In one of the early chapters of Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man, there’s a sort of prologue that sets the scene for many of the actions Washington would undertake throughout the 1930s that made a financial depression in 1929 and 1930 into the Great Depression. It would last until (take your pick) the start of World War II — that economic “miracle of the 1940s,” as Paul Krugman would put it. Or, as Michael Barone recently noted, until a newly minted Republican Congressional majority rolled back the worst of the New Deal’s punitive legislation in 1946, thus launching a post-war economic boom that wouldn’t completely run out of steam until the mid-1970s, before President Reagan and Paul Volcker jump-started the economy once again. (Funny how their efforts worked so much more quickly than those of either FDR or the troika of Polosi, Obama and Reid, but I digress.)
It’s a shame that Shlaes’ book will likely never been made into a movie, because there could be a nifty Barbarians at the Gate sort of HBO film here, if someone with Larry Gelbart’s screenwriting chops, but still sympathetic to the material, could be found to adapt it with a deft satiric touch and be and brave enough to deflate liberal history’s most sacred cows.
Shlaes’ prologue concerns the famous voyage in July of 1927 to the then-nascent Soviet Union by a gaggle of intellectuals who would soon be bringing America the New Deal, once they had a major financial crisis they hated to see go to waste. In our imaginary HBO movie, the cruise to the Soviet Union would make a perfect extended visual metaphor, in much the same way that the prehistoric apes or the Marines in basic training on Parris Island lay down the subtext for the rest of what’s to come in 2001 and Full Metal Jacket, respectively. Or as Steven Hayward summarizes in his 2007 review of the Forgotten Man:
Two things propelled FDR’s New Deal beyond the depredations that would have come from Hoover’s social-engineering mentality: the presence of the intellectuals and political operatives whom Shlaes calls “the pilgrims,” and FDR’s own intellectual instability combined with his political opportunism. “The pilgrims” refers to the handful of future New Deal intellectuals, Rexford Tugwell being the most prominent among them, who made a junket to the Soviet Union in 1927 that culminated in a six-hour interview with Stalin. Here Shlaes’s prose is at its understated best. She does not portray the pilgrims as crypto-Communists bamboozled by Potemkin tours, though an element of that gullibility is inescapably present. Rather she discerns the “dreamy” cast of mind that was soon to create the New Deal’s belief in vague, non-Marxist central planning. “The heroes [of the USSR] were not precisely their heroes,” Shlaes writes. “Still, the meetings had their effect. The travelers were now transformed from obscure analysts of the Soviet Union into bearers of news. . . . The conservatives were having their day, and the planners would get theirs.” Giddy with excitement, the pilgrims returned to the U.S. on the steamship Leviathan, “and the irony of that name may not have escaped some of them.”
Actually, it’s even better; the ship on which they departed was named the President Roosevelt — for Teddy, America’s original “Progressive” president, who did much to propel the initial thirst for Big Government. Which truly would evolve into a Leviathan under the pressure of the socialist “pilgrims” and another President Roosevelt, waiting in the wings for his four terms to begin.
As Shlaes noted, it was during an earlier pilgrimage in 1921 that Lincoln Steffens wrote, “I have been over into the future, and it works.” Which calls to mind P.J. O’Rourke’s famous line from the early 1980s, when he accompanied a bunch of die-hard true believers on a river cruise through the Soviet Union, 60 years after Steffens and the rest of the “pilgrims”:
These were people who believed everything about the Soviet Union was perfect, but they were bringing their own toilet paper.
Call them what you will, what is it about self-styled intellectuals, “liberals,” leftists, “progressives” who loathe America and think that real progress exists in some far off land, preferably with top-down centralized state-run planning? During the first two decades of the 20th century, American men had built the first mechanized airplane and were spreading electricity throughout the nation, the first big radio networks were going up, skyscrapers were rising ever higher, affordable mass-produced automobiles were rolling off assembly lines, and nascent television technology was being created, all via private enterprise. But instead, the intellectuals of the period look to totalitarian nightmare states thousands of miles away such as the Soviet Union and Mussolini’s Italy, and want to cut and paste their ideas into the American firmament.
This trend would get repeated again in the 1980s, when left-wing economists (when they weren’t still praising an exhausted Soviet Union tacitly begging for President Reagan to help toss them into the ash heap of history) looked to the future of business and saw it in…Japan. Central planning, corporatism, orderly and neat top-down control — this is where it’s at, boys!
Well, until Japan’s decade-long recession arrived right around the same time that Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes were starring in Rising Sun. And of course, every leftist goes through his bearded Marxist phase and embraces the fantasyland ideal of Castro and Che’s Cuba. More recently, Thomas Friedman has had his heart set on China as the Next Big Thing, though he’s not quite ready to abandon his mansion just yet. (Or to borrow another PJ O’Rourke quote, “You can’t get good Chinese takeout in China and Cuban cigars are rationed in Cuba. That’s all you need to know about communism.”)
A century ago, H.L. Mencken dug the Kaiser’s Germany, making him, as Fred Siegel perceptively noted a few years back, one of the original 20th century anarcho-authoritarians. In the 1930s, Charles Lindbergh and Philip Johnson saw the Third Reich as the Next Big Thing. Le Corbusier would soon join them, supporting France’s collaborationist Vichy government. But it’s rare that Germany is thought of in such sweeping terms these days.
Well, until now. In a recent interview on PJM Political, James Lileks noted that the media produced by the right and the left are generated via non-contiguous information streams, which is why an article or a blog post that makes perfect sense to the right sounds like craaaazy talk to those on the left-hand side of politics.
And it works both ways, needless to say. Arguably it’s worse on the left since they desire to control so many more aspects of individual lives, and have an information cocoon that often serves as a forcefield to information from outside. In contrast, conservatives and libertarians need only turn on a TV, go to the movies, or read a newspaper to be exposed to ideas from the left.
Or read a magazine, which brings us to an unintentionally hysterical article in the middle of the September issue of Condé Nast’s Traveler. In between page after page of ads for Louis Vuitton luggage, Ralph Lauren menswear, sleek Jaguar automobiles, and first class cruises, train trips, and airline flights to all corners of the globe comes an article written by Marc Barasch titled, “How Green is My Berlin.”
Fans of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, which explored how deeply intertwined all of the various strains of progressivism were and are over the last 150 years, will love the unintentional irony of an article that begins with the sentence, “Germans want to save the world.”
What could go wrong?
But first, the author lays down his greener-than-thou bona fides:
Personally, I’m into green about up to my eyeballs. [And how-- Ed] I run a global tree–planting foundation called the Green World Campaign. My friends are “ecopreneurs” and flora– and fauna–hugging activists. The enviro stuff is my whole–grain bread and apple butter. But I’ve gotten wind of something unique happening in Berlin, something beyond the pages of the clean–tech, sue–the–polluters, always–buy–organic American green hymnal. [Hymnal is a quite an interesting word choice -- Ed] I want to see for myself.
But of course. I have been over to the future — behold the eco-eschaton!
I am heading for the city’s most iconic building, the formerly bombed–out Reichstag, once tagged “do not resuscitate” and now the most eco–tricked–out seat of government on earth. Behind the facade of pompous Prussian bas– reliefs (mostly nude Brunhildas with lions rampant), a modernist geyser of mirrors erupts to a glass dome. The sparkling cone funnels in natural light while doubling as a vent for stale air (every bloviating legislature should have one). The building is warmed by geothermal heat; the solar array is augmented by a basement generator running on—wait for it—locally produced canola oil. Sustainable architecture doesn’t quite say it: This is Pimp My Parliament, Green Edition.
Great — just what the world needs is a Potemkin Reichstag, which may count as the ultimate example of Blair’s Law in action. But didn’t the Reichstag get pimped out enough in the 1930s?
But wait, Barasch is just getting started:
I reach the Reichstag dome’s upper platform, its glass floor doubling as the ceiling of the legislature. This democracy–under–glass is more than just window–dressing: Years of freewheeling multiparty debate have produced a remarkable national consensus. At an earlier press conference, I heard the impressively well–nourished federal minister of economics and technology boast that his conservative government would “march at the forefront to solve the mega–issue of climate protection—other nations can just follow!” He itemized the eco–Anschluss on stolid fingers: German wind farms in the North Sea; German hydropower plants in the Balkans; German windmills in Romania; German solar thermal projects in Spain; a vast half–trillion–dollar complex of solar turbines in the Sahara that will surge gigawatts to whole swaths of Europe. The goal of a carbon–free economy by mid–century may be, as one local enviro put it to me, das Blaue vom Himmel—“a hopeful blue sky”—but when the minister uttered the phrase “to rescue the world,” it sounded like he meant it.
Did I really just read a paragraph that referred to the “the eco–Anschluss?” I think we may have just gone a boilerplate moral equivalence of war analogy too far. Will bio-diesel powered Panzers roll into Austria, followed by the Prius Brigade’s long drive into the Sudetenland?
The photo caption on the Conde Nast Website actually includes the sentence, “the Reichstag—the world’s most eco-efficient parliament.” Well, gosh. There’s nothing quite like seeing the words Reichstag and efficient in the same sentence. But fortunately, our own Neville Chamberlain has his umbrella ready, just in case he needs to declare eco-peace in our eco-time.
More from this episode of Springtime for Algore:
I meander east to Alexanderplatz, where the Wall once slashed the city raggedly in half, to visit a more retro icon, the 1,200–foot Fernsehturm (“television tower”), erected by the Communist German Democratic Republic as a thumb in the eye of the West. I take the elevator up to the viewing deck and gaze out at a sprawling municipality ten times the area of Paris. I’m struck by the azure and emerald of the Spree River and the Tiergarten district. From here, Berlin stands revealed as a city in a forest, cut by canals, surrounded by distant, glistering lakes. At least thirty percent of the city consists of nature itself; it would be the world’s greenest capital if no eco–activist ever lifted a finger. Out to the north is a stand of white Popsicle sticks with spinning pinwheels—wind turbines scything the breeze for power. To the east are the Plattenbauten, stacks of prefab gray concrete Lego blocks; but from my bird’s–eye view, I see verdant patches in the courtyards where residents, masters of make–do, have ripped up stone for grass, trees, gardens, and playgrounds.
Making do is what Berlin does best. It was Klaus Wowereit, its famously gay fifty–six–year–old mayor, who coined the term poor but sexy to describe the city’s flamboyant, post–Mauerfall indebtedness, then nearly $80 billion. Known fondly as Wowi, he has focused Berlin’s identity away from its aging and shrinking population, double–digit unemployment, fraying social safety net, and ethnic tensions (it is the second–largest Turkish city after Istanbul) in favor of Young! Hip! Creative! A famous photo shows him drinking champagne out of an actress’s shoe.
Why, an aging European nation that ignores the ticking time-bomb of its demographics and the increasing tensions of two remarkably divergent cultures living together — somebody should write a book about that. (I hope the famously gay mayor of Berlin keeps in the mind the story of the famously gay mayor of Paris. He survived a stabbing in 2002 by a Muslim immigrant in 2002, who, according to Wikipedia, reportedly told police that “he hated politicians, the Socialist Party, and homosexuals.”)
In a way, it’s a good thing Germany is now an aging and clapped out nation (with the exception of its youthful and vigorous immigrant population) — because otherwise, a new romantic quasi-religion that puts nature above man, and largely jettisons traditional conceptions of God? And attempts to assuage the growing tensions in its citizens by spawning a leviathan (to coin a phrase) welfare state? Didn’t this movie run continuously for about 12 years already in Germany many years ago?
Meanwhile, back in contemporary eco-Berlin:
LaFond and I pop our heads into a café called the Morgenrot (“Red Dawn”). There’s not a soul over thirty. Harried waitresses serve generously apportioned food to a mob of young people with dreadlocks. One wall is scrawled with news about some enviro–political demo.
Berlin has a strong anti–consumption ethic. In former West Berlin, in prosperous Charlottenberg, they’re proud of the KaDeWe department store, the glittering palace of consumption, with its cornucopian food court. In the old East, shopkeepers are almost apologetic about working for a buck. “People are suspicious of good service, advertising, or merchandising,” says a photographer friend. “It’s not a service economy—no apologies if something’s out of stock. They don’t take credit cards. If it smacks of the hard sell, it’s assumed you’re covering something up.”
I note an enticing bonbon in a shop run by a former journalist, but he steers me away from it as “nothing special.” An ex–anthropologist with a sometime gig as a tour guide takes me around town for the better part of a day and forgets to ask for money. When the Constitutional Court mandated in late 2009 that Sunday be an official day off, the Berlin–based Die Tageszeitung rejoiced: “The treadmill is closed for 24 hours. The court has given relaxation, rest, and ‘spiritual elevation’ precedence over the thirst for profit and the right to a consumer fix.”
I wander around Prenzlauer Berg for a few days, entranced. One day, I bop through the Mauerpark, with its motley flea market and crowds sprawled on the vast open sward, picnicking and listening to music. I pick up a handful of flyers, nothing different from what you’d see in, well, Boulder, Colorado, where I live—shiatsu, Jivamukti, feng shui, lomilomi, Gestalt, and qigong—but such fads strike many Berliners as pretentious. “You can’t just consume your way to a better world,” a left–wing filmmaker tells me. “Consumption is part of the problem. You can’t buy sustainability, you have to be it.”
Like I said, this is an article that in dead tree form appears in-between ads for luxury sports cars, high-end luggage, swanky leather goods, and designer clothes. (Or to borrow a line from Kate of the Small Dead Animals blog, “Gaia… Gala… I Can See How He’d Get Them Confused.”) Condé Nast magazines always shoehorn left-wing politics, however awkwardly, in between the interviews with celebrities and the fashion spreads, the Manhattan magazine equivalent of what John Nolte would call the Hollywood Sucker Punch. But does anybody get how deeply weird an anti-consumerist tract in the middle of one of the ultimate conspicuous consumption periodicals reads, for those of us who aren’t personally into green up to our eyeballs?
Last year, responding to Thomas Friedman’s seemingly weekly column on the glories of Red China, and flashing back to the American socialist pilgrims of the 1920s, Jonah Goldberg wrote:
What unites all of these people is a form of power worship. These foreign governments and their experts have control over citizens and economics — sometimes through democratic consent, sometimes not — that the state doesn’t have in America. Thus proving American backwardness.
But the track record of such control, over the long haul, is abysmal, particularly in comparison to America’s more unplanned approach (indeed, the world’s planned economies often feed off American innovation to survive). The Soviets are in the dustbin of history; Japan Inc. is in its second “lost decade”; Europe is in an economic crisis; China’s problems are hard to see because Beijing likes it that way. We have our own problems, but history shows the solution to them is not to be found in more centralized planning.
Politicians and planners have a tendency to lock into their idea of what works, long after it doesn’t work anymore. If our government had China-like power in the 1970s, we would have banned natural gas. If it had such powers in the 1830s, we would have stuck with canals long after railroads were viable.
The future can’t be found on a junket, and it never works until you get there.
But hey, think of the fun of planning such a jaunt — particularly with the help of sympathetic travel magazine.
Incidentally, maybe James Cameron could be persuaded to produce a documentary on the imagined nihilistic futuristic liberal fascistic wonders of eco-Berlin.
It might not sell on the big screen, but I bet he’d make a killing in the straight-to-DVD market.
Update: To the PJM readers clicking in from Germany, thanks for stopping by. When Marc Barasch and his editors at Conde Nast attempted to use the phrase “Eco–Anschluss” and other moral equivalent of war arguments to bolster their radical environmentalism, they opened the door to ask, fellas, is that really the portion of World War II you want to claim environmentalism is the moral equivalent thereof? (And incidentally, I was none too thrilled when a Time magazine cover in 2008 attempted to tie-in their own radical environmentalism with the heroic moment of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, either.)
Late Update (10/1/10): Welcome Insta-readers clicking in from the Professor’s post titled, “Eco-Fascism Jumps The Shark.” For my thoughts on that subject, don’t miss “‘No Pressure:’ Fascistic New Video Red-Lines the Eco-Insanity Meter.”
The titular video in question makes Condé Nast’s article a triumph of good taste and restraint by comparison.