On Halloween Sunday of 2010, editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett of the Chattanooga Times Free Press paid clever tribute to the Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Psycho.” In his panel, Marion Crane has become Lady Liberty in the iconic shower scene. Lurking as a silhouette on the other side of the curtain is wanna-be Minuteman Norman Bates, decked out in a tri-corner hat.
May Mother not notice the missing teabags. She gets upset when Norman is late with her tea
Although three years have passed since publication, Bennett is still right on time. The best cartoonists can capture a wealth of ideas and express them in the simplest terms. His well-chosen symbols take us down to the Tea Party fruit cellar, where all their skeletons dwell. How effective was choosing Lady Liberty as the Tea Party’s target?
Self-styled conservatives, libertarians, and those embarrassed Republicans who call themselves “independents” make a fetish of our national symbols. They have an outright jealously protective sense of ownership. Not content with the mere assertion of being the only “real Americans,” they must claim the icons too. And do they ever, as any picture of a Tea Party rally depicts. If they aren’t playing Spirit of ’76 dress-up, they are wearing Seussian Uncle Sam hats, Old Glory shirts, pants, and for the daring, underwear. Some are decked out in oxidized copper green like the grand lady of New York Harbor.
Not to ridicule the occasional sartorial indulgence in national pride, but the Tea Party takes it to orgiastic heights. They conflate their frothing nationalism with the average American’s quiet patriotism. Nationalism feeds on emotions; patriotism engenders them.
The sense of accomplishment one gets from voting or performing other civic duties, evokes a modest pride in most of us. Those are the selfless acts of a patriot. The nationalist indulges an unquestioning, arrogant, and selfish pride. Pride does not goeth before duty, it is their duty. If you do not display a sufficiently overbearing pride, you are not a good American. Love it or leave it! Shut up and sing God Bless America!
Most laughable is their cry, “Read your Constitution!” We do, we do. Best of all, we actually understand it, and the theories of governance which girds it. In the absence of evidence that you do too, we’d like to have our symbols back, please. They belong to all of us.
There is a symbiotic relationship between their extreme nationalist sentiments and their authoritarian political philosophy. They are not classical conservatives in this sense. While conservatives hold traditions in high esteem, the authoritarian wields them like weapons to deny others their freedom. Sloganeering about “liberty” is a farce when you consider the majority of the Tea Party is opposed to a livable minimum wage, which would reduce the government dependence they claim enslaves us.
Their red, white, and bull is even further mocked by opposition to marriage equality, equal pay for women, or restricting their access to birth control while hiding behind “religious freedom”. Remarkably, these authoritarians are shunning the conservative label more and more, only to embrace with supreme irony Ayn Rand’s brand of libertarian narcissism. It would belabor the obvious to invoke Orwell. His ideas about thought control, power, and the inversion of meaning are almost inadequate in the face of these current perversions.
Tea Party throngs are fond of other tasty sound bites too. Limited government, lower taxes, less spending. Who can argue with those? Their simplicity of virtue becomes a means of argument in itself. If you differ with them on what to cut, who should pay how much taxes, or point out the consequences of rapid clear-cutting with spending, you must automatically be in favor of big government, higher taxes, and more spending.
In fact, that is their default position when attacking everyone from the far Left to what remains of the center Right. The few who dare venture into concrete ideas on how to bring about these precepts are the likes of Rand Paul, or Paul Ryan, whose ideas are dumb and dangerous on their face.
Their extremism is defended as bold or innovative. Their array of solutions include bringing back the gold standard, abolishing the Federal Reserve, cutting all corporate taxes to 0% across the board, deregulating the financial sector, abolishing the minimum wage, and scuttling child labor laws. These are all asserted by the idea that the free market will solve everything if government would just get out of the way. These purportedly attractive ideas lack foresight and evidence.
In fact, there is evidence from history that many of these ideas would create new troubles of their own. It was called the Gilded Age for a reason. A later era was called the Great Depression for another. None of their tired and discredited ideas are conducive to freedom as we commonly define it. Shortsighted aphorisms with no historical context are perfect for the Tea Party and how they choose to define freedom. Freedom from everything but serfdom.
The Tea Party has been around throughout American history. They have been the Know-Nothings of the mid-19th century, with their nativist zeal and toxic xenophobia. They have been the John Birch Society with their pathological paranoia about communism. They were until recently, the Christian Coalition, determined to bring an ideally theocratic nation to its knees before Free Market Jesus. In every case, their appeals to authoritarian social control, fear-mongering, anxiety about a changing world, and nationalistic fervor were well-executed distractions from their pockets being picked by their benefactors. You know them as job creators.
In order to perpetuate the lie that the Tea Party is a true grassroots movement, their ranks must deny the Koch brothers are nothing but wonderful job creators who only have their best interests at heart, like good parents. As Norman Bates did with Mother, their minions must willfully fit them into tidy, separate mental compartments, keeping the Kochs as a shadowy corpse watching from afar, but always in control.
Norman Bates coveted Marion Crane, but Mother wouldn’t let him. We yell at the movie screen in futility to warn her. Let us hope our warnings about the Tea Party are not likewise in vain, helplessly watching the fate of Liberty, which the Tea Party does not want anyone else to have.