In November, our old friend Newt Gingrich stepped down as speaker of the House because, he said, he was “not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.” But it seems obvious to us that members of Congress have been eating their own for longer than Newt has been around (though it was Gingrich’s investigation of then-Speaker Jim Wright that took the Capitol’s openly predatory society to new heights). After surveying the carnage wrought by the carnal carnival of the last year or so, we wonder if Gingrich, who is fond of harking back to classroom reading assignments, would profit from a close reading of Lord of the Flies.
Newt’s insistence on the primacy of American civilization, so-called, might cause him to miss the relevance of William Golding’s fable about English schoolboys-turned-savages, but now that Gingrich has been forced to pass the conch to Rep. Robert Livingston (R-La.), we see Golding’s story playing out under the rotunda and around the globe. After all, Newt climbed to power within government using an ideology designed to bring it down: “Bureaucrats cripple the ability to achieve,” he reportedly said in his now-infamous Renewing American Civilization lecture course. To his mind, the best thing lawmakers can do for the country is just get out of the way (particularly the way of his corporate patrons).
But what happens when government gets out of the way? American tobacco companies provide a case in point. The uncertainty of stateside litigation behind them, they can concentrate on their next great market: Asia. Robert Dreyfuss’ story of their inroads there (“Big Tobacco Rides East“) suggests that, left to its own devices, a free market can accomplish what used to be the function of armies: the infiltration of borders, the decimation of a population. Almost three-fourths of Vietnamese men smoke; to lure this lucrative group away from cheap domestic brands means selling more than smoke. It means selling America-cowboys, pretty women, individualism, etc.
Tobacco companies are not alone in pitching their twin product lines: American brands and American values.
In “The World Gets in Touch with Its Inner American,” G. Pascal Zachary finds the startup ethos of Silicon Valley in France; a yen for American babies in Bangkok; and a thirst for American-style stock options and wage scales everywhere-wherever, it seems, people are willing to adopt American ideals and then let go of the native traditions that give their societies structure. They desire our level of material abundance and social freedom but are realizing that violence, workaholism, and an obsession with instant gratification are part of the package.
Gingrich’s own promotion of American values made its mark overseas. In 1996, Mongolia adopted the Republican model of smoke-and-mirrors reform, issuing a “Contract with the Mongolian Voter.” Gingrich saw this as a victory in the “war of ideas.”
For those of us at Mother Jones, however, his ideas have seemed emblematic of the worst America has to offer. We take pride in the 14 years we’ve spent repeatedly exposing Gingrich’s ideas (and his mean-spirited behavior) as simply a means to the acquisition of power. And in the end, when he no longer wielded power, he stood for nothing.
In his first appearance after announcing his resignation, Gingrich quoted yet another classroom classic, and for once we found ourselves in full agreement with his choice of inspiration. The former speaker cited Alexis de Tocqueville’s definition of America, but we look to the prescient Frenchman for a definition of Americanization, its promise and its price:
When ... the distinctions of ranks are obliterated and privileges are destroyed, when hereditary property is subdivided and education and freedom are widely diffused, the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich. They never procure them without exertion, and they never indulge in them without apprehension. They are therefore always straining to pursue or to retain gratifications so delightful, so imperfect, so fugitive.... The love of well-being has now become the predominant taste of the nation; the great current of human passions runs in that channel and sweeps everything along in its course.