Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Response To Mark Lilla's "Tea Party Jacobins"

Mark Lilla, a respected intellectual, has penned an astonishingly arrogant piece for The New York Review of Books in its May 27, 2010 issue titled "The Tea Party Jacobins." Readers can click on the title of this post to read it for themselves. MC did and has a somewhat detailed critique.

Lilla cleverly underscores the recent changing nature of America and its citizens by noting that Democrats became day traders while Republicans were divorcing. Cute but the point is well taken. MC would add Rod Dreher's notion of a "crunchy conservative," one who shops at Whole Foods but votes Republican. We doubt Lilla has stretched that far outside of his liberal bunker to know of the term, however.

Lilla's article is purportedly a review of six books but in his piece only mentions two of them and then indirectly. The review of this clutch of books allows him to lament that the American citizen is not a European. The point cannot be stressed enough: Lilla repeatedly condemns the individual, dismisses the autonomy of people and is contemptuous of the virtue of self-reliance. Culturally, the man is not American and that observation would most likely be met with quiet, smug self-satisfaction. The Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago is not quite a Rotary meeting.

Lilla observes that current conditions constitute a revolt against elites; being one himself, he doesn't approve. The goal of that revolt he feels is neutralization of political power. This is always the worst case scenario for people of his ilk. At one point he actually complains about appeals to "petulant individuals" who are convinced they can fend for themselves. The condescension at times leaves one breathless but he carries on.

For example, he blithely ascribes all current political polarization to the "shrunken base" of the Republican party. At such points he risks not being taken seriously and it is clear, whatever else the shortcomings of his missive, he is trying to be so. But myopia subtracts and never adds to seriousness. By now, even ardent supporters of Obama admit to a lack of serious outreach to the other side of the aisle. What's the phrase? Oh yes: "We won."

The New Jacobins, as Lilla calls the tea partiers, have a blanket distrust of institutions and "an astonishing--and unwarranted--confidence of the self." Really, this is a mindset posited on the notion that only government can improve our lives; it is the anti-thesis of the American narrative. Lilla should just come out and say it's a pity we aren't as willing to be sheparded into the Nanny State by our betters as has happened post-WW II in most of Europe. But that would be giving the game away. Clarity for intellectual liberals like Lilla usually erodes rather than strengthens their positions.

Eventually--about two-thirds through the article--Lilla gets to Europe at which point the flowing of his juices becomes audible. For it is Europe and all that it implies, which is the real point of his article even though his prism and ostensible topic is the tea party movement. The failure of Europe on so many various levels seems to escape him even when he writes in a sort of blind fog of non-comprehension:

"It would occur to no one to lay siege to Brussels or build up barricades to defend it."

Why that might be Lilla never quite says. MC will: it is because false notions of trans-sovereignty bleed nations and people; in fact, such is its very purpose. The more people are detached from those to whom they gave consent to be governed, the less they feel effective or free in daily life. Rule making from Strasbourg is simply a post-modern death by a thousand cuts.

Lilla also quips that "Voters pretend to rebel and politicians pretend to listen; this is our political theater." Yet if that is so, where's the danger from the tea party movement? To use a current locution (and highly inexact, by the way), it's all kabuki. No harm, no foul. Carry on and all that. Nothing really changes.

Politically, however, a great deal is changing and the books under ersatz review are but the slightest sign of that. Lilla's belief that the dog barks and the caravan moves on is belied by a thoughtless throw-away comment earlier in his essay. Says Lilla: "In politics, thinking makes it so." Only an out of touch intellectual living a rarified life would hazard such stupidity. Or to dress it up in Lilla-speak, reification (verdinglichung) is passe.

Winding down, Lilla bemoans our living in similarly thinking communities (as if the Upper West Side was somehow new and grew out of the tea party movement!). What MC really thinks he regrets is the loss of the liberal media monopoly and, as night follows day, he moves on to attack FOX News.

But not, interestingly, before he attacks home schoolers! Yes, we don't usually lump home schoolers (they're studying, not protesting) with the tea party movement. So why does this very bright man? Because he realizes that escape from the educational monopoly is the surest way of maintaining autonomy from L'Etat. MC hesitates to claim this devotion of individual subordination to the state as something fascist but Lilla comes perilously close to being an enemy of individual freedom and autonomy. What on earth has happened to liberalism? MC is certain George McGovern and Justice William O. Douglas would never pen such a manifesto. Lilla can be amusing, however, as when he states that the home schooling movement is the only successful libertarian party in the United States.

Lilla is at his least persuasive--and intelligent--when he trots out the usual canards about FOX News and its demagogues. He reiterates his disgust at the self-confidence of its viewing audience. Why the desire for the supine individual? His aversion to citizens who need, want and demand less government by now becomes clinical.

Lilla opines that the tea party movement will dissolve after being successful. Can't he make up his captive mind? He claims its member are anti-intellectual without substantiation (Glenn Beck, whatever one thinks, has lots of information on those chalk boards and references a great many books). In a final sign of the exhaustion and poverty of his analysis, Lilla claims that tea party followers want to be people who live without rules. No, really. This about the people who gather in large numbers with no violence, no racism (sorry about that) and who clean up after themselves. People who want to live without rules are generally called anarchists. MC knows Lilla knows this, hence our frustration with his intellectual dishonesty.

Who cares, some readers may say, about this intellectual and his essay? MC suggests given his stature, Lilla's piece will set the standard template for the chattering classes and other media for some time to come. We ignore articles like these at our peril for Lilla's essay represents the suffocating intellectual environment, with its egregious contempt for average Americans, in which Obama has lived and continues to live. The stakes could not be higher.