Tea Party Questions

Tea Party Questions
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Feb 14, 2010

Last week at the end of one of my classes at the university, Andrew, a student, came up to talk to me. He said he was very upset with me, not because of anything in class, but because of something I had written in this column. Since early fall Andrew and I have been discussing ideas. We frequently disagree. But I had never seen him quite so agitated.

He said he was furious that I had used a derogatory term, “Tea baggers,” to talk about the national tea party movement. He pointed out that I should be among the first to object to dehumanizing language used against most people, but that I seemed to have no problem using it against people with whom I disagreed. It was my hypocrisy as much as my use of the term that angered him.

I immediately apologized. I hadn’t realized that the phrase was considered insulting. Now I know and I won’t use it again.

Andrew has been much on my mind as I have been reading and thinking about the first National Tea Party Convention held this past weekend in Nashville, Tennessee. Over 600 delegates gathered to share ideas and develop political strategies. Andrew was one of them.

I do not believe he went to this convention to hear former Colorado Representative, Tom Tancredo, advocate literacy testing. Nor do I think he went because he has hopes that Sarah Palin will run for president. I think he went because he believes President Obama is taking the country in the wrong direction. So do I. But I also think he went because he believes that our country is facing a crisis.

Like many of us in the progressive movement, Andrew recognizes that our democracy has become brittle and empty. Neither Republicans nor Democrats seem capable of using the existing political processes to solve problems or to better the lives of the average person. Instead we see a government dominated by big businesses, a Senate that has become a mockery of decision-making, and a military that saps our national wealth as it is sent around the globe to protect corporate interests. We see local businesses closing down, jobs moved overseas, and a citizenry that thinks voting is all that is required of it every four years or so.

While Andrew and I have often disagreed on specific causes and implications, we both agree that we are in a dangerous time and that politics has to be reinvented if we are to create a meaningful democracy.

Most commentators have not understood either the depth of the crisis we face or the newly-emerging political alliances that reject the easy definitions of the past. Much of the media has focused on the superficial questions of who is leading the tea party movement or whether it will be a tool of the Republican Party. Others have rightly criticized the blatant racism of the most extreme elements in the movement.

But few have asked what motivates someone like Andrew to attend?

In the early 1980’s, as rightwing movements were flourishing, Rabbi Michael Lerner challenged progressives to engage in dialogue with people who attended their rallies. He argued that we could not allow concepts of Flag, Faith and Family to become the province of rightwing activists. He urged us to find ways to engage with one another across political lines to find common values and to develop a new politics of meaning.

The advice of the good Rabbi is even more important for us today. Whatever else the tea party convention is or is not, it is the one place this year where people are consciously calling on the tradition of the American Revolution. We need to find ways to talk together not only about what the next Revolution is against, but what it should be for.



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