Monday, June 14, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Tea Party?

Have you noticed that "free" is fast becoming a four-letter word? People who refuse to acknowledge the very real threat from Islamic terrorism are frightened by those freedom-loving folks from the Tea Party movement. Why? Because Tea Party activists are angry and organized and beginning to influence the political process in ways that threaten the power of the intellectual elites.

Remember when liberation was eminently desirable? People rallied to the cause of women's liberation. The Catholic Church had its own liberation theology. Left thinking people saw the world as oppressed and the world's people crying out for liberation.

As these liberation movements coalesced in the late 1960s a lot of people were very, very angry. The Weathermen had their Days of Rage; young people were enraged at the possibility of being drafted and sent to Vietnam; African-Americans were angry enough to riot and destroy parts of America's major cities.

Left thinking people at the time judged this anger to be thoroughly appropriate, a right and proper expression of the human yearning for freedom. Some even considered it therapeutic. Getting in touch with your anger became one of the major slogans of the therapy culture.

The anger was channeled into protest marches, violent political actions, and riots. It was not the stuff of town hall meetings and open political debate. It was, and still is, more likely to shout down conservative speakers than to discuss opposing points of view.

Left thinking people feel that they are expressing a special virtue when they prevent Ann Coulter or David Horowitz or the founder of the Minutemen from speaking in an open forum. Then they become indignant when someone dares disrespect the President of Iran.

Now, however, another kind of liberation has been rearing its head, a will toward the kind of freedom that was promised in our Constitution and in the philosophical tradition that comprises thinkers like Adam Smith.

And these Tea Party activists, most of whom behave politely at open political forums, are being slandered as people who are so consumed by anger that they pose a threat to America.

If Democratic Congresspeople are afraid to attend any more town hall meetings because they fear the anger of the Tea Party, then the fault lies-- you guessed it-- with the activists who cannot contain their anger. So says philosopher J. M. Bernstein. Link here.

Are we supposed to believe that these Congressional representatives are cowering in the corner because they are afraid to hear difficult questions from a group that has ALWAYS comported itself correctly in these meetings? Are we supposed to imagine that the Tea Party is an incipient terrorist organization?

I would venture that there is less anger in the Tea Party than there is among the Weathermen or in sermons by Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Father Michael Pfleger. And yet, serious political thinkers like Mark Lilla compare the Tea Party to the French Jacobin Club, the one that, during the French Revolution, gave us Robespierre and the Reign of Terror. Link here.

Lilla is practicing a more sophisticated form of character assassination. I am sure that he would willingly pay lip service to the threat of Islamic radicalism, but he seems to be most agitated about the possibility that the Tea Party is going to promulgate terror.

Lilla is a serious thinker writing in a serious publication, The New York Review of Books. Beyond implying that Tea Party goeres are incipient terrorists, Lilla calls them petulant, a mob, and more: "They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in their self-esteem when it comes to their own power."

He goes on to caricature their opinions, saying that their political positions amount to a reprise of Greta Garbo's: "I want to be left alone."

If the Tea Party has a slogan, it must be something like: "Taxation without representation is tyranny." Isn't this radically different from "I want to be left alone."?

The Tea Party has a strong libertarian side, but it is not based on radical individualism. It represents the side of freedom against government encroachment, thereby representing the best in Anglo-American philosophy and culture. Neither J. M. Bernstein nor Mark Lilla bother to place the Tea Party within the correct philosophical or political context.

Lilla does not, however, understand why the Tea Party exists. But since he also feels contempt for it, he also manages to trivialize its concerns.

In his words: "They are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught; how much of their paycheck they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seatbelts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can ear, how much soda they can drink... the list is long."

Does Lilla like being told what counts as news? Is he happy to accept whatever he is told to think about global warming? Does he care about how much of his paycheck he keeps? Does he believe that parents should not be allowed to object when their children are being taught to disdain their nation and tradition?

I suspect he does not. Why then does he not respect that the increasing encroachment of government, and especially of unelected bureaucrats, into private lives might be a just cause for protest? Why does he not understand that some people to get angry and to want to organize to express their political opinions? Isn't this integral to our own political tradition?

Tea Party activists and many other citizens have other reasons for being angry. We can expand Lilla's list by adding that many of these people voted for Barack Obama, only to remark that the Obama they voted for, the moderate centrist, the man who was going to bring the nation together, was, after January 20, 2009, nowhere to be found. People felt that they had been duped, tricked, even defrauded. Might that not cause a reasonable person to feel anger?

And why would people not feel angry when it sees its government spending the nation into fiscal oblivion-- adding 2.4 trillion to the national debt all by itself-- while pursuing a government takeover of healthcare that it did not want?

Does this feel like radical individualism, or a protest against a government that is not responsive to the will of the people?

Wanting to circumscribe the powers of the government is not the same as wanting there to be no government.

And let's not forget that large numbers of people are angry that their president has been flying around the world apologizing for America. And that he has shown himself more than willing to appease state sponsors of terror while attacking the one country in the Middle East that embodies our values.

Why would that not make good American citizens angry?

Others have had it about up to here with the condescension and slander that is being handed out by people like Mark Lilla. They are certainly angry about being systematically disrespected because they do not adhere to the dogmas of modern liberalism.

J. M. Bernstein indulges a rather charming, if silly, version of mythmaking to explain the Tea Party. Apparently, all of these activists had been laboring under an infantile illusion: they had thought that they were free, independent, sovereign individuals. The financial crisis showed the need for government intervention and thus shattered their illusion. And like petulant children or jilted lovers, they react in anger... not so much to reality but to the crash of their belief system.

In his words: "This is the rage and anger I hear in the Tea Party movement: it is the sound of jilted lovers furious that the other-- the anonymous blog called simply 'government'-- has suddenly let them down, suddenly made clear that they are dependent and limited beings, suddenly revealed them as vulnerable."

Of course, Bernstein is a philosopher. In his case that means that he does not allow facts to get in the way of his storytelling.

In his mind, the Tea Party activists are angry that they are vulnerable; they need but accept their vulnerability, their feminine side, and all will be well. They cannot accept adult dependency on government or mandated limits on their freedom, because they have not had enough therapy.

As it happens, most of these Tea Party activists did not depend on government for their livelihood. They worked for what they earned. They participated in the free market. Perhaps the government set the rules and standards, but that does not mean that they were dependent on government. Or that they should not feel that they should have a say in the disposition of what they earned.

It is also incorrect to say that these people had bought into the myth of what Bernstein calls the sovereign individual. Quite the contrary. Most of them, I would guess, belong to religious congregations. They are happy to belong to communities and to obey the rules that make them upstanding members of these groups.

If they or their children join the military to fight wars, then that surely contradicts the notion that they have ever seen themselves as sovereign individuals. And if they live in communities with like minded individuals, this does not mean, as I see it, that they are defining themselves in terms of some mythic version of individual human sovereignty.

If they want to be free to take responsibility, that is not, as Lilla surely knows from his study of Isaiah Berlin, the same as being free from responsibility.

Tea Party goers do not want to be coddled and protected; they want to take their own risks, even if that means suffering the consequences. They object to the encroachment of the Nanny state further and further into their everyday lives.

Does this make them into jilted lovers? And if so, of what were they the lovers? How can you be what Bernstein calls a sovereign individual and still place so much stock on whether or not your romantic advances elicit a warm response?

Let's close here with a thought experiment. For those like Bernstein and Lilla who advise us to adapt to our increasing dependence on government, and on our weakness and vulnerability, I would ask them this. What if this government were to decide one day to limit and restrict a woman's access to abortion? Would these left thinking intellectuals advise us all to adapt to our dependence on government? Or would they come at us with gales of righteous anger?


Robert Pearson said...

Excellent points, thank you for pointing out these two pieces. I am highly amused by the good Dr. Bernstein's piece; if I read correctly, Tea Partyists are somehow "nihilists" who simultaneously believe in classical liberal values, and they're are very violent, they just haven't committed any actual violence. But they will, if they have no town halls to interrupt.

What twaddle, what dreck. For a man who throws Hegel about like confetti, the Dear Dr. is sadly missing the point--the Tea Party is the antithesis. They seek the synthesis, a rebalancing of a political landscape out of kilter. you would think any Hegelian would understand that.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Robert for your contribution. I hope everyone will have a look at your longer commentary at your blog: