A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Notes on Newt Gingrich’s impoverished view of the future

In the Salon article The Id of Newt”, Justin Elliott introduces his readers to the first book ever written by US Republican politician and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future. Elliott seems more bemused by the book’s content, particularly its aggressively pro-space/anti-welfare state ideology, than anything else; he’s clearly not familiar with that particularly ideological hiccup.

Published in 1984 when he was the three-term member of Congress from Georgia (and, the cover notes, “chairman of the Congressional Space Caucus”), the book is an extended meditation on how the bureaucratic welfare state is holding back America from a bright future of space tourism and a poverty-ending computer revolution. It was coauthored by Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, and sci-fi/fantasy author David Drake and blurbed by President Reagan, who called it “a source of new hope for building an Opportunity Society that sparks the best in each of us and permits us to chart a better future for our children.” (Drake, for his part, is the author of nearly 100 novels, with titles like “The Dragon Lord” and “Skyripper.”)

The striking thing about “Window of Opportunity” (yes, I read the whole thing) are the continuities in Gingrich’s thought and style between 1984 and the present. The constant hyperbole is there (“dramatically,” “literally,” “enormously”). Gingrich’s tendency to speak in world-historical terms, coupled with authoritative-sounding and astoundingly detailed discussions of technology, is there.

“Our generation of Americans must decide whether to lead mankind into freedom, productivity, and peace or whether we will preside over the slow decay of mankind into a world of terrorism and tyranny,” he writes at one point. At another, he dives into the minutiae of Reagan’s so-called Star Wars missile defense plan:

Particle beams and laser solutions (directed energy weapons) offer some real advantages over conventional — gun and missile — weapons because directed energy weapons hit their targets at the speed of light, making aiming much easier and permitting a single weapon to hit multiple targets in series.

In “Window of Opportunity,” Gingrich waxes enthusiastic about children as young as eighth graders jumping into the new information economy and making money using computers, echoing his talk this year about getting kids to do janitorial work.

Gingrich is a futurologist. Who knew? Well, everyone who paid attention to his career from its beginning. A biographer noted that in 1982, many of Gingrich’s constituents thought they he was venturing too far from the domains of interest to them, quotidian earth-bound fields, into space and the future and other distant arenas.

Someone with greater knowledge than I of the ideological allegiances of science fiction could, and should, write about the connections created in the 1970s and sustained through the 1980s between right-wing politics and science fiction in the United States. The links between people who shared Gingrich’s vision of a more efficient and more militarized state and the people who wrote and published in the distinctly post-Vietnam War American and nationalist subgenre of military science fiction are especially intense. David Drake, the writer who co-wrote Window of Opportunity, is one of the founding writers of the genre. Perhaps more germanely, Gingrich has had a long-standing relationship with military science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, another founder of the genre who–incidentally–is known for a certain ambivalence towards fascism as opposed to liberal democracy, writing articles and even presidential speeches in support of the “Star Wars” SDI concept, and claims to have given Gingrich the idea of enlisting junior high students as janitors.

I’d reviewed of journalist Dan Gardner’s Future Babble last year. One of the Gardner’s key points is that futurologists tend to oversimplify, to leave out or to explain away information that complicates their great arcing theories. Maureen Dowd happened upon this almost incidentally, when, writing originally in the New York Times, Dowd noted that for all of his early connections with futurologists like Alvin and Heidi Toffler Gingrich seemed to miss out on their argument that economic and technological change would necessarily be coupled with social change. Gingrich’s social conservatism, neo-traditionalism even, has no place in the Tofflers’ schema; they explicitly argued that everything would be undermined. But Gingrich?

The man who wishes to be our leader implementing Lean Six Sigma might shy away from Toffler’s main thesis, that we were moving toward a basically leaderless society where information was available to everyone, so everyone could make their own decisions. “Someday,” Toffler wrote, “future historians may look back on voting and the search for majorities as an archaic ritual engaged in by communicational primitives.”

And what about Toffler’s prediction that those (like Gingrich) who resist the end of the nuclear family and the spread of gay parenting, gay rights, women’s rights and abortion access as variegated families set up shop in “electronic cottages” would just add to the pain of inevitable transition to a “de-massified society”?

Torn between the virtual and the virtue-crats, Gingrich this week endorsed the “marriage pledge” of an evangelical group in Iowa opposing same-sex marriage and abortion and vowed fidelity to Callista. Hasn’t he taken that vow and broken it twice before? Sometimes you go with “Future Shock.”

Sometimes you go with present schlock.

It should be noted, as Sharon Weinberg did earlier this month in Foreign Policy, that those of Gingrich’s predictions which arguably did come true did so only partially, seemingly not getting the idea that there might be actors other than states (for instance).

Sometimes his predictions have even panned out, sort of. Some 25 years ago, Gingrich promised that “tourism in space is coming.” This week’s announcement of the Burt Rutan and Paul Allen plan to build a massive commercial space plane is a reminder that such a future, while not yet here, is likely on the horizon. (though it appears that the “Hiltons and Marriotts of the solar system” that Gingrich also predicted are not yet in those companies’ business development plans).

When it comes to predicting the future of warfare, the devil is usually in the details. Gingrich in 1995 warned of a growing “Islamic totalitarian terrorism.” But he was worried about Iran, not terrorists setting up camp in Afghanistan. He also, in that same speech, worried about another attack on the World Trade Center, but his focus wasn’t box cutters and commercial aircraft, but a nuclear weapon.

Andrew Ferguson in his New York Times Magazine essay “What Does Newt Gingrich Know?, an examination of the themes of Gingrich’s two dozen published books. Window of Opportunity re-introduced Gingrich’s science-fiction leanings and their import to the forum back in July. Ferguson argues that Gingrich’s view of human cultures and human beings is very reductionist, very binary, hence very flawed.

If Gingrich’s theme is timeless and the enemy unchanging, so is the solution, the same one from 1984. The coming rush of high technology will dismantle the welfare state and provide a replacement that is humane and efficient; it will free the poor from government dependency, take apart a failing educational establishment, relieve the drudgery of industrial labor and provide a steady supply of pleasant jobs, defrock out-of-touch elites in every corner of the ruthlessly secular society, clean up the environment and bequeath to us an America that is “safe, healthy, prosperous and free,” as he wrote in “Winning the Future” and, with slight variation, in most of his other books too. Technology remains the deus ex machina of Gingrich’s vision.

His attraction to it goes beyond the sci-fi enthusiast’s love of gadgetry. As our country’s problems fall before technology’s advance, the need for politics and its drudgery disappears: no fuss over compromise and horse-trading, no grubby catering to commercial interests. Politics is just one more feature of the old order that becomes obsolete. Yet a reader who scans the whole collection from its beginning in “Window of Opportunity” might pause: Wasn’t this supposed to have happened already? The explosion in digital technology that Gingrich foresaw in 1984 has come off, with a bang. And yet still the country hangs in the balance, its condition more dire than ever, its need for a transformational leader never more pressing.

Like most Utopians, Gingrich sees the world in binary terms. Only his alternative future can prevent the cataclysm that has been about to happen for so many years. Muddling through — which is the default option of our constitutional system and the one that most Americans, latently conservative as they are, seem to prefer — never surfaces in the swirling mists of his crystal ball. For all the reciprocated disdain he claims to feel for the establishment in Washington, where he has lived for more than 30 years, he is still its unwitting champion; for without the crises that Gingrich chronically imagines, the establishment would no longer be necessary.

Me, I quite like Joan Didion’s 1995 take on the whole affair in the New York Review of Books. Is it wrong to call Gingrich an auto-didact whose view of the future as without problems or unexpected events or anything that could contradict his worldview ultimately impoverished, posing bold new challenges to the established order of things as surely as Luther did his theses at Wittenberg? Of course not; especially not when Didion does it.

What if one or another event had not occurred, what if one or another historical figure had remained unborn, languished in obscurity, taken another turn: the contemplation of such questions has reliably occupied the different drummers of American secondary education. The impulse is anti-theological, which translates, for these readers, into thrilling iconoclasm: in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, according to Mr. Gingrich, “the Catholic Church’s role in maintaining civilized knowledge through the Dark and Middle Ages is played by a secular group of intellectuals called ‘The Foundation.’ ” The tendency is to see history as random, accidental, the sum of its own events and personalities: Isaac Asimov, Mr. Gingrich notes, “did not believe in a mechanistic world. Instead, to Asimov, human beings always hold their fate in their own hands.”

It was this high-school reading of Isaac Asimov, Mr. Gingrich tells us in To Renew America, that first “focused my attention on the fate of civilizations. I came to realize that, while most people were immersed in day-to-day activities, daily behavior actually takes place within a much larger context of constantly changing global forces.” Mr. Gingrich is frequently and often deprecatingly described as a “futurist,” but even as he talks about those “constantly changing global forces,” about a transformation “so large and historic that it can be compared with only two other great eras of human history—the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution,” his view of the future is a view of 1955, factory-loaded with Year 2000 extras. To Renew America asks us to “imagine a morning in just a decade or so”:

You wake up to a wall-size, high-definition television showing surf off Maui. (This is my favorite island—you can pick your own scene.) You walk or jog or do Stairmaster while catching up on the morning news and beginning to review your day’s schedule. Your home office is filled with communications devices, so you can ignore rush-hour traffic. … When you are sick, you sit in your diagnostic chair and communicate with the local health clinic. Sensors take your blood pressure, analyze a blood sample, or do throat cultures. The results are quickly relayed to health aides, who make recommendations and prescribe medicine. … If you need a specialist, a databank at your fingertips gives you a wide range of choices based on cost, reputation, and outcome patterns. You can choose knowledgeably which risk you want to take and what price you want to pay.

The “diagnostic chair,” or “personalized health chair,” which could also be programmed to “monitor your diet over time and change recipes to minimize boredom while achieving the desired nutritional effect,” appeared first in Window of Opportunity, which outlined a future in which we or our descendants would also use computer technology to correct golf swings, provide tax and IRA advice, and provide data on “literally thousands of vacation, recreation, and education opportunities,” for example the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds Park in Macon, Georgia, with its “splendid natural walk area, a beautiful collection of ancient Indian ceremonial mounds, and fine museum on the history of the area from 900 AD to the present.” For any among us whose view of the future might have been somewhat more forbidding or interesting (no Maui, no Macon, the IRAs all gone bust), Mr. Gingrich would recommend first the reading of science fiction, since “a generation that learns its magic from Tom Swift or Jules Verne has a much more optimistic outlook than one that is constantly being told that the planet is dying and that everything humanity is doing is wrong.”

If wishes were horses, as they said in the generation that learned its magic from Tom Swift or Jules Verne. We hear in this the drone of the small-town autodidact, the garrulous bore in the courthouse square: to know that large numbers of Americans are concerned about getting adequate medical care is one thing; to give them the willies by talking about their “health chairs” is altogether another. There is about these dismal reductions something disarming and poignant, a solitary neediness, a dogged determination to shine in public that leads Mr. Gingrich to reveal to us, again and again, what his own interests dictate that we should not see. He concludes To Renew America with a “personalization” of his concern for voter concerns, an account of how he and his second wife, Marianne, spent the Christmas before he became Speaker in Leetonia. Ohio, “a wonderful small town that is like a scene from a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.”

The implications of this, I leave for others to explore in greater depth. Suffice it to say that Gingrich’s futurology should be taken as a strong mark against him, for what it says about Gingrich’s intentional biases and self-willed intellectual dessication. It’s not my country, I know, but I do live within two hours of the American frontier. What happens down south matters to me.

One Response

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  1. Reasons I’ve always shied from futurology: 1) futurologists are always off 2) I kind of prefer what’s happening now 3) it usually speaks to a subconscious (or in Mr Gingrich’s case, conscious) desire to impress one’s biases onto possible outcomes.

    We have discussed this together in-person, but the quotes you provide above crystallize it well: futurologists are often wrong not because they’re poor prognosticators, but because they approach the future with an inherent agenda: “I want the future to look this way” or, often as well: “I want you to believe the future will look this way if you do/don’t do X”.

    Then there’s the fact that we are all constricted by wanting to impress upon the future the good things we like about the present, whilst eliminating the bad things (unless we’re trying to proselytize some sort of distopianism). The future tends to be indifferent to these. It’s just as likely to have cruddy outcomes to the things we like as great solutions to the things we dislike. This can be seen in microcosm every time Twitter or Facebook or Apple make a major software update :P

    Especially with capitalists and conservatives (gak, I reveal myself!), the future is often an unseemly boring place: multi-generational-middle-class-white-suburbanite futurology more than anything makes me want to spend a few years naked in the wilderness…


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