It's a bit late to the party, I know, but what the heck. I figured that my column in this week's paper was worth posting, despite the HuffPo's horde of tea party reporters. Enjoy!
The Fort Lauderdale brand of the nationwide tea parties took place in front of the federal courthouse in the heart of downtown. I strode into the belly of the beast as the sun set, a lone liberal amid, by my estimate, approximately 2,000 to 3,000 angry conservatives. I tried to keep a low profile. After all, my picture appears in almost every issue of City Link Metromix.com, often quite close to this column, in which I spend a great deal of ink and space ripping apart these people and everything they stand for. I was convinced, however, that the largely white, middle-aged, conservative crowd was not made up of regular readers of a paper that covers loud music, hip fashion, casual sex and a whole host of other topics that are generally anathema to these people. At least, they'd better not be readers, for my sake.
But thoughts of being torn limb from limb by an angry mob proved unfounded. I made my way to the front of the protest, against the barricades, and jotted down a few notes for this column. Behind me, I heard a voice: "He's probably writing down what's on the signs. Whatever. Makes him look like a dork." I turned, and there behind me stood a man in perhaps his early 50s with long, graying blond hair and a thick mustache. I finished my notes and then made to leave. But the fellow behind me, arms crossed, refused to move.
"Excuse me," I asked, "Can I get by?"
"If you can get around me," he replied, widening his stance to take up more room.
The options raced through my head. My first thought was to throw a knee in his groin, shove him to the ground and stomp him. But self-control quickly ruled this out, as did the myriad police officers and the previously mentioned thoughts of being torn limb from limb by an angry mob. I then considered asking whether he was coming on to me, and then explaining that I don't swing that way, though I'm cool with gay people. But that would probably end just as badly as option one. Finally, I managed to edge around him and said brightly, "Hey, Merry Christmas, buddy!"
I do not know why I said that. He responded with something, but at that moment a car drove by honking its horn, and his retort was drowned out by a thousand cheers.
I talked with a few of the teabaggers later, at a nearby Irish pub. They were perfectly nice people, and we had a lengthy conversation about taxes, bailouts and related economic woes. We even found some common ground. After all, nobody's really a big fan of bailing out monstrous greedheads such as the lily-white, soft-bellied tools at AIG Financial Products.
But despite the later encounter, that initial meeting with that asshat stuck with me. That man stands for something larger. He is an archetype of a certain Republican demographic. Call them the bitter folks who cling to guns if you like, but the main thrust of it is that a large swath of conservative voters are belligerent idiots who think reading and writing are for suckers. I never had to worry about whether I'd be recognized here. People like that guy aren't merely not readers of my paper; they are not readers, period. And in a country in which the college-educated population grows with each generation, the Republican Party caters to these douche bags at its own peril.
To quote the late, great Hunter S. Thompson, they are "flag-sucking halfwits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush. ... They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character." But the New Dumb, as both Thompson and I prefer to call this Republican subgenre, is but one element in a protest that attracted thousands of people. The presence of that Neanderthal and others of his ilk isn't surprising, given that we were standing in a protest over taxes regarding an administration that has lowered taxes for the vast majority of Americans. It was precisely the sort of dull errand that attracts these goons.
Of course, the profligate spending of the newly minted Obama administration was also on the table. But where was this raging conservative populist movement in the waning days of the Bush administration, when these bailouts began and the TARP program was set up? Indeed, several people in the crowd proudly wore T-shirts featuring President Ronald Reagan, a man who did more for deficit spending than the 39 previous office holders combined.
It would be too easy to tar the whole crowd as a bunch of ignorant yahoos, and only mention the signs that misspelled Congressman Charlie Rangel's name as "Wrangle," or demand that Obama "quit appologising" for America's actions. But the people here didn't, as a whole, remind me of some dumbass redneck stereotype.
No, they reminded me of anti-Bush, anti-war protesters from about four years ago. The Don't Tread On Me flags, the signs paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin's line that "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety," the few silly people in costumes that garner the most media attention and make everyone else at the protest look like crazies. It's all a murky döppelganger of those past protests. One common phrase on signs at the tea party included something along the lines of "Congress: Learn How To Read," a reference to the fact that many in Congress failed to read the full stimulus bill before voting on it. But that exact criticism, for the exact same reasons, was found on signs at liberal protests immediately after Congress passed the Patriot Act back in 2001.
We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Send Don't Tread On Me flags to Dan Sweeney at firstname.lastname@example.org.