Tea Party History, Memory

The TEA Party, History, and "Memory":

Dr. Jill Lepore, historian, has written a new book scorning the TEA Party.

Throughout her book Lepore’s implicit question remains always: Don’t these Tea Party people realize how silly they are? They don’t understand history; they need to learn that time moves forward.... Following one of the several examples she cites of the cruel way the eighteenth century treated insane persons, tying them up like animals, she comments: “I don’t want to go back to that,” as if the present-day Tea Partiers do. How foolish can they be? After quoting an evangelical minister who in 1987 expressed confidence that Benjamin Franklin would not identify with the secular humanists of our own time “were he alive today,” she can’t help mocking the minister. “Alas,” she writes, Franklin “is not, in fact, alive today."...

She believes that the jurisprudential theory of originalism is all part of the “kooky” thinking of the Tea Party. “Setting aside the question of whether it makes good law, it is, generally,” she says, “lousy history.” We have all heard loose, ignorant polemics claiming the authority of the “original” intentions of the Founders. But Lepore seems to have little idea of what the interpretative doctrine of originalism really means and can only dismiss it as “historical fundamentalism, which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution.”
The reviewer was not impressed with this last claim.
Originalism may not be good history, but it is a philosophy of legal and constitutional interpretation that has engaged some of the best minds in the country’s law schools over the past three decades or so. It is basic to the mission of the Federalist Society (an important organization of conservative and libertarian jurists, lawyers, law professors, and students), and at times it may have as many as four adherents on the Supreme Court. Justice Antonin Scalia’s book A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law (1997), which staked out an originalist position on statutory interpretation, was taken seriously enough to generate critical responses from Ronald Dworkin, Lawrence H. Tribe, Mary Ann Glendon, and myself, all published in Scalia’s book along with his replies. In other words, originalism, controversial as it may be, is a significant enough doctrine of judicial interpretation that even its most passionate opponents would not write it off as cavalierly as Lepore does in this book.
Actually, he wasn't all that impressed with the first claim.
Indeed, one implication of T.H. Breen’s impressive new book, American Insurgents, American Patriots, is that the American Revolution itself may have been an ancestor of the modern Tea Party. Far from being a movement instigated from the top down by celebrated elite leaders separated from the affairs of the common people, the Revolution, Breen contends, was a popular uprising from below against a distant imperial government that had lost its legitimacy and its representativeness. In the years leading up to the Declaration of Independence tens of thousands of colonists boycotted British goods, created committees of safety or inspection, drove Crown officials from office, and intimidated and abused their loyalist enemies.

These ordinary Americans organized their resistance without bothering to reflect on the abstract political theories of John Locke or John Adams that allegedly justified the rebellion. “Not that the insurgents did not have ideas about politics,” says Breen. “They did. But these were ideas driven by immediate passions; they were amplified through fear, fury, and resentment.” Confident of their God-given rights and driven by anger against officials of a British government that had treated them as second-class subjects, the insurgents reacted passionately, spontaneously, and mobilized their communities into action. Not unlike the Tea Partiers of the present, these common people were often way out ahead of their so-called leaders.
What really interests me is the discussion in the last third of the piece, over the distinction between what they are calling "critical history" and "popular memory." We can accept the first category, but the second one seems to me to be misidentified. He even uses the right word in the piece, but doesn't recognize the importance of it.

What is that word? I won't excerpt the last part; read the whole thing, if you would. It's an important matter for understanding how we look to the past, and why we do.

No comments: