There’s something about the Tea Party.
That something is eerily familiar as I’ve been rereading David Savran’s 1998 book Taking it Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. And no, this won’t be something that hasn’t already been said about the Tea Party’s racially-inflected hysteria, but damned if this whole white-people-angry-at-their-imagined-victimhood thing isn’t something we’ve seen before.
And it’s entirely possible that, in Battlestar Galactica style, all this will happen again, particularly as white Americans do become numerically the minority, but I have enough faith in the inexact nature of iteration (Butler, 1999; Derrida, 1988) to think that figuring out how it works will make it go differently on down the road.
So, with that in mind, what is it that’s so familiar? During the 70s, Savran (1998, p. 207) says, “as Faludi points out, ‘the “traditional” man’s real wages shrank dramatically (a 22 percent free-fall in households where white men were the sole breadwinners.’ Yet these wages were being channeled from working-class white men not to African Americans but to the very rich (who are overwhelmingly white).”
Does this sound to anyone else like our current situation, in which there was an economic downturn due to the greed of those extremely rich, overwhelmingly white people but neither the blame nor the consequences ever seems to fall on them (unless you’re Rolling Stone exposing Goldman Sachs)?
And now there’re angry white people in the streets over anything our black-under-the-one-drop-rule president does, even things that are in their class interest like the expansion of healthcare.
People have, of course, been picking up on the racial politics of the Tea Party, but it’s not the central story the way it seems to me like it should be. After all, “only after the Oklahoma City bombing did the press even begin to consider that there might be a relationship between the mythology of the white male as victim and the growth of the paramilitary Right,” and it seems like there’s some amount of asleep-at-the-wheel happening here again (Savran, 1998, p. 206).
Even the fact that a guy flew a plane into that IRS building didn’t quite connect the dots. Apparently it has to be guns and bombs for anyone to notice.
Moreover, the dominance of white people has in no way been challenged by recent events. Unemployment, after all, has disproportionately affected people of color in this recession much as it always has.
Nevertheless, now as 40 years ago, “the remarkable level of prosperity of white men relative to women and African Americans by no means prevented them from later identifying themselves as the victims of the slender and precarious gains made by those groups” (Savran, 1998, p. 192).
The only real difference would seem to be the inclusion of white women, and that’s a kind of gender equality I, for one, could do without.
In the end, then, the Tea Party may be new in that it is a populist white backlash instead of the more top-down one the last time (though my knowledge of that history is admittedly a bit fuzzy), in many more ways it is disturbingly familiar.
Butler, J. (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Derrida, J. (1988). Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Savran, D. (1998). Taking It Like a Man: White Masculinity, Masochism, and Contemporary American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.