Today the Radical got up at dawn, took a cab to Teenie Airport and came to our nation's capital on behalf of an American Historical Association book prize committee. But I was also in for a nice surprise. Because I do not travel in the Right circles, until I checked my Twitter account I had not had it on my radar that the Teabag people were marching on Washington today.
Hence, I got to see history in the making. The hotel where the committee was meeting is right near the Mall, so that when I checked in with half an hour to spare, I rushed back onto the street to begin documenting the event. That's when I ran into the gentlemen in the photo on the left. I saw their flag swirling about and asked them if they would pose. They were happy to do so, but asked me to wait until they could stretch it out completely. "We don't want you to just take a picture that makes everyone think it's a Confederate flag," one said.
But it is a Confederate flag, I thought. Well no, not exactly. " 'At's the state of South Carolina battle flag," the other guy explained proudly. I took the picture and thanked them, immediately sending the photo via iPhone to the Mother of the Radical (MOTheR) who is, in fact, a Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes, but of the left-wing variety. Reach out and touch someone, you know what I mean? I was then summoned by the book prize committee, who had perhaps looked out the window and thought they had seen their missing colleague consorting with Civil war re-enactors. At their polite request, I ran inside to eat a turkey club sandwich and to sacrifice for the History Profession, which was Arnita Jones' point in flying me down here in the first place.
As soon as we were done deciding the prize, I skibbled back outside and over to the Mall to gain insight into fellow countrymen and women, the like of whom do not congregate by the thousands in Shoreline. I was also, frankly, intrigued by my first interlocutors' distinction between "the Confederate Flag" and the "South Carolina battle flag" -- in which, as you can see, the Stars and Bars are prominently embedded. The distinction they were trying to make, I think, was that the former was racist but the latter was purely military -- and thus, not racist. In other words, they wanted to be taken seriously as political activists and patriots, not be dismissed as garden-variety white supremacists.
Patriotism was a big theme of a march where participants invoked race and racism only to deny that their actions were racist in origin. However, the occasional appearance of a "redskin," or a minstrel Uncle Sam with blacked face and long, nappy, fake dreds pouring out of his stovepipe hat complicated that claim, as did portraits of Obama in whiteface with large, red lips. Had I expressed my belief that such depictions and performances are racist, however, I think marchers would have told me that was projection on my part. "Liberals carry the race card in their wallets," read many signs.
Perhaps the aggressive denials of racism are inspired by the marchers' fear that their profound hatred, fear and contempt for President Barack Obama will be perceived as racist, when in their view it is merely hatred, fear and contempt of a President who happens to be black. And they do hate him: Joe Wilson's attack several days ago -- "You lie!" -- was echoed on tee shirts, signs and banners; I am told it was an ongoing chant at the rally. The view that Obama lies about everything is reiterated in words and images: the president was caricatured as the Joker and as the Devil, among other things. I am actually quite persuaded that they don't hate him only because he is black. They hate all politicians except Joe Wilson, and they only like Wilson because of his current position as the John Birch of Congress and because he said what they already believe: all politicians, all powerful people, lie. When they say there are no death panels, the reasoning goes, when it's not even in the bill -- you can be pretty sure there will be death panels. Lock and load, boys.
But I am also persuaded that in a paranoid world where our beloved Constitution is being held hostage by mysterious forces (Richard Hofstadter, phone home!) and "they" will be breaking down our doors any day now to pry our guns from our cold, dead hands, there are no black people who are politically legitimate figures. People who valorize the North American eighteenth century as the epitome of freedom and don't seem to remember that this form of freedom accommodated chattel slavery are telling you something about whether black people sharing political authority with white people, much less having authority over them, is natural and normal. I asked one white, professional resident of the District if it bothered her that she couldn't vote for national offices. She replied that it did, but that on balance she was quite glad that the vast majority of the people who lived in the District were also disenfranchised.
Those voters would be black.
My belief that a very complex story about race was played out today on the Mall was intensified by the fact that, in an hour and a half of mingling with the crowd I saw exactly two African-American and one Asian descended participant: everyone else was white. Everyone. The not-Confederate flag was the exception rather than the rule; most people wearing patriotic colors were wearing garish American flag shirts, jackets and hats; tee-shirts commanded the Congress to "get your hands off my Constitution" or insisted that the wearer "loves this country but fears the government." Yellow "Don't tread on me" flags were selling briskly. But there were also real Aryan Nation types there. I saw one group of young men whose tees explicitly identified them either as Klansmen or Klan wanna-bes; and a second group wore Minuteman tees. At another point I was walking and chatting with a group, one of whom asked me if I had noticed how clean the Mall was after the rally (in fact I had; I had also seen marshals walking around reminding people to pick up their trash, and heard, in passing, other marchers proudly pointing out to each other how clean the protesters were leaving the Mall.)
I said yes, the Mall was clean, and it was pointed out to me in a meaningful way that "other groups" left the Mall filthy. "Why do you think that is?" I asked. Six or seven people turned around and said, more or less in unison, "Their culture!" Now, I mention this not to mock anybody, but rather to say that I think that this is an excellent example of how ordinary right wing people, not just politicians, have learned to talk about race in a certain way while still claiming that they don't see race -just "behaviors" or "culture." I asked what they meant by culture, and one person explained that after Symphony concerts the Mall was always clean, but after pop and rock concerts, Boy Scouts had to be brought in from the suburbs to clean it up. When I asked to what they attributed this phenomenon, one of my companions explained that those who don't clean up after themselves in public spaces are "freeloaders" (one of the day's buzzwords) and "people who think they are going to be handed everything they need." I asked whether people who marched on behalf of abortion cleaned up after themselves, and I was told that no one knew, but that "Pro-Life marchers always clean up."
I then asked if homosexual marchers cleaned up, and that brought the conversation to a thoughtful stop for a moment. One person said she didn't know, as she had never been to a homosexual march, and another said, "Oh, I think they would clean up!"
We are a very neat people. And if you are really lucky we divide all the perennials before we go home to sodomize each other.
Please consider that moment of cynicism as the kind of humor that often follows a complex and deeply disturbing experience. That said, it's really good discipline to get out among people you disagree with violently, to just listen to them and to try to understand that these are real people and not some figment of Rachel Maddow's imagination. Although it would have been tempting to push some of the conversations further, I don't think it would have been very smart to get into an argument with anyone, and I'm glad I didn't. It would have been confusing too: while the media and the Republican party may want to bill this as an anti-health care march, as someone who was on the ground, I have to tell you that this was but one of many issues. Furthermore, few people had any sense of what they wanted from a health care system except that it not encroach on their freedom; that they not lose the right to refuse medical care that the government might force on them (like vaccinations, abortion and suicide); and that people who can't pay for health care, for whatever reason, don't deserve it and shouldn't have it. I almost became convinced that health care reform is not, in a funny way, even their issue. On the right you can see a disabled woman in a wheelchair, who may have been there because she truly believes the government will put her to death. She was one of several disabled people I saw who apparently oppose any health care bill the President or the Democratic Party might come up with that is intended to prevent the insurance companies from fiscally raping them or shutting them out altogether. There were other marchers whose health is clearly precarious: elderly folks, smokers, the overweight, people soldiering on with canes, oxygen tanks, scoliated spines and missing limbs. Mysteriously, to me at least, they too oppose better, cheaper and more accessible health care; meanwhile, many of their fellow marchers will tell you that people who smoke, who are fat, who "make bad choices," don't deserve any breaks.
I would say that the spine of this protest is not any well considered opposition to health care, but to taxes, and to the idea of government itself. This is not news, but I did want to emphasize that I am aware of this. How we pave roads and fight Holy Wars against the Taliban without government is not clear to me, but my guess is that those are details that would naturally resolve themselves if we could just get the yoke of bureaucracy off our necks. One of the pamphlets I picked up was from FairTax.org, which proposes to run what is left of the country, and the gargantuan military that right-wingers believe is indispensable to preserving "our freedoms," through sales taxes. The IRS would be abolished! "No Income, Payroll, AMT, Corporate, Estate, Capital Gains, Interest of Dividend Taxes; Keep your whole paycheck -- No withholding." Astonishingly, they also have a plan to tax "illegal and underground economies." But everyone else was there too: the anti-abortion folks; the gun folks; the anti-sodomy folks, the birthers, the anti-immigration folks, the home schoolers, the prayer-in-schoolers, and the folks who are always telling you the end is near. There was one person carrying a sign with his three issues, none of which had to do with health care: "The CIA protects our freedoms; End forced abortions; Child molesters deserve life in prison." Another sign read: "Thank you FOX News, for telling the Truth!"
I am sure the Republicans will try to bill this as "the people" rejecting "the President's proposals," but take it from me -- there was something far more opaque and interesting going on than that. I think the Republicans are holding on to these shock troops by a thread, and perhaps not at all. Astonishingly, one theme that seems to be emerging (and it is particularly prominent in a DVD I was given that contains two short films, The Obama Deception and America: From Freedom to Fascism) is that there is no difference between Obama and George W. Bush, a fantasy that I thought was the exclusive purview of Ralph Nader and Alexander Cockburn. One sign that pictured Obama as the Anti-Christ, when flipped, displayed Bush as the Anti-Christ. In fact, the Obama victory is proof-positive of the conspiracy that this right wing fringe has warned us about since the 1930s. In this apocalyptic scenario, Obama's election is part of the Wall Street plot to bring America to its knees, and now it appears that George W. Bush was a critical agent in that plot. This was a very interesting discovery. Indeed, if you go to Freedom's Phoenix, who produced the films above, our hero, Congressman Joe Wilson, is revealed as a "hypocrite" who voted for health care for illegal immigrants in 2003. (I wouldn't take this to the bank: Freedom's Phoenix also hints that Barack Obama may be involved in the Kennedy assassination cover up, and that MRI brain scans can detect a tendency to "freeload" that could then be corrected through medical intervention.)
There's more, but I think you get the picture. Here's the good news: a group that is so internally fractured, unfocused and opposed to the political system is not a powerful interest group but a Frankenstein monster. These folks hate the Republicans too, and I think a lot of them are disappointed Goldwaterites for whom the conservative revolution that we historians are so fascinated by never happened. Their history is a story of decline, and of brave individuals fighting back against freeloaders, financiers and foreigners. "Everything Barack Obama says means something different," The Obama Deception warns, For the Teabag people, this is a lesson to be learned more broadly about a political class that, from their perspective, only pretends to be a two party system. When they protest big government," they are not Republicans, or even conservatives in the conventional sense of the word. They are defenders of personal liberty against a one party state linked to a secret global system, a state that floods a nation of good white working people with illegal immigrants and freeloading welfare cheats, chuckling relentlessly about how they are fooling all of us.
I want to thank the people who shared their stories with me today, and those who agreed to have their photographs taken to document this march on Tenured Radical.