October 22, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: The Tea Party

Barack Obama's first year as President of the United States divided our country into two emotional groups (I realize many Americans don't fall into either category). I'm not democrat or republican, but I definitely have my personal ideologies.

My typical response to politics is anger. Most political discourse seems uneducated and silly. I want to start arguing with everyone. I want to put people in their places and make them feel stupid.

Often, I argue with the complainers, regardless of my own beliefs. With democrats in power, and republicans bitterly opposed to the liberal agenda, I have been harsh on conservatives. I pick fights. I push buttons.

More than any other political group, early 2010 found me bashing the Tea Party, but I wanted to give my conservative friends a chance. I wanted to experience the movement firsthand instead of ignorantly criticizing something I didn't understand, so I decided to attend a Tea Party meeting in Northern Kentucky.

Keep in mind, these are real people. They gather, and vote, and currently have a strong voice in this country. There are millions of people all over the United States just like them, and I wanted to experience their inner workings.

I may lose half of my audience early in this reflection, but I must say, the meeting confirmed everything I have ever feared about radical conservatism.

They began with the Pledge of Allegiance. Which is fine ... I like America. But standing and reciting the pledge in a Blimpie (they met in a sandwich shop) felt a little awkward. Especially when regular customers were filtering in and out during the gathering. That was followed by a short prayer, and then the festivities really began.

If the fear in that room was a toxic gas, we all would have been dead within thirty seconds. One of the first discussion points was (honestly, it was so disjointed that I'm not sure what she was talking about, but this is my best guess) the government installing posts in front of access roads to parks that can be removed for military vehicles, but not our cars. These posts were somehow proof that the government is trying to control our lives ... or maybe spying on us. A direct quote from her: "It's just for horses, bicycles ... you know, all those lollipop and rainbows stuff." Clearly, riding a bike is "lollipop and rainbows stuff" in the Tea Party movement, whatever that means.

I recorded the whole meeting. I wish I could play the audio. Some of the comments were out of the Twilight Zone. The meeting's leader said he wanted to get a conceal and carry permit in time for a march in Washington that spring. If it was a joke, it was a bad one. I'm not sure you can make a statement like that aloud without getting investigated by the Secret Service.

Perhaps the most confusing part of the evening was a twenty-minute discussion about the Census. I never understood why conservatives were against filling out their ten-question Census form. The Census is part of our Constitution, not a liberal initiative. It has been around for a long time. Don't conservatives like the Constitution? Filling out the Census means your district is better represented in your state and federal governments. Not filling out the Census means the federal government has to spend taxpayer dollars to hire Census workers to visit individual homes and gather the desired information. That means wasted tax dollars. How are conservatives okay with that? I wanted to make that point aloud, but I decided to play it safe.

Either way, it was confusing.

But not as confusing as an old man yelling that Obama is putting together his own KGB. Whoever that man was, he was angry. He yelled a lot. I understand that people were upset about health care reform, but his anger seemed bizarre. He screamed that Obama was a liar so loudly at one point that I got nervous. I sensed a flash mob forming. I didn't want Blimpie to burn. He reminded me of one of those bitter old men who feels wronged by life. I actually felt sorry for him.

Speaking of old, I was clearly the youngest person in the room ... perhaps by fifteen or twenty years. Most people were over sixty years old. All were white. Most were men.

I never claimed to know much about the health care bill, but I do know that people need to stop trusting random e-mails they get from other like-minded liberals or conservatives. A woman announced her cousin in Toledo sent her an e-mail saying that our new health care system will no longer cover rehabilitation. So, if you have a heart attack (this was her example), the hospital will send you home immediately. I'm not saying that woman's cousin in Toledo was wrong, but that didn't sound right to me. Or, at the very least, it was an underdeveloped half-truth spun to scare naive Americans

It reminded me of a Facebook altercation in early 2010. A conservative friend of mine posted his objection to health care reform, and someone commented that a study done by the New England Journal of Medicine reported that 46 percent of doctors polled would either quit or be forced out of their practice if Obama's health care bill passed. Of course, no such study ever existed. A simple search of the New England Journal of Medicine proved that (as well as multiple outlets refuting the report). This is how ignorance spreads. People hear second-hand rumors, believe it is fact without checking its validity, and spread the misinformation to others. This type of viral stupidity was out of control during the 2008 presidential election, and it seems to be getting worse.

The New England Journal of Medicine did publish a report saying that abortion rates actually dropped in Massachusetts after that state passed health care reform. I posted that link on his comment thread, but no one ever responded. Why let facts get in the way of perfectly good conspiracy theories?

I'm clearly picking on radical conservatives in this reflection because I attended a Tea Party meeting, but radical liberals can be equally irrational. For example, if you think George W. Bush had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks, you should consider switching to decaf. And liberal activist Alex Jones is just as controversial as Rush Limbaugh.

My experience with the Tea Party movement taught me at least one thing: This country needs to relax. I'm not sure where all of the anger comes from, but politics is saturated with bitterness. Can you imagine if Sarah Palin runs against Barack Obama in 2012? Maybe the Mayans were right. Maybe the world will end.

I'm not sure why it drives me crazy. I'm not sure why my blood boils when I read a ridiculous politically-motivated status update on Facebook. I have no idea why the Tea Party meeting felt so deflating. But my goal is to rise above the nonsense. To see political anger for what it is ... another form of spiritual brokenness.

What if we loved others with the energy and passion we waste on politics? Think of all the money spent and all the manpower lost. It seems crazy.

But I do have hope. After my evening with the tea partiers, I spent an afternoon talking with a conservative named Dan. We had a friendly dialogue, and I realized something during my reflections.

If we look for something, we'll always find it. In other words, there are lots of crazy conservatives in this country. And there are lots of crazy liberals. It was incredibly easy to mock the Tea Party meeting. Just like it's incredibly easy for Bill Maher to make a documentary about crazy Christians. It's definitely entertaining, but is it helpful? If we all understand that those groups are rare pockets of insanity, then exploiting them for entertainment purposes is harmless fun (possibly cruel, but still relatively harmless to the general population). But when millions of people incorrectly label all Christians as nut jobs, or all conservatives as ignorant, or all Muslims as terrorists, that's a recipe for disaster.

Most of America is caught between the extremes. Most of us watch politics as though it's a reality television show. A really annoying reality television show. Maybe even a sitcom. Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann are like cartoon characters. Very few of us actually think Obama is the Antichrist or want to burn the Koran, but we all love a good conspiracy theory, so the nonsense lives on because controversy boosts television ratings.

Dialogue is our only hope. When you get to know people, you begin to learn about their motivations. It was easy to bash conservatives at the Tea Party, and it felt natural to have a real conversation with Dan. The key difference? Dan and I focused on commonalities. We found ways to connect our competing ideologies. We were two human beings, looking each other in the eyes, trying to understand a person instead of a stereotype.

What if we all did that more often?