Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Many thanks to Rob V. for his reflections on the curious ragtag 'movement' whose members appear to view themselves as spiritual descendants of the Boston patriots of yore.
I think that, for what ever it might be worth, my own first pass at a partial reply to Rob's helpful question would be that before Catholic legal theory will be able to say much to these understandably frightened but certainly ill-informed and very confused people, legal theory simplicitur, and before that, the law itself, will have to speak to them. For as things stand, where the law is concerned these folk seem to me living corroborations of the oft-heard claim that a little knowledge can be truly a dangerous thing. Before we can say much to these folk qua Catholic lawyers, then, I think we shall have to say a few things to them as lawyers, and even as people who know how and feel compelled by curiosity and civic duty alike to read, as well as people who have done a fair share of reading in the history of our constitutional order, our republic, and our social and economic conditions from the late 18th century to today. I don't mean this to sound nearly as 'snarky' as it might. I truly believe that these tea party people are shockingly uninformed about all of these things, such that addressing them as legal theorists as distinguished from primary school teachers would be virtually pointless. Insofar as I think it a duty to become informed before opining publicly, let alone speaking in menacing tones about 'insurrection' and 'watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants' and so forth, I find myself indignant at the excesses of many of these people. On the other hand, insofar as I recognize there are very good reasons for feeling confused and helpless, and thus very good explanations for why people might feel tempted to lash out and join with other, similarly frightened and confused people, I very much wish to bring some sort of succour to these tea party types. That takes me to a second point:
By way of a second pass at a partial reply to Rob's helpful question, then, I am tempted to suggest that these tea party folk are reacting in the only way that they presently know how -- since they seem by and large to be folk who have been 'left behind' thanks to a woefully inadequate system of education -- to an increasingly inequitable economy (which latter is itself part of what accounts for, as well as being symbiotically reinforced by, that system of education). Instructive here, I think, is an old book from the early 1980s which seems to me to have proved quite remarkably prophetic. I recommend to all readers Bertram Gross's book, Friendly Fascism. (You can read more about it at this site: http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Fascism/Friendly_Fascism_BGross.html)
Gross's thesis was that the US government in the years ahead would in all likelihood become little more than an instrument of large corporate interests, and that this would in turn result in a gradual but inexorable impoverishment of, and debt peonage on the part of, more and more Americans, such that we would not for much longer remain a principally middle class society. Gross also suggested that there would be a gradual erosion of traditional civil freedoms. Perhaps most crucially, Gross suggested that fascism always takes on a local sort of flavor, such that American fascism would not be a matter of Nuremburg rallies or marches through Rome, any more than it would traffic in symbols of ancient Germania or imperial Rome. Rather, American fascism would have a folksy, 'aw-shucksy' sort of cast -- it would be 'friendly,' complete with yellow smiley faces and admonitions that we all 'have a nice day' and 'not worry, [but] be happy.'
I recall happening on this book back in the early 90s and at first thinking it was just paranoid raving of the sort I had often heard in my youth from people who said things like 'gee, what ever happened to the '60s?' (a question that I used to mock but now find myself also asking!). Recently having taken another look at the book, however, I must admit to finding much of it disturbingly familiar and now seemingly prophetic, not to mention redolent of warnings offered by none other than Ike in the late 1950s. So I've come to think that Gross might have been on to something, and it seems to me, moreover, that both of the major political parties have been very much complicit in these troubling developments.
The tea party types, I am tempted to conjecture, are intuiting something like this, and reacting in perhaps the only way that they presently know how. One of my worries, for them and for us, is that the very forces against which they actually are protesting will ultimately bamboozle and coopt them, in part by appropriating their own favored symbols -- much as fascist parties in Europe 80 some years ago appropriated symbols suggestive of Europe's own mythologized past. What better American counterpart to the Nazis' idealized blonde-braided fraulein and brawny prairie-clearing Teuton, and to the Fascistas' comical stick-bundle and eagle iconography, after all, than a tricorner hat (nowadays manufactured in China and dyed with toxic chemicals, no doubt) and a Kentucky longrifle?
Let us, then, reply to the tea party types at this juncture not so much with legal theory, as with patient urging to the effect that a polity that would live truly according to the lex caritas is a polity that honors and assists all of its (and even the wider world's) innocents -- unborn and born alike -- with full, equal, and material rather than merely formal opportunity to earn a decent livelihood and plan a decent life. And if it takes something more than a nightwatchman state to do that -- as modern economic conditions do seem to require -- then let us embrace that state, without handing it over to business firms.