When one considers the casualness with which left-wing politicians and media figures use words like "terrorist," "jihad" and "Wahhabis" to describe the Tea Party, one cannot help but wonder what shapes such attitudes in the first place.
In order to satisfy such curiosity, it is necessary to spend time among liberals, socialists, communists and self-described progressives. I realize this is not the way a lot of conservatives would want to spend their morning -- much less their afternoon or evening. Yet when in a political conflict, especially one that is likely to shape the very future of this country, it is most helpful for conservatives to know our adversaries as well as we know ourselves.
This is what motivated me to wake far earlier than usual last Sunday morning and travel across the Charles River to the People's Republic of Cambridge to attend a discussion about the Tea Party sponsored by the Ethical Society of Boston. The organization describes itself as "a non-theistic humanistic religious and educational fellowship inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society." So of course when a woman named Mary said she was curious about the Tea Party, another woman replied to her, "I hope you're not coming for a positive view." Ah, so it was going to be that sort of discussion.
The discussion was facilitated by a bearded gentleman named Gaston. By his own admission he did not consider himself "a very good facilitator" and made it very clear he held the Tea Party in little esteem. But he promised to "stand back." His earlier modesty notwithstanding, Gaston ensured all views were heard and even tried to find areas of common ground between "progressives" and Tea Partiers, albeit unsuccessfully.
Of course, a vast majority of the participants held the Tea Party in very little regard. A gentleman named Marvin described Tea Party activists as "irrational" and said their political positions "aren't ideas but a string of words." For good measure, he threw the Koch Brothers into the mix. A woman named Sheila chimed in and said that Tea Party activists weren't so much irrational as they were "simplistic" because they didn't take technological advancements such as the Internet into account (despite all evidence to the contrary). A man named Bill characterized the Tea Party as "white, right religious types." Another man named John said the Tea Party members who had been elected to Congress were "dangerous persons" because their opposition to the debt ceiling bill "put us on the brink of disaster." To which I queried, "Are the Democrats who voted against the bill also dangerous persons?"
Yet a recurring question came up during the course of the discussion: "What motivates the Tea Party?" During the break, I was approached by Sheila and we had a pleasant conversation. I made a point of asking her if she either personally knew or had met any Tea Party activists. She replied in the negative. I suggested that it if she and others wanted to know what motivates Tea Partiers that it would do them no harm in talking to them. "Oh, I don't need to talk to them to know what they're about," she replied. "There's plenty of information around that I can read."
"So what do you read?" I asked. Sheila retorted, "I read the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the New Yorker."
Well, I had to ask. After all, this would be the same New York Times in which Thomas Friedman described the Tea Party as a "Hezbollah faction" bent on taking Republicans "on a suicide mission." Alas, The Gray Lady can always be relied upon to assess the Tea Party with language both rich in restraint and in sobriety. But to give Sheila her due she did make a point of saying that she not only liked Jeff Jacoby, the lone conservative columnist at the Boston Globe, but that she also liked his column last week in which he chastised Friedman and others for their incendiary language against the Tea Party.
Yet for every left-winger who acknowledges that their leading lights are capable of directing them towards darkness there are a thousand liberals, socialists, communists and self-described progressives who are perfectly content to equate Tea Partiers with terrorists. When Marvin took me to task for defending the Tea Party members who voted against raising the debt ceiling, I asked him if he honestly considered them to be terrorists. "Yes, because they instilled fear into people," said Marvin. "But surely there is a difference between someone who casts a no vote in Congress and someone who navigates an airplane into a building," I said. Marvin nonchalantly quipped, "It depends on how you use the word terrorist." So in Marvin's world (and that of many leftists in this country), there is no difference between those who want limited government and those responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001. If this isn't a sad state of affairs nearly a decade removed from that act of evil, then I don't know what is.
I made a point of reiterating publicly what I said privately to Sheila. If progressives really want to know what the Tea Party is about, then they should go talk to them. You don't have to agree with them, but just hear them out. Gaston seemed quite amenable to this idea and suggested that the Ethical Society reach out to the Tea Party. However, other members threw cold water on it, suggesting that they had more pressing matters to attend to (like combating racism and promoting humanism). Of course, how is it that you can promote humanism if you don't view people who embrace the Tea Party as human beings?