Wednesday, November 26, 2008



"Luxury is surely the bane of a nation: Luxury! which enervates both soul and body, by opening a thousand new sources of enjoyment, opens, also, a thousand new sources of contention and want: Luxury! which renders a people weak at home, and accessible to bribery, corruption, and force from abroad . . .”

Who said that?

Well, actually, I did, late in the evening of November 4.

But apparently I wasn’t the first. Colonel Manly uttered those words 221 years ago in The Contrast, the first American play — that’s to say, the first to be written and professionally produced here. It was the work of Royall Tyler (later chief justice of Vermont), and the “contrast” of the title is that between America and Europe, as represented by the manly Colonel Manly, bluff, straight-talking veteran of the Revolutionary War, and the vain, posturing fop Mr. Dimple, who affects “the polish of Europe.” “Believe me, Colonel,” says Mr. Dimple, “when you shall have seen the brilliant exhibitions of Europe, you will learn to despise the amusements of this country as much as I do.”

“I do not wish to see them,” replies the colonel, “for I can never esteem that knowledge valuable, which tends to give me a distaste for my native country.”

The Contrast
was staged in 1787. Your shrewder apocalyptic doom-monger is always mindful of the wise words of Adam Smith, in 1776: “There is a deal of ruin in a nation.” But eleven years’ worth? You don’t have to be as manly as Manly to fear for a republic fallen into softness, decadence, and sloth.

Anyway, here we are a couple of centuries on, in a land less Manly, where even the chads are Dimpled. One must discern from the, ah, unfortunate events of the other Tuesday night that a majority of people now prefer “the brilliant exhibitions of Europe” (“free” health care, federally funded daycare, nanny-state security, big-government poseur environmentalism, deference to transnational elites) over “the amusements of this country” (self-reliance, civic virtue, individual liberty, small government of limited powers leased ever more sparingly from town to state to the federal capital). Even conservative popinjays affect “the polish of Europe,” while the last non-fop in the GOP, Sarah Palin, alas, does not. The Right’s great thinkers, declared David Brooks in the New York Times, “tend to be intrigued” by David Cameron, the modish British Tory leader.

There may be a deal of ruin in a nation, but in the end ruin is the natural condition of the nation-state: Three of the five permanent members of the Security Council have endured revolutionary upheaval and/or constitutional collapse since their “permanency” was established by the U.N. in 1945. Four of the G7 major economic powers have constitutions dating back barely half a century. And, even if you escape (as most nations do not) coups, invasions, civil wars, occupations, there arrives the moment when ruin comes to close the deal. The “deal of ruin” — incremental decay — is seductive. In some ways, the most pleasant place to live is a state in gradual decline. You have the accumulated inheritance of a dynamic past to smooth the genteel downward slide. Much of Europe feels like that: You sit at a sidewalk café and watch the world go unhurriedly by. Life is good, work is undemanding, vacation’s coming up, war has been abolished. Somewhere beyond the horizon is a seething Muslim ghetto of 50 percent youth unemployment, whence the men swagger forth at sundown to torch the Renaults and Citroëns of the infidels. But not in your arrondissement. And not even on the Friday-afternoon drive to your country place. What’s to worry about?

“The contrast” today is not between America and Europe, but between the slightly-more-than-half of America at ease with the prospect of a Europeanized future and the considerably-less-than-half of America for whom our differences with Europe — the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, non-confiscatory taxation, a society that prizes individual opportunity over state protection — were a big part of the American success story.

If you’re a relaxed conservative, this is 1976. Let Obama & Co. have their head and screw up, and we’ll be back in two or four years. But in two or four years there’ll be even more ACORN registrations, even more foreign campaign contributions, large numbers of amnestied illegals with de facto if not quite de jure voting rights, a new Unfairness Doctrine that consolidates Democratic dominance of the dinosaur media and banishes much of the rest. If the 2012 election is a rerun of, say, 2004 — an attempt to restore the big fat red-state “L” sweeping down the Rockies and east to the Atlantic that comes down to a few thousand votes in Ohio — Republicans will lose. If it’s a 50/50 nation, the Dems will have the edge when it comes to pushing up to 50.1 — as (at the time of writing) the Al Franken machine (of all unlikely phrases) is doing so cheerfully in Minnesota.

And beyond the operational upper hand is the psychological advantage: The push to socialized health care, the “spreading” of wealth that turns responsible citizens into grateful beneficiaries of government largesse, the remorseless propagandization of a school system all but entirely hostile to the heroic national narrative, a cumulative ratchet effect that “enervates both soul and body” and that the Republican leadership finds easier to accommodate than resist. Conservatives need a bigger picture than GOTV. This is not 1976, but 1932 — at minimum.

There is a deal of ruin in a nation, but even in America supplies are not limitless.

But hey, I hate to be the Gloomy Gus round here. The good news is that, once King Barack’s lowered the oceans, there may be one or two new atolls popping up with non-confiscatory tax rates, a minimal regulatory regime, and the spirit of liberty. For as long at it lasts.

(Second in a Series)
December 1, 2008

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