tea potters, mad hatters and a ball of confusion

Rand must have been partying with his Baylor frat buddies when his professors discussed the labor theory of value and Henry Ford’s novel idea that the economy and business really start rolling when you get the Average Joe in a position to buy what he produces….”


by charles d. phillips


When I was growing up in West Texas, a common statement in some circles went something like, “Well, Hell, by then I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.” As I’m sure you recognize, our central and enteric nervous systems are quite different. The large intestine and the eyes are also controlled by wildly different muscle groups. So, what does this adage really mean?

If you had any doubts, the last election should have, finally and blindingly, switched on that light bulb. The phrase, which always seemed to me like hyperbole and which I never really grasped in anything like a true experiential sense, means that a person is so completely and truly befuddled by the situation they face that either heading for the toilet or giving up the power of sight seem to be equally likely, and equally reasonable, responses.

I think the phrase describes relatively well those somewhat troubling moments when you think about either sitting on a street curb with a nearly empty gallon jug of Thunderbird at your feet and yelling abuse at every passing Cadillac, or maybe screaming gibberish at your television while wearing a thong and blasting Glenn Beck’s pixilated image with a .357 Magnum. Alternatively, you might think of either selling your steak knives and becoming a vegan or putting on a few pounds of ink and becoming an outlaw biker.

But, along with my recent onset of befuddlement, I’m just weary of watching the sad turn this country has taken since President Obama’s election. Since when did we, as a people, become so monumentally stupid that we could believe for a minute that health care reform included death panels? How can it be that one-in-five Americans still believe our President is a Muslim? When did we become so gullible that a Neo-Stepford, Republican, MILF-like cretin can wink at us, making a bunch of us swoon. Okay, the cretin part may be unfair. And, as she herself says, “I refudiate that point.” After all, no other aspiring presidential candidate sold TV executives an eight-segment deal to trumpet the wonders of her home State, which she abandoned like a pair of old shoes in the middle of her term as Governor, so she could soak up a ton of cash and have four years to sell herself to the American people.

Were the John Birchers right (correct, I mean), when they argued back in the fifties and sixties that fluoridated water would have adverse effects on Americans for generations to come? Have we now got better teeth but are working with a couple of enchiladas short of a combination plate? I’m thinking it must be true. How else does Glenn Beck, a man with all the intellectual prowess of a bed mite, get six and one-half million people to listen to his line of crap each day and have five (non-fiction, my ass) books debut at number one on the best-sellers list?

And what is it with the guns? I’m from Texas and am a close acquaintance, if not really a friend, of firearms. I am certainly no fan of the NRA, though I admit I did join hands with that devil for one year. As part of my membership, I got a great multi-tool with rosewood handles. I regularly got a slew of notices about which governors were considering signing into law outrageous violations of our liberties (e.g., vetoing bills making sawed-off shotguns legal). I emailed these politicians, identifying myself as an NRA member, and indicated my support for sensible gun control. I also got an NRA sticker that I proudly display on the rear window of my car between my “Texans for Obama” and my “Gun Don’t Kill People, Bullets Do” stickers.

But the last time I saw people marching with guns was in the 60s when the Black Panthers were on the move. Their shotguns and shiny revolvers now seem quaint. Today fluoride-stoked Tea-Potters march in rallies wearing semi-automatic pistols, which hold 17 rounds, holstered in combat rigs bristling with extra magazines. They carry what we can only hope are semi-automatic assault rifles on neck slings. As they parade, these venomous weapons designed only for the taking of human lives slap against their impressive beer guts, which are only partially covered by T-shirts emblazoned with “You can keep YOUR CHANGE! I’ll keep My FREEDOM and My GUNS!”

When did being a well-armed redneck with astronomical cholesterol, too much facial hair, a pair of camos, and a heap of bad values become a badge of honor in this country? It’s not a good thing when American citizens “accessorizing” for a political event are deciding which firearms to carry.
“Naw, the matched Colt Double Eagle .45s with the leather shoulder holsters are way too formal for this. This isn’t an inauguration; it’s a rally. I’m just gonna wear a tactical vest with my 10mm Glock and carry my old M-14. Hon, have you seen my smoke grenades?”

I know that too many of the sentences in this riff end in questions marks. It should be offering erudite and eloquent answers, rather than just asking, “What the Hell is happening?” Okay, I do know some things. I understand some of the populist elements of the Tea-Pot. After all, I was born and live in the State where the Populist Party was founded. I recognize that it’s sometimes very reasonable to fear traditional politics and politicians. I understand the Tea-Potters’ fear of economic ruin. That ghost has haunted my family since the 1930s when my grandfather lost his auto repair shop, and my grandmother lost the home where their five children came into this world. I lived through two administrations where “The Shrub,” as Molly Ivins called him, led us into two wars, a financial collapse, and forever besmirched our nation’s history with presidentially-approved torture and abuse of prisoners. Yep, I certainly understand serious anger at politicians.

What’s horrible, though, is that I now understand the anguish of a woman at one of the televised town meetings chock full of proto-Tea-Potters who tearfully lamented, “This is not my country anymore. I don’t recognize it.” She thought her world was coming apart because an African-American supported by working people, progressives, youth, and minorities was sweeping toward the Presidency. At the time, I thought, “Grow up, Lady. Life is change. Learn to live with it.”

What a smug ass I was. Two years later, I feel that same anguish and isolation when newly-elected Senator Rand Paul tells us to embrace the rich because they pay our salaries and buy the goods we make and sell. Rand must have been partying with his Baylor frat buddies when his professors discussed the labor theory of value and Henry Ford’s novel idea that the economy and business really start rolling when you get the Average Joe in a position to buy what he produces. Russ Feingold gets replaced by a rich guy from Oshkosh who thinks global warming isn’t real and may just be the result of sunspot activity. Okay, I’ll give him the possibility that sunspot activity may explain the hue of John Boehner’s skin, but it doesn’t do much to explain climate change.

Florida gives us a cutie conservative who wants a law halting stem cell research, wants a law requiring ultrasounds prior to abortions, and, at the same time, wants government to stay out of healthcare. I personally think that if Karl Rove’s mom had an ultrasound during her pregnancy, the first thing she said to the physician was, “He’s awfully cute, but after he’s born I think we should probably adios the spiked tail and horns.”

One of the only bits of fun from this whole fiasco comes when you watch interviewers dig in and ask these humps how they are going to keep tax cuts for the rich and balance the budget. The answer, of course, is “reduce discretionary spending.” But, it turns out that their definition of “discretionary” (when they have one) is simply anything they don’t like. Defense spending is necessary, but spending on public education is “discretionary.” Tax cuts for the rich (also known in many circles as Tax Expenditures) are necessary, but passing a budget that keeps the government running seems somehow to be discretionary. Now that I think about it, it’s not one bit funny; it’s pitiful that these doofuses have convinced people that they have the answer to our problems. They don’t; they are the problem.

I think the core of much of my distress with this new Klan of activists and politicians is that “haters” seem to be gaining supremacy in this country. This new breed of political activists hates immigrants, minorities, gays, Muslims, and pretty much anyone whom they define as “other.” Haters aren’t new to the American political landscape. We’ve always had our good share of truly accomplished haters here in the land of the free with a home for you and me (Father Coughlin, the American Bund, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, etc.). But, these guys were largely a sideshow in American life. Now, I go to my bank or my physician’s office, and I get assaulted by a big screen TV with one of Rupert Murdoch’s minions drawing on a chalk board or quacking about the socialist plague. I turn on my radio, and I can get right wingnuts political babble pretty much 24/7 without working hard at it.

Glenn Beck says, “To the day I die, I’m going to be a progressive hunter!” This doesn’t mean that he will, when hunting, seek to kill his prey as humanely as possible and only hunt to put food on the table. It doesn’t mean that he will stalk deer with a bow rather than sit with a scoped .30-06 in an elevated stand a couple of hundred yards from a clear spot where he’s had a machine throwing out deer corn all year.

It means that he has “found the enemy and it is them.” By them, he means Progressives (also known in some circles as liberals). Unlike Pogo, the enemy for Glenn and his pitiful but powerful ilk is anyone who is not “us.” In Glenn’s case, being “us” could get passable weird. He’s a lapsed Catholic who became a Mormon and makes about $33 million a year spewing out something very similar to what I try to wipe off my boots when I come in from a horse corral. He is also a guy who I understand said that he toked-up every day from the ages of 16 to 31. And, we wonder why this lying weasel gets so many things wrong? Go figure.

All the current politicians feeding off Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, and O’Reilly (i.e., The Fox Confabulators) and the misinformation that they shovel out to the public know exactly what politicians and media moguls who fed off the old haters knew. Fear sells, and simple, completely wrong answers sell way better than correct, complex answers. The Confabulators sell Joe Public a mass of frightening or enraging misinformation (e.g., Obama’s trip to South Asia involves 34 ships and will cost $2 billion; Obama’s team is working secretly on a one percent tax on all bank transactions). Then, they offer up simple and simply wrong answers to the imaginary threats or outrages they themselves conjured up out of very thin air.

Since The Supremes turned the clock back something close to one hundred and fifty years and made corporations into people with rights of political ($) expression, the new guys have, besides their sock puppet Confabulators at Fox, all the money they need to spread that fear and wrong-headedness both thickly and widely. “Outside groups,” which don’t have to disclose their contributors, probably spent over one-quarter of a billion (some estimates make it as high as $400M) dollars against Democratic candidates in 2010. Seriously, if you think the Tea-Potters are a grassroots movement, then I have a really nice bridge in Brooklyn that just went on the market at a wonderful price, and I think it is “so you.”

I know I’m confused, but woe be (I hope) unto the newly-elected right wingnuts and their fellow-travelers. These people will have to try satisfying the corporate overlords who bankrolled them and the voters who went to the booth and voted for them so they could turn Washington upside down and inside out. Right, you betcha! These “new” politicians will treat “emotion voters” the way their kind have always treated them (reference: Reagan’s and Bush’s verbal support for a constitutional amendment banning abortion). They’ll mouth the lines that push the disaffecteds’ buttons; take their votes, keep talking the talk after they’re elected; but, they’ll never walk the walk.

What they will do is take care of their real masters’ business. The major issues they’ll pump up the volume on during the next two years will be deficit reduction, government spending, American “family” values, and job creation. They’ll also use their newly-acquired power in The House to subpoena witnesses who will trash health care reform and Obama’s performance everywhere except in bed (and I’m not too sure about that exception).

Beneath this smokescreen, their real issues will be making sure tax cuts for the rich continue, the capital gains tax doesn’t go up, companies can still outsource jobs to other countries for high profits and low taxes, and the life’s-blood of insurance companies and major health care corporations will still pour freely into these corporate pirates’ coffers from lines stuck deeply in the veins of the American people.

I know all of this, but I’m still confused. Two years isn’t a long time, and what’s amazing is something about which no one’s seems to be talking. If you go to http/:whattheheckhasobamadonesofar.com/, then you’ll see a substantive record for President Obama and the Democrats over these last two years that’s incredibly impressive. It includes increasing funds for mental health care for veterans, stopping insurance companies from denying health coverage due to pre-existing conditions, significantly expanding Pell grants to assist low-income students going to college, and financial reform laws that established a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to reduce the likelihood of another financial blowout. Well, it was a blowout for some, while for others it may’ve been more like another compound word that begins with “blow” and ends with “job.” The rich got richer, while the middle and working classes lost much of the value of their homes (their largest financial asset), lost their homes completely, or lost their jobs.

But, what do Tea-Potters and political independents, people who’re among those most likely to benefit from the slew of sensible reforms passed in the last two years, do? They march on Washington carrying signs that call our President a Nazi, a communist, a socialist, or whatever other tag churns their butter. Older voters turn out in droves and vote for Mad Hatters whose favorite wet dreams involve dramatically cutting entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, as well as under-funding or privatizing the VA.

I got to tell you. I’m personally at a point where, in a deeply experiential way, “I don’t know whether to spend all my time keeping up with Kim Kardashian’s twitters or go to the Emergency Room because of these shooting pains down my left arm that I’ve been having since early November. Instead, maybe I’ll just sit here for a bit and try to figure out whether I need to wind my watch or scratch my ass.”

Originally published:
Issue Sixty
April 2011


(illustrations: troy dockins)

Charles D. Phillips is a native Texan and a public health professional who lives and teaches in College Station, Texas. His short fiction has been nominated for StorySouth’s 2009 Million Writer Award, The Pushcart Prize, 2009 and for inclusion in The Best of the Web, 2009. More from Charles D. Phillips can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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