Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tea Party Individualism

I was so enamored by Kateb's treatment of Whitman that I completely forgot last post why I picked up his book in the first place. Whitman does that to me.

I initially started exploring this question of the individual about a year ago because the term is incredibely imortant to Tea Partiers and the play of this term if fascinating for three reasons:
  • It's a very liberal term. I mean liberal here in the strictest tradition of theoretical texts from Locke moving forward that position government as arranged to protect individual freedoms by establishing a social contract. The United States, let us not forget, is a nation heavily influenced by these liberal principals. The Declaration itself borrows heavily from Locke. The Constiution itself, as Kateb rightly assumes, is a social contract. 
  • The Tea Party is conservative. Political theorists, myself included, have never really been good at working out where conservatives fit in the liberal tradition that backs this country's politics. Usually, the definition replaces Burke and de Maistre's aristocracy with property owners, something more fitting for a liberal society. But what doesn't change is that conservatives are suspicious of people and don't think that everyone's ideas are the best, something contrary to the strictest liberal tradition. Of course the other question we might consider is that liberalism is more conservative than we like to think (but that's a post for another day.) 
  • Despite this, the Tea Party grounds its vocabulary in the liberal tradition making the words they use operate in interesting ways.
Which is what makes this Tea Party individual very interesting. I read something fascinating when the whole La Raza studies thing in AZ blew up. One of the primary backers of the ban made the following statement several times: I believe people are individuals, not exemplars of racial groups.

This statement is funny because conservatives as a general rule do not enjoy levelling people into a mass of indivdiuals with equal opportunity. That is a distincly liberal sensibility. But the term as it is used by the Tea Party reconciles itself with the group's conservative world-view because the individual they imagine is very, very specific.

Here I'm thinking of the poll covered in the NYTimes last year that shows Tea Party backers are more like to be male, wealthy, and white, a cohort that is decidedly within the American conception of conservatism and conservatism as a whole.

I don't think a Tea Partier would deny their conservatism (Glenn Beck's recent comments on Egypt sounded a bit like Edmund Burke-light, except Burke might have had more sympathy for Egypt than does Beck.) What I am suggesting is that Tea Partiers toss about the word individual because they can't quite figure out how to seperate the vocabulary they were born with from the vocabulary they really want to use. This, to me, is fascinating because they claim for themselves a conservation of this country's founding liberal ideals when what they suggest is quite the shift away from the true meaning of the vocabulary on which our social contract is founded.

Like I said, fascinating.

Things I Read While Writing This:
The Inner Ocean by George Kateb
Polling the Tea Party in the NYTimes 
Press Release from the State of Arizona Department of Education [note: The phrase I'm talking about here was stated many times in articles about this subject, but the links I bookmarked a few months ago stopped working save this one]
And if you're interested in conservatism in general, Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke is a classic as is Joseph de Maistre's Considerations on France. For a more modern take, Oakshott  will tell you a lot about British conservatism. On the American side, let's not forget Ralph Reed and Robert Bork. I suggest you only read these if you think you are a conservative and want to know more. If you are generally a progressive liberal (and here use the word like how people use it in the media), these will make you want to gouge your eyes out with forks, so just read the Wikipedia entries.

Something that is not pretentious to clear your palate:
This is my anthem when the news depresses me. This is a cold war - you better know what you're fighting for.

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