15 April 2010

Tax Day Tea Party

We had contemplated driving down to the Tax Day Tea Party in Washington, DC, today––I took a couple of days of off work specifically for that purpose––but ended up not going for a variety of reasons, some logistical and some due to a basic uneasiness with the phenomenon itself.

Don’t get me wrong: I regard the spontaneous appearance of the tea parties as a positive sign, one of the only remaining indications that there is any spirit whatsoever among the broader population to resist the abuse of government power. Nevertheless, I have reservations about the effectiveness of attending such events. It’s not obvious to me how milling about with large crowds of people holding mixed premises can be very productive. Religious conservatives, libertarians, party-line Republicans, and Objectivists do not see eye to eye on everything, to say the least. If every speaker at these events were a Yaron Brook or John David Lewis, it would be wonderful. But most speakers are not articulate, consistent defenders of liberty; few mention or even seem to understand fundamentals. It is rare to hear individual rights mentioned at all. Most of the speeches are either concrete-bound enumerations of grievances (e.g. taxes, deficits, etc.) or meaningless platitudes that serve only to whip up a crowd. (“Let’s take back this government!” Rah. Rah.) Unless I’m at Fenway Park, I don’t like large crowds chanting, even if they are justified in doing so.

I admit that a big part of my being put off by the tea parties has to do with my lifelong revulsion of protests, exhibitions that I’ve always deemed to be invariably leftist, anarchistic, anti-intellectual affairs––and that is a completely unfair characterization in this case. The tea party protests are shockingly civilized as far as I’ve seen, and are far more intellectual and substantial than anything the left has had to offer in at least half a century. The few isolated reports in the media about tea party protesters spitting, hurling racial epithets, or brandishing guns are the exceptions that prove the rule. If that is the extent of distasteful behavior––if that is all a hostile media could find, bend, or fabricate in over a year of desperate yearning to discredit the movement, after hundreds of protests nationwide, and in the face of a general call from leftist organizations to infiltrate and sabotage the gatherings––then it is truly remarkable.

In any case, Lynne and I ended up going to the much smaller (not to mention conveniently located) Tax Day Tea Party in Lowell, MA. As we suspected, it was a mixture of mostly good and a couple of not-so-good elements. The best part was that we met a couple of our friends there, one of whom was brave enough to be the first speaker. She fared very well, reading from the Declaration of Independence and making a few comments. The crowd was not too large. (I am terrible at estimating numbers, so I am not going to try.) Everyone was very polite and courteous. The forest of signs were universally civil and many were very witty and clever.

I had come empty-handed, but I actually ended up holding one of the signs that my friend had brought with her. It read “Read Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand was Right” on one side and “This is John Galt Speaking” on the other. This placed me in the bizarre position of holding a sign at a public protest even though hell had not yet frozen over––something I would have not thought possible! To my surprise, I actually liked it, and it afforded me an opportunity to talk to some people about Ayn Rand and answer some questions.

The one element of the gathering that I considered to be negative was a brief injection of religious faith into the discourse. This was basically limited to one speaker, a military (or retired military) man who loudly insisted that good Americans believe in God, believes that the Ten Commandments are the source of law, and demanded that prayer be put back into schools. He is probably a perfectly decent and respectable man, and I thank him for his military service, but if he takes the position that man’s rights are derived from God and thus do not exist in the real world, then he is doing the work of our enemies. Apart from him, though, no one else that I saw or heard brought up religion.

All in all, it was a positive experience, though it did nothing to convince me that such gatherings have much practical benefit. As I indicated before, the importance of the tea party protests lies in the spirit that it signals; their very existence indicates that freedom is not yet dead. However, to effect the broad cultural change that is required to reverse our plunge toward serfdom will require a much more articulate and consistent message.


Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for reporting your experiences and insights. Your report and this one in Tulsa . . .


and this one in New York . . .


all add up to a sort of paint-by-the-numbers portrait of the diffuse tea party movement in the US.

Based on what I saw myself last year -- in one Tea Party event and in two work parties leading up to another Tea Party (which I didn't attend) --I would say the movement might be worth participating in locally in some cases but only for small gains.

What is the alternative? While a few individuals succeed as generalists, on a large or small scale, others will have a long-term effect through specializing. For example, anti-trust laws won't be abolished until some activist makes them his special interest, invests time in study, and speaks out for decades to come. He can start his own movement and thereby determine its purity.

Amy said...

If you ever do come to DC, please let me know. Adam and I are eager to meet you and LB. (Are you going to the conference?)

Stephen Bourque said...

That's a good point you make, Burgess, about specialization. Alas, I do not think I am expert enough in any necessary area (law, policy, medicine, economics, etc.) to do much good. Dr. Paul Hsieh is a good example of someone who is excellent at such specialization; his fight against the health care takeover has been valiant and heroic. I can think and write, though, so I believe my efforts are best spent in trying to improve my craft in those areas, addressing topics of a general nature and "connecting the dots" where it ought to be done.


I suppose the one aspect of the tea parties that makes them potentially fruitful is the tendency for the participants to be open to accepting a reason-based case for the morality of individual rights. This is not true across the board––seriously religious people will have learned to close their minds to such appeals––but many people, by virtue of the fact that they would bother showing up at such an event, will listen to an earnest defense of their rights. In almost every other setting of everyday life, I think I would be lucky to find one person out of every ten who would be interested in such a message, but at the tea parties, the concentration is likely to be much higher.

Of course, the flip side to that point is that many of the participants who would be open to a rational argument might also be susceptible to a religious one. Religion, in its structure and overt righteousness, can be an attractive option to the indignant victim of intellectually-bankrupt socialist policies, especially when no other option is immediately evident. It is incumbent upon us to make sure that another option is evident.

Stephen Bourque said...

Amy, Lynne and I are looking forward to meeting you and Adam as well!

Unfortunately, we are not going to OCON this year, but I'm sure we will have an opportunity to meet at some point.

HaynesBE said...

I agree it is hard to measure the effect of attending Tea Parties---but I look at it as similar to voting. It's a way to stand up and be counted. I know of many people who would otherwise feel isolated in their belief of limited government and are energized into action by knowing they are not simply a fringe minority. Strong turnouts at the Tea Parties can help.

At the Tea Party I attended in San Jose,(estimate 3000)I was able to engage in many one-on-one conversations and refer people to places for more information. Again, much of it centered around motivating people educate themselves, to speak up and to act in defense of their individual rights--instead of remain demotivated and feeling hopeless.

It then becomes a matter of how you think you can be most effective motivating change. For me, face-to-face interactions are key. And then there was networking--with hopes of being one of the speakers next time.

Ripples of rationality.

Is it the BEST use of my time? Don't know the answer--but I do think it was a good use.

Stephen Bourque said...

Oh, absolutely, B. I did not mean to be overly pessimistic about it. I had the opportunity to speak to a few people one-on-one as well, so it may have done some good. It sounds like you had some success in San Jose.

By the way, thanks for your great work on your blog(s)––another good use of your time!