Friday, October 24, 2014

"To Tea or Not to Tea?" Ch. 1 of BUT...AT WHAT COST

A twenty-something-year-old man with a camera approached from down the hall and asked me, “This where the ‘Tea Baggers’ are?” I knew this was intended to be offensive (I’d heard other Tea Party opponents on radio or TV use the same term, but I didn’t really know what the reference was at the time). I said, “Excuse me. Did you want the candidate forum?” He replied, “Yeah, the Tea Baggers!” I walked away. Why would anyone say that to an old lady (or anyone)? I later learned it’s a term used to describe a variety of homosexual sex – hardly a term for polite company, yet he used it, without deference to me.

After a lifetime of being a respected member of the community, I find it a little strange being treated that way. To him, I guessed, I was a crazy, radical, bigot deserving of the term. That’s the growing perception. It’s false, but it’s a common belief. Even people who have known me for years raise their eyebrows when I tell them I’m in the Tea Party. I must grow horns or something, because they say things like, “You’re in the Tea Party? How can you associate with those people?”

I decided to join the Tea Party movement about three years ago (2010). I’d been with them in spirit from their beginnings, but was rather hesitant to admit it… not because of anything they had said or done, but because of the false perceptions the media’s assault on them had generated. I was afraid. I didn’t want to be called “stupid” or “extreme” or “bigoted” and I didn’t want my opinions to be marginalized by any association I might have with them. It was a tough decision.

I went to a meeting and found a lot of ordinary, concerned citizens, from many different walks of life. There were no kooks, no radicals and no bigots present. Nor was there anywhere near the amount of political ignorance I usually found at cocktail parties. These people were serious political junkies – up on history, up on current events, and up on politics. Later, I found a few conspiracy theorists whose opinions I rejected, but that’s par for the course in any group. Even the slightly paranoid among us, however, were nice people. No one recommended violence or made radical demands. They and I were frustrated with the direction the country was heading.

I joined. The only political tenets on which we all agreed were lower taxes and smaller government. There was a large contingent who were anti-abortion (on religious or moral grounds), a smaller group concerned mainly with education reform, some for voting reform, immigration enforcement reform, entitlement reform, and EPA reform. The farmers, in particular, were suffering greatly from EPA regulations and fines. We ran the gamut in specific pet peeves, but all agreed that most of the country’s problems stemmed from overreaching government policies.

Our goal was to educate the public – to raise awareness in voters. We had rallies, candidate forums, booths at community events, wrote letters to editors, blogged, and had monthly meetings addressing specific topics. We educated each other… discussed every issue and passed around books. All harmless stuff, so it was very hard to figure out why so many people in the community were so angry at us. Okay, we knew why… it was the result of a well-executed attack by Democrats, but we couldn’t figure out why so many people (in and out of politics) believed the rhetoric and acted on it.

Many (if not most) of us were gray-haired grandmothers and grandfathers who had never been politically active in our lives, but we got so much unwarranted, critical attention in the media, many of us were afraid to wear our Tea Party tee shirts in public, or admit any Tea Party affiliation in our letters. We were afraid of possible repercussions to family members. It was that bad! Why did complete strangers give us the finger when riding by our rallies? We held no offensive signs; we weren’t throwing stones; we weren’t blocking traffic. We were just standing on a corner with a few Tea Party and candidate banners in a country that is supposed to value free speech.

Unfortunately, many sympathizers of the movement can’t stand the heat. That, I suppose, is why opponents attack our characters instead of our politics… to shut us up. Policy disagreements are expected in politics and therefore are not particularly damaging. Personal attacks, however, make people think twice before speaking out. If potential clients think you’re a bigot, they won’t shop at your store, or hire you as their accountant, or their hair dresser. Character assassination (even by association) works. When my teenaged granddaughter stopped by our booth at a street fair, I shooed her away saying, “You don’t want to be seen here. Your friends will think you have a crazy grandmother!” That probably wasn’t true (kids probably aren’t paying much attention to politics), but that’s what I felt. I was afraid my activities would reflect on her and cause her grief.

With Democrat politicians Nancy Pelosi, Debbie Wasserman Shultz, Joe Biden, almost the entire black caucus, and eighty percent of the media calling me a racist and a terrorist, I can only ask “Who is terrorizing whom?”

I was effectively muffled. Admittedly, I got out of the kitchen because I couldn’t stand the heat… and because I saw views from both sides radicalizing and devolving into little more than hate speech. I, of course, see much more hate coming from the Left because that’s where my sensitivities lie, but I see some from the Right too. Anyway, few engage in rational debate anymore – most is hyperbolic rhetoric intended only to malign the opposition. That’s what works on an uninformed and mostly uninterested electorate. I know because I was an uninformed and mostly uninterested voter for decades.

Apparently, I too had responded much more to the rhetoric than to my own observations and knowledge. I had been effectively brainwashed and didn’t know it until I was exposed to other political points of view in the nineties. It was then I started having one OMG moment after another. I was a Conservative, not a Democrat.

First, I wondered how I hadn’t known my beliefs didn’t align with my party of choice. I was a registered Republican because of my father’s and grandmother’s influence when I registered, but, after Kennedy, I had always voted Democrat and considered myself a Democrat.

Second, I wondered if it was I or the Democrats who had changed. Now, I think it was both.

Third, I wondered how and why these changes had occurred in the Party and in me.

This book is the result… but don’t worry, it’s not a political book; it’s more a personal peek into the ordinary influences on an ordinary life – and how the various exposures in that life might have helped shape my future political beliefs.

Judy Axtell's memoir will be serialized here weekly.








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