A CRITIQUE OF PURE NEWT
12:00 AM, Sep 18, 1995 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Gingrich's vision is of an American civilization socially restored by individualism and a sense of personal responsibility, economically restored by a freed-up, unstified market. So far so good, but still' conventionally " negative." Something more is needed to turn this prosaic vision of pre- welfare state America into the shining city of the 21st century. Newt has found it:
Wed the free individual and unfettered market to the emerging power of information-based technology (Third Wave, in Toffierese emerging from the hidebound Second Wave industrial technology) and you get the "opportunity society," an America of boundless pros-perity, opportunity, mobility, harmony, and order. The new technol ogy, he promises, in the chapter titled "America and the Third Wave Information Age," will in and of it-self overthrow the great obstacles to growth and freedom: the guild-like legal system, the monopolistic edu cational establishment, hierarchical medicine, the giant corporations, Big Government itself.
The book is a catalogue of the combinative powers of free dom and technology, of how teleeducation will democratize learning; how tele-medicine will solve our medical cost dilemmas; how software and e-mail will make lawyers obsolete; how, in effect, the single mom with laptop will find her way out of dependency. As Gin, grich once said, "There has to be a missionary spirit that says to the poorest child in America, Internet's for you." To be sure and to be fair, there are myriad other prescriptions for reorganizing this and reforming that in To Renew America, not at all tied to technology. But what is new and unique about Gingrich's conervatism-what lifts his above its merely "negative" anti-welfare?
state counterpart --is precisely this marriage of conservative values and digital technology.
It is also what makes it so appeal; ing. Confronting and deconstruct ing existing social hierarchies --ed-ucational, legal, governmental, cororate-is generally assumed to require politics, a politics of destruction, a hard, divisive, traditional "negative" politics of the kind practical politicians (like Gingrich and Armey) have to engage in daily in Congress. Gingrich yearns to rise above this. In this book he does. By assigning the task of politics to the painless and miraculous workings of technology, Gingrich manages to escape the negative and sail his techno-conservatism, unsullied, into a bright and shining future.
WhY does this vision not con-vince? At the broadest level, because it is as naively optimistic about the social and political possi-bilities of technology as thinkers 50 years ago were naively pessimistic.
In the same way that Orwell and Huxley were fascinated and se-duced by the totalitarian potential of technology --convinced that as technology became more powerful, it would become increasingly cen-tralized, a means of social atomiza-tion and political oppression --Gin-grich is fascinated and seduced by its potential for liberation. It is as if Gingrich's entire philosophy hinged on the famous Apple com-mercial (shown once, during the 1984 Super Bowl) that had the indi-vidual, armed with the Mac, de-stroying the Big Brother telescreen.
Having seen the PC and the Inter-net, Gingrichism, a post-totalitari-an creed, shows no appreciation for the darker side of technology.
Take, for example, the central contradiction of capitalist democra-cy pointed out by Daniel Bell: the way in which the constant churn-ing and change of capitalism un-dermines the social structures of society. Like all conservatives, Gin-grich recognizes the decline of in-termediate institutions (churches, clubs, charities, other voluntary as-sociations), the kind of association-ism so celebrated by Tocqueville.
We all know that Americans are, as Robert Putnam has put it memo-rably, " bowling alone." For Gingrich, the solution lies at hand in the free, fluid, associative virtual communities of the Inter-net. Perhaps. Perhaps there will be a slice of society that will interact on the Internet, though how real this kind of community is remains very much open to question.
But what he ignores is the far more important influence of high technology. Why are Americans bowling alone? Because technology enables everybody to spend all night (and much of the day) co-cooned in front of the wide-screened "home entertainment center." Those who do go out move zombie-like through the streets, hard-wired to Walkmans, as oblivi-ous and unavailable to society as the voice-plagued schizophrenic.
And the TV and Walkman are far more common than PCs with NetScape.