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Friday, September 3, 2010

Tea Party 8/28

Towards the end of Glenn Beck’s 200-minute mega-church-style “rally”/sermon “Restoring Honor” — as bagpipes blared an ill-advised version of “Amazing Grace” and cameras searched the crowd for those swept away in a patriotic frenzy — they stopped on an elderly man dressed on one of those folded yellow hats so popular at Tea Party gatherings (the “1776 Clothing Company” was doing brisk business handing out cardboard fans). Seeing himself on the big-screen, he about-faced, slowly saluted in a I’ll-never-stop-serving-you-Old-Glory gesture, then returned to singing along. It was as schticky and corny a gesture of Americana as any cynical TV director could’ve hoped for, and it worked: what Gawker dubbed with cruel but acute concision dubbed “America-porn for the elderly in lawnchairs” succeeded in squandering one of the biggest Washington D.C. gatherings in recent memory. The masses (or maybe just media train-wreck watchers) wanted fire and revolution: Beck gave them nearly three-and-a-half hours of Jesus and gospel.

The Tea Party’s vaguely libertarian gobbledy-gook is familiar to me having grown up in Austin, where you can pick up Lyndon LaRouche’s newspaper at Whole Foods; Austin’s famously liberal, but my dad’s medical office was full of the elderly, peeved and well-armored, so I’ve been fascinated by this stuff for years, and really didn’t want to miss Beck’s second big march upon Washington. The first was galling in its effrontery: using a march the day after 9/11 to ostensibly “reunite the country” under the guise of Chicken-Soup-ish “9/12” values, while in fact effectively serving anti-Obama/taxation notice under the guise of extreme patriotism. For this year’s follow-up, Beck chose another loaded date — 8/28, the day 47 years ago of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, a connection that promised to be all kinds of offensive. It was, instead, a dilution of the previous year’s questionable content, if not the size: estimates vary between 300- and 500,000 attendees, but no matter how you count it the share scale of the gathering was impressive. And wasted.

Sarah Palin was billed to speak as the biggest attraction after Beck, though in truth she came and left early without leaving much of a mark. The proceedings were Beck’s to ringmaster, and consciously modeled on a mega-church ceremony: long, with an endless closing sermon, gospel interruptions, would-be-flashy videos and lots of Jesus. If an observer with no knowledge of the Tea Party or any of the speakers were dropped in, he wouldn’t see anything that alarming: the ceremony was — with a few notable exceptions — apolitical and sappily religious, the kind of thing that should cause no one alarm. But context is everything, of course, and the racial dialogue (among other things) playing out onstage was more than perverse enough to compel attention.

The birth-certificate loons have mostly subsided; these days, we have new code words to talk around race, in the same way that “urban market” means “black.” The big Tea Party buzzwords for now circle around “judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin” — which means, in fact, that we should immediately all concede that we’ve finally achieved a post-racial society, and that anyone who claims otherwise is just self-servingly trying to start trouble, and everything’s cool except that the Democratic Party is keeping black people enslaved to a welfare nation. Or something.

It’s worth conceding, of course, that while the crowd was almost to-a-man white, the Tea Party as a whole — fringe types with straight-up apocalyptically paranoid signs aside — isn’t really into racism per se; what they’re worried about, as Christopher Hitchens correctly pointed out, is learning to live in an America where Anglos are the minority, because they suspect all minorities still secretly hate them and are just waiting for the chance to rise up. (See also: the ridiculous handwringing about whether or not Machete will incite riots and racial violence, when not even Do The Right Thing made that happen.) Not for nothing do Tea Party attendees tend to be past the half-life stage; they may not be racist, but they remember enough of their parents’ oft-dubious mores, and it leaves them concerned. That’s not say that they’re racist in any meaningful way, just that what they’re concerned about preserving (“white culture”) is pretty much of no interest to many people.

Let’s give them this: the crowd was overwhelmingly polite, never once even remotely threatening. The first 80 minutes or so unfolded in more-or-less rapt silence; as things dragged along, talk turned to the incredibly foul lavatories and people exchanging contact info, but never once did incivility rear its head, despite shirts depicting the eagle of justice sharpening its talons. In the same way you could argue video games let people get their violent energies out harmlessly, it’s possible to argue that Beck’s rallies serve some kind of useful cathartic outlet, plus money for local restaurants and businesses. This will my last concession to attempted fair-mindedness.

After a brief opener from Beck, there was a woman who spoke of how proud she was when her son died in the Marine Corps (first on-stage crying: 28 minutes in) and, after a series of intermediary speakers (and a shameless attempt to get everyone to text a $10 donation right then and there, thereby marking the first of the rally’s overt ambitions to “make history” out of the sheer numbers), Sarah Palin finally arrived. True to her reputation as anything but a team player, Ms. Palin struck the only contentious notes of the day, making a passing (and frankly weak) jab at “certain people” who believe we need to have “elemental transformation” in this country, rather than “restoration.”

What she meant was unclear, and would only be clarified as the rally wore on; Beck uses repetition and microcosmic definition expansions with the droning effectiveness of a particularly boring but inexplicably hypnotic lawyer. For now the only thing that’s clear is that Palin’s entering her Stephen Malkmus period, blurting out words with endlessly random emphases and weird starts and stops, never once becoming predictable. Palin awarded badges of merit dating back to Vietnam (in passing invoking John McCain to tepid audience applause), then was on her way.

Then came another chintzy video to introduce Beck’s most self-serving idea yet: presenting “civilian purple hearts,” effectively demeaning the entire military (and the idea of military tradition as still retaining meaning no matter who the country’s at war with) he claims to celebrate. Megachurch pastor C.L. Jackson, upon receiving his, immediately noted that he’d been at the 1963 rally and that Beck was eminently in the lineage, and that he personally considered him a “son of God,” thereby settling all racial unease definitively, once and for all. But just in case that wasn’t true, there was another hour of “Hey look! Minorities!” to prove it.

First, though, there was Tony LaRusso, the first non-Palin speaker to attract a real reaction from the crowd; St. Louis Cardinals fans were in evidence, and were just as pleased to see him as they were to see the great Albert Pujols, who spoke (naturally) of his love of Jesus. LaRusso and Pujols recently publicly disagreed over the Arizona immigration law; neither seemed to fully understand the implications of where they were speaking. (Pujols seemed to think he’d received a legitimate award, proceeding to thank people that had gotten him to this point in his life.) The award was for “hope,” though it seemed to qualify more for “faith,” but also for plain sports enthusaism; all LaRusso really seemed to say was that Pujols has a hell of a work ethic, which is almost certainly true.

After one more unnotable award (awarded by proxy), there followed, basically, a gospel hour, beginning with the awful Alveda King. She’s a niece of MLK and the right’s go-to for “See? Even one member of the King family agrees with us!” King’s books have titles like “How Can the Dream Survive If We Murder the Children?: ABORTION IS NOT A CIVIL RIGHT!,” endorsed Steve Forbes in 2000, works with Priests For Life, and is generally a terrible person. She made a majestically offensive speech directly connecting the tradition of King with the tradition of Beck and speaking of the need for unity, while simultaneously decrying abortion and gay marriage — a point subsequently hammered home by the young woman who sang a song about the same subject (“Unity/you and me”). Beck rallies have absolutely the worst, most maudlin, didactic political songs you’ve ever heard in your life, comparable in plausibility to those ‘80s Wendy’s training videos. Not that anyone expects great music at political rallies, but at least John Rich’s Christmas special appearance (where he played a song [skip to about 3:45] about his grandfather’s WWII experience called “The Man,” featuring the priceless chorus lines “Cuz we’d all be speaking German under the flag of Japan/if it weren’t for the man and Uncle Sam”) was legitimately offensive.

After yet another video directly linking Beck to MLK (dissolving from the memorial then to it even more filled up today), we then proceeded through what must’ve been an hour or more of Beck just speaking, at endless and tedious length, about faith/hope/charity, the importance of Jesus, ad nauseam. The only time, in fact, that he alluded to the conspiracy theories that constitute his stock in trade, was when comparing himself to the first guy on the Titanic to spot the iceberg. He wasn’t kidding. (Aside: the worst thing about Tea Partiers is that they're convinced that they're all incredibly well-educated and any kind of argument you shoot back, no matter how empirical, is just more of your liberal brainwashing shining through. You can't argue with someone who knows everything.)

This all went on forever and ever until, eventually, the whole thing came to a tasteless coup de grace with the aforementioned bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace,” of which he less said the better. The Tea Party effectively had a chance to scare the hell out of people with the prospect of angry, unarmed (“next time”) people coming together in the nation’s capitol to wreak all kinds of havoc, then put their best public face forward to say “Look, we’re really not that scary.” That is, if you didn’t know Glenn Beck was famous largely for peddling conspiracy theories that make Oliver Stone look like a paragon of restraint — convoluted tangles explaining how Theodor Adorno and Karl Marx tried to destroy America, or something — you wouldn’t object to his mild brand of American exceptionalism. It’s stupid but not evil to insist that America is, in fact, not the victim of changing economic tides, and that we can be exceptional if we just think so (as opposed to acknowledging changing economic realities and sucking them up) — but that’s not how Beck got big.

Or perhaps you didn’t know that Alveda King — the people’s champ! — has written things in her (self-published!) books like “Many women become bitter, hurt and disillusioned by relationships and life circumstances to such a point that they forget that their dreams ever existed. As a result, many women become lesbians, prostitutes, drug addicts, or other such courses in life." And so on and so on, all the way down the line (except for Mr. Pujols, who I exempt from blame). Once you have the context, it’s all very unpleasant: white Americans coming together to celebrate not paying their taxes as an issue worth taking up arms for.

When we were walking up to the Monument, my friend joked “It’s our generation’s Woodstock!” The Tea Party, of course, doesn’t do irony, and a guy in earshot responded “It’s gonna be even better than Woodstock!” Hating Woodstock is a very big deal for Tea Partiers; it symbolizes, for them, everything obnoxious and horrible about liberals and hippies and self-indulgence. (Which, honestly, I can sympathize with.) And if that was “revolutionary” — and if this kind of gathering is as well, which seems to be the whole point — then this is the first revolution in history to be conducted by people largely aged 40 and up. For people who really hated the ‘60s and lived through it (or the fallout), this is their chance to unironically pine for the ‘50s; it’s being reactionary as revolution. Which obviously is a load of crap.

It ended, then, with Beck calling for the people to go forth from this day, infected with the spirit of Christian humility and American exceptionalism and change the world. This won’t happen, for a simple reason: if you were, say, a principled hardcore Libertarian with all the atheistic tendencies that generally includes, you wouldn’t be happy. The rally brought together all the anti-taxes crowd — but that’s all they can agree on, and frankly in the overall scheme of things Glenn Beck’s legacy will sway less electoral votes than Ross Perot ever did. And that’s just embarrassing, but also an admitted relief.

9 comments:

  1. Fantastic read, Vadim. Thanks for taking the bullet.

    In the past week I've been snared into three "Can you explain Glenn Beck..." discussions with Berliners.

    Permanently bookmarked -- Just in case I ever need a reminder of why I left the US.

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  2. my favorite part: they are the anti-tax crowd attending a rally in a city that is taxed nearly 10 percent on every purchase.

    bluntly put: lol irony.

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  3. Please, please, please, use this article to get a book deal.

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  4. try going to an SEIU rally sometime, Vadim. Groupthink, the utter lack of self-critical analysis/awareness, and general dimwittedness isn't exactly monopolized by the right.

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  5. Great read, Vadim. Your Tea Party rally was a lot calmer than the one I went to in Ohio. First, these people swarmed me like zombies, trying to get me on camera ("Ooh! A colored person at our rally!") so they could prove they weren't all racists. Of course, some of these people were holding incredibly racist signs as they approached me. Then, one guy accused me (correctly) of voting for Obama. He looked like Uncle Jesse from The Dukes of Hazzard. I had to leave after 15 minutes, for fear I'd kill somebody, or at the very least, take out my red teacher's pen and start correcting all their damn signs. I would have gotten Carpal Tunnel Syndrome just from doing that.

    I also appreciate you calling Alveda King out for the horrible waste of time she is.

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