Monday, April 19, 2010

Is the Tea Party a Neo-Confederate Rebellion?

     In this weekend's New York Times, Frank Rich responds to some Tea Party members' recent actions that smell of racism and Confederate revival.  No one is making up this connection.  Members of the very Christian Tea Party are proudly asserting it themselves, some even calling for another Civil War.  So much for rendering unto Caesar--hypocrites.

     "They were fighting for the same things that people in the 'tea party' are fighting for now," said Grayson Jennings, first lieutenant commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which lobbied McDonnell to issue the proclamation.  If Jennings's views are any measure, the group's on the political fringe. He said he'd favor seceding again -- "tonight is not soon enough" -- because of high taxes, illegal immigration and energy legislation.  Jennings's views about what he called the "War of Northern Aggression" are also pretty far out. He said linking the Confederacy and slavery was a "tired old argument."
     In response to McDonnell's redacted version of the Civil War, Mr. Rich reveals McDonnell's not-so-inclusive track record:
     McDonnell had been widely hailed by his party as a refreshing new “big tent” conservative star when he took office in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, in January. So perhaps his Dixiecrat proclamation, if not a dream, might have been a staff-driven gaffe rather than a deliberate act of racial provocation.
     That hope evaporated once McDonnell was asked to explain why there was no mention of slavery in his declaration honoring “the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens.” After acknowledging that slavery was among “any number of aspects to that conflict between the states,” the governor went on to say that he had focused on the issues “I thought were most significant for Virginia.” Only when some of his own black supporters joined editorialists in observing that slavery was significant to some Virginians too — a fifth of the state’s population is black — did he beat a retreat and apologize.
     McDonnell isn’t a native Virginian but he received his master’s and law degrees at Pat Robertson’s university in Virginia Beach during the 1980s, when Robertson was still a rare public defender of South Africa’s apartheid regime. As a major donor to McDonnell’s campaign and an invited guest to his Inaugural breakfast, Robertson is closer politically to his protégé than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ever was to Barack Obama. McDonnell chose his language knowingly when initially trying to justify his vision of Confederate History Month. His sanitized spin on the Civil War could not have been better framed to appeal to an unreconstructed white cohort that, while much diminished in the 21st century, popped back out of the closet during the Obama ascendancy.
     But once again you’d have to look hard to find any conservative leader who criticized McDonnell for playing with racial fire. Instead, another Southern governor — who, as it happened, had issued a Confederate Heritage Month proclamation of his own — took up his defense. The whole incident didn’t “amount to diddly,” said Haley Barbour [Presbyterian], of Mississippi, when asked about it by Candy Crowley of CNN last weekend.
     On the Tea Party, racism, integration, health care Mr. Rich states:
     Most Americans who don’t like Obama or the health care bill are not racists. It may be a closer call among Tea Partiers, of whom only 1 percent are black, according to last week’s much dissected Times/CBS News poll. That same survey found that 52 percent of Tea Party followers feel “too much” has been made of the problems facing black people — nearly twice the national average. And that’s just those who admit to it. Whatever their number, those who are threatened and enraged by the new Obama order are volatile. Conservative politicians are taking a walk on the wild side by coddling and encouraging them, whatever the short-term political gain.
     The temperature is higher now than it was a month ago. It’s not happenstance that officials from the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Virginia and Mississippi have argued, as one said this month, that the Confederate Army had been “fighting for the same things that people in the Tea Party are fighting for.” Obama opposition increasingly comes wrapped in the racial code that McDonnell revived in endorsing Confederate History Month. The state attorneys general who are invoking states’ rights in their lawsuits to nullify the federal health care law are transparently pushing the same old hot buttons.
     “They tried it here in Arkansas in ’57, and it didn’t work,” said the Democratic governor of that state, Mike Beebe, likening the states’ health care suits to the failed effort of his predecessor Orval Faubus to block nine black students from attending the all-white Little Rock Central High School. That battle for states’ rights ended when President Eisenhower [Presbyterian] , a Republican who would be considered a traitor to his party in 2010, enforced federal law by sending in troops.
     How our current spike in neo-Confederate rebellion will end is unknown. It’s unnerving that Tea Party leaders and conservatives in the Oklahoma Legislature now aim to create a new volunteer militia that, as The Associated Press described it, would use as yet mysterious means to “help defend against what they believe are improper federal infringements on state sovereignty.” This is the same ideology that animated Timothy McVeigh, whose strike against the tyrannical federal government will reach its 15th anniversary on Monday in the same city where the Oklahoma Legislature meets.

Other images used in this post are in the public domain.

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