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Dennis Palumbo Headshot

The Problem with the World...

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"The problem with the world," according to philosopher Bertran Russell, "is that the stupid are cock-sure and the intelligent are full of doubt."

I thought of his comment this past week, in the wake of the depressing number of Tea Party candidates who won the GOP nominations for elective office in their respective states.

Not that any reasonable person fails to understand the average citizen's fear and frustration, the roiling emotions driving the success of the Tea Party candidates.With the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line now greater than at any time in recent years; with an ailing economy whose prognosis for recovery is, at best, sure to be long and sluggish; and with the growing divide between rich and poor, it's no wonder the average voter is filled with (in the words of another philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre) "incomprehension and rage."

Yet complex problems are never solved by sound-bites, divisive rhetoric and an unquestioning faith in simple, "common sense" solutions. Of course, voters have been routinely sold such a bill of goods for years by reactionary politicians, though nowadays this simple-minded message is reinforced by the rantings of ring-wing idealogues like Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Feeding on voters' fears, these media millionaires pad their bank accounts even as they peddle the idea that they're the champions of the common man.

Even more disturbing than the success of these Tea Party candidates and their media cheerleaders is the overt racism, homophobia and xenophobia woven throughout their "patriotic" rhetoric. For example, conservative darlings like Sarah Palin are always exhorting their followers to "take America back"---but from whom? Liberals? Non-white people? Non-Christians? People who read books? Which of us are members of the "real" America, and which are not? Does Fox News and its viewers represent the only "real" America?

If so, then forget about the economy, rising health care costs, and futile wars in the Middle East---if these jokers represent the "real" America, then we're in deeper trouble than anyone thinks!

Let me put it another way. If angry Americans out there are clamoring for "straight talk," as the Tea Party claims, permit me to provide some:

Intelligent people of all stripes, of all faiths (or lack thereof) and of all political persuations share a number of traits in common: thoughtfulness, the ability to weigh the pros and cons of difficult issues, and a fair degree of self-reflection. They understand the roots of their own ideas, the possible sources of their own prejudices. They understand nuance and the value of compromise. They recognize that in politics---as in all of life---things are never so simple and clear-cut as they seem.

For the Tea Baggers, such approaches to problem-solving are abhorrent. As even mainstream Republicans are discovering---to their chagrin---as far as the Tea Baggers are concerned, you're either with them or against them. Every issue is seen in terms of black and white. To believe differently is a sign of betrayal. To strive to reach a compromise is a sign of weakness.

Not that any of this is new. As history has repeatedly shown, when times are difficult, true thought
and statesmanship are usually thrown out the window, to be replaced by demogoguery and fundamentalism. By the demonizing of those with whom we disagree. By replacing debate with mere posturing. By discarding wisdom in favor of noise.

In other words, by being "cock-sure" and arrogant, instead of thoughtful and cautious, when dealing with difficult, complex problems. By being---in Russell's blunt phrase---stupid, instead of intelligent. And, as a corrolary, by calling anyone who disagrees "elitist."

(The irony here, of course, is that the very Constitution that Tea Party devotees point to as their touchstone was written by men who themselves were members of the elite...and proud to think of themselves as such!)

The point is, my problem with Tea Party folks is not that they're angry about the direction the country is going in. Hell, most people are. My problem is that they embrace ignorance, division and prejudice. That they're more interested in claiming Obama is Muslim than in discussing in a reasonable manner the ways in which they differ with his policies. That they're more interested in race-baiting and demonizing opponents than in struggling to develop real, doable political and pragmatic solutions to complex problems.

To be honest, I guess my biggest problem with the Tea Baggers is their damned certainty. Their hide-bound belief that they're not only right but on the side of the angels (literally!). That they know what God wants, and are just doing His will. Which makes everyone else not only wrong but morally suspect. On the wrong side of the Almighty. Evil.

Such certainty is, and has always been, dangerous. Every dictator in history, every repressive movement down through the years, has been founded on certainty. On the "cock-sureness" that masks ignorance.

To bring this rant of my own to an end, I'll risk charges of elitism myself by quoting yet another philosopher---French, no less!---who famously said, "Plainly speaking, there's no such thing as certainty. There are only people who are certain."

As a Tea Bagger might say, "Amen!"