Babbitt and Bush
As I stomp around in the puddles of metaphor I occasionally splash mud on an innocent bystander. In my last column I damned “W” with faint praise, likening him to a small town Rotarian. I recommended Mr. Bush as the preferable choice between a hydrophobic Rin Tin Tin and Satan himself. Little did I consider the unfavorable light this would shed on Rotarians. The comparison I made of Mr. Bush’s character to that of a defensive, if goofy Golden Retriever was nearer the mark.
I am in lofty literary company in abusing Rotary International. It is no excuse but comforts me never the less. Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Menken, George Bernard Shaw, Clarence Darrow, and G.K. Chesterton have all belittled Rotarians. Menken, a favorite of mine, railed against the “commercial culture” of the club and was distressed by their habit of addressing each other by their first names. On that he wrote, “The first Rotarian was the first man to call John the Baptist “Jack”.”
Sinclair Lewis didn’t like being called Sinclair either. Perhaps because they didn’t call him Mr. Lewis, he dissed Rotary members in his novels Main Street and Babbitt. Babbitt was a bumbling small town businessman whose weekly booster club meeting was the high point of his life. Lewis’ Babbitt, more than other shots at Rotary, caused the most enduring pain for the club. Babbitt’s name even entered the vernacular. A Babbitt, according to Webster, is "A business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle class standards."
That definition was a cruel slap to Rotarians, whose middle class standards are anything but unthinking, and form a framework of decency and duty for millions of Americans. When another dictionary leaked word that it was going to include “Rotarian” in its definition of a Babbitt, Rotary’s national magazine editor decided he’d had enough. He went unannounced to see Sinclair Lewis at his Vermont summer home. In a few hours he won Lewis over with typical Rotarian charm and enthusiasm. Lewis sent a telegram to the editor after their meeting saying that he had “made me approve Rotary.” Lewis helped spare the club further humiliation by definition.
The easy informality and reflexive boosterism of Rotary members make them easy targets for smarmy smart guys like me, but my faint praise was meant for GWB, not for Rotarians.
For a libertarian like me Rotary International is an example of the kind of private, voluntary organization that is the heart of a free society. Libertarians see nothing wrong with “commercial culture.” For all our macho flashes of anarchist cant we are middle class at heart. Business people are not villains. Money making is a harmless and productive pursuit. A businessman’s desire to earn an honest living is far less dangerous than a politician’s need to lord it over his fellow man. Voluntary civic activism is always better than compulsory government compassion. Business people want to sell you something and have you come back for more. Politicians want to tell you what to do and use your money to make you do it.
If Rotarians are your friendly, corner store grocer, politicians are the thugs who charge him a weekly fee for “protection.”
The heavy hand of government is always compulsive, forcing us, not persuading us. Doing good deeds with other people’s money, protecting us from enemies it makes for us, helping us with problems it creates and meddling on our behalf in the affairs of strangers. Rotary and civic clubs like it are the antidote for compulsory, self serving government meddling.
A hundred years ago, when Rotary was started by a lonely traveling businessman, there were thousands of private organizations that provided cooperative services to members and the community. There were clubs and associations for every conceivable purpose from unemployment insurance to medical care, from education scholarships to disaster relief. Slowly but surely over the last century government took over the lion’s share of social services that private groups had always provided. Government influence grew and private groups faded away. Government programs expand despite dismal records of failure, because they are held to no standard for results. When a government program fails, lack of money is always blamed. More tax money is poured down the same rat hole. Thus do ineffective programs take on perpetual life. When private groups fail, they simply fade away.
Rotarians are an example of the best of voluntary community service. They don’t beg and unlike Uncle Sam, they can’t just pick your pocket. They wouldn’t if they could. They volunteer, throw a party, have a bake sale, flip burgers, have a raffle or wash cars, but you always get something for your money. They wouldn’t think of pan handling at a busy traffic light. They spend what they earn on curing the sick, educating the young and easing human suffering, not bossing you around and scaring the life out of you.
Over a million Rotarians in dozens of countries all over the world live by their motto, “Service above Self,” every day. Any similarity between them and a professional politician besotted with power and dreaming of world conquest benefits the politician more than the Rotarians every time.