Oct 20, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and Politics of Anger

A lot has been written and said recently comparing the two mass political movements essentially based in the politics of anger -- Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.  In fact, so much is currently out there that practically any site I could arbitrarily select to link to here would fit the bill -- so long as it mentions the two movements in some comparative manner.

James Sinclair, in Occupy Wall Street vs The Tea Party (where he also sets out one of the more interesting Venn diagrams overlapping the two groups) sets out, summarizes, and links up an excellently balanced set of comparisons.

Over the last week or so each side has generated mountains of commentary saying, essentially, this: You know the one-sidedly [negative/positive] portrayal of the Tea Party we've been pushing for two and a half years now? Well Occupy Wall Street is totally the opposite!
  • Paul Krugman describes OWS as "a popular movement that, unlike the Tea Party, is angry at the right people." Meanwhile, Ann Coulter says the OWS protesters are angry at the wrong people (and also have poor hygiene, because why not?).
  • Keith Olbermann says OWS is legitimately a grassroots movement that, at least at first, was ignored by the media. Rush Limbaugh says the Tea Party is the "organic" one, while OWS was "manufactured" by the media.
  • ThinkProgess claims the OWS protests "better embody the values of the original Boston Tea Party." BigGovernment insists the protesters are "more aligned with Marxism; with Democratic Socialism; with Soviet Era Collectivism; with the very dangerous and elitist Progressive Movement" than with anything even remotely "American".
Of course, there are key differences between the two movements, but I need not dwell on those here -- some of them are real, substantive differences, some merely products of ideological fun-house lenses coupled with distortive mirrors. What interests me particularly are in fact the similarities, their implications, the core causes, and the unintended but unfortunate likely effects in our politics and our culture.

And, while everyone has the right to develop and express their opinions on these matters (and practically every other), to my mind, it would be otiose to add any new reflections unless they contribute some additional perspective. Actually, that which I've found myself taking is in many respects quite old, so ancient as to antedate the divide between liberal and conservative -- both eminently modern notions in the forms we ascribe those terms to these days in our polarized politics, our still increasingly factionalizing society.

In the Politics (as well as in his two Ethics, the Rhetoric, and in fragmentary ways elsewhere), Aristotle examined, analyzed, strove to understand, and evaluated nearly-perennial patterns of emotion and outlook, demands and desires, action and advocacy that -- if one looks closely, but resists the urge to just shoehorn the events and movements of the present moment into simplified Aristotelian categories -- assist one is seeing hidden, overlooked, forgotten sides to matters.
Here, I'm not going to elaborate arguments, systematically study, tease out implications to their termini -- this isn't that sort of forum (for that I have Orexis Dianoētikē or Dr. Sadler's Chalk and Talk), but just raise a few issues and worries, cite some textual passages that seem relevant to me, and suggest that from a Virtue Ethics perspective nearly all of the parties concerned would come up short in measure, even when they wrap themselves in the mantle of virtue and tar their opponents with the malignity of vice.

So, what does Aristotle have to say that retains or even regains relevance today?  I have in mind some of his remarks about stasis in Politics book 5, which we can translate as "faction" or "revolution," but still better as civil discord, polarization veining through the bedrock of society, breakdown of the community to such a point that seemingly no one actually works for the common good (while many claim to do so, ideologically).  Anger plays a particularly central role in this common phenomenon, as I showed several years ago in a paper, The Passional Substratum of Political Faction In Aristotle.

There is a keen and unmistakable sense of anger as both a source of motivation and commonality in both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party -- anger that is understandable, if all too often indulged more than it ought to by some, almost obtusely ignored or misunderstood by others.  Three things are worth pointing out about anger, two things that are commonplaces in those intellectual and moral traditions comprising Virtue Ethics.

First, for those proponents, representatives, and interpreters of Virtue Ethics who do not regard anger as almost always vicious, extremely dangerous, destructive -- John Cassian, St. Anselm, and in a mitigated manner, St. Augustine articulated such prohibitory stances -- it's still a seductive passion, one which needs but all too often rejects regulation by reason.

Second, Aristotle provided the conceptual resources to distinguish anger from hatred (as well as from righteous indignation), but didn't follow these out. Later Virtue Ethicists -- Augustine for example -- explicitly drew out and taught the needed lesson:  anger nursed long enough develops into the much more deeply rooted, less passional, more calculating state of hatred -- which does not merely want to see the other punished, but to see them eradicated.

Third, as rational creatures, we are social creatures, and w do not become vicious only by doing vicious actions ourselves, but by the models we pick, applaud, follow, by the people who we surround ourselves with and measure ourselves against, and eventually  in mindset and mores inevitably begin to echo not only verbally but emotionally, affectively, attitudinally.

There is nothing inherent to belonging to Right or Left that enables one to escape these dynamics, that raises one to an angelic status unaffected by the muddying and murky play of human emotions.
The anger, and the hatred, that is out there -- on both Left and Right -- and,  with a few brief reprieves, has played a dominant key, at the very least a constant counterpoint, a dissonance never dissolving since the 2000 election -- that anger is comprehensible, particularly as things have gotten worse, as times have gotten tighter, as fewer prosper and can be bought off by purchasing votes or cultural allegiance as the pie shrinks and specters of famine start to fade into view, at least in outline.
There is a dissatisfaction, a distrust, a dislike of the professional political class who collaborated with the many different great and more or less irresponsible and unaccountable financial interests.  I'll just pair that characterization with one seemingly commonsensical but provocative passage:
When the magistrates are insolent and grasping they conspire against one another and also against the constitution from which they derive their power, making their gains either at the expense of individuals or of the public.
Aristotle pointed that out over two millennia ago, as well as how class plays into politics in ways going beyond merely trying to get a greater piece at the expense of the other.
. . . .in the many forms of government which have sprung up there has always been an acknowledgment of justice and proportionate equality, although mankind fail attaining them, as I have already explained. Democracy, for example, arises out of the notion that those who are equal in any respect are equal in all respects; because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal. Oligarchy is based on the notion that those who are unequal in one respect are in all respects unequal; being unequal, that is, in property, they suppose themselves to be unequal absolutely. The democrats think that as they are equal they ought to be equal in all things; while the oligarchs, under the idea that they are unequal, claim too much, which is one form of inequality.
I think it's worth pointing out that while it is likely that powerful, essentially oligarchical interests do funnel resources to movements like OWS and the Tea Party, neither one of them is "astroturf". Whether the hyperbolic and offensively unbelievable claims are that one speaks for the 99% or the 53%, there is a truth residing in them, which is that one is at least speaking for some less powerful many against a powerful few.  The situation gets confusing because, from an Aristotelian perspective there are not only multiple oligarchs, multiple elites who contend with each other -- that Aristotle actually wrote about and understood perfectly well -- but there are multiple, only partly representative, mutually hostile but equally bonafide democratic movements in play.
From a Virtue Ethics perspective, simply being able to call oneself democratic does not actually raise one's moral status.  The passage from Aristotle just cited continues:
All these forms of government have a kind of justice, but, tried by an absolute standard, they are faulty; and, therefore, both parties, whenever their share in the government does not accord with their preconceived ideas, stir up revolution. Those who excel in virtue have the best right of all to rebel (for they alone can with reason be deemed absolutely unequal), but then they are of all men the least inclined to do so.
A paradox in those lines -- those who have the most reason to stir up civil discord are precisely the people least likely to do so.  So, what then, for the friends -- not of Liberty, not of The People -- but of Virtue?  Quietism?  Cultivating one's own garden?  Focusing on local politics? Cultural Criticism?  The question remains open.

No comments:

Post a Comment