Hitchens and the Tea Party: Know Your Enemy

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My only question in relation to Christopher Hitchens’ recent Vanity Fair article about the Tea Party is, what took so long? Why haven’t you turned your guns against this dangerous and absurd movement sooner (your lone article about Beck’s rally notwithstanding)? After all, it contains all the sinister elements that Hitchens hates, from religious political activism to blatant racism, ugly revisionism about the Constitution and staggering ignorance.

Nonetheless, Hitchens adds something crucial and too often neglected to the Tea Party debate: that reasonable people who should know better have shamefully downplayed the dangers and extremism that characterize this movement. Hitch singles out Ross Douthat, whom he considers “the voice of moderate conservatism on the New York Times op-ed page,” for arguing that the Tea Party offers “a responsible seeming message about spending and deficits.” I would add that, among many other examples, a New York Times Magazine profile piece on Beck written shortly after the “Restoring Honor” rally is far too indulgent, especially since the author claims that “no one seems to quite know what to make of Glenn Beck these days.”

Hitchens gets straight to the point by brushing aside the Birch Society aspects of Beckism and focusing on the televangelist’s (as Keith Olbermann calls him) obsession with Cleon Skousen:

“Glenn Beck has not even been encouraging his audiences to reread Robert Welch [the founder and leader of the Birch Society]. No, he has been inciting them to read the work of W. Cleon Skousen, a man more insane and nasty than Welch and a figure so extreme that ultimately even the Birch-supporting leadership of the Mormon Church had to distance itself from him.”

As I’ve discussed in a previous essay, Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap argues that the constitution is a work of divine inspiration, promotes apocalyptic fantasies and indulges bizarre conspiracy theories about the government. In his The Making of America he attempts to justify slavery, and he defends the Mormon Church’s policy of denying black people membership against a public backlash by dismissing the opposition as a “communist” attack, a catch-all strategy beloved by Beck and co.

By focusing on Skousen and laying bare what he really stands for, Hitchens highlights just how revolting and dangerous Beck’s worldview is. In truth Beck’s appeal stems largely from white America’s fear of losing its majority status:

“This is their response to the election of an extremely moderate half-African American candidate, who speaks better English than most and who has a model family. Revolted by this development, huge numbers of white people choose to demonstrate their independence and superiority by putting themselves eagerly at the disposal of a tear-stained semi-literate shock jock, and by repeating his list of lies and defamations. But, of course, there’s nothing racial in their attitude…”

In spite of its bitter reaction to such accusations, which includes hurling death threats at members of the NAACP who monitor bigotry, the Tea Party is indeed fundamentally racist. This makes Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally ploy of likening himself and his followers to Martin Luther King absurd (MLK’s niece’s attendance notwithstanding), especially considering that according to a Gallup poll the issue of least concern to the movement is “descrimination against minority groups.” Incidentally, Beck’s employing Martin Luther King to support his campaign of hatred and bigotry sadly negates Hitchens’ claim in God is not Great that “no one could ever use his [MLK’s] name to justify oppression or cruelty” (180).

Hitch explains that a new generation is forming around the Tea Party and Beck’s violent and vitriolic message, which may have dire consequences: “what happens at the next downturn? A large, volatile constituency has been created that believes darkly in betrayal and conspiracy. A mass ‘literature’ has been disseminated, to push the mad ideas of exploded crackpots and bigots.” As such, he fears that “some of the gun brandishing next time might be for real.”

I take Hitchens’ admonition one step further and argue that this is likely to occur sooner than many think. The economy is still depressed, and it appears a full recovery is a long way off. An impetus to violence is therefore not wanting. But even more insidious, extremely powerful people are leaguing themselves with Tea Party principles and politicians. One need look no further than the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas’s wife is the founder of a Tea Party group, and Justice Scalia has agreed to attend a private Conservative Constitutional Seminar led by incoming Tea Party Congressmen.

Above all Hitchens aptly lays blame on those who should know better than to portray Beck and the Tea Party as anything less than what they by and large are: ignorant racists and overgrown children with palpable streaks of violence whose propaganda is poisoning a sizeable chunk of America’s next generation.

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A recent graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, I consider myself a student of Melville and Shakespeare. Particularly, my fascination with Moby Dick has sparked a broader interest in many fields such as politics, history, science, economics, etc, since that novel deals with disparate disciplines and issues in an encyclopedic, yet accessible manner.

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