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Gingrich Reinvents Himself in the Virtual Reality World

Why Gingrich's latest attempt to promote himself as a high-tech visionary falls flat.
 
 
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Newt Gingrich has had at least nine lives so far. In just the last two decades, he's been a professor, fancied himself a revolutionary, and, while third in line to be leader of the free world, was an adulterer, moralizing hypocrite and partisan witch hunter. Then he became the former House speaker who was run out of town in disgrace and reinvented himself as a partisan gasbag posing as a nonpartisan do-gooder while bloviating for the most partisan network in America. And then, on top of all that, he very predictably came to Jesus.

But this past weekend, it was the "virtual" incarnation of Newt that was on display. Just days before it turned out that another manifestation -- Gingrich the presidential candidate -- was but a flicker that would fail to light the way for a fractured conservative movement, Gingrich's avatar was making an exclusive appearance in the virtual reality world called Second Life. Like in Gingrich's real life, he was confronted by hecklers and naked women. Gingrich looked right past them and extolled the virtues of political discourse in the "metaverse." On its own news network, Second Life reported that he called the virtual world "part of the solution."

It was all part of last weekend's launch of workshops for his new brainchild, the web-based American Solutions, a project which Gingrich claims is a nonpartisan, interactive way of forging citizen involvement in solving the country's most pressing problems. Like everything Newt, this venture is not exactly as advertised and consists mostly of empty rhetoric dredged from the conservative dustbin, like Social Security privatization and half-baked schemes to abolish the Internal Revenue Service. The whole effort was best summed up by the slogan from Gingrich's book, itself inanely titled Winning the Future. "Real Change Requires Real Change," is the header for the introduction of the book, and Gingrich hauled it out as PR for the American Solutions launch as well.

One of the most amusing features of the Americans Solutions site is the compulsive use of the dot. "Solutions" are not just solutions but ".Solutions." There is not just media coverage of the project, but ".Media." But .Newt is still Newt, and there's not much new here except that he's joined the rest of us in using the internet.

While the American Solutions launch, held at the Cobb Galleria Centre in Atlanta and broadcast on satellite television and the web, presented a sprinkling of centrist Democrats, like former Clinton adviser Elaine Karmack and former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, many of the speakers were hyperpartisan stalwarts of the conservative movement. David Barton, the Christian right activist, revisionist historian, and GOP consultant, who, as vice-chair of the Texas Republican Party, had language included in the party plank that defined America as a "Christian nation," spoke on "Rediscovering God in America." Neal Boortz, the conservative talk radio host, spoke on abolishing the IRS, as did former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who has a flair for embracing the Christian right while avoiding the use of its most venomous rhetoric, spoke on enhancing education through art and music. Sean Hannity also broadcast his radio show from the event.

Some of the workshop leader choices were downright baffling, like former CIA director Porter Goss, who led a workshop titled "Defending America Requires Fixing Our Intelligence System." What's next, Erik Prince advising Gingrich's anti-government devotees on how to privatize the military?

Given Prince's family ties to financing the Christian right, his presence might dovetail with some of the proposed .Solutions focused on Barton's "Christian nation." One of the .WildWestWikiSolutions (so titled, presumably, because anyone can edit them and not, presumably, because they are "wild" as in "crazy") is "Make Christianity More Attractive than Liberalism." One of its prescriptions included a proposal that America work toward realizing "the most important project in the world, the [book of Revelation] 12:5 manchild . . . . [This] means all material works of man, including the great pyramids and great wall, will be burned. The only thing to make it from this heaven and earth to the new is the New Jerusalem built in heaven by the manchild, making the manchild the most important project, building a body of overcomers which not only follow Jesus but become like Jesus as much as possible." This .Solution, fortunately, has only one .SolutionMember, other than the .SolutionOwner, someone named Kirk, who also authored a .Solution called "Robots Can Empower Utopia."

While the .WildWestWikiSolutions might represent the fringe of Gingrich's virtual revolution, .Editors'Picks were largely focused on issues of xenophobia and nationalism, like making English the official government language and border security; the ever-dreaded taxes; and rejecting government reforms, like the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform and the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate disclosure requirements. They included proposals to "protect" the Constitution by ensuring that residents of the District of Columbia and U.S. territories like Guam and America Samoa are not granted voting rights and to ensure that courts guarantee the "right of every American to publicly acknowledge our Creator" in the pledge of allegiance. Although "limited government" continues to be a Gingrich catch phrase, not a single .Solution addressed our government's seemingly limitless appetite to spend billions to prolong the Iraq war.

Gingrich might see his new project as a conservative answer to web-fired progressive organizations like Moveon.org, which also solicits grassroots ideas for policy prescriptions and reform. But unlike its progressive counterparts, which seek to enhance checks and balances and therefore ensure oversight and accountability, Gingrich's .Solutions are based on that conservative fundamental principle that government is inherently incompetent and untrustworthy, except when controlled by conservatives. For the majority of Americans who want to end the Iraq war, and for Americans who are appalled by six and a half years of living in a banana republic and who want light shed on warrantless surveillance, torture, and military privatization run amok, Gingrich's .Solutions don't offer any answers. For us, Gingrich really is living in a virtual reality.

Sarah Posner writes The FundamentaList , a weekly roundup of news from the religious right, which appears every Wednesday on The American Prospect Online. Her book, God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters , will be published by PoliPoint Press in January.

 
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