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George W. Bush vs. Fred Flintstone
Whose mind didn't get to wandering during George W. Bush's second State of the Union address, the "great speech" (as many commentators dubbed it minutes after its finish) that has already become a vague, did-it-really-happen TV event, the political equivalent of the sans-Bobby Ewing season of Dallas?
But who could have anticipated that the president's remarks would have reminded us of that great, prehistoric proto-American, Fred Flintstone? Between denouncing his low-rent Axis of Evil and stumping for one of the largest federal spending increases in recent memory, the president made an assertion about the American character that called to mind Bedrock's best-known resident-and left one wondering whether Bush really has his finger on the pulse of the common folk, as his supporters routinely claim.
"For too long, our culture has said, 'If it feels good, do it.' Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: 'Let's roll,'" said Bush, invoking the phrase uttered by Todd Beamer as he and other passengers bravely attacked the hijackers of United Flight 93. "We have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like. We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self." Most important, said the millionaire president who waited out the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard, "We began to think less of the goods we can accumulate, and more about the good we can do."
Forget for the moment that virtually all indicators of social decline at which conservative Republicans traditionally wag an accusatory finger have been improving for close to a decade now-a simple reality that completely undercuts Bush's cultural decline argument. Focus instead on the implications of the president's call to voluntary simplicity.
In suggesting a contradiction between buying stuff and being good-between a "culture of accumulation," as it were, and a "culture of responsibility"-Bush updated Max Weber's 100-year-old case that a capitalist society is necessarily based on restraining impulses rather than giving in to them. In fact, Bush seemed to be reading pages written by our most prominent neo-Weberian, Daniel Bell. In 1996, Bell lamented, our "culture [was] no longer concerned with how to work and achieve, but with how to spend and enjoy." By Bell's lights-and apparently by Bush's too-we can regain our grace only through a "recognition of the limits of resources and the priority of needs, individual and social, over unlimited appetites and wants."
Such an argument gets capitalism, and America, all wrong. Thinking about all "the goods we can accumulate" has never been a distraction from being responsible, or from caring about others. Indeed, it is precisely the availability of virtually unlimited goods that structures work effort by giving people something to work toward.
Which bring us to The Flintstones, the credit sequence of which is tattooed on the American psyche in a way no State of the Union address ever could be: Fred is working hard in the rock quarry right until the whistle blows. He immediately drives home to a house packed with toys and stuff, picks up the wife and kid-even the family pet. Then they head out for a night on the town: a movie and a slab of ribs so huge it flips the car over.
Contrary to Bush (and Bell), such plus-sized pleasures, such decadent desires, are the very engine of the capitalism-of the consumerism-that has come to define America, perhaps especially to our enemies. Fred is a good man not despite his desires but because of them. He works hard because there's a payoff for him and those he cares about.
Immediately after the attacks, President Bush was widely mocked for imploring people to go shopping, to get on with their normal lives, to do anything to show the terrorists that they couldn't destroy our way of life. At times, he seemed to stop just short of telling people to have more sex to enrage Osama bin Laden and company. Months later, he's singing a different tune, one that might well ignore the world that Todd Beamer and others died trying to protect.?