Saturday, September 05, 2009

Protesting the protesters

Today, I went to my first protest. Or, maybe I shouldn't say I "went," more that I "held" my first protest. I was one of only three people standing with signs outside of the Texas Capitol, the others being my boyfriend and our housemate, Becky. Despite our small numbers, we were going to make a show of a counter-protest of the Austin Tea Party

The impetus from the event was Marshall hearing a story on NPR about the Tea Party Express, a conservative movement well versed in inflammatory and in some cases, untrue, statements, and channelling his liberal rage into this Facebook "Protesting the Protesters" invite. Becky works answering questions about health insurance from people struggling with cancer, so she has no lack of frustration and outrage with the direction of this debate. I have never protested before, and shamefully cannot describe "the public option", but I was along for the ride. Because I am tired of the way that political debates have been clouded by disinformation and lies, and I am willing to take a stand for honesty and truth. 

So the Tea Party Express was coming our way on Saturday, complete with Joe the Plumber and a black conservative and an Arab guy to sing the national anthem so no one could accuse anybody of being racist. When we arrived at the Capitol, we were surprised with how big and how organized this event was. Gigantic coach buses idled on Congress, letting off a stream of people from all over Texas who wore shirts of various conservative slogans. There was the traditional "Don't Tread On Me" and stuff about not liking taxes, and a Tea Party take on the overly designed t-shirt so popular with the douchebags. Everyone had a sign. An old man carried one that said, "OBAMA SUCKS." I was aggrieved to see depictions of Obama as Hitler and the Joker. I thought those were stories meant to scare liberals! There were signs using the Nazi SS emblem to spell out social security. It made me a bit sad to see kids holding signs too, pushed along by their ideologically-driven parents. They are defenseless. 

We stood as a stake of sanity in a sea of crazy. Okay, not everyone was crazy. Early on, we got a warm reception. People peered at our signs, and approached us to say that they disagreed, but they were glad that we were here. One man handed us bottled water, saying, "I'm sorry it's not cold." (It was too genuine of a gesture for me to pull out my Nalgene and explain why I hate bottled water.) We held signs with information dispelling several popular conservative myths. A quote from Obama saying that he will never take guns away. "Barack Obama was born in the USA." "Global Warming is Real." The signs I made said, "Value Truth!" and "Value Facts (not rhetoric.)"

A few people commenced to argue with us, before they went onto the Capitol lawn. I felt like I had a small bit of success with an older man who said that the government wanted to take care away from seniors. I told him Medicare and Medicaid are government programs that won't be taken away, they work, and we want to extend them so that everyone has care. "Hm," he said, and moved on.  I was getting my protest legs. Every so often, passerbys would wave or give us the thumbs up, or mention to us that the Tea Party was a whole lot of crazy. It felt good to be out, offering that perspective. 

But then, there was the group of three. Two women and a man who would not leave us alone. I was out there to try and bring an open, honest discourse to people with whom I disagreed, but I quickly saw that this is fundamentally not the case. These people argued not on the principles on which we disagreed, but on a slanted set of so-called facts. "Value facts?" they said, pointing to my sign. "Here's a fact!"

They claimed that Van Jones, an Obama advisor on the green economy, is a self-avowed "black nationalist." I sincerely doubt that, I told them. "You doubt it?" They shrilled. "Look it up on YouTube! It's right there! He says it out of his own mouth!" Marshall looked it up on his iphone and got a set of results including the name, "Glenn Beck." Ah. So here's where they were getting their facts. In fact, there is no footage of Van Jones saying this, it's just Glenn Beck calling him that. How could they claim Van Jones said this about himself, when he did no such thing? I am at a loss. 

Another "fact." John Holdren, Science and Technology Advisor, argued for putting sterilants in the water, in a 1977 book. I respect John Holdren very much and I also sincerely doubted this. They also claimed that he had not been "vetted" by Congress, when I have distinct memories of John Holdren, along with Jane Lubchenco (now of NOAA), waiting for their confirmation hearings. I looked this up. Yes, John Holdren was confirmed - unanimously by the Senate. My search for John Holdren and sterilants returned many results. Allegedly, he said it in a book co-written with Paul Elrich and his wife. Paul Elrich of the "Population Bomb," a book widely lauded at the time but now acknowledged as off the mark, even by the writer himself. "Ecowise" was written around this same time, when everyone was talking about population control, and how to do it. John Holdren was the third author. A writer I read on Scribd claimed to "provide untouched scans" of the full pages, so no one can claim they were "taken out of context." Guess what? They're printed out of context. John Holdren's wikipedia entry says that these passages were written to describe the methods of population control proposed, and then advocated milder methods such as access to birth control and abortion. 

Okay, so facts? These are not them. And guess who has perpetuated these John Holdren myths? That's right, Glenn Beck. The man who said Obama hates white people. Even though Obama's mother was white. To say the least, this man is not a trustworthy peddler of facts. 

The pro-protesters realized that it was no use talking to us about Glenn Beck. One of the women was a 9-11 Truther, and the man was just a plain old argumentative wack job. "You're being spoonfed!" he yelled, as about a thousand up the hill were being spoonfed by high pitched and hysterical white male voices. A few others joined in our protest. A college professor and his daughter picked up signs. "I used to protest here," said the white-bearded man in sandals. "Except it was to legalize marijuana, and we were all smoking pot."

The professor took a very effective approach to the argumentative protester. When he tried his spoonfed line, the professor tilted his head back and said, "Oh yeah, I'm being spoonfed. Feed me more!" A major line of the pro-protesters was asking if we had jobs. Like we were doing this because we were just a bunch of lie-abouts who required the government to support us. The professor said, "I'm a professor, and the worst part is, you're paying ME to indoctrinate your children!" 

"This is turning into quite a lively afternoon," I told Marshall. 

And so it went on. I was happy to explain to another Teabagger about why climate change is human-caused, until he started telling me how water vapor is the biggest greenhouse gas and so all the scientific evidence that points to anthropomorphic global warming is just a lie. I tried to get across my point - it's happening, so now the question is what can we do to stop it - but he didn't want to discuss that point and ran off. A Hispanic man joined us, and Marshall almost punched the argumentative guy who said that the Hispanic man did not speak English. 

By that point, we'd been out in the sun for 2 and a half hours and I was hot and cranky. It was time for sandwiches. "Quitters. Losers." The argumentative man taunted us. 

"Excuse me, sir," I said. "That's real mature. I'm glad you're trying to further the debate by acting like a thirteen year old." 

Marshall got up in his face and did a bit of pushy pointing with some final words. We had both gotten a feel for this. 

"Quitters, losers!" he yelled as we walked away. 

On the way to the cafe we were stopped by several Austinites who lauded our expression of speech against the grab-bag of crazy that was the rally. People were against a whole bunch of stuff, in no cohesive way. Some hated Obama, some hated taxes, some hated taxes and health care reform and the people who would pull the plug on their grandpa. Some just hated liberals. It didn't make a lot of sense to me, but they had organized into quite a show for downtown. With only three - or sometimes more - of the very unorganized opposition. 

The question is, how did this rhetoric of hate and lies come to dominate the public debate? And how can we take it back? I want to live in a society where reasonable discussion thrives, where decisions can be made based upon a set of relevant, agreed-upon facts. This might make me an idealist, yet I don't think it's unreasonable. No society, and certainly no government, can be perfect. Citizens will always disagree. But I think - I hope - it might be possible to someday have an informed and civil public discourse. Today was not that day.