Friday, April 10, 2009

Some thoughts on civil disobedience and the uses and abuses of history

Sorry, another interim post here before continuing on with the issue of the paranoid style—though a post that is related, at least tangentially. One of the much-ballyhooed responses to the Obama Administration is a series of planned “tea parties,” modelled on the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The Boston Tea Party, an iconic moment in the history of the American Revolution, was a spontaneous protest against British taxation in which a mob dressed in the guise of American Indians boarded three vessels in Boston Harbour and threw all the tea in their holds into the water.

The story is actually a lot more involved and complicated than that, but the basic story is this: Britain’s autocratic treatment of the American Colonies, especially in terms of their arbitrary taxation coupled with the refusal to allow representation in Parliament—“taxation without representation”—was essentially what formed the basis of what was to culminate in the Continental Congress and the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party became one of those mythic historical moments accruing far more significance to itself than the actual events merited, but then that’s how history becomes myth. A rag-tag (probably drunk) bunch of angry protesters destroys some cargo; but in doing so at a pivotal moment become exemplars of cheeky American obstreperousness in the face of tradition, models for the future of civil disobedience and resistance to tyranny. All of which is fair enough.

Of course, what happens with mythic history is that it tends to get appropriated years, decades, centuries down the line by those wishing to invoke its symbolic power and associate themselves with people, ideas, or events that have become irrevocably romanticized in the popular imagination.

The current “tea parties” are a series of ostensibly spontaneous protests against the Obama Administration’s tax increases, spending, and apparent moves to expand government. They started mid-March, and there are a bunch scheduled to take place on April 15 (the American Tax Day). They have been characterized as grass-roots protests by “ordinary Americans” aghast at Obama’s policies. They are, according to their promoters, examples of ordinary joes and janes rising up like the 1773 rabble-rousers. Here’s assbutt Glenn Beck holding for to Fox News talking head Neil Cavuto:

Now, I’m all for civil disobedience and robust critiques of power and government, so while I disagree with the arguments being made by these people, more power to ‘em. Speaking however as someone occupationally preoccupied with symbolic economies, I do think it’s important to make a few observations here—probably observations made any number of times already, but since I haven’t encountered them, I’ll risk being repetitive.

    It’s pretty obvious what the organizers of these rallies had in mind when they named them “Tea Parties.” That is to say, they’re evoking the spirit of spontaneous grass-roots protest against distant and unfeeling governance, tyrannical governance at that, which was acting in an arrogant and high-handed manner. The 1773 protesters have been memorialized as the embodiment of the American spirit: simple men, moved beyond the bounds of polite dialogue by anger and provocation; get-it-done individuals sick of merely talking (they spilled out of a meeting being held by Samuel Adams, who vainly exhorted them to remain calm); and finally, honest and hard-working souls driven to an extreme by and interfering, remote government.

    The narrative is pretty straightforward, and it’s not unusual: it tends to get trotted out in its various incarnations by activists, pundits and politicians wanting to self-identify as somehow authentically American (just see how frequently the phrase “Founding Fathers” gets employed on both the left and the right as a means of lending weight to an argument). But as the wonderful Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan argues in her slim but powerful book The Uses and Abuses of History, we need to be alive to the ways in which the appropriations of historical myth manipulate or deform their original sources. In this case, we don’t really even need to revisit the particulars of the historical Boston Tea Party—the deviations of the current incarnation from what it represents are sufficient. To wit:

    The 1773 Tea Party was not a protest against taxation, but against autocracy. Remember, the rallying cry was “no taxation without representation.” It wasn’t the taxes that were the problem: it was that the citizens of the thirteen colonies had no say in them. Taxes are onerous, certainly, but as Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out, they’re the price we pay for civilization. Perhaps the colonies would have agreed that the tea tax was worthwhile, perhaps not. The problem was that they had no opportunity to say one way or the other. Today, of course, there is no King George taxing Americans—just their democratically elected president, who for good or for ill was elected. Which was kind of what the American Revolution was fought for to begin with.

    The tax hikes that “ordinary Americans” are rallying against are (a) not tax hikes—they are the expiry of the tax cuts made by the Bush Administration. Obama isn’t taxing Americans back to the Stone Age, he’s essentially doing nothing as the Bush tax cuts run out the clock. And (b) for all the attempts to portray this as populist rage, the Obama Administration has (or is planning to) cut taxes for anyone under $250K.

    Of course, there’s also the issue of the expansion of government and increased spending. Which begs the question: where was this populist rage for the past eight years while Bush radically grew the government, rolled back civil rights, instituted invasive policies of wiretapping and rendition, and took the government from a healthy surplus to a massive deficit? The protests of Glenn Beck you see in the clip above—representative of the right’s historical revisionism—are at best disingenuous, at worst overtly mendacious. They were for everything George W. Bush did, until they weren’t.

    These rallies are not just the protests of the citizenry, but have been enthusiastically embraced by congressional Republicans, many of whom will be featured speakers. This is not itself wrong or really even objectionable, but it does highlight a certain amnesia, and indeed hypocrisy. Let’s remember that the 1773 Tea Party was a specifically anti-government event, and that is the spirit being evoked in the naming of the current rallies. It strikes me as ever so slightly disingenuous for elected members of Congress to join attempts to undermine government when (a) they were part of the chorus over the past eight years decrying any criticism of the Bush Administration as un-American at best, treasonous at worst, and (b) Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, in spite of nearly losing her seat after she suggested that Democratic legislators should be investigated for un-American beliefs and behaviour, is at it again; and in an almost endearingly naked retread of Joe McCarthy, Representative Spenser Bachus (R-AL) has declared that there are seventeen socialists in Congress. Those two should really get together.

    Finally, there’s this whole spontaneity issue. That’s at the heart of the Boston Tea Party mythos: it wasn’t a conspiracy, it wasn’t planned for weeks with scale models of the harbour and contingency plans and code names, and it wasn’t perpetrated by the 1773 version of the Navy Seals. Although it could have been all those things, the mythology of the event lies in its spontaneity—its suddennesss. A bunch of angry guys, and one of them has an idea: “Hey, let’s dress up and injuns and throw all the tea in the harbour!” (Alternative historical theory: it wasn’t actually political protest, it was a serendipitous fraternity prank). In reality, the contemporary Tea Parties have all the spontaneity of a Martha Stewart garden party. Beyond the explicit support of Fox News, which has been hyping them since the start (and will be providing keynote speakers in the form of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto, and Greta van Susteren), these events have been sponsored and organized by the conservative think-tanks Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works. And lest the term “think tanks” lends these organizations an aura of neutrality or objectivity, you should know that they are operated and funded by lobbyists. They are well-organized and well-funded, and have been taking care of the logistics and publicity (with a helping hand from Fox News, of course). So any depiction of these events as “spontaneous” expressions of populist rage needs to be taken with a grain of salt or five.

    1 comment:

    Andrew said...

    the symbolic power of a tea party is pretty lame by today's standards though, and i'm happy to see that fox has moved on to exploiting a much more sensational display of civil disobedience: lighting yourself on fire.