We were all thinking it. Leave it to Christopher Hitchens to go ahead and say it. Glenn Beck and the Tea Party are all about preserving white privilege.
I have to admit that phrases like “The Real America” and “Main Street USA” have always sounded to me like codewords for white people. And the “way of life” and “traditional values” that Tea Partiers want to preserve often seem to mean opposition to the perceived encroachments by Muslims, immigrants and other minorities on the traditions of white Americans.
Followers of the movement insist that these inklings are way off base. But the reemerging conservative values of strict adherence to the constitution, personal liberty and small government do seem to be applied rather selectively in some instances.
The two proposed amendments to the constitution – the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, and the denial of citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants – have both come from the conservative side of the aisle. And conservative support of the Arizona Immigration Law and opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque also seem contrary to the aforementioned principles. We don’t want the government hassling us, but they can hassle Hispanic people. We don’t want the ‘secular socialist’ government limiting our religious expression, but they can limit religious expression for Muslims.
Hitchens contends that the concerns voiced by the emerging conservative group are illusions; that they instead are just feeling sorry for themselves because people of different cultures and viewpoints now have an influence on our culture. He writes, “In a rather curious and confused way, some white people are starting almost to think like a minority, even like a persecuted one. What does it take to believe that Christianity is an endangered religion in America or that the name of Jesus is insufficiently spoken or appreciated? Who wakes up believing that there is no appreciation for our veterans and our armed forces and that without a noisy speech from Sarah Palin, their sacrifice would be scorned? It’s not unfair to say that such grievances are purely and simply imaginary, which in turn leads one to ask what the real ones can be.”
But Hitchens’s perspective ultimately offers too sweeping of a generalization. All you have to do is watch the video embedded in the article to see the wide variety of people this movement attracts. Upper, middle and lower classes are all represented. There are Christians, motorcycle-driving Vietnam vets and yes, even some black people. There are highly intelligent people who are legitimately concerned about the national debt, free markets and government waste. Then there are also not-so-intelligent people who just seem angry and racist. I stumbled upon this video of the smart and funny Penn Jillette describing just this tension.
It is this tension that makes me side with Managing Editor Jonathan Fitzgerald in thinking that the Tea Party may actually be good for the country even if as a bleeding heart lefty I tend to disagree with its principles. In many ways, the Tea Party is doing a good job of clarifying the distinction between conservative and liberal that a lot of us never really understood. As they are united by their common dissatisfaction, they are also discovering their differences. Social conservatism, as Penn points out, often does not jive with libertarianism, and lots of conservative Christians are asking themselves whether it’s really okay to like a Morman as much as they do. Tea Partiers are beginning to question whether they really want to be represented by Sarah Palin and Ted Nugent, or if new leadership is needed. If Glenn Beck can change his mind on issues, I think others can as well.
Ultimately, though, people are wikipedia-ing the Constitution. People are learning about how their taxes are spent. Christians are getting interested in more than just social issues and are digging deeper on fiscal, foreign and domestic policies. I, for one, am hopeful that the angry racists that Hitchens describes will be positively influenced by intelligent, well-meaning conservatives and that this renewed interest in politics will result in more fruitful debate and real solutions for our country.
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