It happened in the 1930s, it happened in the 1960s, and it's happening again now. The public dialogue becomes so heated in troubled times that demagogues with media access and conscience-challenged politicians pit one group against another for personal or political gain. Those who feel ignored and powerless begin to raise their voices, and the conflict heats and simmers. Sides are chosen, people march in the street and hold rallies. After a series of frustrations, the extreme element becomes the loudest voice of protest and drowns out any chance for dialogue with the other side, and then the rhetoric really turns ugly. As one side demonizes the other, the kettle boils over until some unhinged "law-abiding citizen" decides to alter history, and then somebody gets killed.
We are only one delusional psychotic who wants to impress Jodie Foster away from deadly violence. The Tea Party is taking its circus of horrors, with its vitriolic speakers, on the road. Coming to a town near you: roving bands of surly, misinformed, Toby Keith fans — and they're armed.
I'd like to ask the folks who show up at these rallies one question: Who do you suppose is paying for this cartoon caravan to traverse the nation's highways, organizing pro-anarchy assemblies for the disgruntled? While the poor, oppressed white people howl about "taking their country back" from the evil, fascist Democrats, they are being financed by ultraconservative billionaire families with names like Coors, Scaife, and Koch. Unlimited funding is available from racketeers like the American Enterprise Institute or Freedom Works, the Tea Party's sponsors, to set up front groups to organize "grass roots" protests. While the Teabaggers rail against big government and the "Washington elites," former speaker of the House Dick Armey is behind the scenes stirring the pot and making nice money doing it.
In the 1930s and 1960s, it was the poor and voiceless rising up against the wealthy and powerful. Now, the wealthy and powerful are paying the tab and pulling the protesters' strings to try and prevent any further progressive legislation from cutting into their personal fortunes. The insane reaction in the wake of the passage of health-care reform, including death threats, vile voice messages, calls for vandalism against Democrats' offices, and rhetoric alluding to gun violence, is equal to the excesses of any 1960s anti-war protest. Is all this rage really over giving 30 million people access to health insurance, or is there something deeper going on here? Although the leaders of the most recent Tea Party gathering in Nevada urged the crowd to tone down its nastiness (because of bad press), the racist element is still unmistakable. Many of these people believe Barack Obama is attempting to take away their tax money and give it to a drug dealer in Orange Mound for "reparations."
I have no regrets about my participation in the anti-war demonstrations of the late 1960s, but I do regret being associated with the Weather Underground. The conduct of protesters on the fringes of the argument succeeded only in further polarizing the country. On November 15, 1969, I traveled to Washington, D.C., with 500,000 of my closest friends to march in the Moratorium to End the Vietnam War. As we walked toward the Capitol, I saw throngs of people, including entire families, making their way peacefully to the event. We listened to speakers like Dr. Benjamin Spock and Senator Eugene McCarthy and heard Peter, Paul, and Mary and Pete Seeger lead the crowd in singing John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance." But right up front, blocking the view of the speaker's platform, was a small group of Yippie radicals who had staked out their prime real estate in advance and were flying a giant Viet Cong flag.
Whatever your feelings about the war, the North Vietnamese were holding American prisoners. Men I knew from high school were serving in Vietnam, and I understood that if flying the enemy's flag on the National Mall was repulsive to me, it would be enraging to those we were trying to persuade. The indelible image of the peace march in the collective consciousness was not one of peaceful assembly but of a few deranged hippies breaking windows and taunting police.
Shakespeare said, "The past is prologue," so I am now able to accurately predict the future: These stonewallers and provocateurs should try to acclimate themselves to fringe status. While the Tea Party Express rolls into town like a pack of demented carnival barkers and fleeces the marks for contributions to help overturn legislation, the calmer majority of the populace looks upon the spectacle like watching bad theater. Men dressed in camouflage and carrying weapons and women holding homemade signs with inflammatory, racist slogans will not sway reasonable voters, just as waving the enemy's flag did nothing to help end the Vietnam War.
And, by the way, without young people, your movement is doomed. Because they're making the most noise, the Tea Party goofballs are convinced that they are on a victory march to overthrow the popularly elected government of the United States. They fail to see themselves as others see them and thus will be the most surprised at their utter failure to effect change. Then, the rest of us will really have cause for concern. I pray for the vigilance of the Secret Service. As history makes quite clear: from such political movements violence emerges.
Randy Haspel writes the blog "Born-Again Hippies," where a version of this column first appeared.