The King of Mean
A couple of years ago I happened to see an article in the Utne Reader that listed the 10 most “progressive” cities in the United States. One of the cities making the cut was Portland, ME. This gladdened my heart. I was about to move to Portland part-time, and, as an LBJ Democrat, I thought I would feel at home there among all the like-minded progressives. On arriving in Portland, however, I did not find many LBJ Democrats. What I did find was (1) lots of lesbians, (2) lots of handicapped people and (3) lots of cars sporting bumper stickers with “progressive” messages like MEAN PEOPLE SUCK.
In fact, anti-meanness turned out to be more than a mere slogan. There are actually legal penalties in the state of Maine for being chronically and incorrigibly mean.
Consider, if you will, the case of Clifford Shattuck. Mr. Shattuck is the proprietor the Lighthouse Motel, a tidy little inn near Lincolnshire, ME. He is 66 years old and has been running the motel for 17 years. Late last spring, however, a superior court judge ordered Mr. Shattuck not to have any contact with his guests. The judge also fined the innkeeper $15,000. His crime was being mean.
Mr. Shattuck, it seems, cannot resist saying disobliging things to tourists who wish to stay at his motel. When a couple from Ohio asked to see a room, he called them “scum.” A woman from Canada reported that he called her an “ignorant pig.” Two women from Minnesota departed the premises after being referred to as “sluts.” A couple from Pennsylvania took umbrage at being addressed as “idiot” and “moron.” (When the local Chamber of Commerce tried to intervene, the motelier allegedly sent its director a postcard with a hyena on it.)
Some of Mr. Shattuck’s abuse has had greater specificity, even if it is occasionally misdirected. Two Hispanic men, who said they had pulled over in front of the motel to clean up spilled coffee, claimed the innkeeper told them to get moving or he’d get his gun and “blow (them) back to Africa.” A pair of young men just mustered out of Israel’s army said Mr. Shattuck informed them that he “hates Israelis” and “hopes there will be a second Holocaust.”
Here perhaps is where one begins to lose sympathy with the innkeeper. Irascibility ceases to be charming when it is seen to spring from vulgar prejudices.
Yet I would argue that Mr. Shattuck’s meanness is admirable in the broadness of its scope. It respects the Enlightenment value of universalism. It takes cognizance of George Bernard Shaw’s proposition that “the worst sin against our fellow man is not to hate them but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.” Indeed, Mr. Shattuck appears to be living up to the example
of the early Christians, who, despite Jesus’ gospel of love, were said by their pagan Roman contemporaries to exhibit a general hatred of mankind. (The argument from Christianity cuts no ice in Maine, where many of the lesbians, I’m told, are practicing Wiccans.)
Now, I am certainly not advocating that everyone begin behaving like Mr. Shattuck. So many New Yorkers already do, anyway. But my fellow liberals have something to learn, I think, from his example. Hatred is a very great pleasure—”the longest pleasure,” in Byron’s estimation—and there is no reason for us to deprive ourselves of it in the name of being “progressive.” We should not be expected to love humanity. That is a burden only a saint could bear. All we are obliged to do is to distribute our feelings of malice as broadly and equitably as possible, across every racial, national, ethnic and religious group.
Walking through Times Square a few years ago, I heard a black soapbox orator declare that “the white man is the devil.” As a white man myself, I knew just what he meant. Most Caucasians are diabolical. Indeed, if I had to pick out one tribe as being especially repugnant, it would be my fellow WASPs, who have certainly done me the most harm in the course of my life. But I would not single out WASPs as special objects of meanness. Asians and blacks are just as cruel, deceitful and greedy. Ditto for Jews and Muslims, heterosexuals and homosexuals, Serbs and Albanians, Flemings and Walloons. There is only one race, the human race. And it’s loathsome.
I do not see why Mr. Shattuck should be punished by the state of Maine for living his life according to this insight. Perhaps he would be better off moving his inn to Italy. Earlier this summer the Italian Parliament decriminalized a great number of nasty behaviors, including blasphemy, insulting a public official and insulting the dead. Italians are also now free to duel, insult the flag, get drunk, and beg “in a repugnant or tormenting manner.”
Of course, we are free to do most of these things in America, too. On the other hand, I am quite sure that I have never seen a bumper-sticker in Italy proclaiming GENTE CATTIVA SUCCHIA.
The Reform Party, since its creation a toy for Ross Perot’s use, is on the verge of metamorphosis—though into what remains uncertain. At the party’s Michigan convention last month, delegates elected Jack Gargan, the choice of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, by a wide margin over Perot-backed Patricia Benjamin. Left-wing perennial candidate Lenora Fulani nearly won the vice chair slot. Liberal Republican Lowell Weicker has been making noises about seeking the party’s presidential nomination. So, on behalf of their man, are supporters of Pat Buchanan. With its established ballot line and federal matching funds eligibility, Reform has become a powerful magnet for political figures from left, right and center.
Ventura hopes to steer the party away from the contentious or ideological issues, saying, ”We look more at straight government issues, finance reform, taxation, things of that nature.” But that’s not where the political action will be in the year 2000.
The Reform Party minus Perot is interesting because of the end of serious ideological politics among Beltway Republicans and Democrats. A front-loaded primary system puts the premium on early fundraising, not building coalitions around issues. The Buchanan campaign now refers dismissively to the “Bush-Gore” position, noting that on almost every question of consequence, the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. and Gore’s “Third Way” are indistinguishable. Other contenders—Bradley, Forbes, McCain, Dole—fall in line as well.
But there are vital issues out there, begging for someone to grab hold of them and run.
Take foreign policy. The United States has rained bombs on one Balkan country, supposedly to counter ethnic cleansing, while its new Balkan allies, Stalinist thugs linked to the international heroin trade, are now carrying out brutal ethnic cleansing of their own. This is what American globalism has come to under Clinton: bullying with air power countries about which we know little. In the past year, the U.S. has fired off cruise missiles into three continents, its economic sanctions have caused the death of untold thousands of Iraqi civilians and Washington is skirting around the edges of confrontation with China. Bigwigs at the Pentagon worry that some poor swarthy type is going to retaliate against an American city with a biological terror weapon, and they have a point.
Is no one in American political life ready to step up and say, as Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy did in 1968, what on Earth is going on here? That maybe our stance of challenging and picking fights with everyone on the horizon, rather like German chancellor Bethmann Hollweg’s policy in 1914, might be leading to disaster? But in Bush-Gore land there’s hardly a peep of dissent.
Then there’s immigration, banished from Beltway political debate since 1996, despite the fact that voters regularly tell pollsters they want some lessening of the influx. Yes, of course, most immigrants are fine people, etc.: but like seasoning, diversity overwhelms at a certain point. Research has established that immigrants are diminishing the wage rates for many of the native born—particularly the less skilled—a basic function of supply and demand. (That’s one reason high immigration is popular with business.) Meanwhile, the newcomers are enriching America with quaint customs like arranged child marriage, female genital mutilation and indentured servitude. (A Nigerian couple, apparently unimpressed with the results of the American Civil War, was recently arrested for importing a slave from their native land to do housework.) Discussion of this issue is also taboo in Bush-Gore land.
And race-based affirmative action. Last month at the Manhattan Institute you could hear a pin drop when Heather Mac Donald asked Jeb Bush about his stand on this critical question. The Florida governor—who has just given anti-racial-preferences crusader Ward Connerly the runaround—had ready a slick and ambiguous reply. Jeb’s brother the presidential candidate has been doing the same. Referenda for ending racial quotas have won overwhelmingly in California and Washington state, and would probably triumph in all 50. Yet Republican mandarins shun the issue.
These questions (trade is another) are far more vital than the tax cuts that obsess the GOP or the process issues that Ventura wants to make the meat and potatoes of Reform. But the front-loaded primary system means that American people will likely have no say on them. The Bush-Gore crowd’s worst fear is a repeat of 1968, when McCarthy, Kennedy and yes, George Wallace, energized crowds by taking the tougher questions before the people and forcing the establishment to deal with them. Under today’s set-up, that might well require a viable third party, which is why Reform seems
so pregnant with possibility.
The Real Thing
It is not often that the European Commission does something right. But at dawn a couple of weeks ago it raided Coca-Cola’s offices throughout Europe. Bureaucrats in Germany, Britain, Denmark and Austria seized internal company documents because, according to the Commission, Coca-Cola may have been abusing its dominant position in Europe’s soft drinks market. One of its favorite tricks, apparently, is to offer retailers and restaurant-owners free refrigerators or soda fountains if they refuse to sell rival soft drinks. A thorough investigation of Coca-Cola’s marketing practices is promised and the company could face a fine of 10 percent of its sales. This was only the latest of Coca-Cola’s recent troubles in Europe. A few weeks earlier the company had been forced to recall 17 million cases of Coke. Some Belgian children had reported feeling sick after drinking bottled Coca-Cola; Europe’s national health authorities immediately banned the sale of the drink. The panic was almost certainly without foundation. Toxicology experts could find no trace of anything anywhere that could explain any sickness. But the scare probably cost Coca-Cola over $100 million. This came on top of
loss of sales in Russia and Eastern Europe as a result of NATO’s war on Yugoslavia. And in May, the European Commission had stopped Coca-Cola from acquiring Cadbury Schweppes while French authorities blocked its acquisition of Orangina.
Clearly, someone has it in for Coca-Cola. This, of course, is not the first time the company has been under attack in Europe. After the Second World War, the French fought fiercely, but unsuccessfully, to keep the drink out of their country. Coca-Cola was everything they disliked about America: ruthless salesmanship combined with perpetual adolescence. A sweet, sticky, foul-tasting, gaseous drink that destroyed teeth and had no nutritional content, Coca-Cola nonetheless conquered continents. Since no one in his right mind would ever choose to drink Coke given so many vastly superior alternatives, its extraordinary worldwide popularity can only be explained by brilliant American marketing. How else does one explain the craze for Air Jordan sneakers in countries where basketball
is sport number five or worse in its priorities? Or the wearing of baseball caps by people who have never watched a game of baseball in their lives? Or the box-office triumph of American movies in countries whose indigenous films are easily superior to anything coming out of Hollywood? (Critics who point to the abysmal quality of most of the films made in Europe today are correct. But Europe has been so thoroughly penetrated by Hollywood that it is hard even to talk about a distinctly European cinema. The best movies today are being made in countries that have been relatively impervious to American influence: Iran and Yugoslavia.)
As far as the Washington elite is concerned, the triumph of American cultural style is a cause for rejoicing. In the first place, it is democratic and egalitarian and therefore preferable to any other cultural style anywhere in the world. And, second, it represents the victory of global market forces. Europe’s attempts to place barriers to the free flow of capital and goods appears to be almost an immoral act. Indeed, the very existence of Europe is nothing short of an outrage. Time and again, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin has instructed the Europeans to shape up or else: adopt American-style capitalism and become competitive or risk being thrown on the dust-heap of history by “globalism.” Yet Europeans continue to reject American dogma. They refuse to “reform” welfare. They mumble about introducing America’s pride and joy—”flexible labor practices”—but do nothing about it. They accept double-digit unemployment rates without complaint. Complacency of this sort drives American policymakers up the wall.
But then Americans seem to be unbalanced these days almost as a matter of policy. According to the mad logic of globalism, enunciated with cretinous gusto by Thomas Friedman in his ignorant and illiterate The Lexus and the Olive Tree, people have to sacrifice their jobs, their livelihoods, their homes just so the global economy can function without hindrance. Europeans, according to the Washington consensus, will have to accept regular cuts in pay, work longer hours, take shorter vacations, learn to live with less comprehensive health care coverage or else cease being ”competitive.” But why on Earth would Europeans allow their culture, their cities, their civilized way of life degenerate to the brutish levels that we take for granted here in America? Why on Earth would they destroy everything that is vital to Europe just so that they can “compete” with the sweatshops of Indonesia and Thailand? And at what point will the Europeans be competitive? When workers are earning $10 an hour? Five dollars an hour? Two dollars an hour? Who came up with this idiotic notion that there is something wrong with economic security? That throwing people out of work in the name of “downsizing” is commendable because it ensures “competitiveness”?
The creation of a bourgeois class with a strong set of moral values—optimistic, confident, secure in its home, its community, its nation—was the great triumph of capitalism. If capitalism offered economic insecurity as a permanent way of life, socialism would have won hands down. The ideologists of globalism do not seem to understand this. The Europeans do. Economic insecurity, American-style neuroses, medical debts that take a lifetime to pay off, bad education for almost everyone except the very rich, a vast underclass, a large section of the population permanently behind bars, seem to go together with this American-style capitalism that U.S. policymakers extol wherever they go. This is what lies behind Europe’s onslaught on Coca-Cola. Two rival models of capitalism are fighting it out. Or, rather, globalism is being shown up for the infantile fantasy that it is. According to the doctrine, the giant conglomerates should be able to do whatever they want. They can merge, downsize, switch their operations around the world, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. If Coca-Cola gets annoyed with the Germans for some reason, they can simply transfer their bottling plant to Nigeria. The Europeans, however, are demonstrating that they can make life very difficult for any transnational corporation. If the corporation threatens to transfer its main business to some place where it can pay workers two dollars an hour it will face harassment. If it tries to sell in Europe products it made elsewhere at a fraction of the cost it will get clobbered. A health scare can be whipped
up overnight, allegedly unfair competitive practices can be investigated for years. And the ultimate sanction is denial of access to the European market. This is already rather a large market and the European Union will expand to include almost every single country in Europe in the next few years. Europe is, in effect, practicing protectionism.
There is nothing wrong with protecting a civilized way of life. Americans dismiss this as a recipe for decline. Europeans, they believe, will continue to suffer a flight of capital while America will be where all the exciting high-tech work will be done. To be sure, the United States is doing well now. Or rather the Dow Jones continues to climb to the stratosphere. Which is all that people actually mean when they say “the United States is doing well.” But sooner or later something untoward will happen. It may be a recession; it may be a collapse in the stock market; it may be the Japanese unloading their T-bonds. Then the globalists will discover that “flexible labor practices” are not as appealing to the people who are fired as they were to those who were hired. People who gambled on stock options in lieu of extra earnings or savings will discover that they may have been a little rash. At this point, the European-style capitalism will seem rather attractive. Europe’s wealth is not as tied to the stock market as it is in the United States. It is also not burdened by a huge trade deficit that it can suddenly no longer finance.
There is one wrinkle to all of this. Though Europe and America represent two rival versions of capitalism, they are still joined together in this defunct organization called NATO. Europeans are content to remain members, since they thereby can get away with spending next to nothing on defense. Americans like NATO because it enables them to throw their weight around in Europe. Europeans had to go along with America’s demented destruction of Yugoslavia because the alternative was—as always—to pay for their own defense. An unacceptable notion, apparently. NATO, in other words, may be the means whereby the United States will prevent the emergence of a rival capitalism. It is one more reason—as if we needed another one—to bring this morally and intellectually bankrupt organization to an end.