Saturday, January 29, 2011

The TEA Party and Historical Fundamentalism

Jill Lepore released The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History recently, from the Princeton University Press.

That news alone might not get folks terrible excited.  While a contributor to the New Yorker, her work tends to be of a scholarly nature, grounded in early American history, and that is unsurprising given her credentials as a Harvard professor.

What she has done is shed some light onto the historical revisionism, if not outright Historical Fundamentalism that the TEA Party and their fellow travelers are now engaging in to back not just shoddy scholarship, but to make political cases for action, based on a somewhat dubious historical perspective.

My own take on the TEA Party has been one of some bemusement.  Taking the name of an action where American colonists struck a blow against both the East India Trading Company, and the British Crown, who was heavily invested in said corporation, and using that name to protest, by buying tea to throw away, to be cleaned up by municipal workers, paid for by their own taxes.  It is an odd disconnect.

No more so, than their own cries against what they feel oddly as "Taxation without representation!" while ignoring the sad fact that they ARE represented.  The Tea Act that brought such ire, was opposed vehemently by the Colonists in that they felt that they should be taxed by their own representatives, and the British Parliament did not have any Colonists sitting.  Not to mention the monopolist stance for the importation of many goods, that profited the East India Trading Company, and the British Crown who held a large interest.  It is odd, since our own Representatives and Senators, and President who signs and executes the laws of our land, are all elected.  The Tea Party and their fellow travelers have representation, they simply don't like the representatives that their fellow citizens have put into office.

There lies the rub.  It is an odd sort of time, where folks whose candidate feel that they no longer have a voice, which says something more about how they feel representatives should operate.  Representatives and Senators represent the citizens and interests of their districts and states.  Not simply the ones who put them into office, but all of them. Which is sort of why we made addendum to the Constitution to guarantee protections for minority voices in the Bill of Rights.  It is a telling assumption that if your side loses an election, that you will have no say, on how you and yours will operate in the majority.

That has been my impression of the TEA Party.  Jill Lapore takes on the historical revisionism and new Historical Fundamentalism that is used as the basis to support stances that, to be honest, take a distorted view of history, and the intentions of our Founding Fathers.

From the separation of church and state--which the Texas School Board have taken on as an enemy of the people, and who reject the principle--to rebranding capitalism with "free trade" and slavery with the more antiseptic "Atlantic triangle trade."  Likewise, the TEA Party likes to invoke the Constitution as its guide for a vision of the future, while ignoring the very Preamble to the document where the Framers put forth in clear language their purpose.

"to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

Those words are particularly telling.  The Preamble clearly laid out what the People ordained the Constitution to address.  Yet, we have a movement that tends to ignore the capitalized portions of the Preamble as being irrelevant...

Mind you, this is not the first time the Founders and our Revolution have been invoked for political profit. Both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists jiggered with interpretations to support their causes. Both the Union and Confederacy bolstered their cases by invoking the Founders.  Even Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked the Tea Party as a massive act of civil disobedience.  Andrew Jackson portrayed his Democratic Party as the true Sons of Liberty.

It isn't just Jefferson, who has now become persona non grata, save when convenient, whose words have been taken sometimes out of context.  Many use Franklin's The Way to Wealth as a base on which to found cases that we must have an aggressive defense of laissez faire policy, ignoring the fact that Poor Richard's Almanac was often a pointed satire, and full of bold and often reckless japes.  Instead, we have folks who portray Franklin as a stolid supporter of things that he openly mocked.  Mind you, it is not entirely surprising that his role has been reinterpreted by folks who hold that the Green Dragon Tavern, the "Headquarters of the Revolution" is no longer in Real America, as Boston is now firmly in the hands of the enemy.

Mind you, the TEA Party--Taxed Enough Already--is far from the first invocation of the imagery. In the 1970s Jeremy Rifkin's People's Bicentennial Commission formed their own TEA Party--Tax Equity for Americans.  His words were that the nation needed "a new party, a movement that will treat tax reform as one aspect of a fight for genuine equality of property and power against taxation without representation."  There has been a proliferation of trash thrown into the Boston harbor in protest--from the Boy Scouts dumping a cask labled "CRACK" in 1988, the Teamsters dumped beer and water and empty cases four years later in their own protests. In 1997 doctors and nurses boarded the Beaver and threw out HMO's annual reports "launching a campaign against market-driven health care."  Dick Army himself unloaded a copy of the US tax code in 1997, and in 2007 Senators from Massachusetts, Texas, Georgia, and Virginia went to dump boxes bearing labels of unfunded federal mandates, like No Child Left Behind--though, to be fair, they didn't actually dump them as it is illegal to do so, but they pretended to.  Which shows how far folks are willing to go to appear to be making a useful protest...

There is a move towards Originalism within our current incarnation of the TEA Party.  One that carefully picks and chooses its interpretations.  You have the National Center for Constitutional Studies founded in 1967 to promote the idea that the Founders had fixed and final word on the intent of the Constitution.  Seemingly to flout the words of Madison in Federalist 14:

"Is it not to the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?"

And whilst trying to reinterpret the intent of the Framers, they live that lively statement, while rejecting that they are doing so, wholecloth, in trying to determine what that original intent might  be.

Let's not even get into the reenactment of the Boston Massacre to promote antibussing, in 1974.  The riff of using imagery of the Revolution to invoke an appeal to authority and validity of actions is not exactly a new thing.

Not just on tax policy, do we see a want of Historical Fundamentalism, but certainly, we have a renewed interest in promotion of religion by the State.  From Mitt Romney's address on faith, to the renewed attacks on the separation of church and state in Texas and beyond. Mind you, flouting Madison's 1785 "Memorial Remonstrance against Religious Assessments"

"The Religion of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man."

Jefferson's own, "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry."

Article VI of the Constitution itself: "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust in the United States."

And the addendum to that, in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Mind you, those are all foundations to protect religion from the state, as much as protect the state from religion.  The tides of religious fervor wax and wane, and while one faith may take public precedent, years and shifts in population can take that faith from being in the majority.  That our Founders rejected the practice of the establishment of religion--as nearly every British North American colony had an established religion--is telling.  Not just to protect the state, but to protect faiths. In seeking to promote faith in our state, we commit ourselves to a road that veers steadily away from those protections.

The revisionism is particularly marked when you see TEA Party advocates recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Not only forgetting the "Liberty and Justice for All" portions, but as a line drawn in the sand against the perceived socialism of our current President. If for no other reason that the Pledge was written by Francis Bellamy--former pastor of Boston's Bethany Baptist Church--who was himself a Socialist. Vice President in fact of the Society of Christian Socialists.  Written for children. But, I've touched base on these forgotten pledges before.

Then again, we have seen Reagan invoking Thomas Paine, and many rushing to quote him on his beliefs on religion, whilst ignoring his equal belief in taxation and its purpose to alleviate suffering and for public works. Apparently The Rights of Man was not as popular reading as The Age of Reason.  The invocation of Common Sense is sometimes mixed as well. Reagan took up that mantle, as did Ralph Reed, Jesse Helms, and Jeremy Rifkin's Peoples Bicentennial Commission against corporate tyranny, and we have Glenn Beck railing against an out of control government as well.

Ultimately, we see the forces of a Historical Fundamentalism engaging in a practice to impose their own views of history, and looking to excise views that might contradict or oppose their interpretations. Fairly modern interpretations as well.  The interpretation portion I can agree is healthy. Our Constitution is a flexible document intended to flex and bow to a certain degree to the needs and will of the people. No provisions were made for women to vote, or for slavery to be ended.  We have changed as a society, and that flexibility goes in tandem with Jefferson's view that "Large institutions must go hand in hand with the Progress of the human mind."  What is dangerous is attempts to stifle education and dissent of other interpretations.  To vilify those who have a knowledge of history, and likewise use it to counter the revisionist attempts to impose only their view of history onto not just the public, but coming generations.

Crossposted to The Motley Moose. 

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