Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Immature Campaign

People who express contempt for the Tea Party movement and its supporters on the radical right generally do so by claiming that:

1) They're racist (for more, see the expose at

2) They're incendiary (for more, see David Frum's brilliant op-ed at

3) They're stupid (for more, see

All three of these criticisms are valid. Indeed, I would even go so far as to say that the overwhelming body of evidence (to say nothing of sheer common sense) makes them irrefutable. That said, there is a fourth marked quality in the Tea Party movement that doesn't receive adequate attention, even though it is in many ways the most revealing:

4) They're shockingly immature.

Let me illustrate that point with a personal anecdote.

When I was a little boy, I was a huge fan of the Swamp Thing, so much so that on the day a much ballyhooed Swamp Thing action figure arrived on toy store shelves, I began to nag my parents incessantly about buying it for me. Although they probably planned on purchasing it and giving it to me as a surprise, the insistence with which I kept pushing and prodding them eventually caused them to declare that I would not, after all, get my Swamp Thing action figure.

Naturally, I was livid. Before long I had concluded that my parents were the worst human beings who had ever lived. There was simply no other conclusion besides that they were monsters, meanies, and jerks, since clearly no parents in the whole wide world had ever treated their child as badly as they were treating me. I hated them and was certain that years later I would feel vindicated in my anger.

Of course, in retrospect, I recognize that I was just being immature. Had I possessed a proper perspective, I would have realized that my plight - compared to that of children who are starving or sick, suffering in war or poverty, or have parents who physically or sexually abuse them - was not really all that bad. Indeed, had I taken the time to think about it in depth, I might have even come to the conclusion that - considering my rude behavior - they were absolutely right in not buying me that Swamp Thing action figure.

Fortunately, I was only six at the time, which is a sufficient excuse to absolve me of any undue guilt. What would be truly mortifying is if I had thought and behaved that way as an adult.

Which brings me back to the Tea Party and its radical right-wing supporters.

If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party partisans, and the rest of the extreme conservative movement, you will hear countless claims that they are persecuted, suffering, in danger of losing their freedoms, and in general sorely afflicted. What's more, you will hear lofty rhetoric comparing their grassroots campaign to the battles waged by the founding fathers during the American Revolution and other great freedom fighters, including the civil rights protesters.

There is just one problem with this worldview. It isn't based on reality.

For one thing, none of these conservative extremists are in any real danger when they engage in their protests. No one is ordering law enforcement personnel to drag them off to prison or threatening violence against them (which is more than can be said of how they treat their various targets); no one is jotting their names down on lists to be used to prevent them from getting a job or buying a home; no government agents are wiretapping their phones or investigating their personal lives in order to find ways of smearing and thereby discrediting them. Their claims of being victims and martyrs notwithstanding, neither the leaders nor the followers of these movements have ever incurred any real risk as a result of their self-expression.

Even worse, none of them are fighting for causes that actually involve their sacred rights and liberties. Some of the evils against which they fight WOULD be very serious if they were real - such as the belief that there are death panels in the health care reform bill, that Obama is trying to create a dictatorship, or that his back-to-school speech was intended to indoctrinate children with political propaganda - but without exception such assertions wind up being entirely without merit. Other claims that they make are not only fictitious but, even if true, would still have no real bearing on the ability of the protesters to comfortably live their actual lives; the assertions that Obama wasn't born in this country or that he is a secret Muslim fall into this category. Finally, the few battles in their crusade that actually are based on reality almost always involve outrage over matters that are remarkable in their pettiness and lack of perspective - see when they fulminate about having their taxes increased to help the unemployed and poor (even though such increases only effect the rich and well-to-do, surveys have repeatedly shown that Tea Party protesters and radical right-wingers tend to be much more affluent than the average American), when they rant because they feel too many Latinos are immigrating to this country or too many blacks are benefiting from affirmative action (further suggesting racism), when they complain about gay people wanting to get married and openly serve in the military (displaying homophobia), or when they scream because they see secularism growing in America and complain that their specific religious beliefs (usually those of the Christian Right in some form or another) aren't being allowed to dominate our national life. In short, even when they're factually right, they're still morally wrong.

Now compare all of this with the historic freedom fights with which these same right-wingers often juxtapose their own silly causes (and in this case I feel deeming them "silly" is pretty objective):

The American Revolution, from which they get so much of their rhetoric and symbolism. The real American revolutionaries were men and women who, if they were lucky, only risked dishonor and disgrace at being forever branded as treasonous rebels; if they were unlucky, the penalty was death on the battlefield or at the end of a hangman's noose. The cause for which they were willing to incur these very real risks - to say nothing of the economic and physical deprivations imposed by the Revolutionary War - was, as Thomas Jefferson put it, the belief that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

The Civil Rights Movement, including the famous March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King which Beck and his supporters pretended to emulate from their safe perch of historical retrospect and lilywhite affluence. Of course, the King march wasn't the only front in the civil rights crusade - there were countless other protests at diner counters and school courtyards, on buses in Selma and at voting booths in Mississippi. These were people of all races who were fighting to end segregation, job and housing discrimination, voter intimidation, laws that prevented black people from marrying whites or from serving in public office, and the countless other manifestations of systemic racism that caused unequal treatment for African Americans. Those who participated in these causes were often followed by the government, arrested without just cause, and intimidated into silence by powerful state officials who had a vested interest in the status quo. In the name of the cause of racial equality, these civil rights protesters risked (and often suffered) death, serious bodily injury, the loss of their livelihoods and homes, and the destruction of their personal reputations.

Once you compare these real freedom campaigns with the teapot tempest being stirred up today by the radical right, you can see why it's so hard for me to respect the Becks, Limbaughs, Palins, and Tea Partiers of this country. In a way that their immaturity makes them incapable of understanding, they don't even respect themselves.

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