»  National Review Online

December 9, 2008

   Sing!  Heavenly Muse

        about paradise lost

Today being John Milton's 400th birthday, I have been reading Paradise Lost in the terrifically well-annotated Cambridge University Press paperback edition. Reading? Well, I've been … looking into it. The infallible Dr. Johnson:

But original deficience cannot be supplied. The want of human interest is always felt. "Paradise Lost" is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed, and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.

Just so. My own browsings are further obstructed by a peculiar transformation the text occasionally seems to undergo right before my eyes. The letters seem to swirl and morph. I don't know the explanation for this. Perhaps I should consult an oculist. Or perhaps it's something to do with the fact that I do my browsing at the end of a long day, after taking my bedtime shot of Glenmorangie. All right, shots. Whatever the cause, the text comes through to me strangely altered, something like:

Of Dubya's two administrations, and the fruit
Of that vast spending spree, whose mortal taste
Brought debt into the world, and all our woe
With lost elections, and no greater man
In prospect, to regain the blissful seat …

For us Boomers, anyway, paradise is definitely lost. If I hear one more of my acquaintances wailing that he'll have to work until he drops, I'll respond in a proper Johnsonian style:  "Johnson one day knocked Osborne [a bookseller] down in his shop, with a folio, and put his foot upon his neck." (Boswell's Life, 1742.) That window of a couple of decades when Americans could retire at sixty and spend the rest of their lives enjoying jaunts and cruises, has closed; just as that earlier window, when an American family could be supported by a single breadwinner, closed in its time, after everyone had decided what a terrible idea it was. All is flux, and change — I beg your pardon: Change! — is the only constant.

I told you, in any case, back in 2005, that the Bush economy was all a lie. Why don't you listen? The fundamental things apply as time goes by. Debts come due. What goes up, comes down. A person who isn't disciplined enough to accumulate a decent deposit on a house purchase, probably isn't going to be disciplined enough to meet the mortgage payments. Nations whose citizens are frugal and honor productive, innovative manufacturers are more likely to prosper than nations whose citizens are spendthrift and honor "community organizers" and whiz-kid securities traders. Governments that drop boxcars full of money into fractious Middle Eastern sandpits, enact vast new welfare programs in hopes of currying votes, and shower the world with treasury bills like snowflakes so that their people can buy more toys, trinkets, gadgets, and lingerie than they need, will have less stable financial systems than those who don't. Nations in which "Chief Diversity Officer" is an actual job category, with a higher salary than a credentialed engineer, have sunk too deep in frivolity ever to be fished out. And the Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.

For conservatives, paradise is well and truly lost. You could in fact, if you had a few months to spare, rewrite Milton's epic with George W. Bush as Adam, the GOP as Eve, Reagan as Moses, Bill Buckley as the Muse, and so on. Who is Satan, though? I'm not sure, though I think I know where the bastard lives.

It's all very unfair. Conservatism is being cursed all around by association with George W. Bush, who has not been at all conservative where it matters:  fiscal oversight, government spending, national sovereignty, war. Conservatives wept with joy to see him veto whatever it was he vetoed about embryonic stem cells, whatever they are, hardly minding that he had debauched the currency, opened the borders, acquired expensive client states, and turned the burner to full throttle under the welfare state hot-air balloon. Now we are looking at a generation to be spent in the catacombs, without any of the things we wanted having been done. And please don't tell me that Barack Obama's presidency will be a "Carter interlude," with a Reagan to follow. Where's the evidence for that? Who's our Reagan? Bobby Jindal? Please. We are not now who we were then; and the world now is not as it was then.

    … innocence, that as a veil
Had shadowed them from knowing ill, was gone,
Just confidence, and native righteousness
And honour from about them, naked left
To guilty shame he covered …

Peggy Noonan in Friday's Wall Street Journal:

To drive through the suburbs of Northern Virginia is to marvel still at the widespread wealth, the mansions and mini-mansions that did not exist a quarter-century ago and that now thicken the woods and hills. It used to be sleepy here; it used to be horse farms … The other night, the big houses were strung with glittering white Christmas lights … heading toward Great Falls, we saw a house with a big glass-walled living room that faced the street, and below it a glass-walled entrance room, and each had its own brightly decorated tree. "Two Christmas trees," murmured a companion, and it captured the air of prosperity and solid well-being of the area. It reminded me: Government is our most reliable current and future growth industry, and the near suburbs of the capital are where those who run it, work it, lobby it, feed off it and finagle it live. "You have to go farther out to see the foreclosure signs," said a friend.

Government wasn't the solution, Reagan told us, it was the problem. That sentiment is as dead as he is. Nobody under thirty believes it, nor even understands it, probably. The government people have won — game, set and match. We just elected as president a man who, in his autobiography, referred to his single brief experience as a private-sector employee as being "behind enemy lines." We elected him. What more do you need to know about the age we have entered?

Henceforth what is to come I will relate,
Thou therefore give due audience, and attend.

If you have kids, tell them, at least twice a day, the importance of getting a government job, if they want that big picture-window house in the DC burbs. (You have to go farther out to see the foreclosure signs.) If you don't yourself have government employment — and especially if you do precarious work like, oh, freelance writing — don't carry any debt. And don't even think of seeing any conservative legislation passed in your lifetime.

They looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms …