The media, with some important exceptions like the News Hour with Jim Leher on PBS and The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, seem frustrated by the complexity. “The Educated Assembly” is a much harder meme to promote than “The Enraged Mob,” though if any one of the protests turns ugly, expect that to become the defining narrative of the movement championed by the media.
Without some easy package they struggle for the storyline, and often it has been the paradigm of equivalency on the Right and the Left.
You can almost imagine the producers sitting in the daily news meeting saying something like, “Hey! These folks are protesting something. Don’t we have a template for economic populism in the can? Can’t we toss something together about them being just like the Tea Party, but with less country music!”
Americans are conditioned, by the media and by the nature of a two party political system (and, on a deeper level by a dualistic religious tradition) to see the world as constantly self-reflecting. But when applied to the Right and the Left in the United States, it is a fully false equivalency. I know that sounds more smarty-pants than Surly, but follow me.
How often have you watched a Sunday morning bobble-head show and seen some overpaid hairstyle dismiss the bad behavior of a congressman or senator by noting that “the same thing happens on both sides of the aisle.” With the ubiquity of that trope, it is difficult in public discourse to note that there are actual, factual differences between the Right and the Left in American politics, not just in form but in function.
This truth is particularly apparent when it comes to The Tea Party on the one hand and the 99 Percenters on the other. And the difference is rooted in how both of those subsets of the American political scene understand the world.
Surly Readers, it’s epistemological.
I’ve been trying to tree this particular argument for years now and looking at the poles of political debate as they now exist, I’m more sure than ever than I’m right. I’m 45 Surly Years Old, and I’ve watched my generation fracture along one basic fault line. My generation, with a bleed-over into the one before and the ones that have come since, grew up during an era of collapsing institutions and increasing complexities. The John Wayne’s World image of an America that always wore the white hat was mangled by the post-World War II empire. Even if Americans didn’t know the details of Operation PBSUCCESS in Guatemala, or the coup against Mosaddegh in Iran or the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in Congo, we sure as hell saw through the lie of our inherent purity in jungles of Vietnam. My earliest memory of the news was when my mother called her Surly Child into the living room to watch the end of that pointless war. Walter Cronkite intoned sonorously as the helicopters took off from the Embassy roof in Saigon and a montage of images played out on the screen. I remember distinctly the picture of a baby who had been shot through the belly. I remember thinking that baby looked like a jelly doughnut.
I knew it was wrong for reasons I could feel, but not in any way explain. Why would someone shoot a baby? It didn’t make any sense. I wanted to know why so that I could help to fix it.
Once I joined the debate in earnest, in college, the world’s increasing complexity was omnipresent: Should we use nuclear power? How can we prevent nuclear proliferation? How can we feed a growing population? Should we use petroleum based fertilizers? What about global climate change? How will that impact different latitudes as new diseases become endemic?
My generation, and the ones that have come after have had to face a world that is assailed on all sides by problems of truly global complexities, and that impact upon one another. To solve one problem is to cause another problem. What is the calculus to be employed in when dealing with such differentials, coefficients and variables?
And how people addressed that complexity defines the political debate in the United States to this day.
Some of us decided that if we were going to live morally in this maddening world, then we were going to have to read, study, think and discern. A lot and all the time. We were going to have to challenge authorities and triangulate towards truth in a universe that was relativistic. We were going to have to consider our Smith and our Ricardo, but also our Zinn and our Chomsky. We were going to have to learn more than just the cartoon versions of the civil rights movement, the labor movement and environmentalist movement that came before us. We were going to have to study and think and relearn and grow. We were going to have to know about Glass-Steagall and the public option and the thousand other issues at hand in the public discourse. At the end, we were going to have to think about everything.
But then there are those who turned in the other direction and decided that the way to live in an increasingly complex world was to rely on ever more simplistic responses — ones that come from the Bible, or Milton Friedman, or drive-time talk radio.
This, at root, is the difference between the 99 Percenters and the Tea Party. Writ more largely, it’s the difference between the Right and the Left, as well.
Think about it this way: at town hall meetings the 99 Percenters have worked out a silent, peaceful way to build consensus. When the Tea Party goes to town hall meetings, they shout the speaker down.
These are fundamentally different ways of thinking. They are not opposite sides of the same coin. Not at all.
Who passes for a “thinker” on the Right in 2011? Rush Limbaugh? Ron Paul? Herman Cain? Michele Bachman? What they have in common are simplistic, doctrinaire answers to the web of social, economic, political and moral issues that vex our world.
That, and they are all wrong.
You don’t resolve the problems of a multi-religious society by, as Herman Cain recently and repeatedly suggested, barring Muslims from serving in the Presidential Cabinet. You don’t resolve to fix the problem of an increasing debt to GDP ratio by declaring that a flat tax will magically blossom into an economic miracle. You don’t presume, with religious fervor, that “a free and unfettered market” will serve the needs of a complex society most effectively. That’s dogma, not reason.
Also, we shouldn’t be naive. The Tea Party, which may have had some origins in the libertarian wing of reductionist thinking, has now effectively been taken over by the same old social conservatives that have been the base of the Republican Party since the Reagan Revolution or even before. Their current gripe (against their own economic interests, of course) is the national debt — but at the end of the day, they’re still the Gays, Guns and God voters they’ve been for decades. They look at a complex world and know that the truth is simple, they own it, and it can be shouted.
It’s almost too funny that while they claim ownership of Biblical learning, they seem to have missed the point that the wisdom of Solomon is that, in the end, you don’t cut the baby in half.
We can’t really expect much more from them. Fundamentalists of any stripe (market or religious) have intentionally taken themselves off the debate team, but we can hope that as the 99 Percenters keep up the fight throughout 2012 someone in the media will notice that there’s a really big difference between a group that asks you to stop and think and another one that wants you to stop thinking.
So that’s my comment. Leave a tip. The Surly Bartender is the 99%.