Volume 81, Number 13ß | August 25 -31, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
A Crucible full of tea bags
By JERRY TALLMER
In seventy-six the sky was red
thunder rumbling overhead
Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed
And on that stormy morn, Ol’ Uncle Sam was born.
Ol’ Sam put on a three-cornered hat
And in a Richmond church
Patrick Henry told him that while America drew breath
It was “Liberty or death.”
What kind of hat is a three-cornered hat?
Did they all believe in liberty in those days?
Nobody who was anybody believed it.
Ev’rybody who was anybody they doubted it.
Nobody had faith.
Nobody but Washington, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Chaim Solomon, Crispus Attucks, Lafayette. Nobodies.
The nobodies ran a tea party at Boston. Betsy Ross organized a sewing circle. Paul Revere had a horse race…. .
Thus John La Touche (words), Earl Robinson (music), Paul Robeson (voice!) and Norman Corwin (direction) in the “Ballad for Americans” of a cleaner, straighter era than this one.
But oh, what a different kind of tea party that was. What different revolutionaries, true revolutionaries, Tom Paine’s Age of Reason revolutionaries, founders of a country, not wreckers of a country, fanatical far-right nut-case tea bag ideologues who have now come eerily close to doing what some angry blacks once threatened to do, kick over the whole effing table — but now for the precisely opposite purpose of insuring that that smart-ass black in the White House never gets to be more than (as the feller said) a one-term president.
That fellow in the White House being, incidentally and unfortunately, the only fully civilized person in the whole scene.
As we all draw breath at the edge of the chasm we did not (yet) hurl ourselves into, I’m damned if I can understand how a mere 87 religiously brain-cooked house-wreckers — or, as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews put it, street-corner muggers — can hold a knife to the throats of 300 million other Americans, left, right or center. Muggers who share the neocon mentality of destroying the village to save it.
Well before the arrival of “Ballad for Americans” (1939) I had been spooked by “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” in which fairy tale a whole townful of children follows the Piper out into the countryside and over a cliff, like lemmings.
My mother had her own version: A woman and her two small children lived in a cabin in the woods. One day the woman had to go to market for a few hours.
“Children,” she said to her two kids, “do anything you want to do while I’m away. Just one thing: Please don’t put beans in your noses.”
She kissed them, departed on her expedition — and the two children put beans up their noses...and died.
Zealots are zealots, whether flying jet airplanes into tall buildings, or gunning down 70 campers on a Norwegian island, or terrorizing an entire huge city like Mumbai, or killing as many women and children as possible in a Moscow movie theater, Chechen style.
The Russians themselves have indeed always known in their blood about zealotry and its crimes, as best anatomized in Dostoyevsky’s transfixing 1872 novel, “The Possessed.” But artists, poets, playwrights and storytellers of many eras and cultures have exposed ideological zealots for what they are just by showing them as they are.
One thinks immediately of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Hilda Wangle, power-wacky twittering women who bear a distinct resemblance, or vice versa, to — oh, hell — tea bag Mesdames Palin and Bachmann.
One thinks of Shakespeare’s lean and hungry Yon Cantor, giving us Jews a bad name as he stands there, salivating, just six inches north-northwest of his ostensible boss’s left shoulder. Ooops, sorry, right shoulder.
One thinks, of course, of Clarence Darrow vs. William Jennings Bryan on the bombshell of Monkeyhood in Lawrence and Lee’s “Inherit the Wind.”
One thinks of Mr. Samuel Beckett, who supplied the perfect title to the just non-concluded monkey business in Washington, D.C.: “Endgame.”
One thinks of Sartre’s “The Flies” and of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” in which cruel farce everybody in sight — except one stubborn soul — turns into a roaring, snorting, true-believing horned beast.
One thinks of Orwell’s “1984” and of Ira Levin’s under-appreciated spin-off, “This Perfect Day,” and of Aldous Huxley’s door-opening “Brave New World” and — back to Ibsen — of the pre-Medicare rationalist who’s adjudged an enemy of the people.
But above all, in our roster of poet-playwrights who strip ideology and ideologists down to the core, there is the unlate Mr. Arthur Miller, who in a play called “The Crucible” shows us how close, in the plague years of HUAC and blacklist and Joseph McCarthy, this country came to burning as witches all those who didn’t wish to turn into ideological rhinoceri.
“More weight!” cries old nonconformist Giles Corey in “The Crucible” as he is being crushed to death, tortured to death, by rocks.
I hope Chris Matthews’s and everybody else’s gloom over our recent national mugging — compounded by S&P’s $2 trillion error in arithmetic — is wrong. I hope so, but I don’t think so. The muggers — the True Believers — are waiting on all sides, and they have plenty of stones.