Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Out: rum ruffians. In: racist rednecks.

It seems to me that those who criticized last week's tea parties, for the most part, took the position that the participants were misguided. In its milder form, you had Senior White House Advisor David Axelrod suggesting the tea parties were "unhealthy." In its more extreme form, you had Janeane Garofalo tarring the protesters as racist rednecks.

I'm not sure if such epithets are worse than those hurled at some earlier prominent protesters of the government's fiscal policy. Recently I read Woody Holton's probing book Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007) in which he extensively discusses the sour financial mood of the United States under the old Articles of Confederation. Holton argues, in fact, that it was largely the fiscal crisis that led to the drive for the Constitution.

Ah, but that came a little later. First and foremost, the 1780s protesters were admonished, just as Axelrod and Garofalo did to the placard-wielders at the tea parties. But here's the contrast: rather than suggesting that the eighteenth century discontented were misguided, their critics exclaimed that "The Fault is All Your Own," as Holton entitled chapter 2 of his book. Here's how that chapter begins:

"As more and more Americans insisted that the harsh fiscal and monetary policies of the 1780s had spread desolation through the countryside, most of the defenders of these policies acknowledged that farmers were in trouble but denied that official crackdowns on debtors and taxpayers were to blame. 'The disorder under which you at present labour and complain,' 'Mentor' told his fellow Marylanders during the summer of 1876, 'is only to be ascribed to your own misconduct.'" (p. 46).

Professor Holton goes on to describe an argument made seriously then that I doubt anyone would make today--even if one might quietly murmur that it had a tincture of validity. Namely, the 1780s ladies were told that it was their love of extravagant clothing that was largely to blame if their husbands or fathers were a little short when the tax man came around. Holton quotes an essayist of the time who advised the men "(P)ull all the plumes from the heads of your wives and daughters. Feathers and fripperies suit the Cherokees, or the wench in your kitchen; but they little become the fair daughters of Independent America." (p. 49). Now THERE is a redneck racist, Miss Garofolo, and he furthermore used the word "wench," the chauvinist!

I may have missed something, but I honestly don't think any of those who sneered at the recent tea parties pondered aloud why the ladies in attendance didn't quit complaining about their tax burden and just shop at Goodwill instead of Saks.

Of course, the opponents of the 1780s activists didn't confine their objections to the women having nice clothes. The men, they insisted, were at fault as well. The same guy who blasted feather wearing ladies "told Connecticut farmers they could easily discharge their tax bills if they would simply drink less rum," Holton notes dryly, pun intended (p. 49).

As loud as the outcry about Garofolo's remarks has been, just imagine if she'd added to racist rednecks the comment, "If these clowns would stop spending money on beer and NASCAR tickets, they'd have plenty of extra money that the government could tax to use for the greater good."

Garofolo would never say anything like that, of course. People might accuse her of being elitist.

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