Tea Party Derangement Syndrome

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is a new blogger at Innovations at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where this post was originally published.

Indignation: Higher education has been cultivating it as an academic sub-specialization for centuries. But we are in boom times for intellectual sneering.

When Delaware Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell on October 19 asked her opponent, “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?” faculty members and students at Widener Law School guffawed at her supposed ignorance. Those members of the audience assumed the Tea Party candidate was displaying ignorance of the First Amendment. She was in fact making the perfectly sound point that the phrase “separation of church and state” is indeed not in the Constitution. The ease with which an academic audience reveled in its misplaced superiority, however, says something. Not so much about O’Donnell as about the abiding condescension of the university towards the cultural phenomenon of the Tea Party.

Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s new book, The Whites of Their Eyes, is a vivid illustration of this kind of disdain of the hoi polloi getting in the way of scholarly judgment. I’ve been an admirer of Lepore’s work since her The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (1998) took us back 1675 to a deadly confrontation between New England tribes and Puritan settlers, as a seminal event in the emergence of an American identity. Her next book, A is for American, uncovered a fascinating link between 19th century shapers of the American language (Noah Webster, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, et al.) and anti-immigrant sentiment. In New York Burning, Lepore recounts a horrific episode in 1741 when a group of thirty black slaves were executed (on flimsy evidence) for having started a rash of fires.

So Lepore has established herself as an historian who has a keen eye for how groups solidify their identities by vilifying others. But in The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton University Press), she puts theory into practice. The book weaves together bits of Revolutionary American history, reflections on America’s bicentennial, and Lepore’s conversations with participants in several Tea Party events in the last two years. Her thesis is that the Tea Partiers are guilty of “historical fundamentalism.” Like fundamentalism of the religious sort, the historical fundamentalists in Lepore’s view are caught in the error of taking things too literally. They take “the founding documents” in the same spirit that other take the Ten Commandments. They turn the ambiguity and indeterminateness of history into a settled narrative, and then turn the narrative into holy writ.

There is of course, something to this. Historical fundamentalists aren’t that hard to find. I think for example of the fairly abundant students who look on Howard’s Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as a kind of sacred revelation. But that isn’t what Lepore has in mind at all. Her grapeshot is aimed at those annoying people who attend rallies, some garbed in colonial costume, to rant about the political elites who have betrayed the principles of limited government laid down in the Revolution.

Lepore’s portraits of some of the people she talked to seem on occasion gratuitously cruel, as if she is playing directly to the prejudices to her readers at The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer. Likewise, her depiction of the whole Tea Party movement is so overdrawn as to verge on the burlesque. When some ordinary bloke remarks that George Washington “would roll over in his grave” if could see the country today, she snidely dissects the phrase along with “founding fathers” as neologisms, foreign to colonial America. Variations of the jibe run through the whole book. Lepore is derisory: these dumb people think they know American history. But they, for example, mistake bawdy, cynical Ben Franklin for one of his put-on characters, as if two-hundred years hence some strangely misguided cult took the parodies of Steven Colbert as the sage pronouncements of a philosopher.

There is plenty of historical naivety to go around—some of it Lepore’s. She spends considerable effort reminding readers of the religiously skeptical views of some of the Founders, and playing these off against Tea Partier assertions about the Christian character of the Revolution. But there is abundant historical scholarship—much of it of in the modern vein of patient teasing of details from overlooked sources—that testifies to the powerful religious convictions that helped to shape the willingness of Americans to venture a revolution. Jefferson’s snipping the miracles out of the Gospels or Paine’s aversion to organized religion notwithstanding, the Tea Party folks have a point.

As did Christine O’Donnell.

But higher education by and large is having too much fun enjoying its indignation to let the facts get in the way of some good derision.

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