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Barbara Kingsolver's Intellectual Offenses By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, March 06, 2003


I recently came across an essay by novelist Barbara Kingsolver that illustrates all the mental and moral pathologies afflicting those who fancy themselves "peace activists." As war in Iraq approaches and the marches and rallies increase in frequency and noise, it is useful to look closely at the intellectual incoherence of the "anti-war/globalization/America" mindset and their bumper-sticker reasoning.
Kingsolver's take on the terrorist attacks of 9/11 is a variation of the "we had it coming" argument. We Americans, Kingsolver agues, are the "Fat Brother," the wealthy, greedy family member who over- consumes, monopolizes resources, wastes food, and arrogantly parades his good fortune while his "siblings" (i.e. the Third World) starve. So given our hubris, our "prideful wastefulness," our "noisy celebratory appetite for unnecessary things," why should we be surprised that we took "a very hard knock from the outside"? Kingsolver continues in this vein, railing against our obsession with oil and our "right to burn this fuel in heavy passenger vehicles," as well as our failure to ratify the Kyoto agreements, a lapse Kingsolver finds "appalling," "stunned" as she is by the "selfishness of that act."

This fashionable self-loathing dominates the various strands of anti-Americanism that have united in opposing a war against a murderous dictator, and it reeks of bad faith. If we are indeed responsible for people in the Third World who don't have enough to eat, then anything we consume beyond our own subsistence is "unnecessary," including the novels of Barbara Kingsolver, the movies of Michael Moore, and the CDs of Sting. After all, how many hungry children could be fed with Kingsolver's royalties? Or with the money disbursed by the various government agencies and foundations to poets and artists and museums? Does anyone think a starving child in Africa dies happier knowing that the money that could've been spent feeding him went instead to a poet or novelist rather than to an SUV dealer? The 19th-century Russian radicals were at least consistent in this regard----"Boots are better than Shakespeare," they cried, recognizing that if we are responsible for the starvation and material misery of others, art and culture are as obscene a waste as jewelry and caviar.

Like most hypocritical critics of our "materialist" culture, then, Kingsolver is very selective about what is considered "unnecessary," wasteful consumption. In fact, class biases provide most of the criteria of selection. SUV's and trips to Disneyworld are obscene waste, whereas Volvos and junkets to the south of France are not. Action movies are disgusting vulgarities, whereas middle-brow novels, equally forgettable, are necessities. In other words, the conspicuous consumption and waste of Kingsolver's life is beyond reproach. But the declassé diversions of the working and middle classes are immoral, even though both divert resources from what Kingsolver claims is a moral imperative, to feed the hungry.

Kingsolver's solutions to Third World misery are equally juvenile. Despite the utter failure during the last two centuries of every scheme to equalize living standards, Kingsolver wants us to send more money to the Third World. Well, we have spent trillions of dollars there already, most of it going down the rat-hole of indigenous corruption and greed. Regions of the world rich in resources and natural wealth are still impoverished, and not because we are rich or don't send them enough aid. Consider the Middle East, blessed with oil to sell to us greedy gasoline-addicted Americans. Despite that resource, the rates of poverty and illiteracy in the Middle East are some of the highest in the world. The reason has little to do with our own consumption and everything to do with cultures that cannot or will not adapt to free markets, a secular world view, and democratic freedom-- precisely the advantages Israel enjoys, a nation that without a lucrative natural resource such as oil nonetheless is materially more prosperous--and politically more free-- than any of its neighbors.
Kingsolver's ideas, like those of the "anti-globalization" crowd that provides most of the shock-troops for the "peace" movement, reflect a child-like utopianism that has proved unworkable over and over again in the real world of human complexity and evil. Moreover, her egalitarian imperative has been the rationale for all the horrendous evils perpetrated since the French Revolution, from the forced famines of Lenin and Stalin, to Mao's Cultural Revolution, to the insanity of the Khmer Rouge. Those murderers also claimed to be fired by disgust with a world in which some ate too much and others too little. But putting that idealism into practice invariably led to the murder of those who stood in the way of the brave new world to come. Given the imperfections of humans, the perfect world will never exist.

Does that mean we can be callous to the suffering of others? Of course not. But we know what does work: free markets, liberal democracy, human rights, and secularism. In other words, the more the world becomes like the West, the fewer people who starve to death. The economic globalization that Kingsolver and her ilk decry is in fact the proven answer to the perennial human problem of deprivation and want. But the shopworn nostrums peddled on the Left--increased government power and transfers of wealth--have proven over and over to create misery and famine. Just compare North Korea to South Korea.

The "anti-war" movement isn't about war. When the Democrat Clinton bombed Serbia for 77 days, there were no marches and rallies in protest. This movement rather is about attacking the foundations and principles of American society, whether in service to Communist ideology or to an unworkable utopianism that is itself a luxury item, a display of conspicuous consumption made possible by those same foundations and principles.

Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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