Tag: antistatism

Robin Hood and the Tea Party Haters

What is it with modern American liberals and taxes? Apparently they don’t just see taxes as a necessary evil, they actually like ‘em; they think, as Gail Collins puts it in the New York Times, that in a better world “little kids would dream of growing up to be really big taxpayers.” But you really see liberals’ taxophilia coming out when you read the reviews of the new movie Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe. If liberals don’t love taxes, they sure do hate tax protesters.

Carlo Rotella, director of American Studies at Boston College, writes in the Boston Globe that this Robin Hood is A big angry baby [who] fights back against taxes” and that the movie is “hamstrung by a shrill political agenda — endless fake-populist harping on the evils of taxation.” You wonder what Professor Rotella teaches his students about America, a country whose fundamental ideology has been described as “antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”

At the Village Voice, Karina Longworth dismisses the movie as “a rousing love letter to the Tea Party movement” in which “Instead of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, this Robin Hood preaches about ‘liberty’ and the rights of the individual as he wanders a countryside populated chiefly by Englishpersons bled dry by government greed.” Gotta love those scare quotes around “liberty.” Uptown at the New York Times, A. O. Scott is sadly disappointed that “this Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!” The movie, she laments, is “one big medieval tea party.”

Moving on down the East Coast establishment, again with the Tea Party hatin’ in Michael O’Sullivan’s Washington Post review:

Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” is less about a band of merry men than a whole country of really angry ones. At times, it feels like a political attack ad paid for by the tea party movement, circa 1199. Set in an England that has been bankrupted by years of war in the Middle East – in this case, the Crusades – it’s the story of a people who are being taxed to death by a corrupt government, under an upstart ruler who’s running the country into the ground.

Man, these liberals really don’t like Tea Parties, complaints about lost liberty, and Hollywood movies that don’t toe the ideological line. As Cathy Young notes at Reason:

Whatever one may think of Scott’s newest incarnation of the Robin Hood legend, it is more than a little troubling to see alleged liberals speak of liberty and individual rights in a tone of sarcastic dismissal. This is especially ironic since the Robin Hood of myth and folklore probably has much more in common with the “libertarian rebel” played by Russell Crowe than with the medieval socialist of the “rob from the rich, give to the poor” cliché. At heart, the noble-outlaw legend that has captured the human imagination for centuries is about freedom, not wealth redistribution….The Sheriff of Nottingham is Robin’s chief opponent; at the time, it was the sheriffs’ role as tax collectors in particular that made them objects of loathing by peasants and commoners. [In other books and movies] Robin Hood is also frequently shown helping men who face barbaric punishments for hunting in the royal forests, a pursuit permitted to nobles and strictly forbidden to the lower classes in medieval England; in other words, he is opposing privilege bestowed by political power, not earned wealth.

The reviewers are indeed tapping into a real theme of this Robin Hood, which is a prequel to the usual Robin Hood story; it imagines Robin’s life before he went into the forest. Marian tells the sheriff, “You have stripped our wealth to pay for foreign adventures.” (A version of the script can be found on Google Books and at Amazon, where Marian is called Marion.)  Robin tells the king the people want a charter to guarantee that every man be “safe from eviction without cause or prison without charge” and free “to work, eat, and live merry as he may on the sweat of his own brow.” The evil King John’s man Godfrey promises to “have merchants and landowners fill your coffers or their coffins….Loyalty means paying your share in the defense of the realm.” And Robin Hood tells the king, in the spirit of Braveheart’s William Wallace, “What we ask for is liberty, by law.”

Dangerous sentiments indeed. You can see what horrifies the liberal reviewers. If this sort of talk catches on, we might become a country based on antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism and governed by a Constitution.

The Roots of the Tea Parties

The sight of middle-class Americans rallying to protest overtaxing, overspending, Wall Street bailouts, and government-directed health care scares the bejeezus out of a lot of people. The elite media are full of stories declaring the Tea Partiers to be racists, John Birchers, Glenn Beck zombies, and God knows what. So it’s a relief to read a sensible discussion (subscription required) by John Judis, the decidedly leftist but serious journalist-historian at the New Republic. Once the managing editor of the journal Socialist Revolution, Judis went on to write a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. and other books, so he knows something about ideological movements in the United States. Judis isn’t happy about the Tea Party movement, but he warns liberals not to dismiss it as fringe, AstroTurf, or a front group for the GOP:

But the Tea Party movement is not inauthentic, and—contrary to the impression its rallies give off—it isn’t a fringe faction either. It is a genuine popular movement, one that has managed to unite a number of ideological strains from U.S. history—some recent, some older. These strains can be described as many things, but they cannot be dismissed as passing phenomena. Much as liberals would like to believe otherwise, there is good reason to think the Tea Party movement could exercise considerable influence over our politics in the coming years.

Judis identifies three strains of American thinking that help to define the Tea Party movement:

The first is an obsession with decline. This idea, which traces back to the outlook of New England Puritans during the seventeenth century, consists of a belief that a golden age occurred some time ago; that we are now in a period of severe social, economic, or moral decay; that evil forces and individuals are the cause of this situation; that the goal of politics is to restore the earlier period; and that the key to doing so is heeding a special text that can serve as a guidebook for the journey backward.

I’ve offered a dissent from the common libertarian perception that we have declined from a golden age of liberty, but declinism is certainly a strong theme in conservative thought. (Not to mention in Club of Rome environmentalist thought.) Judis suggests that declinism often takes conspiratorial form and wonders “how could a movement that cultivates such crazy, conspiratorial views be regarded favorably by as much as 40 percent of the electorate?”

That is where the Tea Party movement’s second link to early U.S. history comes in. The Tea Partiers may share the Puritans’ fear of decline, but it is what they share with Thomas Jefferson that has far broader appeal: a staunch anti-statism.

And the final historical strain that Judis identifies:

They are part of a tradition of producerism that dates to Andrew Jackson. Jacksonian Democrats believed that workers should enjoy the fruits of what they produce and not have to share them with the merchants and bankers who didn’t actually create anything….

During the 1970s, conservatives began invoking producerism to justify their attacks on the welfare state, and it was at the core of the conservative tax revolt…. 

Like the attack against “big government,” this conservative producerism has most deeply resonated during economic downturns. And the Tea Parties have clearly built their movement around it.Producerism was at the heart of Santelli’s rant against government forcing the responsible middle class to subsidize those who bought homes they couldn’t afford…. Speaking to cheers at the April 15 rally in Washington, Armey denounced the progressive income tax in the same terms. “I can’t steal your money and give it to this guy,” he declared. “Therefore, I shouldn’t use the power of the state to steal your money and give it to this guy.”

Judis could have cited Ayn Rand’s analysis of “producers” and “looters” in influencing this strain of Tea Party thought. Not to mention a much older classical liberal version of class analysis, one that predated Marx’s theory, which focused on “conflict between producers, no matter their station, and the parasitic political classes, both inside and outside the formal state,” or “between the tax-payers and tax-eaters.”

Judis concludes on a note of despair:

their core appeal on government and spending will continue to resonate as long as the economy sputters. None of this is what liberals want to hear, but we might as well face reality: The Tea Party movement—firmly grounded in a number of durable U.S. political traditions and well-positioned for a time of economic uncertainty—could be around for a while.

There’s plenty for libertarians to argue with in Judis’s essay. But it’s an encouraging report for those who think it’s a good thing that millions of Americans are rallying to the cause of smaller government and lower spending. And certainly it’s the smartest, most historically grounded analysis of the Tea Party movement I’ve seen in the mainstream liberal media.