Saturday, 6 August 2011

Last time I was down in Sydney I dropped by Gleebooks for a recreative fossick and asked the guy behind the back-store counter for a book about the Tea Party movement which has taken the US by storm over the past two years. A book, Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America by New York Times journalist Kate Zernike, was chosen in preference to one by an actual Tea Partier since I wanted something non-partisan and well-informed. I got it. Australian public-sphere watchers may think they know about the Tea Party but historical divergences mean that you really need a primer like Zelnike's book to glom onto the way the Tea Party emerged, and how it has developed as a grassroots activism project in the US.

The Tea Party stems from post-GFC disgust with bail-outs. George W Bush was the first president to start coughing up cash to prevent financial institutions from falling over, and his lead has been followed by Barack Obama since. Tea Partiers resent their money being used in this way. Initially it was the undeserving poor - who had borrowed money from rapacious financial institutions at initially-low rates to buy houses they could otherwise not afford - that attracted the ire of those parts of middle America that would probably not have been caught in default when the 2-year interest-free periods on such "toxic" loans ended. These parts of middle America resemble those parts of Australian society who backed Pauline Hanson. Mixed up in the Tea Party mindset is anxiety about indigent citizens and a deep distrust of elites - those parts of society that hold higher degrees in, say, business management and who fill key positions in government.

The Tea Party really took off once they got help, in this case from FreedomWorks, a conservative non-profit think tank that is backed by the wealthy Koch brothers. FreedomWorks showed Tea Partiers how to launch campaigns, build support bases, and get involved in the public sphere. They were aided in their rabble-rousing (if you like) by Fox News. The Tea Party is mainly white, middle class, male and religious. But its ability to latch onto existing narratives within the American story meant that it took off where other aggrieved sections of society had failed. There were things in the American story just waiting to be actualised, and to motivate people sufficiently that they have been able to challenge the status quo and change the direction of the country.

In Australia we don't have the same referents available for similar purposes but I propose launching a movement to counter the deadening effects of certain parts of this country's leadership. I call for the establishment of a Manifesto of the Elites and I have chosen as an emblem one of William Blake's illustrations for Mitlon's Paradise Lost: Satan rousing the rebellious angels.

After reading Kernike's book for a few hours last night I got on Twitter and started to look around, tweet, and attempt to engage with the Tea Party grassroots. I had no luck. The #TCOT tweetstream is filled with Tea Party chat but the people there were impervious to my appeals for reason. I understand how they want agency, community and companionship, and I tried to show my awareness, but it was impossible even to raise a peep from these committed tweeps. So I went to Facebook and posted a draft manifesto. It reads:
Power to the Blooming Wattle! The elites and progressives of Australia demand recognition. We celebrate ambiguity and foster education as a means of channelling it to good purposes. We shun mere material wealth and anticipate a brighter future for all humankind. We know ourselves and are happy with our possibilities. We seek out new options, undertake difficult challenges, and encourage entrepreneurship in a material and in an intellectual sense. #PWRTBW
I chose the hashtag #PWRTBW because it means "progressives who refuse to be wedged" and it represents a wish that progressives could mobilise in the same way the Tea Party has mobilised, and change the direction the country is taking. There were no comments on my post, or even 'likes'. There was only silence. And perhaps this says something about progressives: they are as hard to mobilise on an acknowledged platform as cats are to herd. My movement remains stillborn. It is possibly doomed to oblivion. Like Satan in Milton's extraordinary epic poem. Like Blake for most of his life. But perhaps there's a lesson to learn in the way Blake was eventually picked up by the youth of the emerging Victorian era: young, religious and earnest, they idolised the old man in his dotage.

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