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.


Jamie J. Delton said...

Nice write-up! Even if I am an anti-insider, how does that make deficit building a priority over healthcare-fund-building, which, we are finding, the unions, along with democrats, have, for years, not been doing?

Unknown said...

You didn't advance much of an argument against Lilla's essay.

Unknown said...

Even if you ultimately disagree with Lilla, at least he brings some original thinking to the table. You on the other hand seem desperate to to fit everything into a simplistic left-right dichotomy, whether or not it fits what you are critiquing. For instance, you suggest Lilla is arguing in favor of the European model of governance somehow, writing:

"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..."

That's a strange conclusion to draw, seeing as how the sentence right next to the one you quoted reads:

"At the same time, European political elites were busy blurring national identities in order to construct a faceless “Europe,” whose eerily blank currency is a powerful symbol of the crisis of representation there."

Lilla isn't praising Europe's form of government at all, he's simply making a brief comment on how a similar, but different sense of alienation is unfolding over there. Either way, it's hardly central to the piece.

Later you say: [Lila's] "is a mindset posited on the notion that only government can improve our lives; it is the anti-thesis of the American narrative."

Where in the article is there anything about "only government" being able to improve our lives? And what are we concerned about anyway, "narratives" or reality? Narratives, after all, are all the tea party movement has. What they are somewhat lacking is realism, or actual solutions that stand any chance of being implemented.

What other conclusion can you draw from a movement that simultaneously campaigns against the deficit, while demanding their taxes be lowered? Not to mention that many of their more extreme anti-government views simply aren't tenable once you step outside the safe confines of the Ron Paul messageboard. Rigid ideology, in fact, which is what elevating "narrative" implies, has a pretty dismal track record - I'll take realism and compromise any day. The tea party and the neo-libertarian movement, sadly, is the living definition of a closed-minded, ideological movement, much more so than the imaginary Marxists they are always screaming about.

John Hugh Gilmore said...

MC thanks "Andrew" for his comments. We find them wildly unpersuasive.

If Lilla brought any original thinking to "the table" (whatever that means), it surely escaped us. Liberalism hasn't had a new idea in over forty years. No, we're not joking.

Andrew spends some time on one comment we made, only to say that he doesn't feel it was central to Lilla's argument. Um, ok!

Next he demands to be shown in the article where how we described Lilla's mindset is actually articulated by Lilla. The comment is made based upon our understanding of him. We're unsure why Andrew would seek to go so literal on so obvious a characterization, not quotation.

Andrew then claims the Tea Party as the entity who has narratives but surely they are not post-modern enough to throw that term around the way he and MC does. No, the narrative about the Tea Parties is being made (or attempting to be made) by the likes of Lilla.

Has Andrew forgotten the uber-snarky title of Lilla's piece? "Tea Party Jacobins." Now THERE'S
a narrative.

Pardon our bad manners in laughing but when Andrew suggests the Tea Party has no solutions because they lack realism but then says any "actual" solutions lack the chance of being implemented (he doesn't say why), we wonder if he can make up his mind.

And, mirabile dictu!, one can call for lower taxes and deficit reduction at the same time. Perhaps "rigid ideology" on Andrew's part explains it. Spending can be cut. This takes courage but perhaps that is something to be mocked. Taxes can be lowered and revenues actually increased. We're not sure Andrew knows his history.

But he does know his talking points. MC simply sees right past them.

We do, as always, thank him for taking the time to comment.

Anonymous said...

you will be pleased to hear that it is unlikely that you run the risk of being identified as intellectuals.

p. s. the fact that glenn beck can read books and randomly parrot back information from them does not mean that he is intelligent. truly intelligent people would understand that.

John Hugh Gilmore said...

We'd like to thank anonymous for his or her comment: it's substance free but ad hominem. MC thinks we have a liberal on our hands. But thanks for visiting!

Wakefield Tolbert said...

Excellent analysis. You’ve laid out Lilla’s numerous mental contradictions and ideological affinities.

I was going to pen something similar a while back regarding similar Lefty takes on the modern Tea Party, but someone better and more learned words beat me to the donnybrook, and a take-down of Lilla will do just fine.

Still, while realizing I'm late to this party (and the Tea Party), I'm curious as to your take on Lilla's whole "Tea Party as Ignorant rednecks" thesis. Of course, he dosen’t give much credence to the intellectual tradition of distrust in government power that hails all the way back to the Magna Carta, and seems taken by the Eurosocialist notion that government knows best as Nanny of every micromanaged aspect of modern life.

But what of the Tea Party itself?

While not specifically using that phrase above, the condescension veritably drips from his poison pen. Palin, the “Chillbilly”, “Alpine Trash” of continuous Wonkette type smears, is, of course, the prime target, and scribblers like David Frum are of naturally trotted out to supply ammo to the notion that the Tea Partiers--or most of them, anyhow--are a bunch of dumbunny housewives, fishwives, suburban zombies, wild-eyed Pentecostal zealots waving to Jesus, or rich fatties from the Country club mixed in unholy or unseemly alliances with redneckish Joe Blow Six Pack types, who in turn can't manage their own checkbook, much less make prescriptions for...well....alternative means of making prescriptions other than ObamaCare.

Whatever one thinks of Lilla's commentary, it must be admitted he's very careful not to advocate any specific government program per se. He does, in fact, seem to nod at the notion that some of the TP's complaints are not just plaintive wails, but legit concerns (if half-baked for their technical claims in some cases) that government is too large, too expensive, and just too much for the citizenry to bear. Granted, he does not say this directly. But neither does he actively seem to support in the book review post the notion that ObamaCare will merely do what's prescribed and be as cheap as the CBO claims. He's smart enough not to glom onto that, for certain.

Rather, he mocks what he deigns to be the dumb tactics taken by the TPs. In other words, government can be wrong, immoral, expensive, and impractical for its increasing paunch and reach all in one fell swoop, and YET the TPs are not clever enough to know what hit them, or do much about it when talking idly about “getting’ gubment off our backs”, et al.