Re: Tea-Party Insanity On Display

by Jason Lee Steorts

Ramesh mentions this highly silly post by New School philosophy professor J. M. Bernstein, which concludes by calling the tea partiers “nihilists.” What especially struck me was its question-begging-ness. Here is Bernstein’s contention:

Descartes famously argued that self or subject, the “I think,” was metaphysically basic, while Hegel argued that we only become self-determining agents through being recognized as such by others who [sic] we recognize in turn. It is by recognizing one another as autonomous subjects through the institutions of family, civil society and the state that we become such subjects; those practices are how we recognize and so bestow on one another the title and powers of being free individuals. . . .

. . . Hegel’s thesis is that all social life is structurally akin to the conditions of love and friendship; we are all bound to one another as firmly as lovers are, with the terrible reminder that the ways of love are harsh, unpredictable and changeable. And here is the source of the great anger: because you are the source of my being, when our love goes bad I am suddenly, absolutely dependent on someone for whom I no longer count and who [sic -- not trying to banish colloquial speech here, but count back six words and you’ll see the man is trying to be grammatical] I no longer know how to count; I am exposed, vulnerable, needy, unanchored and without resource.

This is the rage and anger I hear in the Tea Party movement; it is the sound of jilted lovers furious that the other — the anonymous blob called simply “government” — has suddenly let them down, suddenly made clear that they are dependent and limited beings, suddenly revealed them as vulnerable.

Note that Bernstein concedes that there are alternatives to the Hegelian view he favors; he mentions Descartes, but one need not even think the “self or subject, the ‘I think,’” is “metaphysically basic” in order to oppose the notion that it requires or should otherwise seek the recognition of the state. One of the more baleful consequences of the progressive’s Hegelian state, it seems to me, is the way it alienates us from one another: Services traditionally performed by one citizen for another with whom he or she has a relationship — e.g. adult children’s caring for their elderly parents — are outsourced to the anonymous blob of government, which can neither enter into relationships with individuals nor care about them as family and friends care about one another nor take account of their unique circumstances when helping them.* Even if we grant the efficacy of government programs (which a mountain of empirical evidence forbids us to do), the expansion of the state’s role brings our form of life marginally closer to that of an ant colony.

What is at issue in this debate is whether we wish to accept Bernstein’s trifecta of “family, civil society, and the state,” allowing the last to enter traditional domains of the first two. The tea partiers are upset not because the state has “let them down,” but because it came in the first place to occupy a position from which it could let them down. Bernstein would have been more honest** if he had written that his beef with the tea party is simply that it doesn’t accept the Hegelian view he advances without argument, and that he regards all who so disagree with him (not just the tea partiers) as nihilists. 


*The Hegelian/progressive view in fact declares war on such genuine relationships, which is to say the natural social order, by insisting, as nothing less than a logico-ethical necessity to be enforced by the state, that we are all, as Bernstein has it, “bound to one another as firmly as lovers are,” with the consequence that I owe just as much to you whom I shall never lay eyes upon as I do to someone I know and love. 

**More generously: self-aware.

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