This is no "Tea Party."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Finding myself uncomfortable with Glenn Reynolds and The Corner's Stephen Spruiell echoing Michael Lewis of Vanity Fair by referring to Greek strikers as that nation's version of the Tea Party, I became interested in the lengthy Lewis piece about the Greek financial crisis in Vanity Fair.

First, to get the reason for my discomfort out of the way...

Granted, there are many valid criticisms of the Tea Party movement. First and foremost among these is that, although the Tea Party is generally a pro-individual rights/anti-central planning movement, it remains a more or less blind rebellion. As such, "its" candidates are a wildly inconsistent lot -- not just being at odds with each other, but with individual candidates holding self-contradictory positions, including positions at odds with individual rights.

That said, comparing kleptocrats and even domestic terrorists from Greece to American Tea Party activists strikes me as verging on the unjust. In fact it bothers me even more, coming as it does from sympathizers of the movement, even qualified, in some respects than the usual accusations of racism and bigotry served up on a daily basis by America's leftist media.

This is what Lewis was referring to as, "Greece's version of the Tea Party:"

[T]ax collectors on the take, public-school teachers who don't really teach, well-paid employees of bankrupt state railroads whose trains never run on time, state hospital workers bribed to buy overpriced supplies. Here they are, and here we are: a nation of people looking for anyone to blame but themselves. The Greek public-sector employees assemble themselves into units that resemble army platoons. In the middle of each unit are two or three rows of young men wielding truncheons disguised as flagpoles. Ski masks and gas masks dangle from their belts so that they can still fight after the inevitable tear gas. "The deputy prime minister has told us that they are looking to have at least one death," a prominent former Greek minister had told me. "They want some blood. Two months earlier, on May 5, during the first of these protest marches, the mob offered a glimpse of what it was capable of. Seeing people working at a branch of the Marfin Bank, young men hurled Molotov cocktails inside and tossed gasoline on top of the flames, barring the exit. Most of the Marfin Bank’s employees escaped from the roof, but the fire killed three workers, including a young woman four months pregnant. As they died, Greeks in the streets screamed at them that it served them right, for having the audacity to work. The events took place in full view of the Greek police, and yet the police made no arrests.
I'll grant Lewis that many people who are unhappy here in America do not fully grasp the fact that they must become willing to forgo all vestiges of the welfare state. Nevertheless, these "tea partiers" differ in kind from those in America. They are not rebelling, however blindly, against their government, and what they seek is anything but freedom from central planning. There is a profound moral and political difference between what they seek and what the tea partiers seek. The tea partiers are individualists who want freedom, at least on at a sense-of-life level. These mobs are "selfish" only in a commonly-understood, but mistaken sense, and want to maintain an impossible status quo of collectivism and abundant loot.

The root of Lewis's confusion is clearly evident in the following passage:
The structure of the Greek economy is collectivist, but the country, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself. Into this system investors had poured hundreds of billions of dollars. And the credit boom had pushed the country over the edge, into total moral collapse.
I agree that the credit boom encouraged immoral behavior, but I see the economic structure of Greek society and the endemic thievery that is its "real structure" as anything but opposites: Rather, they are two sides of the same coin. Just as selfishness is not predation (which, in turn, is not the "opposite" of sacrifice, but merely a change-of-recipient) , so is anarchy not the opposite of tyranny, but functionally the same thing for an individual. If this is an accurate picture of Greek culture, then it is anything but an individualist one.

I am not done with the article yet, but I will say that, despite several disagreements I find myself having with its author, it is well worth a read. I'll leave with a single quote that reminds me of a scene from a certain "prophetic" novel I first read many years ago.
"This is the secret of success for anywhere in the world, not just the monastery," [Father Arsenios] says, and then goes on to describe pretty much word for word the first rule of improvisational comedy, or for that matter any successful collaborative enterprise. Take whatever is thrown at you and build upon it. "Yes ... and" rather than "No ... but." "The idiot is bound by his pride," he says. "It always has to be his way. This is also true of the person who is deceptive or doing things wrong: he always tries to justify himself. A person who is bright in regard to his spiritual life is humble. He accepts what others tell him--criticism, ideas--and he works with them."
Like many aphorisms on which the above is based ("The smart person accepts. The idiot insists."), there is a grain of truth. However, in the context of global looting, the above attitude amounts to mere arrogant pragmatism, and it will lead to a similar result as that described in the novel I just mentioned if society as a whole does not begin to reject it soon.
It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

...

The man in Bedroom F, Car No. 13, was a lawyer who had said, "Me? I'll find a way to get along under any political system." (p. 568)
The Comet was a passenger train that stalled in a tunnel, asphyxiated its passengers, and was crashed into by a military train loaded with munitions in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged -- after a politician bullied its railroad into sending it though a tunnel with an inadequate, coal-burning locomotive. Many of its passengers were culpable for their own fates to the extent that they simply accepted the unacceptable political climate of their time.

The thing a smart person accepts is reality -- not what other people imagine it to be -- the wishes of smug opportunists notwithstanding.

-- CAV

Updates

Today
: Changed the fourth paragraph to back off from calling the comparison "unjust."

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. Just read the article and was infuriated.

Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome, and may the food for thought offer better value to you in the long run than merely being infuriated!

Mark said...

That article on Greece was excellent; a rare modern example of good journalism.

Your Rand quote about the Comet brings to mind the latest National Review smear-job (http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/244381/greatly-ghastly-rand-jason-lee-steorts), which revisits and attempts to justify the old Whittaker Chambers piece (I still get angry at mention of William Buckley thanks to that). The new article specifically posits the collapse of the tunnel around the Comet train as being Rand's "gas chamber", and is sneeringly oblivious of Rand's intent to illustrate that power does not operate in a vacuum.

Gus Van Horn said...

Why does this bother Steorts? Look no further than the Christian notion of unlimited mercy and its idea that one's deserts are meted out by a being rather than reality.

To a slightly-evasive (and psychologically-projecting) Christian, Rand's scene will read like a a revenge fantasy, rather than a simple listing of consequences and naming of facts. To Steorts and his ilk, Rand isn't describing cause-and-effect, but being merely vindictive.

I am, of course, neither defending this attitude nor excusing it, but indicating my best guess as to why it has gone on so long with only Objectivists calling it out.

madmax said...

To a slightly-evasive (and psychologically-projecting) Christian, Rand's scene will read like a a revenge fantasy, rather than a simple listing of consequences and naming of facts. To Steorts and his ilk, Rand isn't describing cause-and-effect, but being merely vindictive.

This is not just descriptive of Christians, I have seen Left-liberals make the same criticisms of the Comet Train crash scene. When Jim May blogged on the Leftist blogger from the Huffington Post that was critical of Rand, the main objection from the Leftist commenters was that in Atlas Shrugged Rand was "vengeful" and "killed off almost the entire human race." This was proof positive of a "cruel heart", etc..

Maybe this is because Leftists are really secularized Christians but in many ways, they make the same criticisms of Rand that the Right does.

Gus Van Horn said...

Madmax,

I think that's correct, perhaps with the added proviso that, to the degree many leftists are nonreligious (and moral relativists), they also discount the whole idea of just deserts as childish at best.

Gus