09 February 2010

The Tea Party: An Ambiguous Metaphor

Coincidence or not? Two local newspapers today ran amazingly similar cartoons on their editorial pages. In both, the National Tea Party Convention is presented as the Mad Tea Party from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland stories, while keynote speaker Sarah Palin is dressed as Alice. In both, the Mad Hatter serves Alice/Palin not tea, but Kool-Aid. In Mike Thompson's cartoon (credited "with apologies to Walt Disney[!]), Alice/Palin says, "That's my cup of tea!" In the other cartoon, under the scrawled signature of someone named Simmons from Arizona, the Mad Hatter mocks Palin's anti-Obama rhetoric, asking Alice/Palin, "So how goes your hopey for a changey in the White Housey in 2012, Sarah?" while the face of a Cheshire Cat with a "GOP" tattoo on its forehead watches from a tree branch.

Maybe both cartoonists have been watching too many ads for that Tim Burton movie, but in any event, this is not the imagery that the Tea Partiers of 2009 hoped to evoke by taking the Tea Party name for themselves. I'm sure these aren't the first cartoonists to propose alternative satirizing symbolism, but the symbolism of this particular moment is worth analysing a little. The most obvious detail is the one probably most objectionable to Tea Partiers or their sympathizers. Why are the cartoon Tea Partiers (already unflatteringly rendered as "Mad") serving Alice/Palin the dread Kool-Aid of Jonestown memory and not the other way around? I suppose it depends on whether you think the Tea Partiers are trying to lure Palin into being their independent standard bearer or that Palin is trying to lure the TPs into the Republican party. The two cartoonists either believe the former theory or that Palin has discredited herself (more than ever?) merely by participating in an event they deem quite mad.

The lesson to be drawn for the moment is a practical one. However much the TPs may love their acronymic tag (Taxed Enough Already), these cartoons are a reminder, one that Burton's movie will only reinforce, that "Tea Party" is probably not the best name a political movement can give itself given the term's multiple cultural contexts. It probably shouldn't be the name they use in active political campaigns. Maybe they should try on other Revolutionary metaphors, but "Sons of Liberty" and "Minutemen" are both unacceptably gender-exclusive by modern standards. "Patriots" won't cut it, because who isn't one, really? The real problem with these people evoking the American Revolution, one is tempted to argue, is that they're really Tories at heart. But I leave that for others to debate.

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