The Sci-Fi Speaker
TO RENEW AMERICA
Harper Collins, 1995, xii + 260 pp.
To Renew America conveys a vivid sense of its
author's unusual personality. But the vital core of the book
lies elsewhere. In the guise of a reassertion of American
values, Speaker Gingrich prescribes a thoroughly statist
Our author proposes to confront six challenges that
confront contemporary America. Among them are "Creating
American Jobs in the World Market," "Balancing the Budget
and Saving Social Security and Medicare," and
"Decentralizing Power." For each challenge, Gingrich offers
his response, often in the form of yet another numbered
list. The reader, thus armed with an Outline of Wisdom, is
next treated to a breathless account of the Speaker's
efforts to ram his Contract with America through the
But Gingrich is not content with what he and his cohorts
have so far done to restore America. He follows the account
of the Contract with a further brace of proposals; these
leave the reader in no doubt of his ultimate aims.
But before dealing with Mr. Gingrich's proposals, one
cannot avoid consideration of Mr. Gingrich himself. He tells
us: "At heart, I am still a happy four-year old who gets up
every morning hoping to find a cookie that friends or
relatives may have left for me somewhere" (p. 245).
The most commonplace ideas and events fill him with glee.
As generations of parents have known, small rewards may
encourage children to behave. To Gingrich, this offers the
key to educational revolution. Do many children end their
school years illiterate? Why not pay them to read?
"Volunteers visit housing projects once a week and counsel
the children in their reading. They then offer the children
two dollars for every book they read during the next month"
I do not suggest this idea is silly. Rather, what strikes
one as odd is that Gingrich blows it up into something of
immense moment. He cannot contain himself. "I am convinced
that for 10 percent of the $7 billion now spent on the
Federal Title One Reading Program, we could have a
revolution in literacy rates among the poor and change
standards of acceptable behavior as well" (pp. 150-51).
Thus, we have only to give Gingrich and his associates at
Earning by Learning a paltry $700 million and he will end
illiteracy. Rather a high price for Gingrich to indulge
himself in his latest toy, is it not?
As everyone knows, it is technology that most readily
arouses Gingrich to yammer. He asks us to "[i]magine a
society in which first graders are able to check out their
very own laptop as soon as they achieve a minimum standard
of reading and writing" (pp. 147-148). (No doubt, a boost
from Earning by Learning will help them here.) And the
Speaker's technological imperatives are by no means limited
to those whose chronological age corresponds to his own
Do you sometimes find life without meaning? Gingrich is
puzzled: "I am amazed every time I hear reports of teen
suicide or stories about people who despair because of
boredom or because they have nothing left to look forward
to" (p. 189). Do those puzzled by life's meaning not realize
the marvels that lie ahead? "I believe that space tourism
will be a common fact of life during the adulthood of
children born this year , that honeymoons in space
will be the vogue by 2020" (p. 192).
As one might expect, such science fiction writers as
Arthur Clarke and Jerry Pournelle helped to shape his
political thinking. And he presses others who do not fit
into the same mold. As a teenager, Gingrich came under the
sway of Arnold Toynbee's Study of History. Amazingly,
he treats Toynbee as if he were a proponent of growth
through technology in the style of Arthur and Heidi Toffler.
He admires Toynbee's "broad sweep" (p. 23) but never stops
to notice that Toynbee considers undue emphasis on
technology a sign of Western decay.
But to view the book principally as an involuntary
revelation of a superficial personality is a mistake.
Gingrich has proclaimed himself leader of a Conservative
Revolution, and his fantasies threaten to become
Is this not, though, an overly harsh view of the Speaker?
How can I term him a dangerous statist, when the President
and his camarilla proclaim him a heartless reactionary? Does
he not, for example, call for a devolution of power to the
states, and, better, to local communities, as every
conservative of sound doctrine should?
Well, let us look at what he says: "There was certainly
some justification for a centralized bureaucratic effort
when one-third of the nation was legally segregated. The
federal government had to be prepared to intervene to
protect minorities from the legal oppression of state and
local governments. . . . Today, however, as long as the
federal government enforces the basic civil and voting
rights (and I approve using the full power of the federal
government on both of these issues), it is unnecessary to
have a Washington bureaucracy overseeing the actions of
honestly elected local officials" (p. 106).
In other words, so long as state and local officials obey
orders without prompting from Washington, further federal
ukases are unneeded. So much for decentralization.
As Gingrich makes clear, his version of "conservatism"
rests on strong government: "This drive to decentralize
should not be mistaken as a plea for weak government. I
strongly favor the Constitution over the Articles of
Confederation. The Constitution is a device for strong
central government, and so it should remain" (p. 108).
But once more the claim may be raised; have I not been
too severe on the Speaker? Perhaps civil rights are for him
an exceptional case: could not the strong government he
favors be otherwise compatible with the strictly limited
state of the standard conservative?
Gingrich's own account provides a full answer. Like his
friend William Bennett, he calls for a total war on drugs,
the effect of which cannot but be a massive growth in the
power of government. Property rights are of small
consequence: "If you are a drug dealer, all your assets must
be presumed to come from the drug trade unless proved
otherwise" (p. 180). As such, they stand subject to
Seizure of property is not confined to drug dealers, in
Gingrich's New Jerusalem. "I would favor charging a [drug]
user 10 percent of their [sic] gross assets for first
conviction, 20 percent for second conviction, and 30 percent
for third conviction. The first time a baseball player or
rock star had to pay a multimillion-dollar fine, drugs would
begin to lose their glamour" (p. 180). So much for property,
if it gets in the Speaker's way.
Laws that regulate drugs directly affect only part of the
American people; laws that deal with the environment concern
us all. Under the guise of protecting the environment, the
left has subjected the economy to a Draconian set of
controls. Does Gingrich, as one would expect of a
conservative revolutionary, adamantly oppose these
intrusions on the free market? Of course not.
We must protect endangered species: to do so, a
"worldwide biological inventory" must be undertaken (p.
198). We must encourage "pro-environmental technologies" (p.
198); our "moral obligation to take care of the ecosystem"
(p. 196) imposes clear duties.
Speaker Gingrich, as one would expect of so far-seeing a
statesman, does not confine his revolution to the domestic
front. Quite the contrary, he knows what is best for us in
foreign affairs as well. Here, one might think, he is bound
more closely to approach a genuine conservative posture.
After all, he wishes to balance the budget; and the Cold War
has ended. Will he not call for a reduction in military
spending and a return to the traditional American policy of
Gingrich, I fear, views the situation in an entirely
different way. "The simple fact is that with the end of the
Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire, the need for
American leadership has become greater" (p. 187). To rule
the world, constant military investment is necessary: the
imperative of technological development is indeed a
demanding one. We can take heart in our struggles from the
achievements of the Gulf War. Superior technology enabled
American troops to plow under untold numbers of Iraqis. Who
could ask for more?
Faced with views so abhorrent, one naturally asks: how
has Gingrich arrived at them? If his program cannot be
accepted, does he at least support it with arguments that
bear consideration? Our author's manner of reasoning, like
his enthusiasms, has not much progressed beyond the bounds
of late infancy.
In a chapter on illegal immigration, he writes: "First,
anything illegal is by definition wrong. We are opposed to
illegal drugs, to illegal violence, to illegal immigration.
It is against the law, and it should be stopped" (p. 155).
So much for the American Revolution.
Gingrich is not concerned at all with undue immigration:
quite the contrary, he supports a liberal immigration
policy. It is the illegality of the immigration that
bothers him: "Anything illegal is by definition wrong."
This, I readily acknowledge, has a certain resonance; so let
us not mock the Speaker any further. Rather, here is a
suggestion that will enable him to achieve his aims more
efficiently. Why not declare all immigrants legal? Then, "by
definition" we would no longer face the problem of "illegal
immigration." How readily may difficult social problems be
solved when a devotee of Buck Rogers takes the helm.