Thursday, I considered President Obama’s speech, informed by William Milberg’s analysis of Senator Ryan’s budget proposal. My conclusion: the terms of the political debate for the 2012 elections are being set to the President’s strong advantage. I am pleased, but even more pleased because two serious opposing views of America and its public good will be debated. A rational discussion about this seems likely. There will be smoke and mirrors to be sure, but this is a time for grand politics in the sense of Alexis de Tocqueville and a grand political contest we will get.
This is especially important given the present state of affairs in the United States and abroad. But Presidential leadership will not solve all problems. Indeed, much of the politically significant action occurs off the central political stage, in what I refer to as “the politics of small things.” This dimension of politics has been on our minds this week in the form of three very different cases: the Tea Party in the United States, and The Freedom Theatre and the International Solidarity Committee in occupied Palestine.
The Tea Party is a looming presence in American politics. But it is in a sense “no thing”, as Gary Alan Fine puts it. It is a social movement that emerged in response to major changes associated with the election and early administration of Barack Obama, and a response to the global economic crisis. Fine and I disagree in our judgment of the “Tea Party patriots.” Indeed, I, along with Iris, am not sure how rational they are, but that is actually a political matter. As an objective observer of the human comedy, i.e. as a sociologist, I am particularly intrigued by the no thing qualities of the Tea Party which Fine considers.
A media performance occurs. An agitated announcer denounces policies said to be supporting losers, calling for a new tea party demonstration. People, who can’t take it anymore, come together in small groups all around the country, using the phrase “tea party” to identify themselves with each other and to the general public. An assortment of conservative foundations, institutes, politicians and billionaires associate themselves with this social development, seeing in it what they will, empowered by the movement. It’s certainly not a political party. It’s not one thing. But this configuration of images, gestures, actions and strategies, clearly has energized at least a branch of the Republican Party, which now has a Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. This is an example of what I call the politics of small things. Not no thing, not a big thing, but a small one that has added up. That is how I understand the Tea Party.
People meet, speak and act in each other’s presence on the basis of some common concern. They develop a capacity to act in concert and do so. This is a form of political power. In the Tea Party we see how such power can fundamentally change the configuration of political forces in a society. I think that this power is a direct response to a similar power developed in support of the election of Barack Obama, something I analyze in my forthcoming book, Reinventing Political Culture.
I also analyze in the book the project of reinventing through the politics of small things the militarized political culture of occupation, terrorism and anti-terrorism in Israel Palestine. This week we observed and reflected on the meaning of the assassination of two heroes of this project, Juliano Mer-Khamis, an actor and theater artist, based in Jenin, and Vittorio Arrigoni, an Italian peace activist working in Gaza, engaged in non violent political protest and social action. They formed and took part in small endeavors presenting alternatives to occupation and violent resistance. They formed and acted in groups which worked in the shadows of the occupation. They were assassinated by forces of violent resistance in response to the effectiveness and importance of their actions. The limits of non violent resistance are revealed in the stories of their deaths, but the limits of militarized politics were revealed in their life’s actions.
Arrigoni took part in non violent resistance to the Israeli occupation and witnessed the daily struggle for survival and dignity in Gaza. He published a book with the poignant title We Remain Human, apparently challenging not only the Israelis, but as well Salifist radicals, his killers, who emulate the ideology and terror of Al Qaida. In Arrigoni’s life rather than his death, Benoit Challand sees political significance. This supports the democratic struggles of the Arab Spring, honoring the humane Gazan faces Arrigoni presented in his work.
Juliano Mer-Khamis was not only or primarily a victim of radical intolerance from Palestinian and Israeli sources, Irit Dekel emphasizes. The repression he faced and his violent end should not define his life. Rather, his art and the world he created for Palestinian boys and girls and their families and audience in the Freedom Theatre are of greater import. As Dekel put it, he should be remembered for “fighting for the freedom of the everyday” by non violent artistic means.
The freedom of the everyday has limited power. But the power persists thanks to creators and witnesses such as Mer-Khamis and Arrigoni.
And let’s remember, for better and for worse, this freedom of the everyday is at the root of the Tea Party movement and the movement that led to the election of Barack Hussein Obama, America’s first black President, setting the stage for the great debate about American political culture which the upcoming Presidential election will be.