Notes from Underground


Tea Parties, Rocky, Ahnuld, and Jesus:
God bless the U.S.A.!



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The current momentum of the Tea Party movement has got opportunistic political establishment types all kinds of excited. The GOP and its faithful media hacks (GOPhers?) are now heaping praises upon the TPers at every turn, sensing they can ride this populist wave and sweep back into power in November.

And they are no doubt shrewd in making that calculation. But politics isn't everything, at least not to everybody. I suspect that most Tea Party adherents don't care a whit about Machiavellian battles between the two dominant wings of the nation's ruling coalition. Rather, they actually want the things they say they want: lower taxes, less-intrusive government, a reversal of the trend toward socialized medicine, and an overall return to constitutional principles. (I'm trying to give some of them, at least, the benefit of the doubt, but here's another view, courtesy of James Bovard.) Those changes are unlikely to be instituted in the future, no matter who is in charge, given that the typical trajectory of the powerful is to grab ever more power, rather than relinquish it.

Thus, if the TP people do indeed help the Republican party wrest back control of Congress, they are likely to find themselves to have been little more than useful idiots, enabling one illegitimate, shuckin' and jivin' gaggle of pimps and scoundrels to triumph over another. Or to use a different and less seemly metaphor, they will be like a naïve young woman who lets herself be seduced by a smooth-talking Lothario, only to be ungraciously abandoned the next morning, when the creep sneaks out without saying goodbye and then brags to all his friends about how easy she was to conquer.

But the real heart of the problem, in my view, isn't limited to crass, cynically opportunistic politicians who feign sympathy with their constituents. Such ignoble behavior is only to be expected in a democracy, where the masters are obliged to flatter their servants during election season, the better to rule them contemptuously the rest of the time.

No: the truly misbegotten idea is that this abstraction called "the people" or sometimes "the majority" somehow possess an inherent virtue that the elites lack. If elitism is faulty, not least because would-be elites tend to gravitate toward whatever bad ideas happen to be trendy, populism is also deeply and fatally flawed, because most people — to put it bluntly — are unthinking, conformist stooges. In fact, neither the wolfish leaders nor their bleating sheeplike followers are worthy of reverence or emulation; both should be utterly rejected as meaningful exemplars of wisdom or virtue. One should obtain his ideals from a source higher than either those rapacious predators in shepherd's disguise or their all-too-easily-led herd.

Yet the populist strain, like the relentless scourge of optimism ("Change you can believe in," "Morning in America," "Don't worry, be happy"), is endemic in the American mind. We will not, we cannot, at any cost or for any reason, cease to believe in ourselves and our inherent wonderfulness. Note how even most of our rulers, regardless of where they stand on issues, or say they stand, always take extra care to cloak themselves as earnest representatives of "the people," firmly dedicated to "public service." Note also how every major candidate for president in recent memory has carefully positioned himself as an "outsider," and tried desperately to be "folksy" (remember John Kerry's duck-hunting fiasco?) while attacking his opponent for not being folksy enough (remember Bush's ads showing Kerry wind-surfing?).

The faux humility of those who hold the reins of power is much more grating than honest arrogance would be, and the worst part of it is just how easily this schtick fools so many people. Then again, it's not too hard to fool fools, as an American circus barker, appropriately enough, once observed.

When I think of recent manifestations of American populist ideology, two movies in particular come to mind. No, not "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," or anything of its kind. Instead, I flash to the crass and cheesy 1980s, the stomping-ground decade of my youth, and two of its screen legends: Sly Stallone and Ahnuld.

In "Rocky IV," the iconic hero travels to Russia to fight the hulking and steroidal commie, Ivan Drago, who was responsible for killing Rocky's friend Apollo Creed in a charity bout earlier in the film. And the initial couple of rounds of the grudge match between Balboa and Drago are actually quite compelling: Rocky is trying to hold his own, not just against his monstrous opponent but also against the intensely hostile Moscow crowd. Yet ... wouldn't you know it? Rocky brings 'em round! Groan. He shows himself to be such a tenacious fighter that by the time the bell dings for round 15, the Slavic hordes baying for the American's blood just a few minutes earlier have now turned on their countryman and have started chanting, "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!" And when Rocky finally KO's the big Russian muscle-head, the fans celebrate wildly: the Italian Stallion from Philadelphia is their new hero.

Of course, like nearly everything else in the movie, none of that is the least bit plausible. But leaving that aside, one wonders why the writers figured it had to happen. Why not force Rocky to take on the jeering, hateful crowd throughout the entire fight? Why did this group of mean, nasty people have to morph into cute and cuddly and full-of-good-will little peasants, suddenly won over by the "good guy"? The answer: because "people," according to the American dogma, are gooood at heart, especially if they are salt-of-the-earth commoners. The Politburo and the Communist Party elites are evil, naturally, because they're powerful, but the "regular" Russian is really just a swell guy: Give him a chance, and he won't let you down!

Then there was the lesser sci-fi classic "The Running Man," starring everyone's favorite Austrian-born head of state (no, not that one), Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie portrays a totalitarian future in which the corrupt leaders arrange for falsely convicted criminals to be brought onto a barbarically brutal game show, where they are hunted down by vicious, murderous thugs, to the cheers of a bloodthirsty live audience. As with the other film, there are some rather interesting moments early on: the crowd suddenly goes silent when Arnie and his fellow contestants manage to kill one of their attackers: That wasn't what they had in mind. They didn't want to see the victims fight back!

Yet, ho-hum, once again the hero is able to win over the crowd, who aren't really morally depraved, just a little rough around the edges (as exemplified in the de rigueur cussing little old lady). In this case, they actually ignite a needed revolution at Arnie's behest, and all is well. Once again, the dangerous territory of anti-populism is avoided; "the people" are good, after all; they just need a little boost now and then, and they'll immediately get wise to injustice, stop rooting for evil to win, and instigate a coup against their wicked rulers.

One thinks of a more recent cinematic sensation that highlighted a very different story, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." Here, as in the source material (i.e., the New Testament), the Jewish and Roman rulers are evil, the mob is unrelentingly hateful, and the good guy gets pummeled, tortured, and crucified. That is certainly not an American story, though interestingly enough, it did huge business in America, and it is based on the religion professed by most Americans. Do we not sense some significant cognitive dissonance here, considering that our founding populist myths are at odds with the central theme of our founding spiritual story?

Indeed, how do we work this out, so that it makes sense? Of course, the answer is that we don't. We don't even try to reconcile the two conflicting ideological perspectives: the one heartily and confidently optimistic about human nature, the other scathingly dismissive of such a sentiment. We're Americans, after all; we're doers, not thinkers. We've got gumption, we've got drive, we've got stick-to-it-iveness; there's nothing we can't accomplish, including ignoring central inconsistencies in our thinking. It's precisely this uniquely American brand of Orwellian doublethink that will soon give the GOP what they want (power) and render the Tea Partiers happy to be exploited, then left for dead. Ω

May 20, 2010

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Mr. Nowicki's personal blog is Dyspeptic Myopic, at www.andynowicki.blogspot.com.

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