Monday, May 27, 2013

A Visual Reading of the Tea Party

     As soon as it began the Tea Party was visual. This was a calculated choice. Influential conservative activist and writer Michelle Malkin, for example, compiled photographs from the first day of Tea Party rallies, taking pictures from sites as far flung as San Diego, Tampa, Cleveland, and Shelby, Alabama. Makin, a self-described “mother, wife, blogger, conservative syndicated columnist, author, and Fox News Channel contributor” represents a typical type of conservative public intellectual, having gotten her start as a syndicated columnist but moving on to becoming a conservative hero of sorts for writing books like In Defense of Internment, which addressed the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Japanese internment in World War II. Malkin’s position as a movement leader in the conservative blogger/activist infrastructure suggests that one can capably interpret these photographs as an accurate representations of how conservatives conceived of the Tea Party and its meaning. The post on Malkin’s website is entitled “Tea Party photo album: Fiscal responsibility is the new counterculture.” The presentation underscores a key component of the Tea Party’s configuration in public discourse as formally organized by a logic of social movement that resonates within an American tradition of civil disobedience and political resistance. Indeed, the title of the post ”suggests that the majority’s of Americans are financially irresponsible, untrustworthy, and immature. This statement supports that worldview, but it also induces a pause: does not the word counterculture summon images of Abbie Hoffman and yippies being chased with tear gas and rock and roll music at Woodstock?
            Some might suggest this is just more data in a long running study on the powers of capitalism to commodify opposition and criticism. In a long form essay in The Baffler that would become a full-throated book, Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland suggested in “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” that “our notion about what's wrong with American life and how the figures responsible are to be confronted haven't changed much in thirty years. Call it, for convenience, the ‘countercultural idea.’ It holds that the paramount ailment of our society is conformity, a malady that has variously been described as over-organization, bureaucracy, homogeneity, hierarchy, logocentrism, technocracy, the Combine, the Apollonian.”[i] We have, according to the authors, lost the time where being counter-cultural meant something, as “its frenzied ecstasies have long since become an official aesthetic of consumer society, a monotheme of mass as well as adversarial culture.”[ii] By coopting “hip” and “cool,” corporate powers have transformed those concepts into weapons for consumerism in the war on subjects who might attempt to be otherwise. Frank and Weiland are focused on corporations, but Malkin’s efforts to frame the Tea Party as counter-cultural suggests that the appeal of being “against the system” infiltrates even conservative political vocabularies as well. Though conservatism previously articulated its opposition to the system through vocabularies opposed to “political correctness” police and government bureaucrats, the Tea Party found considerable appeal in describing itself as an anti-systemic and grassroots organization of  “ordinary people” who defined themselves against a system that was extraordinary in its commitment to greed and irresponsibility. Indeed, those who attended a Tea Party would hear speeches railing against government spending, high taxes, bailouts, and a rising culture of American irresponsibility. At the same time the dark side of counter-culture and the threat that it posed to order and established conservative hierarchies like race could also be neutralized through the appropriation of these forms and the draining of them of their radical content i.e. mapping them onto orderly white bodies.
A person scrolling through Malkin’s post would observe, in quick succession, a photograph of a mass of people in San Diego, shot slightly out of focus so that their signs are unreadable, another shot of the same crowd featuring white men and women holding signs reading “Repeal The $Pork$ or Your Bacon is Cooked” and “Proud American Capitalist”, shots or protestors on a street corner in North Carolina, one far out featuring the figure of the size of the national debt ($3,000,000,000,000) and a smaller shot of a young girl wearing a t-shirt reading “OBAMA! Get your Hands Out of my Piggy Bank! Alone .” Then we are transported to Nashville, where protestors have signs reading “Bailouts=Robbery” on the steps of the capitol building while they have “Free Markets Not Free Loaders” signs in the office of Congressman Jim Cooper. Then we move to Portland where a small group gathers by the river before heading to Shelby Alabama where six individuals sit out on a glum rainy day with signs reading “No Pork 4 Catfish,” attached to a narrative suggesting the bravery of those went out in a rainstorm. Other shots follow, from Lansing (“Born To Be Taxed to Death!,” Cleveland (“No Taxation Without Deliberation,”) Denver (Stimulate Business Not Govt,) and yes, Chicago, the site of the Santelli inspired Tea Party (“No More Bailouts.”)[iii] The self-portrait of a nascent movement painted by these photographs is one of a restless and frustrated citizenry, one tired of governmental priorities and spending that are out of touch with the average Americans.
These photos amalgamated by Malkin represent the first wave of protests, and a second wave followed on Tax Day 2009. Because many conservatives have complained that the mainstream media’s selections of Tea Party imagery are tainted by liberal bias, I have tried to choose a representative sample of photographs that are constituted by conservative self-reporting to get a proper of index of how the Tea Party imagines itself. To this end I examine photographs from the three tax day protests, in Cleveland, Chattanooga, St. Louis, and Des Moines. Three of these four cities are cities in swing states, and both Iowa and Tennessee have substantial enough ties to rural areas of America that the sample should prove roughly representative.
The aggregated photo albums share several characteristics. 1) They are chock full of photographs which produce a kind of “populist claustrophobia” in which a mass of people crowd the photo lens, and broader perspective is mostly lost, with the lens caught up with bodies. 2) There is a standard load of patriotic images, often constructed in alliance with signifiers of revolution, for examples the famous “Don’t Tread On Me” Gadsden flag super-imposed on an American flag.  Many markers and signs signal a kind of nostalgia, either for America’s revolutionary past or for a time of normalcy where ideographs like “freedom” are positioned as lost to the trauma of recent politics. 3) There are an abundance of signs and images associated with anxieties about Communism, mostly articulated to Obama, i.e. the Obama “O” covered with a hammer and sickle. Concerns about bailouts mix in with this visual miasma.

In figure 1.1, taken from the Cleveland Tea Party, we see a representative of the claustrophobia typical of these photographs.  The only intelligible signs or flags are the two American flags on the right side of the shot. There is no visible space in between the crowd and the buildings in the background. The buildings are also government buildings, part of the Cleveland downtown park dedicated to war veterans and the space of government offices. In figure 1.2, the people again crowd the buildings but also face the camera, with a set of more intelligible signs and shirts, including “Obama Won, America Lost,” and “Stop Bailing Out Failure.”[i] In both shots the people’s dress is casual, with sweaters and sweatshirts and jackets suggest not only the chilly weather but also informality.
The aggressive, presenced, and activated shot of “the people” brings to mind the classic trope of demophobia, or fear of “the people.” As old as democracy itself, demophobia derives from the undecidability that exists at the heart of democratic politics: the promise of rule by “the people” offers to project the self into the seat of power, but also raises the darker possibility of a disjunct between one and the many. Robert Ivie suggests the American founders were mindful of this concern: they strongly shared it and developed a republican governmental structure to choke out the various malaises of democracy.[ii] While the presentation of “the people” by citizen photojournalists satisfies the desire to find the exact people vicrimized by the financial crisis and resulting bailouts, “the people” brings these various demophobic fears, however displaced. The location of “the people” in one spatio-temporal coordinate corresponds with the evacuation of democracy’s second promise, that of accepting and embracing heterogeneity. Hariman and Lucaites indicated that effective public photography should serve to constitute a balanced tension between particularity and universality. These photographs read like the fever dreams of the imaginary of the mass public, where the public appears as Warner suggests it has often been imagined: white and male. Of course, it also differs from the previously mass public of Warner’s world in another sense: it appears. This observation is not incidental. It is constitutive of the peculiar paradox suggested by the photos suggested by these citizen photojournalists. The silent majority speaks visually. No longer reserved, they crowd and hem in the seat of government.
The scene both suggests and conceals the opposite of that most modern of terrors, totalitarianism by big government. Gilles Deleuze suggests in Cinema 2 that a key development in modern cinema and visuality was its relationship to the rise of Hitler, which “gave cinema as its object not the masses become subject but the masses subjected.”[iii] For Deleuze, then, “the people are missing” in the Western imaginary to the extent that they are figured as victims of politics. The public appearance of this people attempts to negotiate that democratic paradox, that “the people” are both the object of politics but also its creator. This paradox runs deep, especially given the change in political grammars generated by the “New Right” of the 1960’s, which sought to define a collective “people” on the basis of their opposition to the government rather than to define a “people” against other elements of civil society in a push to extract more resources vis-à-vis the government.  A fundamental element of American political anxiety and fear is the fear of a government, embedded not only in the mythology of the revolutionaries, but also in the ties that America has to opposing totalitarianism, both in the German and Soviet cases. The paradox was that “the people” were thought to be out of power but of course they are positioned to make demands precisely because they are “outside” of power. Producing a people simultaneously victimized by but also resistant to the government pilots the imaginary through this contradiction: positioning the people as emerging explicitly in opposition to the convergence of elite power in government suggests the “people” have agency but also legitimate claims of disempowerment. Activation of “the people” trades in demophobia to remind us that “the people” can act and that those actions may be the dangerous or even exuberant expressions of a “people” that cannot be controlled.
             The claustrophobic “people” of these photographs suggest that the threat of violence found in both the demophilic and demophobic accounts of politics may actually stem from the same source: “the people’s” role as a function rather than a fact in politics. Recall the Rousseauian paradox outlined in Chapter 4, that “the people” may not emerge as a whole from either the outside of the political system (for this would locate their source in an anti-democratic place “outside” the position of “the people”) nor may they emerge only from within “the people” (because their emergence would necessitate alighting on one single definition of “the people” and as a result contradicting a democratic ethos positioned as, in the abstract, friendly to all difference.) “The people” exist neither as a natural voice “out there” in the democratic wild nor do they ever attain the hegemonic force that would render them the invisible structuring principle of the political. The claustrophobic and crowding “people” call to mind the kind of mass envisioned by demophobes but at the same time this particular mass brandishes neither weapons nor bodily anger. The violence they threaten is actually violence of indistinction, as their almost uniform racial makeup and lack of radical political markings suggest. It is the dual violence of both a popular tyranny read into their uniformity but also the violence threatened by the absence of particularity Public discourse that finds “the people” does not only threaten the government, it also threatens those outside that image of “the people” by smuggling in an antagonistic claim under a democratic guise. That the implicit argument ad populam has an exclusive component is underscored in Figure 1.1, where the audience does not even look at the lens.

[i] Photograph 1.2 includes one of the only shots in all the photo galleries of a person of color.
[ii] Robert Ivie, Democracy and America's War on Terror  (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 14.
[iii] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969), 216.

[i] Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland, "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," The New York Times, November 30 1997.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Michelle Malkin, "Tea Party Photo Album: Fiscal Responsibility Is the New Counterculture,", February 27 2009.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Meaning of Revolutionary-Era Garb

During the fevered times of 2009, the first explicitly populist conservative political movement, the Tea Party, took flight in America. While this blog has spent much time and effort thinking about the Tea Party, I have up until now avoided addressing one of the clearest signs that marked the Tea Party protests: the phenomena of people dressing up in clothing and styles from the times of the American Revolution. While this tendency has been much discussed (even even mocked on television shows like Parks & Recreation) I aim to ask a modest question in this post: what, if anything, did the move to dress in such a style mean?

I want to suggest that there is something ineffably non-controversial and intrinsically good about the moment of the American founding in our public imagination. This is of course no bold statement, at least in terms of one's assessment of the relation of America's mythic founding to the "mass public." While there might be disagreements from Charles Beard or race theorists (and these disagreements would have much merit), the mental work that the imagination of the revolution does for Americans today is meaningful. After all, what do desires and needs to return to the past mean? Kenneth Burke observes that such efforts are often attempts to "escape from a grossly mismanaged present." But what was so gross about early 2009?

There were three factors. 1) The American economy continued to struggle in the wake of the massive financial and housing crises that had begun in early 2008. Rather than being a trying but ultimately manageable political problem, the crisis gestured at an intimate crisis facing the American Dream: the possibility that the liberal promises of a correspondence between individual agency and socio-economic  standing might be exposed as a sham. America was thus confronted with a difficult if not impossible to resolve crisis: how to square the circle created by the promises of the dream that could no longer be realized. 2) The American mass public had been significantly reconfigured by the election of the first mixed race president (one who was overdetermined in public discourse as a black man) with the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Because media positioned Obama's race as mattering (but only insofar as it suggested its reaffirmation of a script of America's exceptionalism) the simultaneous promise AND terror associated with imagining a pure meritocracy was produced. 3) Obama's rhetoric had failed to tap into the well of anger and frustration associated with the TARP deals and other bailouts. The result was that while the public was looking for a public mirror in which to see itself (through the avatar of the presidency) what they got were lectures on responsibility.

For all these reasons, there were substantial questions about just who was responsible for the confusing and frustrating economic circumstances that remained well into 2009. Was it greedy financiers and bankers? Was it people who took mortgages beyond their means? Was it a creeping moral hazard induced by a society grown lazy and too privileged? Had the American Dream been spoiled by the government? Sabotaged from outside by communists?

Indeed, none of these answers alone is particularly satisfying. And debating about which is wrong or right is somewhat beside the point: the structure of the problem is so complex that the debate is realy about what palliative measures of public discourse might buy off the crisis instead of searching for that one single cause. In this sense, the move to return to the Revolutionary moment in America makes sense by virtue of its capacity to map a simple script onto a complex problem. Moreover, the script could tap into a deep seated and well cultivated suspicion of government that had dominated American political discourse starting in the late 60s. By turning the imagination into one of a tyrannous government positioned against a virtuous and hardworking people, the performance of a revolutionary spirit could generate linkages between an American past defined by its capacity to defend the labor of its people against foreign tyranny. The idea of the British government as external (even though of course, the vast majority of Americans were themselves British) is here important because it allows the imagination of a problem that is exterior to the virtues of the people rather than internal to their constitution and disposition.

So wearing Tri-corner hats and tramping about with Gadsen flags is safe, easy, and comfortable, because it does nothing to disrupt or challenge an existing disposition in favor of the imaginary order of things. Erecting a parallelism between the America of now and the America of then makes writing a script for the crisis relatively easy, and suggests the ability of public performance to metonymically thematize the present in terms of the past through the production of binaristic battles between people and government that just so happen to "meet cute" with the sinister image of Big Government that has driven center-right policy and politics in America since the revanchist moments of the New Right.

Like any nostalgic performance, it demands history be simplified. There are no mentions of the Articles of the Confederation, few if any technical debates about the nuances associated with the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (despite the fact that much internal Tea Party literature describes the Constitution in religious terms). That history must be as simple as this present. But whether or not it presents an "accurate" vision of history is less important than its rhetorical efficacy in a given moment, and in that moment "Join or Die" still meant something to a lot of American citizens.