Everything I know about the Tea Party is as follows: they are flesh-eating, fear-mongering racist lunatics, and they drink the blood of young virgins.
Oh, and they hate the media.
Armed with this understanding I decided to attended my first Tea Party meeting, figuring as a white, already-deflowered male who simply happened to be a reporter, my chances of survival were better than most.
Still, I did not identify myself as a reporter, not so much out of cowardice, although there’s that, but more because I wanted everyone at their best behavior, unvarnished.
Nothing brings out the worst in people than knowing they are talking to a reporter. I wanted truth not a press release. Turns out I got both.
So it was that I stepped inside the Rock Community Church in Harleysville on Route 63 where the Philadelphia Tea Party Patriots meet the second Thursday of each month - just like the sign on the sidewalk in front of the church read: TEA PARTY MEETING THURSDAY 7 P.M.
A small square building of red brick, the church looks more like the truck loading station for an office supply company.
Aside from asking someone where the bathroom was, I didn’t speak to anyone during the entire course of the two-hour meeting. I sat in my chair, listened to the speakers, read the literature they handed out, and, when it was over, I went home - disappointed, I might add.
What about the virgin sacrifice? Or the cross burning barbecue? Where’s the fire and brimstone breathing preacher with poison snakes coiling round his arms?
In a room of about 20 people, each one with an ax to grind, surely I’d be witness to an earth shaking event, some dark mysterious secret laid bare, or at least a good old-fashioned mob scene replete with pitchforks and torches. No such luck.
Instead, I sat and listened to a group of seemingly normal people exchanging their concerns, fears and hopes for America, a country they find easy to love, but hard to understand in terms of its leaders, Democrat or Republican, and their seeming lack of regard for responsible fiscal policy, or why its people elected Barack Obama as their president - all perfectly reasonable pursuits. I can think of worse ways to spend a couple hours.
Some of the people reminded me of family members from my childhood - reticent, hard-working people who, if they were alive today, might be members of the Tea Party. Then again, some of them likely would continue being members of a steel workers or some other trade union.
One thing's for certain: they would be just as disenchanted with the current state of affairs. “We busted our humps for this?” I can hear them saying. “Where the hell are all the payphones?”
Jim Devlin of the PTPP served as a coordinator of Thursday’s meeting. There was an informal, almost casual flow to the proceedings. The audience was outspoken but civil. No one shouted or grumbled under their breath. I’d say the heat in the room never got higher than medium rare.
That is not to say this Tea Party doesn’t have fire in their bellies, far from it. But as Devlin made the point, while pointing out the differences between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement, the squeakiest wheel gets the cheese.
“We don’t pitch tents on public property, we don’t have lice,” he said, a humorous aside. Humorous, at least, if you don’t have lice. This was part of a bigger point he was making about the Tea Party’s status as a fringe group. He wonders how is it that, according to public polls, the majority is vastly more in favor of the Occupiers than the Tea Partiers?
Here is where I learned just how sensitive these people are, and how their vulnerability has made them forget the true grit of their cause. They seek legitimacy in a system, for all the right and wrong reasons, they openly despise.
These are people who rightly distrust the government and the media, yet they appear angry and wounded over a poll, a media-driven gimmick, which claims they aren’t as popular as the lice-ridden hippies sleeping in the park.
As far as I’m concerned, any movement intent on shaking things up is better off being categorized as outside the stream rather than just another current that eventually merges with the rest. But then I’ve always found the dynamic of groups of any size or orientation to be, well, disorienting.
Take the Occupiers, for instance. They are young, strident, sexy and ...“things have to change and we want change now!” But ask several of them, as I did last month at the Occupy Philly protests, what that change might look like, and you’re likely to get several different answers varying in intensity and coherence, all of it coming back to, “We want change now!” They have intensity but no focus.
Whereas the Tea Party seems to have both focus and intensity, but not the right balance; there’s too much of either. Their grievances are many, and many of them sound - overreaching government, “rampant and irresponsible government spending,” as one PTPP printout claimed.
They are also attempting “to prevent or stop current policies and ideologies trending toward ... creating dependence on government ... taking from one to give to another ... disregard for the tenets in and original intent of the Constitution.”
Fine with me, as long as we’re all agreeing that this is the same U.S. Constitution that provides the same rights and freedoms for all men and women, seeing as we are all created equal and whatnot.
Here is where I stand up and point my finger at the Tea Party and cry, “J’accuse!” And not just because it sounds cool to cry out in French.
My wagging finger is a reaction to their vehement and very active stand against gay marriage. They are active to the extent that they monitor the legislation surrounding gay marriage rights, such as the Respect for Marriage Act, which, according to another printout discussed at the meeting, “would eradicate the Defense of Marriage Act which is in the throws (sic) of being shot down in the Senate.”
They’re also keeping their eyes on the “Student Non-Discrimination Act,” legislation that they claim “would mandate public, private & religious schools to teach & promote the homosexual lifestyle.”
Now before I’m accused of accusing the PTPP of homophobia, I did see in their printout that they welcome “any and all individuals” who share their values, “regardless of ethnicity or sexual orientation or age.” I believe this to be an honest statement on their part.
But I have to ask, why on earth would any gay man or woman want to join a party that claims among its core values “constitutionally limited government,” yet this same party supports the right of government to dictate how gay men and women should be allowed live here in these United States of America?
Call me old-fashioned, but that’s just straight up bigotry, not to mention hypocrisy of the first order; it’s as un-American as rhubarb pie on Thanksgiving.
Adding to its hypocrisy is the Tea Party’s claim, not unjustified, that its members are often “demonized” by the liberal media. No doubt this happens, just as the conservative media, and the Tea Party itself, portrays liberals as cretinous lice-infested libertines.
I can’t help but think both liberals and conservatives, Tea Partiers and Occupiers, are playing into the hands of those who have little regard for the truth behind either movement. What’s the difference between FOX News and CNN other than one is considered the conservative alternative to the other channel’s liberal bias? Two wrongs or, in this case, biases, don’t make a right.
As witness to the Occupy and Tea Party movements, I believe both sides are making legitimate arguments that deserve to be heard without the static interference of the news media, including what has been said in this column.
Why not visit an occupied site or attend a Tea Party meeting? You might learn something. Take my word for it.