Ladies and gentlemen, sorry again, for a long delay in blogging! That time of the year, new semester starts, new students come who want to change the existing problems of our planet with one swift sweeping statement about a theoretical paradigm they just read. And finally, also all the papers that one has submitted in the last six months, are coming out. Busy days!
But that’s not everything. Today we have the great fortune of having Dr. Pauline M. Kaurin, Associate Professor of Philosophy, as a guest blogger in DWW. Dr. Kaurin kindly agreed to write on the philosophical framework of the Tea Party movement, which is a fascinating subject given the last Presidential elections, and the changing socio-demographic dynamics of United States. You can follow her in twitter here.
The Tea Party and the Nature of ‘American’
“The White Establishment is now a minority….Obama wins because this is not the traditional America anymore. People want things.” – Bill O’Reilly, November 5, 2012
Regularly teaching courses in Philosophy and Race and Social and Political Philosophy (of late focused on the Tea Party in the US), has me reflecting on the intersection of ethnicity and race, and what it means to be an ‘American’ in an age of increasing racial, ethnic, cultural and religious mixing and diversity. The 2008 and 2012 President elections, as well as the 2010 midterm elections, were replete with ‘birthers’, calls to return to the values of the Founding Fathers and purity tests for both parties, in which debates about who or what is really ‘American’ were prominent.
The charge of lacking patriotism or being ‘unamerican’ is hardly a new phenomenon in US politics. We only need to recall the election of 1800, a notoriously nasty battle with all manner of insults, most of which directly impinged the moral character and patriotism of candidates Adams and Jefferson. In more recent elections, charges of being a communist, socialist, Marxist and/or having foreign sympathies have been common, particularly during the Cold War period. So in one sense, we can see attempts to cast Barack Obama as foreign, as an outsider with Kenyan roots, as Muslim and possessing anti-colonial, socialist sympathies in keeping with this tradition, just as John Kennedy was cast as a Papist pawn, or Mitt Romney was cast as a cultural and religious outsider for being Mormon.
And yet, Bill O’Reilly does seem to have put his finger on something real and important in American politics. Concerns with the cultural and religious influence of Islam and the desire of the Tea Party to return to the ‘values’ of the Founding Fathers, speak to a nostalgia for a time with a majority of a certain sort, where minorities where just that (especially in terms of power and influence) and where certain things could be unspoken and assumed – not subject to public debate, discussion and negotiation. Whether it is the ‘War on Christmas,’ narratives in social studies textbooks, what holidays or days take cultural precedence or language use, there were things that seemed, at least to some, given and certain.
So what is going on? What is the source of the conflict? Is it that classical liberal neutrality of the state with regard to the Good Life and morality has broken down? Or is that the classical conservative vision of ‘civilization’ and what American values are to be preserved has come under attack? One answer might be American Exceptionalism, which can sound like a kind of racial, cultural and religious triumphalism. Related to that is an uncritical hero worship of the Founding Fathers as moral and cultural archetypes, with these values representing a lost Paradise to which we should return. Another might be the fact that ‘liberty’ is under assault: the ‘liberty’ isn’t just formal political or economic rights, rather it is the right not to have to think about certain things and people, to be able to take a certain discourse and cultural context for granted. This conflict might, in fact, be rooted in the notion of a certain moral or normative discourse that need not be revised, negotiated and can be taken as given.
If this seems plausible, then the current discussions about who and what values are rightly to be considered ‘American’ is a fight about mythology. Let me be clear, by mythology I mean a narrative structure or set of discourses designed to give meaning to human experience, in this case, to our political experience, and order how we think about our life together. Alasdair MacIntryre argues in his classic After Virtue that both individual and social narratives are crucial in how we develop meaning and participate in moral discourse, and the role of narrative in our popular culture and daily life seem to bear this out.
The entrance of the Tea Party movement into US politics has revealed a tension (a long running tension in American political philosophy) between the classically liberal discourse of individual rights and State neutrality relative to moral and religious questions and the conservative desire for stability and preservation of tradition, order and forms of authority. This desire for preservation in conservatism has centered on political authority, religious institutions, marriage and family, but in this context what is to be preserved is the narrative of Americanism – patriotism, American Exceptionalism, the values of the Founding Fathers and this moral discourse, most importantly, is not subject to being questioned, to negotiation. The strongest enmity is, therefore, reserved for those who question, critique or want to renegotiate this discourse; that becomes foreign, unpatriotic, and “unamerican”.