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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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