John Naisbitt makes Pollyanna look like Cassandra. He could find the brighter side of AIDS--or of nuclear war. Naisbitt thinks the '90s will be fabulous and the next decade better yet; one hopes he is right, but one doubts it.
Philistine is a word not often used in our society, for perhaps the same reason that "mafioso" is rare in Palermo. But there is no other word for the sensibility that informs "Megatrends 2000," a book that manages to be wrong in spirit even when correct on matters of fact.
The philistine is tendentious; so is Naisbitt. Naisbitt's economic and social views are closer to those of business than of organized labor; no harm, necessarily, in that; there are philistines aplenty on both sides of that divide. Naisbitt feebly attempts to conceal his bias under a pose of disinterested objectivity, but when he cites economists whose findings are favorable to the cause of organized labor, he identifies them as "labor-related" or "labor-affiliated." Pro-business writers are not so identified--they are merely cited as experts. This will irritate the intelligent reader--whether pro-business or not--and convince the stupid one; it is apparent who Naisbitt believes he is writing for.
The philistine is self-righteous; so is Naisbitt. Like a long line of rosy scenarists before him, Naisbitt wears a mantle of persecution. The "naysayers" are out to get him, but he has the "courage" to stand up against them. Actually, it takes surprisingly little courage to be an optimist in the United States. No one ever died over a bad review. And for every ink-stained wretch muttering curses, there will be dozens of corporate clients eager to shell out big bucks to hear the facile optimism Naisbitt purveys. In America, the optimist cries all the way to the bank; the pessimist just cries.
The philistine thinks more is better; so does Naisbitt. Perhaps nowhere does this emerge more than in his treatment of the arts. One of his "megatrends" has to do with the growth of the arts in the United States, and the increased interest in corporate sponsorship. This section contains many of his best-researched and most interesting observations, but it also displays the naive stupidity of what H. L. Mencken would have identified as a prime specimen of the booboisie. Some might worry that corporate sponsorship involves corporate control, or subsidy of the art that would appeal to, say, the sensibility of Donald Trump. Not John Naisbitt. One feels that he would like the Mona Lisa better in an Exxon T-shirt.
If the section on the arts shows Naisbitt at his boobish best, the section on socialism catches him at his silly worst. Events in Eastern Europe have moved rapidly enough to catch many observers by surprise, but trend-spotters surely should be held to a higher standard.
For Naisbitt, socialism is turning into "market socialism": Tell that one to the Poles--or to the Azerbaijanis. He is also capable of describing Europe without reference to the reunion of Germany--perhaps not big enough of a trend to qualify as a "megatrend" like the growth of arts audiences in the United States, but surely worthy of a brief mention in a 200-page book devoted to a description of events that will shape the next 20 years.
What's wrong with philistines? They aren't always wrong; they are often well-intentioned. What is wrong is an ignorance that refuses to acknowledge itself, a lack of respect for the seriousness of life. Not all philistines are optimists; there are philistines of doom and gloom as well. But what makes them all philistines is a contempt for subtle shades of meaning and, usually, a failure to take history or life seriously.
Naisbitt is sometimes right and sometimes wrong about the future, but so are we all. Even a stopped clock, as they say, is right twice a day. With Naisbitt's basic approach to life--that technological progress is opening up a new and better future--this reader for one has no quarrel. But that better life is not a sure thing. Naisbitt's sunny optimism sees only silver linings, but the plain evidence of thousands of years of history tells us that people don't always do the right thing. Nations sometimes go wrong. The serious writer has a responsibility to warn as well as to root.
Had people listened more to the gloomy naysayers, the American thrift industry would not be in such bad shape; the junk-bond market would not have swollen to such unsustainable proportions; there might be more ozone in the upper atmosphere and less oil on the ocean. Naisbitt dismisses cautionary voices, but history and experience tell us that we need to hear these voices, and sometimes even be guided by them.
All such thoughts, however, are far from Naisbitt's happy little head and, apparently, from the happy little heads of American businessmen who continue to pay him vast consulting fees. This reliance on facile and philistine optimism at a time when American business is steadily losing its competitive edge, and when our national financial structure is weaker than at any time since the Great Depression, is the truly depressing trend, mega or otherwise, of our time.
Unfortunately, Naisbitt seems unable to recognize it, much less describe it.