Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cowboys and Tea Parties

Americans worship the individual. The ideal of the self-sufficient man is embodied in Westerns. In countless films a lone cowboy rides into town to save the townspeople from some menace. Once the job is done, the cowboy then rides back out into the wilderness alone. He has only disdain for the townspeople’s rules and social order.

It occurred to me one day that we should instead revere the townspeople who did the hard work of building a functional society out on the frontier. They figured out how to work together, how to build schools and roads, and how to govern themselves. Being an individual is easy. Building a community is hard.

Modern America is a long way from the frontier, yet many Americans still hold the image of themselves as that lone cowboy, not dependent upon the social order.

Societies exist on a continuum between extreme collectivism and extreme individualism. China is an example of the former, and the U.S. is an example of the latter. Other countries such as European nations and Canada exist somewhere in between those two extremes. They have a much stronger sense of the society-as-a-whole, an entity that is greater than just the sum of its parts.

This worship of the individual is why we don’t have universal health care and all the other social safety nets common in other developed countries. Most Americans think people should be responsible for themselves, not dependent upon the government to help them out.

Last week there was a very interesting blog post in the New York Times by J.M. Bernstein, University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, “The Very Angry Tea Party.”

My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.

The implicit bargain that many Americans struck with the state institutions supporting modern life is that they would be politically acceptable only to the degree to which they remained invisible, and that for all intents and purposes each citizen could continue to believe that she was sovereign over her life; she would, of course, pay taxes, use the roads and schools, receive Medicare and Social Security, but only so long as these could be perceived not as radical dependencies, but simply as the conditions for leading an autonomous and self-sufficient life. Recent events have left that bargain in tatters.

…Tea Party anger is, at bottom, metaphysical, not political: what has been undone by the economic crisis is the belief that each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions.

…This is the rage and anger I hear in the Tea Party movement; it is the sound of jilted lovers furious that the other — the anonymous blob called simply “government” — has suddenly let them down, suddenly made clear that they are dependent and limited beings, suddenly revealed them as vulnerable. And just as in love, the one-sided reminder of dependence is experienced as an injury. All the rhetoric of self-sufficiency, all the grand talk of wanting to be left alone is just the hollow insistence of the bereft lover that she can and will survive without her beloved. However, in political life, unlike love, there are no second marriages; we have only the one partner, and although we can rework our relationship, nothing can remove the actuality of dependence.

In politics, the idea of divorce is the idea of revolution. The Tea Party rhetoric of taking back the country is no accident: since they repudiate the conditions of dependency that have made their and our lives possible, they can only imagine freedom as a new beginning, starting from scratch. About this imaginary, Mark Lilla was right: it corresponds to no political vision, no political reality. The great and inspiring metaphysical fantasy of independence and freedom is simply a fantasy of destruction.

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