PRINT February 1990


the Future of a Delusion

UNREALITY HAUNTS THE DEAR fact that George Herbert Walker Bush is president of the United States and J. Danforth Quayle is veep. How did we get to this point, where magazines do feature stories on “The Education of Dan Quayle”? There he sits on a June 1989 cover of the New York Times Magazine, gazing thoughtfully out on airplane window. In the accompanying story we find the ludicrous Quayle favorably comparing his political performance, unbelievably, with Napoleon’s military techniques. Even more alarming is a front-page news photo six months later in the New York Times that shows National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft toasting the prime minister of China while on a “surprise” visit to Beijing to patch things up in the wake of the massacre of prodemocracy demonstrators. The Bush administration, it seems, decided “to isolate for another time those areas of disagreement” in the interests of reestablishing high-level contacts with the murderous Chinese regime. Picture after picture, story after story, the opening scenes of the Bush years look like snippets from some evil cartoon. Certainly, when massacres fall under the rubric of “areas of disagreement” it is time seriously to reassess our mournful situation.

Yet who amongst us hasn’t felt defeated by the very thought of such a task? Once Ronald Reagan had reentered the White House in 1984 for another four years of snoozing and strident rhetoric, it seemed the thing was lost. The “landslide” vote afforded Reagan by those who bothered to go to the polls was a shocking puzzle. At least, we sighed, he can just have four more years. Then, surprisingly, George Bush gained the elusive top slot. And here we are, sentenced to another four years of hard labor in front of the nightly news with no possibility of parole.

One question rankles throughout: how did this happen? Where did the New Right, which elected and nearly canonized Reagan, come from and how did it gain such power? Mass-media pundits have offered a meager few reasons for conservative success at the polls, among them white flight from the Democratic party after it championed the cause of racial equality, and Reagan’s “winning” personality. As usual, though, the news media do little to find the root causes of political change. Thus, none of their explanations comes close to illuminating the way crackpot, far-right ideas came to be perceived as mainstream American politics.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, 1989, tackles the subject head-on, locating the theoretical grounding of New Rightism in a broad array of sources, from mass-market and small-press publications to child-raising pamphlets and sociology textbooks. She shows that the dirty work that made Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle possible was well under way in the late ’50s and early ’60s, as supposedly liberal thinkers grappled with “The Problem of Problemlessness.” American society, according to the likes of Daniel Bell and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., had reached a state of universal well-being. Except for continuing annoyances about racial equality, America had little to do on the domestic front but sit back and enjoy the fruits of capitalism’s success. In short, the middle-class thinker perceived the entire country as on endless vista of middle-class bounty.

Ehrenreich traces the trajectory of notions such as the “discoveries” of poverty and the working class, and the threat presented by leftist student protests, by looking at the way they were handled by the professional, usually liberal thinkers who invent and define the concepts and categories of human history. Liberal outrage at the way its “permissively” raised children rebelled against the discipline and values of its class, Ehrenreich shows, paved the way for “a far more vicious kind of conservatism, one which would attempt to discredit the professional middle class altogether.”

Yet even as Ehrenreich is uncovering and exposing intellectual anger, the American media is mining similar territory to different ends. Short on original ideas, it is revitalizing the ’60s as a series of amusingly weird or disturbingly violent images. The residue of history, for most people, is no longer fixed in the biographies of “great” white men such as Winston Churchill or Douglas MacArthur or in the rise and fall of civilizations. One disturbing but not surprising implication of Ehrenreich’s book is how easily history is lost. The underpinning of ideas that supported everything from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty to the rise of Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle is continuously effaced by a sensation-conscious media, which thrives on entertainment-tonight reportage. Unhinged from any semblance of content or reason, the clichés repeated in images become the focus of pop-analytical comment.

But it is the reaction to images that we should be paying attention to, the political tracts, grad-school tomes, and “thoughtful” journalism that will shape how succeeding generations see a present that, as always, is symbolized by images. So we should carefully watch how mainstream thinkers define and extrapolate from today’s images of Eastern European revolt. Just as the liberals who Ehrenreich studied turned whole hog to conservative ideas as a corrective to the disturbing revolt of the young, so too are today’s conservatives busy grasping at sundry quick fixes to explain, control, and exploit what is happening in the communist world. Most popular is the notion, espoused by media-casters and eggheads alike, that the Eastern bloc’s call for democratization means the final, world-wide ascendancy of capitalism, as if democracy and capitalism were one and the same. The smaller military budget necessitated by the reduced communist “threat” is already being retheorized into equally expensive plans for American global interventionism with a kind of omnipotent “fast-reaction” strike force.

The New York Times article that announced this “global cop” proposal by the United States Army—Just another dull item on defense-department folly—passed relatively unnoticed. But is this the kind of marker that some savvy historian or social critic such as Ehrenreich will later recognize as a clue to the inevitable American backlash against communist liberalization? Now, while the process is fresh, we should take Ehrenreich’s book as a beacon to the future, rather than an interpretation of the past. If her findings are any indication, the violent conservatism that resulted from a threatened status quo in the 1960s will be mild next to the reaction to today’s more profound global revolution. A generation from now, that New York Times image of dizzy Dan Quayle may be reinterpreted to make him look like a paragon of enlightenment and soul.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator, and senior editor at American Photo. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.