Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Everyone a Cincinnatus (?)

As it happens, I was just talking to a friend who knows some people who work for BP, and the BP people had mentioned to her how distorted news coverage of the event was, from the inside BP perspective. Mind, these are not executive level people charged with meeting the public and explaining the ways of the corporation to the world; these are people just trying to do their job and make a living. I've had that experience before, that the narrative I knew was not the narrative being presented in the press; or in the local gossip of the community, which is really all that "news" amounts to (no, really. I'm serious). Narratives, I thought; it all comes down to narratives; and in our narratives we don't all speak the same language. Ricouer was right; and so was Wittgenstein. Now put that in the context of this:

This, I think, is the deepest reason why public reaction to the crash of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama took a populist turn and the Tea Party movement caught on. The crash not only devastated people’s finances and shook their confidence in their and their children’s future. It also broke through the moats we have been building around ourselves and our families, reminding us that certain problems require a collective response through political institutions. What’s more, it was a catastrophe whose causes no one yet fully understands, not even specialists who know exactly what derivatives, discount rates, and multiplier effects are. The measures the federal government took to control the damage were complex and controversial, but there was general agreement that at some point it would have to intervene to prevent a worldwide financial collapse, and that without some sort of stimulus a real depression loomed. That, though, is not at all what people who distrust elites, who want to “make up their own minds,” and who have fantasies of self-sufficiency want to be told. Apparently they find it more satisfying to hear that these emergency measures were concocted to tighten government’s grip on their lives even more. It all connects.
The narrative is everything, and already the financial crisis is being superseded by the oil well pumping millions of gallons into the Gulf, and not just because it is the most recent crisis: it is also the most visible. Nobody is (yet) using the language of Naomi Klein in reverse, and arguing this blowout is simply an excuse to tighten government's grip on their lives (I find, more and more, the concept of the "shock doctrine" is just a matter of perspective). Unemployment and a slowing economy and even hedge funds, are abstractions compared to pictures of oily beaches and oily birds and videotape of shrimpers and fishers talking about how they can't work, or boom floating on the water essentially doing nothing (as boom does). This morning on NPR I heard the closest thing to a conspiracy theory this crisis has prompted, when one angry man averred that, had this oil spill occurred off Hawaii, Obama would never have let it get to shore. I recognize that sentiment, even as I recognize the error. There are 4000 oil wells in the Gulf Coast, but the ones that get attention or never get drilled, are the ones planned for the coast off Martha's Vineyard or Carmel, California. I exaggerate, of course, but the Gulf is known, if it's known at all, as the "Redneck Riviera," and as a nation, we don't really care about "rednecks." So the sense that, if it happen in the Gulf, nobody really cares, is palpable, and real. This is the first time in my life I've seen national concern with a pollution event in the Gulf. Even though we may have heard of the "dead zone" created at the Mississippi Delta every year due to run off from Midwestern fields, nobody's boycotted corn products in protest, or picketed a Fritos factory. In fact, nobody really cares. But that only proves this kind of anger on the Gulf is not new, and it's not conspiratorial, and it doesn't fit into the thesis of that review at the New York Review of Books. But I wonder if this massive leak won't be the crisis that proves government can, and must, be a central player in our lives.

It's a grand irony, of course, to speak of the perfidiousness of government on cable television and talk radio, two means of communication which wouldn't exist without government regulation. Nor does anyone want to shut down the FDA, or the FAA, or privatize Social Security or Medicare. The famous cry when the Tea Party was still neither a "party" nor necessarily serving tea, was that we should get the government out of the people's Medicare. So much for coherency, and I won't seek that as carefully as the article does. But we seem to be a people who react to crisis, who require crisis to shape us, and I think that is a narrative we've been telling ourselves since World War II.

I opened up Anthony Bourdain's newest book, and found the chapter in which he slams Alice Waters for her elitist opinions about food in public schools, and how more Americans need to spend their money on organic meat and micro-greens, rather than on Nike shoes (which apparently is all that the non-wealthy Americans who don't frequent Chez Panisse waste their money on, and why they end up at McDonald's; at least, per Mr. Bourdain's characterization of Ms. Waters). She insists this needs to be done on the level of the public schools, and that such a program is of national importance. But that's not what struck me (not as much as it struck Mr. Bourdain); what struck me was her argument for such a program: it was, she said, a matter of national security.

Before you scoff knowingly at such absurdity, consider how broadly "national security" has been applied since World War II. Harry Truman used it to shut down a railroad strike in 1946. He used it to turn the OSS into the CIA and to establish the national security state we now know and love (or loathe). The federal interstate highway system was sold, not as an improvement for interstate commerce or to bind the nation together, but as a matter of national security. Eisenhower sold it as the "National Defense Highway System," and to this day DOD is still involved in it. Later Ike warned us against the "military industrial complex," which has been built on the alleged threat to our national security, at first represented by the USSR, and now represented by "Islamic terrorists." When Sputnik went into orbit around the planet, "national security" demanded a response, and we got the "New Math." It was a national educational initiative promoted as a matter of "national security." The fact is, our national identity, an identity forged in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the experience of World War II, is that we must be a combined 50 states gathered under one central government, for the purpose of national security. This was hardly the national concern before that war; since that war, it has not only become the national obsession, but the national identity.

The crisis is always external: that we will be attacked again, as at Pearl Harbor; as on 9/11. The response is always federal: only the government, the federal government, can protect us.

And now we face the blowout of the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf. And neither the private autonomy of the Sixties nor the economic autonomy of the Eighties provides any answer to this problem. It isn't a crisis on the scale of the Great Depression nor of World War II, but it is already undoing decades of anti-government rhetoric. Now Sarah Palin challenges President Obama to contact her because, as a half-term governor of Alaska, she had experience dealing with oil-spilling oil companies (or so she says), and even John Boehner has to insist the government will not spend taxpayer money cleaning up a mess caused by a multi-national corporation. Suddenly all the verities of autonomy, individual and economic, are being set aside by the loudest cheerleaders of those supposed national ideals, and one demand is being made: the government must fix this. Obama must fix this. Suddenly, again, the government is our only recourse.

And, of course, we have to drill for oil: it's a matter of national security.

Now what? The disconnect will probably continue: no one who criticizes "big government" seems to realize the biggest part of that government is the Department of Defense, which is never criticized from the right (unless DOD wants to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"). How many of those critics realize the DOD keeps tabs on Federal highways as means for transportation of troops and equipment? Considering the original rationale for the interstate system was to allow evacuate cities in times of crisis, and the line of cars that made a packing lot out of I-45 from Houston to Dallas when Rita threatened the Texas Gulf Coast, one wonders exactly what kind of contingency plans such DOD monitoring includes. But such issues never come up, because our reaction to government in our lives is always a reaction to abstractions. We grumble when we have to stand in line to renew a driver's license, or we complain that government should get out of our Medicare, but we never argue that police shouldn't regulate traffic (at least until they pull us over), or that firemen shouldn't put out fires, or that ambulances shouldn't be government owned (I see very few private ambulances on the streets of Texas cities, and at the state level you'd think we hate government altogether). Or we want government in our lives to be sure our children learn about Newt Gingrich and Phyllis Schlafly, and as little as possible about Thomas Jefferson. So with part of my mind I agree with the thesis of this NYR review, and with part of my mind I think: not so fast.

I could be nit-picky over statements like this: "The conservative media did not create the Tea Party movement and do not direct it; nobody does." Because they did, actually; and they do, as much as any movement is "directed." (The anti-war movement of the Sixties was no more coherent than the Tea Party, and probably no more effective. Even the Civil Rights movement was a hodge-podge of actors, from Dr. King at one end to Malcolm X at another.) But there is abundant evidence that corporate funding created the anxiety and animosity of the Tea Parties, and FoxNews has always been its house media organ. Without FoxNews cheerleading the rallies, as well as organizing them (have we forgotten last summer so soon?), the "Tea Parties" would never have come into existence. They may be no better organized than Ross Perot's party ever was, but somebody with money (Perot in the first case; conservatives and corporations in the new case) had to get the ball rolling. This is not an inchoate group created by political spontaneous generation from a confluence of sociological factors absent the guiding hand of any human actors. This isn't about "withdrawing into 'communities of like-mindedness.' " Honestly, have Americans ever lived in any other kind? There's always been a "wrong side of the tracks" and a "right neighborhood". What has changed is not our willingness to be exclusive, but one of the things the Sixties generation got right: more voices have been brought to the table. I'd say that's more because those voices demanded a place and the baby boomers willingly gave it to them, rather than emphasize the role of the boomers in making that change happen to begin with. But the overall argument of the article on this point is, quite frankly, nonsense. And let's see if we can note a certain inconsistency here:
A familiar American ritual is now being performed in homes across the country. Meetings are being called. Coffee is brewed, brownies baked, hands raised, votes tallied, envelopes licked, fliers mailed. We Americans are inducted into this ritual’s mysteries at an early age, and by the time we reach high school we may not read well but we certainly know how to organize an election campaign and build a homecoming float.

But what happens after the class president is sworn in and the homecoming queen is crowned? The committees dissolve and normal private life resumes. And that, I suspect, is what will happen to the Tea Party organizations: after tasting a few symbolic victories they will likely dissolve. This is not only because, being ideologically allergic to hierarchy of any kind, they still have no identifiable leadership. It is because they have no constructive political agenda, though the right wing of the Republican Party would dearly love to attach its own to them. But the movement only exists to express defiance against a phantom threat behind a real economic and political crisis, and to remind those in power that they are there for one thing only: to protect our divine right to do whatever we damn well please. This message will be delivered, and then the messengers will go home. Every man a Cincinnatus.
This is, of course, the imagined perspective of the East Coast; it's how we all live here in flyover country. That strikes me very much as the narrative of certain sectors of New York City, or at least the East Coast. Coffee brewed, brownies baked? Among whom? Ozzie and Harriet and Donna Reed? Nobody I know does this now. We're all too busy working. The reality of suburban life in the 21st century was better captured by T.S. Eliot at the beginning of the 20th century:

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.

Which is another way of saying this didn't all start happening in 1968, or in 1980. Maybe the retirees who seem to form the bulk of the Tea Party-goers I see on TeeVee still bake brownies and hold coffee klatsches. But I'm simply not sure the "Tea Parties" (several groups still fight over who has claim to that title) are that cohesive. Maybe it's done among the corporate wives and lobbyists who created this "populist" movement, though the women I know from that strata are more likely to have Starbucks cater, and I don't see them mixing with the hoi polloi who screamed at town-halls last August, or decorate straw hats with tea bags and go out in public thinking they are making a political statement. Nor will the Tea Parties dissolve because they've tasted "a few symbolic victories." It will be because they've never been a force in American politics, period. The first politician they claimed to elect, Sen. Brown from Massachusetts, couldn't disavow his connection to them fast enough once he was sworn into office. Rand Paul has been shown to be a buffoon, and Sharon Angle is proceeding down the same path. How many voters, really, are going to resonate to Rick Barber's call to impeach Obama and start a revolt against the IRS? Even in Texas the most conservative members of the Board of Education lost in a GOP primary (!), after the fiasco of the textbook selection and curriculum review. As Jon Stewart noted, only one incumbent lost last Tuesday in the primaries in several states, and that was a sitting Governor who had annoyed and offended almost everyone. Surely if the Tea Party had any influence to wield, it would have done so then. The Tea Party will dissolve because it has served the purpose of its corporate founders; not because the sentiments expressed have changed the course of America, or satisfied the people painted like movie villains and carrying rifles at public gatherings.

The "Tea Parties" will go the way of Ross Perot's party: dissolving in frustration and bickering and unable to do the very hard work of organizing. Anybody remember what impact Ross Perot had on American politics? I didn't think so. But the failure won't be because every man or woman is his or her own Cincinnatus. It will be because organizing is hard. It takes a central figure, a common ideal. Christian churches have that, in the guise of Luther or Charles Wesley or one's own ancestors, or the Pope. Lose that, shatter the ideal, and the center cannot hold, because there is no center anymore. In the case of the "Tea Parties" (and which one is entitled to that name?), there never was one. Ross Perot's party fell apart when he lost interest in it. The "Tea Parties" have never gotten that far. And even the comparison to Cincinnatus is wrong, except in the archest sarcasm: nothing the Tea Partiers have done has called for the slightest sacrifice from them. Theirs is the Church of Meaning and Belonging, not the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging. It's an old, old model, in other words, not a recently created one woven from the strands of American culture in the last 40 years. And it's a model that never, ever, survives the buffets of the winds of change. In fact, it's usually a huddling place from them.

That said, it probably won't surprise you to learn I think this is exactly right:

But the blame does not fall on Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or the Republican Party alone. We are experiencing just one more aftershock from the libertarian eruption that we all, whatever our partisan leanings, have willed into being. For half a century now Americans have been rebelling in the name of individual freedom. Some wanted a more tolerant society with greater private autonomy, and now we have it, which is a good thing—though it also brought us more out-of-wedlock births, a soft pornographic popular culture, and a drug trade that serves casual users while destroying poor American neighborhoods and destabilizing foreign nations. Others wanted to be free from taxes and regulations so they could get rich fast, and they have—and it’s left the more vulnerable among us in financial ruin, holding precarious jobs, and scrambling to find health care for their children. We wanted our two revolutions. Well, we have had them.
What I'm wondering is: will the disaster in the Gulf be big enough to overcome this conclusion?

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.”
Right now the sentiment is going in exactly the opposite direction, with the only prominent figure in the Gulf area agreeing with that quoted sentiment being Haley Barbour (whose state's beaches are still not fouled by oil; Rick Perry is surprisingly mum on the whole matter, after declaring the blowout an "act of God" he was wisely stopped talking about it). But we do want our narrative, and we want to think its the only one out there.

Grover's Corners is a wondrous place in "Our Town," but who is the "our" in that town? Mexicans? Asians? Blacks? None appear. Politics? Non-existent. It's a lovely ideal, but it's about as realistic as Rick Barber's version of American history, where the US revolution was sparked by a tea tax. Funny, that doesn't appear anywhere in the catalog of grievances Jefferson put in the Declaration of Independence. You don't have to be much of an historian to just read that. Our vision of the American West is equally as distorted. Without government offers of land, and government support for the railroad, California might still be speaking Spanish, and Native Americans might still be living in the lands between the Mississippi River and the California border. The "rugged independence" of Americans is still a myth, a narrative we tell ourselves, with as much basis in fact as George Washington and the cherry tree (that didn't happen, either). And, again, this isn't new:

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximuis, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in his hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....
As Crossan says:

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.
Jon Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus, revised & updated (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 178-79.

This was the story Rome told itself, and it was reinforced through public art (and stories such as that of Cincinnatus) which displayed the military superiority and moral virtue of Rome, as well as the domestic pieties which defined Roman civilization and justified the nature of its existence as preferred by the gods. That's what mass communication is for: reinforcement of conventional wisdom and accepted opinions which serve to reinforce the power structure that prevails. If that narrative is shattered now, perhaps it is simply because a black man occupies the White House. Or because change has come on the heels of medical technology, and all the "old people" who used to be dead and gone, are still around, and still lively enough to complain that things as they are have been changed upon someone's blue guitar. This, too, is no surprise, though no one is paying much public attention to it. What is your memory of the average age of the speakers at the town hall meetings last August? Most of them complaining about government paying for medical care, were probably receiving government paid medical care. Since then they have simply served to draw out the younger people with sillier ideas, like Angle and Barber.

People like Angle and Barber have been telling themselves a story that was never true, but one they want to believe once held America together. The story Rome told itself about its superiority held; until it didn't hold anymore. And then Augustine started telling the story of the City of God, not as a transition away from Rome, but as a protection of his fellow Christians, who were being blamed for the collapse of the empire. And that narrative held for awhile. Luther and then Calvin gave us narratives; and then Bunyan. Maybe we need a new narrative now. I'm not quite sure. What I am sure of, is that the old narrative that has been worn out was woven from strands of the '60's "revolution," and the Reagan "revolution," but that neither were as revolutionary as we think. One was simply white people allowing blacks to finally sit at the table (the civil rights movement didn't start on college campuses nor among white people), and the other was simply a retrenchment after the Vietnam War ended and let the air out of that balloon (most of the "yuppies" of the '80's were modeling themselves on the students of the '60's who went corporate and got jobs after college). The basic American narrative never really changed.

Maybe it's about to. Maybe it's high time it finally did. We'll see.

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