Jill Lepore: Tea Party Time… and the Death of Compassion

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Jill Lepore (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

There’s more religion than politics in the 2010 Tea Party, Jill Lepore is saying. There’s less of 1776 about it than of 1976 — that dyspeptic post-Vietnam, post-Watergate bicentennial moment remembered for Gerald Ford and school busing fights in Boston elsewhere. 1976 marks a time when we discovered that the story of the American revolution is that “there is no story,” as the Common Ground journalist Anthony Lukas put it. “What there is is a political free-for-all about the story.”

“That’s where we are today,” Jill Lepore observes. “The whole question: ‘what would the founding fathers do?’ comes out of evangelical Chistianity, as in ‘what would Jesus do?’ … Glenn Beck talks about having had a conversion experience… The Tea Party movement presents the Constitution as a revealed religion.”

Jill Lepore is one of those historians who draws gladly on “the archives of the feet,” in Simon Schama’s phrase. For her sprightly New Yorker Magazine pieces and now for The Whites of Their Eyes, her hard-cover take on the Tea Party movement, she has been out among the tri-corner hat crowd at the Green Dragon Tavern facing Faneuil Hall. She was with Sarah Palin on Boston Common. She extends civic respect to the pitchfork patriots, but her judgment is unsparing: the tea partiers are misled by heritage tourism and pop biographies of the 18th Century revolutionists into supposing “I’m just like them,” or that “I’m in touch with them ’cause I’m wearing one of their hats.” Their founding favorites draw on celebrity culture, not history: there’s too little in their heads about the crucial anti-religious Thomas Paine of “The Age of Reason,” and too much Paul Revere (not much known for the Midnight Ride before Longfellow wrote the poem in 1861, a Union rallying myth during the Civil War). So what are they, and this moment, really about?

JL: These are people who want to have a dream. And what they have is a nightmare. Instead of looking at the now — which you were suggesting is an intolerable present; think about the moral complicity of our foreign interventions, the economic woes, these present day problems riven with strife; everything’s kind of a mess, it’s a very yucky present in many ways… What people want is a dream that is forward-looking, and what the Tea Party is is a dream about the past. I don’t think a historian can offer a different dream about the past. That’s not our job. It is the job of politicians to offer a dream about the future. Wasn’t that what Obama’s Dreams of My Father meant — it’s about the dreaminess of America. You’ve got to keep talking the dream.

CL: In the rise and fall, or rise-again kinds of trajectories that are always pretty clear a thousand years later, two thousand years later, whose job is it to tell anxious people what our direction might actually be?

JL: Well it’s clear that right now who’s doing it is Glenn Beck. And that is what’s so appealing for people who want that. It’s clear that Obama is not doing it. And people expected that he in fact would… This animating, forward-looking, reform-minded compassion that he was attempting to offer is not something that is coming out daily from the White House. I talked yesterday to a bunch of retired people, and one woman asked: ‘are we looking at the death of compassion?’ And I thought that’s a great question. That’s as good an interpretation of the current political moment as I can think of. It’s a very thoughtful remark.

Jill Lepore with Chris Lydon in her Harvard office, October 7, 2010

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