signs: "Pack an illegal cheese burger, pack your backs for prison." And why not? Eating too many cheese burgers is far worse for a person's health than smoking marijuana. The only wonder is why conservatives are now complaining about the Fat Police, the intellectual children of conservative policies.
* * * * *
Over the past few years, I've made a number of friends on the left. I'm proudly a member of ACLU, and I count several Greens and self-described progressives among my allies. I believe the left-right line is folding in on itself, such that civil libertarians of the left and right will forge new alliances, even as the statists of the left and right advance a unified agenda.
"Reactionary" is a relative term. In the broad sense, every social movement is reacting against something. The Founders were reacting against English tyranny. The civil rights movements were reacting against racism and other forms of bigotry. Often right-wingers are described as "reactionary," but it's unclear what views characterize the "right wing." If we say reactionaries oppose progress, then we must define what counts as "progress." I see progress as the advancement of individual rights and human well-being. (These goals involve no trade-off: individual rights are necessary to the attainment of human well-being.)
Thus, those who would use the force of the police state, and the fiat of politicians and bureaucrats, to control what we put into our own bodies, are the Nanny State Reactionaries who have converged from both left and right.
The right-wing war on (some) drugs is rooted in arguments about moral character. The left-wing war on cigarettes and junk food is rooted in arguments about economic exploitation. As Ayn Rand explains, "Neither camp holds freedom as a value. The conservatives want to rule man's consciousness; the liberals, his body" and material exchanges. The end result is the same: people with guns come to arrest those who dare to consume or trade certain plants or related substances. Individuals do not have rights. Our bodies are "everybody's business." The ultimate conclusion of socialism is the nationalization of our very bodies.
The particular type of socialism favored by today's left-right reactionary coalition is, precisely, fascism. Fascism means state control over nominally private property. The legal fiction is that it's "my body;" the truth is that politicians and bureaucrats get to tell me what I can do with my body. This isn't the bloody fascism of the mid-20th Century; it is the petty, blood-leeching fascism of the Nanny State. It is the fascism of endless mandates and prohibitions backed up by the guns of the police state. It's not the hateful, murderous fascism of racists; it is the "caring" fascism that murders merely the human soul.
* * * * *
"i focus on the pain / the only thing that's real / the needle tears a hole / the old familiar sting / try to kill it all away"
Nine Inch Nails is one of those rock groups that might contribute to a parent's concern for a child. One of my college friends who grew up on bands like Motley Crue came back from a NIN concert a little shaken. Yet one of NIN's songs sounds downright folksy when performed by Johnny Cash on the legend's final album. Cash also covers songs by Paul Simon, the Beatles, Depeche Mode, and the Eagles.
Johnny Cash is hip. And the Beatles released songs that remain contemporary favorites. Ours is a retro world. A local pop band that I quite enjoy, Dressy Bessy, is self-consciously retro.
"That 70s Show" is a television hit. The new movie Paycheck is the latest adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, who in 1968 released Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became the cult classic film Blade Runner. Other adaptations include Minority Report, Imposter, and Screamers. (Paycheck is thematically similar to Minority Report, but it's a terrific movie in its own right, as an action film that explores important philosophical questions.) Dick writes about the search for values in a topsy turvy world.
I have often wondered about the appeal of the retro in modern culture. Yet, now that I think about it, while there is some resurgence of early-century music like big band and swing, mostly people retrospect the last four decades. Elvis was a precursor.
In his In Praise of Decadence, Jeff Riggenbach offers a convincing theory that explains the enduring popularity of 60s culture. Riggenbach notes Lord of the Rings, first published in 1954, sold well in the 60s -- he could not anticipate the boost the stories would receive with the recent films. What else was selling well back then? Heinlein, Orwell, and Rand. Notably, these are three authors beloved by today's libertarians. Heller, Vonnegut, Kesey, Salinger, and Leary were selling well, too.
Riggenbach's theory is that we're still living in the culture that first took root in the 60s. For someone born in 1971 -- the year the Libertarian Party was founded -- Riggenbach's theory goes a long way in explaining why the culture is the way it is today. Before, I thought of the 60s/70s, 80s, and 90s as distinct historical eras. Now, I see those decades as closely related, in contrast to the previous decades. Even musical styles I used to think of as incompatible, I now see as genetically related. Riggenbach includes an interesting 1997 quote by James Sullivan: "Countless pop 'movements' of the past 30 years have actively antagonized the legacies of the Summer of Love: Glam mocked the earthy clothes, punk mocked the spacey formlessness, goth mocked the sunny disposition. And yet the hippie era's many badges remain integral parts of the pop uniform."
In short, the culture of the 60s is the Baby Boom culture. It's not much of a surprise that the Boom-dominated culture hasn't changed much since the Boomers became older teens and young adults. The change from the free-spirited 60s, to the "Me Decade" of the 70s, to the yuppies of the 80s, are all variations on a theme. That theme, according to Riggenbach, is decadence.
Riggenbach perhaps selects an unfortunate vocabulary. My retro 1968 Random House associates "decadence" with an "inferior condition or state; decay; deterioration" and "moral decay; self-indulgence." This understanding fits with a Motley Crue album title, "Decade of Decadence." The cover of that album features the following quote: "'We were reckless abandon. We were completely out of control.' -- Nikki Sixx on the Crue's partying days." But this is not what Riggenbach means. However, the term "decadence" makes for catchy titles for albums and books.
Just as we are all "reactionaries," in that we react against various things we don't like, so we are all decadent, in that we wish for the decay of certain things. The debate revolves around what merits decay. Socialists want the decay of the exploitative capitalistic system. Libertarians want the decay of the oppressive state. Conservatives want the decay of the "Playboy Philosophy," as State Senator John Andrews recently called the disposition to "do it" if "it feels good." Liberals want the decay of outdated social mores, such as bigotry against homosexuals. So all of us are In Praise of Decadence, but that isn't very informative.
Riggenbach believes the 60s ushered in an era of decadence in the sense that traditional authorities were undermined. This has a cultural and a political element. Culturally, "the hippies of the '60s declared a kind of independence from cultural norms. In effect, they announced... that individuals should not be bound by cultural rules, that every individual should adopt the motto Do Your Own Thing" (page 99). Politically, the libertarian perspective gained popularity, in contrast to the socialistic era of FDR's Raw Deal. Riggenbach's treatment of decadence is problematic, an issue to which I'll return later.
* * * * *
The view that the libertarian movement saw a renaissance in the 60s and 70s is widespread and based in fact. The students of Mises were making waves, as were the students of Ayn Rand (and of course the two groups were mutually influential). The problem, as Riggenbach describes, is that libertarian (classical liberal) social institutions were mostly buried. The left-right split in American politics was a pale reflection of the Communist-Fascist debate in Europe. The era between the wars (the Civil War and WWII) is rightly considered the era of the massive state. And that era was rather less that successful at fostering human well-being.
So libertarians (people whom we would today call "libertarians") had few places to go. They could join Rand's (somewhat nasty and isolated) group, or they could join Buckley's Young Americans for Freedom or the leftist Students for a Democratic Society. As Jerome Tuccille describes in his history, in 1965 Murray Rothbard (one of Mises' influential students) set up an organization called Left and Right Inc. Tuccille also describes how the libertarians eventually split with YAF.
Riggenbach adds that, at about the same time as the YAF schism, SDS also booted the libertarians, and the Nathaniel Branden Institute closed down after Branden's split with Rand. So libertarians were adrift. And in 1968 Reason magazine was created, followed by the Libertarian Party in 1971 and the Cato Institute in 1977. Today libertarianism enjoys a host of cultural institutions, widespread recognition as an intellectually vibrant alternative to left-right politics, a resurgence of academic interest, and a relatively broad base of popular support.
The sort of "decadence" Riggenbach mostly praises is the decay of the massive welfare-warfare state that arose across the globe around the beginning of the 20th Century. And this is associated with the Baby Boomers and their children and, now, grandchildren. Of course, the failure of the Vietnam war and the corruption of the Presidency under Nixon only fueled a growing skepticism of the state. But Riggenbach doesn't explain the main historical reasons for the shift.
I think Neal Stephenson begins to do that. Stephenson points to the staggering horrors of WWII and an era in which tens of millions of people were murdered by their own governments and those of neighboring tyrants. Sure, states have always warred against each other and oppressed their own people. But the bloodiness and scope of terror of the 20th Century is unmatched. I don't think we really appreciate the profound impact the War Era has had on our thinking, our emotional dispositions, and our culture. I'm not even old enough to remember Vietnam, but my father and step-father served in that war. My grandfather spent several years on the Pacific Rim. It is only because he chose not to watch a movie a particular night that he was not killed by a daisy cutter dropped by Japanese forces on an American base. He had to walk around the field with bag to pick up body parts. And I've heard these stories many times. Anyone who wants immediate proof of the deep psychological impact of this horror need only look at the runaway popularity of the Lord of the Rings films, in which the disembodied evil of Sauron hunts the Ring of Power.
* * * * *
Why, then, does America's welfare-warfare state continue to expand? Riggenbach offers a couple compelling reasons. First, many libertarians don't vote on principle. Second, the older generations vote at higher rates and thus wield disproportionate political power. The post-Boom generations vote at even lower rates than their parents.
In a particularly insightful bit of historical analysis, Riggenbach explains why Bill Clinton was so popular -- because of his decadent ways -- even as his politics continued to reflect older, predominantly statist values (194).
Thus, supposes Riggenbach, the "values and beliefs of the baby boom generation are likely to come into full domination of American political life only after the turn of the century, perhaps even as late as 2010 -- if they are ever to achieve such dominance at all" (195). Riggenbach concludes his book, "Individualism *is* in fashion -- never more so. As a society, we are still riding a wave of individualism that we first caught thirty years ago. Don't be discouraged by the rise of the New Right -- it makes so much noise in an effort to convince you that it's bigger than it really is -- and by the likes of Bill Clinton and Janet Reno -- they're the last, doddering specimens of what has been; they aren't the future, they're the past. Those of us who celebrate individuality, freedom, and diversity may take heart. The trends are in our direction, not in theirs."
Of course, Riggenbach could not anticipate the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the jolt that gave the New Right. Even so, the statist turn has not been nearly as great as it could have been. People are severely skeptical of the so-called PATRIOT Act, they don't want a draft, and they're skeptical of continuous war even as they celebrate the fall of Saddam. In fifty years, I think the "war on terror" will be seen as a minor departure from the trends Riggenbach describes.
But there are two problems Riggenbach does not adequately consider. The first is that people who love the state, and especially people who work for the state, tend (I suspect) to vote in much higher numbers relative to the general population. And of course they consistently vote for the expansion of the state. Thus, as the state grows, an ever-larger interest group skews the "democratic" process toward more state growth.
The second problem Riggenbach skips over is that, while an anti-authoritarian bent may describe many members of the Baby Boom generation, a significant element of statism also survives. The enviro-socialists and the Nanny Staters continue the Marxist traditions of the early 20th Century. The Nanny Staters of the left explicitly invoke the doctrine of economic exploitation to support a huge network of invasive proposals. While the socialists of old wanted to use the state to hasten technological progress, the "green" socialists of today want to use the state to impede it. The constant is an omnipresent fear that, left to their own choices and to voluntary trade, people will consistently suffer the "exploitation" of the free market. This Marxist perspective competes for dominance with the libertarian skepticism of state power and appreciation of markets. Add to these leftist tendencies the right's embrace of the welfare state and beat of the war drums, and modern libertarians are faced with some serious problems, and a brighter future seems not so likely as Riggenbach suggests.
* * * * *
Hisorically, as Riggenbach shows, the rise of libertarianism was associated with a similar rise of libertinism. That is, at the same time when people were questioning the authority of the state, they were also questioning the authority of religion and traditional morality. These widespread changes are not surprising, given the trauma of the War Era.
This is troublesome for libertarians, though. Many libertarians, including Christian libertarians and Objectivists, strain against this loss of cultural tradition. Hayek probably is a greater influence among conservatives than he is among libertarians, because of his emphasis on cultural continuity and the spontaneous order of tradition. Libertarians tend to like Hayek more for his market analysis (such as his work on the business cycle that earned him a Nobel). Rand hated anarchists and the "hippies of the right." If you want to annoy a modern Libertarian political candidate, merely suggest the candidate advocates drug use. The fact that such charges are made so regularly, and the responses are so indignant, indicates both the prevalence of the conflation and the discomfort this causes among libertarians.
Riggenbach only contributes to the confusion. His chapter 17, "The Crisis of Civility," follows chapters about the American family and the automobile. Riggenbach argues persuasively that the so-called destruction of the American family is largely the sensible selection of workable alternatives. Part of the perceived change is due merely to the increased ease with which people admit to living in alternative arrangements, rather than solely to changes in actual practices. The automobile led to the decentralization of cities and to "sprawl," and that's a great thing, argues Riggenbach.
But when he gets to "The Crisis of Civility," Riggenbach loses his skeptical edge. I suspect that there never was much of a "crisis of civility," that people have always behaved rather rudely, and the alleged crisis of modern times is a fiction created by writers of books and journalism. Partly the perceived crisis is just the recognition that higher standards (equal and respectful treatment of women, say) are not being adequately met. Riggenbach too readily grants the "crisis" is a real one.
Even worse, Riggenbach grants that moral decadence is bound up with the decay of political authority. His closes his chapter on civility, "What we see around us is, I fear, in part a by-product of the decadent spirit which I still fundamentally admire -- a reminder, if you will, of the costs of freedom."
We can grant that certain eras of upheaval inspire changes in all sorts of areas. Skepticism of government authority often is correlated with skepticism of moral authority and a "do what I want" attitude. But the tendencies are separable. That is, both conservative moralists and "Playboy" hedonists can adopt a libertarian political philosophy, just as both sorts of people can turn to statism. It is this separability of the tendencies to which Riggenbach gives scant attention.
Rand's analysis is useful here. Whether the authority of the state is seen to come from some intrinsic value of the state, or from a theory of inter-subjectivity (the state is good because most people agree it is), that tells us little about the direction opposition to the state will take. Some people don't want state power simply because they don't want any authority whatsoever. They are anarchists in the sense of that term that implies chaos. From Rand's perspective, it is hardly an improvement to replace an intrinsic or inter-subjective theory of the state with a skepticism rooted in personal subjectivity. Instead, Rand upholds a natural rights tradition and sees the libertarian society as objectively justified. That is, the libertarian society is the good society. Rand pushes the argument further and suggests a libertarian society cannot be a "decadent" society (in the negative sense of that term).
Riggenbach does do an excellent job of outlining the libertarian argument that the welfare state encourages bad forms of decadence. Riggenbach describes the traditional view, that morality and the law are distinct. That is, morality and social mores ought to govern a rather large arena of human behavior, and the law ought to govern a strictly limited one. In traditional libertarian parlance, the law should restrict people from committing acts of violence and fraud, and otherwise leave them be to run their own affairs.
The welfare state undermines morality by subsidizing immorality (sloth, irresponsible sex, etc.). The Nanny State undermines morality by weakening respect for the law per se and by blurring the line between morality and legislation. (Remember the 9News broadcast.) The Nanny State encourages people to see government as the sole mechanism for social change, and it undermines the importance of personal responsibility. Thus, by attempting to legislate things like rudeness and unhealthy eating, the Nanny Staters actually encourage irresponsible behavior and undermine social traditions that do a relatively good job of encouraging responsibility.
Riggenbach doesn't turn this into nearly as strong an argument as he might. Instead of shuffling his feet and admitting moral decay is among the "costs of freedom," he could argue that a libertarian society is actually a prerequisite for a fully moral society. That is, it is only by keeping legislation away from areas of personal morality and social mores that we can uphold the valuable contributions of those ideas and institutions.
That said, obviously tolerance of alternative lifestyles is an important libertarian aim. We don't think eating too many cheese burgers or smoking too much marijuana (or whatever) is a good thing, but we don't want the force of government interfering with such personal decisions. Paradoxically, it is the virtuous society that permits the unvirtuous (excepting cases of violence and fraud). It is the unvirtuous society that attempts to legislate virtue, and thereby undermines it. And a commitment to virtue does not entail a commitment to antiquated mores or mystic ethics.
"Decadence" is a negative concept, in that it describes the decay of some existing trend or institution. We want bad things to decay. Riggenbach does a disservice to libertarianism by packaging it with a general state of decadence, because libertarianism is not primarily about decay (the decay of authority), it is about the establishment of positive values. That is, libertarianism entails the dismantling of the oppressive state, but its fundamental goal is the establishment of a civil, peaceful, technologically advanced society characterized by property rights, voluntary interaction, and the rule of just law.
But Riggenbach has dramatically changed the way I look at modern culture. According to Riggenbach, the Libertarian Era planted its roots in the 1960s and has yet to reach fruition. To expand this theory with Stephenson's analysis and my rhetoric, the War Era, the bloody century spanning the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, continues to give way to the Liberty Era, the era in which the unjust authority of the past gives way to individual rights and personal autonomy. But there is no irresistible dialectic of history: history is the sum of the choices that we make. Past trends can inform our choices. So let 2004 be a year of hope, a year of decay for unjust power, and a year in praise of the virtue of liberty.