Meeting the Tea Party

Andrew Sullivan recently posted a quote from William James (my own longtime fave philosopher) so relevant to our times that I’m reposting it in full:

“Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticised by some one else. Our faith is faith in some one else’s faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.

Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other, — what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?”
– William James, ‘The Will to Believe’, 1896.

Strip down any of the hot political debates of the day — health care, Wall Street, global warming, Afghanistan — and what you’ll find at the center is not principle but willful desire. We prove that we know this when we criticize our opponents for their shallow, self-serving views. We’ll say, “they just believe that because they want to believe it”. It’s sometimes the only explanation that makes sense. Alas, the criticism holds up equally on all sides, as our own opponents will also be happy to point out.

But this does not mean that substantive political debate is pointless, nor impossible. I enjoy a spirited political discussion, like one I had this past weekend during a break in a friendly poker game, when six of us stood on a balcony and tried to solve the problems of the world. I’m convinced that these types of impromptu bullshit sessions truly help us, because our ideas get challenged, because we are called upon to flex our theories at least enough to pass the test of public communication: can we explain what we’re thinking clearly enough that others will understand it at all?

This can be a satisfying and edifying process, but all too often a lively political debate between friends feels like a guilty pleasure. Eventually somebody in every crowd will plant the familiar notes of discouragement: it doesn’t matter what any of us say, because we will all go on believing what we want to believe anyway. We’re just amusing ourselves. Nobody really listens, nobody really cares.

This may even be true (William James certainly stands behind it). But something valuable is happening even when we fail to convince each other to change our beliefs. Not long ago, I concluded an email and text message debate about Roe vs. Wade that lasted nearly two years. My opponent was a friend and former co-worker, a software engineer like me, and a devout intellectual Catholic. Our long exchanges consumed a lot of effort, and we often became angry at each other. In the end, neither of our belief systems budged. But I was able to gain an understanding of how his belief system was constructed, and I hope he was able to gain a better understanding of mine. When the long discussion finally ended we were both exhausted, and we haven’t picked up a new topic since. But I’m convinced we accomplished something during this exercise, even though neither of our opinions changed.

Like many of my fellow liberals, I’ve been watching the so-called Tea Party movement with some bemusement lately. I’m not very sympathetic to most of the conservative ideals these protesters stand for, but I will admit to being impressed by the energy and creativity (if not the good spelling) I see at their events. I like it that these protesters value spontaneity and quirky self-expression, that they reject the solemn paternalism of banal conservative politicians like Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell and John McCain for more imaginative and exploratory approaches. I wish I could find some Tea Partiers who wanted to debate me — not in a shouting match, but in a pointed exhange of ideas. I think it’d be worth the exercise.

Strangely, I seem to be the only one among my liberal friends and family members who feels this way. Many liberals I know would rather scoff at noisy Tea Party conservatives than credit them with any level of knowledge or intelligence. This is an unfortunate choice. It amounts to a position of cultural snobbery that’s just as unfair as the racist position that critics of the Tea Party have perceived at the core of that movement. It’s all too easy to characterize a large movement based on its worst elements. Instead, we should always credit our ideological opponents with intelligence and honesty, and we should always be willing to meet them in an open-minded exchange of ideas.

In this spirit, I recently watched Glenn Beck’s 5 pm news show on Fox News for several days in a row. Of course I disagree with Glenn Beck on nearly everything in the world, and yet I was impressed by the rigor of his arguments and the amount of historical research he laid out each hour. He’s up there riffing on Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, Mahatma Gandhi — I don’t agree with the way he spins these names, but I can’t deny that he’s clearly done his homework (indeed, this may be the only thing Glenn Beck and I have in common: we’re both history nerds).

But, just as I don’t know many conservatives who think it’s worth their time to talk or listen to liberals, I don’t know many liberals who think it’s worth their time to talk or listen to conservatives. Conservatives like to pretend that liberals are “soft-brained”, corrupted and spoiled by the temptations and distractions of modern society. Liberals like to pretend that conservative positions are rooted in ignorance and prejudice. Both sides are wrong. And its times like today, when so many big issues and big problems are in play, when clarity can feel so rare, when we need the benefit of healthy honest debate the most, that we tend to get it the least.

9 Responses

  1. The Tea Partiers are woefully
    The Tea Partiers are woefully and dangerously uninformed:
    *They talk about being overtaxed but don’t mention the military budget (53.3% of our tax dollars)
    *They complain about welfare but ignore corporate welfare
    *They perceive a corporate political like Obama as “socialist”
    *They blame everything on “the government” while ignoring the real problem: corporate power (in this equation, the government is clearly the lesser of two horrendous evils)

    In addition, the Tea Party “movement” inevitably lures in many who will use it as platform to express their simmering hatred for blacks, gays, immigrants, women, and non-Christians.

    That’s why the tea baggers are getting so much press. They’re being used by both parties to maintain the status quo to help maintain the illusion of democracy, free speech and a two-party system.

    The Tea Partiers exist because corporate media propaganda convinced them equality, justice, and tolerance is a threat to their alleged freedoms. Just as bad: it’s also convinced them George W. Obama represents this threatening equality, justice, and tolerance.

    They’ve been had…but then again, so have most of those on the Left.

    A truly radical response to this so-called movement requires balance. We have to challenge right wing hatred and intolerance at every turn, of course, but do so without defending President Obama who is little more than a Ronald Reagan in blackface.

  2. Excellent points sir.
    I will

    Excellent points sir.

    I will add this… Everyone should have a friend on the other side of the divide, at least one. There can be no compromise without understanding. I have a very close friend who is a staunch conservative and our many debates on these issues have enlightened me to no end. We still stand on opposite ends of the divide but talking it out helps immensly.

    What to do about folks who more yelling than thinking though, these lemmings who hate more than disagree? Lead em to the sea.

  3. I like the way you put that,
    I like the way you put that, Mayowa …

    Mickey, I agree with you on about half of this, but here’s the question: if all of these things are self-evident, why don’t they seem so to others? What kind of breakthroughs are actually possible in our national dialogue? Do you have any hope that large numbers of people will start “seeing the light” (whatever that light is) anytime soon?

  4. It’s the full-time business
    It’s the full-time business of the corporate media to make sure such info is not self-evident. If we free ourselves from that trap, anything is possible.

  5. Levi – “The medium IS the
    Levi – “The medium IS the message.” So, it follows that the media is the messages. I think. I need more coffee.

    Speaking of Republicans, power, etc: My wife thinks that the Goldman-Sachs criminals et al will be made to pay for their crimes, and that Sarah Palin has no chance politically. She also sits up waiting for the Easter Bunny.

  6. Levi,
    I really enjoy your

    I really enjoy your perspective and I too have often watched Fox (particularly Bill O’Reilly) to try and understand their side of things better so that I could be a more well-informed person, or at least a well-informed critic. Jingoism is very easy in reaction, too easy.

    Your quote from William James is smart, that’s the first time I’ve come across it, but I can tell you that I’ve often felt the opposition’s opinion was contrived on a specific line of beliefs that are not only beneficial to an ideology, but also personally beneficial (ratings and such). These “chosen” arguments are then researched and charismatic/dogmatic speakers are sent on stage nightly to pound away… night after night after night.

    This is “will,” but like most fellow liberals, I have an innate disagreement with “willing” a beneficial stance on a subject and believe, very deeply, that the best ideas should rise to the top naturally. Talking heads like O’Reilly and Beck attack this natural ascension, and this I can’t agree with.

  7. The government is duly
    The government is duly elected and leans a little to the left now. The folks who call Obama a socialist and question his birthright are just full of malarky.

    To me, the Tea Party is full of disgruntled citizens who 1) are ashamed to pay their fair share of taxes, and 2) are full of sour grapes concerning the last election.

    The Democrats should take heed and pull out all the stops to stay in power. We are deserving of time to really run the government and should pass as much legislation as possible and especially attune ourselves to space technology and environmental concerns. We need to get independent of foreign oil and money, by developing clean energy and paying off our debts to China, etc.

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