Reviews > Culture

The new establishment

Culture | Bohemian narcissism hits Madison Avenue, conservatives vs. libertarians, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Pilgrims' progress," Nov. 28, 1998

Cashing in on postmodernism
Consumer product marketers love to chase after the fountain of youth that flows with cash from the wallets of 16- to 29-year-olds. So they bring in consultants to help match their running shoes, potato chips, and fast food to the latest trends. That's where people like New York market researchers Janine Lopiano-Misdom and Joanne De Luca come in. Their clients include Pepsi, Reebok, and NFL Properties. The pair in Street Trends (HarperBusiness) contends that postmodernity has thrown a monkey wrench into many marketing plans. Since our society is becoming more globalized while our culture is being ever more sub-divided, grabbing young dollars is getting harder and harder. That means pitchmen have more fads to embrace: body piercing, alien lore, environmentalist chic, and even the cult of dead rap star Notorious B.I.G. If the authors are right, American culture is being reconstructed into a Greenwich Village-ized mess of tacky clothing, Zen meditation, and collective poetry. (There's one small bit of good news: According to the authors, America's youth prefer the Discovery Channel to MTV). What authors Lopiano-Misdom and De Luca never realize is that the cool new trends are simply regurgitations of the same bohemian narcissism that has plagued the youth culture since the 1960s. In their eyes everybody is supposed to be doing his own thing while seeking "collective unity." People are allowed to be unique as long as they all believe the same core ideas about peace, love, and sunglasses. And the authors of Street Trends are consistently insipid in their love of all this: an America dominated by politically correct, club-hopping Wu-Tang Clan fans. At least Ms. Lopiano-Misdom and Ms. De Luca don't bother saying all this is counterculture; after all, anti-establishment is the establishment. Nor do they say big business is the enemy of the revolution since they are themselves corporate courtiers. As a more perceptive leftie, Thomas Frank, pointed out in The Conquest of Cool (see World, May 30), advertisers love countercultures and do everything possible to tie them to diet colas, video games, and sportswear. This will continue unless a counter-counterculture rises up to subvert things.

Less than meets the eye
What do conservatives and libertarians have in common? They both oppose socialism, the destruction of property rights, and the growth of the welfare state. What separates them? Nearly everything else. While the two sides of the American Right have serious differences, they aren't often spelled out. Usually so much time is spent in joint efforts to unseat the Left that political novices often confuse them. Good thing this revised edition of Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) is now available. It brings together top names from both sides: Russell Kirk, L. Brent Bozell Sr., Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver, Murray Rothbard, and John Hospers. In this book, editor George W. Carey gives the reader a snapshot of the early 1960s, when the coalition of libertarians and conservatives was forged into the Goldwater movement. Both sides supported a limited government and hated the Soviet Union, but for different reasons. Conservatives usually shied away from explicitly Christian language. They talked instead of "a fallible intellect and a vagrant will" instead of original sin and "the transcendent order" instead of God's will. Most sought to defend Christendom against liberals at home and Communism abroad. Libertarians, then as now, called for the freedom of the individual from the coercive power of the state. Both sides make some claim to Christian social teaching. However, the only evangelical appearing here is Doug Bandow, who takes the libertarian side in a 1995 article. Most of the players in this debate are either Roman Catholic or simply non-believers. For those who want an introduction to the debate, this is a good place to start. The rare sight of both sides critiquing each other can be eye-opening. The rise of the nanny state
Big government wasn't built in a day. It developed over time, thrusting America into its net piece by piece. Bill Kauffman points out some of Leviathan's forgotten battles in his witty book With Good Intentions (Prager). He points out several fights where the myth of progress was unquestioned except by a rag-tag few who dared stand in front of the bulldozers to protect hearth and home. Mr. Kauffman pokes and needles an array of well-heeled do-gooders-from John D. Rockefeller Sr. to Robert Moses to Mario Cuomo-who dragged Americans into the country's new civil religion and pushed their faces toward the idols of Progress. For example, he tells the story of power consolidators who closed down hundreds of little red schoolhouses to throw kids into ever larger school districts that were less and less accountable to Mom and Dad. Here's how Good Intentions describes the mindset of mass educators: "The child belongs to the state, not to the parent: he is a little soldier in a thirteen year boot camp who will, if necessary, be bused twenty, thirty, even fifty miles to gleaming, soulless, ostensibly hyper-efficient superschools.... He is a cog, a spoke-all in all he's just another brick in the wall." Mr. Kauffman's cause is decentralization. He argues that families should be left alone, government pushed back, and communities not be plowed under to fit the whims of idealistic planners. In doing so, he digs up many Lost Causes: farmers who fought child labor laws that kept their kids from milking cows; women who fought suffrage on the grounds that the vote would turn wife against husband and make both political pawns; and urban blacks who fought to keep the Feds from tearing their houses down to build freeways. Even when the results of "progress" are positive, Mr. Kauffman says that they include side effects that are damaging to the culture. Are the results worth the cost?

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