Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Teabagger Philosophy

It's easy to know what the teabaggers are against.

They hate what they call Big Government.

They hate Big Business.

They hate the political establishment represented by both parties.

They hate Barack Obama and don't think much of John McCain either.

They hate urban elites.

They hate health care reform, TARP, and the economic stimulus package.

They hate a lot.

What's less clear is what they're for. According to this must-read New York Times article by David Barstow, the teabaggers have developed a ramshackle political philosophy -- if that's the word -- based on the Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand, states' rights, a uniquely individual reading of the Constitution, and what must surely be a fragile grasp of George Orwell.

The surface appeal of Orwell echoes throughout teabagger meetings when they invoke the specter of Big Brother as represented by all of the above. But Orwell, although an anti-Stalinist, was a lifelong Socialist, an avowed leftist with a deep commitment to social justice. Although critical of the British political establishment, he remained well within its bounds. If Orwell would have had anything to say about the current health care legislation that the teabaggers so despise, he would almost certainly argue that it did not go far enough. So, it's more than a bit odd that the teabaggers would anoint a man whose diamond-hard intellect and belief in the necessity of a benevolent welfare state are at complete odds with their distrust of elites and government.

Moreover, Orwell would have little truck with Rand's Social Darwinism. Rand, who pretty much rejected everything except hero worship (especially of Ayn Rand -- she once famously compared herself to Aristotle and Aquinas, and presided over an inner circle whose membership depended on adulation of her), espoused the primacy of both property and individual rights without seeming to grasp that the two are finally separate interests that inevitably clash. An atheist who claimed to worship no god other than reason, Rand pursued a curious logic that eliminated altruism and social justice as legitimate cultural values and that argued instead for the moral primacy of laissez-faire capitalism.

That we had eight years of this under the Bush Administration and that it drove the country into a ditch appears to have escaped the teabaggers, although they would no doubt argue that Bush did not go far enough in terms of deregulation, and that that caused the problems we face. And, of course, there's always the question of who would want to live in a society that paid lip service to individual rights while offering no guarantor of them and that paid no heed to the welfare of its citizens as a group.

In Barstow's article, a teabagger looks somewhat regretfully at an all-white teabagger gathering and says unconvincingly that they are not racist. Maybe. But Orwell, who had an unparalleled grasp of language, meaning, and code words, would be quick to point out the racial implications of the talk and signs advocating lynching and gelding, not to mention the emphasis on states' rights. Perhaps a teabagger group in the Pacific Northwest is removed enough from history that it can't internalize the meaning of states' rights to African-Americans. But no group in the south can claim that and pass the laugh test. As long as the 'baggers insist on states rights as a core philosophy, they won't attract minority groups of any kind, as minorities historically have had to look to the federal government for whatever justice they can get. And the naked hatred of President Obama won't be attracting minorities any time soon, either. Leonard Pitts has a thoughtful column on teabaggers and race here.

The teabaggers claim to worship the Constitution; Barstow profiles one who carries a copy with her and reads from it daily. It's strange, then, that they would find common cause with the Austin man who crashed his plane into an IRS office, killing himself and family man father of six who was simply doing his best to make a living. After all, the Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to create the IRS, so the attack on the building was literally an attack on the Constitution itself.

OK. so maybe I'm engaging in a semantic game typical of the liberal elite, although I don't think so. What's inarguable, it seems to me, is that the Constitution is a complex document open to interpretation. It's impossible to know the mind of the Founders because the document evolved over time and was the product of compromise. We know that it isn't perfect because it allowed slavery, was silent on universal manhood suffrage, and denied women the right to vote. It has also been amended 27 times. Moreover, the Constitution has been subject to court cases, academic study, and judicial debate for over 200 years. Of the two great Chief Justices, one (John Marshall) was a conservative whose rulings established the Court as a defender of property and business rights. The other (Earl Warren) was a liberal who interpreted the Constitution as a protector of the individual against corporate and state power.

Legal experts from the reactionary right to the radical left and all points in between have argued for particular interpretations of the Constitution. Historically, it has a latitude wide enough to accommodate both liberal and conservative perspectives. The most an individual can do is find the arguments that most reflects his or her personal and political values and understand the Constitution through that prism. What no one can claim the absolute correctness of an interpretation since no historically established a single perspective. Whether the teabaggers like it or not, objectively speaking the Constitution is an organic document whose meaning adapts to the times and the judicial philosophies of the men and women sitting on the Supreme Court.

And yet, the teabaggers claim to know the one true meaning of the Constitution, which is to them a document that seems to end at the Second Amendment. They're so sure of this that anyone who disagrees with them is not a true American and has committed borderline treason. Hence, the dark hints about a pending civil war between, presumably, those who revere the Constitution and those who defile it. That's what lets them rationalize the undisguised atmosphere of violence, take pride in mob tactics, and shrug off the racist imagery: We're the only ones worth listening to, and if we have to shout you down and make threats to call attention to ourselves, we will. We have to be ready, they believe. If civil war comes, it won't be us who starts it, but you'd better know that we are prepared to fight and die for our country.

It's sad, really. These are people who with some justification feel betrayed by the nation's institutions, aggravating an already deep-seated sense of right-wing aggrievement. Heck, Wall Street and the government let everybody down, except for a few executives who collect fat bonuses no matter what. But the solution must be better than turning the country into an armed camp with every man for himself, fanning the flames of race hatred while waiting for a Randian savior like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck to lead us all to some Libertarian promised land. It's really nothing more than a children's story, a version of Snow White in which the good (white) people are awakened by a kiss from Princess Charming who then vanquishes the evil queens around them. Whatever the Founding Fathers envisioned for the country, surely it wasn't that...

It can happen here, writes David Sirota...


Roy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Roy said...

Oops! Try this again; I seem to have messed up the html code for the link.

ohn Backderf in his comic The City a couple weeks ago summed it all up best, especially the mass pants-wetting at the end. These people are not really known for any knd of intellectual depth. They deserve a moron like Glenn Beck.

K. said...

They may deserve him, but the rest of us don't.

The cartoon was on the money, right down to co-opting Bruce Springsteen. Remember when Reagan tried to use "Born in the USA" as part of his '84 campaign?

I don't get how anyone can think that anger is a legitimate strategy for governing. Howard Zinn used to talk about the indignation of the people being a prerequisite for change. I wonder if he ever realized that this cut both ways?

John Hayes said...

Great post, & the Sirota article sums up what's been scaring me for months now. I do think it's time to start seeing the Teabaggers as not some bunch of irrelevant whack-jobs but as the core of a potential fascist party whose creation could bring unthinkable consequences.

ZenYenta said...

It's amazing how many of the right wing masses don't understand words. They don't, as you pointed out, understand the lyrics to songs by Springsteen or Mellencamp. They don't appear to understand much that's in their favorite book - The New Testament. They're certainly not going to get Orwell or, God forbid, the Constitution. So they can be told it means anything at all and if it suits their personal prejudices they'll eat it right up.

Foxessa said...

" ... the teabaggers have developed a ramshackle political philosophy -- if that's the word -- based on the Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand ..."

Surely, not?

They believe that evolution is a liberal lie and thus Darwin was from satan, and they do believe in religion, while Rand did not! (Except fo the belief in the religion of the Almighty $elf.)

Love, C.

Larry Gambone said...

Whatever they believe about Darwin, they are social Darwinists in their politics. They believe that poverty is a mark of inferiority, and that is the mark of social Darwinism. It is not unusual for people who are motivated by irrational fears to have view this contradictory.

K. said...

A couple of things to keep in mind:

1. This movement has no intellectual underpinnings of any rigor whatsoever. So, there are going to be contradictions. The cite Orwell as an influence, but if he were alive an took them seriously, he'd regard them as a mob to be feared.

2. Although there's overlap between the teabaggers and the religious right, they're not synonymous. And religion -- other than a vague belief in a god that sanctifies American exceptionalism.

3. These people are genuine fanatics. I heard one on the radio today, an unemployed Iraq war veteran who resisted taking full advantage of health benefits that he had coming to him due to his service. He preferred to dip into his nest egg rather than accept what he saw as a government handout. I don't know what to make of someone like this. My first reaction is that he's a sucker for not taking something that he has earned in order to make an ideological point. In his mind, it gave him leeway to tell everyone else to pay for their health care just like he was doing.

Renegade Eye said...

Orwell took a bullet in his neck, fighting fascism in Spain, as a member of POUM.

The Tea Party is split already. They aren't clear, how to relate to the GOP.

They are not grassroots, more astroturf. They were formed by GOP lobby groups.

Steven said...

Let's not forget the Preamble itself. The Baggers certainly have. And it's the most vital part of this document...

K. said...

Ren: There are already signs that that the so-called movement is actually pretty weak. My brother sent me this article, and then there's this, which argues that conservatives are beginning to distance themselves from the 'baggers. Despite getting plenty of press the 'bagger candidate in the Texas Republican gubernatorial primary performed poorly after sympathizing with 9/11 conspirators.

I claim no expertise in internal Republican party politics, but it seems to me that there's the possibility of a complex three-way standoff between the 'baggers, conservative ideologues, and the Republican establishment. The latter wants to co-opt the first two, both of which hold it in disdain. The 'baggers distrust the ideologues as a members of the intellectual elite and despise the establishment, while the ideologues respect neither of the other two. I continue to think that there will be a civil war in 2012.

Above all and despite the rags of darkness in which they've cloaked themselves, this movement is deeply anti-intellectual. They're insecure about this, to be sure, but in the end there's nothing very special about them. As I've written before, they are the latest in a succession of groups in what Richard Hofstadter call the paranoid tradition in American politics. It goes back at least to the Know-Nothings of the 1840' and '50s.

Which reminds me: I didn't mention another group that apparently has strong ties with the 'baggers, namely the John Birch Society, which believe it or not still exists.

Steven: Read the Preamble and it's hard to interpret it other than expansively. But I'll bet that the 'baggers have figured out how to construe it narrowly, precedent and history be damned. For example, the average 'bagger will likely tell you that "We the people of the United States" excludes legal and illegal immigrants and that they therefore have no Constitutional rights. General welfare? This means that anyone suspected of terrorism forfeits due process. You get the idea.

K. said...

ZY: Welcome back! Bruce and John must shake their heads in despair. There are rumors that Mellencamp may run for Evan Bayh's senate seat. Indiana could do worse.

Foxessa said...

Re the John Birch connection you saw the Frank Rich column in the NY Times of Feb. 27, "The Axis of the Obsessed and Deranged":

"A co-sponsor of CPAC was the John Birch Society, another far-right organization that has re-emerged after years of hibernation. Its views, which William F. Buckley Jr. decried in the 1960s as an “idiotic” and “irrational” threat to true conservatism, remain unchanged. At the conference’s conclusion, a presidential straw poll was won by Congressman Paul, ending a three-year Romney winning streak. No less an establishment conservative observer than the Wall Street Journal editorialist Dorothy Rabinowitz describes Paul’s followers as “conspiracy theorists, anti-government zealots, 9/11 truthers, and assorted other cadres of the obsessed and deranged.”

It's a terrific column filled with what needs to be thought about.

Love, C.

K. said...

I meant to thank you for calling my attention to Rich's excellent column, which pretty much drove this blog entry. Thanks!

Foxessa said...

I forgot I did that. [hangs head]

Love, C.

K. said...

Hang your head?! You got me on a soapbox! My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, and I thank you.

Coffee Messiah said...

Always interesting to listen to them, for about a minute or so.

Early on, there was a great video by a lady who started this group:

It's the complete opposite of the tea party.

Check it out. As I said, her short original video was amazing and lucid, unlike the t-bs.


K. said...

Good video. I couldn't find out anything about a possible meeting in my area.

As for the 'baggers, mobs don't care much about lucidity, I'm afraid. These people have their own internal logic founded on false premises that is unassailable.

Foxessa said...

It's taken the Ivory Tower this long to wake up, but they have, it seems.

At least according to the dinner conversation last night after Professor Roach gave his presentation. The alarms expressed by the nicely entrenched liberal professors at the table were what we've been warning for years, and they've kind of shrugged off, for they are immune, with tenure and their enormous business -- Not Prof. Roach himself, who sees all going on around him, most certainly and who will also comment wryly on the very good life he's living thanks to academia and his achievements therein. But the others -- looming fascism is Really New News, at least the way they were talking last night. Even the elderly retired Jewish emerituses were finally think that this looked far too much like what they and / or their parents were experiencing in Austria in the runup to the infamous elections.

Love, c.

Anonymous said...

I find the Orwellian possibility that the majority of teabaggers are simply proles being whipped into a frenzy by big crazy half uncles like Beck, Limbaugh et al too ironic for words. It's fascinating how blindly they worship and follow people who'd sooner use them as traction blocks in a snowstorm as speak to them. Like the line from What happened to Kansas where the french peasants are running wild in the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy who've been buggering them senseless.

K. said...

C: While I doubt that the 'baggers ultimately have much traction unto themselves, I don't doubt their ability to pull the political narrative (and middle) further to the right than it already is. Not that it's a surprise, but the MSM has been utterly negligent in its coverage, treating them as a curious phenomenon without examining its implications. Even the Barstow article, as good as it was, failed on this score.

Rasta: I sincerely believe that if Beck and Limbaugh thought there were higher ratings and more money in being progressive, they'd turn left tomorrow. Both are cynical hucksters without a molecule of principle.

Limbaugh even boasts about the elite clubs and parties he goes, all events that would give the average dittohead the bum's rush if he tried to gain admission. But they lap it and accuse Barack Obama of elitism.

Foxessa said...

K -- um, this? "... MSM has been utterly negligent in its coverage ..."

The media is part and parcel of this on purpose.

Stop expecting this to change. They are owned by the very corporatista forces that are pushing for this control and take-over, and end of democracy. They're about 10, while we are zero about now.

One of the primary reasons for this is that we keep believing the media is 'inadvertently' bolloxing up its journalist ethics. Another is that we think they're stupid. The third is that we think they can be reasoned with. All of these insistent assumptions are wrong.

All of this is deliberate architecture to change the nation, and it's been going on since Nixon.

Love, C.