Tea Party Patriots, Part II
In my last blog essay, I attempted to unravel the many complaints of the Tea Party followers. Three issues, however, seem to stick in the craw of those who believe in their heart of hearts that America is on the road to self-destruction: (1) The continuing loss of freedom because of big government and what appears to the Tea Party followers as a move towards socialism, the inevitable political paradigm that will only exacerbate that continuing loss of freedom (2) The desire to return to a golden age of a true America (3) The end of Patriotism in America
Loss of Freedom and Fear of Socialism
I put these two Tea-Party concerns together because they appear to be two sides of the same coin: the fear that someone else is in charge, that Americans have lost their ability to make free choices, that the federal government is taking over more and more aspects of our lives, that we are becoming a totalitarian nation.
The context for these two concerns is basically the activist political agendas of Obama and the majoritarian Democratic Congress.
More specifically, the Obama Administration moved quickly to have the government rescue a group of banks, financial institutions, and a large automobile company that many economists continue to believe were just too big to fail.
Tea Party Americans view the rescue as a taxpayer bail-out of incompetents and/or a socialist form of nationalization.
Yes, the administration did “nationalize” some of these institutions, but the takeovers were in the midst of an economic crisis of epic proportions. Secondly, the Federal Reserve has recouped about 50 billion in bail-out money (with interest), money that Obama says will be used in tax-incentives for small businesses to hire new employees (Is the Chamber of Commerce lobby paying attention?). Thirdly, given the instant criticism Obama seems to get from the Republicans about any of his initiatives, there is nothing in the language of the Republican opposition that suggests their concerns that the bail-outs and takeovers were to be permanent.
Let me assure everyone that, if the Republicans really thought the bail-out and takeover of these institutions was a permanent socialist maneuver by the Obama administration, why aren’t they hollering? The absence of that criticism ought to quell the Tea Party-tabloid-conspiracy fears about an Armageddon battle between the forces of free enterprise and the socialism, although I have yet to convince a conservative friend that the government is not moving towards a Chavez-like takeover of the “main means of production” when even the most die-hard Republicans don’t believe it.
I continue to be surprised at the level of ignorance among the Tea Party followers about the history of socialism, which has always had a strong worker component. In fact, originally, socialism was supposed to usher in a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In case the Tea Party missed that chapter in their history classes, the proletariat is a Marxist term for the “worker.” Imagine, the workers being in control of their own economic destinies—sounds pretty much like the Tea Party, libertarian, populist philosophy to me.
In the end, I suppose some die-hard Tea Party populists will see any form of government regulation as soft Socialism and as an infringement of their personal liberties. I would like to remind this fringe group that the Bush and Reagan administrations tried to go the deregulation route, and this is what led to Enron and the financial industry’s meltdown. Deregulation and lack of oversight are exactly what got into this last economic crisis.
The Ayn-Rand rugged individualists in America will always be a fringe collection of frontier malcontents who, apparently, would feel more comfortable living in a Darwinian, free-for-all, laissez-faire world with no laws, no restrictions, no government oversight, and little or no concern for any common-good societal model that might trump their precious freedoms to do anything they damn well please, the community be damned.
Well, guys and girls, the U.S. is a nation; it is an extended community. We are all communally affected by what happens in any part of this vast country. And, collectively, we have fare more resources than we do individually.
If a woman in Montana has terminal cancer and needs special treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, when she arrives at the clinic, she may be surprised to find out that one of those government agencies she thought was just another entrenched branch of socialism, the National Institute of Health, just awarded a grant to the clinic. Now this is grant money coming from public taxes. This is a federal, national public reservoir that no individual state could ever compete with.
If this is socialism in action, where can I get more of it?
Nostalgia For a Golden Age
This yearning to have one’s country back seems to be a code phrase for the Tea Party followers reflecting a desire for a past when America was settled by white Europeans. Blacks were slaves and no threat. There were no Chinese, no Mexicans, no Muslims in the most populated Northeast, the center of our pre-Revolutionary and Revolutionary colonial culture. And, for the most part, everyone spoke English (the Italians, the Germans, the Polish, the Latinos, the Indians, and the Chinese were to come later).
Now we have parts of the country where Spanish is a viable second language and ESL programs are widespread. Ethnic neighborhoods of major cities may be tourist attractions to many Americas, and Americans may want to find a soul-food, Greek, or Indian restaurant, but foreign foods are about as close to a foreign or non-white culture most Americans are going to get.
And a black man now sits in the Oval Office.
For those brought up in a predominantly white, English speaking culture, particularly in the suburbs and rural America, the demographic shifts have to be profoundly unsettling.
I constantly think about those Americans who have never had a passport or a visa, have never personally known a black, have never spoken a second language, or continue to be miffed at how many “foreign” Indian and Asian doctors there are at their local medical clinics.
That a Latina could be a Supreme Court Judge or that a black man could be President, especially a black man with family ties in Kenya, has to be a tectonic shift for those who have never really had any personal contact with a non-Aryan or non-English speaking culture.
Does the I-want-my-country-back group want to close the doors on all immigrants, even those who have special scientific, tech, and/or medical skills to fill the high-level skills vacuum in the U.S.? The Tea Party followers express their outrage at “illegal immigrants” taking their jobs (and there is no empirical evidence to support the fear that legal or illegal immigration is actually taking jobs away from Americans at the scale we have been led to believe by the Tea Partyites), and yet, I don’t hear any Tea Party follower discussing the science, high-tech needs in America, needs that have been filled very professionally by highly-skilled foreigners with special, temporary visas.
The other reactionary concern of the Tea Party followers is that their shiny, bright Constitution is not being adhered to (their appropriation of the Constitution is not rare, for just about every American has their own take on what specific rights and freedoms are covered by this historical document).
I have a pretty good idea what Constitution the Tea Party followers want returned to their door steps right next to their cellophane-wrapped phone books they don’t read: the alleged “original” one.
In another chapter of American history they may conveniently missed, they may be surprised to know that the original Constitution did not protect women and blacks, nor did it “originally” give these two groups the right to vote. They may also have overlooked the historical fact that a black was considered three-fifths of a person in counting population for Congressional districts.
I might also add that, if the original Constitution is such a static, one-size-fits-all document, we wouldn’t need the Supreme Court to guide us through the maze of new Constitutional issues the original writers could have never anticipated.
Time does not stand still and there isn’t an ancient document of principles, beliefs, ethics,or theology in the world that theologians and scholars aren’t trying to fit into a modern context.
The reactionaries of the world, like the Tea Party followers and rigid theological fundamentalists, want their documents and institutions to remain static; the more progressive and liberal minded theologians, spiritual leaders, and judicial-political leaders are more willing to use experience, empirical evidence, or scientific facts and to try to adapt ancient documents to those more modern realities; when they don’t fit or measure up, they are often dropped into the bin of irrelevance and outdated thinking. This, of course, throws panic into the psyches of those who want their ancient documents to be read literally and to be interpreted in the same way they were two or three thousand years ago in spite of the cultural changes all societies go through over time.
Confucius, the conservative religious icon of China was the reactionary, par excellence, of his time. He wanted to return to the original meanings of words. Of course, as a conservative, that meant going back to the old hierarchies: “father” was to be the head of the household in the same way that the monarch would be head of state.
All of the strict constructionist and originalists would love to return to the days of Jefferson and Franklin when abortion, gay rights, or racial integration would have been anathema to bring to the table of any Enlightenment discussion of what to put into our Constitution. And what writer of the Constitution would have ever predicted that the right to freely associate would mean that unions would eventually gain Constitutional legitimacy?
The only thing that I can truly predict in my life is change. Nothing ever remains the same. The country I live in today is not the country that Jefferson and Franklin lived in. More importantly, in this vast country of changing demographics, new groups will continue to ask for Constitutional protections, Caucasians will no longer be the dominant race in America, and new life-styles and values will continue to invade all of our safe havens of security.
I am not willing to go far as to say freedom is the last refuge of the scoundrel. But Tea Party patriots often make me feel as if my own patriotism can never possibly match the depths of their own brand of flag-waving and highly demonstrative calls for pledges of allegiance. I am not and have never been a flag-waving patriot constantly in need of some kind of pre-game national anthem ringing in my ears. And, in all honesty, I have never liked parades ushered in by all of our veterans, an iconic display that continues to narrow the frame of patriotism to war and a physical defense of our country.
My love of this country, however, comes from a different source—its artists, its writers, its musicians, its thinkers. When our country was attacked on September 11, 2001, my soul sank. Here was a country of Walt Whitman, August Wilson, Benjamin Franklin, and Aaron Copland that had been knocked on its ass by a group of religious fanatics who had no clue of the range and depth of America’s soul.
When could this narrow band of fundamentalists, armed with a one-dimensional promise of a martyr’s reward ever experience the transparency of a Hawthorne allegory declaiming the religious fanaticism of the Salem witch trials?
When could this group of Islamic ideologues ever come to know the fullness of an Arthur Miller play about the depth of conflicts in the American family? Or ever understand the horrors of the Depression in Grapes of Wrath? Or feel the sweep and openness of the American frontier in an Aaron Copland masterpiece or ever come to know the sweet pain and tragedy of urban gang violence in Bernstein’s West Side Story.
Most of my adult life has been immersed in American culture. I have wept reading Supreme Court arguments. I have felt the nervous chill of a civil rights demonstration and the sweet, warm tears listening to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. I continue to feel the winter’s loneliness of an Emily Dickinson line, “there’s a certain slant of light winter afternoons.” I can smell the lilacs blooming in a Whitman poem or the odors of her mother’s cooking when Emily returns from the afterlife in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I can feel the tender, familial moments of a black family, in their Sunday best, going to Church in a William Johnson painting.
For a long time after I saw the Twin Towers crumble to the ground, every fiber of my being felt the grief of watching an old, wise friend or an energetic, full-of-life child being viciously brutalized by a gang of religious thugs. This old friend and child, hungry to live, continue to comprise my country.
America’s artists and thinkers continue to be my friends guiding me through their wise sayings, their poignant images, their luscious sounds. And I remain energized by the child-like vibrancy of what they risk every time they put a word to a page or a movement in a ballet or a stroke of paint on a canvas. This is my America. My child. My father. My friend.
Patriotism, Tea Party followers? Instead of wearing a flag in your lapels, you need to return to the many and varied voices of our old cultural heritage or to visit the new words and music of the brilliant, creative individuals who continue to portray the soul of this country in its coats of many colors.
The rest is silence.