Dexter at the Tea Party
by Joseph Natoli
We should take a page out of her [Elin Wood’s] playbook and take a 9-iron and smack the window out of big government.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, C-PAC, 2010
I’m cleaning my guns and getting ready for the big show. And I’m serious about that, and I bet you are, too.
Richard Behney, quoted in David Barstow, “Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right”
A very dark anger.
Arianna Huffington on C-PAC
Of course, Dexter, the self-described monster, the sociopathic killer, of Showtimes’s Dexter would not be invited to that Tea Party. It's presently loosely affiliated, or more precisely, magnetically attracted to (according to the New York Times' three-page spread), Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, the John Birch Society, Oath Keepers, gun rights activists, anti-tax crusaders, Ron Paul libertarians, militia organizers, the “birthers,” Lyndon LaRouche supporters, states’ rights enthusiasts, Americans for Tax Reform, Dick Armey’s Freedom Works, and Strict Constitutionalists. Focusing on one Tea Party member, the Times quoted her as saying she “has begun to contemplate the possibility of `another civil war.’” The Nation describes the Tea Party-goers—referred to as Teabaggers—this way: “While the energy and outrage may be genuine and organic, we should not fool ourselves into seeing this as anything but a right-wing reactionary movement, one whose themes (jingoism, militarism and a cult of victimhood at the hands of sundry nefarious betrayers) are as old as the John Birch Society.”
The lone vigilante Dexter has a strict code of behavior, one both moral and operational initiated by his father but is now self-designed in each episode by Dexter himself. He out-maneuvers the police, he cleans up—ritualistically kills and dismembers—the mess that our system of justice creates and cannot clean up itself. He constrains his own personal freedom only in the way he personally chooses, to accept the family as the only legitimate bridle on his personal freedom. Perhaps our Dexter is the hero the Teabaggers seek?
Leftists and Liberals may extend Dexter’s own opinion of himself—a monster—to what the Teabaggers envision as a grass-roots, Constitution-abiding, liberty loving patriot, but the Teabaggers don’t see themselves as Dr. Frankenstein creating a monster or as the monster itself. If Dexter is a monster, he’s a very appealing one, very strong and purposeful, observant and controlled, at least a step ahead of everyone around him; he's admiringly hands-off regarding the personal and private affairs of others, unless they violate the sovereignty of the personal. Similarly, if the Teabaggers are themselves as “bent” as the Leftists and Liberals would have them, they remain appealing, not only in their revolutionary feistiness and dedicated concern for the welfare of a country they love, but in their links to very venerable American traditions, from Boston Tea Party rebels, Founding Fathers’ Constitutional wisdom, to the proud individualism of the Frontier spirit.
A little more than a year into his Presidency, Barack Obama now faces a grassroots revolt as his pragmatism disappoints all those who defined his campaign promise of “change” as a change from “politics as usual.” The now-disappointed were looking for President Obama to “get government out of the way”. Instead, his Bail Out, Stimulus, Health Care Reform, Finance Industry Regulation, Jobs Program—all in Big Government caps—are seen by Teabaggers as putting Big Government squarely in the path of personal liberty, free market principles, and personal wealth creation. In support of President Obama, one can say that he has steadfastly pursued the pragmatism of what works best in a given situation and has continually reminded all that he inherited the “given situation.” But pragmatists from William James to John Dewey to Richard Rorty rest the notion of “what works best” upon an accurate reading of a “given situation.” While President Obama read the immediate situation astutely in regard to, say, the financial collapse of the Great Recession—that financial finagling that had caused a crisis couldn’t be expected to “correct” that crisis—he failed to astutely read the cultural horizon, the framing surround. He’s been struggling to find a connecting narrative between his health care reform ambitions and populist support for this reform.
This is reminiscent of the Neo-Conservative need to find a working narrative to connect 9/11 with a war on Iraq. Then it was Saddam loves Osama followed by WMD’s followed by a democracy and freedom mission. Whatever. Something finally worked. Now, with Obama, the connective narrative wandered. In the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew noted the "White House’s rationale for the bill wandered from being a way to reduce the deficit, to a way to protect consumers, to a moral imperative, to, more recently, something that would produce jobs.”
In a radical and reckless move, I look to this TV premium cable show Dexter to reveal the dark anger that threatens to engulf a presidency, a presidency that began with great hope and great audacity. It is also somewhat irrational to assume that an angry Tea Party movement that represents at this moment only about 18 per cent of Americans can create this “presidential engulfing” scenario. Perhaps George III said that about the Boston Teabaggers of 1773, but I think more telling is a consideration of where the 24/7 media cycle will direct its cameras. Elizabeth Drew puts the situation well: “As cable outlets and blogs become more ideological, on both the left and the right, people have become more inclined to seek out the ones they agree with. And the outlets stir up ratings through exaggeration and combat.” 50 Perhaps the dark anger will not dissolve because joblessness, the deficit and national debt, the battle over health care reform and bank regulation, and our Iraq and Afghanistan forays will remain solid and not dissolve into air as we head toward the 2010 Congressional elections. Perhaps the media will continue to adhere to its axiomatic rule: conflicts produce drama, political and economic wonkery and bean counting put us to sleep.
There is an added element in our society of spectacle, our totalized immersion in the view that spectacle and spin, narrative and image (the power of YouTube) shape our perceptions, our choices, our knowing. We live within the stories we as a culture create. The more contentious and astonishing, even inane, the more infectious and influential. I did not say the most empirically based or the best informed or the most rational. Neither do I here make a distinction between fact and fiction, between what science may say is true and what Glenn Beck says is true. If this is the case, and it’s of course arguable at a moment when we have lost any means but the rhetorical to resolve any argument, then not only can Dexter reach us but also, in line with my interest here, reveal us to us. And, to repeat, I find in Dexter’s sociopathy a link to the Teabaggers in that they, like him, represent the sovereignty of a personal code of behavior which can morally set itself against any social or political authority.
In Dexter, we have the digestion or privatization of all external authority into an ego-realm of personal determination. Whether or not societal norms and conscience have not been triggered in Dexter because of a childhood trauma, which the show represents in flashbacks, he now, as an adult, has learned to mimic the norms while satisfying a bloodlust. A premium cable TV show needs the bloodlust. I don’t. It’s not the psychopathic I want to focus on, not the pathological fixation of traumatic origin, but the sociopathic qualities, the ability to stand apart from and in defiance of the norms societies demand. He has the brilliance of another fiction, Hannibal Lecter, in both the artful mimicry and the construction of a sophisticated private moral code which he lives by as steadfastly as a hard-shelled Baptist. The code is his choice, his own personal fabrication, so we can view him as “free to choose.” On the other hand, the necessity of this code and the blindness and deafness to existing social codes are not his choices. They comprise an horizon of constraints out of which a “choice,” now questionable as choice, is made.
We can go back to Frederick Jackson Turner and his words on the frontier spirit to find the deep, psychological origins of the Teabaggers, but I will go back no further than Ronald Reagan. “’We the people’ are the driver, the government is the car. . . `We the people’ are free.” Reagan’s mission was to expand personal freedom, a mission that could be jeopardized, in his view, unless government was limited. “As government expands, liberty contracts.” In the quarter century since Reagan, the notion of “We,” first person plural, had collapsed into the purely personal “I,” first person singular, so “I” precedes “people” and the “private” precedes the “social.” The transformation has been accelerated to hi-speed digital levels by social networks that allow for personally designed YOUniverses. In cyberspace, “We the people” always means “I the people.” We now have the means to “unfriend” those who do not fit our personal design. A Tea Party movement which is 95 per cent white compared to 77 percent of Americans “unfriends” without remorse because their personal prejudices are emboldened by and a product of the sovereignty now of personal choice and individual self-interest. “People who could not even spell the word `vote,’ or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House,” Tom Tancredo announces in a speech at the Tea Party Convention in Tennesse in February 2010. “His name is Barack Hussein Obama.”
That Dexter “unfriends” so magisterially, so remorselessly, so enthusiastically is surely part of his charm at our Tea Party. But the greatest pleasure he affords those at the Tea Party is doubtlessly his freedom, his personal freedom, from arrest by the minions of law and bureaucracy. He slips by government neatly and slyly. He is self-governed at a moment when a “socialist ideologue,” a president who would take away “private property and prosperity” which “are secured by natural law and the rights of the individual” has been elected to the White House. Dexter’s personal moral code also slips by a Liberal or Socialist rage for political correctness, multiculturalism, wealth redistribution, welfare, foreign aid, the UN, diplomacy and not preemptive attacks, rehabilitation and not capital punishment, criminal investigations and not declarations of war, a progressive tax, affirmative action, gays in the military, government regulation of private enterprise, socialist programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And so on. If you believe that every government decree limits your personal freedom, you must find a character like Dexter who allows it all to just wash over him while smiling, while walking away from all of it, while responding only to his own personal code heroically. Dexter is the one who has personally in his own mind and his own life gotten government, in Grover Norquist's phrase, “down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.”
Is Dexter then a true, uncorrupted, unconstrained example of human nature expressing its natural rights? If we consider a sociopath as literally one who suffers in society and not one who is diseased as a companion (and I believe the former parallels the Tea Party view because they too see themselves as suffering in society moved to the Left by a Leftist president) then Dexter is a sort of revolutionary spirit incarnated in a premium cable TV show. Historically, a Dexter living in a Nazi regime, for example, could not imbibe the Hitler Youth nonsense as a youth, could jack boot kick with the best of them and yet have no belief, could remain true only to his own moral code. If he could effectively escape the snares of abusive “social norms” would he not be a revolutionary hope?
If Dexter’s nature is at the bottom of what energizes the Teabaggers and all manner of disgruntled freedom lovers, militarists, Constitutionalists, patriots and natural right advocates and so on then we need to deal with the question of remorse: Dexter doesn’t feel any. It may be a natural by-product of shrinking the Universe to YOUniverse size not to develop empathy with difference but rather “identify” or quite literarily make everything and everyone around you “identical” to what you are. Everyone you can’t “identify” is “unfriended,” not in an unfriendly way, because that would assume some affective something or other going on, but rather in a neutral way. They don’t exist if you can’t identify them. Naturally then, feelings of remorse could not be extended to people and situations outside your identifying frame.
At the present moment, Teabaggers, and everyone else, hear the shouts of multiculturalism and diversity, of ethnic, racial, sexual, class difference. These shouts fall on both friendly and unfriendly ears, the Teabaggers belonging to the latter group. We can surmise this by what is not said more than what is said because the constraints of a multicultural leaning society make it difficult to announce your prejudices. But it’s surprising to see that neither wars in Iraq or Afghanistan anger the Teabaggers, especially when these actions, only arguably in national defense, are governmental actions that have increased our indebtedness to a Communist regime, China. Unknown News reports that as of February 16, 2010, 869,720 people have been killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 290 times as many people as were killed on 9/11. These wars, however, have been narrated as personal freedom preserving wars, and a Tea Party movement that criticizes President Obama for working on behalf of the poor and not the middle class has no anger to express because it is the poor who disproportionately are “preserving their freedom.” No anger expressed either at the privatization of warfare that puts profits before patriotism. The Tea Party Contract From America also is not angered by the lack of health care for so many millions of Americans. Nor are they angered by a trickle down economics that began with Reagan that has placed 85% of all wealth in the U.S. in the hands of 20% of the population, leaving 15% for the remaining 80% of the population. Nor are they angered that entitlement programs that ease the pain of so many are constantly slated for extinction by Republicans. They will leave bodies in their wake without remorse. Here they are kin to Dexter.
Some empiricist and Enlightenment rationalists believe that decisive defeat can be dealt to the Teabaggers by simply pointing out that they are more liable to be fighting wars than are the top 20% of the population, that they are more liable to need health care reform than the top 20%, that they are likely among the 80% who have just 15% of the nation’s wealth, and that therefore they cannot rationally perceive where they own interests lie. I do not believe that these arguments will hold or remain unchallenged in what will be perceived as rational challenges. A failure to extend one’s feelings beyond one’s own identity frame narrows the scope of conscience, limits remorse and unleashes a very dark anger at what and who one has chosen to “unfriend.” Dexter exhibits only a sort of engaging disengagement with those around him. He’ll slice and dice you neatly but there’s no chance he’ll “go postal.” He has an engaging affectlessness. He admits to his volatile, profane and uncontrollable sister that “I have nothing” when she asks him for brotherly advice regarding a love affair. It doesn’t upset her; she’s used to it. He remains, as she asserts, the solid rock in her life. Astounding but a testament to his heroic charisma. Emotionally disengaged, he is yet acute in his analyses of situations and what he must do to both conceal his monster identity and at the same time fulfill its desires. There is no dark anger expressed as he surgically executes his victims. There is no emotional “unfriending,” only a deliberate and efficient satisfaction of his nature. His incapacity to be a companion except within his own limited range as well as his incapacity to feel remorse do not deprive him, as I say, of a fascinating charisma. But for the Teabaggers he may be stand, so affectless, as no more than a projection of their own desires to disregard what they perceive as a Liberal/Leftist inclined society. A requirement of their personal freedom is a dismissive disregard for such a society’s inclusion of what and who they have “unfriended.” But clearly some of Dexter’s power over all of us lies in his radical assertion of his own being and its needs over all else. When one feels that one’s being in the world is abused and usurped, there remains an inalienable right to throw off such “government.” And so the psychological finds its political expression.
There is a glimmer of Dexter’s bi-partisan potential revealed in his refusal, by personal code, to accept his new friend Miguel’s decision to murder a Liberal defense attorney who has successfully represented those Miguel believes are guilty. Dexter tells us in voice over—a continuous voice over that we need to have in order to know a truth that Dexter only slyly and wittingly reveals in public—that his own personal moral code finds no justification for the murder. Being a Liberal defense attorney and a successful one is not justification. She might, Dexter tells us, be too successful but that too is not justifying, especially when we consider that those who should be punished and are not will fit Dexter’s code, will vanish as quickly as a digital “unfriending.”
Can Dexter symbolize for the Teabaggers some leaning into and reconciliation of what triggers their dark anger, or, does his successful vigilantism, his cold revolt against any restraint on his personal freedom remain what they would find most admirable? Theirs is an inchoate outrage, far removed from Dexter’s knowing self-command, and though the well springs of his disaffected nonconformity are dark, he evinces neither hate nor an aggressive militancy. He is not, in short, posted openly and dramatically in opposition to the society he finds himself in but rather cleverly and masterfully finds a way to fit in, to fulfill the requirements of his own personal code without presuming that it engages or even recognizes the needs of a social order. The Teabaggers, on the other hand, presume much: that a continued deregulating of governmental power since Reagan effected by a mission of limited government will prevent future recessions, that the Constitution is not words subject to interpretation by different readers at different times, that free market principles create a self-correcting market rule that nourishes an egalitarian democracy, that governmentally legislated liberty is synonymous with the existential notion of personal freedom, that “pro-growth” policies can be infinite within the finite resources of the planet, that so-called “tort reform” allows both Haves and Have Nots legal redress, that all rights come from God and not from legislative vote.
A society that is quite obviously frustrating and angering the Teabaggers does not frustrate Dexter because, as a sly sociopath, he’s like the cockroach and rat, possum or the virus that finds their way to survival regardless of a deteriorating surround and do so without frustration and a very dark anger. But they read their surround perceptively. Their survival depends upon it. The very dark anger and frustration of the Teabaggers seems to block any perceptive interpretation of their surround; but a great deal may now depend on clear vision, an accompanying appropriate interpretation, and an abatement of that very real, very dark anger.
Joseph Natoli is the former series editor of POSTMODERN CULTURE for the SUNY Press (1990-2009) where he tried to arrange an early edited collection of BAD SUBJECTS pieces. His piece on Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is on the SENSES OF CINEMA website.