Friday, April 23, 2010

Tea Party Stealth

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." The following (with apologies to Dickens) is the tale of two demonstrations. I had the opportunity to attend both within the span of a week, and the differences couldn't have been more apparent.

On Tuesday, April 17, I was present at the Tyler Civic Theatre to show support for their planned performance of "The Laramie Project" which explores the effects on the town of Laramie, Wyoming of the murder of Matthew Sheppard. The play, which the company had chosen and cast for presentation in the upcoming season, had hit a snag in the form of a few complaints by controversy-phobic citizens. In a momentary loss of nerve, the board of the theater considered pulling the play in an effort to head off an unpleasant showdown with area conservatives. They lost sight of the necessity of challenging those who would deny them the right to free speech.

Of course when they attempted to quietly step back from the brink, area liberals were stirred to action. That's where the demonstration sponsored by TAG (Tyler Area Gays) came in. This was a clear and clarion First Amendment action in which those who showed up to defend free speech did so in the face of potentially overwhelming opposition given the cultural makeup of the region. Pro free speech demonstrators numbered close to two hundred. The opposition only managed a paltry three or four individuals.

The spirit of the larger group was friendly and positive, but determined. When a counter demonstrator shouted, bible in hand, from his designated side of the street, we drowned him out with the children's hymn, "Jesus Loves Me This I Know," giving great emphasis to the phrase "For The Bible Tells Me So!" After a couple of hours of singing, chanting slogans, and speeches, board members emerged from their closed door conference with the news that the show would go on! It was an important victory for liberal values in East Texas. Tickets go on sale in May.

Four days later I attended a Tea Party gathering at the Gregg County courthouse in Longview, sponsored by the local chapter of We The People. As an unapologetic, incorrigible liberal, I would have liked nothing more than to report the same kinds of violence-drenched language and antics by Tea Partiers that we've been treated to in the national press of late, but let me say here and now that it just didn't happen. What I saw on Saturday seemed as wholesome a slice of Americana as you could hope to see. Precisely therein lies the story.

The scenes of the day had all the brooding menace of a Norman Rockwell painting. Unfortunately for the Tea Party (and the GOP), they had all the vitality and passion of one as well. It raises the fascinating question that if the Tea Party is forced to put restraints on its more violent, racist wing, must it also say goodbye to the energy that wing brings to the table? It's a dilemma that we will no doubt see played out over the next couple of political seasons, and the conclusion is not clear. To my mind, Richard Hofstadter's 1963 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" has never been more relevant.

State Legislative candidate David Simpson and local Republican operative Keith Rothra did a passable "good preacher/bad preacher" routine peppering standard political rhetoric with the religious pandering and dog whistles that East Texas conservatives have come to expect from their politicians. Simpson's speech veered from politics to maudlin visions of a halcyon time when government and taxes weren't needed because "sin did not exist." Rothra roused the crowd with the stentorian intonations of an Old Testament prophet or a fire and brimstone preacher by repeating Sarah Palin's exhortation to "reload" rather than retreat.

But the man of the hour was Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert, who prefaced his remarks by thanking God for the "favor" of cloud cover to ward off the afternoon sun. What followed was a rambling, disjointed mixture of conservative pablum, red meat, and congressional anecdotes that were clearly not composed by or for deep thinkers. I personally heard Gohmert repeat one such yarn from another speech he gave in Tyler a year ago about how administration hacks had stolen and ruined his idea for a "Tax Holiday" which consequently never saw the light of day. The crowd, on cue, groaned sympathetically. Gohmert's best pronouncement of the day was his fervent wish that the Tea Party movement would one day absorb the Republican Party, and I couldn't have agreed more.

As he really warmed to his crowd and threatened to carry it late into the afternoon on the wings of his oratory, the clouds burst forth with a considerable downpour which sent the fair-weather Tea Partiers and the rest of us scurrying to our cars. Apparently, God had had his fill.

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