Sinclair Lewis' George Babbitt would be at home in this Congress

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    Greg Siple

When I read recently that a couple of Republican congressmen were still fighting an impending ban on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), I was overtaken by a literary obsession: I had to re-read Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt.

Let me explain. About a year ago, while still gainfully employed, I wrote a column about Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, who embarrassed his fellow Republicans by fulminating against a bill to provide more winter range for elk in Yellowstone National Park. The column argued that Burton ought to be cherished, at least by Midwesterners, as a survivor of an endangered species. He was one of the last "Babbitts."

Burton had one ally on the House floor that day - Tom DeLay of Texas, who has emerged as the leader of the CFC revisionists, and not, it seems, at the behest of the chemical companies. The industry has largely accepted the existing law and the scientific consensus, now endorsed by a Nobel Prize, that chlorofluorocarbons damage the earth's ozone layer.

In other words, the force inspiring DeLay and his allies can't be greed. It is ideological, as is so much of what is going on these days, especially in the area of natural resource policy.

Consider the Office of Technology Assessment - bipartisan, non-ideological and devoted to objective scientific research. The only explanation for its quick demise is that the new congressional majority detests objective scientific research. With fewer than 200 employees and a $22 million annual budget, the office was tiny compared with other agencies which survive. Its function, not its cost, did it in.

So it is a mistake to assume that congressional anti-environmentalism is based on the greed of the natural-resource industries. For example, in reducing the budget of NASA, the House ignored the costly Space Station but obliterated the modest program designed to use satellites to map global ecological changes. The beneficiary of this decision is neither a company nor an entrepreneur, but an outlook.

Policies of the triumphant Republican majority are based on a set of ideas; central to those ideas is a radical materialism which includes a willful, even gleeful, anti-intellectualism. Its enemy is neither the federal government nor the deficit; it is the life of the mind.

At this point, I should concede that as intellectuals go, I ain't much of one. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been a newspaper reporter all those years. I play no musical instrument, and I have no advanced degrees. So I don't feel threatened by anti-intellectualism. I'm just observing it. It was that observation which drove me to re-read Babbitt. I was trying to figure out what makes these guys tick.

If nothing else, the exercise was great fun. Babbitt never had much plot or subtlety, and by now some of it is dated. Still, it is written with such rollicking vigor that it's never boring, which cannot be said of all novels. As to illuminating today's anti-intellectuals, Babbitt is most instructive for revealing the differences between real estate salesman George Babbitt of Zenith, Ohio, in 1920, and the followers of Newt Gingrich in 1995.

Babbitt was vulgar, in the way Rep. Burton is vulgar. Like Babbitt, he growls angrily at opponents and does not always use conventional grammar. But Burton, though a conservative Republican, is not part of the Gingrich Revolution. He's in his late 50s, and in both style and policies is more of a throwback to the grouchy Midwestern conservatives of an earlier day. DeLay, a 48-year-old Texan, seems a neo-Babbitt, as smooth as Burton is crude. The neo-Babbitts are sophisticated, even when they scorn sophistication.

Salesman Babbitt had no choice. He could not help but be what he was. Near the end of the novel, after a brief rebellion which included a furtive, adulterous love affair, "he was on the Zenith train. He knew that he was slinking back not because it was what he longed to do but because it was all he could do."

Babbitt was uneducated. He had been to what he always called "the State U' - but griped about the "valuable time lost ... studying poetry and French and subjects that never brought anybody a cent." In Babbitt's day, before the profusion of fine state universities and National Public Radio, anyone who lived outside of New York, Boston or Chicago had to make an effort to find intellectual stimulation.

These days someone in Atlanta, Houston or Los Angeles has to make an effort to avoid culture. Many of the neo-Babbitts are graduates of great state universities and like Gingrich, who has a doctorate in history, possess intellectual credentials.

Yet they use intellect to denigrate intellect, or to employ it in the cause of sophistry, as Gingrich did when he tried to link the Susan Smith murder case to liberal policies. Unlike Babbitt, the neo-Babbitts have consciously chosen Babbittry.

It's as though they've said: "We know there is culture, enlightenment, science and a civilized manner of life, and we don't like it. We reject it in favor of crass materialism and ignorance."

None of this is entirely new, and some of it is petulance. When Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho sells baked servings of "endangered" salmon, she isn't hurting the environment; those are farm-raised salmon. She's mocking environmentalists, some of whom deserve it. But there is more going on here than political posturing and envy.

The anti-intellectualism of the Republican leaders is consistent with - perhaps required by - their materialism. Not greed - materialism. This isn't personal; it's intellectual, the belief that people are and ought to be primarily engaged in accumulating material wealth. Hence their intellectual anti-intellectualism. To concede that society should be involved in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake or that it should protect nature for its intrinsic value is to concede that there might be something more important than money.

This explains the almost manic choice they make for "economic growth," even when the "pro-growth" position does not in fact bring about more growth, as when logging or mining discourages other economic activity. The neo-Babbitts dismiss these cases because they refuse to recognize that other values - aesthetic, scientific, social - should be part of the equation. To the neo-Babbitts, people are homo economici and nothing else.

Again, leave me not (as we used to say in New Joisy) put on no airs. Everyone is entitled to try to make a buck. We are all materialistic to some extent, and I do not exclude myself. I like to live comfortably, maybe even a bit luxuriously. Wealth, as John Kenneth Galbraith acknowledged, is not without its advantages.

But neither are community, beauty, stability, nature, justice, tradition, decency, discovery, the wisdom of the ages, or what Daniel Burnham called "the deeper sense in man of the value of delightful surroundings." These values are not inconsistent with free-market capitalism; they may depend on it. They are also fundamentally conservative while Babbittry is not.

Yet neo-Babbittry is the choice made by the most energetic political faction in the country, which raises the question: Why now? The conventional wisdom is that the nation long ago put behind it the crass, conformist, commercial culture which spawned Babbitt. Why should it re-emerge in a post-modern version?

Maybe it is a final eruption before reality does it in, a reality based on our technological wizardry, which so far has done as much harm as good, while holding great promise. I have to be careful here lest I get myself lumped in with some foolishness from the other side of the political spectrum, of which there is a great deal. There is plenty of work to be done in this world, and plenty of wealth to be created, for individuals and for societies.

But less of it is going to come from making stuff. The human race has figured out how to make all the food, fiber, building material and implements it needs with less effort, fewer resources and far fewer people.

This is a problem. It means there aren't enough jobs in factories, farms, mills and woods. That's why there's a wise-use movement of rural people who see their way of life disappearing. But somewhere in that problem is a potential blessing.

Every minute and calorie not needed for plowing, sawing and bolting can be spent playing the cello, gazing at the stars, learning to draw, fishing, making love. If only someone started thinking about it, the future could be full of both material wealth for everyone and ... and more, also for everyone, more of what the materially wealthy George Babbitt knew he lacked when he declared: "I've never done a single thing I've wanted to do in my whole life."

It's a lesson the neo-Babbitts will learn, but perhaps not soon enough.

Jon Margolis used to write columns for the Chicago Tribune; now he gazes at stars, hikes and enjoys life in a small town in Vermont.

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