Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A different kind of tea party

AS MILLIONS OF AMERICANS rush to the post office to postmark their tax forms before tonight’s national deadline, a few thousand others are using the occasion to stage protests across the country. And they’ve co-opted tea to help solidify their message.

Today is Tea Party Day, a thrown-together series of demonstrations voicing disapproval of President Obama’s stimulus packages and federal budget plans. There are 773 “tea parties” planned from Boston to Seattle today, and the thematic goal seems to somehow fuse the annual tax filing “holiday” with a metaphor from the historic Boston Tea Party. The latter was, of course, a revolutionary act leading to the United States’ war for independence, when in December 1773 a couple of hundred colonists dressed as Native Americans and protested England’s steep taxation of tea — and everything else — by boarding a ship and dumping crates of new tea into Boston Harbor. Today’s demonstrators seem to be reaching for historical street cred here, but from what I’ve seen so far the events are little more than collective kvetching, group bitching therapy, offering zero new or alternative solutions. But this is not a political blog …

What I have seen are tea bags sewn on hats, tea bags tacked on poster-board signs, tea bags hanging from people’s eyeglasses, on and on. Tea used as a symbol of protest and politics. Curious, after all these years and centuries, that tea still finds itself at the center of humankind's fuss. Is it the irony? A drink that staked its claim in modern culture as a restorative and relaxing elixir — what's it doing floating in Boston Harbor and being waved about by conservative grumps?

Tea has a long history in politics. Tea was power in Chinese dynasties, then a transformative power in the hands of China's new trading partners: the British. ("Hey, we like your tea! We're short on cash, but try this opium.") Then the British got theirs, as rag-tag colonists chucked crates of it into the harbor, poking holes in them to make sure they sank. Where will tea figure into the future? As an international currency in the era of water shortages? As a symbol of new green cultures and societies? As an icon on the flag of an environmental party or new nation?

Nice to see everyone talking about tea parties today, but I sure wish the people doing all the talking would sit down and actually have a cup. A discussion of the issues over a pot of Ceylon would so much further than shouting on Fox News.

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