Monday, February 28, 2011

Irony, Identity, and the Tea Party.

I went down to the state capital on Saturday to attend the pro-union rally held to support the fight in Wisconsin. On the opposite side of the street were real live Tea Partiers, the first time I had ever seen them in person. 

The primary impression I came away with was that Tea Partiers, in person, do not seem nearly as intimidating or scandalous as they do on TV. I don’t know why I had this response – perhaps it was because I knew precisely what to expect, and I’ve seen so much footage of Tea Partiers that to see them in person was simply more of the same. 

Tea Partiers in Sacramento this weekend.

But I think there was something else. There was something about seeing them in the flesh that humanized these people – all they were, after all, were people on the other side of the street holding signs which said some very historically inaccurate things on them. (My favorite was one that read UNIONS = COMMUNISM.) But on top of the sensation that these were not people to spend too much time getting upset about, the sense of the futility of the whole exercise was acute. Rallies can make good television, and they are a good way to network with likeminded people and energize movements – but they aren’t a place where any fundamentally new politics will be brewed between combatants.*

I mentioned to my companion that had I more guts, I would go over to the Tea Partiers and try to start a conversation about why they believe what they believe, and offer some factual correctives. My friend doubted, however, that my reluctance had much to do with my guts but probably more to do with my common sense, as this was unlikely to go down well. I had to concur. There was no way I was going to stroll over there and, no matter how polite I was, challenge the deeply held beliefs that most Tea Partiers have built a sense of identity around. At one point, the pro-union ralliers and the Tea Partiers were simultaneously chanting “Shame on you!” at each other, which was a particularly humorous caricature of the state of political discourse in the country. 

Considering that historically, unions have had more to do with keeping immigrants out of the country, this one was particularly funny.

I like rallies, which remind me that some political consciousness on the Left does still exist, and I will continue to go to the ones that support causes I believe in. But if they are the best we can do, we are in trouble. It is ironic that the Right loves to complain about how identity politics have ruined American governance – and there are many, many problems with identity politics indeed – because sitting there watching working-class and middle-class workers protest against their own self-interest, their own weekends, and benefits, and eight hour work days, I thought, there is nowhere in the country where identity politics is more powerful than in the Tea Party. If you keep that in mind, it is actually quite easy to listen to Tea Partiers screaming at you and feel, in fact, a deep sense of empathy.
* I don't mean to suggest that political rallies never do this; after all, what is happening in Wisconsin is an example of the possible when a run of the mill rally becomes a full-fledged protest movement. But typically, when the event is more scripted performance than grass-roots awakening, they posit nothing new but do serve the function of giving voice to those who they represent. Which is not nothing, but is also only so much, depending on how much power in the political process the protesters possess. 


Ann Sutherland said...

Robin Marie, thanks for blogging. We wondered what had been going on in Davis.

Congrats on the success of your Krugman comment.

My family is from Davis; we are now in Texas and missing it. Good luck to you.

Ann Sutherland, Ph.D.
Trustee, Fort Worth ISD

Sean H said...

Nice job on the NYTimes comment. I'd rather see comments from people like you rated at the top than the usual three or four people who stay on NYTIMES . com 24/7 waiting for new articles to come out, then immediately being the first to comment on them. I'm referring to Marie Burns, Winning Progressive guy from Chicago, et al.

So bravo for at least beating all but M Burns! Get some new blood in the mix and represent Davis and north central CA. I went to UC Davis for my undergrad and I worked for Voluntary Legal Services (helping the poor get legal aid) in Sacramento for a year. While many from other parts of CA said Davis smelled awful and they hated it, I loved it there. It's odd that nobody there appreciates going to college next to Sacramento. They all just can't wait to drive back to SF, LA, or SD.

Ah memories... I loved riding my bike down the big and safe bike lanes of Davis. First loves, all that. Anyway, keep fighting the fight against the Tea Party people. Conservatives have very strong hidden beliefs and assumptions underlying everything they say. In fact, I'd say many vote Republican solely because of these underlying macrobeliefs / philosophy, regardless of who is running or what they say.

Family, America over the world, Christianity, white culture, capitalism, and the idea that we are born just to work and make money, and work hard at that. Much of the time unsaid, but always present. There world is crumbling right now because of a move away from traditional families, religions, and an influx of immigrants from south of the border.

I'm not a PhD or anything like the last person who posted here, but I do have a JD and am an attorney, for what that is worth nowadays, with me and close to 70% of my graduating class unemployed! -Sean

Robin Marie said...

@Ann/Sean, both friends of Davis: Nice to hear from some Davisites (Davisidians?). I myself went to undergrad in San Diego, and much prefer the lifestyle up here, especially since I grew up in Nor Cal. But I am also yearning for a somewhat more urban environment, maybe something along the lines of Seattle or Madison. But in the meantime this is an excellent place to study and also take care of my dog, as Davis is a great dog town.

@Sean: I wrote a much earlier piece, on another now-dead blog (maybe I'll repost it here sometime) that most arguments, if you could really put them in the crucible of discussion long enough, would whittle down to some basic assumptions that differ at the core. Once we've taken the time to waddle through what is true and what is not, that is, and what are reasonable interpretations of facts and what are not. Just one of those, for conservatives for example, is that human beings are primarily sinful. Now, I don't think most liberals would deny at all that human beings are sinful, but I don't think we usually believe that it constitutes our very nature, but that we are a complex mix of selfish and altruistic motives. But with conservatives, they are so disillusioned and hurt (and often ashamed of themselves) that human beings can be bad at all that it poisons the entire well for them.

That is just one. There are so many others. I could probably actually write up a series of post on them. Thanks for the inspiration :).

Draft Spitzer said...

Dear Robin,
Did it occur to you that you might do more to "challenge" the ideas of the tea partiers if you walked over, greeted them warmly, asked them what their concerns were, listened intently, and then -gasp!- with the intelligence one might hope to see in a grad student of U.S. History, ask some leading questions for which you do not necessarily need to provide answers.

To plant the seed of a question in their minds... that's the smart way to challenge assumptions.

Try it sometime. I have, and lived to tell the tale. These people will not bite you. They will listen to you, and likely ruminate on your question for months or years afterward.

But I would find it disappointing if a grad student in HISTORY lacks the intellectual adventurousness necessary to make contrubutions to that field.

Robin Marie said...

Hi Draft -- I believe that, for the most part, that is exactly what I was suggesting. After all, I don't believe these people do not have grievances or reasons for what they believe -- I just believe that when it comes to sweeping, large-scale causes of their problems, they misidentify the sources of them.

We might disagree, however, on the point about whether or not to ask questions without offering your own answers to them - to be rejected or accepted, of course. I am all for open dialogue, and listening -- but if someone makes a claim to me that I know to factually inaccurate (such as, taxes on the wealthy have been getting higher and higher, while in fact they have been doing down since the 1960s), I am not going to abstain from saying, "no, that isn't true - here's why, here is a source you can look at to back this up, you don't have to take it from me."

Now, if you are talking about asking broader philosophical questions, I am more on board with that. But behind every such question is a value judgment, whether we decide to acknowledge it or not - and perhaps we would not so as not to offend these people or put them on the defensive. But is there not also something condescending about the Platonic style of asking a question and pretending to not have answered it for yourself? I agree we should be open minded to the reflections of others, but I do not think that precludes offering our own perspective, directly, for contemplation. And then of course, what they do with that is up to them and, I am also in a position to learn from them something I had not perhaps considered before.