The eternal sunshine of their spotless minds: the Tea Party’s selective memory

5 07 2010

Why don’t we see too many brown faces at Tea Party rallies? (According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, only 8 percent of Tea Party supporters are non-white, compared to 21 percent of all respondents.)

I think the the conspicuous whiteness might have something to do with the Tea Party’s sense of amnesia.

What I mean is that their approach to history is reminiscent of Hollywood amnesia. It’s sort of like that Jim Carrey movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

For an example, take the July 4 fireworks show at Ault Park here in Cincinnati…

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind poster

Theatrical release poster for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (released by Focus Features). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Cincinnati East Tea Party helped put the event together, and Tea Party activist Steve Christopher delivered a speech before the main event. You know the drill; it was full of stuff about how “The Founding Fathers” were the greatest people in the history of the world and other standard American exceptionalism slogans. According to him, “our” America “is and always has been the world’s best hope.” (Screw anybody that isn’t post-1490’s North America, I guess.) And there were also the obligatory lines about how “WE” have to save “our” America from “THEM” — whoever “they” are.

Christopher praised John Winthrop‘s famous City upon a Hill / Manifest Destiny ideas during his diatribe. No mention of Winthrop’s virulent racism. Or the massacre of the Pequot. (Winthrop also wasn’t too fond of democracy, but that’s a blog for another day.) Then, without missing a beat, Christopher bashed “a new type of immigrant” showing up these days that doesn’t “respect our laws” and won’t assimilate to become “one of us.”

There was a little booing mixed with light applause in response.

Somehow Christopher said all of this without even a hint of irony. Did his hero Winthrop respect the laws of the natives when he came here from England? You know, before immigrants like him slaughtered the people who were here first and stole all of their land? Before European “settlers” seized on his ideas to justify expansion across a whole continent that didn’t belong to them?

Forgot a tiny detail there, Christopher…

Don’t get me wrong; the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution have some great ideas — though some of them aren’t quite as unique as some would have us think (see: John LockeAthenians, the Iroquoi). For my part, I’m particularly fond of the First Amendment.

But “The Founders” had some not-to-great ideas, too.

Speeches like Christopher’s remind me of all the movies out there about amnesia; it can be a fun story-telling device. Wolverine from the X-men, the Jason Bourne franchise, Men in Black and the the ridiculous-yet-somehow-entertaining Total Recall all come to mind.

The Tea Party movement is best represented by The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the film, a couple of former lovers decide to selectively erase their memories of each other after an ugly break-up. It turns out that getting rid of your unpleasant memories might not be such a good idea.

Like Lacuna, Inc. — the memory erasing company in the movie — the Tea Party movement is trying to maintain a lot of selective memory loss about America’s founding. It’s a big part of their rhetoric. And in many ways, it’s that sense of national memory loss that alienates so many people of color.

“The Founders” were wrong sometimes. When it comes to race, they were wrong about really big, really important things. In some cases they even wrote their wrong-ness into law. And some of the things they did wrong still aren’t completely resolved.

But you won’t hear that from the Tea Party. They choose not to remember that part.

They only occasionally deal in explicit racism –like the epithets that show up here and there… and the participation of white supremacist organizations every now and then… and the “Obama is a Muslim terrorist from Kenya” and the “I want my country back” stuff.

But even without all of that, they still have that memory loss problem. Steve Christopher is a perfect example of why the Tea Party’s unpopularity with people of color runs a lot deeper than “political correctness” or our feelings about Obama.

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