jimsleeper.com » Were Tea Partiers Worse than the 1960s Left?

Were Tea Partiers Worse than the 1960s Left?

By Jim Sleeper – August 25, 2009, 9:35AM

Is town-meeting craziness genetic and exclusive to right-wingers? The left-activist historian Rick Perlstein implied as much in an engaging summary of their eruptions over the years. But to really unpack the orchestrated, perverse Tea Party passions that we’ve been seeing recently, analyze this:

As New York Mayor Ed Koch rose to address the American Public Health Association in 1979, demonstrators chanted, “Racist Koch, you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide.” As they pelted him with eggs, Nayvin Gordon, M.D., 31, and two other doctors emerged onstage and grabbed him before being wrestled down by Koch and others.

An isolated incident? Progressive “boomers” who disrupted public meetings and goosed sensation-hungry media in youth are having senior moments about it all and complaining that journalists now dignify political insanity as never before.

Not quite! To see how current protesters miss the real causes and proper targets of their misspent rage, start with a glance in the mirror. It’ll show that while progressives got some things right that the right gets wrong, those differences weren’t always very clear.

I’m not urging some leftist mea culpa that would give ammunition to Rush Limbaugh or set up false moral equivalencies of left and right. I’m suggesting that only the whole truth can set us free.

• Google “Bright College Years” and “video” and watch a painful but riveting color documentary of Jerry Rubin’s, Abbie Hoffman’s, and other white radicals’ descent upon Yale in 1970 to protest the murder trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale.

No voice-overs in this film obscure the amazingly vacuous, violent mediocrity of rants that will embarrass anyone who’s nostalgic about disruptions at Yale and other campuses. These often preceded and sometimes all-but provoked (without provocateurs!) police crackdowns, such as those at Harvard and Columbia, that still sanctify the students’ follies in some boomers’ memories.

Watching the film, I understood why Dwight Macdonald, the social critic, uproarious iconoclast, and descendant of two early Yale presidents, cautioned Columbia student rebels of 1968, whom he largely supported, that trashing universities would only deepen everyone’s oppression.

• Read about understandable but misdirected black rage in my The Closest of Strangers — about how, for example, in Brooklyn in 1967, Rhody McCoy, a tweedy, pipe-puffing disciple of Malcolm X and chairman of a predominantly black school board, set a precedent for racial mau-mauing by orchestrating menacing appearances by what board minutes call “the community,” in the form of the thuggish militant Sonny Carson and his retinue to intimidate white teachers’ union representatives and other liberals.

This kind of protest, claiming the mantle of nobler, more effective civil disobedience, trashed democratic deliberation about race for years. Justifications for bad strategies and premises were debated earnestly in The New York Review of Books, and, later, charges like Tawana Brawley’s or myths like the black-church arson epidemic were treated with great deference by mainstream journalists.

• Writing in the alternative weekly Boston Phoenix in 1973, I promoted a “tea party” protest designed to disrupt an official bicentennial commemoration of the original Boston Tea Party. A worthy goal, perhaps: Jeremy Rifkin, leader of a radical “People’s Bicentennial Commission” funded by the National Council of Churches, said, “It’s going to be a physical confrontation, obviously, on the docks, How the hell can they arrest people for being revolutionary at a commemoration of the Boston Tea Party?”

Not much came of that effort or of the “Days of Rage” following the police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But many such disruptions shocked and briefly paralyzed ordinary, middle-aged Americans, liberal as well as conservative, who weren’t wielding police batons or wearing hard hats but were merely fingering Roberts’ Rules of Order in town-hall rooms where no one had ever called them “Motherfucker” before.

Many of us thought that Roberts Rules was just a bourgeois mystification of oppressive social relations, but, watching the movement spin out of control, TPM contributor Todd Gitlin, an early SDS president, wrote in his book The Sixties of widespread assumptions that — as a Weatherman communiqué put it — “Smashing the pig means smashing the pig inside ourselves, destroying our own honkiness…. We are against everything that’s ‘good and decent’ in honky America….”

“No alternative theory or action crystallized from the murk of the collective despair,” Todd lamented. “They’re crazy, one heard [of the worst militants], but you have to admit they’ve got guts. Anyway, are you so sure they’re wrong? And what is going to bring down American imperialism? And what are you, we, going to do about it? It was hard to summon up the standing to criticize.”

I’ll leave aside here the lethal symmetries between leftist terrorists, black or white, and right-wing white militias and segregationist killers, because a politics of death signals only the death of politics. But note Todd’s estimate that between September 1969 and May 1970 there were some 250 “bombings and attempts linkable with the white left…. the explosions amplified, as usual, by the mass media.”

And note the broad atmospherics that incubated violence by crazies such as the 1993 Long Island Railroad gunman Colin Ferguson, a man steeped racial demagoguery whose incredible indulgence by progressives I described at the time. (Scroll to the second pdf on this link.)

We now pretend it wasn’t so. Yet we’re alarmed by the rhetorical violence at Sarah Palin rallies, the GOP 2008 convention, and health-care forums partly because it turns our senior moments about past indulgences into nightmares from a buried or sanitized past.

True enough, while today’s right-wing demonstrators want to block public health care (and, weirdly, to trust vast, bureaucratic engines such as insurance companies and HMOs), most enraged demonstrators in the 1960s were trying to stop mass butchery by a military-industrial juggernaut whose “mad rationalists” were crazier than we. And it can’t surprise us that as the slaughter deepened, anti-war demonstrators succumbed at times — some terminally — to helpless rage.

But many of today’s raging demonstrators feel helpless, too, and betrayed, for reasons that progressives, of all people, should understand.

Most of us who rightly assailed “the corporate state” were young and relatively well-educated. We lived, as SDS’ Port Huron statement put it, “in at least modest comfort” in a society where “going underground” could mean taking a readily available factory job.

Today’s demonstrators are older and more vulnerable than we were when the draft no longer hung over our heads. Today’s 55-year-old former auto or steel worker who has just become a stock clerk or burger flipper with no health insurance isn’t having any senior moments about the high-paying manufacturing or managerial job with full benefits and pensions that he lost, along with a manageable mortgage. He still feels it slipping away.

Can it surprise us if he’s raging at the wrong targets? We did that, too, sometimes — at university scholars, deans, liberal public functionaries, even anyone, including our parents, who was over 30, paying taxes, and therefore as complicit as a “good German” in “fascist Amerika.” Not only that: We didn’t trust government much more than the right does now.

But acknowledging all this only clarifies the two big, instructive differences.

First, while our tactics became terrible, we were right to arraign corporations for wrongs that conservatives still blame almost wholly on the state and “liberals”. We knew then what recent events have confirmed: that conservative and moderate Americans can’t reconcile their yearnings for ordered, almost sacred liberty with their obeisance to every whim and riptide of corporate and finance capital, which mock the capitalism envisioned by a John Locke or an Ayn Rand.

Second, our protests weren’t backed by any big corporations or major political parties. That 1973 “People’s Bicentennial” effort to disrupt the official Boston Tea Party exposed a plastic, corporate-funded simulation of a 1773 rebellion against the true progenitor of the tea tax – the multinational corporate East India Company — and a mercantile, imperial regime.

“‘Tis time to part,” Tom Paine wrote then, as Americans faced the daunting prospect of replacing the only regime they’d ever known with new, untried arrangements. We aren’t yet ready to part with the current regime of finance and big-corporate capital that has arisen to consume our republic.

When push does come to shove, I’ll commend the coercive non-violence I’ve discussed here before, the kind pioneered in the best of the last century by a new politics, from that of Gandhi and the early American Civil Rights movement to that of dissidents of the Soviet bloc, and, we can still hope, in Iran.

Our best responses to the enraged American victims of today’s profiteers would be in this spirit, which takes a lot of discipline, organizing, and courage to sustain. It involves civic-republican vigilance against the corporate state, mobilized public persuasion, and disciplined moral witness — no matter how inadequate and, yes, sometimes maddening, such responses may seem to the young rebels, the ideologues, and the most desperate among us.

About these responses, this summer’s conservative provocateurs haven’t a clue, but they’re the responses that will work best in our time — at least outside of Washington.

Tormented loners aren’t really alone in their rage; they’re separated from the rest of us by their demons but also bound to our subconscious hatreds and fears more intimately than we’d like to admit.