Friday, February 3, 2012

SOTU and Translating the Tea Party

I did end up watching President Obama’s State of the Union Speech this year, and I didn’t fall asleep during it.  The other spectators were a young Chinese couple and an eager-looking guy wearing a Ron Paul sweatshirt (this was in a rather run-down if cheery hostel in D.C.).  When the speech concluded, the latter struck up a political conversation.  While unfailingly polite, he also had that slightly messianic air that I’ve notice about many Ron Paul supporters.  They are unwilling to take even the slightest criticisms of their hero, and yet have an entirely different standard when it comes to anyone else.

Had I heard about the Obama Gay Sex Scandal that the media was covering up?  I had to admit that I hadn’t.  What did he think about the racist rants that ran for two odd decades in the Ron Paul newsletters, or about the laughable logic which allows Paul to deliver a stinging critique of the artificiality of an economy based on printing scraps of green paper while advocating that we tie it to a chunk of shiny rock?  How could I impugn Doctor Paul like that?  Didn’t I know that these were all scurrilous lies dreamt up by the mainstream media?  Had to say, I didn’t.

I mentioned the draconian budget cuts to various state-provided services in California.  He asked whether I thought that any of those programs had actually done any good, or whether they were just a drain on the taxpayer.  I cited California’s school system, the University of California, the California State University, the California Community Colleges, and the health and social services-related programs that kept people who’d been bludgeoned to their knees by the economic malpractise of the last administration above water.

Then the conversation turned to guns.  Was I for ‘em or agin’ em?  Did I know that if liberals had their way the government would come and take people’s guns from them?  I said that as far as I was aware the government (or some people in government, or rather, some people in some sectors of state and federal and city governments) weren’t interested in taking away people’s rights to own guns.  Rather, they was interested in banning weapons clearly aimed at doing harm (armour-piercing bullets, handguns in crime-ridden cities, etc), and not at depriving backwoodsmen of the right to their rifles (his concern was that he wouldn’t be able to sit out in the woods and shoot his guns).

But what interested me most about this conservative/libertarian argument was the inevitable shift from inefficient government bureaucracy to guns, a shift which illustrates the terribly fragile logic behind the program of both people like Paul and groups like the Tea Party.  They want government to be on the one hand a grossly inept Thing, incapable of providing decent services to people, unable to gauge citizens’ priorities, inept when it comes to carrying out the most basic functions.  On the other hand, it is a fearsome, all-powerful Thing, able to take guns off the hands of every man, woman and child among us, while gutting us through some maliciously-efficient bureaucracy based on a series of death panels...  Call me unimaginative, but I can’t make my mind stretch that far. 

Furthermore, Government isn’t a Thing.  The anti-government brigade things of Government and thinks of an undifferentiated, cohesive entity that has a single purpose (it’s out to get us).  So for those of them who are anti-war, Government is bad because it has us in Afghanistan.  Well, as far as I’m aware, the EPA and the Department of Education aren’t lobbing grenades or flying sorties at the Taliban.  Those who hate paying taxes will usually cite some inefficient program.  But they often wholeheartedly support the use of massive military power abroad, and tend to think of the military as a highly efficient and effective entity. 

I understand that it’s easier to trash the whole Thing instead of sitting down to disaggregate it—to think why some bits appear to serve people and do good in communities around our country while others serve more sinister interests while imperilling our well-being.  That’s the more necessary conversation, but it’s not one that the foot soldiers of the Ron Paul Revolution appear willing to have.


I never quite realised how bonkers the Tea Party-type Republicans are until I tried explaining to someone here in Kenya the other day that my home state, California, is in dire fiscal straits.  Is it a poor state? they asked.  Not really, I admitted.  Well, not at all. 

Then why, if we have an ostensibly democratic and basically honest governmental structure which is capable of collecting taxes and disbursing revenue, are we so averse to funding things as obviously useful as education, healthcare initiatives, infrastructure and clean energy projects, andsocial services for the elderly, the poor and the unemployed?

Imagine, I explained, that a group of people suffered a collective genetic mutation that only allowed them to focus on one idea at a the exclusion of every other idea, every ounce of logic, every iota of compassion.  And imagine that this idea, by a combination of electoral calculus and economic self-interest, was that paying taxes towards common services is a) unconstitutional; b) tyrannical; c) un-American; d) yes, you guessed it, all of the above.  And then imagine that by a decades-old populist sleight of hand, this group of people had conspired to ensure that even if the electorate saw fit to vote them into only 34% of legislative seats, they could still control our state’s economy.

This, basically, is the modern Republican Party in the United States.  And boy is it ever depressing.  And I still don’t think my Kenyan questioner gets Republican logic.


  1. A Ron Paul supporter was unhappy that the mainstream press was suppressing a gay sex scandal involving Obama?