The teabaggers and American History for Dummies

That they are the gods, demigods and heroes of our Early America myth places a severe strain on the image of our Founding Fathers. As with other gods, those who invoke them are not necessarily genuine priests. Just because a preacher invokes a god doesn’t mean his intent is the same as the divinity’s.

Sharon Angle chased by reporters after attending Senate Republican lunch on June 15, 2010. She undoubtedly saw in the capitol many busts of people she never heard of.

The teabaggers are particularly brazen about this. They have their intellectual categories and they will shoehorn their supposed icons into them whether they know anything about those icons or not. The fact that the movement started out with people wearing the outfits of eighteenth century colonists said alot about how much was pure theater, how much was camp and how much was genuine interest in what the founders said or believed in. I was once in the manuscripts room of the New York Public Library. To everyone’s surprise (because every reader had to apply to use the facility (which was locked) and so each person is questioned about his purpose in using the materials), a young man entered dressed in an Elizabethan outfit with a mustache and thin beard much like the sketches of Shakespeare we often see. As luck would have it, he sat near me. A librarian, evidently suspecting trouble because otherwise they generally never moved from their desk, came over to politely ask what he wanted. He said he wanted to see Shakespeare’s writing. She explained that they had some early editions of the plays and went through what they had. He asked, “So you don’t have any actual handwriting of Shakespeare?” She said, No, and as far as she knew, no one did. So he ordered an early edition. In a few minutes a book was brought out with a reading stand and a weight to hold down the pages without having to touch the book. (This act confirmed to me that in dealing with librarians, the crazier you act the better. A “normal” person had to give his requests in at only 2 times a day, designed so that it was as inconvenient as possible to order them and get them quickly.) He looked at the book for a few minutes, then turned it in and left.

I suspect that all people who are willing to draw attention to themselves by dressing up like some famous figure are more interested in making a point than in discovering what that person was all about. And I include in this people who dress up in their favorite football player’s jersey. They are saying: this player represents me. Not, “I endorse the ideas and beliefs of this person.” And so it is, I believe, with teabaggers.

The teabaggers that I have seen appear to be otherwise mild and otherwise nondescript people who believe that they are being put upon. The recession, the financial crisis, the evident plundering of our economy by financial plutocrats who have not been held accountable somehow affect deeply, they feel. Without being able to express how. As far as anyone knows, the teabaggers are a loose coalition of angry middle class white people (funded but probably not directed by corporations, reactionary political contributors, and, when they feel it’s to their interest, Republican politicians) who believe that they have played by established “rules” but are being cheated by those who did not. They believe, without knowing why, that the founding fathers would not have countenanced this. Maybe, for all they know, this is how Great Britain acted towards the colonies. Being ordinary, middle class folks, their principal preoccupation in life is money and the things they can buy with it. They feel that they are being held down in earning money and in buying things. They see vague threats to their lifestyle and future in things that don’t fit the rules. Things like globalism and climate change and foreign energy and Chinese economic development. They believe immigrants, Mexican and Muslim, are about to subvert the rules. And all of this chuns around and around and makes them irrationally angry — maybe better expressed as suprarationally angry, that is, they have so many “rational” things to be angry about, they can’t sort it all out. What they are especially angry about is that they have waited as prescribed to cash in on the American Dream and it now looks like it’s moving out of their reach or their children’s reach. They have a sense that they could get more and more (which is what they have been taught is what people should aspire to), if only, if only, if only … What? They don’t know. But they know one thing: they have to get rid of whatever is over them now to get to those Elysian Fields, where, after all their hard work, they can get as many things that Walmart has to offer as they can fit into their homes.

These are the very people that conservative nineteenth century historian Thomas Carlyle spoke of when he said: “Never, on this Earth, was the relation of man to man long carried on by Cash-payment alone. If, at any time, a philosophy of Laissez-faire, Competition and Supply-and-demand, start up as the exponent of human relations, expect that it will soon end.” (Past and Present, Book III, Chapter X (ed: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1918), p217). They have been falsely taught to organize their lives towards getting material things. They believe what they are bombarded with all the time — that the good life can be bought if they had the purchase price. But now they vaguely sense that their ordered march towards their goal is not going to be rewarded. And it won’t be, for the reason Carlyle pointed out. Human relations can’t be ordered in this way, because they will never survive the crisis.

But let’s not talk policy here; let’s just look at how they misrepresent the gods they claim to follow.

Sharron Angle, the unlikely teabagger who was plucked from obscurity by the anger of the Nevada Republicans to run against the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, was quoted in today’s New York Times as answering thus to the question of whether she was too conservative:

“I’m sure that they probably said that about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and Benjamin Franklin,” she said. “And truly, when you look at the Constitution and our founding fathers and their writings, the things that made this country great, you might draw those conclusions: That they were conservative. They were fiscally conservative and socially conservative.”

Of course, the teabagger movement has never been known for its nuance. Their “intellectual” leaders are neither scholars nor intellectual nor particularly honest. It does not bother the individual teabagger if he is stumped on the question of What did Thomas Jefferson say about X? He doesn’t expect to know. Any more than angry Christians want to know what Jesus said about forgiveness. In fact, you couldn’t convince them that a particular founder held a belief directly opposite his. Because like all angry devotee, the god or saint represents him, not the other way around. So probably the most that most of them know about these three comes from quotation lists or descriptions of their conduct and thoughts from political advocates.

Even if someone wanted to figure out what any of Washington, Franklin or Jefferson would have to say about current issues would have a hard time. Not just because the issues and context is so wholly different now, but also because each of the three lived long lives in various circumstances. The careers of each of these three men spanned each of the three major phases of a revolution: agitating the revolutionary; managing the revolution; arranging a post-revolutionary settlement to govern by.  And all three (two of them nationally, Washington and Jefferson, and two at a state level, Jefferson and Franklin) actually participated in governing under a revolutionary settlement. Most people who were ever involved in a major revolution never participated in two of these phases. So, for the three she picked out, it would be surprising if their philosophies didn’t emphasize different things depending on what phase of their careers one drew the quote from.

But here’s the amazing thing. At no point in their careers can any one of these three men be described as she described them. And none of these three even remotely stands for the things the teabaggers think they do.

I won’t go into a long explanation of the conduct and beliefs of the three. Let’s just hit the highlights. First, to call Jefferson and Franklin “social conservatives” is about as laughable as any claim on history. It is true that that phrase is elastic. It probably means something different at a Baptist prayer meeting than at a NASCAR rally. Aside from opposing “abortion,” it probably has no real content. But if it means anything, it’s clear that the three she picked were not “socially conservative.” Jefferson spent much of his life fighting to disestablish the Anglican church from Virgina. He gave several memorable quotes about religious tolerance. He was so notoriously loose at his dinner table before even conservative Federalists that they would go away stunned in amazement. Ben Franklin was a notorious libertine who despite making money from early collections of bourgeois maxims never believed in anything close to “social conservatism” as the teabaggers use that term. George Washington, aside from being personally dignified and believing in personal financial rectitude, never indicated any views on “social conservatism” in any respect as used by any teabagger.

As for “poitical conservatism,” application of that term to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin can only be done by those who either know nothing or don’t care. Thomas Jefferson while ambassador to Louis XVI helped the revolutionaries draw up their set of Rights of Man to be imposed on the King. He supported the revolution through all its phases, including the Terror. He advocated giving land to Virginia males so that they would be eligible to vote. He urged amendment to the Constitution so that the federal government could engage in public infrastructure spending. Ben Franklin was as liberal as any eighteenth century politician. He supported progressive taxation and welfare spending.

Even Washington, considered a conservative by historians, would never actually be supported by the teabaggers. In the great debate in his administration–the power of the federal government–the question was over the “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution. Under one view the power of Congress (as opposed to the sovereign states) would be vastly increased. After reading briefs on both sides, Washington sided with the vast reach of Congressional power–a point that the teabaggers are bitterly opposed to. More importantly to teabagger sensibilities, as President Washington assembled an army, larger than any he commanded during the revolution, to put down an armed resistance to taxation in Western Pennsylvania (and elsewhere). The tax was levied on the private manufacture of distilled liquor and was considered particularly egregious since it was unfair compared to taxes on imported wines that the elites in the East drank and because it permitted inspectors to search citizens’ premises for stills. So it represented not only a tax but a great expansion of federal intrusion into private affairs, including searching a person’s home! Yet the army was assembled and brutally put down the rebellion. The leaders were brought back East to be tried for treason! They weren’t even tried where they were arrested. And this was one of the grievances specifically mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Imagine what the teabaggers would say if a federal army swooped into to arrest, for treason!, a meeting of armed “patriots” discussing the need to resist federal authority.

So why do they, the teabaggers, do it? Why do they make claims not supported by history, that they can be ridiculed for? Because, after all, you can believe in some aspects of the founders’ work without having to endorse everything. No one really thinks the 3/5 compromise was a thing of grace.

I think it comes down to two things. First has something to do with what Carlyle objected to. When your social organization revolves around the laissez-faire, then only commercial honesty is necessary. “You get what you pay for” is the only thing they believe government should enforce. Beyond that, government is not needed, and perhaps a danger. They believe everything they have, they earned; everything they are required to pay (as in taxes) is theft. They only understand the immediate cash transaction they have to calculate. When they buy the large bag of potato chips at Walmart, they don’t think of anything except whether they are willing to hand over the price or go without. They believe that everything operates that way. Microsoft made a fortune because they offered a product at the price that people were willing to part with. It had nothing to do with a society so educated (mostly at taxpayer expense) that the market existed for that product. Or that labor laws and unions had over the years raised the standard of living that clerks at grocery stores could now afford to buy machines to watch videos of American Idol contestants before casting their votes. Or that the government provided a court system that policed the copyright ownership of Microsoft. Society to them is not complex: it involves only each one of them and the person they are deciding whether to give money to.

I’m suggesting that they have a very narrow concept of what is important. And what is important is themselves only.

The second thing is that they have no shame. The loss of shame among Americans is a subject that deserves a much fuller treatment. But the fact that celebrities, politicians, journalists, writers and the other purveyors of popular culture have repeatedly been caught lying, prevaricating, fudging the facts and similar things, with no penalty, has drastically lowered the kind of evidence that is considered acceptable in public debate. And it is about as low as it every was in this country. So, if you want to prove a point? Make up authority. It didn’t seem to hurt Sarah Palin (a poster girl for the belief that cash payments trump everything) or Michele Bachmann. “Never be embarrassed” has replaced “better be informed” as the motto of our celebrity leaders.

And does it really matter anyway? The closest most people come to considering Washington or Lincoln or the rest is when these American heros are used to sell products on television or at department stores during President’s Day sales. So if their images are claimed by the sellers of the cash-transactions-define-us crowd, why shouldn’t they be used by its chief ideological warriors?

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