Last week I made up my mind to attend the Tea Party's Tax Day Taxpayer rally up at the Capitol. It was an all-too rare chance to experience a more conservative-leaning event in Madison, and the ever curious cat that lives in my body couldn't pass up the opportunity.
I admit that part of that curiosity was a bit morbid on my part, but the rest was quite honest: most of what I'd seen or heard of the Tea Party prior to that day had come from cable news networks and internet memes. And though I appreciate a good meme as much as the next digital dork, I'd be remiss if I didn't seek out the kind of first-hand experience I'm always urging people with whom I disagree to have when it comes to things they don't understand.
So I hopped on my bike and, on a gorgeous early spring day, made my way down to and then mingled with the large crowd that had gathered on the King Street side of the seat of Wisconsin government.
The first thing I noticed was the flags…so many flags. Mostly of the stars-and-stripes or yellow "Don't Tread on Me" variety that's become so popular with the more libertarian minded these days. The people there seemed relatively calm and happy -- to be among like-minded folks, to be out in the beautiful sunshine (and like every rally I've ever been to, there was plenty of crowd size inflation coming from the speakers as well. Claims of everything from 8 to 12 thousands were made, whereas the official police estimate was more like 4,500). There were plenty of signs, too -- because what's a political rally without signs -- but I noted, with a certain degree of relief, a decided lack of the painfully misspelled and/or racist variety that seem to have been so prevalent in online coverage of Tea Parties past.
Which isn't to say there was nothing I found offensive at the rally; the sexism and fear of other were definitely on display with some of those in attendance. But Madison's Tea Partiers and the tea-curious among them, I have to admit, comported themselves fairly well overall in the sign department.
What I did find offensive, as I stood quietly in the crowd trying to keep my bleeding heart as incognito as possible, was the business-as-usual rhetoric coming from the speakers who paraded, one after another after another, in front of the microphone.
See, even after everything -- the name-calling and blame-placing that comes from both sides of our current, poisonous political debate -- I still believe that most people, left to their own devices (that is, sans the bellowing of talking heads and politicians), tend to err on the side of common decency. But when you put a raving ideologue with even a little bit of charisma, or even just with a sufficiently loud and commanding voice, in front of a crowd and give them amplification, things tend to go downhill pretty quickly.
I've seen it happen at my more left-wing rallies, and the Tea Party event was no different.
Speaker after speaker railed against what they alleged was the rampant and destructive socialism of progressives and liberals. In the process, of course, they showed an impressive ignorance of what things like 'socialism' and other such buzzwords really mean. They vilified the attempts at getting health care for everyone as enabling people to be lazy and shiftless. Mike Dean, an attorney and member of the First Freedoms Foundation (appearing, he stressed, in his capacity as a private citizen), declared that there should be "no free healthcare," and that we must work to earn it.
And there I was, standing in his audience, unable to afford the health care that I need because I've chosen to walk a career path that is 1) where my passion actually lays, and 2) unfortunately doesn't involve working for a business that provides coverage for its employees. I work for myself. And myself works her ass off and still can't afford good health care. So tell me again that I'm asking for a handout that I haven't earned. And tell it to the other people I'm sure were in the crowd who also don't have affordable access to quality care but still work their butts off every day to make ends meet.
Health care is a right, not something we should dole out only to those deemed worthy.
There was also a whole heckuva lot of talk about American exceptionalism (which strikes me as an incredibly arrogant mindset, frankly), about how love of God and Jesus is the only way to lead a moral life and have a moral nation-to the point that it bordered on insecurity. After all, the more you feel the need to vehemently insist that one thing is true, the more likely it seems to me that you're not really sure of that thing yourself.
And I'm not talking about whether or not God or Jesus are totally awesome. I'm talking about the people here on Earth who kick and scream the most about how totally awesome God and Jesus are, and how you're a hell-bound heathen if you don't agree. That's insecurity.
Not to mention that their rabid insistence on framing the Framers as intending the United States to be an Officially Christian Nation is completely off-base. This particular Tea Party even had some guy dress up as Thomas Jefferson to deliver one of the speeches. That ended up being one of the most painfully ironic moments of the day, as Faux Jefferson repeatedly asked the crowd, "Are you slaves?" -- Jefferson himself having owned around 600 of them in his day. He was also a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state (one of the many things that apparently pissed off the right-leaning Texas Board of Education so much that they plum removed him from their curriculum).
The Rev. David King of the Milwaukee God Squad, after getting over his apparent fetish for calling people "ding dongs," went on to lead the crowd in some serious Jesus praising. Which again, no issue with people who love on Jesus (he was pretty loveable), but when they feel the need to force said love onto others and demonize those who even politely reject their overtures, I have to draw a line.
Beyond that, there was quite a bit of claiming that liberals hate freedom of speech, which was news to me. We apparently pay it lip service to make ourselves look good, but then do things like enact hate crimes legislation, which Tim Dake from the GrandSons of Liberty seemed to think limits his free speech -- speech that I can only assume involves beating the crap out of people who are gay or have a different skin color.
And of course, what would a stereotypical right-leaning rally be without the constant lionization of Ronald Wilson Reagan? Not a very good one, that's what. Happily, Ethan Hollenberger (student at the UW-Oshkosh) got the party started by invoking the holy name in his speech more often than Rudy Giuliani name-drops 9/11.
Reagan, he claimed, "started a revolution" that the Tea Partiers "need to finish." Other than illegally selling arms to then-embargoed Iran, funding death squads in South America, and taking credit for a Cold War ending that had more to do with internal strife in the U.S.S.R than the man himself, I'm not sure which revolution Hollenberger was talking about, though.
Hollenberger also did a lot of the anti-academia, anti-intellectual screeching that has been so unnerving in ultra-conservative tactics lately. Attacking the pursuit of a quality and rigorous education is just about one of the more disgusting things any movement can resort to, in my opinion.
Eventually, after feeling my knees begin to buckle and the skin on my neck thoroughly burn (must bring sun block in the future!) the moment everyone had been talking about finally came: Tommy Thompson! Former Republican Wisconsin governor! Long rumored candidate for Senate! So passionate. So dreamy. So jowly.
I have to give the old man credit; he got up there and really tried to give a fiery speech. It was hard to take him seriously, though, as his voice kept cracking and occasionally dipping into this weird old-time cartoon character tone. Watch the speech for yourself and see what I mean: