One joy of an unexpected day off is catching up on reading. This morning, I read Mark Lilla's essay in the May 27, 2010, New York Review of Books, "The Tea Party Jacobins." Who, Lilla asks, are these ubiquitous tea partiers? More to the point, who are we?
"Survey after survey confirms hat trust in government is dissolving in all advanced societies, and for the same reasons: as voters have become more autonomous, less attracted to parties and familiar ideologies, it has become harder for political institutions to represent them collectively," he writes. We "are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when if comes to their own powers."
He nailed it, as he usually does.
My professional life is devoted to the proposition that any concentration of power, any orthodoxy, is to be distrusted. Put ten people in a room, and they will find a way to condemn the eleventh person to arrive. I am drawn to the outlier, the one who walks, looks, or talks funny. I am the not-so-loyal opposition to almost every form of collective action.
But Lilla reminds that this too convenient form of libertarianism is little more than a dream. What stuns about the financial crisis of 2008 is that it was a collective failure requiring a collective response. My portfolio shrank as a result of forces altogether beyond my control. An even better example is watching the Earth bleed in the Gulf of Mexico. It will take collective action to staunch the wound.
Politics is often less a choice between good and evil, than a choice between better and worse. Thus in Connecticut we have a Senate race between a man who lies about his war record and a candidate who has made a fortune in the soft-porn world of make-believe wrestling. Who better to send to Washington?
Neither should go, I want to scream. But I know that one of them will be elected. It is the binary result of an election in a two-party system. But I want to sit the election out, as I have done so many in years past. A pox on both parties, I mumble.
But who, then, shall govern? I would prefer a world of anarchists situated much like myself: self-employed, living in semi-isolation, heedless of the norms of conformist associations. Lilla reminds me that is a privilege not many share, and it is a costly self-indulgence.
I have no trust in government. But I also have no faith in individual genius' ability to keep chaos at bay. The rhetoric of the tea party crowd appeals, but it is like the lyrics at a rock concert: all passion and heat in the safety of a coliseum patrolled by others. I hate government, all right. But I fear chaos more. What to do with that fear is a challenge.