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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 29, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Adam Ruins Everything, Progressives

After all the comedy based on stupidity -- which is, let's face it, almost everything that Americans laugh at -- a bunch of writers and producers got together and created a show on TruTV that is funny because of a character who is actually smart.

The show is Adam Ruins Everything, starring Adam Conover as ... er ... Adam Conover. Only he's not really playing himself. He's playing a nerdy know-it-all with more upswept hair than either Donald Trump or Conan O'Brien, who obtrudes himself into other people's lives in order to explain to them why they should not be enjoying the things that they enjoy.

Tonight I watched him lay into restaurants, as he correctly pointed out that the whole experience of dining out would be better if we didn't have to tip.

No, he's not advocating that we stop tipping! Tipping is so much a part of American restaurant culture that waiters usually get a miserable pittance of a wage, and they would starve without tips.

Adam trotted out a restaurant owner who eliminated tipping at his very successful restaurant -- by paying his employees much higher wages, along with benefits that most companies pay to their fulltime employees.

How did the waiters respond to that change? They loved it -- because they make good money, they get standard corporate and government benefits, and they know just how much they're going to earn every month.

Speaking as somebody who literally has no idea how much I'm going to earn at any time in any year, I can tell you that the peace of mind that comes from having a fixed salary or a predictable wage is a great benefit.

And as for the customers, imagine going into a restaurant knowing that the prices on the menu are high enough to cover the wages of all the restaurant's employees, and that when the meal is over, you'll pay exactly the amount on the bill.

Eating at a restaurant without having to solve math problems and moral quandaries ("What does the waiter deserve?") at the end of the meal? Wow.

"But what if the service isn't good?"

Complain to the management, the way you do if the service isn't good at the gas station, the grocery store, or anywhere else you do business without tipping.

Besides, as know-it-all Adam points out, research shows that almost nobody changes their tip to reflect their opinions about service. I know I don't, because I figure that somebody who's already having a bad day doesn't need to get stiffed on my tip, so they go home with less money in their pockets. Oooh, that'll teach them, when they can't buy clothes for their kids.

Americans who are dining out don't usually like to be mean. Plus, most of us know that if things go wrong with our meal, the problems are usually in the kitchen. (If you don't know that, watch Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares.)

Whenever Adam Conover brings up a fact, up in the corner of the screen his source pops up. It's only there for a few moments -- but if you push pause on your DVR or TiVo, you can copy it down and look it up.

So far, whenever he talks about something I've already researched, he gets it right.

Usually, Adam's "ruining" of "everything" takes the form of making us look at familiar cultural practices in a new way. Why is it, for instance, that we can't buy a car by going to Ford.com or Hyundai.com, choosing from the available options, and ordering the car we want?

We buy computers that way all the time. In fact, we buy a lot of things that way. So why not cars?

Because there are laws in every state that forbid anybody but licensed car dealerships to sell new cars. Why those laws exist is a matter of history; the question is, why do we put up with it now?

What if "dealerships" turned into delivery and service centers? What if we went there for test drives, and then to accept delivery of the car we just chose and paid for online? Then we go back for service that will maintain our warranty.

The employees at the dealership get wages and salaries instead of working for commissions. No more dickering. No more driving away convinced that you paid way too much for the car you just bought.

Often Adam will toss out side comments that leave you wishing there could be a whole episode on that topic.

There probably will be.

So far, they've only dealt with topics where there really are little-known facts that can change the way we see our lives. I dread the day they try to take on politically hot topics like anthropogenic global warming, because there the "facts" are so concealed behind decades of lies and propaganda that they could blow all of the show's credibility in one go.

But I predict they won't do that. This show is about daily life -- things that we do wrong, or that are done to us wrongly, by the people and institutions we work with all the time.

That's right -- the Transportation Safety Administration doesn't actually prevent anything. It's always working to prevent the last successful terrorist act, and they're astonishingly bad at catching real potential threats (and Adam shows his sources).

But ... if we didn't stand in those lines and pass our personal property through their machines, would we feel safe flying? Is this really Dumbo's feather?

Yep. And so we can fly.

The presentation of the show is genuinely amusing. Adam deluges us with an outpouring of facts, but it's always in the form of skits that are getting better and better, with regular performers playing different characters in episode after episode.

The writing is witty, and if Adam is a slightly terrible actor, that's part of the humor. Sure, he mugs for the camera ... maybe that's just his way of paying homage to Adam Sandler. At the same time he's really likeable -- way more likeable than, say, Cosmo Kramer or George Costanza.

What matters is that as you watch the show, you get the Jeopardy! payoff -- you learn cool new things and feel smart because you already knew the things you already knew -- and you get the comedy payoff, because many of the lines and all of the performers are funny.

The show appears on TruTV, which you may never otherwise watch. As I look through their schedule, I see very few shows that I would invest even ten seconds in watching.

But Adam Ruins Everything is a show that my wife and I record and enjoy watching together. It's one of the best things on TV right now ... so far ... and I have high hopes for the series' future.

*

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Republicans did such a good job of turning "liberal" into a pejorative word that Democrats ran from the label for a while. In fact, they're still running.

That's why the label "progressive" was revived. The people who used to be proud to be called "liberal" are now even prouder to be "progressive." After all, "liberal" is based on the same root as "liberty," and if there's one thing the Left cannot tolerate today, it's other people's liberty.

But "progressive" contains the word "progress," and that is the root of their ideology. Everything they believe in, every new right they ram down our throats in complete disregard for democracy or the Constitution, means progress. When they win, the world will be a better place. Right?

The thing is, they didn't make up the term "progressive." In American politics, it has a long, proud history, and recently, as I listened to the Great Courses lecture series America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, taught by Prof. Edward T. O'Donnell (and downloaded from Audible.com), I was reminded that much of what we're proud of in America today -- yes, even conservatives -- was accomplished by the courage, vision, and determination of Progressives from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

That was a very different time. Children routinely labored long days for pathetic pay, women couldn't vote and were limited in many other ways, the Jim Crow laws in the South, not to mention lynchings, were undoing every speck of progress that the Civil War and Reconstruction had brought to the former slaves.

Workers endured terrible conditions and starvation wages -- and if they tried to strike, the government used police and National Guard forces to protect the even hungrier men and women who crossed the picket lines to take their jobs and their wages.

Meanwhile, with no income tax, the most prosperous members of the ownership class had no limits on their acquisition and display of wealth. This is when the "summer cottages" of Newport, Rhode Island, were built -- summer homes that were filled with the expensive relics of Europe, all so the rich could have a lovely place beside Narragansett Bay to hobnob with the same people they saw all the time in New York City the rest of the year.

The "business cycle" had not yet been tamed, so that every decade (or less) there was another financial "panic" that led to business failures, layoffs, and drastic wage cuts that the working class could not survive.

But these very conditions led to powerful movements that later were lumped together under the name "progressive," though they rarely cooperated. The Knights of Labor set the tone for the whole era. The first federation of labor, the Knights admitted workers of every race and national origin; they admitted women workers; and they were determined to stand together to gain the right to unionize and force the factory owners to pay them enough to live.

Between the government and the owners, the Knights were eventually broken up, but new labor unions formed to take their place and continue part of the fight, at least. Now blacks, foreigners, and women were excluded, but in the long run, the union movement brought benefits to all. As they grew in political power, they began to achieve vital rights, like the right to organize and exist as unions -- and the minimum wage.

It's almost laughable to hear the arguments -- often made by very smart people -- against the minimum wage. "It eliminates entry-level jobs," we're told. But in that era, the minimum wage made it so that employer could no longer cut wages below the subsistence level in order to sell their goods at a lower rate. It meant that if a man had a job at all, he could earn enough money that his wife and children wouldn't starve.

The minimum wage made it possible for families to survive without putting their children out to work -- or breaking up the family because they couldn't feed them all. Nobody was worried then about whether teenagers wouldn't be able to find food service jobs -- the minimum wage and the right to strike brought workers out of desperate poverty that periodically dipped into famine, and started them on the road to entering the middle class.

And it can be argued that the melding of the working class with the middle class, owed to the unions and the minimum wage, is the foundation of American prosperity. Since car companies could no longer compete by cutting salaries, for instance, Henry Ford competed by raising wages while increasing worker productivity, his goal being to make cars that his own workers could afford to buy.

In other words, the laboring class was given a handhold on the American dream of freedom and prosperity.

It took a while for women to gain the vote (and other rights); and the struggle of African-Americans for civil rights wouldn't come to fruition until the 1950s and 1960s. But the roots of all these achievements came in the Progressive Era.

Theodore Roosevelt annoyed conservative Republicans by governing as a progressive, and when his successor, Taft, neglected too much of Roosevelt's program, Roosevelt ran a third-party candidacy by forming the "Bull Moose Party." But that was the party's nickname, because of Roosevelt's proclamation that he felt as fit as a bull moose. The real name, the formal name, was "Progressive Party."

After Roosevelt lost that election (so did Taft; Democrat Woodrow Wilson won, and promptly installed anti-black racist policies in the federal government, because, after all, it was the Solid [White] South that formed the backbone of the Democratic Party in those days), the Progressive Party seemed to wither away. The Republicans had learned their lesson (they knew how to do that back in those days) and adopted much of the progressive platform. Most former Progressives, including Roosevelt, rejoined the Republican Party.

But when both parties failed to live up to the progressive ideal, the Progressive Party kept being revived to run more candidates for the presidency in later elections, including Robert LaFollette in 1924 and Henry Wallace in 1948.

Henry Wallace's incarnation of the Progressive Party, alas, had enough links, both real and imagined, with Communist-sponsored organizations that the name "Progressive" was tainted, and the name was dropped. Now those who were fighting for civil rights, progressive income taxes, and other aspects of the progressive program called themselves liberals -- and made a point of being at least as anti-Communist as the Republicans.

Thus it was that Kennedy was elected in 1960 as a liberal -- while claiming that Eisenhower had been so soft on Communism that he allowed the Russians to get ahead of us in nuclear warheads. It was called "the missile gap," and of course it didn't exist. In office, Kennedy's need to be anti-Communist led to the Bay of Pigs and to the series of events that concluded with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It wasn't until the Vietnam War that liberals became anti-defense.

But considering how badly educated most American politicians are, it's almost a miracle that, when the term "liberal" became politically perilous, they were able to reach back into the past and revive "progressive."

Names, ultimately, mean scarcely more than flags, slogans, catch-phrases ("Where's the beef?"), and other political ephemera. What this course reminded me of, forcefully, was that political programs only have meaning depending on their context.

When Progressivism began, America was ripe for the preaching and agitation of anarchists and communists. There was genuine fear -- or hope -- of riots and uprisings by the poor, perhaps leading to revolution. But the achievements of progressives, mostly working through the political process, had made enormous progress before Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and tried to use progressive ideas to raise America out of the Great Depression.

The problem with great movements that succeed is that their True Believers -- and the cynical exploiters who want to attach themselves to any successful movement -- never know when to stop. Labor, women's rights, civil rights, greater income equity -- these were among the great causes of progressivism and liberalism, and nobody was willing to say, "Wait a minute. Look at what we've achieved. Is it possible that we've made the system as fair as laws can ever make it, and the rest should be left to society to evolve on its own?"

Well, Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- my personal political hero, I should inform you -- said exactly that, when, in a memo during the Nixon administration, he said that with the passage of the great civil rights acts, it was time for the federal government to treat the newly liberated African-Americans with "benign neglect," meaning that their gains would be protected, but the government should not provoke resentment against Blacks by seeming to use force to advance their cause at the expense of Whites.

His comments, leaked to the press, created a firestorm, and the liberals in Congress began to do all the things he warned against -- with, as in so many cases, exactly the negative results that Moynihan foresaw.

Now, nearly fifty years later, we've seen the liberal/Leftist/progressive program adopted wholesale, sometimes by legislation and sometimes by court mandate. What we have not seen is significant progress or improvement among most groups they were trying to serve, though much depends on how you measure improvement.

Once the working class joined the middle class, what more could unions accomplish? Affirmative Action cast doubt on the diplomas and achievements of every African American -- even in their own community. And each Supreme Court mandate leaves more and more Americans feeling that democracy no longer exists, that unwelcome revolutionary changes are imposed on them dictatorially, and that the political process no longer works.

This does not mean that every good thing progressives fought for had been achieved. Instead, it meant that, unable to win sufficient popular support to continue to enact "progress" through constitutional means (cf. the Equal Rights Amendment), they turned more and more to the Leftist-dominated courts to enact new laws.

Where once progressivism advanced democracy and brought greater fairness to America, now that name is used by people who think (or claim) to be doing even more -- while ever-growing numbers of Americans believe that they are losing rights and the Constitution that used to guarantee them.

Yet let us not forget that like most movements, progressivism began with good intentions -- and, like very few movements, it had a record of achievement that clearly helped make America the greatest nation in the world. It was not the fat cats in Newport that made the world look to America with hope -- it was the union members prospering in the factories, the women with burgeoning opportunities, the perception that any kid could grow up to be president.

Now, of course, in the name of progressivism, the Left sharply limits freedom of speech and press, tries to punish free-speaking scientists for refusing to accept dogmas without evidence, and denies tenure and teaching positions to anyone who does not follow their program. Once the label for freedom fighters, "progressive" is now the label for those who behave exactly like the people that progressives once fought against.

But that's how history moves. The downtrodden, when they achieve power, almost always begin to tread down some other group. It's Animal Farm, whose truthfulness is not limited to the allegory of Bolshevism. It's a nearly universal pattern in the modern age, from the English Protestants and Puritans to the French Jacobins, from Martin Luther to the Russian Revolutions of 1917.

That's why, no matter how many freedom fighters achieve great victories, there's always a need for more freedom fighters before too long. And while the now-repressive progressives wrap themselves in the achievements of their forebears ("Do you want to go back to the old days of segregation?"), the new freedom fighters can only answer, "We want to go back to the days when you could only amend the Constitution by patient, democratic persuasion, so that new rights were granted by consensus instead of diktat."

In other words, propaganda wars, each side calling the other names and both sides deserving most of the names they're called. Whenever anyone might start to think that Republicans are actually fighting for freedom again, the way they did during and after the Civil War, and again when the Republicans were the progressives, somebody like Donald Trump comes along, develops a following, and makes it clear that repression and hate can always be found on both sides of every issue.

Yet this is precisely the reason why I think it would be a very desirable thing if everybody who thinks seriously about American politics were to take O'Donnell's course on America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. It's vital for us to remember that when enough people come to care about an issue, they can change the country and, in the long run, change the world.

But it's also vital to remember that once you've achieved your program, you get less and less support for trying to over-achieve it.

Jim Crow is gone and nobody wants it back -- yet Democrats keep accusing Republicans of trying to revive it, in order to keep Black voters as the property of their party.

The free market, within the fence of our anti-business-cycle and fairness laws, is doing its job; why, then, are Republicans unwilling to realize that the immigration issue is a perfect demonstration of the Free Market At Work?

Why does every horrible idea that ever blighted our political landscape have to keep getting revived, time and time again? The Know-Nothings still know nothing. The Progressives still think that throwing out the Constitutional amendment process and replacing it with a dictatorship of oligarchs is "progress."

But if we step back, and remember where we were, where we are, and how we got here, and how slowly the good changes usually come -- and yet they do come -- then maybe we can get ourselves out of this cycle of hate, with each side claiming a monopoly on virtue even as both sides exemplify every evil thing that we have spent our whole history trying to overcome.

Progressivism wasn't evil in 1910, it was essential -- and even if today's "progressives" are vastly and dangerously overreaching, we mustn't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Instead of refusing to raise the minimum wage, Republicans should be trying to raise it by moderate steps that won't cause all the evils they warn about; and Democrats should also reach for compromises that will bring about gradual change through democratic processes.

Instead of demanding that all the illegal immigrants be thrown out -- into countries that have no way to feed them, which is why they left in the first place -- Republicans should be looking for ways to integrate the hardworking, morally conservative majority of Latin American immigrants, legal and illegal alike, into the working and middle classes of America.

Who cares if they're slow to forget Republican scorn and opposition, and vote Democrat for a generation? We need them to become loyal citizens and taxpayers so that they can help fund Social Security and Medicare for our aging population.

We must hold fast to the progressive ideals that saved our country at the turn of the last century -- while also holding fast to the ideals that created our country in its first fifty years.

Where are the moderates who reach across the chasms that divide us and say, Let's help each other cling to everything good, while still making the changes that will enable this vast experiment in government of, by, and for the people to continue to set an example of freedom, opportunity, fairness, and law to all nations.

Ultimately, that's the only way we can defeat ISIS and the Taliban and the Ayatollahs, and neo-imperialists like Putin, and the desperate relics of Communism like the Chinese and North Korean and Cuban dictators: Show them and their people that prosperity and strength come from liberty and law, and above all from mercy toward the downtrodden and honor from those who rule.


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