10 December 2010

a Tea Party tale...

Last night, I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Keli Carender, the Tea Party activist credited with launching the movement early in 2009.  The event, hosted by Mount Holyoke College's Weissman Center, was notable for how little Ms. Carender actually said about the Tea Party.  Perhaps geography was to blame.   She was, admittedly, treading on unfriendly territory.  Mount Holyoke is located in that part of Western Massachusetts known as the Pioneer Valley, aka the Happy Valley, a region identified by its strong liberal sentiments and progressive politics.  The Valley is familiarly associated with that stereotype of latte drinking, Prius driving lefties who vociferously deny eating processed food and watching television and who are energetically targeted for accusations of elitism by a majority on the right.  
It was in this liberal lair that Ms Carender bravely appeared, ostensibly for a "serious discussion of the political positions of the Tea Party movement, which promises to greatly shape the future of conservative politics in this country” according to the description of the event on the college website

She failed to address this issue.  She began warily, by complimenting the audience, comprised mainly of MHC students, for being open minded enough to attend the event, then related her experiences as a conservative in Seattle, a place she described as openly hostile to her kind.  The lecture took a bizarre turn as Ms. Carender fought back tears, explaining that she had been the object of frequent abusive personal attacks.  It was painful, she said, being called a "bigot", a "fascist", a "Nazi".  "Tonight is my therapy session".   One wondered, reasonably, why this intrepid founder of the most divisive political movement in the country was suddenly going all teary.

A former Bush supporter, she claimed to eventually feel cruelly betrayed by Bush.  It was then that she had her epiphany.  "Politicians don't care about us, politicians are foul!" "You have a voice!", she told herself.  Inspired to take matters into her own hands, she sponsored a protest, modestly attended, but which nevertheless got the attention of many like-minded conservatives via mention on talk radio and served as a catalyst for that grassroots initiative that evolved into the Tea Party. 

Throughout her lecture, Ms. Carender expressed the need for open dialogue, encouraging the purportedly bloodthirsty liberals in the audience to "befriend a conservative" and "reach out and find issues we can all agree on".   It was a kind of Rodney King moment, but one which failed to encourage any constructive discussion of the Tea Party agenda, which was presumably the reason why everyone showed up to the event in the first place.

Well, maybe not.  Tensions began to erupt during the Q&A session.  Both Ms. Carender and some of those asking questions adopted that sort of brusque cattiness that tries to disguise itself as civility.  Words are weapons, they might as well have been throwing knives. This forced attempt at polite debate required frequent "girls, break it up" interventions from the moderator and organizer of the event.  So much for reaching out. 

In visting the College, Ms. Carender had an opportunity to address serious concerns about her coalition before an ostensibly interested audience but, for whatever reasons, she failed to take up the challenge.  That was a disappointment.  Her wish for constructive debate did not materialize, perhaps it never could here in the Valley, but she might have done something more to encourage it.  Perhaps she does not share the opinions of the extremists who have been drawn to her increasingly fragmented movement.  Perhaps she does not endorse the bear-frightening and caribou-shooting of her Tea Party's most vocal proponent, but she never quite gave us the chance to find out.  Nothing she said created any distance between her and those whose inflammatory rhetoric provokes the kind of anger she faced during question time.  It was naive of her visit an area known for its liberal convictions and then be surprised by the less than generous reaction  Her failure to clarify her own vision as something distinct from that of her movement's most provocative and divisive followers will of course be interpreted as an endorsement of their beliefs.  In neglecting to account for that, she becomes linked, fairly or not, with the ugliness and rancor with which her coalition has become increasingly identified.   

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