The nostalgia has only just begun

Reflecting on the recent GOP candidates debate, EJ Dionne finds himself nostalgic for W, or at least for the once-upon-a-time candidate W and a Republicanism that saw good politics in poses of compassion:  “Unlike this crowd of Republicans  Bush acknowledged that the federal government can ease injustices and get useful things done.”  Dionne goes on to emphasize that Compassionate Conservatism was not, and could never have been, exclusively propaganda.  He describes No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D as serious and bipartisan pieces of legislation, however flawed, and he might have added the failed effort on Comprehensive Immigration Reform to the list.

The Bush Administration’s prosecution of the War on Terror was generally framed in much the same way:  It was supported at least at first by bipartisan majorities in Congress and the electorate as “the federal government get[-ting] useful things done” – those useful things including an easing of “injustices” in the Islamic world and a fervently supported smiting of the 9/11 evil-doers and fellow travelers.  Even what are now widely seen as the greatest domestic failings of the Bush years, the diverse sins of commission and omission underlying the financial crisis, were similarly bipartisan affairs, and were sustained because they seemed, among other things, to deliver the goods to people who needed homes, and to other people who needed jobs building, selling, furnishing, and servicing them.

If the bubble economy including its catastrophic deflation also made many people very rich for few good reasons and many bad ones, that result also remains an American one, at least as Americanism in the Age of Reagan has been understood.  Under American ideology, the failure of the economic system always to reward moral excellence with riches and sin with poverty is a matter for priests and philosophers, not for politicians or bureaucrats.  What’s changed, in Dionne’s view, is that the R Party has apparently lost interest in appealing to residual liberal-progressive impulses in the electorate, including the ones that firmly if somewhat passively support the social insurance programs that Americans enjoy in the place of European-style social democracy:

I cannot imagine a Republican today giving Bush’s 1999 speech in Indianapolis titled — shades of Barack Obama? — “The Duty of Hope.”

Bush criticized the view “that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved” as a “destructive mind-set.” He scorned this as an approach having “no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than ‘Leave us alone.’ ”

On the contrary, Bush declared: “We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws.” Amen. A Republican who expressed such sentiments today would be pummeled mercilessly by Fox News.

PM Carpenter ain’t impresssed:

Dionne falls freshly for one of Karl Rove’s oldest tricks: that of recognizing one’s greatest political weakness — in 1999 and 2000, Rove saw it in his party and candidate’s debilitating compassion-deficit — and then, out of whole rhetorical cloth, simply declaring the opposite to be one’s greatest strength. Thus George W., who cared deeply about further comforting his own socioeconomic class, became the working class’ “compassionate conservative.”

As proof of Bush’s sincerity, Dionne, for evidential reasons unknown, quotes from a Bush speech, from 1999: “We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws.” To this, Dionne remarks, “Amen.” My response would be somewhat less favorable: “Bullshit.” Classic Barnum-Bushian bullshit, that is, QED.

Yet even if Carpenter is right, and even if there was really nothing and less than nothing to Bush-Rovian “compassion,” Dionne’s point would stand, and it would still say something about where we are in 2011 that a major political party, one of only two, sees no need even to pay homage to the social virtues.

Carpenter and others on the broad left seem to want to forget that George W Bush received the votes of 10s of millions of American, ca. 50% of the electorate the first time out, an even larger number upon re-election. For an extended period over the course of his first term he maintained sky-high approval ratings. The invasion of Iraq was a popular decision. For most of his two terms, his economic stewardship was considered quite successful. In the meantime, our democratic republican system gave him congresses of his own party, and the other party was often well more than half-complicit in whatever he did or failed to do.

In short, we were Bush.  We were a stammering, intellectually not very curious, credit-line-busting, pathologically wishful-thinking bunch of incompetent anti-Big Government fantasists, and in large part we still are.

Claiming that W, as now the Tea Party, was merely some kind of mistake or divergence, some semi-random result of timely propaganda converging with one or another species of bad luck, is obviously inadequate to explain how an entire country comes to think and behave as we did, and as we do. It wasn’t and couldn’t have been propaganda, or only propaganda, that fed, sustained, and reinforced a widespread perception, over decades, that American liberalism was in decline, with nothing new to offer, and much to answer for.

Tea Party ideology may be a lunacy, but it is fully consistent with critical American presumptions.  They were re-affirmed by Ronald W Reagan, but not invented by him. Consider more seriously what it really would require to rid ourselves of them and their logic, the historical cures that other self-sick great powers have sooner or later had to undergo, and you may begin to feel even more nostalgic than Dionne for the gay ’90s and even for the binge ’00s, if not necessarily for their figurehead.

54 comments on “The nostalgia has only just begun

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  1. Well it would be good to back to a time when unemployment was at 5-6, for most of the time, yet there was always dark clouds, when
    the deficit was a mere fraction of what it is now, now one could argue
    that some of the policies re housing, probably contributed to the downturn,

  2. when you equate poverty with a taste for idleness and supporting the poor with encouraging and inculcating that preference for sloth you mistake the tail for the elephant.

  3. @ miguel cervantes:

    Didn’t see the point of the thing. Yeah, Obama was elected to follow a presidency that left us imperiled, unpopular in the world, militarily extended, and with and broken economy and empty treasury.

    And yeah, he’s got a hostile and obstructionist opposition party now controlling the House.

    Where’s the comparison to Hoover or Carter?

  4. Now, you’re smart enough, not to see the parallel, although it’s been a tough slog in the Stans, we’re holding our own still, although Les Gelb
    suggest skadadelling is in the way.

  5. Because I see CK’s point as far as it relates to the American society he reasonably enough imagines, I can only counter it personally, with my own imagined societal positioning. I know CK thinks that it’s foolishness, and I appreciate his attempts to enlighten me through the sharing of well articulated ideas that have been tested for truthfulness going back to the Greeks, but I still imagine myself and others like me standing outside a society that finds itself looking back nostalgically at the Bush administration’s politics. As you know, in my fantasy world, W gets to throw out the first pitch at ball games, share his love of that kind of moment and that’s about all. Obama doesn’t even get to do that–unless he discovers he’s really right handed and can throw like a dude on that side.

  6. Chait and Bernstein thoroughly dismantled a similar parallel being pushed by Jay Cost, if thankfully with more economy of expression than managed by the ever voluble Mead.

    Specifically on the weak comparison to Carter, Bernstein produces some numbers:

    As of yesterday, Obama was at 47% per Gallup, a tick or so higher according to Pollster’s average. That’s not a number that predicts a landslide reelection — but it’s also not one that indicates deep trouble. It’s nothing like where Jimmy Carter was in July 1979, when he delivered the “malaise” speech — Carter had fallen below 30% in June 1979, and stayed there fall into the fall.

    Links to Chait and Cost can be found in Bernstein’s piece:

    I won’t say that Mead’s article is nonsense, but I wouldn’t call it persuasive either. The one point he makes that rises, I think, a little above the norm is that the public might be persuaded not merely that Obama/Hoover has failed on the economy, but that he has no idea how to be successful. To exploit that possible perception, the Rs will need a minimally persuasive argument – which is different from a claim – that they might possess such an idea. The poll numbers cited as well as the evidence that the public still holds Bush more responsible for our “fix” than Obama suggest that whatever Obama’s problems are, they’re not at Carter-Hoover levels.

  7. @ Scott Miller:
    No, not nostalgia for Bush’s policies, nor for Bush-Rove politics as we came to understand them in retrospect, but nostalgia for the naivete that characterized the entire Clinton-Bush era, and also for a Republican conservatism that for whatever reasons and however incoherently sought to incorporate the other side’s ideas and interests in its own rhetoric and program.

  8. …but my larger point is that taking the cure, and heading consequentially in the general direction of Carpenter and/or Miller, looks like it will come at cost, slow or fast, not on credit.

  9. CK MacLeod wrote:

    nostalgia for the naivete that characterized the entire Clinton-Bush era

    OK. I do experience that. I especially experience it because things in the yoga world were so innocent and my personal naivete had me joyfully believing that all the yoga world figures I got to hang out with during that time were at least close to the real deal or would become the real deal soon enough. If I had it to do all over again, I would choose to be just as naive so I could feel the way I did.

  10. @ Scott Miller:
    There was what seemed to me a wise statement in the foreword to a very dark book about WWII, where one old general at a reunion long after the events was quoted as saying to another old general “if only we knew then what we know now,” and the second one replies, “oh, no, we would have done much, much worse.” Or some such. Neither implicit assumption can possibly be correct, just as it’s obviously impossible to know earlier what you come to know later, because the real knowing is inseparable from the not having known, and couldn’t have arisen in any other way. But we keep on trying to see things in isolation, or to imagine that our reductions of knowledge could be the same as the actual knowledge won in all its complexity from resistant greater complexities, and could therefore be delivered to the past with sufficient effect – as though if only “we” could have read the right book, or skipped the wrong one, we might have by-passed whatever catastrophe, Iraq or the Econocalypse or whatever seemingly entirely unrelated parallel personal microcosms.

    So you had to be naive not just to feel the way you did, but to know now what, if you could have known it before, you would never have to come to know at all.


  11. I think we once discussed the Novel Replay, by the late Ken Greenwood, where someone from the 80s goes back to the 60s,
    and provides the knowledge he has to certain government functionaries, but the choices suggested, like killing Kadaffi alter
    the timeline, leading to a very dystopian present, (which is the past,
    in our timeline) there was also a short story by Pat Cadigan, set in
    the 60s, with the same ending, not unlike some of the multiverses
    you sketched out, Scott.

  12. @ miguel cervantes:
    This book attempted to analyze various time travel concepts, some taken from science fiction, in terms of theoretical physics: The New Time Travelers: A Journey to the Frontiers of Physics

    As I recall, the author and his physicists were quite skeptical about most time travel concepts, but were able to carve out an exception contingent essentially on the time traveler never – very literally never – having any effect whatsoever on the present (as I recall he’d have to intercept some time-like spiral on the far other side of conceivable space-time or something). As the author points out, the idea roughly coincides with the rules governing a certain sub-genre of time travel and alternative universe fiction, where, classically, the story develops in the direction of effective convergence with “real” reality or the unaltered time line, in some tragic or at least ironic way.

    Without ever having watched an entire episode of SLIDERS, I have to guess that, at the very least unconsciously, and probably quite consciously in other respects, this “convergence rule” sooner or later governed plot and theme, especially where resisted: The “sliders” themselves could only have been agents of symbolic convergence, for the same reason that every setting and every development had to begin with and be defined by its divergences.

  13. I didn’t read that, but Michael Crichton’s own take on travel, and the multiverse, which was adapted horribly, exhibit A, putting Neal McDonough as the hero.made the kind of kind of Heraclitus point, you can’t go back, because every intervention, splinters into a new reality,

  14. It would have been much easier and better if Sliders had a kind of Mystery Science Theater 3000 set up to the POV. There could have been a couple people tracking the Sliders so we could have cheated the visuals to our advantage. As it was, we had to shoot everything like you would a feature with less money to do it than what was put into the commercials that aired with the show. The symbolic convergences would have been much easy to play with if some simple dialogue about where the Sliders were each episode could have organically voiced as the visuals appeared on a MST 3000 type screen–until we went to the speakers’ POV. Sometimes the dialogue could have been misleading and then we would have been playing with the “divergences” within the divergences you so aptly identified.

  15. Intriguing, Scott, but I don’t think that would have worked out, I think it was a fairly light hearted fare, till they killed off Rhys Davis’s character, (I imagine they didn’t renew his contract) after running into Roger Daltrey, and theKromaggs was another step into the abyss.

  16. @ miguel cervantes:
    Light hearted and an MST 3000 set-up conflict? Mr. D was a very difficult human who brought his problems to work and even though eating his contract was the last thing the producers wanted to do, and even though he brought a needed weight to the show, it was worth risking the whole thing to get rid of him. Everyone felt the same way. He had no support by the end.

  17. Maybe if I had seen an episode, I’d understand what Scott’s suggesting about MST3K. Isn’t the idea that the dudes are somehow visiting alternative universes? Wasn’t there some kind of vehicle or machine or portal or something they employed to get from here to there? Are you saying, Scott, that it would have been useful if someone in “our reality” could actively observe what was going on in the other reality? Calling it an MST3K thing might point to the way that the Sliders concept, like all alternative reality narratives, on some level, however rigorously suppressed in favor of other narrative values, is or ought to be highly self-referential – a meta-narrative, stories about making up stories…

    Anyway, I was trying to get a theoretical issue. The problems that the physicists run up against are on some level the same ones that creative writers have to resolve, or pretend to resolve. Scott’s story about how his stories got him thrown off the show suggests the final displaced absolute convergence of reality and alternative reality, the oncoming inevitable collapse of alternativity into only the same, framed as his ejection from the world of making up stories to a second life that I also want to fit into the framework somehow.

  18. @ CK MacLeod:
    This reminds me of when an actor actually died on a Slider set. Our real-life reaction to his death was denial and avoidance. That made it even worse on the actor’s parents whose pain is still documented on a memorial website. I read what they went through, and though I was not in a position to really counter how the head writer-producers handled the situation, I felt guilty for having been involved. As you point out, the displaced convergence of reality and alternative realty was bizarre and caused a collapse of decency at the worst time for a grieving family. At the time I checked out their website, I was writing a book and once again I hid behind the construct of my own fantasies and then used that fact to hide behind another creative divergence.

  19. @ Scott Miller:
    I presume that at some point or another the Sliders traveled to alt-universes and encountered versions of themselves? If not, why not? Did they ever visit an alt-universe that was identical to our universe, down to the existence of identical Sliders, absent because simultaneously visiting our universe from the alt-universe? Were there evil anti-Slider Sliders?

    Most terrifying of all would have been an alternative universe that was nearly identical to “our” universe in every respect, the only apparent difference (at first) being that in the alt-universe there were no real Sliders, but only a kinda cheesy TV show.

  20. They actually sort of ‘jumped the shark’ in that way, in their series finale, CK, I’m sort of shocked that happened Scott, then again,
    maybe I’m not, TV science fiction seems as cut throat as Tolkin’s
    ‘the Player.

  21. Just read up on Sliders. I see that Slider-Doubles were, as I expected, a device they couldn’t avoid – including at least one instance where no one, apparently even the writers, could be sure whether the character who had been killed was the “real original” or an indistinguishable “alernative.” I also see what you mean about their jumping the shark along these lines in the finale, though it reads as a jump in the opposite direction, an alt-universe where Sliders wasn’t just a tv show but the world religion or something. From within the “Sliders universe,” that’s the same thing. Sliders is already a universe defined by “Slidology.”

  22. Right, that was the episode with Kari Wuhrer’s fighter pilot character,
    in an a scenario where the ColdWar was still going on, I think.

  23. CK MacLeod wrote:

    Most terrifying of all would have been an alternative universe that was nearly identical to “our” universe in every respect, the only apparent difference (at first) being that in the alt-universe there were no real Sliders, but only a kinda cheesy TV show.

    I love that show idea. It would have been my favorite episode had it been produced, which of course it wouldn’t have been.
    Pretty much everything except that was done, either purposefully or accidentally, at some point through the years. I remember when one new showrunner looked at us, and in all seriousness, said “This year, we’re going to be ER in space.” It was all any of us could do to keep from laughing.

  24. They didn’t need to do it because it was already the concept of every episode, I guess – which is why they could have done it. That writer whose X-Files episodes everyone liked so much probably could have gotten away with it. What was his name?

    ER in space would be cool. Or MASH in space. “A motley group of happy-go-lucky humanoids treat casualties of interstellar warfare, and solve crimes.”

  25. @ CK MacLeod:
    Chris(t) Carter. He did get away with everything. He once read a spec-script of mine about people being abducted because their early child-hood abuse at the hands of humans had predisposed them to being abducted. It was a twist on the whole “abduction fantasies stem from molestation” idea. It was a really good script, actually, and the science of it was explained in connection with the temporal-lobe damage caused by abuse creating a frequency that alien abductors related to. Carter told my agent he wasn’t interested in the idea. The next year he wrote a two-part episode about a guy with temporal-lobe damage from a gunshot being abducted by aliens because the aliens were attracted to the unusual frequency of his damaged brain. Who knows whether he even knew he stole the idea, but it was especially fucked-up since my wife at the time had helped him develop and get X-Files on the air.

  26. Really ,so he’s like the Bill Gates of Sci fi, I didn’t realize the business was so cutthroat, then again, Harlan Ellison, had complained more than once, of his problems in writing for various programs.

  27. @ Scott Miller:
    I was thinking of a different writer, the one who wrote the MILLENNIUM script with the devils telling stories about how they tricked human beings.

    Chris Carter sounds like a different syndrome. Joining brain damage to child abuse may have caused your idea to insert one level too deep for him to recognize fully its external origin or to resist stealing it to whatever extent he did recall that it wasn’t his own. Kind of like INCEPTION… which I just watched on HBO, not having seen it before.

    Is your whole career to be analyzed like an anti-dream dream, a series of steps symbolically disabusing you of every notion of the human moral validity, at least for you, of life in the “dream factory”?

  28. @ miguel cervantes:
    Bill Gates, as I understand the story, simply stepped in when the people ahead of him in line got paranoid in a very countercultural No Cal way about IBM’s (I think it was IBM’s) confidentiality and secrecy measures. I’m not aware that he stole anything that wasn’t “his” according to the rules of the game that he was stepping up to play. MS-DOS wasn’t a wholly original concept, but there are no wholly original concepts.

  29. CK MacLeod wrote:

    s your whole career to be analyzed like an anti-dream dream, a series of steps symbolically disabusing you of every notion of the human moral validity, at least for you, of life in the “dream factory”?

    Yes, but there I was also just going with the flow of the comments. I had fun in Hollywood. I had a lot of fun in Hollywood because for the most part, I never took it seriously. It will always be a question mark whether I could have stayed in that world and continued on a spiritual path. Could they have co-existed?

  30. @ Scott Miller:
    I strongly doubt that they could have co-existed. I also doubt the “never took it seriously” part as a whole truth. For instance, you can tell yourself you don’t take it seriously for what it is, but you can take seriously how your wife or girlfriend would like you to spend your money, or whether the people you’re working with are people you want to be with, or even whether there are all sorts of good things you could do with your unseriously gotten gains You would have had to “take it seriously” on some level to stay within “it,” which also means letting it and even wanting it to devour you, to take you, seriously. If you’re not in some essential way attached to whatever you’re doing, then sheer Brownian motion will flow you away from it sooner or later.

    It was simpler for me. I hated it through and through, but it seemed at times like my only chance of being able to rise out of poverty and become a semi-respectable person capable of having a family and things.

  31. (exaggerations: obviously there must have been aspects of IT that I didn’t hate “through and through,” in every way all the time etc. And my poverty wasn’t 3rd World poverty or homelessness or something… on the other hand, in my defense, my “family” concerns weren’t strictly about starting a new one of my own…)

  32. @ CK MacLeod:
    I feel you. I hope that my “I feel you” is deeper than the Frog’s “as my homey’s say” or whatever he said in his comment on the wall. I feel you. My infertility simplified things. In my relative whole truth moments, I’m grateful for the clarification. If family had happened, it would have been a whole other life–a whole other event. But I’m grateful. I’m grateful for having such a great English teacher. You’re fucked up in the ways that you’re fucked up, but you’re a great English teacher and then some.

  33. Come on now, you saw Matrix Reloaded, he’s always been full of hot air, but he’s a true believer after a fashion: Now Matrix Revolutions,
    ‘Abandon hope, ye who enter here’

  34. miguel cervantes wrote:

    ‘Abandon hope, ye who enter here’

    Okay. Let’s “get real” homey style, Miggs. “Abandon all hope” means that we recognize that John of the Cross was right. We can’t expect things to go right for us on a level of victory. It’s only about love. John of the Cross was locked into a bathroom for 3 years by his homies. He didn’t come out trying to kill them. He loved them and abandoned all hope. I know it’s a lot to ask, but seeing that Cornell has it “going on,” could be a start. I’ve seen him preach in person. He speaks from the heart as well and directly as a person can. He would be the first to acknowledge that as humans our expressions are flawed. So what? Connect with the heart. Love. We can’t control our way to utopia. Love thy neighbor. Love our neighbor and let that love release us from the idea that we can force people into anything positive. Abandon all hope really means “let love happen.”

  35. I was being a little sub referential, I got it from Dennis Miller, but it was
    an incoherent mess,

  36. @ Scott Miller:
    I’m missing something here. You make a very good point, worthy of a year- if not life-long discussion all of its own, but I couldn’t figure out why he was bringing up the Matrix movies. Did Cornel West have something to do with them? I agree with Don Miguel – as on occasion I’ve been known to do, despite all – that Matrix 2 > Matrix 3, I felt by far at the time 3 came out, and after repeated viewings. I think that’s all he meant, quoting Dante, that other trilogist. But I could be wrong. Or are you and Don Miguel in some kind of leapfrogging mode? (fuster?)

    But as to West, he screwed himself up, his message-bearer potentials, when giving very petty, elitist-sounding examples of how he was slighted by BHO.

  37. Not surprisingly, Of Gods and Men didn’t come to Riverside. I wanted to see it. The next best thing was reading the critique that CK linked. Thanks. It’s a profoundly insightful bit of writing.

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