U.S. Intellectual History Blog

have you seen this?

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.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Well, there is a lot wrong with the video as well. Debt loads are well within historical precedent, and stimulus spending is widely considered to be responsible policy. And most hilarious of all, of course, is that the Chinese themselves have had one of the most robust stimulus spending packages of any nation! They’ve taken to it with such gusto that even American advocates of stimulus note with worry that they’re going to overheat their economy.

  2. I think the over-the-top dyspotianism of that ad (which I’ve seen run on tv, too) reflects that fact that very few Americans actually care about the size of the deficit. But like states rights–another principle that very few people actually care about–deficits provide a potentially effective way of framing arguments about things that people actually do care about (e.g. the sense that some people not like themselves are getting–and presumably wasting–the hard-earned dollars they are paying in taxes) in ways that mask the interests being served by the argument.

    What seems to be most at stake in the current round of pseudo-deficit hawkery is the fate of Social Security, an enormously successful and popular program that doesn’t contribute to the deficit. The slight of hand involved in convincing the American people to accept cuts to the social security system in the name of fiscal conservatism is enormous, but millions of dollars and years of propaganda have been invested in the effort. And much of political class seems to have already drunk this Kool-Aid.

    I don’t know if CAGW is one of the very small number of groups dedicated in good faith to fiscal conservatism (e.g. the Concord Coalition) or one of the much larger number of bad-faith groups who frame what are essentially arguments against our now rather minimal welfare state in the language of fiscal conservatism. Judging from their funding and leadership, my money is on the latter.

  3. Triple “Like” to Daniel’s comment.

    @Mike: There’s nothing like gym TV for disturbing, irritating, extracurricular workout stimulation. – TL

  4. I tend to agree with Ben, and suspect they’re using racism to bait American TV viewers who don’t understand the whole situation, into supporting their attack on “government waste” like public schools, health care, and PBS, while they continue to support the trillions dumped into the black hole of military spending.

  5. This ad reminded me of Ed Rendell’s comments re: the postponement of the Monday Night Football game in Philly at the end of December. Said Rendell:

    We’ve become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.

    Setting aside for the moment the problematic stereotypes in Rendell’s comment, I think his remarks and this commercial are drawing as much energy from a retro vibe of Cold War nationalism as they are from racism. In place of the menacing Russians we have the menacing Chinese.

    But let’s not set aside the racial/ethnic dynamics of this commercial — this is an ingenious ad because it offers a “two-for-one” special, appealing either to racial anxieties or to nationalistic anxieties. Or both.

    (Saying it’s ingenious doesn’t mean I admire the ad or its message — but I think the ad agency is giving this client their money’s worth.)

    Here’s a link to an ESPN story on Rendell’s comments. I’m sure somebody at the NYT or the New Republic or the Atlantic Monthly probably wrote a cogent column about them, but it didn’t pop up in my googling.

    Pennsylvania Governor: Postponement proves U.S. ‘nation of wusses’

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