The Rightwing's Exploitation Of American Liberal Symbols

by tristero

David Barstow's must read article about the scary people who have co-opted the Boston Tea Party is extremely disturbing. There is much to discuss but what interests me here is a rhetorical tactic that rarely gets noticed, yet is on prominent display in the article.

That these extremists have "co-opted the Boston Tea Party" is part of a deliberate strategy. The right regularly seize upon left, liberal and/or American imagery, symbols, and events, and then twist their meaning for their own sinister ends. And they do this over and over. And we rarely notice, or respond effectively.

Case in point is this picture which accompanies the article, of some white war veterans at a so-called Tea Party gathering:

Many of the younger folks amongst you will make the mistake of thinking that this is merely a crude display of rightwing arch-nationalism. But it is more. The American flag shirt has a history. I'm sure he wasn't the first - probably flag shirts go back to the beginning of the Republic - but easily the most famous incident in modern history of someone wearing an American flag shirt was this one:

His name was Abbie Hoffman. He's dead now. You can read about him here. And you can read about what Abbie's shirt stirred up here.

This transformation of the flag shirt from a funny leftwing provocation into a crude fashion accessory for the extreme right was hardly accidental. In the Times, we encounter another attempt to exploit American left and/or liberal symbols, this time to forestall the charge of racism:
Gazing out at his overwhelmingly white audience, Mr. Mack felt the need to say, “This meeting is not racist.” Nor, he said, was it a call to insurrection. What is needed, he said, is “a whole army of sheriffs” marching on Washington to deliver an unambiguous warning: “Any violation of the Constitution we will consider a criminal offense.”

The crowd roared.

Mr. Mack shared his vision of the ideal sheriff. The setting was Montgomery, Ala., on the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger. Imagine the local sheriff, he said, rather than arresting Ms. Parks, escorting her home, stopping to buy her a meal at an all-white diner.
This is painful to read, because it is such total bullshit. Mr. Mack knows, and his audience knows, that neither he nor they could care less about Rosa Parks' civil rights - and that is being kind. But the purpose of the bullshit is not to convince anyone. Rather, it does two things. First, it aligns the extreme right with a (now) highly-respected, indeed well-loved, representation of American Freedom. Second, it makes it harder for liberals to use Rosa Parks as a shorthand for the expansion of civil liberties.

Here's the nasty thing about this tactic: reality matters not a whit. We can look up the history of the forces arrayed against Rosa Parks and learn that many of the same groups, or their forerunners, are involved in the so-called Tea Party. We can point to the irony of Abbie's flag shirt being worn by people who probably rejoiced when Hoffman died. We can even look up the Boston Tea Party and discern that, at best, the issues involved have little relevance to today and, at worst, the Boston Tea Party was a rather sinister piece of work intended actually to keep taxes on tea high.

None of this matters. What matters is the mythology. These symbols represent America (the shirt), freedom (Rosa Parks), and liberty (Boston Tea Party). And the mythology works extremely well.

How to counter this? Do we engage these extremists, pointing out their distortions of history, thereby risking elevating the status of their myths to "a different point of view?" Do we normals create our own mythologies, justifying our efforts to smooth over the rough edges of our history as service to the "higher truth of a liberal society?" Do we, as Obama did with Reagan, coopt rightwing icons? Do we sidestep the whole notion of mythologies and find some new way to persuade people - and if so, what would that look and sound like?

I have absolutely no idea. But one thing I do know - whatever we're doing now, it's not working well enough. Kevin Drum, typically, thinks it's quite possible that this latest surge in rightwing extremism will fade, especially if the economy improves. What I would give for Kevin's optimistic personality and his lack of paranoia!

But I see no signs that this will go away. What I see is that the so-called Tea Party movement has enabled hitherto marginalized extremists - the militia crazies, the Birchers, the New World Order freaks - to move much closer to the center of public discourse. Oh, and I see no signs of the economy improving in a way that will impact this movement.

This is very serious stuff.