»  New English Review

August 2007

  Happy Talk, Keep Talkin' Happy Talk


One of my favorite literary characters is Winnie in Samuel Beckett's play Happy Days. It's a two-act play, with only two characters. Practically all of the speaking is done by Winnie, who is described thus in the stage directions: "About fifty, well preserved, blond for preference, plump, arms and shoulders bare, low bodice, big bosom, pearl necklet." During the whole first act, Winnie is imbedded up to above her waist in a mound of sand or earth. In the second act she is imbedded up to her neck. In spite of these rather trying situations, Winnie is unfailingly cheerful, prattling on about everything and nothing to her mostly-silent companion Willie, "a man about sixty," who can just be seen sitting or lying at the back of the mound. In the entire second act, Willie only utters a single syllable:

Willie: [just audible]   Win.
[Pause. Winnie's eyes front. Happy expression appears, grows.]
Winnie:   Win! [Pause.] Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day! [Pause.] After all. [Pause.] So far. [Pause.] …

Winnie must be a conservative. I used to think that conservatives were the gloomy faction — the people who believe that human beings are innately bad, possessed by Original Sin, and can be made good, if at all, only through careful socialization under properly traditional authority figures, through good parenting, religious observance, and the practice of ordered liberty. Even then, I thought conservatives thought, the Old Adam would resurface sooner or later, plunging all into misery and ruin. This world is a vale of tears, and we are doomed, doomed. Wasn't that supposed to be the conservative credo?

Recently I've been getting a different impression. I got it, for example, when I made a posting about the price of oil the other day on the National Review group blog. At the prompting of some old Wall Street acquaintances, I'd been poking around among the financial journalism and come up with what seemed to me like pretty disturbing stuff — viz. that we might actually, after decades of false alarms, be beginning to see the end of the earth's oil supplies.

Now, this is one of those things on which you can fairly have an opinion. If you've read a dozen or so pieces by financial journalists, who are paid good money to know about this stuff, your opinion might even be worth something — though, since there is a broad spread of views even among the experts, probably not much. So I was ready for a few dissenting emails, and ready to defend myself.

What I wasn't ready for was anger. People were coming at me from all over, wailing and gnashing teeth. Was I out of my mind? Whose Kool-Aid had I been drinking? What kind of conservative did I think I was, falling for this Gore-ish flapdoodle? A couple of readers brandished the "cosmological" theory of oil formation — the theory, that is, that oil is not the residue of rotted prehistoric plants and animals, but came with the original material that formed our Earth, before living things appeared, and so is a major component of the Earth's crust, inexhaustible if we only drill deep enough. Of this theory, suffice it to say that no oil company has ever thought it worth a penny of investment. It seems, none the less, to have fixed its grip on some number of conservatives — a sort of geological equivalent of Intelligent Design.

I then went and made things worse by a second post linking to Niall Ferguson's Op-Ed in the July 29 Sunday Telegraph. Fergie is arguing that old Dr. Malthus may have been right after all — that, whatever the case may be with oil, we shall soon run out of food.

For a long time we have deluded ourselves that "illimitable improvement" was attainable. As the world approaches a new era of dearth, expect misery … to make a mighty Malthusian comeback.

This brought yet more thundering obloquy down on my head. Who was this Ferguson guy — some kind of whingeing Euro-weenie? (Er, no: he's the guy who wants the U.S.A. to be more enthusiastically imperialist.) What am I, some kind of hippie commie tree-hugging bedwetting appeaser? (Not at all: I have been a Tory, then a Republican, for most of my adult life, cherish the distinction of having once been declared "the worst person in the world" by a prominent TV lefty, and am the coiner of the phrase, in respect of countries that pose a danger to us, that "rubble doesn't make trouble.")

The message coming through here was that any kind of negativity about the Earth's resources is a selling-out to international socialism, to the U.N.'s globalist bureaucrats, to the scolds who want to diminish our freedoms by making us drive tiny, flimsy automobiles and eat our greens, to the Naders and Gores and Kyoto-niks.

You can stir similar outrage by suggesting, as I also recently did, that the Earth, or any significant part of it, might be getting overpopulated. So what would you like to do to cull the surplus population, Mr Derbyshire — hustle them into gas chambers? Or would you prefer they were all aborted in utero? You wouldn't believe the emails I get. Since there is plainly some limit to the number of people the Earth's surface can support, we are in the presence here of a mild delusional state.

If you really want to get the prattling Panglosses of positivism*  riled up, try saying a few words in support of the global warming hypothesis. Now, I was a global warming skeptic myself until quite late in the game. My attitude was broadly: "So you're measuring the annual mean temperature of the Earth's atmosphere, all ten billion cubic miles of it, to a fraction of a degree, and comparing that with hypothetical measurements of same from previous decades? Gimme a break." Reading the science literature, though, and talking to people who know the data, and who have no apparent ideological motives, I'm convinced. Just what part the human race has played in the warming trend is not clear to me, but it seems likely we've had something to do with it.

Say something like that in a gathering of American conservatives, you'll be lucky to come away with all your limbs attached. What's got into people? Since when did we have to be so smiley-face and upbeat, such a flock of Winnies, about our planet and its resources? Sure, there are some odious people on the negativity side of these arguments; but a thing might be true even though Al Gore believes it.

I had always associated this hatred of negativity with totalitarianism. The masters of the old U.S.S.R. tried to ensure that nothing downbeat should distract the minds of their subjects from the building of socialism. Mass murders and airplane crashes were not reported by Soviet news media. The original ending of the ballet Swan Lake, in which the lovers drown themselves in order to be united in death, was considered unacceptable in a land of cheery proletarians marching forward joyfully to a radiant future, so the ending was changed in Soviet productions, Siegfried and Odette united to greet the dawn in the robust mental and physical health that, as Michael Moore assures us, is available only under state socialism. When the Paralympic Games were first staged in the 1960s, the U.S.S.R. declined to send a team on the grounds that there were no disabled people in the workers' paradise. Now that's upbeat!

Apparently you don't have to be a Leninist to believe that any kind of skepticism about the boundless fecundity of Mother Earth, the limitless possibilities for human progress, or the ability of human ingenuity to solve any and all problems, should be stomped on good and hard. (I have no doubt that some of the people doing the stomping are the same ones who, on other days of the week, email in to scoff at my utopian faith in scientific progress. Probably, come to think of it, some of them are the same ones who, on yet other days, fret over the rising tide of Islam overwhelming Western civilization.)

No, you don't have to be a Leninist; but you probably do have to be an ideologue — a person who decides the truth of some disputed matter not by examining the material evidence, but by looking around to see who believes what, and aligning his own beliefs accordingly.

In the case of neocons, I think the Iraq war has something to do with it. The effort of staying upbeat through four years of trying to make a silk purse — or a calico one, or even, by this point, just a burlap one — out of a sow's ear, has taken its toll on their judgment. Some of these folk have so thoroughly purged themselves of any last trace of negativity, they would smile through the Heat Death of the Universe. Just look at Bill Kristol in the Washington Post the other day. Hoo-ee.

If we sustain the surge for a year and continue to train Iraqi troops effectively, we can probably begin to draw down in mid- to late 2008. The fact is that military progress on the ground in Iraq in the past few months has been greater than even surge proponents like me expected, and political progress is beginning to follow. Iran is a problem, and we will have to do more to curb Tehran's meddling — but we can. So if we keep our nerve here at home, we have a good shot at achieving a real, though messy, victory in Iraq.

As my Dad used to say: If we had some bacon, we could have some bacon and eggs, if we had some eggs. Or as Winnie puts it, up to her neck in a heap of sand:

Oh this is a happy day, this will have been another happy day! [Pause.] After all. [Pause.] So far. [Pause.] …

* I am paying tribute here to the late Spiro T. Agnew, who once called his opponents "nattering Nabobs of negativism."