That’s the assertion made by Ben McGrath in the latest issue of the New Yorker. I’m not a usual reader of that magazine but it was staring at me in my local Borders and I thought this might challenge some closely held assumptions I have about the movement. McGrath says “Liberals saw the activists as caricatures–mere tools of right wing media figures like Glen Beck. They were wrong.”
My big mistake was in assuming McGrath was going to counter that perception with an eye-popping demonstration that the tea-party movement had a core of intelligent, thoughtful people who understood how their government worked, a coherent vision of the country they wanted and some sort of plan of how to get there.
McGrath’s sole piece of information about the relative unimportance of figures like Beck seems to revolve around his observation of a tea-party meeting he went to where they had Beck’s TV show on in the background and no one was paying particular attention because everyone was talking amongst themselves. Hardly convincing but also irrelevant.
The portraits McGrath paint of the tea-party members largely conforms to their portrayal in the media (and those pre-conceived notions I have) of anti-intellectuals, conspiracy theorists, radical libertarians, and the generally ignorant. Now, allow me to make a big qualification regarding my previous statement. Just because someone adheres to unrealistic, misinformed or bizarre theories about their government does not mean these people can not be fully functioning members of society. I see no contradiction in the fact that people can have significant intelligence or education in one field and be totally ignorant in another.
The thing about the tea-partiers that drives me up a wall isn’t their specific positions but rather their hostility to facts and the possibility that alternate explanations exist to their world view. Look, we all have cherished beliefs that resist argument but most of us at least claim to be open to new information. And while the tea-partiers are certainly not alone (there are more than enough of this ilk on the left, right and fringe) it’s the glee with which they seem to reject anything that can’t fit on a bumper sticker or can’t be shouted at a rally. The world IS black or white. Everyone IS qualified to run the largest, most complex nation in the world. Education beyond high school is worthless and potentially subversive.
This is how you can have people believe we need more spending on defense, no cuts in entitlements AND significant reductions in spending while drastically cutting taxes.
And so, for example, I recently received an email (spoiler alert: it begins FWD:FWD:FWD:FWD) with a story allegedly by the AP (with a note in front declaring: Look! This isn’t from some right wing blog, it’s the AP so it must be true!) claiming that Obama applied for tuition assistance in college as a foreign student and the supreme court was going to ‘look into it’. The implication being that this (finally!) was the proof that Obama wasn’t a real citizen and America was finally going to get justice. Now, a simple google search reveals the story is a hoax (unless the President pressured the AP and the intranets to remove all traces of the story!) and I replied back to the sender (unfortunately, a relative) that any idiot can type the letters ‘A’ and ‘P’ in front of any sort of paranoid blatherings but that doesn’t make it true. Sure enough, however, I got a reply explaining that Obama’s calling out of the Supreme Court at the State of the Union was troubling and it’s timing certainly wasn’t coincidental. In short, he interpreted Obama’s comments as some sort of threat or warning to the Supreme Court not to ask too many questions.
How does one counter that? The fact that the Supreme Court is not an investigative body (there ain’t no CSI:Supreme Court) or that his whole premise is based on a hoax (which he no longer discusses and might, if pressed, reject but still has internalized to such a degree that his interpretation of events requires it to be true) or any number of other holes in that fantasy.
And yet, this isn’t a dumb guy (well, except for his constant badgering of me to buy property throughout 2005 and 2006: ‘Real estate will ALWAYS go up in value! You’re a fool if you don’t buy now. Don’t worry about acquiring debt, just get some money and BUY!’ heh…). He’s been very successful and leads a comfortable life and is fairly well adjusted socially (probably better than me if truth be told). And, at the same time, is absolutely convinced that we are hurtling headlong towards becoming a Stalinist state and not by accident but rather by design.
So great. McGrath lays out a semi-convincing case that Glen Beck hasn’t surgically implanted mind control devices into millions of Americans and turned them into mindless drones. Wow. Way to go out on a journalistic limb and catch a nice red herring. But perhaps I’m being too hard on McGrath. I suspect there is nothing really ‘there’ to the Tea Party Movement. Yes, a lot of people are angry. The world is changing fast and they don’t like it. They want to return to some golden age that never really existed (whether in the 18th century or the 1980s) and their group is so fractured even if they were given the keys to the asylum they would almost immediately devolve into factional fighting and the contradictions of their positions (both stated and unarticulated) would destroy them.