Seeing the Tea Party protestors in brief glimpses as I watched television the Sunday Congress was voting on the health care bill, I was struck by the awfulness of their signs, the portrayals of President Obama as a Nazi, as the devil, the name calling: Communist, liar, traitor, thug. I wanted to dismiss those protestors, call them fourth grade playground bullies, but I couldn’t. There was something chilling about their rally, their own evocation of the Third Reich. I am a woman of a certain age. I am Jewish. I know that propaganda can incite, know that mobs are dangerous. Then, I saw John Boehner, waving from a balcony. Yikes, I thought, this is serious.
To me the health care bill was a watered down version of the reform I’d hoped for. No public option. Thirty-two million more customers handed over to private insurers. No coverage for illegal immigrants. The powerful interests had had their voices heard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for passage, grateful for Obama’s legislative victory, thankful for reform. Yet, on that day, I wondered at the rage of the protestors, their racial and anti-gay slurs, their hatred of President Obama, of Nancy Pelosi. Their venom seemed disproportionate to what was actually in the bill. I couldn’t figure out what was driving them. Then, this past Sunday I read Frank Rich’s piece in the Sunday Times.
“To find a prototype for the overheated reaction to the health care bill,” Rich wrote, “you have to look a year before Medicare, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both laws passed by similar majorities in Congress; the Civil Rights Act received even more votes in the Senate (73) than Medicare (70). But it was only the civil rights bill that made some Americans run off the rails.” Rich goes on to say that what was at stake here was a law that that signaled “inexorable and immutable change in the very identity of American, not just its governance.” Think of a tapestry in which color changed design.
According to Rich, had Obama chosen climate change, financial reform or immigration as his legislative priority, each would have triggered the same reaction, for what we had and have is a confluence of “a black president and a female speaker of the House—topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman….” And when I read his words I knew that Rich had clearly and succinctly identified the force behind the rage. These Tea Party folks were afraid. Mostly, they saw themselves as a dwindling minority. When they held up signs saying they wanted to “take our country back,” the obvious question would be, “From Whom?” From those who were not like them, blacks, Jews, Latinos, gays, but demographics would not and will not let them.
The Tea Party Movement, along with the attendant Militia Movement, is a force to deal with. Perhaps, though, a greater problem is the support they receive from mainstream politicians, those who speak at rallies, those who egg on the demonstrators. And what of the politicians who fall silent? Silence is complicity. So I’m calling on my two senators from Maine, Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, smart women, supposedly independent women, to speak out against the lies, the propaganda, the anti-Semitism, the homophobia, the racism and the awful signs that link our president to Hitler and to the devil. If they can’t find their voices, who will?