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Columns

In Which Writing About Teabagging
the White House is Not Nearly
As Much Fun As It Sounds

Phil West

So, what happens when an unpopular leader named George abuses his power, places unfair burdens on the bulk of the people he’s ruling, and eventually inspires the entire country to stand up and demand change? In 2008, you elect Barack Obama and hope it’s enough to turn things around. In 1773, you throw tea into Boston Harbor as a symbolic act and declare independence from Britain within three years.

So, what happens when it’s three months into the Obama presidency and you’re a libertarian or Republican that was pretty uneasy about Obama taking office even though the 2008 election was hardly what you’d call contested? Somehow, you decide to make April 15 — the day our tax returns are due — the day to protest against big government, pine for the return of our most recent unpopular George (or at least what we perceive him to be), and call it a Tea Party in honor of the protest against the original unpopular George.

Following me? Of course you’re following me. If you’ve been enjoying the news cycle over the last month like I have, you’ve peeked in at the leadup to the Tea Party. Somewhere along the way, the action of protest got called “teabagging” by at least one talking head on the Fox News Channel, and this sent liberals — especially liberals up for good sex jokes, so liberals who still frequent Wonkette – into spasms of jocularity. Even Rachel Maddow got into exploring the “teabagging” rhetoric with an Ana Marie Cox interview (speaking of Wonkette) that approached junior high levels of delight in exploring different facets of the word “teabagging” and how it could apply to political discourse. Although initially funny, trying to discuss the separation of the teabags into fiscal and social teabaggers was probably taking it a little too far.

Paul Krugman, MSNBC’s version of the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World,” dismissed the April 15 Tea Parties as “astroturf events,” as in “fake grassroots events,” noting the Fox News Channel support and apparent promotion of the various events happening around the country. Yet some of us were wondering what would be said, what would be done, and who would speak.

My part of Texas was staging three rallies within 80 miles of one another — Austin had a noon rally and a late afternoon rally, utilizing City Hall and the State Capitol, and featuring Gov. Rick Perry, who would later embarrassing millions of Texans on Tea Party Day by publicly hinting that Texas should perhaps secede as a result of the projected increase in government spending. San Antonio had a 4 p.m. rally at the Alamo, with Glenn Beck hosting and with the Nuge himself playing the Star-Spangled Banner on his electric guitar. (As matters developed, he reportedly also played the opening riff to Cat Scratch Fever, which also reportedly was more enticing to the crowd than the National Anthem. But it is San Antonio, which musically seems to still believe it’s 1985.)

With three rallies tantalizingly close to me, my initial plan was to hit the first Austin one and the San Antonio one, to take notes, to gawk a little, to bring forth salient observations to help those who find the Tea Partiers ridiculous feel a little more self-satisfied about their positions. Also, it would be different to not feel the impulse to protest, but rather, to dismiss the protestors as acting out of some sort of unfounded bitterness. This, to me, was all sort of fascinating.

But what did I do instead? I worked.

How fuddy-duddy is that?

Apparently, I’m not alone in opting to work. As an independent businessperson and an adjunct college instructor, taking a day off — even for something this compelling — is not prudent. And I’m a middle-aged husband father of two in the worst national economic crisis we’ve faced in 75 years, so prudence is a pretty valuable commodity.

In fact, only 112,000 attended the Tea Parties nationwide. There have been single rallies in the past few years that have easily drawn more than that. In fact, the most recent ones in memory were around Election Night 2008 and the subsequent inauguration. The people mad about the current situation and the government’s response to it seem to be the people who believe that Obama is a tax-and-spend liberal, and who would never recognize that Bush was by and large a tax-and-spend conservative. In other words, the Tea Parties gave the political minority of Bush/McCain supporters, and the even more disenfranchised and fragmented minority of Ron Paul supporters, somewhere to go on April 15. It wasn’t a new, spontaneous, acute groundswell of striking public sentiment — it was exactly the same people we’d expect to see rally against Obama.

And here were are looking at these protestors the same way those on the left were regarded when we rallied against the first Gulf War, against the latest Gulf War, in abstract but well-intentioned calls to human rights. As much as I was hoping we could enter some post-partisan era with an Obama presidency, that’s not happening. Those on the left have merely switched roles with those on the right — the left is now the establishment, and the right is the side from which we’ll hear dissent. They’ll call for change, and we’ll call for loyalty to the President.

This, to me, is the most disheartening aftershock of the Tea Parties — not that people are protesting the new President within his first 100 days, but we seem to be back to the same dynamic of some regarding him as a worthy President, and some regarding him as, as it might say on a button or T-shirt, “Not my president.”

And the animosity could very well get worse. The recent Pentagon decision to release new photos of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan within the next month will force us to relive the Abu Ghraib controversy. Did we collectively learn a lesson from that episode? Well, we’re due for more reminders of what happened before we were taught those lessons. If the economic crisis gets worse, Obama opponents will blame him while supporters will continue to lay claim at Bush’s feet, arguing that Obama’s merely trying to undo what Bush did.

So here we are, with citizens mailing teabags to politicians, with TV personalities leading rallies, with Ted Nugent proclaiming in a chatroom that he is acting in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., which nearly necessitates an “I Have a Dream of Wang Dang Sweet Poontang” joke that I’m just too emotionally exhausted to make.

I wanted the Tea Parties to be everything that’s entertaining about American political discourse, but not when we’re one major bankruptcy away from hundreds of people running around with sandwich boards proclaiming “This Is the End.” My NPR is filled with stories about the recession, my governor displayed his patriotism by suggesting 20 million Texans should no longer be Americans, and I’m steering a business through extremely uncertain waters. These times require hard, and probably frustrating and taxing levels of work, and quite frankly, I think we all need something a little bit stronger than tea to take us through it. 

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