One of the fundamental questions for those who believe in listening, respect, and tolerance for others is what to do with people who appear to us as dominating, certain of their positions, and intolerant of those who disagree with them. A most recent example in the political sphere is the emergence of the tea party movement and the ambiguity of what they represent collectively – a group formed out of anger with simplistic prescriptions for what troubles us – our economy, our communities, and our very souls – or a spirited group of rabble rousers calling us to limit the size of government and renew our faith in god, country, and individual imitative.
What does the tea party represent for our collective wisdom or does it represent the annihilation of wisdom and the descent into chaos?
On the surface, the tea party can simply represent a long and documented American history of intolerance for immigrants, a strong strand of anti intellectualism, and a hyper identification with broad concepts such as freedom and liberty but without depth or subtlety.
In satirizing this pattern of thinking, the comedian Stephen Colbert stated, during testimony to Congress on immigration reform, that “My great grandfather did not travel over 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants.” And in a separate statement, playing on his character of an ultra right wing television host, Colbert promoted his March to Keep Fear Alive by declaring that “America, the Greatest Country God ever gave Man, was built on three bedrock principles: Freedom. Liberty. And Fear — that someone might take our Freedom and Liberty.”
I find much relief in Colbert’s satiric wit, an example how our cultural shadow can be illuminated through humor and how the fragmentation of thought – an immigrant relative used to illustrate his argument against immigration – can be recognized by transforming it into absurdity.
At a deeper level, however, I remain troubled by the implications of the movement and the further polarization it evokes. The enthusiasm of the Obama election has given way, at least for the moment, to despair among many who supported him that the mid term elections will represent a retreat into apathy and fear. From the right Obama is eviscerated for turning away from capitalism to socialism, for trillions of dollars of new Federal spending, and for wanting to raise taxes on individuals who have demonstrated success in the free market economy that is so dear to them. From the left he is chastised for not accomplishing enough with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, for not articulating a new vision of economic progress that challenges the self interest of capitalism, for continued militarism, and for failing to back strongly enough what was viewed as game changing policies such as a public option in health care, a carbon tax, and a faster and more complete withdrawal from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as absurd as it may seem, he is disparaged from all corners for not finding a way to bring us together. I suspect the proper question is not “How is Obama doing?” so much as “How are we doing?”
It is in this larger context that the tea party operates, a polarized electorate creating the conditions for a group of people who feel certain, at least of their distaste of Obama and for what they believe he stands for. And whether their number is three million or thirty million, a political window has opened for them to grow larger, feeding off of the discouragement of those who thought a new day was coming as well as on the desire of an opposition political party to ally itself with new energy. Where does this lead – to collective wisdom or collective folly?
It is at this crossroads that my thinking veers off the conventional lanes of political discussion and goes looking for new perspectives.
Read Part II of this five-part series: The Logic of the Ghost