Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tea Drinking and the Ironies of History

Whatever else the tea drinkers who assembled in Washington on August 28 might have accomplished, they did manage to turn the National Mall into an irony-free zone, at least for an afternoon.

They certainly seemed oblivious to the obvious ironies of the day. Like the fact that even as the tea party movement was portraying itself as a “grassroots” upwelling from the people, the New York Times and the New Yorker were running big stories about the right-wing billionaires who are funding the whole show. I’d like to get me some of that “populism.”

Nor did they seem fazed that featured speaker Glenn Beck - former shock-jock, now Messiah Complex victim - was exhorting the nation to return to “traditional values.” Beck has made his career playing so fast and loose with the facts that he no longer knows when he is lying and when he’s not. This is the guy, after all, who lied to the ladies on “The View.” How low can you sink?!

Many people got upset that the event took place on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, at the same location where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech.” You could see that this would make some people touchy since the tea partiers want to re-open debates most of us thought were settled long ago, like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 14th amendment, which was passed in 1868. Ironic for sure.

Personally, I got the biggest giggle being lectured at by Sarah Palin about “character.” When the going got tough up there in Alaska, not only did Governor Palin quit her job in order to cash out, but she gave one of the most memorably bizarre speeches ever delivered by an American politician who wasn’t drunk. A model for any of us facing tough times.

The biggest irony of the day, however, came from Abe Lincoln, whose memorial was appropriated for this tea party.

Lincoln, if memory serves, was the president who prosecuted the Civil War against the southern confederacy. He fought the war for two reasons: first, to preserve the Union; second, to end slavery in the United States. When he promised, in the Gettysburg Address, a “new birth of freedom” he wasn’t talking about the freedom of the wealthy to get richer, which is what the tea drinkers seem to have in mind, but about removing the stain of slavery from the fabric of the nation.

In order to achieve those goals Lincoln engineered the largest expansion of the Federal government and of Federal power to that point in our history. He instituted the nation’s first military draft; he suspended habeas corpus rights. Most importantly, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was viewed by slave owners as an outrageous infringement of private property rights. Abe Lincoln was arguably the first “big government” president.

He did all this over the yapping objections of those who insisted on “states rights” because he knew that only through the actions of the Federal government would the institution of slavery be crushed and freedom granted to roughly 4 million enslaved Southerners.

Had Lincoln left the question of slavery to the Southern states, how much longer would that human tragedy have endured? Hard to say, but the Confederate Constitution, the legal framework for the nation Southerners fought to establish is pretty clear about this. It reads: “no law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

And yet there they were, thousands of tea drinkers standing in front of Lincoln talking about the evils of the Federal government and the need to return to states rights. All with straight faces. Martin Luther King might have been spinning in his grave, but I think I saw Abraham Lincoln roll his marble eyes in disgust during those speeches.

So the next time you want to have a little fun, ask one of these Earl Grey aficionados about Abe “Big Government” Lincoln. Ask them which side was right during the Civil War. And since the “states rights” position was on the wrong side of history about slavery, and about segregation, ask them why they think they think they’re on the right side now? You’re liable to get some rambling, semi-coherent answer that will be positively Palin-esque.


lucy beckett 1935 said...

Irony is undoubtedly lost on those in attendance on the Mall. Because i was able to watch that day in the comfort of my home, in front of my TV, I had the luxury of switching back and forth between the Mall and Al Sharpton's gathering at Dunbar High School. Sharpton graciously welcomed Glen Beck to the site of the MLK speech, acknowledging that he placed his reservation first. Not all of the speakers were as gracious, but then, why would they be. I'm most impressed with your description of Lincoln. You succinctly summed up the expansion of the power of the federal government, during the Civil War. But he was willing to do what needed to be done to preserve the Union. States rights would have torn the country apart, as it nearly did in the '50s and '60s, until Civil Rights legislation was passed and forcibly enacted. Someone at the Mall said he was glad he lived "in a Republic and not in a Democracy." Someone else noted the the Black Panthers were with the other group, and planned to cause trouble when both rallies had ended. But the Sharpton group had arranged for 'team leaders' among their ranks to keep order as they marched to the site of the planned Civil Rights' Memorial. The day remained peaceful. And infused with irony.

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