Viewpoint: You Say You Want a Revolution
I like to think of my behavior in the '60s as a "learning experience." Then again, I like to think of anything stupid I've done as a "learning experience." It makes me feel less stupid. However, I actually did learn one thing in the 1960s (besides how to make a hash pipe out of an empty toilet paper roll and some aluminum foil). I learned the awful power of make-believe.
There is a deep-seated and frighteningly strong human need to make believe things are different than they are—that salamanders live forever, we all secretly have three legs, and there's an enormous conspiracy somewhere that controls our every thought and deed. People are greedy. Life is never so full it shouldn't be fuller. What more can Shirley MacLaine, for instance, want from existence? She's already been rewarded far beyond her abilities or worth. But nothing will do until she's been King Tut and Marie of Romania. It was this kind of hoggish appetite for epistemological romance that sent my spoiled and petulant generation on a journey to Oz, a journey from which some of us are only now straggling back, in intellectual tatters.
Many people think fantastic ideas are limited to the likes of Harmonic Convergences, quartz crystals that ward off cancer, or, at worst, harebrained theories about who killed JFK. Unfortunately this is not the case. Two of the most fecund areas for cheap fiction are politics and economics. Which brings me to Marxism.
Marxism is a perfect example of the chimeras that fueled the '60s, and probably the most potent one. Albeit, much of this Marxism would have been unrecognizable to Marx. It was Marxism watered down, Marxism spiked with LSD, and Marxism adulterated with mystical food coloring. But it was Marxism nonetheless, because the wildest hippie and the sternest member of the Politburo shared the same daydream: that a thing might somehow be worth other than what people will give for it. This just is not true. And any system that bases itself on such a will-o'-the-wisp is bound to fail. Communes don't work. Poland doesn't either.
Now the hippies are gone and—if glasnost is any indication—the Communists are going. But there is a part of the world where politico-economic fish stories are still greeted with gape-jawed credulity. It's a part of the world that pretty much includes everybody except us, the Japanese, some Europeans, and a few of the most cynical Russians. You can call it the Third World, the Underdeveloped World, or just The Part of the World That's Completely Screwed.
Working as a foreign correspondent, I've spent a lot of time in the part of the world that's completely screwed. It's always seemed a comfortable and familiar-feeling place to me. The reason is, Third World countries are undergoing national adolescences very similar to the personal adolescence I underwent in the '60s. Woodstock Nation isn't dead; it's just become short, brown, distant, and filled with chaos and starvation.
Marxism has tremendous appeal in the Third World for exactly the same reason it had tremendous appeal to me in college. It gives you something to believe in when what surrounds you seems unbelievable. It gives you someone to blame besides yourself. It's theoretically tidy. And, best of all, it's fully imaginary, so it can never be disproved.
The Third World attitude toward the United States is also easy to understand if you think of it in terms of adolescence. The citizens of the Third World are in a teenage muddle about us—full of envy, imitation, anger, and blind puppy love. I have been held at gun-point by a Shi'ite youth in West Beirut who told me in one breath that America was "pig satan devil" and that he planned to go to dental school in Dearborn as soon as he got his green card. In Ulundi, in Zululand, I talked to a young man who, as usual, blamed apartheid on the United States. However, he had just visited America with a church group and also told me, "Everything is wonderful there. The race relations are so good. And everybody is rich." Where had he gone, I asked. "The south side of Chicago."
We are a beautiful 20-year-old woman and they are a wildly infatuated 13-year-old boy. They think of us every moment of the day, and we take no notice of them whatsoever. If they can't have a chance to love us, a chance to pester us will do—by joining the Soviet Bloc, for example. Anything for attention.
So what are we supposed to do about all this? How do we keep the disaffected youth of the West out of mental Disney World? How do we keep the poor denizens of Africa, Asia, and Latin America from embracing a myth that will make their lives even worse than they are already?
Maybe we should start by remembering that we already live in a highly idealistic, totally revolutionary society. And that our revolution is based on reality, not bullshit. Furthermore, it works. Look around us. It works like a son of a bitch. We have to remember it was this revolution, not the Bolsheviks', that set the world on fire. Maybe we should start acting like we believe in it again. That means turning our face against not only the Qadhafis, Khomeinis, and Gorbachevs, but also against the Dengs, Pinochets, and Bothas.
The president and his advisors will not have to sit up late working on a speech to explain this policy shift. There's a perfectly suitable text already in print:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
And that is a much spacier idea than anything that occurred to me during the 1960s.
P.J. O'Rourke is the author of Republican Party Reptile. This article is adapted from a speech at the National Forum Foundation's Second Thoughts Conference.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: You Say You Want a Revolution".