Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Tea Party Daisy Chain

On May 27, the New York Review of Books published an essay by Mark Lilla titled "The Tea Party Jacobins". On June 13, the New York Times published a blog piece by J.M. Bernstein called "The Very Angry Teaparty". On June 16, I'm continuing the Tea Party party with this analysis of those two works.

Lilla's essay describes the composition of the "Tea Party" movement, how it came about, and what it means. At least from his point of view. Bernstein goes on to agree with most of what Lilla says but maintains that it's not enough, that the Tea Partiers are even more reprehensible and dangerous than Lilla knows. Lilla characterizes the people that make up the Tea party movement as:

"Many Americans, a vocal and varied segment of the public at large, have now convinced themselves that educated elites—politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers—are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say 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 paychecks 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 eat, how much soda they can drink…the list is long. But it is not a list of political grievances in the conventional sense."

Not much argument with that. He goes on to say:

". . . we need to see it as a manifestation of deeper social and even psychological changes that the country has undergone in the past half-century. Quite apart from the movement’s effect on the balance of party power, which should be short-lived, it has given us a new political type: the antipolitical Jacobin. The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers."

Well, perhaps Mr. Lilla, an historian at Columbia University and a good example of the very people that the new Jacobins distrust, should examine American history a little more closely. First there was Shay's Rebellion in 1786 in western Massachusetts. Then in 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion pitted independent-minded Pennsylvanians against federal government tax collectors in a genuinely violent confrontation. They didn't win but the whiskey excise was repealed by the Jefferson administration in 1803. Of course there's also the War Between the States, where federalist policies condemned 618,000 men and boys to death because some of them didn't want to go along with Lincoln's agenda. Later, Coxey's Army marched on Washington and in 1932 the 43,000 member Bonus Army marched on the capital and was routed by McArthur, Eisenhower and Patton. Apart from that, there's always been a distrust of big government in the US. Homegrown anarchists like Lysander Spooner and international figures like Herbert Spencer had large followings in the 19th century and their ideas continue to be considered even today. Self-reliance and distrust of a remote, byzantine government are indeed part of the American psyche. DeToqueville mentions it. So Lilla's idea that this is an unusual or recent development is simply wrong.

Lilla sums up his analysis: 'Now an angry group of Americans wants to be freer still—free from government agencies that protect their health, wealth, and well-being; free from problems and policies too difficult to understand; free from parties and coalitions; free from experts who think they know better than they do; free from politicians who don’t talk or look like they do (and Barack Obama certainly doesn’t). They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and then hear someone on television tell them they’re right. They don’t want the rule of the people, though that’s what they say. They want to be people without rules—and, who knows, they may succeed. This is America, where wishes come true. And where no one remembers the adage “Beware what you wish for.” '

Ergo Americans that object to an ever-growing, ever-expanding, money-devouring federal bureaucracy, all but a few of whom have never been elected, are simply being stupid. Inasmuch as Lilla's piece has an easily refutable proposition in almost every paragraph, Bernstein, another ivory tower resident, feels compelled to not only defend Lilla but expand on his thesis. Bernstein adds the fact, over twenty-five times in his short blog entry, that the Tea Party folks are angry, with "seething anger", "fierce anger", "passionate anger", and "tea party rage". And where does this rage originate? Bernstein's theory is this:

"My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding."

Got that? Tea Partiers are consumed with rage because they're not self-sufficient and totally dependent on government. That kind of logic might go over on the upper West Side or Telegraph Hill but you won't get much agreement at a table in Hodey's Barbecue in Dalhart, Texas or at the bar in the Bullpen in Safford, Arizona or at the counter in the Poor Boy Restaurant in Delta Junction, Alaska. Everybody recognizes that the federal government has a big thumb on the country. Unlike the urban coasts, in small town and rural America the federal government is a visible presence, the US Forest Service, Dept. of Agriculture, Bureau of Land Management, EPA are a high percentage of the human beings and jobs in the neighborhood. And a lot of what they do is not helpful to the local residents, for instance the re-introduction of the Mexican grey wolf into the Southwest. No federal employee is holding their hand and nobody expects them to do so. All they want is to be left alone.

Now Bernstein gets really interesting. ". . . the very idea of the autonomous subject is an institution, an artifact created by the practices of modern life: the intimate family, the market economy, the liberal state. Each of these social arrangements articulate and express the value and the authority of the individual; they give to the individual a standing she would not have without them." In other words, our individuality is given us by outside agencies, basically the state. Kind of a 180 degree departure from even statists like Alexander Hamilton.

We wouldn't expect Bernstein to just advance such a proposition without some kind of philosophical reinforcement and of course he has some, the ideas of Georg Hegel: ". . . Hegel argued that we only become self-determining agents through being recognized as such by others who we recognize in turn. It is by recognizing one another as autonomous subjects through the institutions of family, civil society and the state that we become such subjects; those practices are how we recognize and so bestow on one another the title and powers of being free individuals." Of course there is a direct line from the concepts of Hegel to those of Bismarck and later statists:

"The common root of National Socialism and Marxistic socialism is Hegel's salvation through the state. The German atheistic philosopher Ernst Topitsch has shown that National Socialism and Marxism are only the best known examples of the right and left wing totalitarian state ideas that followed Hegel's philosophy which saw the Prussian state as the final outcome of the spirit governing world history. Hegel's philosophy was heavily influenced by the French revolution and Freemasonry, as some of his followers have shown to relieve him from being responsible for the Prussian and German idea that the state is above everything and the people live for the state. But they did not understand that the left and right revolutionists understand the same message of Hegel as the Prussian kings and the Marxists and national socialists after they had come to power: salvation comes through the state."

In his biography of Bismarck, Edward Crankshaw says: ". . . Hegel . . . to preach in the end the glorification of the state. He spoke of the state not as a patriot or a politician but as a philosopher. Everything that a man was, he owed to the state. The state was the highest manifestation of human existence, all individual wills subordinated to the supreme good. It was God walking among men, the divine idea as its manifests itself on earth. Mankind advanced from the primitive community by a dialectical process, thesis and anti-thesis, until the grand culmination in one global community which must be attained, inevitably by war and conquest.
How very odd that this one man, this abstract thinker from Stuttgart, should inspire the two supreme material phenomena of the twentieth century--Prussian militarism and Russian Communism."

Evidently, Bernstein believes most New York Times readers are unfamiliar with Hegel. He could be right. He finalizes with:

"In truth, there is nothing that the Tea Party movement wants; terrifyingly, it wants nothing. Lilla calls the Tea Party “Jacobins”; I would urge that they are nihilists. To date, the Tea Party has committed only the minor, almost atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods, calumny and the disruption of the occasions for political speech — the last already to great and distorting effect. But if their nihilistic rage is deprived of interrupting political meetings as an outlet, where might it now go? With such rage driving the Tea Party, might we anticipate this atmospheric violence becoming actual violence, becoming what Hegel called, referring to the original Jacobins’ fantasy of total freedom, “a fury of destruction”? There is indeed something not just disturbing, but frightening, in the anger of the Tea Party."

Somehow I'm not frightened, but maybe I'm more uninformed than I thought. It is kind of scary, however, to encounter the non-Republicans that attend Republican national conventions. And the bystanders at G-8 summits can make one nervous. But they're not disturbing or frightening, are they?

What should two tenured academics have to fear from government? Their positions are safe, they make extra cash writing Democrat, statist apologia, they don't have to meet a payroll, they've never had cockle burrs in their socks. The unwashed masses, with a somewhat different vision of day to day life and a different system of beliefs and morality, see things from a more individualistic perspective. Aware or not of Hegel, they reject his philosophy.

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