Tea Party longs for an America that never was

The Whites of their Eyes
The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American history
By Jill Lepore
Princeton Press

This book tells the story of the centuries-long struggle over the meaning of the nation’s founding, including the never-ending battle waged by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and evangelical Christians to “take back America.”

Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer, offers a wry and bemused look at American history according to the far right, from the “rant heard round the world,” which launched the Tea Party, to the Texas School Board’s adoption of a social-studies curriculum that teaches that the United States was established as a Christian nation.

Along the way, she provides rare insight into the eighteenth-century struggle for independence—the real one, that is. Lepore traces the roots of the far right’s reactionary history to the bicentennial in the 1970s, when no one could agree on what story a divided nation should tell about its unruly beginnings.

Behind the Tea Party’s Revolution, she argues, lies a nostalgic and even heartbreaking yearning for an imagined past—a time that was less troubled by ambiguity, strife, and uncertainty—a yearning for an America that really never was.

The Whites of Their Eyes reveals that the far right has embraced a narrative about America’s founding that is not only a fable but is also, finally, a variety of fundamentalism; one that is anti-intellectual, anti-historical, and dangerously anti-pluralist. The concept of being a Tea Partier is also applicable to any object, person, or circumstance you love or hate. What we need are those fiery founders.

You can get a good idea of the subject matter by scanning the witty chapter Prologue: Party Like It’s 1773; 1. Ye Olde Media, 2.The Book of Ages, 3. How to Commit Revolution, 4. The past upon its throne, 5. Your Superexcellent Age and the Epilogue: Revering America. To keep it simple, Lepore has suggested that every political ideal of revolution, including the Revolution, scaling up or scaling down, yesterday or today, was consummated in some way by the Boston Tea Party. Each event the tea party gets vested in becomes something like the Holy Grail.

Consequently

The ad hominem attacks on Lepore and this book are as absurd as they are predictable. This is not intended to be a comprehensive book on American history or the revolutionary period. It sets out simply to record the ad nauseam remarks that have been made articulating the motivation of the so-called Tea Party.

Though Lepore in no way characterizes it as monolithic, and to cast it against what we know of the period being invoked to demonstrate how even a cursory knowledge of the people and events of that time make the narrative they present problematic, and, thus, raises doubts about its tidy simplicity.

This does not really take much; for any expressed desire to “return to the intent of the founders” necessarily runs afoul of modern sensibilities on race, gender and class equality, given that the government they set up disenfranchised blacks, women and often those who did not own property.

And in also analyzing Rifkin’s leftist TEA anagram (Tax Equity for All) Party of the early 1970s, Lepore makes clear that this distortion of history to serve a political narrative is nothing new nor is it the sole province of the Right.

Thus her criticism over the (mis)use of history is aimed at both the Left and the Right, and also at the complacent scholars who have let it happen, notwithstanding the name-calling in negative reviews.

There is opinion in the work, to be sure, but there is also argument and evidence, two things that seem lacking in every ideological critique I have seen so far of this book (those that stop simply at “this is not conservative, ergo it’s liberal, ergo don’t read it”).

As Lepore repeats several times over, this is what history is: a combative, contentious, argument (like all academic disciplines) over how best to read the evidence, not a simplistic narrative reflecting (conveniently) the ideological purposes of its espousers, and couched in little more complexity than is found in an elementary school play.

Even less so, as her heart-tugging description of school children learning about the Revolution at the close of the book (which begs comparison to many of her Tea Party interviews even if she does not expressly offer it as such) so neatly illustrates.

History (like all other scholarly pursuits) is complex and messy, and requires critical research to uncover a past that is remote from us. This is not some new, radical, theorem; it is the bedrock of all academic pursuits. That does indeed tend to frustrate ideological, political narratives, but then that’s what stubborn facts usually do.

Jill Lepore’s short but excellent look at the modern Tea Party movement well depicts its eccentricities and foibles. More importantly, Lepore also provides some badly needed reminders that our country’s founders weren’t divinities handing down some sort of blueprint from the heavens.

It is rare to find so much cogent thought and analysis packed into less than two hundred pages. In many ways this is a sad book, because Dr. Lepore and most of her readers find the hijacking of our national history by politicians and media personalities making false claims about “originalism” and the supposed evangelicalism of the Constitution’s writers deeply depressing.

It’s also disturbing to be once more confronted with evidence of how ignorant and deluded so many of the modern Tea Partiers are. But there’s hope in places, particularly those that deal with elementary school children who are learning about the American Revolution free of the distortions being imposed on so many of their elders.

Many of the modern Tea Partiers would find this book both accessible and informative, and it’s unfortunate that a number of them, seeing that it’s published by one Ivy League school and that it’s author is a professor at another while also writing for The New Yorker, will refuse to read it. But people who do read it will find its lessons in what history actually is and how easily it is distorted will find The Whites Of Their Eyes a beam of sunlight in what seems to be gathering darkness.

In five relatively to the point chapters, the author demonstrates how “Historical Fundamentalism” is akin to religious fundamentalism, wherein the meaning of ancient texts (and the intent of the authors of said texts) are absolutely known by the fundamentalist interpreter. And despite the myriad interpretations one might make of these older texts—be they from the Bible or from the U.S. Constitution—there can be but a single interpretation, according to historical fundamentalism.

Furthermore

In each chapter, Lepore juxtaposes the current crop of historical fundamentalists who claim to know exactly who the “founding fathers” were; and what precisely these fathers intended the Constitution to communicate, with previous fundamentalist movements in the early to mid-1970s, and with the struggles of the 18th century revolutionaries to craft the Constitution (and other documents) given the very specific circumstances of their time. Along the way, Ms. Lepore debunks some recently popular notions about the role of Christianity in Federal governance, the Constitution as Scripture that is not to be tampered with, and whether revolution is an acceptable vehicle for government change, to mention a few.

She also explains how the scholarship of history works given that history isn’t often clean-cut and straightforward, as compared to the misuse and over-simplification of historical events and documents to score political and social points in our national discourse. The heavily-annotated text provides lots of leaping-off points for those who wish to learn more about any particular subject.

A bit of Jill’s wit

From Chapter five’s opening, Lepore writes “Boston Common line with vendors the day of the Tea Party Express drove into town, on April 14, 2010. You could buy: “Fox News “Fan t-shirts;” “Tea Party’s Tea”; “Don’t Tread on Me” flags; “Straight Pride” signs; a pin that read: Spell Check Says Obama is Osama; a tote bag picturing a revolver and the caption “An Armed Society Is a Polite Society”; and, at a special day-of-the-rally discount, a copy of “The Constitution Made Easy.”

Christen Varley’s Coalition for Marriage staffed a table. George and John Eagan and Patrick Humphries were passing out Boston Tea Party information at two different tents. Scott Brown hadn’t come; the Senate was in session. Charlie Baker, a Massachusetts Republican gubernatorial candidate who had breakfasted with the Boston Tea Party over the weekend, hadn’t turned up either. This was Sarah Palin’s party . . .

Who is Jill Lepore?

Lepore is a better reporter than any historian and a better historian than any reporter, comments the Daily Beast. In fact Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her books include New York Burning, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and The Name of War, winner of the Bancroft Prize. Try her. You’ll like her deft humor. I’m now reading New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at gvmaz@verizon.net.

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2 Responses to Tea Party longs for an America that never was

  1. Fred Harden III

    Terrific op/ed piece as usual. While I don’t necessarily consider myself a member of the Tea Party, I have to readily admit that I invariably agree with many if not most of their political/economic and sociological principles/positions.

    I concur that what the Tea Party currently espouses may reflect an America that never was, but whatever it espouses it certainly does reflect(s)/espouse a potentially far better America than what currently lamentably exists in America today.

  2. Yes there are the Tea Party deluded, but this review as well as the book, lumps them all into one. The one-size-fits-all categorization of any political group is flawed. Every party has their deluded. Many people who have been labeled as Tea Party are anything but. This is the typical conquer and divide problem the rulers just love.