Will the Bath Wash Off the Pepper Spray?

Last Saturday at a forum for Republican presidential candidates at a church in Des Moines, Iowa (one must hesitate before labeling this event a “debate,” as precious little competition of ideas actually took place), Newt Gingrich took on the progressive Occupy movement with some words that provided red meat to the cultural conservative GOP base. These words came a day after peaceful Occupy protestors at the University of California – Davis were subjected to point-blank pepper spray from police, a moment that quickly became a point of national controversy and a rapidly viral internet meme.  Gingrich’s remarks illustrate both how he has filled (at least for now) the rhetorical leadership gap in the national Republican party, and why his candidacy is ultimately doomed.

Let’s examine the Speaker’s language:

Jefferson said that people that want to be both free and ignorant are asking for something which has never been and will never be. Captain John Smith said in 1607 in the first English speaking permanent colony to the aristocrats who paid their way and didn’t want to work, “If you don’t work, you won’t eat.” There was a deep sense of responsibility.

Let me now take that and for a brief moment describe Occupy Wall Street. All of the Occupy movement starts with the premise that we all owe them everything. They take over a public park they didn’t pay for, to go nearby to use bathrooms they didn’t pay for, to beg for food from places that they don’t want to pay for, to obstruct those that are going to work to pay the taxes to sustain the bathrooms and to sustain the park so that they can self-righteously explain that they are the paragons of virtue to which we owe everything.

Now, that is a pretty good symptom of how much the left has collapsed as a moral system in this country and why you need to reassert something as simple as saying to them, “Go get a job right after you take a bath.”

Several assumptions are built into this statement that illuminate Gingrich’s ideological commitments, as well as his strategies for encouraging American voters (or at least conservative Republican voters) to recognize themselves. In Gingrich’s formulation, the Occupy movement protestors:

  • are ignorant (presumably of economic realities);
  • are irresponsible, because they
  • are unemployed, by choice (presumably due to their status as students or some other willfully idle class);
  • have an unearned sense of entitlement, leading them to “take” and “beg for” privileges without work;
  • not only do not pay taxes, but act to oppose the will of taxpayers;
  • have an inaccurate, unjustified sense of their own morality;
  • are dirty, and thus inappropriate for a clean, virtuous society.

Such characterizations are certainly reminiscent of those leveled by the Right at the anti-war, free speech and civil rights movements of the 1960s, particularly during the rise of the New Right during the 1970s and early 1980s. Such a move serves to dissociate the protestors from “real Americans” that are implied by the contrast – to wit,

  • possessing practical knowledge about political, social, and economic realities;
  • responsible;
  • gainfully employed, because of their responsible choices;
  • earning privileges based on hard work and merit;
  • taxpayers (and, thus, legitimate citizens);
  • possessing a legitimate and justified moral sense;
  • are clean, and thus socially appropriate.

The final epithet, “Go get a job right after you take a bath,” gets to the heart of this dissociation. The identity of the Occupy movement gets condensed into two charged terms: “dirty” and “no job.” The former characterizes them as unclean, unhygienic – and a constellation of connotations are invited: “smudge,” “stain,” “filth,” “germs,” “taint,” “filth,” “contamination.” The protestors become an impurity, a corruption of an otherwise perfected whole. Dirty things must be cleaned, or we risk the dirt spreading, and expanding the reach of the impurities it carries with it.

The latter term evokes not only the ethical commonplace that one must earn what one receives in a system of fair exchange, but also taps into hundreds of years of American economic ideology grounded in the Protestant work ethic (and the Puritan concept of the “elect” – those who prospered materially as evidence of their preordained favor granted by God). Condensed in this phrase is the antithesis of contemporary conservatism as it has evolved at least since the 1960s: a union of traditional cultural morality and market capitalism. The American Dream thus articulated is a familiar one: if you work hard and possess the right values, you can achieve the fruits of unfettered opportunity – particularly wealth.

The converse, then, threatens the American Dream: Occupy challenges what is implied to be the foundation of economic opportunity – and thus, by extension, the ethic of work and the moral values connected to it in the American culture.

Gingrich’s diatribe is, therefore, vintage New Right from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which enjoyed its apex during the Reagan years.  However, while this diatribe preaches to the choir who will vote as a major constituency in the 2012 primaries and caucuses, a choir familiar with conservative hymns from the Goldwater era and the rise of the New Right, it is profoundly tone deaf to the current moment – and ironically for Gingrich the historian, forgets the lessons of the 1960s. (Indeed, in the first of a few ironies, he forgets the lessons of his own history lesson. Gingrich’s quotation of John Smith actually attacks aristocrats who sought to benefit from the work of others without contributing their fair share of labor to the whole. It almost sounds as if he’s characterizing the richest Americans, defended by Republicans, who refuse to pay taxes and prefer to achieve fiscal discipline on the taxpaying backs of everyone else).

Here’s where Gingrich’s move gets interesting – to buy his distinction, one has to sever the Occupy protestors from their citizenship, their status as workers and taxpayers, their capacity for practical knowledge, and their moral and ethical legitimacy.  Given the rapidity with which the Occupy movement has expanded, as well as the widespread media coverage it has received and the public discussion this coverage has prompted, this presumption is by no means guaranteed. (Of course, media coverage of the Occupy movement, particularly compared to coverage of the Tea Party movement, complicates matters considerably – but that’s a discussion for a different day).

Consider the pepper-sprayed Occupy protesters of UC Davis.

The images of the victims, seated in a row, heads bowed, as police Lt. John Pike sprays their faces without a struggle, has already become iconic. While the outcome is certainly not as catastrophic as those caused by Bull Connor’s fire hoses and attack dogs unleashed on vulnerable African American youth, or by National Guard rifles trained on Kent State students, the visual parallel of those iconic images is compelling.

Holding aside the merits of the particular arguments made by the Occupy protestors, it is undeniable that they are overwhelmingly taxpaying American citizens (indeed, many may pay proportionately much more in taxes than those whom they are protesting), exercising their constitutional right to protest their government. Many are well educated (including, dare I say, students); many do indeed have jobs. It is quite possible that some who do not have jobs may not have them due to the significant economic dislocation that has occurred since the 2008 crisis. And these protestors on behalf of the “99%” have, despite potentially waning public support, driven the news media agenda to consider the issue of expanding income inequality, concentration of wealth, and public policy that potentially maintains and exacerbates these conditions.

Now, folks may legitimately disagree on the premises of their arguments. But Gingrich’s characterization of these protestors as idle, entitled, and irresponsible flies in the face of their contentions – that the irresponsible actions of the economic elite, abetted by policymakers in government, generated the economic crisis that has made it impossible for millions of Americans to find jobs. The Gingrich diatribe is not only retrograde, but it’s also ironic.

Moreover, Gingrich’s (intentionally?) ill-timed statements the day after the UC Davis incident place him squarely on the side of the pepper-sprayers rather than the protestors, on the side of the 1% rather than the 99%. Assume for the sake of argument that Gingrich were to win the Republican nomination for president. He would compete against President Barack Obama, a president who not only has been campaigning of late as a champion of working people defending them from the moneyed elite, but is also the first African American president, and one who has frequently invoked the symbolism of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The product of King’s dream versus one who is, at least by symbolic association, sympathetic to a Bull Connor response to nonviolent civil disobedience for social justice. On the plane of perceived public morality, Gingrich’s prospects don’t look good.


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