I thought the joke summed up the mixed bag of imagery surrounding the Tea Party political movement, if indeed it is a movement and not just a loosely joined bunch of individuals with a lot of different grievances. At this point, from the reporting I’ve seen and the photos I’ve been looking at, it’s hard to know what the Tea Party political framework really is. (See Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker piece looking at how the Tea Party has appropriated imagery from the American Revolution for a notion of the inconsistency of its message.)
The media has valiantly been trying to figure it out—they’ve got no choice. If the Tea Party is for real, ignoring it would be a huge journalistic mistake. The danger is that the obsessive coverage of colorful demonstrations could be making the Tea Party seem more important—and coherent—that it really is.
The photographic depiction of the Tea Party certainly has picked up on a range of themes. In the photo below, by Spencer Platt of Getty Images shows a Tea Party protestor at an anti-tax rally in Albany, New York on April 13. This image seems to place the Tea Party in the mainstream of U.S. politics: Hatred of taxes, and the urge to change governments, are both instincts as American as apple pie.
On the other hand, other photographers have focused on darker themes associated with the Tea Party—such as racism. (See this related New York Times editorial piece Charles Blow.)Photographer Nina Berman of the Noor agency has done a critical documentary project on the Tea Party that is available at the Bag Note News blog. The photo below is from a Huffington Post article titled “10 Most Offensive Tea Party Signs.” The images in the article (see below) were collected by what the website called “citizen journalists.”
I chose to show these pictures, by Mathieu Young, because they capture the aspect of the Tea Party movement that makes me uneasy. The line between political protest and irrational anger can get very thin, I think. Caricature is a time-honored form of political discourse, but the opposition to Barack Obama in many of the Tea Party signs goes beyond caricature. Mixed up with the Tea Party message about the evils of taxes and statism is the Birther movement and the oft-repeated sentiment to “Take Back America." Where should America be taken back to? Who is going to be rewarded by this taking back, and who is going to be hurt? Is it the private sector (big banks) or the goverment who is evil? These are questions the Tea Party hasn't answered, at least for me.
Last winter I picked up an old edition of William Manchester’s The Death of a President is an antique store in upstate New York. It is impossible to read Manchester’s description of the attitudes toward John F. Kennedy in Texas without reflecting on the slogans waved around by the Tea Party. Here he describes a leaflet spread by an anti-Kennedy group:
WantedEarlier in the morning five thousand cheap handbills had appeared on the streets of Dallas. At the top were two offset photographs of the President, on full face and one if profile. The effect was that of a Bertillon police poster, and it was deliberate, because the headline read:
“This man,” the dodger declared, “is wanted for treasonous activities against the United States,” and it offered a seven-point bil of particulars. The Chief Executive was accused, among other things, of betraying the Constitution, “turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over the to communist-controlled United Nations,” betraying such friends as Cuba, having “been wrong on innumerable issues,” including Cuba and the Test Ban Treaty, encouraging racial riots, invading a sovereign State with federal troops,” upholding the Supreme Court “in its Anti-Christian rulings,” and appointing Anti-Christians for federal offices….” In sum, the broadside was an incendiary amalgam of all the invective being spread by Kennedy’s enemies. Any hater, left or right, could find fuel in it.
Here is the poster itself:
At this point, despite all the agitation by the Tea Party and all the news coverage the movement has gotten, do we really understand what it is about?—David Schonauer