Tuesday, November 15, 2005

From Reagan to Sparta: 25 Years of Conservative Camouflage

The Wall Street Journal carried a story a few weeks ago about companies that specialize in a particular kind of personal training. They hire soldiers who’ve just finished their tour of duty in Iraq, then unleash their drill-sergeant routines — intimidation, screams, punishment, humiliation — against “recruits” in fitness programs. If a participant skips a session, the article noted, “active-duty or former Marines who run the sessions have been known to show up in full uniform at the bootcamper’s workplace, demanding an explanation.” Grown men and women, with free will, with jobs, with brains, are paying good money for that sort of sadomasochism. Companies are putting their employees through it. News media are in awe.

But there’s nothing surprising here. “The martial enthusiasm of the people” that Edward Gibbon detected as a telling ingredient of Rome’s decline, even as Rome looked invulnerable, is at it again in our own imperial splurge. As a cultural and political movement, the camouflaging of America has been the undercurrent since Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983. That was step one in the rehabilitation from Vietnam and the burial of 1960s idealism — what even George Wallace once called “the sissy attitude of Lyndon Johnson and all the intellectual morons and theoreticians he has around him.” So it is today. Athenian ideals are for sissies. America is the new Sparta: Harsh, Darwinian, unforgiving. That it is increasingly unforgiven abroad doesn’t register. The country is too busy indulging its autocratic self-esteem. That, in a nutshell, is the result of the conservative ascendancy of the last 25 years.

There should be no doubt that the United States is no longer merely a conservative nation. President Bush’s miserable year aside, it is a right-wing nation, and becoming more so. The country is so comfortable with its extremes that it is often willing to dance with fundamentalism, speak the language of reactionaries and — in the name of security, efficiency, law and order — tip the occasional hat to the methods of fascism. This is the case in virtually every sphere, public and private.

Conservatives or Republicans dominate all three branches of the federal government, the Federal Reserve, every federal regulatory agency, and every advisory board to such agencies as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Arts. Republican governors rule over a majority of states (28). The Republican Party controls both legislative chambers in 20 states, compared with 19 for Democrats (control is split in 10 states; Nebraska’s legislature is non-partisan). In some states, Florida among them, Democrats might as well not exist. And in some states, Kansas among them, medievalism is making a comeback as faith is confused with science and education replaced by doctrine.

Disaffection with the current regime isn’t disaffection with the right-wing nation. Scandals and suspects aside, the Republican Party has a long way to go before being “defeated by the rust of its absolute power” (to borrow Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s phrase). It can still depend on liberals to provide no convincing alternative, though heaven knows the country is ripe for alternatives on health care, Iraq, the tax heist of the last five years, deepening inequalities and diminishing opportunities. Admittedly, it’s hard to get a message out when the messengers are stacked against you.

No more liberal than their shareholders’ bottom line, Hollywood and the media are the Olsen twins of hacksaw capitalism with a human face. And the corporate workplace, on whom most of us depend and whose language many of us are forced to speak in and out of work, does daily calisthenics to the tune of Mussolini. As Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham just wrote, “the corporation reserves the right to open one’s email, test one’s blood, listen to the phone calls, examine one’s urine, hold the patent on the copyright to any idea generated on its premises. Why ever should it not? As surely as the loyal fascist knew that it was his duty to serve the state, the true American knows that it is his duty to protect the brand.”

And still, conservatives find room to rail that the victory is not total enough. Universities, the last major American institution still escaping the grasp of the closers of the American mind, are under attack for being too liberal. Ex-Marxist turned neo-whatever activist David Horowitz is peddling an academic “bill of rights” to ensure that conservative viewpoints are heard on campus. It’s the kind of affirmative action conservatives angrily deride when the tables are turned. Yet Congressmen and legislators in a dozen state are willing to abet the thought policing with (thankfully non binding) resolutions. What next — a drill sergeant showing up at your door and screaming that you’re not thinking conservatively enough? The way some homeowner association rules are written, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised.

[An slightly shorter version of this piece appears today in the News-Journal.]