You Don’t Need A Weatherman: How The Black Panthers Were So Not Hutaree On The Left
America’s notoriously unimpressive memory-span has wrought its customary corrosion on our national recollection of the 2008 presidential campaign season. However, we would do well to remind ourselves of that season’s tenor, because it set the stage for our current political climate with uncanny accuracy. Recall, if you will, how it ended.
Less than a month before Americans cleaned her clock at the polls, the then-half-term governor (now former half-term governor) of Alaska was fond of hyping up her crowds by calling soon-to-be President-elect Obama, “someone who sees America as imperfect enough to work with a terrorist.” They, in turn, were happy to reward her with shouts of “Treason!” and “Kill him!”
The terrorist in question, you may remember, was elementary education theorist Bill Ayers who, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, made his way as a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and its offshoot, the radical Weather Underground.
But Ayers was not the only comparison then-Senator Obama’s political adversaries made between 1960’s radicals and The Man Whose Middle Name Is Hussein. An earlier opponent of his, Sen. Hillary Clinton, made a big fuss about Obama’s then-pastor, Jeremiah Wright, whose fiery sermons denouncing the US Government dredged up a lot of white anxiety about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, whose legacies we’d rather ignore, thank you very much, than associate with our then-hopeful candidate-for-President.
The specter of left-wing radicals bygone was enough to bring Palin devotees to a fever pitch in October 2008. That fever pitch has scarcely subsided in April 2010. The radicalization of the right-wing American citizen that is a topic on the lips of so many pundits and journalists today was prophesied so obviously – one need only inspect the wall for the writing those late McCain/Palin rallies left there.
Since the election, the right wing has undergone enormous changes. Most notably characterizing those changes have been the rise of the so-called “tea party movement” and the enthusiastic shift away from the Republican Party (culminating, most recently, in Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council cautioning his organization’s members not to donate to the Republican National Committee). But an uglier faction exists as well: a reconstitution and expansion of the small right-wing militia movement of the 1990’s, which brought us such exciting episodes in American life as the Oklahoma City bombing.
I need hardly point out with overmuch emphasis the connection between a movement whose protestors habitually wield signs superimposing Hitler’s mustache onto photographs of the President, the instances when those protestors openly carry weaponry and display “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and the threats of violence lobbed at members of congress.
Given the opportunity to characterize this movement as she had left-wing radicals from 40 years ago during the campaign, Ms. Palin has declined, preferring instead the formulation, “Media, you guys ginning up an issue like that, making it sound like it’s a crowd like this of patriotic Americans who are inciting violence – it’s not true. It’s a bunch of bunk and we ask for some fair and some balanced reporting coming from you, please.” Notwithstanding the insertion of her employer’s slogan into her rallying cry, Ms. Palin’s words ring hollow – a look back to a year and a half ago reveals her to be quite the ginner-up herself.
If fear of a radicalized left is what’s radicalizing the right, than Palin is as responsible as anyone in the United States. This movement, though, is not a mirror image of the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers, reflected across 40 years and partisan dividing lines. Or if it is, it is a funhouse mirror, which has distorted the thing so greatly that it is only barely recognizable. Several key features differentiate Right-Wing ’10 from Left-Wing ‘70, and they’re worth remembering.
1. They don’t know anything.
Probably the best tweet I’ve seen came from The Nation’s Chris Hayes last December 15, during the Tea Party Patriots’ health care rally in Washington: “Spoke tea party woman holding sign of Obama and Stalin. Told her I was almost *certain* Obama was a Trot.”
The underlying absurdity of the “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” crowd’s classification of the President and his policy goals as simultaneously socialist, communist, fascist, Maoist, Stalinist and Nazi is that those things are, by and large, mutually incompatible. The truth of the matter is that these people don’t know what words they’re using mean. What are they charging when they call Obama “Stalinist?” “Hitlerian?” (I’d like to commission a citizen journalist to bring a camera to a tea party rally and ask attendants to speak articulately for 3 minutes about the various bogey-men their signs compare to Obama – if you’re interested, contact me at email@example.com).
SDS came from the universities – you can bet that the Weathermen had read Proudhon and Bakunin and that they understood what about their intellectual forbearers they appreciated and what they eschewed. The Black Panthers were clear on the facts of the legacy of racial oppression in the United States and instituted considerable educational programs to ensure that black children’s learning was supplemented with that important knowledge. Similarly, both groups were, if disagreeable, certainly eloquent about the character and historical import of the American imperium they despised. Not so, of course, for the tea party. Do you think they have read the Declaration of Independence and have, through careful study, concluded that being in the political minority and democratically put out of power constitute the conditions Jefferson thought merited insurrection? Do they know that, were he president today, they would be carrying signs of a Jefferson/Hitler hybrid?
2. They don’t want anything.
To describe the Tea Party movement as having policy aims is to ensnare oneself in a rhetorical web.
There is a school that says it is a libertarian group who wants to abolish what Ms. Palin called “the big government, big debt, Obama-Pelosi-Reid spending spree.” On the matter of “big government:” the Tea Party was not, you’ll recall, active during the Bush Administration’s enormous expansion of governmental powers, including instituting a wiretapping program that a federal judge recently found to have broken the law. On “big debt,” the argument is exactly the same: Bush’s presidency began with a 5.6 trillion dollar debt and ended with a 10 trillion dollar debt (compared to the GDP, it rose from 58% to 70% under Bush’s leadership). As far as spending sprees go, Bush’s tax cuts and two wars (one of which has now become the longest in American history) never brought Palin and her supporters marching in the streets, vitriol raised along with fists. And guns.
The name Tea Party would indicate an aversion to “taxation without representation.” But every tea partier, unless they live in Puerto Rico or Washington, DC (a slim chance, given the racial constitution of the three groups in question), has two Senators and a Representative whose job is to provide for the second part of that. Perhaps they just don’t think the government has the right to levy taxes at all, however well-represented its citizenry, which makes them slightly more radical than anyone is, I think, proposing. (And, again, why was there evidently no problem with the Bush Administration’s habit of maintaining an Internal Revenue Service?)
Let’s imagine, though, that these people are serious about wanting to abolish the tax code. Then whence all the unsavory activities unrelated to that goal? Shouting “faggot” at Barney Frank and “nigger” at John Lewis are hardly tactics employed by activists intent on winning over a public and advancing an agenda. As Princeton’s Melissa Harris-Lacewell put it, “If you are operating in a social movement that has serious policy goals, then one of the things you do as a social movement is to train the members of that movement not to behave in ways that will distract from your goals.”
3. They aren’t organized.
The Black Panthers ran “survival programs” that provided free breakfast for children, free medical clinics, free clothing, free lessons on self-defense, politics, economics and first aid, free addiction rehabilitation and an emergency-response ambulance corps. What is the Tea Party’s organization doing, apart from organizing mobs to shout and spit (and thereby providing the social space for groups like Hutaree to plot to assassinate the President)?
Unlike the Panthers, whose organizational hierarchy was rigid and well-defined, the tea party movement prides itself on being leaderless (which raises the questions of who selects the speakers, who arranges the permits for the rallies, who organizes the outreach effort and, above all, who finances the whole affair). Nevertheless, it is clear whom they idolize. It’s not the spray-tan cuddle-buddy-to-the-lobbyists John Boehner or his deputy, the bespectacled Jew-boy Eric Cantor. It’s the tin-foil milliner Glenn Beck, the druggie Rush Limbaugh and the lupicidal witch-hunter from Right Near Russia.
A favorite explanation among the mainstream for the tea partiers and their militant brethren is that they’re a product of incendiary rhetoric at the political/media level. But those folks aforementioned have never had the power to organize something like the tea party in the past. It might be that the endorsement of those people in power (and their funding) helps to facilitate the movement, but it is not responsible for the movement’s inception. Rather, people respond to what they’re likely to respond to.
Palin’s own political failure was due, in large part, to the fact that Tina Fey’s impersonation of her resonated so ferociously with the American audience. Why did it resonate? Not because Tina Fey or Saturday Night Live wielded that much power, but because it spoke to and emphasized all of the things that America already saw in Palin – shallowness, meanness, idiocy and fraudulence.
Beck, Palin, &c. might be the ones keeping tea partiers in the headlines and drawing exorbitant speaking fees from their events, but they are not the genesis of the movement. The movement is not organized.
4. They are bigots.
Since they have neither discernable policy goals nor any organizational strategy, this strikes me as the most likely explanation for whatever success we are willing to ascribe to the tea party faithful: they are racist.
To be clear, I am not here referring to the type of racist that all white people are, whenever we relent in our opposition to the structural inequalities that afflict American institutions and heap upon us enormous privilege; I mean the old-school, gross, outright, proud, conscious bigotry displayed by the Ku Klux Klan in the Jim Crow South.
The right’s paranoia about global government is not the organizing principle: whatever the New World Order is, its construction was demonstrably not interrupted for the last administration’s eight years. Nor is these militias’ Christian doctrine: whatever President Obama’s spiritual views, he is no more Muslim than President Bush. Anyone genuinely concerned with government invasion into the lives of the individual would rejoice and relax (not, as Palin urged, “reload”) at the rescue of the presidency by a relative civil libertarian from the Constitution-shredding grip of Dick Cheney. Are we expected to believe that “states rights” activists are to be up in arms (literally) when Obama’s Recovery Act funnels money to the states to rescue them from having to lay off more workers?
No: the change from Bush to Obama that most offends these people is the change from white to black. The roots of this, too, can be found in those late McCain/Palin rallies, especially on October 10, which McCain finally decided, after much criticism, to dial down the belligerent tone his campaign was taking. A woman in the crowd said “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not uh — he’s an Arab” (which Sen. McCain memorably denied, noting that Obama couldn’t be an Arab because “he’s a decent family man and citizen.”). Instructively, the crowd cheered the citizen and booed the candidate in whose honor the rally was being held.
American cultural progress has taken us to a place where it is not acceptable publicly to profess white supremacy (a victory, I think). But what it means is that racial disquiet is expressed in less honest ways – by calling Obama a socialist when he demonstrably isn’t, by accusing his government of overreaching when it obviously hasn’t, by refusing to admit its own rhetoric is violent when it incontrovertibly is.
It’s about race. If their lawsuits de-legitimizing his presidency won’t work, then, damn it, they’ll lie about your grandmother in hopes of providing his “Waterloo,” accuracy be damned. There were people who couldn’t abide black men being free from chattel slavery and people who couldn’t abide black men drinking from the same water fountains as whites. There were people who couldn’t abide black men playing in the Major Leagues and people who couldn’t abide black men fighting in the military. There were people who couldn’t abide black men voting, and now those same people, or the recipients of their legacy, cannot abide a black man in the White House. That is the reason they dredge up and mischaracterize The Nation articles from 1966: to claim that ACORN fraudulently won the election for Obama. That is the reason they question the President’s nation of origin (it’s America, if anyone out there is still unsure). And that is the reason they plot to kill him. This is not the same phenomenon as The Weather Underground.
The left-wing radicals of the 1970’s were working to obliterate white supremacy; the right-wing radicals of today are working to uphold it. What today’s right wing lack in philosophy, intelligence and organization, they more than make up for in bigotry and hatred. Let us not obfuscate this point any longer. And let us cool it with the “both sides do it” rhetoric.
Those who know me are well aware that I am loathe to deprecate inflammatory rhetoric or revolutionary attitudes. And I will not change because talking heads insist on portraying left ’70 and right ’10 as equivalent. There are material differences between the two, and I wish we would acknowledge that and stop doing ourselves the disservice of pretending otherwise.
J.A. Myerson, Executive Editor of The Busy Signal, is the Artistic Director of Full of Noises and a teaching artist with Urban Arts Partnership. He writes primarily on American Politics and Human Rights.