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June 21, 2010

Wrong Turn

By Gene Altshuler

The Tea party movement is not new, it is simply a cyclical return to popularism which has been with us for centuries. From the Awakening in 18th centurary England and New england, to Andrew Jackson and Daniel Boon, the Scopes Trial in 1923, to the McCarty era in the 1950's the cycle continues.

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Tis the times' plague when madmen lead the blind - William Shakespeare.

"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years extreme right-wingers"have demonstrated how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind this is a style of mind that is far from new and is not necessarily right wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy I have in mind."

"The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant."

Richard Hofstadter wrote these words over half a century ago when he referred to the dangers of an aggrieved right-wing minority with the power to create "a political climate in which the rational pursuit of our well-being and safety would become impossible."

While much has been written about the current political paranoia, the Tea Party movement, it is clearly the expression of the most disaffected people in our society, people who fervently believe that something is wrong with our country.

While there ha always been disaffection from political administrations or religious movements (Jesus was himself expressing disaffection with the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the ancient Jewish nation), for the most part spokespersons for earlier movements believed that they stood for causes and were fending off threats to an established way of life. However, the modern right wing Neocons feel disaffected in a different way, believing that the United States has already been taken away from them and their kind (thus the cry "I want my country back").  And they are determined to take it back, some even by violent means.

That history repeats itself is a given. Sure the details may be a bit different with each repetition but the overall effect is eerily the same. Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1962 (in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life) that, "Malignant and vindictive passions often arise when an aggrieved minority believes that America has been largely taken away from them and their kind. They are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion."

The Tea Party movement hankers for a return to a fantasy world, much as the fundamentalist Muslims would like to return to a 14th century caliphate. They long for a world where Wall Street and corporate greed has not replaced the old fashion virtues of the Protestant ethic, where competitive capitalism is in place and people pay their own way, and national security and individual freedoms have not been undermined by socialistic and communist schemers.

But we can go further back than the 1960s for parallels to the current Tea Party movement. This current disaffection is strikingly reminiscent of the English religious reformers in the 1600s that were convinced that the Protestant reformation had not gone far enough. They formed numerous rump religions such as the Seekers, Ranters and Millennarians who, what ever their doctrinaire differences, were all characterized by the appeal to emotion at the expense of reason. This movement spread to the United States and became the seed of fundamental Evangelicalism.

Led by virtually uneducated lay leaders, unlike the highly educated ministers of the established churches, they were initially embraced by the mainstream ministers because they evoked passion in the masses. Just as the mainstream Republican Party has not quite made up its mind whether to embrace or dismiss the Movement, but are not reluctant to use it, they would do well to remember that it was only after the Awakening was well under way that the mainstream ministers began to realize that the awakeners did not regard them as fellow workers in a common spiritual (read this today as political) task but as competitors and very inferior ones at that.

With the murder of Dr. George Tiller, (which many attribute to the inflammatory rhetoric from the far right media pundits such as Bill O'Reilly repeating over and over "Tiller the baby killer"), we are seeing the emergence of an increasingly violent fringe who are not satisfied simply with carrying signs, yelling and throwing money in the face of a counter protester with Parkinson's disease. It is in this world of spin that speculation, conjecture or pure and simple falsehoods are made into fact by dint of constant repetition.

The recent arrest of the militant Christian group the Hutarees reminds us that in the heat of the moment, such people earnestly believed they are justified in their violence. Timothy McVey, Ted Kaszinski and Scott Roeder are three that come to mind. "Such is the human capacity for intoxication by those malignant and vindictive political passions," said Chief Justice Marshall.

As Hofstadter went on to say: "Tumbrels have rolled through taunting crowds. Broken glass has sparkled in darkened streets. Strange fruit has hung from Southern trees." Opposition will always exist in social and political discourse. The problem is that when certain people feel that they are losing the argument they turn to violent means to accomplish their aims.

This brings up, yet again, the fine line between a justified revolution and terrorism. The difference, President Ronald Reagan said, is that "Freedom fighters do not need to terrorize a population into submission. Freedom fighters target the military forces and the organized instruments of repression keeping dictatorial regimes in power. Freedom fighters struggle to liberate their citizens from oppression and to establish a form of government that reflects the will of the people."

More importantly, this mindset is not limited to the Tea Party folks, for the congressional leaders of the GOP are actually espousing the idea that the minority party represents the "will of the people" (not some of the people mind you, but "the people") and this is the seedling of a totalitarian mindset. In this mindset democracy doesn't matter, ideas are not to be discussed, and opposing views are not to respected. What matters is that they alone have truth. They alone are metaphysically connected to the "mind of the people" and thus can interpret their will. And because they have truth and speak for the people, others represent a threat and must be silenced.

I am reminded every day that, "stupidity is a condition, ignorance is a choice." And only political paranoia can explain the ignorance portrayed by the Tea Party movement. But what is most disturbing is that the Movement people proudly display their ignorance. They embrace the Republican Party as the panacea to the perceived excesses of the Obama administration. However, the GOP has not even minimally acted as a partner in governing our country but has been obstructionist in the extreme. Instead of playing the role of loyal opposition they have cast themselves as the political enemy of the Democrats.

The only counter to this is an educated populace who can think critically about the seemingly cogent mouthings of the cranks and wackos those with a big megaphone offered by the Internet and cable news who seek celebrity and lucre at the expense of our national sanity and well-being. Thus education is not only the best investment we can make in our future it is necessary if we are, as a nation, to have a future.



Authors Bio:
Retired as a Partner in Charge of Advanced Information Technology from KPMG Peat Marwick.

Serves as Finance Chair of the El Dorado County Central Committee in northern California and a delegate to the California Democratic Party.

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