A “Tea”-chable Moment?

A "Tea"-chable Moment?

The racial and homophobic slurs launched on Capitol Hill finally solidified the Tea Party’s reputation. What we knew all along was out in the open – that the Tea Party movement is, as least to some degree, built on hate.

Although the death threats and smashed windows were frightening, there was some sense of relief that the media were no longer dancing around the issue and were giving it ample coverage. And very quickly, Tea Party stock started to drop.

Any discussion of their objections to government spending and health care was replaced by tweeted updates on the latest threat to members of Congress. The fawning fascination about these people was replaced by cautious fear. It was no longer a rising tide of the American (white) middle class but a permissive front group for domestic terrorists.

I’m no fan of the Tea Party. But I am a fan of political participation, and people getting out in the streets. I’m also not a fan of the media’s mischaracterization of protesters. That’s why, rather than feel joy in the Tea Party’s marginalization I’m striving to feel some solidarity – in hopes that when the tables have turned, some of them may feel the same.

One thing is for sure: The tea-baggers are learning.

They are learning that the press tends to ignore the issues raised by thousands of protesters in favor of the actions of a few.

They are learning that protesting against the government is not anti-American; in fact it’s patriotic.

They are learning that the least verbose, and most outrageously dressed, of your rally’s attendees often end up on the news, while the articulate, nuanced 30-second analysis of the issues by a middle-aged housewife just didn’t fit into a 45-second spot.

They are learning that people who attend political protests – even those who attend often – do not all need to “Go get a job!” That many protesters work several jobs, raise families and, like it or not, pay their taxes.

They are learning how quickly your movement can fall out of the media’s good graces.

Even Fox News is quoting Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) to support the notion that the Tea Partiers aren’t being treated fairly by the press.

While I’d expect nothing less, cheers to FAIR for talking to Fox, and for pointing out the media’s tendency to go for “low-hanging fruit” when covering protest movements. It’s a lesson that veteran activists know all too well.

Will the Tea Partiers apply these lessons next time they hear about an antiwar march? An environmental demonstration? Or will they sneer about communist tree-huggers and peaceniks once again?

I believe much of the answer may depend on how they are treated by those tree-huggers and peaceniks right now.

Certainly there are problems drawing parallels between social-justice-oriented protest movements and the Tea Party. The most difficult to bridge is the clear racism and hatred of a portion of the Tea Partiers. The closest equivalent to these people on the left might be the occasional group of black-clad so-called anarchists smashing windows. The hate isn’t as strong, but the fringe nature of these small groups of people was used to misidentify the entire movement, and obfuscate the issues.

But two wrongs don’t make a right. And just because I’ve been burned by a shallow and fickle media doesn’t mean I wish that on my neighbor. If those on the left don’t attempt to build some solidarity with these disenchanted Americans, an opportunity will be lost.

Media literacy is more than recognizing when your own issues aren’t being covered fairly, it’s knowing when the same is true for your opponents’ issues as well. And if both sides can learn to see through the sensationalist hype, then maybe, just maybe, they can begin a dialogue with each other instead.

There are many issues the right and left have in common. A distrust of both political parties (they each default to one or the other to preserve a sliver of pseudo-representation), a desire to see better-paying jobs in the US, dissatisfaction with the mainstream media.

Although the reasons can be quite different, there’s a common thread of wanting more power as an individual and a louder voice in the political process. When we hear the refrain of a “too big, too powerful government” from the Tea Party faithful, how different a worldview is that from a puppet government controlled by “too big and too powerful” corporations and financial institutions? One small cognitive leap and we could all be on the same page.

It’s somewhere to start, an entree to issues like media reform, Internet neutrality and free trade. Once we see we have something in common with many common enemies, the stereotypes begin to fade away and the focus turns to those in power preventing us from reaching our goals, and to building stronger, more democratic communities and institutions.

Imagine a day in which the term “ACLU” is no longer a dirty word in red-state America. A world in which the Tea Partiers pump a fist of support when they hear about a court battle to defend people’s right to free speech in the streets? Because they know it could (and will) be them next year.

If even 10 percent of the Tea Party faithful can transcend the tarnished boundaries of their nascent movement, that would be a significant swelling of support for important battles on issues that affect us all.

Right now, many Tea Partiers are questioning and re-examining their association with the group. For some, it’s a time to admit that there is a segment of their ranks that’s just not cool. But where to turn then? And how to remain active on the issues they believe in? Who is reaching out to these disenchanted and pissed-off Americans? And who is laughing in their face with an “I told you so” grin from ear to ear?

I still have hope that it’s not too late for Americans to evolve, and that we can learn solidarity once again. That’s why I’m standing with the Tea Party. Or at least, I’m standing against the demonization of everyone in it. Call me naive, but I’m hoping that at least some of them will return the favor some day.