"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Mad Tea Party (Sunday, November 7, 2010)

          It doesn’t get much more patriotic than “America the Beautiful”, does it? I love that song, and I know that many of you do, too. I’d bet that a whole lot of the people at rallies and gatherings of the Tea Party Movement over the past year love “America the Beautiful”, as well. Maybe they even sing it at their rallies sometimes. (I don’t know, really; I’ve never been to one; but it wouldn’t surprise me.) Because the Tea Partiers are all about patriotism, and, as I said, it doesn’t get any more patriotic than “America the Beautiful”. The song even mentions “God”. Many of the Tea Partiers seem to be all about God, too.

          But I bet that many of those people at Tea Party rallies across our land wouldn’t like the woman who wrote “America the Beautiful” very much, if she were still alive today. They wouldn’t like Katherine Lee Bates one bit. Not because she was a woman. (Christine O’Donnell’s a woman, and they like her.) Not necessarily because she was born and lived just about her entire life in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (may its name be praised) – though that wouldn’t help her popularity much. They wouldn’t like the fact that she graduated from Wellesley, and was even a professor there (but Howie Carr lives in Wellesley, and many of them would probably like Howie Carr).

          No, the unpardonable sin of Katherine Lee Bates, in the eyes of many of the Tea Partiers was that this great poet of America—this gifted writer who probably came closer than anyone to capturing the living essence of this magnificent land and its history in verse—was, quite simply and quite openly, a lesbian, a female homosexual, a daughter of Sappho. Katherine lived openly for more than 25 years with her life partner, Katharine Coman, in what was then called a “Boston marriage”. (Had they still been around when full civil recognition came to same-sex marriages in the Commonwealth in 2004, perhaps Katherine and Katharine would have been there at the front of the line, applying for their marriage license. Who knows?)

          None of which would warm the cockles of hearts of those arch conservatives who accuse the American media and the Obama administration and all those other “sinister” and “socialist” forces of wanting to foist the “gay agenda” on America.

          Which means that they probably also wouldn’t like Francis Bellamy, who wrote the original “Pledge of Allegiance” back in 1892, in Boston, of all places. (Who would have thunk that this Commonwealth, which is looked upon as the People’s Republic of Massachusetts in some circles, was the wellspring of so much outstanding American patriotism?)

          They wouldn’t like Francis Bellamy because he, unlike some people so accused, like President Obama and his Wall Street advisers, really was a socialist. (A Christian Socialist, to be specific, back when that term would not have been considered an oxymoron). Indeed, Bellamy lost his job at the Young People’s Companion where he worked because of his political beliefs, but not before writing the “Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag” for one of its issues.

          “When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said at the original “Mad Tea Party”-- the one about which Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass-- “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master – me or the word-- that's all."

  Or, as Rev. Thom Belote writes in a recent lecture on “Postmodern Politics”, political influence is not so much a matter of getting your facts right, as it is putting forward the kind of atmosphere you want to create. It’s less about thinking with your head and more about knowing with your gut. It’s less about objective truth, and more about something Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”—the quality of something “feeling true” without having to be bothered with having any evidence that it really is.

Many of the followers of the Tea Party are big proponents of “truthiness”, it seems to me.

Obama is a foreigner. He wasn’t even born here. That’s something that many of the President’s opponents “feel” is true. They believe it, and they’ve convinced many other people that it’s true, too: Our President is a foreigner; he isn’t “one of us”; his election was illegitimate.

It must be true. In spite of the birth announcement that appeared in the Honolulu Advertiser on Sunday, August 13, 1961:

“Mr. & Mrs. Barack H. Obama,
6085 Kalanianole Hwy
, August 4, a son.”

Perhaps Obama's grandparents planted the announcement just in case their grandson needed to “prove” his U.S. citizenship in order to run for president someday.

No, Obama isn’t “like” the (supposedly) “beleaguered” White, Anglo-Saxon Americans that constitute much of the Tea Party’s support. What better bit of “truthiness” do you need, then, than to establish that even Obama himself isn’t “really” an American—that he’s “one of them”?

“One of them” from whom we “real Americans” need to “take our country back”.

          There’s nothing new about this tactic, of course; demagogues always seek to dehumanize their opponents, to turn them into the thing that their supporters hate most. As Dr. Goebbels said, if you tell a lie that's big enough, people will just assume that it must be true. One of the lies circulated about Abraham Lincoln when he first ran for President was that he was, really a Black man. When the rabid Republicans attacked Franklin Roosevelt, they said he was a Jew. So should it surprise us now that, in some quarters, Barack Obama is characterized as a Muslim, or an Arab? What could be “worst” from that, in the minds of some people?

“At any rate I'll never go there again!” said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. “It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!”

Just as she said this, she noticed that one of the trees had a door leading right into it. “That's very curious!” she thought. “But everything is curious today. I think I may as well go in at once.” And in she went.

     Now, I know that assertions that race plays a role in the Tea Party’s ideology is usually met vehemently by its proponents. They are all furious at the implication that race is a factor in their political views — in spite of the fact that they do talk about race-related issues an awful lot: They blame the financial crisis on poor black homeowners. They spend months on end engrossed by reports about how the New Black Panthers want to kill white babies. They support politicians (like Rand Paul in Kentucky) who think that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power. They support enacting South African-style immigration laws in Arizona. They still obsess over ACORN and the voter fraud which, supposedly, “stole” the 2008 election. And, of course, there is the matter of Barack Obama's birth certificate… Everyone who disagrees with them is, automatically, it seems, a “radical leftist” who hates America.

      In a recent article on the Tea Party in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi writes:

     “It would be inaccurate to say the Tea Partiers are racists. What they are, in truth, are narcissists. They're completely blind to how offensive the very nature of their rhetoric is to the rest of the country. I'm an ordinary middle-aged guy who pays taxes and lives in the suburbs with his wife and dog — and I'm a radical communist? I don't love my country? I'm a Redcoat? … These are the kinds of thoughts that go through your head as you listen to Tea Partiers expound at awesome length upon their cultural victimhood, surrounded as they are by America-haters like you and me or, in the case of foreign-born president Barack Obama, people who are literally not Americans in the way they are.”

     It’s not about race, members of the Tea Party maintain. It’s not even about social issues, like gay marriage or abortion (even though some of their candidates, including Sharron Angle in Nevada, proposed criminalizing abortion, even in the case of rape). It’s about the economy. And it’s about the role of government. We need to get government out of our lives. We need to lessen the role of Big Government in the economy. We need to lower taxes, and cut back on spending.

     Certainly, those all sound like laudable, common sense goals. But how do we do achieve them?

     Many of the Tea Partiers seem a bit short on details at times.

     Early in his campaign, Rand Paul, now Senator-elect from Kentucky and a physician by profession, denounced Medicare (let alone Obamacare) as “socialized medicine”. But it’s also true, of course, that eligible Tea Party activists sign up for Social Security and Medicare as surely as any of us have, or will. This past spring, when confronted with the proposal to reduce Medicaid payments to doctors like himself (half of his patients are on Medicaid), Rand Paul refused. “Cut government spending—but not for me!” could well be his mantra. Paul wants to gut the “Americans with Disabilities Act”; he wants to abolish the Department of Energy and the Department of Education-- but won’t even consider touching doctors’ compensation from the federal government. Why? Because he’s a doctor. “Physicians,” he says, “should be able to make a comfortable living.” As, indeed, they should. Even though American physicians make, on average, about three times what a French or British physician makes. There may be very good reasons for that—but let’s not wrap our doctors’ bills in the American flag!

     The Tea Partiers don’t like all these bailouts for big banks—another pillar in the Obama administration’s program to bring socialism to America. But, of course, they forget (or ignore) the fact that the bank bailout – T.A.R.P.—the Troubled Asset Relief Program—was signed into law, not by Obama the Antichrist, but by his esteemed predecessor, George W. Bush, on October 3, 2008.

Maybe this is quibbling, I know. We should never let the facts get in the way of the point we're trying to make. It doesn’t really matter who signed T.A.R.P. into law—Obama is to blame for it. Back last spring, when I did my part-time stint as a census taker here in Stoughton, I knocked on the door of a house a couple of streets over and actually had someone harangue me about how the census was a plot by “Obama and the Democrats” to spy on the American people. I had a feeling that a history lesson on how the census started in 1790, during the administration of President George Washington (who wasn’t a Democrat, and I’m sure wasn’t a socialist, either) wasn’t going to do any good. So I just excused myself and left.

     It really has gotten that crazy (and, as Alice says, “stupid”) in some circles, and that, frankly, scares me. I know that political Mad Hatters aren’t confined to the Tea Party, or even to the political right. There are plenty of left-wing crackpots with their own conspiracy theories, too, I admit.

     But financed as they are by huge amounts of corporate money; with influential friends at the heights of the media; with ties to shadowy armed organizations and a propensity for using violence against those who oppose them; operating in this time of great social and economic upheaval-- when I look out at the growth of the Tea Party movement, I worry about where this country of ours is headed.

     I know I could be engaging here in a bit of leftist alarmism—my own bit of conspiracy theorizing perhaps. Or maybe I’m just jealous, because the American Left does seems so impotent and ineffectual in getting its word across. (Maybe that’s because the Left still has too much disdain for “bumper sticker” ideology, or too much regard for a well-reasoned approach to the truth. Or maybe it’s because the Leftist elite has become isolated and out of touch from the ways in which “everyday” Americans think and reason and react. That could well be.)  

     Perhaps I am being alarmist. But sometimes, I worry that I do sniff in the ire of the Tea Party the first whiffs of a New American Fascism, and that, at the very least,  we need to be careful, and vigilant, and keep our eyes open in the days ahead.

     In 1947, just after the battle against Nazism and Japanese militarism had been won, the U.S. government (then under the leadership of that arch-Leftist Democrat Harry S. Truman) released a short film called Don’t be a Sucker. (You can watch it on Youtube; it’s about a half hour long.)

     The film sets out to show how a fascist government could come to power in America. It would do it, the film said, by dividing people against each other. By telling the American people that those “other people” weren’t really Americans. That they were here to destroy the "American Way of Life” That it’s up to “real Americans” to “take back our country”. Sound familiar?

     But the voice of reason in the film points out—the voice, actually, of a Hungarian refugee who had fled the Nazi takeover of his country and had emigrated to America—that “We have no ‘other’ people in America. We are all American people.” He stands up and tells his neighbors that it’s up to all of us “to guard everyone’s liberty or to lose our own.” There is no “us” and “them” here. There is only “We, the people.”

    That means that we need to start talking to one another again. And listening to one another again. In our civic life, that means concentrating on finding ways in which everyone is treated fairly and equitably; in finding ways that government ministers to the needs of common, everyday folk like you and me, and to those who less than you and I do, and not just to the needs of the already powerful and wealthy. In our political life, it means using the intelligence and wisdom in this land and finding ways to put people back to work; finding ways to stop wasting money; finding ways to use the best ideas among us—wherever they come from—to solve the awesome problems our nation faces, and that our world faces.

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

          May we firmly plant our nation’s flag in the solid ground of liberty and law, in self-control and reason, in common sense and civility toward one another again.

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