Open Letter to the Tea Party
I’m not a member of Occupy Wall Street. I’m in my forties, too old to sleep on granite or subsist on hummus. I also can’t stand mass chanting or drum circles or people with tattoos and religions appropriated from peoples their own ancestors exterminated. But I am in sympathy with their cause, and I spend a lot of time down at Zucotti Park, and offer the protesters material support. Once I brought a bag of really good cheeseburgers, and a Cincinnati forklift operator who’d been living off veggie burgers and bean sprouts for a week actually hugged me. But what worries me most about the Occupy Wall Street protests is that, despite the presence of forklift operators, schoolteachers, hardhats, grandmothers and monks, it is mostly the usual leftie suspects. Students and intellectuals have always formed the core of revolutionary movements, but they never really get off the ground until working people join in with them. And Occupy Wall Street will keep being dismissed as a joke and a sideshow until Middle America joins in. I hate to say it, but we need the Tea Party.
The Tea Party formed when a critical mass of fiscal conservatives decided that the Republican party had abandoned its core principles of fiscal responsibility. Occupy Wall Street formed for the same reason the Tea Party did: because we progressives lost any confidence that the Democratic party was ever going to change anything or that President Obama meant a single thing he said. You were good Americans, true believers in the system, and you did everything you’re supposed to do in a representative democracy: you got organized, formed a party, ran candidates, and won elections. To paraphrase Sarah Palin, how’s that working out for you? Because it looks to me like your spontaneous grassroots movement somehow got coöpted by the same people you were rebelling against. We learned from your example that working within the system was a rigged game, one that citizens were always going to lose. So we’re not issuing formal demands that authorities can appropriate or compromise, and any politician who claims to be in sympathy with us is immediately denounced as an opportunist and a liar. And as a result no one in power, or the media, quite knows what to make of us.
Maybe you’re seen videos of protesters at the Occupy Wall Street defecating on police cars, or read reports of them fornicating in semipublic, and gotten the impression that they’re all anarchists, hippies, barbarians and clowns. Have I seen people at the protests I was embarrassed to be associated with? I sure have. I’ve seen semi-feral dreadlocked hippies who thought drumming 24 hours a day was not only helpful but necessary, people who were strident, shrill, irritating and silly, people whose mental illness was disguised as ideology. (There is exactly one guy with an anti-Zionist sign down at Zuccotti Park, but there’s also a guy who stands next to him at all times with a sign telling the world what we think of that first guy, with an arrow pointing at him.) But perhaps, if you’ll think back honestly, you can remember seeing people at Tea Party rallies who made you uncomfortable—people whose motives seemed to be muddied up with fear, hatred, racism, or crackpot philosophies you just didn’t hold with.
I’d also ask you to reflect for a moment on where you saw those videos or read those reports. Perhaps you still recall how the media made the Tea Party look like a bunch of ignorant dingbats and bigots, and how angry it made you to be so unfairly caricatured. You might want to ask yourself whether it’s possible they’re doing exactly the same thing to Occupy Wall Street now, and whose interests it serves, exactly, to marginalize any political movements that threaten the status quo, to divide left and right and pit us endlessly against one another.
The only consensus in this country, the one thing absolutely no one on any side will dispute, is that things are fucked up, and no one in power seems to be even trying to do anything to fix them. It seems to me the main difference between conservatives and liberals anymore is that you blame The Government and we blame Corporations. It’s past time we noticed that those two antagonists are literally the same people. They’re frat brothers and golf buddies and they go back and forth from corporate boards to government regulatory agencies and back. Wall Street donates money to political campaigns so that the government will use our tax money to bail them out when they cheat and make bad gambles and crash the economy. Meanwhile we’re distracted fighting among ourselves, having the political equivalent of the “Tastes great!/Less filling!” debate.
Look: I’m not pretending to like you, and I don’t expect you to pretend to like me. (Although actually I am friends with a Tea Party cartoonist, and believe it or not fell in love with a libertarian Republican.) We have radically different ideas about the kind of country we want this to be. Me and my friends want something like Canada with better weather; as near as I can tell, you want something more like the old West before the Federalés came in with their rules and red tape and ruined everything. But we also have a lot in common, if you think about it; we’re both considered “extremists” for fighting for what seems to us like common sense and decency; and we both care passionately about what kind of country we want to live in. We certainly have more in common with each other than we do with those dull-eyed consumers who are completely disengaged from politics and just sit home watching TiVo and playing xBox. The problem is, we’re not even going to get to fight it out fairly among ourselves, because neither of us is allowed a say in government. Money in politics is the problem that keeps all other problems, and itself, from getting fixed.
So you can go on sneering at all those smelly, spoiled little trust-fund hippies whining for a handout, and we can go on shaking our heads at all you obese suburban rednecks who’re too dumb to know when you’ve been swindled, and in a few weeks it’ll get cold and the protests will dwindle or disperse, or the national media will just get distracted by some other, shinier story, and we’ll all forget this ever happened and go back to business as usual. If business as usual is what you want.
I always loved that old Revolutionary War flag, DON’T TREAD ON ME; I used to fly it from my beach at my 4th of July parties, and I have to admit it kind of irked me when you guys appropriated it as your own standard. But we’re all the heirs to that Revolution, and we all have the right to that flag. Of course you don’t want the government treading on you; the real question in a democracy is, what do you do when you see them treading on someone else? Someone you don’t agree with, or even much like? Do you stand on the sidelines and cheer the treading? Or do you reluctantly stand up and say, “Sorry— ‘fraid we can’t let you do that”? Come on: we’re all Americans; we all watched the same movies growing up, and we all know how you’re supposed to act. Even Darth Vader couldn’t stand by and watch his evil chortling master destroy his own flesh and blood. In the end he broke free of his thrall, summoned his giant’s strength, and threw that nasty, withered old man down a reactor shaft.
We need your help. We cannot do this without you. Together we can form that invincible coalition that the American political philosopher Charles Daniels called “the cowboys and the hippies, the rebels and the yanks.” Join us. And bring some decent food. Hot wings would be nice.