Saturday, February 6, 2010

Somewhere Between Econ and Madness: a Tea Party

Rand’s depiction of Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged sometimes gets called utopian, but compared to actual utopian novels like the ones I looked at back in October, Galt’s Gulch is pretty plausible. For one thing, it’s small, and there’s a real history of tiny idealistic communities springing up and even faring quite well, if all or most of the participants are adherents to some sufficiently binding ethos. It’s trickier to get that sort of thing to work with a nation of 300 million people, which is why (a) you want the shared ethos — and resulting law code — of a group that large to be something fairly minimalist on which it isn’t hard to get agreement, such as, in theory, “Don’t take my stuff”; (b) we should almost always be delighted by secessionist sentiment and decentralizing tendencies, which make over-broad consensus less necessary; and (c) it’s important to keep one’s eyes open for instances of obscure, elite freedom-promoting philosophy taking on some street-level, likely dopier but nonetheless serviceable form that might actually gain some traction among the masses.

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.


Gerard said...

A couple of observations:

1. That is a fantastic documentary-probably the best PBS documentary about politics I’ve seen, save Vote for Me. It was unfortunate that Mr. Vigilante was unsuccessful in his bid for elective office, but I think his loss can be attributed to a lack of funds more than any residual attachment to the Kennedy legacy-although I’m not discounting that element altogether. If the RNC had a bit more focus-for example, spending a little less time trying to get Michael Huffington elected, or trying to oust Dan Rostenkowski from a seat that the Democrats would inevitably retake in a subsequent election-perhaps we wouldn’t have had to endure the son of Ted Kennedy for the past decade and a half.

2. While I agree to a large extent with point (b)-I do subscribe to federalism in general, and think that devolution is almost always a better solution to myriad problems than imbuing one center of power with absolute decision-making authority-I’m skeptical of any move toward secessionism. To me, once you start applauding a secessionist mindset you open yourself up the sort of obscurantist, tribalist thinking that you see in groups like the PIRA, LTTE, Bloc Quebecois, and the like. There are very few secessionist movements that don’t approach the problem from an ultimately destructive, collectivist bent.

3. Why have flamethrowers disappeared? I was watching Cast a Giant Shadow-a spectacular film about the Israeli War for Independence starring Kirk Douglas-on Showtime several weeks ago, and noticed yet again how many flamethrowers were used in the climactic battle scene. You notice the same in almost any war movie set in the first half of the 20th century. You would think that in the mountainous, cave-dense Afghan and Pakistani territory the United States Army finds itself in today, it would have some use for flamethrower technology. It would seemingly be cheaper-and more efficacious-than having engineers construct elaborate irrigation ditches, or build girls’ schools that will be blown up by the Taliban within months-and yet yet since 2002 I haven’t read or seen one story where our Armed Forces used flamethrowers in order to combat our enemies. Why?

Todd Seavey said...

If it’s any consolation, there’s a spectacular, disturbing flamethrower scene in last year’s _Watchmen_.

On the secession front, your points are ones with which Madison, with his fear of regional factions, would also agree, but maybe the ideal outcome (at least for the U.S.) would be if states make enough secessionist noise to simply be given much greater freedom from DC without formally declaring independence.

Largely ignoring Beijing has apparently been an important enhancer of freedom for outlying areas of China. Perhaps Moscow will one day find itself in a similar position of symbolic absolute authority and practical feebleness if it insists on gradually reclaiming the territories bordering Russia.

Let DC keep having the ceremonial authority and lavish parties if it must, while doing nothing beyond making debt payments. I’m confident the fifty states would prefer to keep peacefully trading if left alone at this point rather than, say, attempt to form a fanatical Cult of Arkansas bent on remaking civilization in one state.

Then again, it was a friend from Arkansas who just sent me this: