Thursday, April 10, 2014

"A Sweet Fool"

"Dost thou know the difference, my boy, between a bitter fool and a sweet fool?"--the Fool, in Shakespeare's "King Lear"

Stephen Colbert is leaving "The Colbert Report" to take over David Letterman's slot on "The Late Show" on CBS.

I don't normally post about TV, but then again, this isn't a post about TV. It's about the value of satire in a democracy.

As an avid fan of "The Daily Show," going all the way back to the not-at-all lamented Craig Kilborn days, I can remember when Colbert was "the new guy." (Most people have forgotten that Colbert actually preceded Jon Stewart on TDS by two years.) I had always liked him, but never as much as when he developed the Bill O'Reilly-esque persona for which he is now famous.
By David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons

I've been a devoted fan of the show. I may not have seen every episode, but I've probably come close (and may in fact have seen 100% since I got a DVR). What I've enjoyed the most is the relish Colbert takes in his satire. His talents (and those of his writers) have created what I consider to be the best satirical character in modern American history.

That's why this career move gives me pause.

Joan Walsh published a nice piece just the day before the announcement about Colbert's value to the progressive movement. That's true, but I'd go further. He is valuable to our democracy.

Humor, particularly sharply satirical humor, is incompatible with the totalitarian mind. It punctures holes in the immense pretensions of totalitarians. One of the lesser-acknowledged attributes shared by totalitarians of the right and left alike is their humorlessness. They are so deadly serious about not only their ideas but themselves that they cannot abide any mockery. As O'Brien says to Winston Smith in George Orwell's 1984, under Big Brother "[t]here will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy."

By contrast, I think you can judge the health of a democracy by the extent of its self-mocking humor. The liberalism born in the 18th century had as a cornerstone its openness to critique--an acknowledgement that, however well-thought out one may believe a position to be, it is always subject to argument and new evidence--and mockery, which in the form of satire is, itself, a kind of argument that exposes unfounded assumptions and unacknowledged hypocrisy.

Colbert's satire has always been at the expense of the powerful, not of the "defeated enemy." Americans, at their best, have always seen their leaders as fit subjects for mockery. It is one of the ways we remind them that they are, after all, just like us: no better or worse, just temporarily entrusted with power. We have often loved best those leaders who show they have a sense of humor, especially of the self-deprecating kind (Lincoln most of all, FDR to a lesser extent), while judging harshly those who appear humorless (see Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon in particular).

But at the same time, Americans have also been--at least to my mind--insufficiently appreciative of good satire. Ever since the ridiculous controversy over Randy Newman's "Short People" in 1978, it's been clear to me if the general public could not see that Newman's song was meant to satirize prejudice, America must suffer from a severe irony-deficiency. That's why I've been so heartened by the success of Colbert's right-wing pundit character. People got it. That had to be a good thing.

Now that this success has catapulted the real Colbert to late night network stardom, however, that satirical character will be no more. He's a smart, talented man. I'm sure he can and will do other things well, and succeed in his new job. But his gain is our loss.

Colbert's combination of sharp intellect, courage, and human decency has made him ideal for political satire. (His 2006 speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner remains, to use his language, the ballsiest act of political comedy I've ever seen.) There is a deep compassion for the weak, the downtrodden, and the suffering that informs Colbert's satire. No doubt that quality will continue to inform his future work. But in the satire of "The Colbert Report," it combined with the swift sword of his intellect in a particularly effective way. It is hard to imagine it will be the same when he emerges from that character and has to entertain the broad, irony-deficient expanse of all of America.

He may prove me wrong.  I certainly hope so. And if not, America is still the better for nine years of Stephen Colbert's brilliant satire on "The Colbert Report."

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Czech Balance

In the last dozen years, I've traveled in two communist states, China and Vietnam, but I'd never been to a former communist state before last month. Other than its beauty and generally rich history, one of the appealing things for me about going to Prague was its place in 20th century history, particularly the Cold War. I've spent a large part of my career studying and teaching about the Cold War, and I was curious to get a taste of how people who lived under its shadow looked back on it.

Thus, I was particularly looking forward to our group's visit to the Museum of Communism.

I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting to be able to walk right past it without seeing it from the street. I should note for the record that I have a notoriously bad sense of direction, but in this case I was actually on the right street, Na Příkopě, and in the right place. But you can't see it from the street. The brochure helpfully points, however, that it is "above McDonald's, next to Casino."

That was my first clue that this would be no ordinary museum experience.

Once inside, that insight was continually reaffirmed. The first thing one notices is the prevalence of Soviet-era paintings and statues of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. They had to go somewhere after the fall of communism, I suppose, and this is where at least some of them went.

One of the more interesting aspects of the museum for me was its willingness to examine the role that Czechs themselves played in the communist regime--particularly in its establishment in 1948. Unlike Poland and some of the other regimes in the old Soviet bloc, Czechoslovakia did not immediately fall under Soviet domination after World War II. Czech communists did fairly well in reasonably free postwar elections, and were included in the government of Edvard Beneš, the Czech nationalist who served as president from 1940 to 1948.

The Czech reality is that homegrown communists were largely responsible for the imposition of communism after 1948, and the museum does not shy away from that fact.

It is also impossible to escape the Czech sense of humor, which permeates the entire museum. One of its displays, for example, is a communist-era shop, with almost nothing but a few nondescript cans on the shelves. Apart from being historically accurate, this is a highly comic choice, and it draws some of its power from its humor. It reminded me of the comments our wonderful Czech guide, Helena, would make whenever we'd pass an example of what she liked to refer to as "socialist architecture": "Coming up on the right is something no one should see," she'd wryly say. "So please, close your eyes."

The museum, like the Czechs themselves, does not play everything for humor, not at all. The re-creation of a secret police interrogation room and the display telling the story of the 1968 Soviet invasion make that readily apparent.

But the humor is never far removed from the tragedy. It is that sense of balance--the knowledge that comedy and tragedy are not opposites but integrally related parts of life--that gives this museum its character.

The absence of basic necessities is no joke. Nonetheless, walking down a hallway, you pass this picture tucked away in a little nook. At first it appears to be a bit of socialist realist "art," but then you read the caption: "Like their sisters in the west they would have burned their bras, if there were any in the shops."

Working my way through the museum, with its largely chronological approach leading inextricably to the amazing events of 1989, it was hard not to feel a touch of American triumphalism. You move from the dreary existence of the 1950s, through the brief optimism of the Prague Spring, only to see it brutally snuffed out by the Soviet invasion. You learn of the repression of post-'68 "normalization," and thrill at the rise of the Charter 77 dissidents and Vaclav Havel. Then the forty-year Czech nightmare comes to an end, and the people embrace the liberal values that the U.S. stood for in the Cold War.

Upon arriving at the gift shop and looking for some postcards to take home as souvenirs, I came across this one that seemed to capture just that pro-American sentiment. "We're above McDonald's--Across from Bennetton--Viva La Imperialism!"

It's a funny card. It takes such glee in mocking Lenin, one of the original critics of imperialism. I had to buy one.

I kept rummaging through the shop, and found a couple of collections of Soviet-era anti-American and anti-capitalist propaganda posters, spending far too much on them and rationalizing that I could make use of them in class one day.

And I made one last purchase. Another postcard, but this one had a message significantly different from "Viva La Imperialism!" The two of them together tell, I think, a meaningfully different story than either one does in isolation.

"Come and see the times when Voice of America was still the voice of freedom." Now there's a quick cure for the American tourist's sense of triumphalism. I have no way of knowing when exactly this card was first produced and therefore can only guess at what particular events or policies produced it, but there is no escaping its message of disillusionment with the post-cold war U.S.

There was that sense of balance again. Even in a museum dedicated to demonstrating the failure of the ideology of America's Cold War nemesis, there was a refusal to indulge in a mirror-image worship of America's victorious ideology.

What I took from the museum, what I took from much of the reading I did to prepare for the trip (in particular works by Ivan Klima and Milan Kundera), what I took from my admittedly brief and superficial exposure to the Czechs, is that it is the uncritical embrace of ideology--perhaps as much as the content of that ideology--that leads people to destructive fanaticism. If we take our ideas so seriously that we cannot laugh at ourselves and see the humor in the sometimes absurd manifestations of our own beliefs, that is when we lose our way. I'm sure that's not a uniquely Czech view of life, but I saw enough of it there to associate it with the lovely city of Prague. That, as much as the beauty of the city itself, is what I think I'll most remember.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"Only Please Never to Forget Us"

I've been in Prague for the last week on a January interim trip with my Wofford College colleague, Dr. Natalie Grinnell, professor of English. Natalie was inspired to organize the trip after learning that a previous group of Wofford students went to Prague in January 1969.

Those of you with a memory of Cold War events will immediately recognize why that might seem unlikely: it was a mere five months after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end to the period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring.

Despite those dramatic events, two faculty members (Dr. B. G. Stephens of Chemistry and Prof. James Bass of Government) and sixteen students ventured to Prague. Marion Peavey, then director of information services at Wofford (and currently Senior Vice President for Development and College Relations) also went on the trip to write articles for The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. While they were there, a 21-year old college student, Jan Palach, immolated himself in Wenceslas Square in protest of the Soviet occupation. Peavey recounted the scene shortly after Palach set himself ablaze:
I arrived at the steps of the National Museum, where Palach set the match to his gasoline drenched clothes, only moments after the ambulance was leaving for the hospital with the badly-charred body.
Earlier this month, Peavey told this year's students that when he got there, he could still see the smoke in the air.

Palach died three days later from the burns he suffered, and became a martyr to Czech nationalism.

Knowing that we'd be there 45 years to the day, before our departure, Natalie arranged to have our colleague, Dr. Kim Rostan of the English department at Wofford, come talk with our class about memorials. The students were tasked with coming up with some way of marking the anniversary that would also acknowledge the presence in Prague of those Wofford students.

After some discussion, they settled on something simple, yet elegant. They liked the idea of somehow showing the "ripple effect" of Palach's act, which meant including water. But they also liked the idea of water in something permanent and lasting, in order to show that his self-sacrifice was not transient. Natalie dabbles in making pottery, and she agreed to supply one of the bowls she made. 

This morning, on the anniversary, the students went to the spot with the bowl.

After filling it with water, a small floating candle was placed on the surface. 

On the inside of the bowl, they wrote: "In memory of Jan Palach" 

and "Intaminatis fulget honoribus"--the Wofford College motto, which means "Shining with untarnished honor."

Peavey ended his article on Palach with this story:
As we were leaving Prague, our bus driver, a former POW in an American prisoner of war camp, gave an eloquent yet concise feeling of the Czech people. "All Czech people will always fight against oppression and injustice. It is our historical task. There is an analogy in Jan Hus of 1415 and Jan Palach of 1969--both burned to death and both signify the start of a great struggle for freedom. I ask you in the United States only please never to forget us and we shall never forget you."
Today, 19 Wofford students kept the promise that their 16 predecessors made 45 years ago.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Slavery Was No "Moment"

Sometimes a single word speaks volumes.

A few days ago, I was reading one of those year-end, year's best movies lists in the local newspaper. One of the choices was "12 Years a Slave," director Steve McQueen's brutal filming of the true story of the freeman Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.

I had recently seen the film thought it was a stunning achievement, so I was glad to see it make the list. But I was struck by the way the author of the article described it:

"Superbly made, but harrowing and difficult-to-watch film about one of the darkest moments in American history."

I was with the writer until that word "moments."

A scene from "12 Years a Slave"
Slavery was not a "moment." It was an institution that lasted well over two hundred years. Would anyone call the Constitution a "moment" in American history? The question is self-evidently absurd, yet slavery existed in America longer than the Constitution has.

I don't mean to cast aspersions on the author. I'm confident, from the context, that he had no desire to minimize slavery. Yet he inadvertently did, with that one word. He took a horrific institution that afflicted the lives of millions of people over two-plus centuries and reduced it to a "moment."

Regardless of the intent, calling slavery a "moment" has the effect of dismissing it as a bizarre aberration--something to be noticed, for sure, but also to be discounted. Just a moment, that's all. None of us wishes to be judged by our worst moment, right?

This, unfortunately, is something we Americans do all too often. Even when we are seemingly trying our best to appreciate the centrality of slavery to American history, to see it in all of its dehumanizing horror, we have an uncanny knack for saying something that effectively undermines that intent and dismisses slavery as something less than it was.

McQueen's movie is easily the most unvarnished take on American slavery ever filmed. The author is right--it is incredibly difficult to watch. What's worse is that it is incredibly difficult for some of us to accept.  Even when we see it, even when we know that this story is true, we want to find some way to say, "yeah, but …"

There is no "but." Slavery was an evil, one this nation tolerated as "necessary" long after it proudly declared to the world that "all men are created equal." It is true that most of us have come a long way since the "positive good" and "necessary evil" characterizations of slavery of the antebellum period. And yet, when faced with slavery's awful truth, there is still something in too many of us that wants to relegate it to just a "moment" in our history.

Until all Americans appreciate this reality--slavery is as essential to the American story and as much a part of who we are as the Constitution--we will be falsely comforting ourselves that it was nothing but a moment.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Pain Which Cannot Forget"

The past week was marked by remembrances of JFK on the 50th anniversary of his murder. The historian in me can't help but take some satisfaction with the impulse to re-visit the past. Nonetheless, all week long the coverage produced in me a nagging unease, whose source I could not pin down.

On the day itself, it came to me. At least in the coverage I saw, heard, and read, it seemed there was an awful lot of re-living, but precious little reflection.

Over and over, people who were in Dallas and who played some role--reporters who covered the story, the Secret Service agent who jumped onto the president's car, doctors at the hospital, people lining the motorcade route--all re-told their stories. Average people repeated where they were when they heard the terrible news. Perhaps because at that time I was alive but not yet aware, these stories seemed, ultimately, somewhat unsatisfactory.

I think my inner historian was waiting for someone to seriously reflect and not simply remember. The closest most accounts ever got to reflection was trotting out the tired, cliched remark that America lost its "innocence" that day. How a nation that had lived through the Civil War, or more recently the Great Depression and World War II, could be described as "innocent" escapes me.

Reflection is more than remembering and re-living. It involves a search for meaning and perspective. What do we do with those memories, how do we process them, and how are we different when we re-emerge from that process?

A discussion with a friend and colleague on the anniversary for some reason triggered a memory not about JFK, but RFK and the speech he gave the night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s murder four and a half years after his own brother had been gunned down. In that age before instant communication, Kennedy learned the news on his way to give a speech in Indianapolis, knowing that most if not all of the people gathered to hear him would be unaware of what happened.

The police feared a riot and advised Kennedy to cancel the speech. Instead, he insisted on going ahead with it. According to Evan Thomas' biography of RFK, the "police escort peeled off when he entered the ghetto." It's a remarkable speech, well worth watching in its entirety.

The reason it came to my mind is the way RFK takes his own pain at the death of his brother and uses it to try to assuage the pain and anger he knows his audience feels.

He quoted Aeschylus:

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

That RFK quoted that passage from Aeschylus is no accident. Thomas reports that, in his grief after his brother's murder, in his search for answers and meaning, RFK took the advice of Jacquelyn Kennedy and began reading the works of the ancient Greeks: "The saving grace for Kennedy was the exaltation Greeks found in suffering. 'In agony learn wisdom!' cries the herald in Aeschylus' Prometheus. The Greeks understood that 'injustice was the nature of things,' but that the awfulness of fate could be borne and redeemed through pain."

RFK reflected. He learned. He found wisdom. He adopted some humility to balance the brash, youthful arrogance for which he had become known. He became a better man.

By the time history assigned him that role to play on April 4, 1968, he had transformed himself in such a way that the casting was ideal. He converted his personal pain into comfort for others.

Perhaps that's something only individuals, and not nations, can do. But I can't help but wish that this past week's remembrances had revealed a nation that had reflected and learned. That had become more humble. That was better. Whose pain had led to wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Experience Becoming

One of the great things about reading a variety of kinds of writing from a variety of sources is the occasional serendipitous connection it helps you make.

I read yesterday's Education Life section of the New York Times, growing increasingly agitated at the mindless cheerleading in its section titled "The Disrupters." Article after article treats the reader to largely uncritical accounts of various "edupreneurs" (no, that word is not my snarky coinage, but what some of these people evidently call themselves). 

We are promised (or is it threatened?) that "the disrupters" are on the verge of "disrupting" higher education by bringing the always perfect approaches that universally serve the private sector so well to that hopelessly outdated institution, the American college/university. (That sentence is snarky.)

There so many things wrong with every one of those articles that I could not focus on any one of them. The avalanche of mindless corporatespeak passing itself off as wisdom and insight and innovation was just too overwhelming.

So to break the spell of banality, I went online to Andrew Sullivan's The Dish and saw this link to a letter by Kurt Vonnegut (which everyone should take a minute or two to read).

At first, I simply enjoyed the letter. But within a few minutes, I realized that it had brought into perfect focus one of the things that had bothered me most about the New York Times articles. Vonnegut's advice to a group of high school students was simple:
Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.

That's what was missing in all of these breathless edupreneurial proposals to disrupt higher education, but its absence was most obvious in one in particular: awarding degrees based simply on demonstrating competence in various areas.

Something calling itself College for America offers an associates degree for $1250 per six month term. Students can breeze through as quickly as they like. The article highlights one young man who completed all "120 competency goals he was given" in only "three months and five days"--in other words, he got a two-year degree in one semester, for very little cost.

Pretty impressive, huh? Well, not if the goal was education.

This man got a degree. He did not get an education. Education is about becoming. It is not simply a checklist of (often employer-determined) competencies. This man had no time at all for reflection, no time for actual learning, no time for any of the discrete assignments he tackled to percolate in his unconscious, no time for the unplanned, unexpected connection to form and develop and blossom.

None of these supposedly "disrupting" ideas care one bit about those things. All we hear is that they will cut costs or speed up the process of getting a degree. Whether these ideas actually do anything to help students become something (other than a person with a "marketable diploma") seems to be of little or no concern to these Disruptive Masters of the Educational Universe.

A college is not simply a job-training institute. Its purpose is not to turn out interchangeable cogs who have been trained in specific marketable skills that our corporate masters dictate they must have.

At its best, it gives young women and men the chance to to find out what's inside them, to become who they want to be. You don't do that in three months of producing "deliverables." You don't do that sitting at home in front of your computer looking at online videos. You don't do that with the aid of "academic success coaches."

Those things might get you a "marketable diploma" but they will never get you an education. As long as it makes them a profit, the edupreneurs could not care less.

The rest of society should.

Monday, October 28, 2013

To Still a Wackobird

"Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

I came across this line last week while re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my humanities class, and it struck me that it nicely captures the appeal of the GOP's recent quixotic effort to defund Obamacare that resulted in the government shutdown.

The line belongs to Atticus Finch, the attorney who takes on the legal defense of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape. While I think it absurd to compare the principled nobility of that fictional act to the GOP's attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act, the people who rallied to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's cause don't. They believe in the nobility of the hopeless fight.

Harper Lee's novel retains its power more than 50 years after it was first published because it not only sends a clear message of condemnation of racial prejudice, but also tries to understand how whites came to hold those views, and turn those views back on them.

One of the lessons Atticus imparts to his children is the need to understand those we are tempted to dismiss or condemn: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." On some level, Lee's novel is an exercise in just that.

Lee understands the depth of the racial prejudice she attacks, and knows how to reveal it. She adroitly connects her hero to the very quality ostensibly prized by the adherents of the South's "Lost Cause" mentality. When Atticus says it is worth fighting even when you know you will lose, Scout associates the sentiment with his Cousin Ike.
"Tell you, Atticus," Cousin Ike would say, "the Missouri Compromise was what licked us, but if I had to go through it agin I'd walk every step of the way there an' every step back just like I did it before an' furthermore we'd whip 'em this time ..."
Lee's brilliance consists of taking this mindset--the one that allowed defeated Confederates to salvage something from their defeat by focusing on the honor of making a good fight rather than the system of slavery that victory would have perpetuated--and transferring it to a character who stands for the rule of law and equal justice, rather than the Jim Crow oppression that the "Lost Cause" sentimentality made possible. Atticus tells Scout: "This time we aren't fighting the Yankees, we're fighting our friends." Lee neatly equates the proponents of white supremacy with the hated Northerners.

If what white Southerners truly value is a principled fight, Lee suggests, then they should stand with Atticus Finch. When they don't, they show what it is they truly value: the preservation of a system that institutionalizes their racial privilege. In some sense, Lee's novel revolves around that insight: the gap between the purported ideals and the ugly reality that they mask.

The power of the ideal is undeniable: persisting in the face of certain defeat is supposed to prove the purity of the motive. The honor of the fight is all.

This is the ideal embraced by the supporters of the shutdown strategy. More mainstream Republican figures said the idea was crazy and bound to fail (John McCain has memorably called Cruz a "wackobird"). To them, an effort that has no chance of success is foolish, even counterproductive. For others, however, the fact that it has no chance is precisely what recommends it.

In the aftermath of his utter lack of success, Cruz refused to express any regret. He called the fight a "courageous stand" and a "profile in courage." When asked if the fight was worth it, Rep. Michele Bachmann replied: "Absolutely.... What we did is fought the right fight.”

It is too easy to dismiss Cruz's shutdown advocacy as a stunt meant to propel him into the rank of 2016 presidential contenders. Of course it was that. The more important question is this: why did he think (evidently correctly) that it would have appeal among the Republican Tea Party base?

I would argue it is because he rightly recognized the appeal of the "Lost Cause" mentality.

In the course of American history, that concept is most closely associated with white Southerners, and while it may be more common among them, it is not at all uniquely "Southern." It is, however, an idea that has a special appeal to people who believe they have already lost the battle.

Many Southerners are Tea Party supporters, but not all Tea Party supporters are Southerners. During the shutdown, when a Tea Party protest at the White House brought out a Confederate battle flag, it was easy (too easy, really) to label all Tea Partiers as "neo-Confederates." Yes, race is an element here. It is not, however, everything. What is going on is more complex than that.

What we too loosely refer to as the "southern" mentality of the Tea Party is not geographic, but cultural. The Tea Party represents a subset of the larger culture: more white, more rural, more elderly, more traditional. The reason the apocalyptic rhetoric, the dig-in-your-heels style, and the confrontational (even anti-democratic) tactics appeal to Tea Party supporters is due to a simple fact: they see "their" America dying.

That's what they have in common with the Southern fire-eaters of the pre-Civil War era.

What many people don't understand about secession is that it was prompted merely by the fact of Lincoln's election, not anything concrete he had done--he had not even taken the office yet when eight states seceded. Secession was a response to what his election represented: the end of the Southern veto over national policy. Lincoln's election proved the northern states could elect a president without the aid of the southern states.

At that point, the fire-eaters decided the democratic game was over within the United States: they would always lose. Thus the only way to win, the only way to preserve "their" America, was to separate and create a new one in which they would be the permanent majority.

Today's GOP faces something similar. Demographic trends suggest that in the future, the GOP will not be able to remain the same ideologically and also be a majority party. Since it is not geographically defined the way the pro-slavery South was, the Tea Party core cannot secede in order to create a new majority (though "secession" and "nullification" have predictably enjoyed a recent resurgence in Tea Party circles).

One solution to this dilemma would be ideological change, which would require writing off the Tea Party. But the party is unwilling to take that step. Nothing shows that better than the way Speaker John Boehner abdicated all leadership in deference to the Tea Party caucus during the recent shutdown.

So what the party has been trying to do instead is change the rules so that they can control government without having to be an actual majority party.

That is what holds together the variety of the tactics used by the GOP since Obama's election in 2008. The abuse of the filibuster in the Senate has become a vehicle of minority veto, a way to say no to everything, to make a supermajority the new requirement for things that traditionally required a regular majority. The voter ID laws reflect the same desire to rig the outcome: if we cannot get a majority of the existing electorate, we can find a legal way to redefine the electorate and create an artificial majority.

The shutdown debacle was the same thing--unable to achieve the "correct" result through normal democratic process, Tea Partiers decided to hold the funding of government hostage to achieve its end of defunding Obamacare.

Why choose that issue? The term "Obamacare" has come to encompass everything they despise: the man himself, the electoral coalition that brought him to power and successfully kept him in office, the governmental philosophy he represents. It is the embodiment of their fear--bordering on certainty--that history is passing them by, that the America they believe in is passing away.

The desperation in the rhetoric is real. As long as cynics like Ted Cruz continue to pander to it, it will not diminish, and the Tea Party will remain politically relevant--and destructive.

Republicans are trying their best to frame the current divisions within the party as merely a matter of "tactics and strategies," as Cruz recently put it. It is not. It is a fight between those who think time is short and compromise is betrayal, and those who don't. The Tea Partiers are right, I think, if deep down they believe that they are fighting a losing battle. As long as they continue to demonstrate power within the GOP primaries, however, the racket of the wackobirds will go on and on.