“A Narrative of Impending Tyranny”

In a recent post on his blog, Jay Rosen has raised some important questions about the nature of contemporary journalism, arguing that in the attempt to remain objective, many journalists evacuate the truth-telling role historically associated with reporting.  Rosen has been making a similar argument for some time, correctly castigating journalists for falling into the “he said, she said” pattern of reporting controversial events, in which reporters seem to dutifully take down the two primary interpretations of a current event and place them into competition without ever checking whether one side has a stronger hold on the truth, creating what Rosen refers to a “false balance” between competing points of view.  In some cases this kind of reporting can lead to a kind of epistemological paralysis in which it is unclear where the truth lies.  In other cases, it can lead to the cynical manipulation of historical memory that Jeffrey Jones has recently discussed in a must-read column for Antenna. Or, as Jim Emerson observes, “Without reality-based reporting, nobody’s accountable for what they do or say, and democracy itself doesn’t work.”

Rosen’s specific complaint is about one single line in a larger article by David Barstow tracing the history and philosophy of the Tea Party Movement.  As Rosen observes, it is an outstanding piece of political reporting, a detailed observation about the nature of the movement and its participants, and with many newspapers struggling with their bottom lines, one can only hope to see more journalism just like it.  But Rosen also notes that Barstow leaves unexplored a guiding characteristic of many people involved in the movement, noting that at one point, Barstow writes that “it is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny.”

Rosen’s complaint is that such a claim can be placed under scrutiny and tested as to whether or not it’s verifiable.  If the country faces “impending tyranny,” he asks, shouldn’t we know about it?  If it’s not, he implies, should the claims of the tea partiers be taken seriously?  The obvious answer is, of course, that we should be worried about the possibility of tyranny, but a slightly longer answer, at least from my perspective, is that things are a little more complicated, specifically when it comes to defining precisely what we mean by “impending tyranny.”

On the one hand, it would be easy to conclude that Barstow is assuming the narrative is wrong.  After all, he’s writing for the New York Times, and he can, perhaps, safely assume that the vast majority of his readers already assume that it’s a bogus narrative, the reaction of a significant, vocal minority.  As one commenter suggested, Barstow may simply be taking for granted that “by simply describing their belief, he is telling the typical reader of the Times that they are nuts.”  To some extent, I think there may be some truth to this observation.  The article reads like a sociological study, and here is what the Tea Party Tribe believes.  But in terms of assessing why the Tea Party people believe this way, it’s not very satisfying, and it leaves quite a bit open to interpretation.

But as commenter Robert Morris points out, many of the changes that are taking place–restrictions on smoking in public places or even the requirement to obtain health insurance–look like tyranny to many of the people who disagree with these policy changes.  Growing up in the south and attending an evangelical college, I heard countless references to other forms of “tyranny:” affirmative action policies, bans on school prayer, legalized abortion.  Although these policies seem to be rather unlike traditional notions of tyranny, they are quite often felt that way, making any simple interpretation or measurement of that claim a little more complicated.  Morris’s comment helps to flesh out why the Tea Partiers may believe the “impending tyranny” narrative, but he still takes us back to the “he said/she said” paradigm when he suggests that taking a position on whether tyranny is imminent would be “a slap in the face” of Tea Partiers.  We are still stuck with the debate about the nature of government rule and whether our liberty is threatened.

To that extent, I absolutely share Rosen’s belief that the Times article could have gone further in testing the validity of that narrative, of unpacking that claim a little further.  But instead of seeing that phrase–however calculated–as illustrating a gap in Barstow’s reporting, it could be read as a productive lens through which the politics of the movement can be read. If Tea Partiers feel a sense of “impending tyranny,” why do they feel that way?  What are the cultural, social, or political factors at play here?  This line looks to me like the beginning of a deeper analysis, not necessarily an endpoint.  As Barstow observes in a CJR interview, the Tea Partiers are the product of a number of social forces, and many of their views have a much longer history.  In fact, the article seems to be a “productive” one in that it has inspired a deeper conversation about the current political movement, and in that sense, I don’t think that the article (or a single line within it) should be read in isolation.  It is a keen insight and, hopefully, a launching point for further dialogue.


  1. Jeffrey Jones Said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

    Thoughtful post, Chuck. Here is how I would put it quite simply: Is there any way to interrogate the claim of “impending tyranny” from a factual or historical basis without the interrogation itself being dismissed as a liberal attack? That seems to me to be the beauty of what the right has done over the last 20 years–to establish their position as unassailable and beyond question, especially if it isn’t from someone more conservative than they are. They have shut down debate and questioning. No position they take can be debated. See the latest Republican ploy that Obama is setting a “trap” for them on Thursday. No–he wants to talk, debate, and argue. It is called “deliberation.” Our founding fathers thought it a good thing to engage in from time to time.

  2. Chuck Said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    That’s a fair assessment, I think, at least in terms of the lack of consensus about what can be debated (if anything). And, yes, I think the right-wing echo chamber has done incredible damage to our ability to debate (and the Obama example is a good one).

    I should be absolutely clear that I don’t believe in the “impending tyranny” narrative, and I think it has devastating consequences for our political discourse, but I also think it makes some sense (maybe not from a strategic POV, but from a scholarly one) to try to assess how that narrative takes on such incredible power, often for people who are relatively privileged.

    More than anything, I just wanted to communicate the idea that Rosen’s response to the comment needed to be complicated a little.

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