Against Historical Fundamentalism: Jill Lepore on the Tea Party

With Sarah Palin making headlines for a gaffe on Paul Revere's Midnight Ride, it seems an apt time to pick up Lepore's.
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With Sarah Palin making headlines for a supposed gaffe on Paul Revere's Midnight Ride, and with her loyal adorers modifying Wikipedia to suit her version of events, it seems an apt time to pick up Jill Lepore's The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History. Here a Harvard historian informs us that typically the Tea Party has a misguided and often erroneous view of America's revolutionary period. What a surprise. Lepore mounts an obvious argument, but does so in a way that is eminently readable, shows flashes of wit, and punctures with fact the magical thinking that she justly terms "historical fundamentalism." The book's accessible, sensible history of a period prone to wild misrepresentation is a valuable contribution, and Lepore has ably reinforced that contribution in her journalism for the New Yorker and the New York Times -- such as her recent, pleasing attack on Paul Ryan's budgetary demagoguery.

A pervasive concern of this book is the role of media in political life. By imposing a tax on paper, the Stamp Act had an especially acute effect on publications striving for wide and inexpensive circulation, namely newspapers. Benjamin Edes's response was to turn the Boston Gazette into a firebrand of the patriot cause. Lepore finds in threats to the newspaper, and the use of media to stoke discontent, clear parallels to our own moment, where fora adhering to principles of journalistic integrity find less of an audience than those providing counterfactual opinionating, such as Fox News with its parade of shouting heads. "Editing," Lepore tells James Fallows in the April 2011 issue of the Atlantic, "is one of the great inventions of civilization." In a rare moment when Lepore adduces a cause of the Tea Party movement, she points squarely to the decline of the newspaper: "In 2009, while the Tea Party was forming, the newspaper was dying, all over again. This was more than a coincidence; it was a cause."

This seems persuasive enough. But it also reveals the concerns underwriting Lepore's effort: the idealized newspaper is a synecdoche for an idealized rational public sphere. The Tea Party's great error is that its "historical fundamentalism" overlooks history's progressive nature. Progress is certainly a fact in some respects. Lepore's account of Benjamin Franklin's correspondence with his sister Jane wonderfully highlights the ways in which the eighteenth century is not a period for which one should feel nostalgic longing: it was a time when women could expect to be illiterate and disenfranchised, and to have their fortunes pinned to those of their husbands. "I don't want to go back to that," avers Lepore.

These elements of progress are taken to suggest history is inherently progressive, especially toward liberal theory's idealized citizenry of freely reasoning individuals. In this view progress can become an imperative imposed on unruly citizens -- you must progress! -- rather than a fact of legal or technological improvement. "Time moves forward, not backward," Lepore tells us; "Chronology is like gravity. Nothing falls up" (16).

But if the Tea Party demands, as Lepore suggests, to be thought of as a fundamentalism, then no amount of historical fact-checking will alter the views of its adherents or, for that matter, allow us to come to an understanding of why the founding of the republic seems in some circles to demand religious veneration. The very existence of the Tea Party unsettles the assertion that stable liberal democracy yields a politics governed by reason alone.

Despite the strident assertion of the decline of the newspaper as a "cause" of the Tea Party, and despite this book's attention to the history of slavery, Lepore pussyfoots in subordinate clauses when turning to the issue of race in the movement: "Whatever else had drawn people into the movement -- the bailout, health care, taxes, Fox News, and, above all, the economy -- some of it, for some people, was probably discomfort with the United States' first black president, because he was black. But it wasn't the whiteness of the Tea Party that I found most striking. It was the whiteness of their Revolution. The Founding Fathers were the whites of their eyes, a fantasy of an America before race, without race."

Here one senses that Lepore is on the right track but needs to push much, much harder. If one is to assert causes, race seems just as likely as the decline of the newspaper. It is hardly difficult to see a racial subtext in the sentiments voiced by Lepore's interview subjects: "I don't want the government giving money to people who don't want to work"; "all the government does is take my money and give it to other people." The latter of these is voiced by a man whose salary is paid by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

The election of the nation's first black president seems positively central to the political theology of the Tea Party. Much of the mythology surrounding American sovereignty is concentrated in the figure of the president, so that the election of Barack Obama has caused a wrench in accepted symbolism, and done so in precisely the kind of moment when political mythology tends to have its greatest charge: a time of sacrifice at the hands of war and economic hardship. Unmoored from the presidency, the political imaginary of Tea Partiers has fastened upon a creation myth. In this myth's symbolic apparatus, Obama is not an elected official whose policies are to be engaged rationally; he is a Satan corrupting the Edenic order to the malevolent glee of those dark legions spiriting away the tax dollars of the righteous.

A voice from the Harvard Yard and New Yorker soft-left is apparently less than willing to face those aspects of the Tea Party's existence, and is more comfortable lamenting the decline of the newspaper than she is unpacking the racial dynamics of class struggle. Such a position registers its own anxieties on the fragility of its privilege, and subscribes to its own political theology in cleaving to the salvific power of reason in political life. Lepore's book is an entertaining read and in its best moments an informative one. But it could have scrutinized its own presuppositions. In his 2009 book, Political Myth, Roland Boer suggests that it is rather futile to wish for a politics devoid of myth. What we really need are political myths inspiring greater expressions of equality and justice. Idolizing the founders doesn't serve that need. Nor does idolizing mid-twentieth century newsprint.

The full version of this review is forthcoming in The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation.

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