Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tea, anyone?

I've just read a fascinating article about the "tea party" movement written by Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University. The piece, in the May 27 New York Review of Books, was titled "The Tea Party Jacobins." (The Jacobins' French Revolution made the Boston Tea Party seem like a matter of raising one's pinky as one sipped.)

Lilla's view, refreshingly clear of political rhetoric, argues that the tea party movement should be seen as more important than the derision of liberals might suggest, and more significant than the short-term fate of formerly politically moderate Republican office holders frantically trying to win primary elections.

Instead, he suggests, the movement represents a coming together of two libertarian trends that used to keep Americans apart. The first is the libertarian social upheavals of the 1960s; the second is the libertarian economic policies of Ronald Reagan's 1980s. Decades after the 1960s, most Americans have come to accept (excluding the abortion issue) Sixty's-type ideas such as, for instance, basic fairness for women, blacks and gays and acceptance of out-of-wedlock births. The 1980s brought the now widely accepted conservative idea that government interference in commerce and individual economic decision-making is counterproductive and wrong. Both revolutions have been won, at whatever cost, with whatever benefit. We are more free than we were. But now, rather suddenly, we have a tea party libertarianism that not only involves an irrational, pessimistic distrust of that abstract thing called government; it also includes an equally irrational optimistic feeling that all Americans would be better off making all their decisions.

Lilla concludes: "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 policies and problems too difficult to understand ...free from experts who think they know better than they do .... They want to say what they have to say without fear of contradiction, and 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 remember the adage "Beware what you wish for."

I'm still likely to smirk at goofs holding signs that say: "Keep it up, Jokers. ObamaCare does NOT cover Tar and Feathers." But, as a first-hand observer of the 1960s, I have to wonder: What have we wrought?

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