The cargo came! And who could blame
If Indians seized the tea,
And, chest by chest, let down the same
Into the laughing sea?
For what avail the plough or sail
Or land or life, if freedom fail?
—from "Boston" (1873)
Ralph Waldo Emerson's stirring poem about the colonists, who in 1773 threw chests of English tea into Boston Harbor, sharpens one's view of the recent imitations as pathetic farce. Those 200 men made a brave, witty, daring and original protest for an idea larger than themselves: Freedom. And what fun, dressing up as Mohawk Indians — not just the sea was laughing! I mean, who were they fooling? They were angry, but they were having a good time, too.
Last month's reenactment, incited by those stoic and fair-minded scalpers Dick Armey and Rush Limbaugh, was performed by crowds of surly people so out of touch with the problems and promise of America that one's heart sank listening to their complaints. The only upside is, if this is what represents the Republican party today, it's doomed for the foreseeable future. (Senator Arlen Specter's betting on it.)
But this isn't a real upside. One of the habits any healthy country needs to develop is lively debate: a one-party system means trouble in the long run. (Limbaugh and Armey, infamous for war dances, name-calling and bullying anyone who disagrees with them, are no help in debates; they're screamers, not debaters.)
Unlike the original high-spirited Bostonians, the malcontents who formed these modest tea-party gatherings came across as dispirited whiners. Holding it on Tax Day, April 15 — rather than on the actual Tea Party anniversary (December 16 ) — set the tone. Person after person complained about taxes. In a more general way, they fulminated against Big Government and the huge stimulus package that will leave their children broke. One's first reaction was, Don't these people read?
We'd be more sympathetic to their whimpering if various uncharitable thoughts didn't keep popping up. Like, where have they been the last eight years as we were plunged into a trillion-dollar deficit, worldwide recession and an immoral and unwinnable war that left many of their children sick, wounded or dead? Why grab their tea bags now? They were like kids who go out uncostumed on Halloween, too old to be trick-or-treating, but sticking out their brown paper bags anyway.
We're in the midst of major troubles — President Obama inherited them, though those interviewed ignored this uncomfortable fact — but nowhere did I hear a word about sacrifice. They were asking instead, How can we do less for our country?
No one in the crowds I saw looked like he or she made over $250,000, but they didn't seem to know that their taxes wouldn't be going up, or that most of them would receive refunds this year. Maybe they were all smokers: that at least would be a legitimate gripe — cigarette taxes will go up; hey, they could blame that on the original Indians, as well as Obama. (He looks like an Indian, and he smokes, too.)
While there was much sympathy shown for the picked-upon rich, there was none for the poor, those lazy bloodsuckers. The uninsured, unemployed, undereducated and immigrants got short shrift as the protesters spoke to reporters. Emerson (1811-1882) nicely observed that people "are conservatives when they are least vigorous . . . They are conservatives after dinner." Indeed, the tea-party crowds looked well-fed, even overfed, as if they had been gorging on crumpets. One of the planks of Republican-style capitalism is that the poor will always be with us — a misreading of Matthew 26:11 — and these Christians are very comfortable with that (although God Himself says in Deuteronomy [15:4] that "there should be no poor among you").
The stimulus package is a gamble, but not a gamble like a preemptive war. Money has to be spread in order to get America working again. The economy needs to be fed, jobs have to be created. It's certainly possible that Obama's spreading too much, or too little: no one knows.
But Obama's making his guess with the best available information. And he doesn't believe that the poor must always be with us. This doesn't mean that in his new America everyone will make the same amount of money, not even close — but like Emerson, he has a broad and generous mind. He understands that today's tea-party people are unhappy, confused and misled by their own captains (Limbaugh, Armey, Gingrich, McCain, Palin: Full speed behind!). What Obama's trying to do is make life better and fairer for all Americans, including the tax protesters. Even the rich will be happier when they see that they can pay their fair portion of the fees needed to support their way of life, and still have far more money than everyone else. Fairness, not equality, is the goal.
Emerson, perhaps the quintessential American thinker, got it right: "All sensible people are selfish, and nature is tugging at every contract to make the terms of it fair." Obama's not changing the rules; he's just tugging them. I'll drink a cup of tea to that.
—Peter and Jeanne Meinke (www.petermeinke.com) have been drinking Supreme Himalayan tea from the base of Mt. Everest to calm themselves, sent from Nepal by their son and daughter-in-law. They used to drink ginger tea, but it was too exciting.
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