Thursday, September 23, 2010

“Upwards Condescension,” Ravenous Paranoia, and Why I Despise the Tea Party

I have a coworker who generally keeps to herself and does her job well and without much complaint, a person who is typically pleasant and polite if too quick to doubt herself and her abilities and a bit fast in harboring jealously that other coworkers might be receiving preferential treatment. She is frequently a person who seems full of self-doubt and an unfocused, likely unvoiced, longing for a life she hasn’t quite found. She is rather shy and self-effacing in a classically Midwestern sort of way, keeping largely to herself. She is blond-haired and blue-eyed and all-American in appearance, though the darkness at her roots defies the blond dye and the contacts exaggerate the natural color of her eyes. She spends an undue amount of time dismissing herself and her abilities, a trait that I, in the quiet of my own head, label “preemptive error insurance.” And thus, when she does share opinions, they sometimes come as something of a surprise and are direct and simply rendered and clearly very personally held views guided often by emotion. The surprise is exaggerated once you start to recognize that her means of attempting to voice dissatisfaction or affect office politics tend toward the Machiavellian. She would hate me for using that word “Machiavellian.” Indeed there is a touch of paranoia glimpsed in her nature at moments, and she would find my use of the word pretentious, possibly suspicious, and she would hold her lack of familiarity with the word against me. She has commented to me on several occasions when she dislikes people we both know because they act “superior” or “show off that they are smarter than me.” Sadly, particularly if the person in question is formally educated, she genuinely seems to believe she is inferior. She has a particular dislike for professors (and having been one in a former life, I admit inclination to trust her instincts in this regard) and seems critical of all in the teaching profession.

What takes me by greatest surprise then is the realization that her reaction to people and ideas she dislikes is to be condescending. Given her tendencies towards self-effacement and lack of self-confidence, such condescension feels backwards, like a mirror shone back on those to whom she ascribes feelings of superiority. Sharing this observation with my wife, she coined a term: “upwards condescension.” Today, when in a meeting I reminded our staff to promote an upcoming event sponsored by one of our patrons for a talk to be provided by a Rwandan journalist, I received a teenager-like eye roll from my coworker. She has spoken before about how much she dislikes the patron sponsoring the event, dismissing him as “weird.” When I suggested, my dander up at the eye roll, that our rural town, capable too often of holding parochial views on the larger world (an idea suggested in no such language as this), would benefit from such a unique guest speaker, I was met with another eye roll. When she spoke, she said, “Oh, yeah, I saw the sign. She’s going to talk about teenage pregnancy or something.” I merely replied that the poster was specific, that the journalist would be talking much more broadly about the state of Rwanda today. I added that the journalist’s series of articles about single Rwandan mothers had been the prompt for a lecture she had been requested to provide in New York. How I longed to take the clarification further, to explain that the fates of these mothers was further complicated by the extreme poverty of the country, that they were frequently raising their children in the squalor of a post-war world and from within a nightmarish psychology of post traumatic stress disorder, that these were women who might have to wait three or four hours after walking miles to get a day’s supply of water in a place where some men will trade sexual favors as a promise to supply water, that most of the women had likely witnessed the murders of their families, and that many of the children in question and now of age to risk pregnancy themselves had been conceived during acts of rape, rape used both as an externalized threat of more deadly violence and as a means of ensuring the end of an ethnic bloodline. To my regret and shame, I said nothing. Indeed it took me a good long bit of contemplation to realize the amount of recent history that would need conveyed or to process completely the subtext of what had been said and left unsaid in our brief, workplace exchange during a meeting where we had also discussed “the illegality of photocopying money, passports, and driver’s licenses at actual size.”

I had long thought my coworker was simply dismissive of people she found intimidating out of defensiveness. Today I began to recognize that there was something more complicated and entrenched than defensiveness at play, something beyond dismissal out of ignorance or self-doubt. In fact, observing her past reactions to others who displayed excitement at learning of the larger world or exploring new ideas, I came to realize that there was an active, if unconscious, desire to defend such ignorance and to sustain the myopic comfort of a xenophobic mindset. (Would she read this sentence, I have little doubt she would seal her vision of me by the very presence of words unfamiliar to her.)

It came by almost immediate extension to me then that what I had observed in my coworker paralleled nearly exactly what has made me come to despise the current “Tea Party” movement. I do not use the word “despise” lightly, nor do I fail to admit that my direct interaction with its participants (who do not seem to value interacting but rather proselytizing) is minimal and likely not comprehensive of the breadth of its adherents, nor do I fail recognition that using so strong a word risks placing me into a position that replicates the condemnation I accuse them of harboring. Yet that is one of the symptoms of extremism, it tends to generate hatred and fear. And in truth, I do fear the rise of Tea Party candidates into positions of power having too often witnessed the results of extremism and having too long watched the world suffer at the hands of American governmental policy and corporate action from positions of false superior belief and self righteousness. The observations allowed via the rhetoric of the movement in its public face, certainly as exemplified by its most visual and vocal icons, most notably Sarah Palin, appear to display a movement that defends ignorance and isolationism and fears smart people. It appears to prefer “homespun” talk to the need in a frighteningly complex world for nuance and precision. At the very least, it asks the most intelligent among its ranks not to display that intelligence at the fear of appearing an “insider.” It feeds unfocused worry, fear and uncertainty to a public that feels the world is increasingly unpredictable and unfriendly. It is a movement that closes doors and builds bomb shelters, a movement that waves patriotic flags and then defiles the constitution by denying equal rights for anyone who holds beliefs in opposition to theirs. It is a movement that shouts “no” to everything and refuses to discuss specificity of solution for anything.

It is wrong to attribute all I fear in the Tea Party to my coworker. Indeed she is outwardly apolitical. Rather, identifying what can prove so unnerving in her personality provides me a window to a mindset much larger than hers. Her desire to abdicate a responsibility to the world beyond her front door and fearful of those who strive to be informed and engaged in that broader world helps me find an ability to articulate why I believe that we must, regardless of political leaning or party affiliation, stand opposed to those seeking power who cannot distinguish common sense from simple-mindedness.

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