It’s Been a Mad Tea Party

Alice in Wonderland, John Tenniel illus.

Alice in Wonderland, John Tenniel illusration

Tuesday’s election gave us a chance to assess the effectiveness of the American Tea Party movement, which has fascinated not only the American media but people around the globe. For liberals like me, at times Tea Partiers have seemed to resemble less the American colonialists dumping tea into the Boston Harbor and more Lewis Carroll’s “mad tea party” in Alice in Wonderland.

Reports are mixed about the Tea Party’s impact. On the one hand, it helped generate enthusiasm for Republican candidates and put some of its own into office. On the other, it may have prevented the Republicans from taking control of the Senate since some of the Tea Party candidates were unelectable in a general election (Sharron Angle in Nevada, Terry Castle in Delaware). It will be interesting to watch the future of this rightwing phenomenon. Will it be able to get the Republican leadership to take seriously some of its concerns, like lower deficit spending and smaller government? Or will John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House, just use the Tea Party as a populist veneer while returning to business as usual?  Slate magazine predicts that he will “fake right” but be less confrontational than the radicals want.  Time will tell.

Because I’m currently teaching Alice in Wonderland, I can’t help but think of the Tea Partiers as I read about the antics of the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the dormouse.

For instance, when Alice first comes to the table, she is told by the Hatter and the Hare that there is “no room, no room” at the table, even though they are bunched up at one end of it. (It would be nice for my purposes if they were at the far right, but in Tenniel’s illustration they are at the left.) The American table has room for many, but those who want to “take back America” don’t always sound like they want to share, especially with people who don’t look they they are supposed to look. “Your hair wants cutting,” says to Hatter to Alice, to which she replies, “You should learn not to make personal remarks. It’s very rude.”

In Carroll’s mad Tea Party, riddles are asked which have no answers and statements are made that don’t make any sense. Carroll reports that, in response to an enigmatic statement,

Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. “I don’t quite understand you,” she said as politely as she could.

The Mad Hatter also believes that reality can be manipulated. Take Time, for instance. If one is on good relations with it, he says, it will do whatever you want it to:

For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning. Just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!

Imagine if we could manipulate reality the same way. Whisper that the budget can be reduced while taxes are being cut and medicare and defense spending are retained as they are, whisper that carbon emissions do not cause climate change, whisper that the president is a foreign-born Kenyan-anti-colonialist jackbooted socialist thug –and—presto!—reality will “do almost anything you like.”

I’m even tempted to draw read the dormouse’s story as an allegory.  It is about three girls who live at the bottom of a treacle (molasses) well, consuming an unhealthy diet of treacle and drawing pictures only of things that begin with the letter “M.” Is this a case of people living in their own isolated world, feeding upon an unhealthy diet of what they have determined is best for them and singing only a single note?

Okay, I admit that’s stretching it. To be more serious, the American Tea Party seems to be less a coherent platform than a reaction to unsettling developments in the national and international scene. In response to bewildering technological advances, such as the 9-11 attacks, skyrocketing medical costs, unsettling globalization, and the rapid increase of non-white Americans (including a non-white president), it engages in various fantasies, some of them nostalgic, some of them paranoid.

Carroll’s own fantasy was also a reaction against a complicated world that was putting severe pressures upon his citizens. In response, he retreated to a childhood wonderland and imagined his heroine rebelling (but always with apparent innocence) against bossy adults, rigid rule systems, boring social obligations, insipid moralistic lessons, and the like.

At the end of the Tea Party scene, Alice is asked a question and then told that she shouldn’t talk. Having had enough, she walks off. “I’ll never go there again!” she says. “It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!”

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