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The Times Whitewashes the Tea Party Movement's Ugly Side

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Yesterday's New York Times had a lengthy article -- nearly 4,500 words -- about what it describes as a Tea Party-driven rebellion. The article is a depressing example of the so-called liberal media's insistence on painting right-wing extremism in as reasonable a light as possible and is of a piece with an article that appeared in the Times last August that portrayed as "respectable" ill-informed, right-wing and racially motivated opposition to health care reform.

Repeatedly, Barstow trips over himself to suggest that the movement is a good old-fashioned non-partisan movement, in that it has disdain for both the Republican Party and Democratic Party, that some of its critiques are shared by people on the left (like its antipathy for the Federal Reserve) and in its opposition to certain GOP politicians, like Meg Whitman, Charlie Crist and Mark Kirk (though, in cataloging the bills of particular against those three politicians, it turns out that their sin was taking typically liberal positions on things like climate change, stimulus spending and support for Van Jones, the activist and former Obama green jobs "czar" who was the subject to a Glenn Beck-led campaign of vilification, leading to Jones' ouster) .

In American political discourse, such ecumenical contempt is meant to signal independence of thought and is, therefore, to be taken seriously and treated with admiration. Yes, Barstow acknowledges that the tea party movement is predominantly a movement of the right, but that's so obvious as to be meaningless to point out and is only an obligatory throw-away. He works assiduously to tout its independent bonafides, as when he writes that "these people are a significant undercurrent within the tea party movement that has less in common with the Republican Party than with the Patriot movement..." and when he asserts that while some tea party groups are appendages of the local Republican Party, "most are not." (How does he know that?) Similar examples abound in the article.

But by burying the obviously ugly impulses and hatreds of many of the movement's elements, as well as bending over backwards to avoid making the salient point that one of our two major political parties is becoming a haven for racist extremism, Barstow ends up writing what amounts to a sympathetic puff piece, an Olympic-telecast-like human interest story that might as well have been placed in the style section.

It is notable that no variant of the word "race" (such as "racism" or "racist" ) appears until well past three thousand words into the article (at which point most people have stopped reading). The word "racist" finally appears in the context of a denial, when an emerging tea party leader, Richard Mack, whom Barstow describes as having support among militia types, speaking to an "overwhelmingly white audience." At that point, Mack felt the need to say, 'This meeting is not racist." Of course not. After all, Mack said so. (The second appearance of the word "racist" is also in the context of a denial -- a report about right-wing extremism published by the Justice department last year is treated with "open scorn," Barstow tells us, by members of the movement who bristle at the suggestion that they're "racist wingnuts.")

But the sudden wave of terror concerning the death of America, about which tea party gatherings across America are screaming, begs the question -- one that Barstow does mention, but only in the briefest passing: Why is this concern about excessive banking influence, indifference to the economic struggles of ordinary Americans and the erosion of American liberty only getting such traction now, after the presidency of George W. Bush, a presidency that, by any sane reckoning, was replete with these features?

As I wrote last Fall, it's because "tyranny" is not the ultimate, animating impulse behind this movement -- redistribution is. And that concern has inescapably unpleasant implications. At the time I argued that:

Every time you hear another right-wing ring leader, whether it's the aforementioned Limbaugh or Beck, or Michelle Bachmann or Sean Hannity lament the loss of freedom and the imminent imposition of tyranny, it's important to remember what galls the modern American right about Obama is not the loss of freedom itself, but the extent to which he represents, in their collective imagination, the loss of prerogative (what folks used to call "status anxiety.") They believe that Obama's redistributionism means less for them and their kind -- the true, deserving "real" Americans -- and more for those who should know their place rather than despoil America with their grubby insistence on government entitlements. Whether it's illegal immigrants, gays, or brown-skinned people more generally, the modern right may have some sympathy for individuals in need, but as collective groups, it's an outrage that government wants to help them at the expense of the real Americans.

This contempt for the "other" is key to understanding why the concrete erosions of basic American freedoms during the Bush years were cheered on by the American right. In the popular imagination, the face of those whose freedoms were being denied was a brown one, specifically a Middle Eastern one. In the worldview of the contemporary American right, those faces are not a legitimate part of America (even when they're full-fledged American citizens). In fact, that effort - to de-legitimize brown skin as a fundamental part of the American fabric -- has become a core feature of the contemporary right (or at least, to make sure brown skin knows its proper place). It's at the heart of the insane birther movement -- the entirely baseless claim that the current president was not born in America. Needless to say, Obama's place of birth isn't the problem. It's the double indignity of a mixed race, brown-skinned man with a Kenyan father insisting on the proposition that the government can, and should, do something to aid those less fortunate, including many who do not fit the right-wing's view of authentic Americans.

Never mind that Obama's actual efforts to help the less fortunate have proven to be tepid in important respects. Obama's actual moderation (or political weakness, if you like) only casts into sharp relief the truly irrational, hatred-driven agenda of this new version of the new right. Near the end of the article, Barstow does quote a couple of civil rights activists who express concern over things like the "puzzling return of racist language and violence," though Barstow is quick to note that one of the activists he spoke to thought it would be unfair to attribute any of those things to the tea party movement.

Of course, one of the signature events of the tea party movement was the gathering in Nashville two weeks ago of the Tea Party National Convention, which received widespread media attention. In his opening address to the convention, the transparently racist Tom Tancredo attacked President Obama and the cult of multi-culturalism and said that "People who could not even spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. Tancredo also charged that Obama won the presidency because "we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote."

As Delvin Burghart put it:

Tancredo, an immigrant-bashing former Colorado Congressman who founded the House Immigration Reform Caucus, appeared to have missed the irony in his rant. The immigrants he despises are required to take a civics test to become citizens and earn the right to vote, while people born here, like those in the crowd, do not. He also seemed to forget the racist use of literacy tests to keep African-Americans away from the polls under Jim Crow segregation. The Tea Party crowd on hand in the ballroom enthusiastically responded to Tancredo's racial remarks.

Let me insert here the obligatory disclaimer -- not every right-wing opponent of Obama is a racist, nor is every opponent of health care reform and reasonable people can be worried about the size of the federal government and the growth of the national security state. But one presumes that the Times devoted such massive space in its news section to this story because they think this movement has significant implications for American politics and want their readers to have a better understanding of it, not in order to make simple disclaimers.

Maybe Barstow and his editors assume that most of the paper's readers believe the tea partiers are a bunch of racists and so they want to balance the scales. But if that's the case, can't they do better than to ignore almost completely the issue? Don't they have the chops to take on the issue and then make serious arguments as to why its racism has been overstated or mis-represents what the movement is really about?

There's nothing wrong with covering the tea party movement, or pointing out that it contains many disparate elements or that some of those elements have principled objections both to Republican and Democratic party policy positions. But this article is more insidious than all of that -- it is a white wash -- an attempt to paint a respectable, sanitized version of the movement while willfully ignoring its true significance -- as a vehicle for the GOP to incorporate into its ranks ever uglier and racist elements.

One suspects that this is less an exercise in balance (it certainly offers no serious insight or perspective) than it is another example of gutlessness -- a fear that failure to treat the rabid right with kid gloves will bring upon the Times an unwelcome outpouring of anger from a movement that, regardless of what the Grey Lady writes, will always consider the paper the house organ of a liberal, multi-cultural conspiracy to destroy the "real" America.

Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in Contemporary American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press. He blogs about politics and sports at www.jonathanweiler.com.