"You know, this used to be a helluva good country"

Reflections on a post-NPSM America

Author's note: This column is about politics and hence is filled with profanity and heaping helpings of excretory imagery. The faint of heart should evacuate this page immediately, like patrons at a Golden Corral buffet once the cheese sauce runs out.

There's a scene in Easy Rider, a movie that is all about America's manifest inability to redeem itself at the last minute, in which George Hanson, the small-town lawyer played by Jack Nicholson, sighs, "You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it."

The good news for George Hanson is that shortly after making this observation, he gets beaten to death by a bunch of rednecks wielding baseball bats.

The bad news for those of us who are alive in the post-American Century century is that we're witnessing a seemingly endless series of what I've come to call "national pants-shitting moments." By this term of art, I mean situations that are simply too terrifying and unbelievable to take at face value. To do so is to admit that things are just so existentially fucked that you almost literally lose control of your most basic bodily functions. Which is, I'm told by people who are supposed to know, what happens to you when you know you are going to die. I don't include horror shows like the Oklahoma City bombing or the 9/11 attacks in this category because they are plain evil, pure and simple. What's integral to a national pants-shitting moment (NPSM) is that as it unfolds, you're being told that what is plainly true is not in fact what's happening. And you really don't want to believe what you know to be true.

The first NPSM I recall fully came on August 20, 1998, the day that Bill Clinton ordered bombing runs on terrorist sites in Sudan and Afghanistan. It was also, as you may recall, the same 24-hour-period during which Monica Lewinsky delivered grand jury testimony on the then-pressing matter of whether the president had lied under oath (he had).

Unless you were retarded, or Hillary Clinton, you could only draw one honest conclusion (a conclusion shared by nearly 50 percent of the country at the time): The bombings proceeded not from even a semblance of sober, rational calculation of the national interest or an attempt to protect American lives and property, but from a desperate desire of a sitting chief executive to cover his ass. I'm not pretending to have been naive back then, to have thought that foreign policy—or domestic policy, for that matter—was some noble, idealistic undertaking.

But Clinton's actions were breathtaking, even—or especially—among those of us who are totally cynical about the intentions and outcomes of state power. There was simply no way to account for his actions, except in a way that no one really wanted to believe. And he took our breath away again in December 1998 by bombing Iraq on the evening before the House of Representatives was voting on articles of impeachment, thereby delaying the proceedings. If Clinton was doing what he plainly was doing, he revealed a secret skeleton key to history that unlocked a treasure-trove of despair. What else in American history has happened because of such base, stupid, and vulgar motivations? How incompetent could government actors be that they would think they could get away with such shit? (Which, of course, he did.)

It seems to me that ever since those bombings we've been moving faster than Capt. James T. Kirk on a green-skinned alien toward a complete breakdown of legitimacy in politics. The 2000 election ended in a dead heat and each party in Bush v. Gore employed precisely the opposite arguments they claimed as first principles (the Dems went for a state's rights case while the Republicans pushed a federal case; the same ideological gender-bending was evident in the grotesque Terri Schiavo case a few years later). You can't fault Bush, Gore, and their minions for slugging it out to the bitter end, but you don't have to believe them when they try to pretend that they actually have principles.

The Bush administration's case for invading Iraq was a house built on sand and the only question remains whether anyone in the Bush administration other than the good soldier Colin Powell believed what he was saying at the time. But even beyond all those infinitely disturbing questions about whether people in a position to know really believed in weapons of mass destruction, there was something more screwy going on. Those of us who are not party hacks were forced to witness Democrats, who had been so bellicose during the Clinton years, suddenly become peaceniks. And Republicans, who were against sending even our bombs, much less our boys, overseas to the former (and god forbid, the future) Yugoslavia or anywhere else when a Democrat ran the military, suddenly come out in favor of not just nation-building but region-sculpting. And now we've got a president-elect who somehow ran as the peace candidate who has talked about increasing the size of the military, invading Pakistan or Iran, and finally getting American forces into Darfur.

Fast-forward to the past eight weeks or so and feelings of dizziness and epistemological irritable bowel syndrome have reached uncontainable levels. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson appears virtually out of nowhere to inform us that the U.S. economy will collapse if Congress doesn't pass the economic equivalent of the Patriot Act. In eight days, no less. Congress passed it and the markets still tanked. So Paulson changes his mind about what the bailout is for. And then again. Or maybe he simply loses his mind (watch him on the TV sometime with the sound turned off). The important thing is that the former head of Goldman Sachs has given his company $25 billion in tax dollars (at a minimum) and the government is on the hook for oh about $8.5 trillion in direct subsidies and guarantees related to various bailouts. Which Republicans are already blaming on Obama, who has yet to take office. And Democrats keep talking about how Bush and the Republicans deregulated everything, when the exact opposite is true.

Carmakers beg for more money from Congress (they got some earlier this fall) and will almost certainly get something either now or in a couple of months. Whatever partial nationalization that follows will be touted as necessary to rescue...free enterprise, just like with the financial sector. We're in the middle of a meltdown caused by easy money. The government-approved solution? Even easier money, especially for homeowners. Or at least the ones who have demonstrated an inability to pay (if you're up to date on your mortgage or rent, go fuck yourself). We've got to jump-start the economy, prime the pump, put confidence back into the markets by spending today and saving tomorrow. Go figure. Trust them, they know what they're doing. President-elect Barack Obama is promising a stimulus package for an economy that has received more stimulation than John Holmes in Saturday Night Beaver. No third term for Bush. But maybe one for Bill Clinton. Hope. Change. Tom Daschle. Boolah-boolah.

And then, as a semi-comical cherry on the very top of this shit sundae is the bizarre arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) for, among other things, allegedly trying to sell the Senate seat being vacated by Obama for as much as...$1 million (cue the Dr. Evil impersonation). According to ABC News, the Justice Department claims it has tapes of Blago saying things such as, "I've got this thing, it's fucking golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for fuckin' nothing." That's only the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to Blagojevich and whatever pols he takes down with him.

In a fundamental way, we know that all the charges are true, against Blago and every other politician, now and forever, amen. At least since some time in the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson's credibility gap grew bigger than his gall bladder scar and his dog's ears combined, or, at the very latest, in the early '70s, when Richard Nixon mumbled that he wasn't a crook (thereby acknowledging that he was in fact one), we've known that the worst thing we can imagine about our politicians is true. My father, born during the Harding administration for god's sake, averred that everyone always knew this was the case. But it's almost as if we are now conjuring up our own national nightmares, like some weird character from a Harry Potter novel. There are some good politicians, of course, but even when they are trying to do the right thing, they screw everything up, it seems. And of course much of the time, they are not even particularly concerned with doing the right thing.

Which explains historically low presidential approval ratings and congressional ratings that barely make it out of the high teens.

And in this sense, the George Hanson character from Easy Rider had it all wrong. This never was a "helluva good country," at least when it came to politicians. We just pretended it was. Certainly, after a decade or more of NPSMs up the ying-yang (apologies, but we are talking about politics, which driveth all decent men and women mad), it's impossible to have any illusions. We are a nation of Depends wearers, even those of us who are half the age of John McCain.

And here's one final turn of the screw, the worm, whatever. According to the authors of the depressing yet persuasive (and unpublished!) paper "Regulation and Distrust," the less we believe in government, the more of it we will demand.

Writing in July, Philippe Aghion, Yann Algan, Pierre Cahuc, and Andrei Shleifer argue that "distrust influences not just regulation itself, but the demand for regulation. Using the World Values Survey, we show both in a cross-section of countries, and in a sample of individuals from around the world, that distrust fuels support for government control over the economy. What is perhaps most interesting about this finding...is that distrust generates demand for regulation even when people realize that the government is corrupt and ineffective."

That's just one more horrible, deep-rumbling-in-the-very-depth-of-our-bodies-and-souls truth that stands revealed before us, at the end of the Clinton-Bush years. And, sadly because history is a dream from which we cannot awake, the Bush-Obama years, which have already started.

Nick Gillespie is the editor-in-chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Lester Hunt||

    This just baffles me. You often see people saying that Enron or some other corporate misdeed is evidence that there is something wrong with capitalism. You never hear someone saying (at least never those people) that some political scandal or atrocity shows that there is something wrong with the state, or with letting it get too powerful. I don't get it. The state, as someone said, is the only institution that is judged by its intentions and not by its performance.

  • ||

    Come on Nick. Don't hold back. Tell us how you really feel!

  • Douglas Gray||

    What is happening now is a lot closer to what happened in ATLAS SHRUGGED than I would have imagined 10-12 years ago.

  • Kyle Jordan||

    Way to fuck up my good evening Gillespie! Thanks!

    I wish I were joking. That article was very depressing.

  • ||

    Politicians are amoral economic actors who respond to incentives by doing what is in their personal interests and not in the interests of the public they purport to want to help?

    Who could ever have anticipated this happening?

  • ||

    Incredible. You have perfectly summed the range of my emotions over this last couple of weeks. Though I now know I am not alone I still want to kill my self.

  • ||

    I blame the media!!!!

    (only somewhat tongue in cheek)

  • Jackson Kuhl||

    NPSM is pretty good but I'm going to stick to my own personal catchphrase re: world events, which is, "I feel like I'm taking crazy pills."

    Oh, and Nick?

    (a) You should write more like this; and

    (b) All of Reason should be more like this.

  • ||

    Lester Hunt-

    At bottom, implicit in your reference to the proposition that the state is the only institution judged by its intentions, and not by its performance, is the unchallenged acceptance of the premise that the state's intentions are always good.

  • Travis||

    "The faint of heart should evacuate this page immediately, like patrons at a Golden Corral buffet once the cheese sauce runs out."

    In my personal opinion one should evacuate the Golden Corral whether the cheese sauce has run out or not. If the care about their taste buds or personal health.

  • Orange Line Special||

    Lotsa noise, not really meaning anything. Reason had a chance to (for a low price) put on debates and HoldPoliticiansAccountable by asking questions, and did nothing.

  • Joel||

    There are some good politicians, of course,...

    An unsubstantiated assertion, a statement of opinion not supported by observable fact.

    Other than that this was a wonderful article, exactly mirroring my own opinion (and mood) on the subject for several months. Well, years, actually.

    Well done. I'm now going to brood in the dark for a while.

  • ||

    Nick,
    Thank you!

    but, I've got to ask: Where is your line in the sand? Do you have one?

  • ||

    and the Taliban-istas hate us 'cause we're 'free'..........

  • Travis||

    "The first NPSM I recall fully came on August 20, 1998, the day that Bill Clinton ordered bombing runs on terrorist sites in Sudan and Afghanistan. It was also, as you may recall, the same 24-hour-period during which Monica Lewinsky delivered grand jury testimony on the then-pressing matter of whether the president had lied under oath (he had)."

    I think this might be a big reason why I became a libertarian. I remember being a idealistic 17 year old & thinking that Clinton was going to be held accountable. Not for lying about getting a blow job, but for starting a bombing campaign & killing innocent people to cover up the fact that he was lying about getting a blow job.

  • ||

    Flow, your murderous impulses are directed at the wrong person/people.

  • anarch the non-lawyer||

    In a fundamental way, we know that all the charges are true, against Blago and every other politician, now and forever, amen.



    Just wondering: Does prefacing an accusation of guilt, prior to trial, by the phrase "in a fundamental way" absolve a journalist of charges of libel?

    Just looking out for your interests, Nick.

  • Balloon Maker||

    I'm sending this shit to everyone I know.

  • ||

    Call it the final Shrug.

  • Bingo||

    Thanks for summarizing my thoughts, Nick. We're fucked and the only way out is going to be a new Bretton-Woods or something drastic and unprecedented.

    I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop, but they keep dropping.

  • ||

    Over the years, I have often wondered, occasionally aloud, what is this misdirection for, the "Look Over There!" factor. With Clinton, no such wondering. I'm back to asking it again. NPSM indeed. May the Farce be with you.

  • ||

    I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop, but they keep dropping.

    Like they're coming out of Imelda Marcos' closet. By the time the last one actually drops we will have all stopped paying attention.

  • left_nut_right_nut||

    Isn't it true there are parts of America that are rather isolated from whatever fucked things happen on a national scale?

    is the country still good there?

  • ||

    I remember being a idealistic 17 year old & thinking that Clinton was going to be held accountable.

    I remember counting on Reagan to abolish selective service registration just because he'd called it "unconscionable" during his campaign against Carter. That let-down was why I gave up on the Republicans.

    -jcr

  • Orange Line Special||

    left_nut_right_nut: Yes, there are still some OK places left. The problem is that they're really isolated and really, really cold.

    The only way to go to a place with culture and good weather and a true sense of freedom is Somalia. No, really: it's the only libertarian paradise we have left.

    America never was a "helluva" place, but Somalia is one helluva a place, and right now!

    Join the movement! Come work for peace and freedom!

  • Jordan||

    Damn, Nick, you hit this one out of the park. And yet, it's more depressing than a Radley Balko post.

    The only way to go to a place with culture and good weather and a true sense of freedom is Somalia.



    Lefiti also brings up this Somalia strawman. Is he your sockpuppet? A country without rule of law cannot be free.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Nick, I guess I have to buy you that glass of wine afterall.

    In the old days you could just ride out of town and move west. Find some arroyo with good water and build a house.

  • Paul||

    Nick, I guess I have to buy you that glass of wine afterall.

    What is this, the Women's Auxiliary Balloon Corps? Buy the man a scotch!

  • dhex||

    "Reason had a chance to (for a low price) put on debates and HoldPoliticiansAccountable by asking questions, and did nothing."

    you are a NationalTreasure.

  • Nigel Watt||

    Where is the line in the sand? Every time I think of one, it's already been crossed.

  • ||

    Lately I've come to the conclusion that the Founders wrote our Constitution as they did, granting the federal government limited and specifically enumerated powers, largely because they realized that any political class ultimately would be comprised of vermin, and stupid and venal vermin at that. They knew that the only way to control the damage and havoc they would wreak was to limit, by charter, their power.

    I've often thought that if these men could be brought back to life and could witness what we've become as a nation that they'd commit mass suicide.

  • Dave W.||

    You forgot when they covered up the fact that the US military sent the anthrax for all those years.

    You also forgot when they stood down the air defenses and let 9/11 happen without trying to stop it. LIHOP.

    These are bigger PSMs than anything you mention. By far. I went to Canada. But then I came back because I think things are actually getting better. The thing with the Illinois government is one of those signs of IMPROVEMENT, believe or not.

    Oh, and thanks for laying off the dog eating entries lately. Those made me disgusted with you.

  • cunnivore||

    The auto bailout and "car czar" is dead in the water for now after it only got 52 votes in the Senate last night.

    I do like the AP story that compares this vote to the first vote on the $700B bailout that failed and "sent stocks tumbling" -- and then fails to not that the second vote that passed it also sent stocks tumbling!

  • ed||

    Nice job, Nick, but you left out this little turd of a story.

    I caught part of ESPN's Outside The Lines yesterday afternoon, wherein Rep. Barton literally engaged in extortion tactics with his foe from the other side. He very calmly stated that a bill had been introduced, and that college football had till 2011 to "act" on a playoff scheme. He didn't actually say "Or else", or "It would be a shame if something were to happen to your BCS", but the threat was implied.

    It would have been a great moment in broadcasting history if the show's host, Bob Ley, had said to the Congressman: "Sir, I'm not an expert on the legislative process, but how is what you've told us not extortion?"

    Alas, everyone was pleasant and civilized, thinking but not saying the unthinkable.


  • ||

    "What is happening now is a lot closer to what happened in ATLAS SHRUGGED than I would have imagined 10-12 years ago."



    I said precisely the same thing on a job app cover letter just this week!

  • ||

    I think Jordan is onto something:

    The only way to go to a place with culture and good weather and a true sense of freedom is Somalia.
    Lefiti also brings up this Somalia strawman. Is he your sockpuppet? A country without rule of law cannot be free.


    Although I suspect that Lefiti might be several peoples sock puppet.

  • ||

    As for the article: "The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire: we don't need no water, let the motherfucker burn. burn motherfucker, burn."

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Trade in the black leather jacket, Nick. You've officially become an Old Fart. What's next, a column about how the kids have ruined the music? Oy vey, oy vey.

  • ed||

    It's not so much that we're losing the war that bothers me,
    but that we're losing it to human cockroaches.

  • ||

    Nick,

    Great piece.

  • Nick Gillespie||

    Oh Alan Vanneman, blogger and film critic extraordinaire, words that wound!

    I will officially become an old fart the moment that Medicare approves my Rascal Scooter.

  • ||

    Uh... what happened to that really, really optimistic Nick who wrote that piece on the freer America like... a week ago?

  • Warty||

    I will officially become an old fart the moment that Medicare approves my Rascal Scooter.

    I like this image that's in my head now of a grossly obese Nick riding a fatty-scooter in a Walmart. Wearing the skins of six cows, of course.

  • creech||

    At some point America decided to stop being a serious nation. Maybe it was the "Greatest Generation" thinking they could have both guns and butter with LBJ while laughing at Goldwater. Or approving of Nixon's freeze on wages and prices. And then their kids, the Boomers, falling for socialism and irresponsible, feel-good behavior. Then the Soviet Union fell and the GOP was mesmerized by temporary surpluses into passing a massive new prescription drug measure and ignoring the looming threats of unfunded social security and medicare. Years and years of government meddling in the economy, with no appreciation of the few voices warning us off the path.
    So why isn't libertarianism now sweeping the field as its spokesmen have been proven largely right? Why does the LNC spend a large chunk of its latest meeting worrying about some un-pc humor uttered by one of its members, instead of laying plans for a grassroots assault on all the nonsense spewing out of Washington, the state capitols, and county governments?

  • Egosumabbas||

    DUDE! I remember that pants-shitting moment on Aug. 20th 1998 too! Like it was yesterday!

    I was a 17 year old lad on vacation in France, watching their news channel.

    And the BREAKING EXLUSIVE! was that Slick Willy had fired off some rockets into a foreign country or two... right after the news segment about Monica Lewinsky.

    Even at that tender age of political naivety I could see right through the ruse. 50% of the country couldn't figure it out?!?!

  • Egosumabbas||

    @ Travis

    Holy crap, you had the same experience as I did.

  • Egosumabbas||

    Only I had no idea what libertarianism was (yet). That took a few more years to set in.

  • ||

    Excellent article - I've posted a link to it on my site and sent it to everyone whose intelligence I trust (and this includes those who disagree with me).

  • ||

    i'm reminded of the roman empire, just before it was invaded by vandals and torn apart... all "good" things come to an end.

  • ||

    "the war of clintons pants"
    i wonder what kind of footnote that will get in the history books?

  • ||

  • ||

    There is a way to fix things, or at the very least to put a lid on the cesspool:

    In every election, vote anti-incumbent. Don't let the roots of corruption snake their way into the bank vault.

    This will never happpen, of course. We are fricking doomed!

  • ||

    Goddamn RUB. Lissen...

    Hanson was an ACLU lawyer, not a "small town lawyer". And while he (and Billy and the Cap) were in fact beaten by bats, it was the hatchet that killed Hanson. Watch it again.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Bravo, Nick!

  • ||

    That has to be Gillespie's best column since "Year of the Rat". The Suck version, of course.

  • Mike M.||

    Every nation can undoubtedly withstand a certain amount of inherent corruption amongst its ruling class, but go too far and it will reach the "tipping point" where the people get fed and begin to openly revolt.

    The relevant question is how far away we are in America from reaching our tipping point.

  • ||

    The relevant question is how far away we are in America from reaching our tipping point.

    Very, very far away. People don't even seem outraged by the bailout - which must be one of the most egregious transfers of taxpayers money to an unproductive elite since Louis XIV. Maybe the concepts are too abstract for most of us, most people are conditioned to paying taxes and assuming the government is looking out for us. Or maybe the narcotizing effects of our 24-hour entertainment culture are sufficient to keep most people on the sidelines.

  • ||

    @ Mike M.

    If the study that Nick linked to is accurate, then every nation reaches an equilibrium comprised of either distrust and regulation with corruption being the only method of production, or trust and liberty generating vast amounts of production. As a culturre becomes more corrupt the citizenry demands more regulation even from those who are corrupt until equilibrium is reached.
    I actually found this less depressing than most, as it shows the US in a better position than almost the rest of the world. Also, it would seem to indicate that investing in social capital would help foster trust in the culture and subsequently decrease regulation. So everybody get out there and throw block party BBQ's and wave to neighbors.

  • ||

    I like it. It's got this whole Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo thing going on.

    Now, you just need to add some drug references to the whole pants-shitting thing, and it would be perfect.

    This isn't just pants-shitting territory we're in. It's bad-acid-trip land. Any day now, I'm expecting Bush to appear on TV in a military uniform with a Che hat, and Obama to ride by, naked, on a unicorn.

  • Publilius||

    People don't even seem outraged by the bailout - which must be one of the most egregious transfers of taxpayers money to an unproductive elite since Louis XIV. Maybe the concepts are too abstract for most of us, most people are conditioned to paying taxes and assuming the government is looking out for us. Or maybe the narcotizing effects of our 24-hour entertainment culture are sufficient to keep most people on the sidelines.

    It's because the "taxpayers" aren't paying for the bailout. The government simply borrows more money or creates more new money to pay for these things. Now if they actually had to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for the bailout, then people would be outraged.

  • The Illuminati||

    You forgot when they covered up the fact that the US military sent the anthrax for all those years.

    You also forgot when they stood down the air defenses and let 9/11 happen without trying to stop it. LIHOP.


    Yep. We covered it up well, didn't we? But you, Dave W., you alone have managed to pierce the shroud of secrecy so carefully developed and employed by us, the REAL RULERS.

    For that we extend our respect

    Before you enlighten the powerful and righteous sleeping mass that is the American Public, you must die. Pray to your gods, Dave W., this is your last day on Earth.

  • ||

    Seriously, Nick, pantshitting notwithstanding, this is one of the most concise assessments of the state of government in America that I have read. Keep it up.

  • Karlh||

    Odd I have never been one to buy into conspiracy theories but in light of all that is happening and has happened I find it hard to believe much else.

    It seems insanity has reached out and taken down every person of any power in this country, that or the conspiracy theorists are at least 50% correct. Which would put them way ahead of the grade curve set by our leaders.

    Either way the point has been made and is difficult to refute that as a nation we are fucked. We have nothing left but lint and sarcasm in our pockets.

    So when the mobs start marching and the pitchforks and torches come out I will find it difficult to shed a tear or even feel an emotion for the fate of those that will face those mobs. Save for the law enforcement that may try to keep order.

    (wild tangent warning stop here read no further)I am still hoping the EPA's tax on cow flatulence will be the start of something. It would be great if generations hence were taught that it was an ass tax that kicked off the second American Revolution. Would it not be true comedy if the last NPSM was an ass tax?

  • ||

    fascinating review. one cannot help but notice that the "progressives'" objectives are inconsistent over time -- yet consistent with popular sentiment~ i.e. designed to garner political support. their real cause: statism is constant

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement