Fire all the janitors and make poor kids clean their schools? Zap Korea with an airborne super laser that's never worked during testing? Ignore global warming and plan to re-engineer the entire planet with untested technology instead?
People like Maureen Dowd have been having fun with Newt Gingrich's wackier ideas lately. But despite their snarky comments - and the fact that some of Gingrich's ideas truly are bizarre - they're missing something important and making a fundamental mistake.
They're seriously underestimating both Gingrich and the "Insane Idea Industry" he represents.
The Shock of the Newt
Gingrich may sound like the mad-inventor villain from a 1930's movie serial. But his eccentric concepts and pseudo-intellectual logorrhea aren't just the product of his own eccentricities. They're the natural flowering of a fifty-year trend in corporate conservatism which serves the agenda of the ultra-powerful in some very important ways.
Call him Dr. Strange. But Newt's not some Random Idea Generator who spews out whatever crazy notion his id generates out of half-digested Popular Science blog posts. He's merely the latest in a long line of conservative "thinkers" who play a vital role for Corporate America: They generate an ongoing barrage of radical ideas that, slowly but surely, help to undermine our country's shared social vision.
What's next: Ending Medicare by putting seniors in a post-hypnotic trance state so they think they're not dying from inadequate medical care? A flock of flying squirrels to deliver the mail? Invisible robot St. Bernards instead of ambulances?
No idea is too zany to be considered - as long as it serves The Agenda.
The Crazier the Better
Think of Gingrich as the secret love child of Milton Friedman and Howard Stern. Or of nuclear-war advocate Herman Kahn and Marilyn Manson. Newt's brand of conservative "idea generation" is designed, first and foremost, to get lots of attention - which it has - and to make the values we've held for generations seem stale, rigid, and somehow less exciting than the futuristic corporate oligarchy of tomorrow.
Shock value is just as important as the ideas themselves. In fact, it's more important. The Newt conservatives are conducting an intellectual guerrilla operation against deeply held values of the common good. Most of the ideas aren't intended to be practical. They're like performance art, but of a kind that's designed to reinforce the suggestion that our old way of life is failing.
Newt is merely the latest and most conspicuous example of this Insane Idea Factory in action. There's plenty more where he came from.
And the crazier the idea, the better. There are no rules and no boundaries, even those of common decency. Firing janitors and making poor kids clean the schools instead? That's creative thinking! Ending Social Security and putting the financial security of a nation's elderly at risk? That's innovation! These liberals won't think outside the box!
For all their carping about 'liberal dreamers,' there are no more impractical and wild-eyed dreamers on the planet than Gingrich and his fellow Conservative Utopians. They love coming up with the kinds of ideas that college students used to have in the sixties when they were getting high in their dorm rooms. The difference is that the college students were straight again in the morning.
But in the halls of conservative think tanks, the lava lamps never stop burning.
Herman Kahn wrote a book called Thinking the Unthinkable in which he argued that the US could attack the Soviet Union and start a nuclear war and "win." That laid the foundation for decades more of a pointless and costly arms race, and spawned a whole industry of intellectual agents provocateurs whose role was to challenge conventional thinking with "rule-breaking" brilliance - even when , especially when, the conventional thinking was right.
An entire right-wing think tank industry was spawned. That network generated many ideas that served large corporations, including the concept of an "individual mandate" compelling citizens to buy health coverage from an industry dominated by for-profit insurers. That's why Newt endorsed the idea, when it was created for the purpose of undermining the Clintons' health reform project. He's only rejected it now because it undermines an even more important objective: defeating Obama.
Hey, creative thinking's great. I wouldn't be affiliated with an organization like the Institute for Ethics in Emerging Technologies if I didn't believe in exploring radical ideas. But the idea is only part of the process. It's equally important to review the idea to see if it makes sense. Brainstorming begins with creativity and free association. But then it should be followed by analysis and common sense, hopefully leavened with humane values. The Gingrich types never get past the free association part.
As I was saying, creative thinking is great - that is, if you don't forget the "thinking" part.
The real objective is to convince middle-class Americans that most of the things they value in life - job opportunities, education for their children, a secure retirement - are obsolete, ineffective, standing in the way of a more vibrant future. That's why Jack Kemp pushed "Free Enterprise Zones," which would have suspended most of our labor laws and minimum wage requirements. The idea keeps resurfacing as a way to prevent outsourcing to the Third World - which it would, by turning portions of our own country into Third World enclaves.
Gingrich's "Contract With America" was a masterpiece of word manipulation. Now he's rebranding reality again: Economic security will "stifle innovation." The Social Security system doesn't "tap the energy of the market." Unionized janitors are preventing poor kids form "learning the culture of work."
Newt is like the kid in your high school who was pretty smart - but thought he was a genius. He's not even close. But when it comes to distracting and confusing the public just enough to push through a radical corporatist agenda, he's pretty damned smart.
Know what's not smart? Underestimating Gingrich, or the corporate idea factory he represents.
Gingrich's supporters tell us he was born to generate new and creative ideas. He "thinks outside the box." But all of his ideas would make the rich even richer. However crazy they sound, they all serve The Agenda, an ambitious plan to help mega-corporations rule our lives like feudal barons while destroying the social contract that made this country prosperous.
Ir may not be written down in a single document, but make no mistake: There is an Agenda.
Newt doesn't really think outside the box at all. His mind is locked inside an ironclad receptacle in which every idea must serve, protect and amplify oligarchic wealth and power. He stays inside this container with every word, every thought.
And if Gingrich has his way, we'll all be locked inside that box too. Its interior may be dark and claustrophobically small. But there's still room enough for the future he envisions, the world he represents, the bitter medicine we'll all be forced to swallow if our country is placed under the care of conservatism's Dr. Strange.