Even to those Aussies of a conservative bent, the weirdness of Santorum is a given. I've spent maybe 15 minutes in his company, at a GOP county dinner in southern New Hampshire, where we talked mostly about the Habsburg Empire — his grandfather was a bit of imperial cannon fodder on the Russian front who managed to survive the Great War and get on the boat to Pennsylvania. Santorum didn't seem weird to me — or at any rate no weirder than the normal weirdness quotient required of those who decide to run for president of the United States.
On that night in the Granite State, I said something like, "Wow! Two generations from immigrant to presidential candidate," and Rick said something like, "Only in America." But the old cliches don't exert quite the same pull. After all, we live in fast-moving times: In the course of two generations, what doesn't change? The Habsburg Empire for which Grandpa Santorum fought is dust, and, according to the Vienna Institute of Demography, by mid-century a majority of Austrians under the age of 15 will be Muslim. As I wrote here last year: Salzburg, 1938 — singing nuns, Julie Andrews, "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" Salzburg 2038 — How do you solve a problem like sharia?
Old settled societies appear like a frozen river in my part of New Hampshire: On the surface, all is still. Underneath, the icy water is fast-moving. That's where all the business that really engages Santorum is — and he's not wrong on most of it. As Congressman Mike Pence said a year or two back, "To those who say we should simply focus on fiscal issues, I say you would not be able to print enough money in a thousand years to pay for the government you would need if the traditional family collapses."
But Pence's doomsday scenario is already here: What "traditional" family? Seventy percent of black children are born out of wedlock, as are 70 percent of the offspring of poor white women, as are a majority of Hispanic babies. Forty percent of American children are born outside marriage; among women under 30, a majority of children are. Well, so what? It's the same in Scandinavia, isn't it? Well, not quite. Our progeny are fatter, sicker, riddled with childhood diabetes. Dennis Prager wrote a couple of years ago that Obama saw the United States as a large Sweden. A large Sweden is a contradiction in terms, and out there in the Dependistans of America we're better at being large than being Swedish.
Let's take it as read that Rick Santorum is weird. After all, he believes in the sanctity of life, the primacy of the family, the traditional socio-religious understanding of a transcendent purpose to human existence. Once upon a time, back in the mists of, ooh, the mid–20th century, all these things were, if not entirely universal, sufficiently mainstream as to be barely worthy of discussion. Now they're not. Isn't the fact that conventional morality is now "weird" itself deeply weird? The instant weirdification of ideas taken for granted for millennia is surely mega-weird — unless you think that our generation is possessed of wisdom unique to human history. In which case, why are we broke?
Look, I get the problem with a Santorum candidacy. And I get why he seems weird to Swedes and Aussies, and even Americans. If you're surfing a news bulletin en route from Glee to Modern Family, Santorum must seem off-the-charts weird, like a monochrome episode that's been implausibly colorized from a show too old even for TV Land reruns. It would be healthier to thrash these questions out in the culture, in the movies and novels and pop songs. But Hollywood has taken sides, and the Right has mostly retreated from the field. And somebody has to talk about these things somewhere or other. Our fiscal crisis is not some unfortunate bookkeeping accident that a bit of recalibration by a savvy technocrat can fix. In the United States as in Greece, it is a reflection of the character of a people. The problem isn't that Rick Santorum's weird, but that a government of record-breaking brokeness already busting through its newest debt-ceiling increase even as it announces bazillions in new spending is entirely normal.