And that’s where the Tea Party movement, which celebrates the third and final day of its National Convention today, with a speech by Sarah Palin, comes in (she’s headed to work at Fox next, not a bad idea). If the movement endures, it has the potential to be a nice translator of highbrow free-market theories to a far broader audience — and if so, intellectuals should be willing to accept the fact that some nuance is always lost in the popularization/translation process.
Right in the middle of the three days of the National Tea Party Convention, as it happens, I was safely in New York City as usual but having lunch with Patri Friedman, son of David, grandson of Milton, who wants to create new nations floating in the ocean. Sounds nuts to most people (for now!) — and thus perhaps insufficiently populist — but isn’t all that weird compared to the annual Burning Man art festivals he’s attended. And I’ve mentioned repeatedly that even without having attended Burning Man myself, I feel I’ve benefited from its lesson that bizarre things you previously only wished existed can in fact be made reality, whether it’s a dance party with a flamethrower, a car covered in AstroTurf, a bodypainting orgy, or an improvised lightsaber battle involving hundreds of people, all built and then disassembled in two weeks. Compared to all that, why not have an ocean liner that offers low incorporation taxes instead of just shuffleboard?
More important, though, the realization that we, as a people, retain the right to attempt crazy shit the authorities haven’t thought of yet acts as an important mental check on what those authorities think they can get away with — and limits what they think we’ll put up with. Furthermore, it encourages us to come up with (revolutionary) new ideas. Two years ago, you didn’t think modern social networking would combine with eighteenth-century libertarian rhetoric to put thousands of right-leaning anti-government protesters in the streets over and over again — but you were wrong (I saw thousands at a Tea Party near New York’s City Hall last year — New York City! — though the Times somehow failed to notice the event).
Burning Man, I’d say, remains an elite event — but combine its spirit and creativity with something populist like the Tea Parties, and you’d have a movement capable of sweeping aside many of the (current) intelligentsia’s condescending assumptions, I think. They can look down at the Tea Party gatherings no matter how large they get as long as they can continue the lie about all those people being angry racists, etc. — but that gets harder to do if the events develop the creativity and hip cachet of events like Burning Man (and if more people notice, as I did at the Tea Parties here, that Objectivist and libertarian slogans were far more common than anything resembling racist sentiment). So here’s hoping for ever more sophisticated Tea Parties. And Tea flashmobs. And, yes, Tea tweets. And in time a broadly-shared pro-spontaneous-order popular sentiment in which government as we know it simply dissolves — or, barring that, people simply becoming daring and imaginative enough to start saying things like, “Hey, since DC is $12 trillion in debt, why don’t we just shut it down altogether, at least until the debt’s paid off, and see if the states can handle things on their own? It couldn’t be harder than building that fake ocean liner we made at Burning Man last year.”
Instead of a movement that starts out attacking current elites and ends by trying to create its own slightly different one, I think the Tea Parties, like Burning Man, have the potential — in part because of their very structure — to spread a more lasting decentralist message. Habituate people to do things on their own instead of awaiting orders and you’re halfway to a healthy, organic anarchism already.
An aside about America’s capacity for craziness: libertarian and Burning Man attender Brian Doherty has noted that one reason Americans may have been more easily roused to mob action in the early years is simply that they were drunk most of the time, beer flowing more readily than water in some parts back then (and often being safer). Times have changed, though, and my libertarian, pro-alcohol friend Katherine Taylor alerts me to the fact that her native Fresno, CA is now considered the drunkest city in America, whereas once-rebellious Boston is the most sober, despite its ostensibly-rowdy Irish (but that’s all right — in the end, we cherish the memory of Boston’s tea parties more than the memory of its beer parties).
It may be that Patrick Kennedy (whose increasingly likely defeat in Rhode Island for reelection to the House would be the sweet cherry on the recent New England-upsets sundae) has single-handedly consumed all of New England’s alcohol, though, since he is such a notorious lush in DC that one friend of mine amused himself by shooting spitballs at a passed-out Patrick Kennedy in a bar, and another once guided Kennedy home while fending off his advances (which is probably the closest I’ve come to having an ex in common with a Kennedy, by the way). Meanwhile, yet another friend of mine has used a fantastic two-decade-old documentary about Kennedy’s initial election to teach high school students how even a very stupid Democrat can triumph over a very smart and admirable Republican if the Democrat has the right last name. (Here’s hoping for an imminent end to Kennedy’s embarrassingly whiny, childlike, pro-union, anti-market rants in Congress.)
But my point here is: there’s a lot to be said for keeping the politicians, even the ones who are drunk themselves, nervously wondering what fresh “insanity” we are prone to attempt next. Complacency isn’t all bad, but it only gets us so far. Unconservative as this may sound, sometimes things get bad enough that strange must be deployed. And America can be very strange.