Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dogan's Diagnosis

Pensacola's newspaper columnist Reginald Dogan does the Pulitzer Prize winning Miami columnist Leonard Pitts one better today. Back in February, Pitts published his view of the Tea Party movement. He called it "nuanced." We thought it was excessively charitable:
The tea party people distrust Obama's policies, his eloquence, his fierce intelligence and the fact that he is black then becomes the final straw, the difference maker and deal breaker. To put that another way: I doubt most of the tea partiers hate Obama strictly because he is black, but it sure doesn't help.
Today Dogan, to his credit, comes right out and says what needs to be said:
Many of the tea partiers, I believe, are seething because, for the first time in American history, a black man is in the White House. I'm convinced that race is a subtext of the tea party movement.
The distinctions between those two views may be a fine one, but it's there nevertheless. Leonard Pitts acknowledges the teabaggers "distrust" of President Obama's policies and "fierce intelligence" as if these were race-neutral standards; then he supposes their racism is merely "the final straw." Dogan, by contrast, cuts right to the quick: he sees racism as the one overwhelming constant that under-girds the Tea Party movement.

Perhaps the difference in views can be attributed to a difference in locale. No doubt, Miami seems to Pitts more urbane and accepting of racial diversity than Dogan's Pensacola. What Pitts sees among the Miami teabaggers are angry folks --
moved by something even bigger than race. This is race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, culture, and the fact that those who have always been on the right side, the power-wielding side, of one or more of those equations, now face the realization that their days of dominance are numbered.
What Dogan sees in the Pensacola teabaggers are hypocrites who --
moan about too much government control, unless, of course, the government wants to control something that they oppose, like same-sex marriage or leaving religion out of public schools.

They complain about President Obama taking away their civil liberties, but when President Bush trampled all over our civil liberties, they uttered not a mumbling word.

They called the recently passed health care legislation unconstitutional but said nothing about the Patriot Act and the suspension of habeas corpus by the Bush administration.

So many of them happily accept their government checks.

They rail against too much government, but they don't turn down their Social Security and Medicare benefits.
History and human psychology suggest Dogan has the keener insight. As David H. Bennett wrote in his detailed study of the long and sordid history of extremist right-wing political parties in America, "The Party of Fear", "the picture of the United States as a unique and gifted land, a garden of Eden that must be preserved against encroachment of sinners" has been the fountainhead of every anti-Quaker, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and anti-black political movement in our history.
What tied these movements to one tradition was the common vision of alien intruders in the promised land -- people who could not be assimilated in the national community because of their religion or ethnicity.
* * *
If there has been political extremism of the Right in American history, it is found in large measure in these efforts to combat peoples and ideas that were seen as alien threats to a cherished but embattled American "way of life." The passionate men and women who joined the right-wing groups that sought to check various alien enemies became extremists when they violated democratic procedures and moved outside the norms of a democratic society. Seeing a vast conspiracy behind the invasion of strange and unpromising immigrants, the growth of an "authoritarian" church, and the appearance of an ideology dedicated to destroying traditional arrangements, they insisted that desperate times called for extraordinary measures, that saving America was worth paying any price. They were the leaders and members of the party of fear. As politicians of morality, they refused to treat those whom they feared with tolerance or civility. As moralists of the Right, they were idealists whose vision of utopia was in the past. They sought, as had other rightists, to preserve the old, idyllic order by purging the corrupting elements that menaced its values and perverted its institutions.

"America" is a dream from the past imperiled; it needs protectors to preserve its promise for future generations. Only idealists who see themselves as supreme patriots are willing to rise to its defense. That, at least, is what they seemed to be saying to anyone who would listen.
Hatred and fear of "the other" drives the Teabaggers as surely as it drove the Puritans who hung Quakers on Boston Common in the 18th century; the LocoFocos, Anti-Masonites, Know Nothings, and Southern Democrats of the first half of the 19th century; the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Semites, the "Americanization movement," and anti-Bolshevik movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and the John Birch Society and anti-community witch-hunts in the later decades of 20th century.

There is nothing new about the tea baggers. They are merely the latest iteration of a paranoid style of racist, xenophobic, Me-First types. We've seen them and felt the heat of their fear and hatred throughout our nation's history. As Dogan says, there's no reason to go see them today. It always ends badly.

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