Saturday, October 23, 2010

Nietzsche Speaks to the Tea Party

I just finished watching a Book TV broadcast of a panel discussion held on September 10, organized by the National Press Club on the subject of the Tea Party movement.  Consistent with my current opinion of panel discussions, this was an event that shed precious little light on its topic area while providing more than the usual heavy dose of ego-strutting.  The result, however, was that I found myself thinking about prevailing Tea Party stereotypes while reading the following passage from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

Rather know nothing than half-know much!  Rather be a fool on one’s own than a sage according to the opinion of others!

Without getting side-tracked by Dick Armey’s participation in the panel, where it seemed as if he could not let the slightest remark pass without trying to maneuver it to his advantage, there is at least one aspect of the fool that is far from pejorative and may tap into the wisdom of Nietzsche’s second sentence.

I would guess that Nietzsche had in mind the fool who knows he is a fool.  In the current political context, this is the Joe-the-Plumber kind of guy, who knows that he cannot keep up with the verbal legerdemain of either politicians or pundits and is not ashamed of his seeming (note the qualifier) inadequacy.  If, through his self-proclaimed foolishness, he has the courage to ask questions that others would deem “foolish,” he stands some chance (perhaps even a good one) of turning the conversation away from the usual formulaic cant and towards matters of substance.  As proud members of the “Republic of Letters,” our Founding Fathers were never afraid to disagree with each other in either face-to-face conversation or the exchange of correspondence;  and often the most heated disagreements could be settled by agreeing on what was the question being asked, rather than any details regarding how that question should be answered.

Ironically, one of the best proponents of this “significance of the question” principle is neither a politician nor a pundit (and is decidedly no fool).  She is the soprano Patricia Racette.  When she ran a master class here last summer, I wrote on that every student she coached was hit with the same message:

You should always be asking questions about what you are doing;  and often being able to express the question is more important than how you decide to answer it.

While I may have serious questions about the motives and values of those under the Tea Party tent (and, where most position statements that Armey has made are concerned, there is not “may” about it), their efforts to ask questions about what both our government and its citizens are doing strike me as the fool’s quality that Nietzsche admires in the above quoted text.  I would even continue his logic and argue that those embarrassed by such questions and respond with ad hominem attacks rather than even hypothesized answers are those who “half-know much” and are the targets of this particular prankish remark.

The most important point I tried to make yesterday was not that economic crisis is still with us.  It was that too many people feel as if they have been excluded from the conversation that still needs to take place;  and that feeling is grounded in the harsh reality of how things are getting done, whatever Barack Obama was saying back when he was trying to get elected.  Being able to ask questions should be grounds enough to justify joining the conversation;  and being able to formulate a question that “only a fool would ask” may ultimately justify sitting closer to the head of the table!

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