Saturday, August 28, 2010 was an extraordinary day here in the United States. The date marked the 55th commemoration of the lynching death of Emmitt Till. It also was the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s incredible “I Have A Dream” speech, which was arguably the single most important moment in the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century.
And on Saturday, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and a host of other conservative politicians and political figures, including Michele Bachmann and (sigh) Alveda King gathered with hundreds of thousands of their conservative supporters for a “non-political” rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Beck insisted that the date selection was purely coincidental.)
I watched with equal parts outrage, sadness and amusement as the Restoring Honor march/rally/hullaballoo-making unfolded on Saturday. With so many politicians spearheading and keynoting the event, if promoting a political agenda wasn’t the goal, then what was?
Here’s an answer:
The event’s website says the rally is to pay tribute to America’s military personnel and others “who embody our nation’s founding principles of integrity, truth and honor.” It also is to promote the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides scholarships and services to family members of military members.
Well, okay. Fair enough. “Support our troops!” is a nice and fairly innocuous concept, a nifty little sound bite that doesn’t stir up controversy. Regardless of your feelings about the war(s), you really do appreciate the efforts of all those brave men and women (because it’s always laid out just like that, “men and women”) who are risking their very lives to help keep freedom free or somesuch.
There’s an idea that a whole lot of folks, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, can feel confident in getting behind. Hell, it’s a bumper sticker. But it’s a sentiment, after all, and standing alone it’s not enough to get hundreds of thousands of people off of their couches and onto the Mall. It’s clear that these people are upset, truly upset, about. . . something. But what?
Like so many things in life, the real story behind Beck’s rally, and the true nature of what has continued to propel the Tea Party movement since its inception, lies in the subtext. Several “on the ground” reports featuring interviews with rally attendees revealed a bizarre amalgamation of concerns, from budget spending and the deficit to health care reform to prayer in schools to a general disbelief in climate change. Once again, apolitical rally, extremely political concerns:
“Want to know why I’m here?” asked a the first person I talked to–Nick, a 61-year-old retired nurse anesthetist from Sidell, LA in a rally-themed t-shirt–in the line for a port-a-potty off the Mall. Sure, I said. “As Popeye would say, that’s alls I can stand and I can’t stand no more.” What couldn’t he stand? “We’ve got czars running everything.” And health care reform. “It was unconstitutional, for one thing.”
Ah, the czars. They’ve haunted the Tea Party’s political imagination and appeared sporadically in their protest language for a while now. No one ever seems to remember that czars were what Russia had before the Bolshevik Revolution. They’re the ultimate manifestation of the notions of God-and-country that Tea Partiers seem to like so much. No one also ever seems to remember that the Bush Administration was pretty czar-heavy; maybe they were more constitutionally-minded and less possibly socialist.
Oh, and less Muslim. A Christian Beck supporter in attendance with her prayer group had the following to say about President Obama:
“I don’t believe in peaceful Muslims,” she says. “Before you know it, we’re gonna be overwhelmed by Muslims.”
You see, the coming Muslim tide, threatens to annihilate Christianity, Christian values, and Christians in this country. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the Tea Party ideology are the only things standing between us and the coming caliphate. This individual’s clearly taken a page from the Nicolas Sarkozy book on interfaith relations.
I wish the sentiments I pointed out were less common. But as I read various news articles, reaction pieces, and op-eds about the Restoring Honor rally, they kept popping up. The ideas that united these people who didn’t agree on everything are reactionary and fear-based. Tea Partiers are almost universally anti-Obama, but if you ask them why, their answers gleefully skim along a veritable motif of ignorance and misinformation. Beck himself famously exploited racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic elements among his supporters earlier this year when he said this:
He chose to use his name, Barack, for a reason. To identify, not with America — you don’t take the name Barack to identify with America. You take the name Barack to identify with what? Your heritage? The heritage, maybe, of your father in Kenya, who is a radical? Really? Searching for something to give him any kind of meaning, just as he was searching later in life for religion.
Many of the rally’s overwhelmingly White attendees could agree on one thing, even if they couldn’t express it on signs: they don’t like or trust President Obama. At all. They don’t like or trust his agenda. They don’t like the way he talks. They don’t like what he has to say. They don’t like the way he respirates, all through his nose and stuff. Oh, but don’t get them wrong! It’s not that they don’t like Black people per se. That gospel choir standing behind Beck was wonderful, and Martin Luther King’s message was generally positive and color-blind. It’s just that they don’t like the direction that this country’s headed in. It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact there is a Black man at the helm when he should be down in steerage. Where he belongs.
When he took the stage on the same steps and same day as Martin Luther King all those decades ago, Beck didn’t deviate from his promise of an apolitical message. His speech was consistently religious and patriotic. Beck had donned the mantle of the itinerant preacher, and in spite of his insistence that the rally’s timing was merely serendipitous, most of what he had to say was distinctly and consciously reminiscent of King. The methods are the same, and the language – “freedom,” “love” – are obviously co-opted from the Civil Rights movements.
The difference, as several actual civil rights leaders pointed out, was that where King had lead through courage of conviction and inspired through love, Beck’s motivational arsenal is firmly rooted in fear: fear of economic uncertainty, fear of loss of privilege, fear of an uprooted status quo:
“This is going to be a moment that you’ll never be able to paint people as haters, racists, none of it,” Beck says of the event featuring Sarah Palin and other conservative political and cultural figures. “This is a moment, quite honestly, that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement.”
It’s pretty clear that Beck’s “we” doesn’t look like me, or anyone of the countless people who fought and died for civil rights that first time around. In Beck’s funhouse mirrored perception, though, King’s march for equality and his own march for privilege are the same.
As irritated as I was by Beck and his shenanigans, I was more upset on my 68-year-old mother’s behalf. She didn’t march with King, but she was involved with various Black liberation movements in her youth. We watched live coverage of the event. As the camera panned out over a sea of White folks draped in red, white and blue, and cut to Beck on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, she sighed.
“Is that where we’re at now?” she asked.
“Looks like,” I replied. And changed the channel.