Another Perspective

Doing the Elders’ Work

Tea Partiers in anthro-historical perspective.

By 5.7.10

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The politics of the decentralized, essentially leaderless Tea-Partiers are hard to pin down. Nevertheless, the Left-wing media has not held back from doing just that: they are judging them to be a quasi-militia of clearly racist, rabble-rousing, not-yet-dead White Males. They are Ku Kluxers without sheets, and Grampas from Hell. Case closed.

But the facts on the ground do not support this rather lurid characterization. True, a scatter of placards at Tea Party rallies have possibly racist content, and some have insulted President Obama, but unless a movement openly recruits such crazies, it cannot be held responsible for all the undocumented wild life that drifts into its currents. Then too, there is reason to believe that agents-provocateurs, aiming to make the movement correspond to the Left's caricature, have occasionally infiltrated their racist placards into the demonstrator's ranks.

But for the most part, the Tea Party placards protest against economic policies rather than particular racial minorities or individual politicians. "Tea" in "Tea Party" stands for "Taxed Enough Already." Thus, the movement ballooned early in 2009 in response to the bank bailouts and the stimulus package. More recently, the Tea Partiers went into the streets to register their fierce opposition to ObamaCare, particularly the huge deficit and tax burden that it is likely to engender.

But the Tea Partiers are not just concerned with their pocketbooks and pensions. My studies of elder psychology across a variety of traditional cultures -- the Navajo, the Druse, and the Maya - support a quite different interpretation of the aging Partiers' rebellious mood.

Here, a brief preface is called for. Across the range of ethnically and linguistically disparate societies that I studied, the elders (almost always male) perform a crucial task that has little to do with fiscal concerns per se: they maintain the vital, spiritual aspect of their cultures. Every viable culture is founded in an origin myth, a legend of how a special people, rescued by favoring gods and/or unordinary leaders, survived the birth crisis of their society and went on to flourish. Moses in Egypt, Washington at Valley Forge or Ben Gurion in Jerusalem are examples of the rescuing, founding leader.

If these powerful presences can be brought forward to enliven and give special meaning to the present, the founding myths can function as a kind of immune system of the social order -- they provide a guarantee of continuity in the face of often catastrophic, unsettling change. Typically, it is the elders who perform this function, of connecting the social order in the present to the Gods, to the heroes, and to their legends that redeemed the past, so that the present becomes a continuation of that great history.

And this, I would contend, is what our elders of the Tea Party are doing for us -- and for themselves: By connecting the stuff of our daily life to our founding myths, they are preserving for us principles and causes worth fighting for. Despite being not-quite-dead, white-skinned, male, obese and wrinkled, yet they are doing the work of heroes: they are building and preserving the culture that gives meaning and significance to our otherwise hum-drum lives.

In the Left's contemptuous view, these aging, white-skinned reactionaries wrap themselves in the flag so as to disparage the patriotism of others, while disguising their own un-American racism and greed. What the Leftists refuse to see -- because they cannot see -- is that the very name "Tea Party" evokes the revolutionary climate of the Republic's beginnings, the battles against oppressive governance and for constitutional principles that were fought then, and that have to be re-fought now. The Tea Party protests have recycled the themes, images, and slogans -- "Don't tread on me," for example -- of those iconic revolutionary days, bringing them into the here and now.

Too many leaders of the Democrat party view American history as a narrative of slavery, Indian genocide, nuclear terrorism, environmental rape, homophobia and imperial wars. In this spirit, our president feels that he has to make pilgrimages around the world, apologizing for that America. These "leaders" have tried very hard to undo our founding myth and to replace it with its negation. Predictably, the symptoms of deculturation, decadence and national decline abound. Reacting against this sabotage, the Tea Partiers remind us and the world of the other America: the home of the one revolution that did not degenerate into a bloodbath, that did not eat its children, and that still makes the possibility of freedom real for all mankind.

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About the Author

David Gutmann is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northwestern Medical School and a veteran of the Israeli War of Independence in 1948.