Monday, September 14, 2009

...and we're back

A friend of the blog reminded me how long its been since I posted anything new this morning. Yeah, sorry about that. A combination of three straight weekends of being out of town, other more pressing things to do, and a bit of blogging ennui kept me behind.

I really wish I had stayed home Saturday to check out the teabagger march on Washington. Anything would have been preferable to watching the UVa football team stink it up yet again, but I'm really curious to see what two million people jamming into the city looked like. What, it wasn't two million? More like the attendance of the Ravens game? Rats.

Seriously, I would have liked to have gotten a personal flavor for the crowd (much of the one I was in left at halftime). Fortunately, Daily Kos did a nice job linking to a bunch of different photostreams. I've been holding my powder on most of this movement so here are my impressions, second-hand as they are for this weekend at least.

* I agree with Nate Silver that Democrats/progressives mock these protests at our own peril. Yes, they represent a coalition of hard-Right groups that are outside the mainstream of American politics (get rid of the Federal Reserve? Seriously?) Some wear funny hats and jeans shorts and can't tell the ideological difference between genocidal dictators. But they employ a wide array of potent symbols and phrases that are central to American national identity with aplomb. I think that, if asked, every person at Saturday's rally would agree with the Palinesque assertion that they represented the "real" America and "real Americans." And they know the currency of patriotic symbolism well. Their invocation of Revolutionary War-era symbols -- the Don't Tread On Me flags, the Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence -- might be historically nonsensical, if not merely corny; but they are familiar and easily digestible messages that may peel off millions more voters to their side of the debate. All they have to do is give the feeling of authenticity as a grassroots movement and address many Americans' gut feeling that something is amiss for the nation. That their conflation of Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian meanings of the word "Liberty" would give Herbert Croly a migrane is not important.

Which is why I loved the last 10 minutes of President Obama's speech to Congress last week -- the Why We are Liberals part. The American narrative of living up to the Better Angels of ourselves is just as potent as "Don't Tread on Me." Given how the untrammeled greed of our time threatens most of our well being its power should be even greater.

* How much the idea of American exceptionalism shapes the Right is one of the most under-appreciated aspects of American political life. Take this comment reported by Politico from one of the marchers: “I see our nation changing into something the roots of us don’t want,” said Jim Bryant, an aviation consultant from Trenton, Georgia. “Why turn the greatest nation in the entire history of mankind into something else?” Conservative Americans have believed in this principle since the 1920s. They interpret the chaos, belligerence, and horror of other nations' experiences in modern history to be the result of their embrace of "isms." The American nation's capacity to rise above this history is the result of its unique political and governmental traditions and institutions. Hence, the fixation upon the Constitution (to be a true believer in Americanism, you need a pocket-sized copy for extra portability.)

The argument that America has escaped the gravity of history and therefore must never change is the antimatter to liberalism's matter.

* The American exceptionalist narrative at the center of these protests makes it impossible to separate out its political critique from its racism. This narrative comfortably asserts that the particular genius of white, Protestant American men led the nation to its historical greatness. Obama's blackness upsets this narrative quite obviously. But there's more to it. Just as this form of American exceptionalism insists the nation must reject foreign "isms," it also demands that immigrants to its shores be utterly transformed and accept the ideological standards of American politics. It is not just that Obama's father was from Kenya for these people, or that he spent part of his childhood overseas: it is the combination of what they perceive to be his personal foreignness and the alien nature of his ideas (from the Orwellian socialist wastelands of Canada and the United Kingdom) that exacerbates their reactionary ways. The Right's assertion that "he is not one of us," made in so many ways during the campaign and now during Obama's presidency is more complicated than mere white supremacy - but it's still racist.

If you are struggling to understand some of the more conspiratorial elements of this movement, ask yourself, how would I perceive the world if I believed what the guy quoted in Politico was absolutely true?

1 comment:

  1. Nehls, are you telling me that Hannity is wrong? That the United States is not "the greatest nation on Earth that God ever gave Man?" For shame.