November 21, 2010

The Tea Party's white past

Is the Tea Party racist? I think so, though I suspect for most of them they don't even realize that they are racist. It is buried in their subconscious, and only the fact that their President is now a dark skinned man has brought it out. And even then, it isn't at the surface for so many.

But the racism is there. It is there in a high school acquaintance of mine who shocked me on Facebook by saying that we should absolutely not send money to Haiti, since they weren't grateful for it anyway. And in so many other ways.

But I am working my way through Jill Lepore's The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the battle over American History and enjoying it immensely. Lepore moves nicely between the past and the present, and along the way, reminds me of a lot of things I had forgotten and teaches me some things I didn't know. For example, I am reminded in her book that Robert Bork was the guy who agreed to fired Archibald Cox, and that conservatives considered him a great mind worthy of the Supreme Court.

But Lepore makes some very good historical linkages that, as a specialist in the post Civil War, I had simply forgotten. Those early Tea Partiers and revolutionaries were battling within themselves over that great American sin: slavery. In fact, there were movements to abolish slavery at the time, and the first Tea Party had to decide whether to fight that battle then, or lose the South in the fight against the British. They chose, of course, to unite against the British. Samuel Johnson, the British writer, noted the incongruity when he sarcastically asked "how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"

Lepore, however, notes that the modern Tea Party sees none of this nuance and conflict.
But it wasn't the whiteness of the Tea Party that I found most striking. It was the whiteness of their Revolution. The founding Fathers were the whites of their eyes, a fantasy of an America before race, without race. There were very few black people in the Tea Party, but there are no black people at all in the Tea Party's eighteenth century. Nor for that matter, were there any women, aside from Abigail Adams, and no slavery, poverty, ignorance, insanity, sickness or misery. Nor was there any art, literature, sex, pleasure or humor. There were only the Founding Fathers with their white wigs, wearing their three-cornered hats, in their Christian nation, revolting against taxes, and defending their right to bear arms.
To a certain degree, Lepore sees the historical profession at fault for this. Historians are often criticized for writing only for other historians, and avoiding the broad narrative in favor of the issues of race, class and gender, and to a degree, rightly so.

But as Lepore notes, that criticism comes from inside the profession as well, and that fact alone reveals the difference between the Tea Party's non-history and the rational world.
Scholars criticize and argue--and must, and can--because scholars share a common set of ideas about how to argue, and what counts as evidence. But the far right's American history--its antihistory--existed outside of argument and had no interest in evidence. It was as much a fiction as the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, reductive, unitary, and, finally, dangerously antipluralist. It erased slavery from American history and compressed a quarter century of political contest into "the founding," as if ideas worked out, over decades of debate and fierce disagreement, were held by everyone, from the start. "Who's your favorite Founder?" Glenn Beck asked Sarah Palin. "Um, you know, well," she said. "All of them."

There was though, something heartbreaking in all this. Behind the Tea Party's Revolution lay nostalgia for an imagined time--the 1950s, maybe, of the 1940s--less riven by strife, less troubled by conflict, less riddled with ambiguity, less divided by race. In that nostalgia was the remembrance of childhood, a yearning for a common past, bulwark against a divided present, comfort against an uncertain future." (96-97)
Lepore says it better than I ever could, but I always find this kind of Disney history sad. The past is so complex and so interesting and this rewriting blanches it into nothingness, and turns complicated people into cardboard figures. And when they then base public policy on that fake past, then we all lose.


Bob said...

It is pretty hard to expect today's Tea Party to get the past right, when they struggle with getting the facts of the present right.

Just last week I overheard a tea party-type saying that he had not received any tax benefits as a result of the stimulus bill. If he had a clue, he would realize that his check got a bit fatter as a result of the $800 increase in the individual, married deduction as well as others.

"Keep government out of my medicare" anyone?

Bob said...

Oh, and that tea party guy works for state government.

Elaine said...

America is divided more now than at any time in my life, and I am in my sixties. We have too many differences to ever be united. Our goals are too different. Our morals are too different. Our differences cannot be reconciled. Groups of us are united, more or less, but no unity as a whole country will ever happen. Whoever said there is strength in diversity was wrong.

Streak said...

Love how the Tea Party people take their checks from the government. :)

Elaine, I don't disagree completely, but don't completely agree that it is diversity or even morals. I am quite liberal but think that my morals are quite close to those of my conservative Christian friends. At least one of the issues that divides us now are the basic facts. When one side gets their information from Fox and has no concern for actual facts, then we can't find a good common ground. And, as this post suggests, since the Tea Party makes up its own version of history, it is hard to find common ground.

We can still disagree over the facts, but at least we should start with those.

Anonymous said...


The more I have thought about the political debates of the last year, the more I am convinced of the racist/racialist underpinnings of the Tea Party movement as well. Think back to Glenn Beck's horrid rally in Washington, D.C. He claimed he wanted to "take back the Civil Rights Movement." Well, from whom exactly is he taking back the Civil Rights Movement? The African Americans who demanded the right to vote, use public water fountains and sit in the front of a bus? The Chicanos/as who demanded humane working conditions? That smacked of the ultimate exercise of white privilege and whiteness.

Too, you may have caught the controversy last week over Obama's children's book that highlights Sitting Bull as an American hero. Fox News blared a headline that Obama was celebrating a man who "killed a general." They, of course, retracted that comment. Aside from the brilliant point of one Lakota that Sitting Bull was never an America and perhaps did not belong in the book on those grounds, it was galling for people to completely miss the context of the Battle at the Greasy Grass and the United States' theft of the Black Hills.

Finally, I wonder if this is not really what the United States is about. That is, hasn't the United States always sacrificed racial/ethnic equality on the alter of national reconciliation? I thought of this when I read your comment about LePore and the American Revolution. It read very similar to the reconciliation after Reconstruction and retrenchment of the Civil Rights movement after Watts. Might it better to say that the United States is not a republic, but a "white man's republic"?

-- CIL

steves said...

I think the TP falls short in many areas, but I guess I don't see them as being inherently racist. We have a tendency to apply our standards when looking at the past. I am not excusing past bad behavior, but it is hard to find any major political figure from the late 18th century that didn't support somehting that we wouldn't approve of today. Hell, the legal system of that period was brutal.

That doesn't mean that everyhting produced by people from that period is worthless or wrong. While imperfect, I still marvel at the ability of th FF's to create a basic framework of gov't that has proven to be remarkably adaptable and workable.

What racist policies does the TP advocate today? Not sending money to Haiti could be racist, but it could also be motivated by selfishness, America First, or some other reason.

Streak said...

Well, besides the prevalence of Birthers among them, and the fact that the polling data shows that they are most annoyed by the government trying to help Black people, the issue is not them advocating an openly racist policy. It is about their assumptions of white privilege, as CIL said better than I can.

Their view of the past is not just them applying their standards, it is presenting a completely white and Christian past. This is their America, as they have said over and over, not CIL's and not even mine.

CIL, I saw the Sitting Bull thing too. And I think you are right on about the white privilege thing, though I think it is rather amazing that Fox and the far right wants to rehabilitate Custer. Of course, as Malkin tried to justify Japanese Internment, and Coulter has claimed that McCarthy was right all along, that should not surprise us. But it is most galling when they say that the civil rights movement is theirs.

Hell, it is all galling.

Smitty said...

Nothing to add after CIL's statement. 'Nuff said.