Before you read the post, I want you to contemplate that I’m perfectly justified to use a red-figure krater by the 5th C BC Greek potter Euphronios to illustrate a post about the Tea Party. The painting is Hercules wrestling with Antaeus.
Stanley Fish has a post up about the Tea Party on the New York Times opinionator blog. I find what he writes provocatively annoying– I’ll frequently disagree, but find the disagreement interesting (sometimes, though, I’m annoyed at having wasted my time).
His basic point in the current post is the disutility of calling Tea Party folks names (e.g. saying they are stupid), and for a metaphor, he picks Antaeus from Greek mythology. Antaeus who would challenge people to wrestling matches. His mother was Gaia, the earth, and he therefore was always strong when in contact with the earth. If someone threw him in the dirt, he came back stronger.
Fish notes that the name calling makes the Tea Party folks stronger, having the effect of pushing people towards it, and suggests that actually making reasoned and reasonable responses to what they say is the appropriate approach, and would be not unlike how Hercules defeated Antaeus: Instead of wrestling him to the ground, Hercules lifted him into the air and broke his contact with the earth.
Fish would have progressives engage with the positions taken by the Tea Party and respond to them seriously.
I’m tempted to respond with the joke about the futility of attempting to teach a pig to read (it wastes time and annoys the pig), but suppose that would be a form of name calling.
To have the discussion Fish proposes, there have to be some sort of common agreements with the other side to a debate, and an openness to discussion. Christine O’Donnell is not open to discussion on the subject of evolution. There’s really no way to politely respond to falsehoods like Dinesh D’Souza’s contention that Obama has a secret African-tribesman-bond with the father he never new, or to a San Diego Tea Party’s alarm that there’s a communist in the White House.
Take as an example the reverential references by Tea Party folks of “the Constitution.” Concepts one side sees as axiomatic the other sees as inventions totally absent from the document (compare these two thoughts: that the due process and equal protection clauses combine to protect certain privacy rights, thereby preventing the government from regulating what goes on one’s bedroom; or that the constitution expresses that the United States was founded as a Judeo-Christian nation. I can explain the basis for my conviction that the first statement is true and that the second is ahistorical, but would any such explanation bridge the gap between me and my opposites in the Tea Party?). So how can this discussion occur?
Yet there is this: I think the name calling is pretty useless. At times it is necessary to call something what it is, to call a lie a lie, for instance. That having been done, what’s next? And how can there be much in the way of conversation after that? There’s some entertainment value and perhaps a rallying-the-troops value to continuing to hold up absurd examples, but I’m pretty sure that won’t really help win either an election or an argument. Ultimately, it’s no better than the Tea Party folks strategy of calling Obama names. So to that extent, Fish is right.
Where Fish may have a point is in reaching the large center. I really don’t believe that the… (trying to think of a non-pejorative term)… firmly believing part of the Tea Party has more than 25-30% of the electorate. The election, unfortunately and as usual, will probably be decided by a 15-20% who aren’t really engaged, other than a generalized sense things are going badly (there is a general agreement about that), and a willingness to blame those in charge. If, when they decide to release their mental clutch and go to vote, those folks just notice that both sides are shouting at each other, both sides will have missed a chance of persuasion. But if one side is being clear and plainspoken about how the other side’s views could seriously harm the country and make things worse, maybe that will help. Maybe. So perhaps that’s the argument for Fish’s suggestion to stop demonizing the Tea Party folks.