Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and Barnaby Rudge

July 24th, 2010

I was reading Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens’ novel set in the London of 1780, and thinking of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.  The novel centers on the Gordon Riots, an outbreak of mob violence instigated by the anti-Catholic agitation of Lord George Gordon.  The entire city was paralyzed, many Catholics were killed or injured, and many Catholic homes, businesses, and places of worship were destroyed, as well as Newgate Prison.  Gordon’s mob briefly besieged and almost invaded Parliament itself.  Eventually the military had to be called out to restore the peace, killing 285 of the rioters in the process.

Dickens characterizes Lord Gordon as a weak-minded, physically striking, passionate, flamboyant politician, not taken seriously by his peers, heavily influenced by bad advisers, with a gift for inflaming that part of the population inclined to be inflamed by someone like him, excited to be leading a popular cause and soon addicted to that sense of power, mistakenly believing he directed the movements of the wave on whose crest he actually was riding.  Dickens observes that if Gordon’s policy proposals had been spelled out in dispassionate, clear language – mainly, maintain the crippling legal disabilities to which English Catholics of the time were subject, against parliamentary proposals to remove them – he might have won a few adherents but would have remained a figure of marginal significance.  Instead, he adopted a rhetoric in which the soul of Protestant England, its very existence, was imminently threatened by the purported papist machinations of its Catholic minority, and he terrorized the nation.  Dickens also observes that Gordon’s followers ultimately didn’t care what their cause was said to be about; they were motivated by their own rage, which Gordon fanned, providing a convenient outlet and direction for its expression.

Picture Sarah Palin as Lord Gordon in drag, inveighing not against the Pope but against that foreign-born Socialist negro Obama and his minions, and you get the picture.  List her policy proposals, to the extent that they can be clearly articulated, on paper, and see what they amount to.  It is her gift for inflaming those ready to be inflamed that accounts for her prominence, not the substance of her ideas, such as they are.  Indeed, it seems that like Gordon’s followers, the Tea Partyers are attracted to Palin not so much by what she actually says (apart from code-worded invocations to class, racial, and religious solidarity) as by her availability as an avatar for their own, largely inchoate, angers and frustrations.  Her flag-waving religiosity operates as a rallying cry, just as Gordon’s did, for those who do not understand but who definitely do resent developments in the society around them.

The wave that Gordon was riding soon left him behind, crashed on the shore, and was gone.  He was charged with High Treason, but acquitted because it could not be proven that he had directly urged anyone to commit crimes.  We can only hope that when Palin’s movement finally peters out as Gordon’s did, it will not involve similar levels of  death and destruction.  It is possible that the monster that Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, et al. have been arousing so much to their own profit,  finally may be provoked beyond control.  The Republican Party already has shown a propensity to resort to mob thuggery in pursuit of its goals.  There was the riotous intimidation of the Miami Dade elections commission in 2000, and, more recently, the crowds that abused lawmakers at Town Meetings and in Washington during the struggle over the Health Care Reform Act.  A comforting thought is that Gordon and his ilk tend to come and go without in the long run having had much impact.  May it be so with Sarah Palin

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