Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Day 16: Attend a Meeting of the Tea Party

Cost: Free
Difficulty: 8
Time: 90 minutes

I'm liberal. I'm not the most liberal person I know, but I'm definitely left of center: I think society has a responsibility to ensure a basic quality of life for its members. I support gay rights including marriage. I voted for Obama and plan to again. I think taxes are too low. I support gun control.

But if you do not understand the opposing point of view, you can't claim to know it's wrong.

So today I attended a monthly meeting of the Merrimack Valley Tea Party. I knew this was going to be an uncomfortable challenge for me-- I dislike social awkwardness as much as I dislike right-wing politics. But I went in with three objectives:

  1. Speak with actual Tea Partiers.
  2. Be honest about my political beliefs.
  3. Be at least as polite to others as they were to me.
When I arrived, I sat down at a half-filled table near the front and introduced myself to the others.

Everyone at my table was extremely polite and friendly and encouraging of my presence. The first gentleman I spoke to was fiscally conservative but socially more progressive than the rest. We talked for a few minutes about the recession and found some points of agreement and disagreement. Next I engaged a woman in her sixties or seventies on gay rights. She was fine with giving gay people the same rights as heterosexual couples, but drew the line at the "sacred institution of marriage."

I suggested to her an idea I'd come up with, but never used on an actual conservative:

"So you would be okay with giving them the same tax status, partnership benefits, survivorship rights, and so forth?"

"Yes, that's fine. But marriage is the pillar on which our civilization is built. It needs to be revered."

"But you'd be okay if we called it something else?"


"What if we called it merry-age? Spelled with an 'e' and a 'y'."

"No that's too close."

Jim (the first person I spoke to) realized that I was baiting her and interjected to guide the conversation back to economics. But even after that exchange, she called me a "true patriot for listening to the ideas of others."

Before the official start of the meeting a man introducing himself as Larry Bruce came to our table and told us he was running for Selectman. He'd driven up from Boston that evening and I asked him if he ran into much traffic.

"No, I just shot straight up 93."

"Oh, so you were close to the highway?"

"I was the World Trade Center. You know, I was at the World Trade Center on days four, five and six. I remember how silent everything was. I get chills even today thinking about it."

Smooth. He'd segued a question about his commute into 9/11. I think even Giuliani would have winced in embarrassment.
Larry Bruce will never forget 9/11. Or talk about anything else.
There were maybe 80 people in attendance when the meeting started. Besides myself, there was one non-white, an older black man:

It turned out he was a Democrat, Joey Smith, also running for Selectman in a very optimistic appeal for votes.
During the actual meeting a series of speakers came up, including Jim from my table, the various candidates for Selectman, and a man bearing a "Show ID to Vote" button to discuss the constitution:

Warmed-up the crowd with an Obama's birth certificate joke. The signs in the background read "Obama: From Messiah to Parriah in One Year!" and "Welcome to Obama's Food Stamp Nation."
My knowledge of Revolutionary American history is dim at best, so I have no idea how accurate his presentation was. It was peppered with ideas that would be useful in supporting Tea Party ideology and devoid of those contrary to it. For example, "happiness" in life, liberty and pursuit of happiness meant "happenstance," which meant not having to pay taxes. There were various opportunities for crowd members shout out ideologically appropriate phrases ("no to socialism!"), although my table was silent either by coincidence or deference to me.

At the end I thanked my tablemates for allowing me to sit with them and they were nearly obsequious in return, encouraging me to come again. I was too mentally fatigued to engage anyone further; my adrenaline response had been running for almost two hours. In hindsight, I wished I'd talked to some of the people who were shouting out things about anchorbabies, but I couldn't manage it.

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