Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- January 20, 2010

Don't Ridicule the Tea-Baggers -- Recruit Them

Ernest Partridge

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Along with the rest of you, I am amused and entertained when Ed Schultz, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, et al, lampoon the tea bag brigades. It is so easy to target those poor souls, with their stupid signs, their incoherent slogans, and their appalling ignorance of fundamental political and historical facts.

Ridicule the tea baggers? A cheap thrill, to be sure.

But also lousy political strategy!

News flash! Most people react negatively to insults, and turn against those who make fun of them. Moreover, those who are insulted are likely to respond with renewed and enhanced convictions. That’s how I respond. You too, I dare say. It’s simple human nature.

To be sure, Schultz’s “Psycho Talk” and Olbermann’s “Worst Persons” and other such attacks on right-wing crazies are worthy exercises. So too the clever antics of “Billionaires for Wealthfare” and “The Yes Men.” But no one expects such attacks to persuade Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, O’Reilly, Backman, deMint, et al to forsake their wicked ways. Instead, such well deserved ridicule is designed to discredit these sources of tea-bag delusions. Accordingly, they are appropriate targets of derision.

But not the tea-bag movement, en masse, and most assuredly, not each of those who identify with it.

So how should the strategically savvy progressive deal with the tea-baggers, both collectively and face-to-face?

Above all, one should acknowledge that many, and perhaps most, tea-baggers are not the right-wing enemy, they are the victims of the right-wing along with the vast majority of the rest of us.

Face it: Dick Armey, Glenn Beck, FAUX News, and the billionaires that are funding the tea-bag movement have accomplished a truly astonishing feat. They have persuaded millions of the victims of the banksters, big pharma, insurance, energy conglomerates, etc. to protest in behalf of their oppressors, and against their potential liberators and their own self-interest. One could almost admire the well-funded geniuses who pulled this off, but for the fact that they are greedy, unprincipled and ruthless bastards.

Progressives and tea-baggers share two fundamental complaints against the corporate oligarchy: economic injustice and disenfranchisement. The “powers-that-be” have effectively deprived the vast majority of American citizens of their fair share of the national wealth, and they have excluded “We the People” from the political process. Progressives are well aware of these injustices, and their political programs are directed to the alleviation of these abuses.. On the other hand, Dick Armey’s “Freedom Works” and the other puppet-masters behind the tea-bag movement hide these just grievances behind a smoke screen of epithets, irrelevancies and empty slogans: “socialists!,” “communists!,” “fascism,” “liberal elites,” “ACORN,” “big government.”

When dealing with a tea-bagger, perhaps the most effective tactical maneuver is to “parry” these accusations gently and, if possible, with an affirmative response and then to move on to economic issues.

Case-in-point: if you are asked “are you for abortion?,” answer directly, “no I am not.” The question is ambiguous, and in one interpretation it is doubtful that anyone ever needs to answer otherwise. In a strict sense, absolutely no one believes that abortion, per se, is a good thing. No woman ever attempted to get pregnant for no other reason than to enjoy the ordeal of having an abortion. At the very least, abortion is an inconvenience, and at worse, murder. Therein lies the controversy. Advice: move on before you get bogged down in that controversy. It is not relevant to the essential political issues now before us.

Likewise for the issues of “God, guns and gays.”

In conversation with a tea-bagger, remember that “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” Don't try to engage in an academic discussion. Evidence and rules of inference mean little to a typical tea-bagger, who regards science and intellect as an elitist conspiracy of “eggheads.” In such an encounter, what you are dealing with is not a coherent world-view, but with incoherent yet justifiable rage, skillfully re-directed toward the innocent. In Nazi Germany, it was the Jews. In the post-confederate South, it was the blacks. At the time of Senator Joe McCarthy, it was “pinkos” and “com-symps” (“communist sympathizers”), and now it is “liberal elites.” It is a familiar and effective tactic known as “scapegoating.”

Faced with such an attitude, I have found that questions are much more effective than assertions. Given the simplistic, exaggerated, and ill-defined notions behind the slogans and labels, it can be rather easy to come to some vague sort of agreement and then move on to the essential issues: the restoration of economic justice and responsive government “of, by, and for the people.”

Because the tea-bag phenomenon issues from the gut and not from the head, most attempts to talk plain common sense to these true believers will be futile – like trying to persuade a “young earth” creationist to accept evolution. While most will be unmoved by evidence and well-directed questions, a few might. After all, it should not be all that difficult to articulate a few shared political convictions or to identify the culprits who are exploiting us and who have captured our goverment. The typical tea-bagger is a follower, not an original or independent thinker. Thus, once a few of them come to recognize the manipulative corporate “men behind the curtain,” others may join them. It is just possible that a significant minority of the puppets might cut their strings and turn upon the puppet-masters.

So how does one talk to a tea-bagger? Let’s try this out with an imaginary conversation:

Progressive: Please explain to me, just what is your complaint against the liberals and the Obama administration.

Tea-Bagger They are a bunch of socialists and fascists who are taxing us to death, want to take away our guns, give our jobs to illegal aliens, and tear up our Constitution.

P: Let’s take these one at a time. First, guns. Clearly, the Second Amendment says that we have the right to own guns. I agree. So if you can show my any instances of a law or government activity involved in seizing the guns of a law-abiding citizen I will join you in opposing it. Are you aware of any such law or activity supported by the federal government?

I am also opposed to illegal immigration. But do you believe that immigrants would cross our borders illegally if there were no jobs available to them? If not, then isn't this a problem of illegal employers as much as illegal immigrants? So will you join me in demanding strict enforcement of employment laws?

TB: Surely you must agree that we are paying too much in taxes, and that much of our tax money is thrown away on waste, fraud and abuse.

P: Yes, I agree. And if we had a fair tax system, you and I would pay less in federal taxes – unless you are much richer than I believe you are. Did you know that most millionaires and billionaires pay a smaller percentage of their incomes to taxes than average Joes like us? And most corporations evade their taxes through loopholes or by incorporating offshore in foreign countries? Yet these corporations and rich folks use the public roads, benefit from public police and fire protection, are protected by the military, and hire workers educated at public expense. Shouldn't they pay a fair share for these benefits? As for waste, fraud and abuse of government funds, who approves except, of course, the scoundrels who benefit? And clearly that’s neither of us. So if you want to crack down on those scoundrels, I am completely with you.

TB: Now look , everybody knows that Obama is a socialist, or maybe even a fascist!

P: Help me out here. What do you mean by “socialist”?

TB: Socialism is when the government runs everything. No private enterprise.

P: Well, unless I am mistaken, you’re not describing the Obama program. Can you cite any Obama proposal to abolish private businesses? I can't think of any. Seems to me that the federal government is, if anything, too much under the control of private business – big business, I mean. Big drug companies, big insurance, big energy, Wall Street, the six corporations that control 90% of the mass media. Meanwhile, small business is being squeezed. Family businesses on Main Street, perhaps yours, can’t compete with Wal-Mart, Home Depot, etc. If your complaint is that the government in Washington, under the Bushes, Clinton and now Obama, are not looking after the little guy, I’m with you. But is this because of creeping socialism, or is it instead, because of unregulated national and international corporations?

TB: About fascism?

P: Well, “fascism” as a political movement originated with Mussolini in Italy, who defined it as the merging of corporate and government interests. And yes, as we just noted, so defined, it is a genuine threat. But are the Republicans, and the sponsors of the Tea Bag movement such as Freedom Works, a solution to corporate control of government, or in fact a large part of the problem? Which party in the Congress is responsive more to the corporate contributors than to the voters?

TB: Both are.

P: Sadly, that is true. But which party is more responsive? Show me a politician of either party that ignores the interests of the voters and is “bought” by corporate contributors, and we will both do our best to separate that politician from his office. Agreed?

TB: When I say “fascism,” I mean that Obama and the liberals are taking away our freedoms.

P: So who set aside trial by jury, habeas corpus, the Fourth Amendment guarantees against search and seizure, the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment? Not Obama. True, he hasn’t restored all of these and other violations of the Constitution that were put in place by the Bush administration, and I am damned angry that he hasn’t. But can you cite for me one instance of an attempt by the Obama administration to take away our Constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms? If you can, then I will join you in protesting such an outrage.

TB: Now look, you are just playing with my mind. I am a conservative, and I want to take our country back from you liberal elites.

P: “Liberal?” “Conservative?” I’m not sure I understand what these words mean any more. So let me tell you what I do believe, and I will leave it to you to decide what label to pin on me. Most fundamentally, I endorse the founding documents of our republic: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Thus I believe that it is the function of government to secure the rights of each citizen to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Furthermore, in the words of the Preamble to the Constitution, it is the function of government to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." With the late Barbara Jordan, I affirm that “my faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.”

Now isn’t that what you would call a “conservative” point of view? And if some wealthy and powerful individuals and trans-national corporations attempt to “buy out” our Congress, our courts, and yes, our Chief Executive, then, with Barbara Jordan, “I am not going to ... be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.”

You want your country back? So do I. But “back” from whom and from what? Sure, we have our differences, but these are distractions from the central political issues of our time about which, I submit, we agree.  We both support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We both agree that the wealth produced cooperatively by workers, investors, educators and government in the national economy should be fairly distributed. We both agree that the government of the United States, in particular the Congress, belongs to the people, not to corporations and most assuredly not to trans-national corporations. And we both believe in free markets and open competition, both of which are subverted by the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of the very wealthy.

We have come a long way from the ideals of the founding of our republic, and it will be a long and arduous struggle to get our country back.

Will you join me and other so-called “liberals” in this effort? And if not, please explain to me why not?


Copyright 2010, by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .