I just saw this commercial today at the gym, on CNN’s sister network, Headline News. I was stunned and shocked. My jaw dropped. I was somewhat surprised that it was even allowed on the air.
After that gigantic buildup, you might very well find the advertisement unremarkable. It takes place in a Chinese college classroom in the year 2030, where a professor (of history?) compares the U.S. to other once-mighty empires: Greece, Rome and England. He says that each of them eventually failed because they “turn[ed] their backs on the principles that made them great.”
What values did America abandon? Liberty? Equality? No, apparently it was something far more central to the nation’s self-identity: fiscal conservatism. The founding principle of the United States was evidently that the government should not carry a heavy debt load. The professor then points out that the U.S. debt was owed to China, and that is why “now they work for us.” He laughs in a not-quite-menacing way which, precisely for that reason, sounds quite menacing. The students echo his laughter.
(For the record, I don’t quite understand the implied scenario. Did the U.S. sell off its private companies to pay interest on its bonds? To me, a far more likely turn of events would be one in which, as the U.S. loses the ability to make its debt payments, China does everything it can to keep the nation afloat. As John Paul Getty quipped, “If you owe the bank a hundred dollars, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank a hundred million dollars, that’s the bank’s problem.” I think the threat of an American default would actually be a bigger problem for China than for the United States. In that event, then, “they” would work for “us.”)
The fact that I personally am not as attracted to fiscal conservatism as is the ad’s sponsor, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), has little to do with my reaction. What I find so chilling about this ad is not its content, but its tone, which is one of dystopian pessimism. (Even the visual palette of this advertisement invokes a very dark and unfriendly future. Chinese students apparently learn better in the dark.) One of the hallmarks of Reagan Era conservatism, as Daniel Rodgers pointed out in Age of Fracture, has been its optimism, which can be understood apart from the movement’s actual policy positions. Yet CAGW seems to be arguing that the nation’s people, values, traditions, etc. are not sufficient to ensure a bright future. Instead, only a narrow set of policy prescriptions, rather than the people’s indomitable spirit, can carry the day. It was that message that I found so jarring.
To be clear, I don’t want to imply that I object to the ad. Perhaps the juxtaposition of seeing this dystopia at the gym, between segments on Charlie Sheen and the missing cobra at the Bronx Zoo, heightened my propensity to be disturbed. I certainly don’t think that there’s anything wrong with this commercial. But if it is a symptom of the age in which we live, and I think it might be, then these may be dark days, indeed.