The Magazine

Born Free

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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In Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, the captive English maid, Blonde, scornfully rejects the advances of the powerful Osmin, overseer of Pasha Selim’s harem: “Pasha here, pasha there! Girls are not good to give away! I am an Englishwoman, born free, and I defy anyone who wants to force me to do anything!”

Becky Gerritson testifies, June 4, 2013.

Becky Gerritson testifies, June 4, 2013.

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More than two centuries later, Becky Gerritson, speaking to the House Ways and Means Committee about IRS harassment of the Wetumpka, Alabama, Tea Party, picked up the baton: “I am not here as a serf or vassal. I am not begging my lords for mercy. I’m a born free American woman, wife, mother, and citizen. And I’m telling my government that you’ve forgotten your place. It’s not your responsibility to look out for my well-being and to monitor my speech. It’s not your right to assert an agenda. Your post, the post that you occupy, exists to preserve American liberty. You’ve sworn to perform that duty. And you have faltered.”

And so they have. Not that IRS bigwigs like Doug Shulman and Lois Lerner really believe that they faltered. They don’t seem any more contrite about their bullying than Osmin was about his. The IRS poobahs aren’t quite as imperious as Osmin—though they do seem to have followed the extravagant lead of Oriental seraglios when arranging their own conferences and conventions. But nothing has been more striking over the last few weeks than the annoyed dismissal by the IRS officials and their apologists, particularly the reprehensible representative Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), of the notion that their duty might be to serve the public rather than to boss them around. Nothing has been more striking than their complacent assumption that regular Americans out in the countryside enjoy their rights only at the sufferance and discretion of their political and bureaucratic masters in Washington.

That’s the heart of the IRS scandal. It’s about liberty. It’s about self-government. As Becky Gerritson explained, “This was a willful act of intimidation to discourage a point of view. What the government did to our little group in Wetumpka, Alabama, was un-American. It isn’t a matter of fining or arresting individuals. The individuals who sought to intimidate us were acting as they thought they should in a government culture that has little respect for its citizens. Many of the agents and agencies of the federal government do not understand that they are servants of the people. They think they are our masters, and they are mistaken.”

It’s surely no coincidence that the IRS targeted Tea Party groups. The Tea Parties are the clearest example in recent times of Americans coming together to act on their own, exercising what Tocqueville called the “art of association,” an art crucial to self-government and threatening to the nanny state. Why did the IRS go after the Tea Parties rather than well-established conservative groups or even big Republican donors? Somehow the IRS sensed that the existence, the flourishing, and the possible success of Tea Parties represented a more fundamental threat to the soft despotism of the nanny state than more conventional conservative efforts.

The spirit of self-government manifested by the citizens who have formed and chosen to associate with thousands of local Tea Parties stands in deep opposition to the modern progressive bureaucratic state, which is all about top-down control by experts, not about citizens choosing to govern themselves. That’s why liberals in Congress and the media, like the bureaucrats in the IRS, sense that somehow the Tea Party is a fundamental threat to their dominance. After all, why do liberals so loathe and fear the Tea Party? Isn’t the movement unpopular, as the liberal media keep reminding us? Haven’t Tea Party efforts often been ineffectual, and haven’t they sometimes backfired, as the liberal media claim? If they really believed what they say, wouldn’t liberals sit back and enjoy watching the Tea Parties take conservatism and the Republican party over the cliff?

But they don’t sit back. They know the Tea Parties are a threat. They know what Osmin knows: When Blonde declares that “a heart that is born in freedom will never allow itself to be enslaved,” Osmin exclaims, “By Allah! She would be capable of making all the women rebellious against us.” The spirit of the Tea Party is capable of making Americans rebellious against their overseers in Washington. Thus the attempt to strangle this citizens’ movement in its cradle.

What is to be done by Republicans in Congress and conservatives outside? Investigate, investigate, and keep on investigating. Hold more hearings. Get the facts. Don’t take seriously the crocodile tears of liberal commentators, allegedly worried that Republicans might overreach. Sure, a few congressmen will say foolish things, and not every hearing will produce witnesses as eloquent and sympathetic as last week’s. But the key is to forge ahead, and to  determine just what happened and just how pervasive the efforts to target inconvenient groups were. 

Nor should Republicans become obsessed with the role of the White House. The notion that a scandal isn’t a scandal unless the president is personally involved is short-sighted. The point is not to indict the president, or some White House apparatchik, personally. The point is to indict the spirit of the Obama administration and of big government liberalism. The point is to defeat the president’s broad project to restore faith in big government and to convince Americans to accept and embrace dependency on government.

Exposing the bureaucratic arrogance that lies beneath the claims of governmental benevolence, lifting the veil on the liberal yearning for domination and mastery that lies behind the expressions of sympathy and concern—these would be the real benefits of laying bare what happened at the IRS. As Evelyn Waugh once said about an attempt at oppression by the British Labour party, “There we have the progressive cat, a great brute of an animal, clear out of the bag.” The IRS scandal is the progressive cat, clear out of the bag.

Many conservatives are worried that the last election suggests a majority of Americans like that cat. We doubt it. One night last week Jay Leno remarked in his monologue, “President Obama says he’s renewing his efforts to close Guantánamo Bay. Guantánamo Bay? How about closing the IRS? Why don’t we do that?” Thunderous applause. Leno continued, “How about shipping the IRS to Guantánamo Bay?” Thunderous applause again. If Republicans proceed with the nerve of Blonde and the wit of Leno, they’ll get the thunderous applause they deserve. They should remember that at the end of the Abduction, a cheerful Blonde goes free, and a thwarted Osmin storms off the stage in impotent rage.

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