Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Rosen on New York Times: What to say about "tyranny?"

February 23, 2010News

Jay Rosen writes a provocative piece on a New York Times article about the Tea Party Movement. (ex Weinberger) He focuses on a passage in which the reporter, David Barstow, cites a common fear among these angry conservatives: It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. Later he writes: I was struck by the number of people who had come to the point where they were literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country. I just started seeing that theme come up everywhere I went.

Rosen's point is that "tyranny" is not an impending danger in the United States, and that the reporter tacitly validates the Tea Partiers' raison d'etre by not pointing this out.

My feeling, shared by some of the commenters to Jay's post, is that by swiping aside their motivating fear as delusion, the writer reinforces the widening gulf in the country. He lets us know that the people he's writing about are nuts. At that point, anyone with even a shread of sympathy for the Tea Partiers writes off the report as biased (which is what they expect from the NYT).

I think it's better to let readers come to their own conclusions. That said, the Times should follow up with another article specifically on that issue. Millions of Americans appear to think we're falling into a dictatorship. What are they seeing? Is it delusion?

I don't think so. There are at least three different "tyranny" narratives in this country. One is the police state. We got glimpses of that in the Bush years, with the wiretapping, torture and suspension of habeus corpus. The second fear, more common among the Tea Partiers, is the "nanny state," a government that forces us to buy health insurance and wear motorcycle helmets, forbids smoking, takes away guns, teaches victim history and godless science, etc etc. The third, of course, is the Numerati state, which overlaps a bit with #1 and #2. Here, governments and corporations keep us under digital surveillance, monitoring our data 24/7.

Tyranny, and the public perceptions of it, is worth a special report.

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