We are suffering from an epidemic distortion of reality, the byproduct of commercial media addiction to shock and awe. What are we going to do about it?
I recommend an immediate moratorium on believing the sensational garbage blasted through the mediaverse simply to sell airtime; and a reality-check that helps liberals and progressives kick the habit of self-neutering. I recommend the only known antidote, awareness.
My work takes me many places in this big country. More and more, despite wildly different local situations and circumstances, I hear the same things. This is unsurprising. From California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters, people imbibe the same cocktail of sponsored news and commentary, terror stirred with despair, garnished with pity for a lost puppy. No wonder they are troubled by the same nightmares.
Almost always, when I talk about culture and democracy, people seek me out afterwards to ask if I share their fears. Using nearly identical language, they say that Tea Party advocates are taking over. They fear the end of functional democracy; the destruction of public responsibility in favor of a nasty, brutish, and unending private war of each against all; and an end to anything resembling civil society.
The other day, I was Skyping with a friend who now lives in Canada, but who spent many years in the U.S. and knows its politics well. I mentioned this. He asked what I thought the Obama administration was doing: were they not understanding that now was the time to stand up? Were they biding their time until the Tea Party phenomenon played itself out (which my friend thought a distinct possibility)? "Obama must understand," my friend said, sounding a little uncertain, "do you really think he doesn't get it?"
My friend is a rabbi, so he instantly understood my reply: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves," I quoted, "and so we must have looked to them."
One conundrum of the Hebrew bible is why the escaped slaves from Egypt wandered so many years in the wilderness before being permitted to enter the promised land of milk and honey. There is a widely accepted moral to the story, which is that the generations born into slavery had to die out before they could live as free human beings. But the story also contains a pivot-point, where everything could have gone differently. Numbers 13-14 tells of spies being sent to scope out the land. They return terrified, reporting that the land is occupied by giants, Nephilim, "and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them."
I think this is the archetypal example of internalization of the oppressor, the process whereby we inflate others' power, adopting their diminished, disempowered view of ourselves, accepting without a struggle the heavy mantle of powerlessness.
Last month, The Washington Post published the results of its in-depth study of the Tea Party movement, which reported on painstaking efforts to make contact with every known Tea Party group in the country. The conclusion:
[A] new Washington Post canvass of hundreds of local tea party groups reveals a different sort of organization, one that is not so much a movement as a disparate band of vaguely connected gatherings that do surprisingly little to engage in the political process….
Seventy percent of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year. As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general.
Although Fox News and its ilk tend to parrot Tea Party assertions without verification, representing the movement as vast,
The findings suggest that the breadth of the tea party may be inflated. The Atlanta-based Tea Party Patriots, for example, says it has a listing of more than 2,300 local groups, but The Post was unable to identify anywhere near that many, despite help from the organization and independent research.
In all, The Post identified more than 1,400 possible groups and was able to verify and reach 647 of them. Each answered a lengthy questionnaire about their beliefs, members and goals. The Post tried calling the others as many as six times. It is unclear whether they are just hard to reach or don't exist….
Many of the groups that were interviewed claim hundreds of members and some boast thousands, but most said they have fewer than 50. A number of them appear to be limited to family or friends - the Northern Connecticut Patriots, for instance, counts seven members; the Southeast Wyoming Tea Party Patriots has one.
None of that cancels the aggrieved energy generated by Tea Partyers, the latest manifestation of the tendency Richard Hofstadter wrote about back in 1964 in his landmark essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." None of this cancels the cynical use being made of Tea Partyers's grievances by ulta-wealthy right-wingers like the Koch brothers, or by well-financed national organizations like Tea Party Express, FreedomWorks, and Americans for Prosperity, who hooked hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign expenditures to local Tea Party groups. None of it cancels the potency of the heady mixture of anxiety, racism, and falsehood that animates the movement, whatever its scope.
But none of it truly warrants the tone of much commercial media coverage, alternating "Killer bees are coming!" terror with triumphal, self-congratulatory claims to power the numbers don't justify. Just after The Post's study came out, New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus published a fascinating essay entitled "Old Habits," detailing mid-1950s political polarization that doesn't often make it into nostalgic accounts of Eisenhower-style liberal Republicanism. Did you know that Eisenhower almost quit the Republicans to start a new party in 1954, so disgusted was he with kowtowing to Joe McCarthy, and with trivializing political extremism such as the 107 constitutional amendments put before Senate committees by mid-1954? (Here's the text of one: “This nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.”)
What if my Canadian friend is right, and, lacking any real program, organization, or numbers, the Tea Party phenomenon is on the road to playing itself out? Who can foretell the future? But since this is one real possibility, here's the question I'm asking: what would our political discourse be like right now if we acted as if that possibility were very likely to come true? Who would be the grasshoppers then?
Like many liberals and progressives (and countless pundits—and myself), my Canadian friend falls asleep inventing speeches for President Obama, the kind of stirring rhetoric that won so many hearts and minds in the election. In these speeches, the President recommits to a path of equity and accountability. In these scripts, he announces the types of programs most liberals agree are needed to heal the economy and put people back to work, but which Mr. Obama has forsworn (most of us think) because he hasn't wanted to invite more Republican opposition.
For instance, my friend and I talked about one of my pet issues, the disgrace of a Democratic administration facing crippling unemployment and the suffering it has caused, yet refusing to push for public sector employment.
When I hung up, I thought about a passage in Doris Lessing's great novel, The Golden Notebook. Much of the book describes the life of communists and ex-communists in Britain in the last years of Stalin's life and the years following his death, when Soviet leadership denounced his crimes. Their will to illusion was so powerful: love is stronger than death. Lessing describes an elaborate fantasy created by one of these leftists, in which Comrade Ted, a teacher, is invited on a delegation to Moscow and is granted a private audience with kindly Comrade Stalin, who tells him, "I would be grateful, Comrade, if you would outline for me what our policy ought to be in Great Britain."
Comrade Stalin listened and smoked his pipe, nodding the while. When I hesitated, he said, more than once: "Please continue, Comrade, do not be afraid to say exactly what is in your mind." And so I did. I spoke for about three hours, beginning with a brief analytical account of the historical position of the British CP. Once he rang a bell, and another young Comrade came in with two glasses of Russian tea on a tray, one of which he set before me. Stalin sipped his tea abstemiously, nodding as he listened. I outlined what I considered would be the correct policy for Britain. When I had finished, he said simply: "Thank you, Comrade. I see now I have been very badly advised."
For those who have had their senses of proportion excised by life in the postmodern age, let me state that I am not comparing Obama with Stalin, who is surely turning on a spit in Hell for the ocean of innocent blood he spilled in the Great Purge he directed. My point is that the will to believe in the goodness and educability of leaders (and in the value of our own advice) sometimes outlives credulity.
These feelings—the fear that inflates others' power and turns us into grasshoppers in our own eyes, that instills ardent longing for a powerful, kindly rescuer, one who listens and acts—are aggressively stimulated by ratings-driven commercial media messages that exist mainly to cultivate our dependence on them, which translates into influence and profits for their owners. Do you want to wander forty years in the wilderness like the Israelites, tracing a path through your own little world that looks like a tangle of discarded string? I didn't think so. The antidote is to stop scaring ourselves by believing them.
To help attune and align your spirit and sense of proportion, the beautiful 1959 recording of "Peace," by Horace Silver with Blue Mitchell on trumpet, Junior Cook on saxophone, Gene Taylor on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums. Peace out.