The amazing American historian-activist, Howard Zinn passed away earlier this year. His seminal masterpiece, “A People’s History of the United States” is a classic that should be required reading for every U.S. citizen. Zinn frequently praised dissent as a patriotic act of civil disobedience and an effective method for achieving social justice. He once said, “Some think that dissent is unpatriotic. I would argue that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. In fact, if patriotism means being true to the principles for which your country is supposed to stand, then certainly the right to dissent is one of those principles. And if we’re exercising that right to dissent, it’s a patriotic act.”
He praised liberal dissenters such as peace movement activist, Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in the war in Iraq. His writings and speeches are full of stories of unsung heroes of American progress. Yet, one wonders what he might say about the emerging Tea Party Movement. Would this kind of dissent also be considered patriotic? Even though it is much smaller than other protest movements of recent years–such as anti-war, environmental, anti-free trade, immigration–it has gained much more media attention. But why? Why are major media outlets polling Tea Party members? Why is it being seen as a major political force that both parties must reckon with, when most of it’s supporters are Republicans or at least conservative Independents?
One reason could be that it has extensive corporate funding (as reported by Rachel Maddow of MSNBC). Another reason might be that it is backed by powerful right-wing interest groups. With lots of funding and connections, the movement has been able to promote its activities more effectively than other, more authentic, grassroots movements. Yet, it is not all about money and connections.
Some of the media attention has been a response to the inflammatory rhetoric of the movement, which frequently proclaims the needs for another revolutionary war. Tea Party protesters villainize Obama in much the same way that anti-war protesters demonized George Bush II. We’ve seen Hitler mustaches on both Obama and Bush in the pass couple of years. But the difference is that Tea Party protesters are more likely to be packing a handgun, expressing racist sentiments, and threaten violence in one form or another. Dissent may be an act of patriotism, but encouraging violence and bigotry is wrong, whichever ideology you subscribe to. The jury is still out, but the Tea Party’s legacy may prove to be more destructive than productive. (Is this what democracy looks like?)
The Tea Party, however, is a more-mainstream segment of a much more threatening movement that is on the rise–a movement that is much closer to terrorism than patriotic dissent.