On April 15, more than 250,000 people attended "tea parties" in 346 American cities. In the East Bay, events were held in Oakland, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Antioch, Danville, and Pleasanton. The size of the crowds varied from a scant 30 in Richmond and 50 in Oakland to nearly 2,000 in Pleasanton.
Much about the rallies was ridiculous and deliciously easy to make fun of. Many took advantage. Nancy Pelosi had a great line in an interview on KUTV, saying that the participants were not part of the grass roots but rather "Astroturf." MSNBC's liberal dream team, Olberman and Maddow, exploited the rallies' tea-bagging image to hilarious erotic effect. Marc Cooper wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the "recipe" for those attending the rallies was to "go to a hobby store. Buy a model UN One-World-Government Black Helicopter and a tube of glue. Toss the model kit. Sniff the entire tube of glue. You're all set for the party."
Some rally rhetoric was certainly disjointed or nonsensical. Politicians who voted for earmarks excoriated them. Supporters of the Bush deficits, the largest in our lifetimes, complained about government spending and Obama deficits. It was impossible to stitch the tea baggers' themes up into any coherent whole.
Meanwhile, those whose job it is to deliver the electorate to the handmaidens of torture and tax cuts for the wealthy lauded the day, as was to be expected. Their ideological king, Karl Rove, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "Derided by elitists as phony, the tea-party movement is spontaneous (and) decentralized." What a hoot! As the web site ThinkProgress.org documented, the principal organizers of the local tea-party events were the well-funded right-wing think tanks Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works.
But while the rallies would never have happened without the money of the swift-boat crowd and the constant drumbeat and organizing of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, they were not insignificant. For one thing, they showed the power of the far-right's house organs. In every town in the nation, you can get right-wing talk radio and listen to the lies of Fox News. Like it or not, they are influential. It is significant that these mouthpieces can get people into the streets in 346 cities. True believers will respond to these calls given the penetration of this form of media. Maybe progressive Twittering will catch up, but I am not so sure.
Although the message was confused and the protesters a bit sad, the psychological reasons they hit the streets are important, and say much about one group's reaction to our current world. It was not "collective insanity" as Cooper wrote in the Times. Many were reacting to a palpable sense that things are going very wrong. This is a feeling that permeates our society today and most of us share. It is an especially uncomfortable place for Marlboro men and women. The demonstrators realize subconsciously that they are impotent in their ability to respond to these feelings. This is not the American Dream that they had been promised by Rove and Howard Jarvis. Like an unwinding clock spring, this sentiment will spasmodically arise again and again over the next generation.
The people at these rallies are scared. And why shouldn't they be? We are constantly assaulted with fear. Chronic fear, like stress, takes its toll. The constant drumbeat of the war on terror, claims that our kids are dangerously seduced by the Internet, and reports such as the recent one that someone has hacked into the software governing our nation's electric grid and water system are hard to ignore. Add these atop more rational fears such as global warming, bad things in our food and water, and dangers on the streets of the East Bay. And now, on top of all of the above, we have an overarching fear for our economic lives. For the first time in years, a majority of not-yet-retired Americans told Gallup pollsters that they do not anticipate having enough money to retire "comfortably." It is scary to think about having to hustle for food and shelter when you are old. Many people thought such a fear was a thing of the past. And the future looks compromised for the next generation. "Bring your kids and experience history," Beck said on Fox News. "Our kids are being sold into slavery."
I don't know about slavery, but I think we can all agree that we are leaving a mess for future generations. But the reason for this is not high taxes but a system that favors a short-term time horizon dominated by greed. There is a contradiction today between the time horizon of individuals and the time horizon of humanity. Global warming and huge budget deficits, for example, may only severely affect the young and unborn. Caring only for ourselves as individuals and not for humanity as a whole allows scant concern for these future affects.
Many people worry about the lives of their grandchildren, given the state of the world. These progressive sentiments contain the seeds of opposition to our system. Such emotions, which oppose a rivalry between individual time and species time, reflect an important caring for the collective, even when they are misused by troglodytes like Beck.
But at least the tea-party attendees got into the streets to express their concern. One wonders where their critics were. Certainly many are giving Obama a pass, given what we have lived through in the last eight years. Yet why are the ridiculers not protesting Obama putting the same guys in charge of the economy who got us into this mess in the first place? Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz recently observed that the people who designed the bank bailouts are "either in the pocket of the banks or they're incompetent." The Wall Street royalty may have been thinned, but it remains in charge. The tea baggers recognize this.
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