A CRITIQUE OF PURE NEWT
12:00 AM, Sep 18, 1995 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Even the 500 channels celebrat-ed by the high technologists as lib-erating have their largely ignored, atomizing underside. The more channels, the more fractionated the audience. The more every individ-ual can order up the kind of self-stimulation that suits his particular taste, the less his need for social as-sociation. In the old days of three channels, the audience could be shepherded into some kind of shared national experience --moon shots, Roots, presidential debates --that helped knit together a country of suburbanites and ex-urbanites.
The cultural onanism of movies-on-demand-by-fiber-optic-wire may be personally satisfying, but it does nothing for community.
This is not to deny the liberat-ing effects of digital technolo-gy. But it is to question the view that these effects are uniformly good. And it is to deny the view 54 / THE WEEKLY STANDARD SEPTEMBER 18, 1995 that they somehow finesse the cen-tral contradiction of democratic capitalism: the atomization that threatens social cohesion. Informa-tion technology may, in fact, make it worse.
The most dangerous cultural contradiction of capitalism, howev-er, involves not the form but the content of mass communication:
the corruption of culture and val-ues by debased, corporate con-trolled mass media.
When even Bob Dole de-nounces Hollywood --to gen-eral applause --we have achieved a national consensus that there is a problem. And it is not the work of liberals in the Education Depart-ment, Pat Buchanan's fanciful bu- reaucrats in "sandals and beads." It is the work of the great corpora-tions of America, as Calvin Klein's latest outrage, its withdrawn kiddy-porn ad campaign, reminds us.
What to do? In normal, "nega-tive" politics, you fight, denounce, threaten, and, as a last resort, cen-sor. (Yes, censor: We already have, for example, all kinds of censoring conventions that distinguish broadcast TV from cable TV from pay-per-view Tv.) The coarsening effects of mass culture present con- servatives with a diffcult choice:
freedom of expression and free markets on the one hand, versus the preservation of public morality on the other. It forces conservatives to choose often unpopular anti4ib?
Gingrich would transcend these contradictions and avoid the un:
pleasant choices with technology.
And this particular case does offer Gingrich some vindication. For a part of this problem, there is indeed a magical technological fix: the V-chip, the computer chip placed in televisions at manufacture that al-lows parents to automatically screen out violent or other unsuit-' able programming. It permits some control over the corrupting mass media without preventing entre- preneurs from producing and dis-seminating as they please.
The problem for Gingrich is that the V-chip solution is a rarity, not the rule. Even regarding this nar-row problem --controlling the cor-rupting influence of media --it solves only a piece of a part. The V-chip will shield no one from the bus-shelter posters and looming billboards of the next Calvin Klein campaign. The Internet shields no one from gangsta rap. However much kids ride their Macs, they still spend most of their day bathed in the influences of music, movies, TV, and advertising. There is no es-caping them. And therefore no es-caping the hard, divisive, political choices required to curb them. V-chip conservatism, leaving so many contradictions unaddressed, is at best a niche ideology.
There is a second aspect to Gin-grich's belief in the Tocquevil-lian, associative, liberating direc-tion of technology. He believes that the dissemination of information technology will democratize knowledge. And, when everyone can access everything, the knowl-edge priesthoods will dissolve. The great industrial age hierarchies --legal, medical, educational, corpo-rate, governmental --now obsolete, will break down, "leading us back to something that is --strangely enough --much more like de Tocqueville's 1830s America." The opposite, it seems to me, is far more likely. The explosion of knowledge in all fields makes for more specialization and more alien-ation of knowledge. Medicine, for example, is hardly democratized by high technology. I am a doctor, board certified in psychiatry and neurology. I cannot even read jour- nals of immunology. Technology does not, as Gingrich suggests, make it possible for any Joe to be-come, at his will, a "specialist in some obscure medical procedure." I doubt Gingrich would go to Joe for the removal of an obscure bone tumor. He'd go to the Mayo Clinic.
Technology is making medicine so specialized that even specialists need specialists. The resulting structure is not more horizontal. It is more pyramidal.
It is typical of Gingrich's belief in the power of technology, howev-er, that he sees it as solving not just the hierarchical structure of mod-ern medicine, but also the more prosaic and pressing problem of its bankrupting costs. Gingrich's solu-tion? Even higher tech. Telemedi-cine, for example, will allow remote diagnosis and treatment, reduce costs, and allow the exportation of medical services to other coun-tries-turning medicine from a fi-nancial drain into a vast new source of wealth for the United States.
This is nonsense on stilts.
Telemedicine --assuming it ever becomes feasible, a large assump-tion-is decades away from making any significant impact on medical practice and cost. Meantime, the unrelenting impact of high tech-nology on medicine is to increase cost. And not just because ma-chines are expensive. Better ma-chines, whatever their cost, make for better medicine. Better medi-cine means people live longer. Peo-ple who live longer suffer, over time, more disease and disability.
Good medicine does not reduce the percentage of people with illnesses," explained Willard Gaylin in a brilliant essay on this theme in the October 1993 Harp-er's. "It increases that percentage." Good medicine keeps sick people alive, people with heart disease, di-abetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases. Sick people are expensive. The dead are a burden to no one. Fifty years ago there was whooping cough and diphtheria. "The child either lived or died, and, for the most part, did so quick-ly and cheaply," noted Gaylin. Now that child "will grow up to be a very expensive old man or woman." People used to die young of heart attacks. Now we save them, expen-sively, so they can die later, even more expensively, of more chronic diseases like cancer. It is techno10-gy's very success that occasions its ruinous cost.
There is no way out of this dilemma. Ultimately, the only an-swer is some kind of rationing, un-der whatever guise. Gingrich the politician understands that. He proposes to help reduce the explO-sive growth of Medicare, for exam- ple, by inducing the elderly to join HMO's, which is a form of ra-tioning (as Elizabeth McCaughey made very clear in savaging the Clinton plan, which was designed to herd us all into HMO's). But Gingrich the visionary will hear nothing of such conventional nega-tive thinking. To Renew America trusts in the bounty, the yet to be believed wonders, of technology.
G ingrich does so because he is a revolutionary. And revolution aries believe in brave new world% brought about by irresistible agen cies. Each revolutionary has his own particular agency --Reason History, the proletariat, technolo, gy --but they all share a belief in its unremitting power, ultimate benig nity, and absolute necessity.
At root, the problem with Gin?
grichism is not its belief in technol ogy, but its belief in revolution.
Technology is just the means. Rev, olution is the end --and for conser vatism, a very odd end. Technology is how Gingrich gets there, "There," however, is a strange place for a conservative to be.
Gingrich, who sees a new society about to be born with technology as midwife, really is that oxymoron, the conservative revolutionary. He wears the label proudly. And it will do as an ironic, slightly self-mock-ing slogan. The problem with To Renew America, however, is that it takes the oxymoron seriously as a political program.
The revolutionary vision is not just confined to the book. It occa-sionally finds expression from Gin-grich the politician, particularly at times when he believes high poli-tics demands the expansiveness of a "positive" vision. In his acceptance speech as Speaker, he proclaimed the goal of the conservative revolu-tion of 1994 as not just political --"Our challenge shouldn't be to bal-ance the budget, to pass the Con-tract. Our challenge shouldn't be anything that's just legislative" --but meta-political: the manufacture of a new society, an America where, for starters, random violence, child abuse, poor education, and chronic unemployment have been abol-ished.
Conservatives can't promise that.
Conservatives shouldn't promise that. It is not the business of conser- vatives to offer utopias. Utopia is the business of liberals and social-ists. It is the business of conserva-tives to debunk such visions, not just as impractical but as inimical to liberty. It is the business of conserv-atives to oppose such expansive vi-sions and the great statist appara-tuses by which they are to be legis-lated into existence. The business of conservatives/s to balance the bud-get, to pass the Contract, and leave social transformation to liberals.
At the heart of conservatism's ar-gument with liberalism is its rejec-tion of the notion of human per-fectibility, with or without technol-ogy. That is the other guy's game (and why his failures, when juxta-posed with his promises, appear doubly abysmal). Conservatism cannot be revolutionary in any- thing but the more limited "nega-tive" sense of radically stripping away the encumbrances of the wel-fare state. Conservatives do not need a more " positive" vision other than the faith that, with these en-cumbrances removed, native Amer-ican genius will flourish, and civil society, freed from the grip of the state, will renew itself. What new society this will yield, we do not know. Conservatives believe such things unknowable.
Igrant that this conservative con-servatism is less inspiring than Newt's. But it is bound to be more durable because it will be less dis-appointing. Delimiting Leviathan is work enough without promising nirvana. The "optimists" mock this caution as root canal conservatism.
But reforming Medicare, arresting cultural decline, curing the federal debt require root canal work. Ni-trous oxide won't do.
Even from the point of view of practical politics, one doesn't have to promise the moon. The anti-lib-eral sentiment in the country is so broad and deep that offering a vi-sion of America freed from liberal-ism's welfare statism is appeal enough. It is what won the conserv-atives control of Congress. It can win them the presidency. More-over, to win the other way, with the promise of revolution, is to lose from the start.
Finally, a conservative conser-vatism is more honest. We don't know what comes after the welfare state. Even Reagan promised just three things --lower taxes, strong defense, less government --and left the rest to our imagination, and to the truly Tocquevillian American genius for then freely, unpre- dictably ordering society. No need --no conservative call --to or-der the result from above, nor to believe its shape inevitably deter-mined by technology or any other agency of history.
Cynics might say that Gingrich has latched on to technological Tof-tierism just for that reason, as a way to endow his conservative vision with a sense of historical inevitabil-ity. All serious revolutions produce theories of history to explain why their triumph is inevitable. It in-spires the troops. There is nothing like being on the winning side.
(Though there is always the odd skeptic asking: Why join the revo-lution if it is going to happen any-way?) But the cynics are wrong. Yes, technology is Gingrich's deus ex machina, the means by which he fi-nesses the dilemmas of modern capitalism and conveniently bridges its philosophical and politi-cal divides. But his techno-conser-vatism is no construct of conve-nience. He believes in its power, and believes in it deeply. It is not by accident that he once suggested tax credits for the poor to buy laptops.
He later retracted. But the original suggestion, blissful and wild, was the real Newt, the one who wrote To Renew America. *
By Charles Krauthammer