Finding Touchstones

Socialization is a funny thing. It’s a process of understanding what we all have in common, at least in our culture, and getting with the program. Know the cultural touchstones – George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Babe Ruth, the Beach Boys, and so on – and add Marilyn Monore in there somewhere too, but not Jesus. The culture is changing. Someone’s wearing a yarmulke over there, maybe your boss, and your next door neighbor is Buddhist. Things aren’t all white Anglo-Saxon Protestant anymore – this isn’t an episode of Ozzie and Harriet, not these days. What we all have in common has changed. Touchstones lose their touch.

In fact, there’s a new ABC Family sitcom on the air now – the parents are a biracial lesbian couple and the family is a mix of biological, adoptive and foster children. The tag line is “A New Kind of Family” – so get used to it, or get over it. But we’ll always have Paris. No, really – everyone knows “Here’s looking at you, kid” from Casablanca. Movie quotes are among our few remaining cultural touchstones. There’s “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” from the Oz movie, and “Go ahead, make my day” from Clint Eastwood and “I’ll be back” from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then there were the two Poltergeist movies – the dazed little girl half-chanting “They’re here” in the first one and “They’re back” in the second. She’s the only one who sees the undead, those who refuse to die like normal people and are now showing up to cause no end of trouble. It’s scary. Quote that second line in any context and everyone knows what you’re talking about – the creepy beings that refuse to die are dropping by again. It’s perverse. No good will come of this. The two words carry with them all the images from the movie – slimy ectoplasm and whatnot. Those two words are thus both shorthand and metaphor, and usually spoken with deep irony. They’re back! Here we go again, damn it.

Those two words were probably spoken today:

The Tea Party is back in Washington and they are madder than ever.

Backed by more than a dozen lawmakers from the House and the Senate, thousands of Tea Party activists gathered on the Capitol lawn to vent their frustration with the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, the prospects of a comprehensive immigration reform bill passing through Congress, and the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.

“They did all they could to rob us of our first amendment rights by silencing our speech, stifling our assembly and stopping our petitions,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder and national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots. “Ladies and gentlemen, ours is a government that is too big and too powerful.”

“We are going to throw the IRS over like a box of British tea,” added Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga.

There was a separate and matching Tea Party rally on the other side of the Capitol too, opposing immigration reform. They’re back:

“I’m a little confused, The New York Times told me the Tea Party was dead,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. “The IRS told me the Tea Party is dead.”

While investigations of the IRS in the House have yet to turn up any evidence that the practice of targeting conservative groups was directed by Washington, the consensus in the crowd and among activists was that the IRS’s latest misdeeds is just more evidence that the agency should no longer exist.

“The very best solution is, we need to abolish the IRS,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., offered to loud applause. “We need to take every one of those IRS agents and put them on our Southern border.”

“Now that’s mostly a joke, but I got to admit if you were coming over illegally, you crossed the border and saw an army of IRS agents, you’d turn around and go home,” he added.

They’re back, and they’re paranoid:

“It’s getting to the point where … if you say anything against the government, then you’re targeted,” said Janette McGargill of Minneapolis, who held a sign that read “The Content of My Prayers: Jail Time for the IRS!” “They have the ability to put you in jail. They have the ability to destroy your whole life.”

“I’m in the process of buying a gun for the first time,” she added. “I’m not going to let this government get away with taking my liberties.”

A lot of issues were floating around, and Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald was amused:

Remember way back to 2010? When the Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow” was tearing up the charts and a hot new upstart political movement called the Tea Party was striking fear into socialists everywhere? What began on Tax Day in 2009 hit a high-water mark just 18 months later with a massive rally on the National Mall organized by Glenn Beck (which later proved to be the beginning of the end of the Tea Party’s purpose for existing: massive anti-government rallies of colorful, flag-waving patriots). There’s no question the conservative revival in the GOP has remade the party inside Washington, but the Gadsden flags were rolled up and the tricorn hats put away as the outsider movement honed its insider game.

Until today. For one day only, the Capitol has been consumed by what feels a bit like a single-night stand reunion tour for a band that had one good album that mostly gets played for nostalgic reasons today. The event was billed as “the largest demonstration of Tea Party support since 2010,” and while it may have succeeded on that count, it also underscores how much the movement has slipped since that year of its glory.

It was kind of sad, and a little creepy:

Taking in the scene on the West Lawn of the Capitol Wednesday feels like looking at a time capsule of early 2010. There are hundreds or possibly thousands of (mostly white, mostly older) people decked in “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirts, sitting in folding camping chairs and waving yellow flags. Classic Tea Party signs like “hands off my healthcare” are joined by newcomers like “Waterboard the IRS” and “We Want Truth Benghazi.”

Yeah, right, but Benghazi is over. The Republicans can’t seem to find that one Obama memo that says let the ambassador die and don’t defend the place, because I agree with the terrorists, and all terrorists – and the IRS scandal is running out of steam too. Darrell Issa’s committee is now raging on about how much the IRS spent on offsite conferences over the years. The whole notion that the IRS targeted those Tea Party “social welfare” groups seeking tax-exempt status seems kind of silly as it became clear most of them got that tax-exempt status anyway, even if they clearly were political outfits. Far more of those Tea Party groups were approved than any on the left too. What’s the scandal? They didn’t get their tax-exempt status fast enough? They thought they should be exempt from doing the paperwork? Still, Breitbart’s Mike Flynn offered this – “When the Tea Party started in 2009, the idea of government growing out of control was a theory. Today, it is a fact.”

Seitz-Wald counters that this duel event had very little to do with anything like facts:

The main event was Glenn Beck, who helped organize the anti-IRS rally. As skilled an orator as ever, the former Fox News host delivered a sprawling and classically Beckian 35-minute barn-burner that incorporated, among other things, Frederick Douglass, geotagging, the Arab Spring, an allegory about slavery and elephants, Woodstock, Hollywood, “the hippie culture,” MLK, Gandhi, the Bible, Las Vegas, the liberal media, Foxconn, “homosexuals who are being stoned to death in Egypt,” Jews, Jesus, sex trafficking, border security, government spying, and the proclamation: “We are not racist.”

That might be true. Racists are at least focused:

The trust of Beck’s speech was that the people standing before him were engaged in an epic holy war against the people inside the Capitol building behind him, who are trying to “enslave mankind.” “We have chosen sides, and we chose God’s,” Beck said to rapturous applause. “Those who wish to use unrighteous dominion over mankind are not enemies of ours, they are enemies of His. And I have a sneaking suspicion he’s not going to be silent much longer either.”

God will sort it all out? Why then even have a rally? Why not just wait for the Big Guy to do his work?

Glenn Beck didn’t consider that, as he was doing that prophet thing:

“The mainstream media will mock me,” Beck said, but we can trace this fight “all the way back to Moses,” via Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. “I am a man and I demand to be treated as such,” he added.

He no doubt is a man, as he probably has the appropriate personal plumbing, but he may not be Moses and Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi and Martin Luther King all rolled into one. Prophets are often without honor in their own land, but remember what Carl Sagan once said – “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

It was a Bozo kind of day:

Like a reunion concert, the rally showed all the fraying edges of passing time and spoiled potential, underscoring how the Tea Party has become a shadow of what it was in its more hopeful youth. Some people couldn’t be with us today. Allen West, Joe Walsh, Jim DeMint are all gone from Congress. Bachmann, the Tea Party Caucus chairwoman herself, is retiring. Beck is off of Fox News and is today more of a sideshow than the guy who once struck so much fear into the heart of the Obama White House that they wouldn’t even let a falsely accused USDA employee finish driving home before firing her, for fear of ending up on his blackboard.

Still, there are green shoots for the movement. Sarah Palin is back on Fox. The Obama “scandals” have incited the conservative base. But 2013 feels very different from 2010.

That may be so, but at Slate, David Weigel and Emma Roller say not so fast there:

The single most important politician at Wednesday’s Tea Party rally against the Internal Revenue Service spoke for less than two minutes. He wasn’t drowned out by applause, either. Michigan Rep. Dave Camp was merely explaining how he was going to shoehorn the IRS scandal into the headlines and cable news chyrons again.

There’s a plan here, to mix a few things together:

This was not the scandal that stirred the Tea Party one month ago. Sure, the scandals sound similar, and for Camp to succeed, one story needs to bleed into the other like two murals caught in the rain. They need to because the theory that President Obama ordered his IRS to slow-walk the applications of Tea Party groups has been methodically shredded by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee – or maybe just by the facts of the case.

Things didn’t work out:

Democrats took back the story last week, when they made a counterintuitive request for more information from Rep. Darrell Issa. The House Oversight chairman had asked for the initial inspector general report on the IRS after Tea Party groups complained (with merit) that they were getting irksome, obsessive questionnaires about their groups. There was a scandal there about the biases of bureaucrats, but Republicans, naturally, attempted to solve the case deductively. They knew what President Obama thought about the Tea Party, and they knew Democrats had wanted to challenge the tax exemptions of conservative “educational” groups, mega-PACs with nonprofit status. Surely there was a smoking gun somewhere in the files.

There wasn’t. Democrats challenged Republican investigators to publish their long-form interviews with IRS agents. On Tuesday, the Democrats did it themselves and publicized an interview with a witness who, when asked about a Politico story that suggested Issa had overreached in his investigation, absolved the White House.

“Was the decision to screen and centralize the review of Tea Party cases the targeting of the president’s political enemies?” asked the investigator.

“I do not believe that the screening of those cases had anything to do other than consistency and identifying issues that needed to have further development,” replied the witness.

Issa had to find a way to be outraged, and that didn’t go well:

Issa pronounced himself “deeply disappointed,” because the interview might work as “a roadmap for IRS officials to navigate investigative interviews with Congress.” Democrats, he said, were “flailing” because they’d been “unsuccessfully trying to convince the American people that IRS officials in Washington did not play a role in inappropriate scrutiny of Tea Party groups.”

But those IRS officials in Washington did not play a role in inappropriate scrutiny of Tea Party groups – the full transcripts show that. Only Issa’s cherry-picked isolated quotes showed a plot to screw the Tea Party. This was a bit embarrassing, and thus Dave Camp has entered the picture:

He’s attempting to broaden the focus of a probe and ask whether any IRS audits of individuals – not of groups – were conducted on orders from the Obama administration. The conservative media has been on that story almost as long as Camp has, with Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel arguing that “an Obama campaign website [that] named and slurred eight Romney donors” effectively turned the IRS loose on them. The National Organization for Marriage has sued the IRS over the 2012 leak of its tax documents to the pro-gay Human Rights Campaign; at Wednesday’s rally in Washington, D.C., National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown declared that the IRS “took our private tax information and gave it to the co-chair of Barack Obama’s campaign!”

If just one story bears out and the White House called in an audit, the fallout would devastate the administration. So the hunt continues, and the argument slowly evolves from “they targeted tax exemptions” to “they audited conservatives.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz used his speech at the rally to stoke sympathy for the campaign donors, those who dared “to speak up, to bundle, to contribute, to participate.”

That’s where the Tea Party rally got strange:

A crowd of thousands cheered – for high-dollar campaign bundlers. An Obama-led campaign to audit conservatives is the sort of fact you hardly need to prove. …

The sentiment thrived in Wednesday’s crowd, too. Gene McIlhone, who’d written “DEATH + TAXES IN ONE FELL SWOOP” on his poncho, thought about the last fortune cookie he’d cracked open. The piece of paper inside read: “A master can direct without speaking.” That said it all about Obama. “He hired the kind of people who knew what they had to do,” and he “will go down in history as the greatest Marxist who ever lived.”

No, don’t try to figure out what Marx has to do with any of this – Marxist is used here too as shorthand and metaphor – just know that the mindless followers of Obama do his bidding without Obama having to say a word to them:

Carol Lennon had drove from Clearwater, Fla., to make the rally – 17 hours, overnight. Her brother-in-law’s auto-body shop was targeted by the IRS, and she knew it was because he donated to the Tea Party. What was the president’s role? “Even if he doesn’t come out and say it,” she said, “they know that’s what he wants.”

So the scandal is that Obama told the IRS folks exactly what to do to screw the Tea Party, but implicitly – that sneaky bastard – simply by being who he is. So he’s the real villain here, directing every dastardly move, step by step, by not directing anything at all, which is hands-on totalitarianism at its worst, if you think about it. Did someone mention paranoia?

There’s a reason these two matching Tea Party rallies didn’t get all that much press coverage. It’s hard to cover Glenn Beck. Try to summarize his major points, and the general thrust of his argument, for your viewers or readers. It can’t be done – you’ll end up giggling or drinking heavily. He’s the Salvador Dalí of American political discourse. Try to explain why Benghazi and the IRS scandals are scandals at all too, both of which lead back to Obama, who had nothing to do with them, which is certain proof he had everything to do with them. If the job of the news folks is to report on who is saying what, and what their arguments are, you do need something to work with. All you can report is that these folks are claiming that no evidence of the thing is, in fact, certain evidence of the thing.

There’s an alternative – the cultural touchstones – those movie quotes. Reporters could use those when they cover this return of the Tea Party. There’s what that strange little boy says in that 1999 movie, The Sixth Sense – “I see dead people.” That works as both shorthand and metaphor here. On the other hand, there’s what Rhett says to Scarlett at the end of a far more famous movie – “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Everyone would understand, and socialization is a funny thing, a process of understanding what we all have in common, at least in our culture, and getting with the program. A friend commented recently that he never gave enough thought to that “don’t you tell me what to do” stuff from the Tea Party crowd, although he has always suspected that the anti-social aspect of being conservative has something to do with never quite maturing – maybe turning off their social learning process in their brain before anyone was able to teach them to share.

There’s something to that.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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