By Joe Anthony
Like many people, I’ve been surprised and dismayed by the depth of the rage exhibited by the tea party group. It has confused me, too. What is it all about? Today’s Lexington Herald-Leader had a Washington Post column by Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar from the very conservative American Enterprise Institute summing up Obama as left of center, certainly not a radical president by any means. The column talks about the dismay many of Obama’s base, me included, have felt at many of his very moderate initiatives. So even conservatives, in moments of clarity, see that this president is about as far from being a socialist as Gerald Ford was, maybe not as near to it as Richard Nixon. So again the question: why all the rage?
I’ve thought about it and come up with a few tentative answers.
The first thought is a rather hopeful one, especially for those of us on the left. It is the idea that more change is happening than has met the eye, or at least progressive eyes. The health bill’s imperfections catch our attention, but the opponents may not be all deluded. It’s a sea change in how we think about health care, about how it is now a right, not a privilege. The opponents, big hospitals, insurance companies, and their tea party minions, have all encouraged me to think better of the bill than I have.
This idea of real change certainly carries over to the financial regulations bill. A month or so ago there was real bi-partisan support for the weak bill passing through the Senate. But the health bill’s passage has strengthened real reformers and now the Banks’ and big monies’ water carriers are worried. As the New York Times editorialized about McConnell and other Republicans: “Did they belatedly discover some problem? No. They suddenly realized that their bet that reform would be watered down as it moved along might not pan out.”
So real change might be the reason for all this anger, a real threat to the status quo. That would be nice.
But it’s not all threat to big money that’s behind the rage. Something else is going on.
The tea party demographics give us more than a hint about what’s happening. They are prosperous folks for the most part, conservative, Republican and overwhelmingly white. Here is the fear behind the rage. Why did we ever think, in even the heady, hopeful days around the inauguration, that we’d ever have a gentle landing to our great demographic change? Our American history tells us otherwise. Think of the anti-Irish riots in our eastern seaboard cities, think of the deep anti-Semitism engendered by our large Jewish migrations. The no-nothings of the 1850’s only slightly evolved and became the John Birchers of the 1950’s. Can the tea partiers of 2010 be far away? And of course there is our long, cherished, and infamous tradition, our culture actually, of racism, the many re-births of the Klu Klux Klan into Nazi-biker-militia and always white-hate groups.
I say these groups have evolved, because while whiteness and its mythic characteristics have always been at their center, that whiteness has, like some invasive fungus or the kudzu of eastern Kentucky, branched out into poor depleted soils and claimed dominion. In my childhood, the Klan was known to hate Catholics almost as much as blacks (with the major caveat that very few Catholics were lynched, shot, or castrated—and tens of thousands of blacks were).
The Catholics, Irish, Italian, for the most part, were not really considered white when they first arrived, much like even the whitest of Mexicans and Cubans are suspect. The Irish were even labeled niggers, which in its original application didn’t necessary mean Negro. But gradually the Irish, and later the Italians, were assimilated into whiteness—with all its privileges and all its prejudices. This helps explain to me the fierce racism in my childhood of some of my Irish and Italian relations. They had barely escaped blackness, an American-cultural purgatory. Who knows what might push them back into it?
With all this in our history, how foolish we were to talk about a post-racial America. For we are facing real change: not the moderate change that will improve but not transform our health care system; not the progressive tinkering to our financial system that might help to govern and temper the rogue-radicals of Wall Street as Obama, like FDR, saves Wall Street from itself. No, the real change is the one that is changing our white, protestant, male, Christian country into a true melting-pot.
Not the melting-pot of our myths that took even the ski’s from our Lithuanian names, not the one that cartooned Indians and ignored blacks, not the one that hid even white women under the cloaking, choking word of men. In our new melting pot, we have a near-black, Italian female House Speaker, an aggressive and articulate female Secretary of State, and, of course, an articulate, cool, intellectual Kansas-Kenyon president. White males, our traditional power base, are threatened. Even the poor, powerless whites in my family tree are threatened with loss of white status. Even if the Mexicans, Columbians and Cubans are successfully metamorphosed into American whites, our basic national DNA has been altered, is being altered. We are different.
That is the core reason for Glen Beck’s crocodile tears as he weeps over his lost country; that is the impetus for Rush Limbaugh’s inchoate rages and the anger of his followers. The lock on power of America’s white, male, protestant hegemony is being threatened. Our job, as good progressives who wish to integrate into the new America those who can be integrated, is to gentle that rage. To gentle it just as the racism of my family has been eased so that our children finally understand that the concept of whiteness was always, as in the Catholic prayer of the dying, based more on fear and exclusion, the dread of hell or blackness, more than on any promise of heaven.
Here’s the good news: the change upon which the rage is based may give us the country we’ve always dreamed of. Let’s channel the rage so that it finally acts as a lance to pierce the carbuncle of white male privilege, so that it pricks to the core and helps to drain the puss of our racism. Let’s take back the country, from the no-nothings, the Klans, the Becks and the Limbaughs.
Let us rage back with the truth.