Sunday, May 09, 2010

No Need For Lost And Found

Progressive/liberal blogger and author David Sirota recognizes the "ubiquitous mantra," "I Want My Country Back," of the Tea Party movement as "one of the most transcendent idioms" alongside Nike's "Just Do It." Then he slices and dices said idiom, breaking it down into its three component parts:

"I Want" — Humanity's most atavistic exclamation of selfishness — and thus the appropriate introduction for a Tea Party motto — this caveman grunt may end up being the epitaph on the nation's tombstone. America once flourished by valuing what "we" — as in We the People — need (food, shelter, infrastructure, etc.). Conversely, today's America teeters, thanks to a Reagan-infused zeitgeist that reoriented us to worshiping whatever I the Person wants. High-income tax breaks, smog-belching SUVs, cavernous McMansions carved into pristine wilderness — it doesn't matter how frivolous the individual craving or how detached it is from necessity. What matters is that the "I" now assumes an entitled right to any desire irrespective of its affront to the allegedly Marxist "we."

"My Country" — In his quintessentially American ditty, Woody Guthrie said, "This land was made for you and me." It made sense. In a democracy, the country is We the People's — that is, everybody's. If, over time, our diversifying complexion and changing attitudes create political shifts, that's OK — because it's not "my country" or "your country"; it's all of ours. Apparently, though, this principle is no longer sacred. Following two elections that saw conservative ideology rejected, Tea Party activists have resorted to declaring that there can only be one kind of country — theirs.

"Back" — To underscore feelings of grievance and nostalgia, the slogan ends with a word deliberately implying both theft and resurrection. In Tea Party mythology, "back" means taking back a political system that was supposedly pilfered (even though it was taken via legitimate elections) and then going back to a time that seems ideal. As one Tea Party leader told the New York Times: "Things we had in the '50s were better."

I wouldn't go a far as Sirota in pressing the racial angle, wherein he maintains "the refrain has become a dog whistle to a Caucasian population that feels threatened by impending demographic and public policy changes." The racist charge is a little exaggerated by the left and the claim that Caucasians feel threatened by "public policy changes" is overly broad (most of that concern is probably not due to race). Moreover, if race is playing a more prominent role in American politics in the last oh, 16 months, it's an issue worthy of more thorough and wide-ranging discussion. (Uncomfortable truths for all might come seeping out.)

But Sirota's analysis of the slogan itself, not pressed by all Tea Partiers but emblematic of the movement, is brilliant. Heartening is an individual of the left criticizing rampant individualism and receptive to communitarianism. It wasn't so long ago- before they became the right arm of the Republican Party and its corporate-industrial complex- that members of the religious right themselves questioned narcissism and selfishness.

But a right-winger's determination to "take my country back" is especially curious. Back in the days of Bush 43 (selected, not elected, President of the United States), the left was angry, as conservatives continually maintain. Mostly, though, its advocates were opposed: to President Bush. To President Cheney. To Bush-Cheney policies. But not to the United States. Yes, there was an occasional Rosie O'Donnell and others outside of the rhetorical mainstream. But overwhelmingly, there was a sense and a sentiment that it was our country and it had not deserted us; its leaders had. And it had not deserted me and my interests; it had deserted us.

To plead "I Want My Country Back" presupposes that his/her country has gone somewhere. But our nation with its greatness remains with us as it has since its founding. If Tea Party members or others of the far right want to call for President Obama's resignation or impeachment, go ahead- knock yourselves out (figuratively). But to imply that the country has somehow been misplaced or gone missing says far more about the speaker(s) than it does about the country or its current leaders. The country has gone nowhere; maybe extreme conservatives are the ones who have left.

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