05 March 2010

Jonathan in Teapartyland

Jonathan Raban is a naturalized American citizen of Britsh descent and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. This is an unlikely profile for a Tea Partier, but Raban, again writing for the New York Review, explains that he "had my own quarrels with big government, especially on the matter of mass surveillance, warrantless wiretapping, and the rest." As a member of Tea Party Nation, he put up the big bucks to attend the notorious Nashville convention last month. In his article, he holds out some hope that the people with him in the audience are not as bad as many of the speakers they heard.

As a floor-level witness to the convention, Raban contends that TV coverage of the convention gave a false picture of universal assent to the positions of such characters as neo-nativist Tom Tancredo and arch-Birther Joseph Farah. "What struck me was how many remained seated through the ovations," he writes, "how many muttered quietly into the ears of their neighbors while others around them rose to their feet and hollered."

Most delegates were political novices, Raban notes. They identify with Sarah Palin more than with any other politician because, to them, she seems like one of them. There's no getting around their hostility toward the President and the Democratic party, but he insists that the rank-and-file he saw in Nashville -- albeit an elite rank-and-file willing to spend their way in while others grumbled about politics for profit -- don't share the extremist views expressed by the headline-grabbing orators. Sometimes it seems like Raban has to reach to make this point, as when he emphasizes a couple who refused to applaud when Tancredo called for a "civics literary test" or blamed Obama's election on illiterate immigrants. To give you an idea of the demographic character of the convention, Raban notes that most were unlikely to share Tancredo's apparent hostility toward immigrants because "they employed them in their houses and businesses, to look after their children and work on their yards." When Farah gave his Birther rant, some disgusted audience members told Raban that they thought he might be a liberal plant trying to discredit the Tea Party movement. One woman resented any distraction from a focus on "taxes and government spending and national defense."

On those issues the average Tea Partier may be bad enough. Raban tries to convince himself that his fellow conventioneers didn't really take it seriously whenever a speaker started raving about "socialist totalitarianism." He sees real divisions, however, that the media may have ignored, particularly the divide separating secular libertarians from the religious right element. He claims that the applause was "conspicuously scattered" when Palin appealed for divine intervention, for instance, and he again relies on the subtlest of sign or body language to salvage nuance from the Tea Party stereotype. His entire article is worth reading to get a more complete sense of the atmosphere in Nashville, but I think it expresses Raban's essentially liberal impulse to find the humanity in any person, no matter how odious their opinions or hateful their attitude. If he meant to demonstrate that the Nashville conventioneers were not monsters of reaction, I'll concede the point, but he did nothing to convince me that they aren't profoundly misguided people whose anger at government has little if any constructive potential for the country.

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