Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tea party opportunity missed

I didn't attend one of the "tea parties" on Tax Day this week. I'm lucky enough to have a job and I was working at it.

If I had gone, I probably would have done no more than take a few pictures -- and likely felt sad about the state of U.S. education that leaves so many people prey to media that sell a regressive populism as entertainment. My instinct would have been to mock the protesters -- and I would have been wrong.

The writer Joan Walsh did attend and did interact with folks. According to her account, they were just as white, suburban and bamboozled as I might have anticipated. Also not unfriendly. But she talked with one woman whose perspective deserves more exposure.

That one, Christina Plutarkos, responded to Walsh's story with a note that deserves wider circulation:

Christina Plutarkos here, the liberal-progressive, anti-bailout bank employee. You interviewed me at the rally. ...

My sign actually read: "Why did Treasury let AIG close out the CREDIT DEFAULT SWAPS" (not CDO's) "at 100 cents on the dollar."

... It gets to the heart of how little oversight we're allowed for our nearly trillion dollar bank bailout. And that same question tells you how very broken our government is. And that is something we all agreed on today. Our political system is broken. The economic crisis is the result. ...

I tried to get my liberal and progressive friends to come out and cheerfully and good-naturedly and RESPECTFULLY engage the Tea Party attendees, and almost everyone turned me down. They apparently think conservatism is contagious. Hogwash.

As a liberal progressive who's been a lifelong Democrat, I have to say that everyone at the Tea Party was very nice to me, even though I had a different point of view, and we found a lot of common ground against the bailout. They really listened, and I listened too.

The best part was when a lovely older woman who first disagreed with me came around to thinking about the situation in a new way, and then she clasped my hand in hers, and could hardly let go. At that moment when we forgot our differences to focus on a goal we could help to achieve, America was stronger.

This is a nerve-wracking time for retirees like herself, and it was instructive to me to remember that I wasn't there as some kind of social experiment, but because like all Americans, I am worried about what will happen to actual people.

Once upon a time I was a tax protester. I thought it immoral to pay for U.S. wars and largely lived under the radar of the I.R.S. throughout the 1970s. Eventually life led me to compromise and now I do my tax bit for our shared community, still knowing that 50 percent of my payment goes for wars past and present (and this year some large fraction goes to shoring up rich guys.)

I have no business dismissing the Tea Party folks as mere crazies. I've been to any number of incoherent progressive protests where folks are mostly just getting their sense that they share outrage confirmed.

The administration's "Change" mantra may just be a useful buzzword, but objectively the lines of division between people in this country are changing. Though I'd certainly contend there is still a left-right axis to our politics, we have come into a new time and that axis need not cut exactly as it has for the last decade and more.

Progressives do need to talk with those among these folks who will talk with us; we can be sure that if we aren't trying to communicate with them, dangerous right wing proto-fascists will be scooping up and organizing their legitimate anxiety.

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