Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tee-Partee Lohjik: Tyme fer moore lernin'

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Much sport has been made of the hilariously misspelled signs created and proudly displayed at rallies by barely literate Tea Partiers. But far more serious are their apparent deficits in basic math, science, ethics, and social studies, not to mention logic. The results of a recent New York Times/CBS News poll suggest several areas for possible re-education.

ON GOVERNMENT SPENDING (LOGIC) The percentage of Tea Partiers who live in households with Medicare and Social Security recipients is higher than in the overall population, and 62 percent of them say Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers. But 67 percent of them would favor having a smaller government, even if it meant cutting domestic programs — including Social Security and Medicare.

ON POPULAR OPINION (MATH) Though the poll — the margin of error of which is three percentage points — finds that just 18 percent of Americans identify themselves as Tea Party supporters, 84 percent of Tea Partiers think their movement’s views “generally reflect the views of most Americans.”

ON RACISM (SOCIAL STUDIES) Perhaps they are the real post-racists: 73 percent of Tea Partiers think black people and white people have equal opportunities to “get ahead” in today’s society.

ON PUBLIC EDUCATION (ETHICS) Sixty-five percent of them send their kids to public school (which is less than the 70 percent rate in the overall population).

ON CLIMATE ISSUES (SCIENCE) More than half — 51 percent — of Tea Partiers think global warming will not have a serious impact on human existence, and a further 15 percent don’t think it’s happening at all.

There are, however, some unexpected bright spots highlighted in the poll.

ON SURVIVALISM Many fewer Tea Partiers (only five percent) than we might have feared have actually gone the bunker route and purchased gold coins or bars in the past 12 months.

ON SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Sixteen percent of Tea Partiers want same-sex couples to have the right to marry, and 41 percent want civil unions legalized.

It also seems noteworthy that this movement doesn’t have much youth power: a full three-quarters of them are over age 45, with 29 percent over age 64. Nor, for as passionate as they seem, do they offer much commitment: 78 percent of people who consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party movement have neither donated money nor attended a rally or meeting. Nor much tech-savvy: 68 percent of them haven’t even visited a Web site associated with the movement. (Perhaps, like their ideological brother Chief Justice John Roberts, they don’t actually know how to use a computer.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Relentlessly ringing freedom: Northern New England's Tea Partiers go local

Published at

Amid relentless bell-ringing (“Let freedom ring!” chanted the enthusiasts as they deprived passersby of their hearing and sanity), the Tea Party came to Portland last week to greet President Barack Obama.

None of the folks at the Portland gathering were openly armed, and a walkthrough by a pair of Secret Service agents didn’t appear to draw their interest to anyone in particular. (Police later reported no arrests in any of the demonstrations — pro- or anti-Obama.)

But as supportive as they are of the Second Amendment, the 10th Amendment, which reserves to the states powers not explicitly granted to the federal government, is as closely in focus as anything else. And while most mainstream media coverage of the Tea Party movement is related to national issues, the next frontier for the Tea Party is in the state capitals — and then in a town hall near you.

What happens there, though, is anybody’s guess, given the divergent and sometimes contradictory views from various folks at the rally.

Joe DeCoste, an unemployed Emden man, agrees with charity and community support for needy neighbors, but wants to do it through the church, not the government. “We do that in our community,” he says, unconsciously admitting that government support isn’t even close to enough for most needy families.

He suggested that Obama’s efforts to create jobs “is going back to the old ways that didn’t work,” arguing that “the government cannot actually create anything” without taking something from citizens. The job-creation schemes of government are really plans to “redistribute your wealth” hatched by officials who “have never held a job in the private sector.”

DeCoste suggested we model our society on the “cooperative nature of the Pilgrims.” Whether that was how they cooperated with the natives by bringing disease and endless waves of undocumented immigrants, or how they cooperated with dissenters like Roger Williams was unclear.

DeCoste did have an interesting suggestion: He suggested that if we took the “$45 trillion we spend on Medicare” (whose annual budget is closer to $500 billion) and set out to design a health-care system, we wouldn’t come up with Medicare. As an example of “how free markets work,” he offered the cosmetic-surgery industry, whose services are not often covered by insurance, and has high-quality, low-cost treatment options widely available.

Mary Ellen Farrell, holding a sign with a lengthy argument from Thomas Jefferson whose ultimate point was that consolidating government in Washington would make government secrecy easier, talked emotionally, with tears in her eyes. “I feel our liberty slipping away,” she said. “I’m afraid of government,” said the former social worker, because she saw “abuse of entitlement” by people on government programs. “Everything is a gimme,” she said.

Laurie Pettengill of Bartlett, New Hampshire, finished the argument. Wearing a replica Minuteman uniform (“I wore this to 9/12 in DC,” she declared proudly), she suggested all Americans “read the Constitution for themselves,” particular that 10th Amendment — the states’ rights one.

“We need to get enough people who believe in states’ rights” to let health care and other issues in each state, rather than in the nation as a whole. (Nearby protestors mentioned abortion rights, gun rights, and same-sex marriage as other issues that should not be decided federally.)

Press Releases: Tree party

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It was, quite obviously, big news when President Barack Obama came to town last week. Even the Bangor Daily News sent a pair of reporters to explore the Portland Expo, while the New York Times sent a correspondent across the street, where health care was actually being delivered to those in need.

Gallons of ink were spilled writing about Obama’s visit, the politics of his health-care package, and the Tea Partiers across the street with bells to “let freedom ring” (even though some of them admitted the din was annoying), but it took the sense and presence of mind of an outside publication to look the other way — to see that the story was not Obama, but was the people the health-care package is intended to help. Sadly for an industry that keeps chanting “local local local,” the national view was sharper, clearer, and ultimately more satisfying.

When newspapers that are struggling for existence claim to provide information nobody else does, they need to keep in mind that it also has to be information someone actually cares about.

Of course, when the president comes to town, there’s lots of excitement and hoopla, especially when he’s coming to thank the local representatives for their votes on reform and to pressure the local senators to be wary of their party’s growing efforts to repeal it. (There’s also a whole lot of overtime pay for police officers — though nobody, until now, has reported that the exact amount will be available on Wednesday.)

And indeed the local media did a decent job of covering the goings-on inside the Expo, with Obama’s supporters, as well as outside, where more supporters demonstrated, as did opponents of the president and his policies.

Unsurprisingly, the Portland Press Herald did the most voluminous job, publishing eight related stories on the day after visit — detailing (among many other factoids) the Maine connections of the helicopter pilot who flew Obama into the Portland Jetport, the long waits to be in the audience, the disappointment of some who were not allowed in, the unsubstantiated and unchallenged complaints of the Tea Partiers protesting outside, the excitement of a Portland Red Claws player who got tickets to the event, the gifts that Governor John Baldacci — and a Fort Kent man — offered the president, and even a vague note that the Secret Service “took over” a building at the Jetport as part of the visit’s security precautions. There was a political-reaction piece in which Republican Senator Olympia Snowe revisited her recurring unspecific gripes about the bill, which she helped craft but ultimately voted against. There was also an “analysis” piece that did synthesize points from various sources and events, but nevertheless failed to add substantively to the debate that has occurred non-stop for months now.

For analysis, the place to go was a short article in the Christian Science Monitor by Portlander Colin Woodard, which offered the political explanation with a clarity everyone else lacked: “Obama won’t win any elections for Democrats this fall by coming here. ... But if the White House was looking for friendly turf in a rural, relatively poor, and overwhelmingly white state, it chose the right place,” noting that Democrats run state government and are only opposed in Portland’s city government by the left, not the right.

And for real impact, it was the Times’s piece (Dan Barry’s “Health Care For All, With Obama Down The Street”) that described the dire needs facing many Americans with no health insurance coverage, discussed what was already being done (under the stimulus package) to help fix the country’s broken health-care system, showed the changes already wrought from those changes, and suggested developments that might occur as a result of the reform bill.

It can indeed be very hard to see the forest for the trees. But if you report on the trees and not the forest, your audience knows the difference.