In proper Boston style, we opened our beloved Common to some "Gods, Guns & Guts" speeches about our country. One-time SNL comedian Victoria Jackson warmed up the crowd by declaring President Obama to be a "communist." Short-time Alaska Governor Sarah Palin then came to the podium, pulling out her well-worn slogan that, "We'll keep clinging to our Constitution, our guns and our religion -- you can keep the change."
But even after Ms. Jackson and Ms. Palin had their respective shouts, there was no denying that the Tea Party rally on Boston Common tapped into vein of discontent that is important to watch.
Never mind that far fewer people showed up than the 10,000 predicted -- although theaerial photos reveal a surprisingly low turn-out.
So what if local Republican hopefuls -- notably newly-elected Senator Scott Brown and gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker -- found their dance-cards too full to make it?
We’re still better off for hosting the conversation.
So, who was there? The ACLU of Massachusetts sent a few staffers over to check it out.
The tea party crowd was mostly white, mostly middle-age, and mostly middle-class. Many were waving "Don’t Tread on me" flags and were calling for the dismantling of the government, even while proclaiming their love for the Constitution that created it.
There were neo-Nazis, LaRouche supporters, and a bunch of citizens from nearby offices who came out to stand on the edges of the crowd to watch the spectacle.
One long-time ACLU staffer said it felt like red scare redux when Ms. Jackson invoked her 1950s-style anti-commie rhetoric to smear President Obama. Another ACLU staffer wasoverheard by a Boston Globe reporter trying to build common ground with a fellow citizen by conversing about health care reform.
Most disturbingly, a young ACLU organizer -- a recent college grad -- came back shaken when some guy said he’d like to "line up everyone at the ACLU out and shoot them."
Such ugliness, of course, makes the most ardent free-speech defenders worry about the degradation of our political discourse. Even as we celebrate free speech, it is important that we also listen and pay attention to what people are saying -- keeping in mind the blurry line between "differences of opinion" and incitement (and a recent blog by David Bernstein on that topic is worth checking out).
Still, I can't help but feel like our city’s public exercise in free speech on the Common underscores why Massachusetts remains our nation’s true civil liberties frontier -- even more so than, say, Alaska.
I tread on some dangerous territory in making this claim. I hail from the western regions of the United States and still have close relatives in Alaska. I’m no stranger to the frontier mentality.
I live in Massachusetts by choice, because it’s the most freedom-loving state in the Union. This is the home of the original tea party, after all. The "don’t tread on me" motto originated in this part of the country when Ben Franklin and the other American colonists wanted to show the British government that we were as prickly as snakes.
It's a state of mind that continues to resonant with me, as with many others in the Commonwealth – including many at yesterday's rally. But it also makes sense to people who think the government has no business dictating such personal choices as who we marry and whether we want to start a family.
Who among us is immune to the call: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore"? The line from the 1976 satirical movie, "Network," still captures the American zeitgeist of discontent. As you may recall, "Network" features a television newscaster, Howard Beale, who is fired from his network job due to low ratings. In despair over his job loss, the oil crisis, and economic recession, Beale (and his network bosses) soon discover that venting personal anger on camera can move a nation -- and boost a station’s television ratings -- to new highs. It’s a clip worth watching again for anyone interested in that uniquely American mix of populist anger and corporate manipulation.
The same angry high – born of frustration, powerlessness, uncertainty – also fuels today’s Tea Party adherents and the rest of us who feel trapped by forces beyond our control.
As in the Hollywood movie, however, populist anger is easily manipulated by media and financial interests far beyond our every day lives – or our awareness. How many people at yesterday’s rally knew that the event was being underwritten by a bunch of rich old corporate geezers like Dick Armey and Steve Forbes who want nothing more than to keep control of the system, not dismantle it?
But it takes mental effort to look beyond the Boston Common to watch the actual legislative policy debates being played out in Washington. Did you catch the boring Congressional hearing about the absence of corporate accountability in the banking sector during the Bush years?
Okay, neither did I. But I'm paying attention enough to know that our collective anger should be directed against anyone who tries to block government accountability and oversight – and not simply against the government itself.
And when misguided citizens think that young staffers from non-governmental civil liberties groups like the ACLU are the enemy, you know the vested corporate interests are winning the public relations war.
The bread and circus of Ms. Palin, Ms. Jackson, and their crew have moved on – the final stop in their 25 state-tour is today in Washington, D.C. Still, I’m glad we opened the Boston Common to the tea party show. It was the right thing to do.
Thankfully, we can balance what we heard on the Common that with an equal dose of Massachusetts skepticism and common sense – secure in the knowledge that the revolutionary founders of our nation drafted a Constitution and Bill of Rights to defend free speech and other civil liberties against the twin dangers of mob anarchy and totalitarian rule.