Wait. This isn't a rollercoaster. It's the Tea Cups! How fitting...since this edition of Soundpolitic Sundays sees the author taking a wild ride at a local Tea Party meeting. I attended the get-together on Saturday of last weekend.
My excuses for not getting this up earlier is twofold. First, there's a lot of back-story to what's going to be said here that I used last week's edition to take care of. Not a very good excuse, but check it out if you missed it.
My second excuse? It's the best and most obvious one: it took a week for my head to stop spinning.
Cross-Posted on The Albany Project...
Those tea-cup rides were made famous in the land of make-believe and movie studios. If you don't remember the tea party segment on Disney's adaptation of Lewis Carroll's "Alice In Wonderland" (which is actually based more heavily on "Through The Looking Glass,") then here's this week's silly contextual YouTube video:
Whaddya know? It was my unbirthday when I went to the Tea Party too! Now don't get me wrong: I'm no Tea Party activist at all. I let it be known and that much more by the end of the thing. But I'm no Mad Hatter or March Hare either. So why, oh why, would a progressive Democrat like myself want to even bother waking up early to hang out in a room full of reactionary conservatives all spewing this-for-that about bad ol' big gummint?
The answer has to do with another kind of tea party. I'll get to that soon enough...
By eleven in the morning, I arrived at the East Berne Firehouse where the aptly-named "Hilltown Homefront Patriots" were to have their first meeting. A newsman was there with his camera, interviewing the event's main organizer. I sat off to the side with a notebook and tape-recorder, offering my own pen for the sign-in roster.
As I sat down, I got to wondering whether this was all a big mistake on my part and just how boring this could possibly be. Then, a familiar face from the '08 Democratic primary for Congress in NY-21 showed up: the Lone Ranger himself, Joseph Sullivan. It was then that I knew this was going to be a good time. Sullivan had run as the "conservative" Democrat in two years ago and was well known for public outbursts. He got about three percent of the vote.
The event began with organizer Daniel Smith. He was just a regular guy in a flannel shirt, although he wore a tee this morning. He introduced the purpose of the event - which was to get like-minded people together to listen to speakers. As the first speaker, he talked about how global warming was based on lies, how a local right-wing radio format change was a conspiracy to shut out the Tea Party voice, about the Anti-Rent Wars in the Hilltowns during the 1840s, and about the recent proposals to shut down nearby Thacher Park.
"Gee," I thought, "Those last two things...I talk about those quite a bit too. Especially the Anti-Rent stuff!"
His big deal was the state regulations about burning brush. And he took things one step further. "I'm worried that they're going to come back in a year or two and tell me I can't burn wood anymore," he told the audience. He's referring, of course, to using wood for home heating. My house uses a woodstove, too. Currently, there's no plans to ban using wood for home heating; this guy was pretty convinced it was in the pipeline. Between speaking sets, I asked him if a) I could speak, since I'd run an independent campaign recently and b) if he'd actually read the rules regulating outdoor brush-burning.
No. And no. As expected. I sat down and watched the next speaker.
This member of the "flannel shirt patrol," Tom Cavanaugh, was actually wearing a Scott Brown for Senate sweatshirt. He was there to get people fired up and ready to go. "We have one, plain, simple message: We've had enough." Cheers! He went on to describe that the groups' organizers had spent the past year training in grass-roots campaigning. It was basic information about getting signatures on nominating petitions and getting small volunteer groups in small towns linked up via the Internet. He went so far as to recommend these groups become legitimate Political Action Committees.
"Gee, gee," I thought. "This is the same information I was getting from the Obama campaign two years ago. And the Dean campaign six years ago. And it's still good!"
Then, a lady named Deborah Busch got up to speak. She dropped the first news bombshell of the day by announcing she would seek the Republican, Conservative, and Independence lines to run for Assembly in the 104th District. Deb Busch ran as the Republican candidate in last year's Albany County Coroner's race, highlighting her nursing credentials; she actually didn't do too bad given Albany County's Democratic bent. She hammered away at the current Assemblyman, Jack McEneny, accusing him of ignoring constituents concerns about agriculture and the state parks.
There was plenty of anti-big-government and anti-tax rhetoric thrown in as well, but I still found myself thinking: "Well, well, well. I've known this lady for quite some time, and I haven't been too pleased with my Assemblyman regarding this park deal." Was I - a staunch progressive Democrat - getting sucked completely empty of all my principles?
Later on, another Tea Party candidate emerged. Patrick Ziegler showed up about halfway through the event to announce he was going to challenge Scott Murphy in the 20th Congressional District. This was the second news bombshell of the day. According to Ziegler, Congressman Murphy is wrong 100 percent of the time. So he's going to run for his seat. He wants to "restore" state sovereignty; he wants to cut the budget by getting rid of government agencies entirely, but still keep state parks open; and he says the two-party system is set up to keep people out of politics, so he's going to seek the Republican line in NY-20 and put out his signs to make it look like he's already got the endorsement of the Party.
"Well, well, well, well, well!" I thought. "This guy looks like an asshole!"
(No, really, he did. He was one of many speakers I asked a simple question of: "Have you seen An Inconvenient Truth?" I asked at least five folks this. Not only had nobody seen it, but they all were taken aback by the very nature of the question; they pretty much refused to entertain the idea. "I'm not watching that crap!" is an accurate paraphrase. But I posed the question back at them: "How can you say it's crap if you haven't seen it?" This got more than a few blank stares. I would then ask the blank stare this question: "Don't you think you'd be able to make a better case against it after having seen it for yourself?" I swear when I asked this of the event organizer, his pupils dilated like an ounce of magic mushrooms had just kicked in....In any case, I asked Future Congressman Ziegler the same question and very much this type of response. So I told him that if a person is going to go around saying a movie they haven't even seen is bad then that person better be prepared to look like an asshole because they're talking about something they don't actually know about. Future Congressman Ziegler would later have a drawn-out debate with me after the event about whether or not I actually called him an asshole, as a way of avoiding my questions on substantive policy issues and the validity of the Federalist Papers. Mr. Ziegler is probably still out there thinking I called him an asshole. But he can't seem to get it through his thick skull that all I was telling him was to be prepared to look like an asshole. This, I feel, makes him look like an even bigger asshole. But, really, he isn't.)
Around the middle of the event, the Organizer, Mr. Smith, got up to speak again. The ante was upped when he took out his military dog tags. His grandfather was a WWI veteran, his father a POW in WWII. The other Organizer pointed out his American flag bandana around his also-bald scalp as his way of "honoring" the people "fighting for our freedoms." This kind of militarism always makes me a little uncomfortable...but I could relax because his continued speech really had nothing to do with the military; it eventually had something to do with a "It's the government and it's us!" kind of mentality regarding "socialistic legislation," a "secret government handshake," and "welfare for people with flat screen TVs."
The point of his speech was, by his own words, "to rile people up." And he got right to work. Here's my favorite excerpt:
"I look at the lessons that the Founders gave us....they gave us a democracy. They gave us a form of government. I'm not a history scholar, but I don't know of any other form of government that was formed and given back to the people. This government was made, it was devised, and it was told to us that 'This is your government, you have a say, you can become elected, you can run for office, and its yours.' If you look at all your governments throughout history it's always been the leadership and then the subjects. So we have a government that was given to us, it is for us, it is ours."
"Who have the citizens of this nation become? I think that the founders did not mean for us to sit back and to have our elected officials raise our taxes, take our freedoms, put restrictions on business, and tell us how to live our lives. I think that they meant for us to stand up against our government. There's many quotes from the Founders that said, y'know, when there's, when people fear the government there's tyranny and when the government fears the people there is liberty. They knew what was coming. They had the foresight to know that we would have problems. And as citizens I believe we are obligated to what we're doing now.
"We've been sitting back for far too long. We've been sitting on our duds and we've been complaining and calling talk radio. And it's time to get away from the television, we stand up, we march, we call, we do what we need to do and we vote. We vote people out of office."
"The restrictions that we have did not come overnight. It has gradually come where we laid down, we've had the whip applied to our back. We haven't done anything and we're in this situation know because power corrupts - absolute power corrupts - and we've allowed them to have absolute power."
I chose to highlight this portion of the Tea Party not only because the contradictions within make it self-evident on just how wrong the movement is about so much. It was also this point when I sensed I had been completely successful in searching for something inarguably right about the movement. In other words, I had set out to both find something out firsthand and to challenge myself to discover something about myself.
I looked at the forty people in attendance who were all spellbound, as if hearing these things for the first time. Some, I'm sure, were realizing for the first time the incredible amount of political power they possessed as individuals. And here they were with a like-minded network of people, which gave them even more power!
I know this feeling well. And in spite of the glaring contradictions inherent in the speech, it had me spellbound as well. I always love me a good speechified romp with the Founding Fathers, regardless of the angle. But really, I was most pleased that I was able to get that buzz.
You know the one I'm talking about, right? The buzz you get from being in a room with other people who know what kind of power they have. Who know that our power doesn't come from the government, but the other way around. And who all have a few key positions on a few keys issues in common. The buzz you get before dropping literature or gathering signatures or carrying signs at a rally. The buzz I was almost certain I would not get at a Tea Party; the buzz you are probably certain you would not get, either.
But how in the world did I get that same buzz? By all accounts, I should have been angrier than a hive of bees, sweating hard cider and screaming vinegar. That's how I usually get when I see Tea Partiers on television...how now was I actually getting a communal, shared feeling from them in person? How the fuck could this happen!?
The answer is simple: I had a tea party before the Tea Party. A little Zen story explains this:
Way back in feudal Japan, there was a Zen master in a monastery and a professor from a university. The professor goes to visit the Zen master to learn about Buddhism, so the master welcomes him into his home with the traditional offering of a cup of tea. But before the delicate formalities of the Japanese tea ceremony can begin, the professor starts talking about everything he knows about religious studies and what he tells his students and what he thinks of this, what he thinks of that.
The Zen master isn't able to say anything or get the professor's attention. So he just starts pouring tea into the professor's cup. And he keeps pouring while the professor talks. Soon, the tea is spilling out of the cup, onto the saucer, onto the tabletop, and finally onto the professor's lap. This finally makes him come to and he's flabbergasted. He looks at the Zen master like he's a crazy man out to boil his jewels and asks him, "What are you doing!?"
The Zen master responds by saying, "Like this cup of tea, you are full of your own ideas. So how can I teach you unless you first empty your cup?"
This was the challenge I made to myself, one of two main reasons I decided to attend the Tea Party meeting to begin with. For starters, I always like to find things out for myself. The media has a tendency to over-summarize and present caricatures of political events; I like to bear my own witness. But removing the media filters is easy. Even with those out of the way, there was still one very big thing that could get in my way of actually seeing what went down.
That thing? Me. Myself. And all of My Ideas.
You may think that going to a Tea Party yourself would be a waste of time. You already Know For A Fact that you disagree with them about Everything. You know it would be a Complete Waste of Your Time to subject your eyes and ears to two painful hours of Ignorant Right Wing Rants.
And it would be if you brought that mindset. But it wouldn't be the Tea Partiers fault; they're not responsible for your frame of mind. You are.
As for me, I had a time of it. It's not easy to give up all your preconceptions and prejudices. But in "emptying my cup" before attending the Tea Party, I was able to do two things. First, I was able to pretty much hold my tongue until the end of the meeting because I was able to listen. It's pretty hard to listen to when all you're doing is drowning out their words with your internal counter-arguments. It was much easier for me to listen, really listen carefully, when I wasn't doing this. In fact, at a couple of points in the event, it was I, the liberal, who spoke up to clarify the date and time of an upcoming "Save The Parks" rally at the Captiol. (Wednesday, March 3rd at 9:30 AM, by the way.)
Second, because I was able to listen, I found what I'd sincerely hoped to find: common ground. That buzz? It was proof, in my gut, that we progressives have these Tea Partiers all wrong, just like they've got us all wrong. We both get the same buzz, man. We really do have more in common, at a gut level and possibly at a policy level, than either side cares to think.
Why is this? It's because we've filled our cups to our liking, just like they have. We just love pouring more of our favorite fine brew because it's so familiar, all the while laughing the familiar laugh at the guys on the other side who making such a mess of things spilling their putrid concoction. We're laughing (or perhaps, jeering) so hard, we don't realize we'll need a mop and bucket to take care of our own spillage. In fact, we'll probably insist that it's their mess and they're supposed to clean it up. And so would they. So nothing gets clean, you see?
Me? I'm of the opinion that everyone is spilling tea everywhere, to the point where the puddles on the floor have joined together as one. I'd prefer to have a clean cup and move down, just like in the crazy cartoon version f Alice In Wonderland. That's the image I had in my head by the time the last speaker got up.
A Mr. Tom Chandler, this African-American speaker was the one who spoke about the Tea Party being labeled as racists. He's spent some time fighting for the Second Amendment, apparently, and gave the group even more advice about political action and organization. He spoke quite a bit about restoring an employee-employer relationship with government. This was almost straight off my flyers for my '09 write-in campaign! I kept my hand raised during nearly his entire speech, even as the organizers brought in boxes of pizza to marks the event's end. As Mr. Smith made a closing announcement and the audience began clapping and lining up for pie, Mr. Chandler pointed to me, and I had the audience's attention.
Despite all that "emptying my cup" business, I still couldn't help myself - I had to let them have it. Here's what I said, right off the cuff:
I want to say: I will disclose that I was the 2009 write-in candidate for Supervisor in the Town of Berne. All the things being said today about getting on the ballot and getting organized are correct. I will also disclose that I am the blogger Soundpolitic on a site called DailyKos. I'm sure you've heard of it.
I do wish you luck. Everything about getting organized is great. That is making use of your freedoms. I have a little saying: We the people means you the person.
I'm not here to disagree with you on policy. I ran a very leftist campaign. I have leftist views. And I want to remind you that if you are successful then your candidates who get into office are going to have to learn the art of compromise with your opponents in office. It does no good to demonize the other side.
For example, when I'm on the blogs and I see the word "teabagger," I call them out because it's a derogatory term.
(At this, one member of the audience said "Thank you.")
Again, I'm not here to disagree with your positions. But I want to remind you that nobody stopped you from being here today. That everyone who wanted to speak, including someone who disagrees with your views, was allowed to speak.
Now if you want to get better at debating my side, then you do have to watch movies like "An Inconvenient Truth," just like I watched both "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Fahren-Hype 9/11." That is why I'm able to take the moral high ground of disagreeing with the Right. Because I've read Michael Moore and I've read Ann Coulter. I read both sides, and then come to my own conclusions. It does not good to say that Scott Murphy is wrong 100 percent of the time. Nobody on this Earth who is human is either right 100 percent of the time or wrong 100 percent of the time.
(At this point, some of the organizers start saying, "Great, have some pizza!")
So do the organization, but remember: you are the government, the government is you. So if you just blame the government for everything you are blaming yourselves and asking the government to take responsibility for something that you have. And today proved it.
I imagine I would have said something very different if I had not gone in there with an open mind. And I did find things that the progressive movement has in common with the tea party movement. Like I said, the buzz was the same. The information was the same. Some of the issues were the same - I was in agreement with the Tea Partiers about the state parks staying open, after all. And there were other ideas being bounced around that didn't seem too crazy to me.
That's not to say I didn't walk away thinking a lot of their ideas were, in fact, sheer lunacy of the style that can only be bred when paranoia mates with ignorance, or that their explanations for their positions amounted to political jabberwocky. And it was pretty clear that these people's cups were all just as full and overflowing as they'd been before. But that's not what I was looking for; I was looking for proof that what President Obama said while he running for President is true while he actually is President: that we're not as divided as our politics suggest.
Because I was able to empty my cup before going to the Tea Party, that's what I found. And that is a hopeful sign, folks.
Until next week, a very merry unbirthday to you, too!