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Bar News - November 15, 2013

Opinion: Tea Party Argument Echoes the Writings of Herman Melville


Those of us who own houses know how easy it is to get used to a broken fixture. You can always fix it later, after all. There is rarely any rush. So that crack in the ceiling plaster lasts and lasts, until you can’t quite remember that it probably shouldn’t be there.

As I think of the crisis in Washington – the crack in our national ceiling, widening so much that we stare at it now, like it’s brand new – I likewise think of how long it has been there, and how long we have successfully ignored its every feature.

What strikes me as interesting about the Tea Party faction is neither the fact of its existence nor the reasons for its coming to prominence today. Those things can be found in the newspapers pretty easily. Rather, I feel the need to place them into context, because, seen correctly, the Tea Party’s complaint is not against politics, per se; certainly not against taxes, nor health insurance, nor any other policy question. The Tea Party actually has an argument against modernity itself – or at least against that part of modernity that deprives the average individual of his or her ability to command his or her own life.

That any individual was ever able to do so is open to debate. But there was a brief period of time when people both thought and argued that they could. From John Locke to Adam Smith, English and Scottish liberal thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries railed against the rule of their country by the great institutions of their day: by the army, the navy, the church, the estates. They saw those institutions as getting in the way of man’s ability to not just do as he saw fit with his own talents, but also to make sense of his own life. And it was that urge to make sense of life itself that has so outlasted the peculiar causes that first allowed liberal thought to take the stage.

Which it did, of course, to great effect: for instance, the American and French Revolutions. Our founding fathers were liberals to a man, staking the future of an entire continent on the beautiful idea that individuals could best prosper when institutions left them alone. It’s easy to forget how radical that notion was, and how radical the United States seemed to be in its early history; you need to turn to the writings of de Toqueville to see it well.

But in today’s world, it’s even easier to forget how quickly the liberal project failed; not because it was lacking in any order or reason of its own, but because it was quickly outstripped by technology. With the railroads came economies of scale; with economies of scale came concentration of wealth; with concentration of wealth, came cynicism and corruption; and then came the backlash.

The first wave of fighting back came with the populists of the late 19th century, who were successful enough to change the debate; because by the early 20th century, most people already understood that the liberal program needed revamping. There was no cry then against “big government,” either; the prevailing cry went against the trusts, the railroads, the mines, and the mills. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the first of our leaders to combat Big Business by aligning the government against it, and then came the Depression, the growth of even more radical thought, and Franklin Roosevelt’s even braver attempts to rebalance the scale yet further.

World War II intervened even more, though, because the United States emerged from that war as the world’s most powerful nation. And who cared about the power to control one’s own destiny, when people were well-fed, well-clothed, and well-housed? Only the intellectuals seemed to, actually. Also the beatniks, then the hippies, dropping out of a society that did a very good job at keeping people stocked with material things, but a very bad job of the old liberal project: letting people find meaning in the work they did and the lives they led.

So, now our economy is no longer so forgiving; now our economy is leaving people hungry again. The debate has come full circle, and we are back to fighting against institutions. And even though there’s a difference now, in that the government itself is seen as the biggest bully on the block today, it’s still the same old problem. How far back it goes can be found in two short stories – about lawyers and the law – written by a fisherman from New York City.

Herman Melville wrote “The Paradise for Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” for Harpers Magazine in 1855. Its first part takes place in London, where the narrator describes a group of lawyers he has met; how happy and fine their lives seem to be; each one, a master of his own fate – the liberal dream personified. But the second half concerns that same narrator’s later visit to a paper factory in New England, where the young female workers endure lives of pure drudgery. “At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.” There is nothing more to tell. The story is static, purely descriptive.

And “Bartleby the Scrivener” was written in 1853. Its hero is a copyist, employed to write out legal documents in a legible hand; this time, the professional himself is living a life of factory dullness. One day, anyway, he simply quits. “I would prefer not to,” becomes his refrain. But he also won’t leave. He stays put, refusing to move. This story is narrated by Bartleby’s employer, who describes how hard he tries to convince his clerk to function more properly. He fails, of course; Bartleby’s future is grim. The whole thing is funny, sad, and entirely surreal.

As surreal as shutting down the entire United States government. Our Tea Party’s complaints were standard by the time of the Civil War; Melville was writing about them when they were new. The sadness of so many of us; the urge to drop out; the question of where to go. You no longer need to be a hippie to ask these things. You can be a congressman from Texas, too.

Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising.

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