Now that Tea Party rallies have become “non-political” and dedicated to the vague ideal of restoring honor, perhaps the US media can get on with the business of covering what we might call the Real Government–you know, the one that makes laws, distributes resources, provides services, and generally is tasked with protecting the general welfare. The Tea Party will be a footnote to history soon enough–no, not soon enough, but soon–and thus the weekend’s march on Washington provides a fitting moment for reflecting on political movements and their leadership.
According to the caption at the New York Times, this is a photograph of Glen Beck waiting backstage with security personnel. The photo also is a critical study in American propaganda. The center of the photograph is dominated not by any political actor but rather by a symbol: the Washington Monument celebrates both the nation’s first president and the Enlightenment rationality that his generation of political leaders valued so highly. Austere, abstract, and not in any way religious (unless you count the Egyptian allusion), the monument perfectly captures both aspiration and stability as they are to be deep virtues of a federal government.
That is not to say that the monument shouldn’t serve as a rallying point for populist movements lead by demagogues preaching about “faith.” The monument does set the key for the photograph, however, one that is developed further by the framed images left and right. Abraham Lincoln is Washington’s equal in the pantheon of great leaders, and the figure who guided the nation through its second great crisis. The Native American figure is apparently emblematic of natural nobility and honor–and perhaps of the honor of the Lost Cause now neatly brushed clean of slavery and Jim Crow lynchings. In any case, it is clear that he is a warrior and perhaps a leader of his people. Thus, you have three symbols of leadership on behalf of the nation: a triptych binding together the founding, the second founding, and those who were displaced, all supposedly united by–I hate to say it–a native sense of honor.
And then there is Glen Beck with his guards. Perhaps we are to believe that dark suits and sunglasses are the latest incarnation of the warrior spirit, but the photograph is much more a depiction of contrasts than continuity. Today’s political actors are dwarfed by the images of their forebears, and the supposed unity of the neatly balanced composition belies the tensions between the founding of the union, its being rent apart by slavery, and its reunification including the conquest and near eradication of the original peoples.
Most important, the symbols are inert, objects for manipulation. And that is what the political actor of the day is all about: manipulating symbols and, through them, crowds. And manipulating those symbols without any regard to the original history, commitments, or sacrifices of the real men and women who built the nation or suffered the often tragic turns of its making. (One might note that both suffering and victory were eloquently joined in the original March on Washington, to which Beck’s rally was the “accidental” and parodic sequel.) Indeed, the leader of this rally has rewritten the record book for those who trammel history, which one can do when leading consists in no more than giving speeches without ever having to govern. And when the leader is far removed from his audience, a crowd that is visible only in the distance as a staged source of applause across the moat formed by the reflecting pool.
There is one more contrast built into the photograph, albeit one that requires a bit of history. Construction of the Washington Monument began in 1848 but wasn’t finished until 1884. One reason for the delay was that the project was hijacked by the Know-Nothings, the nativist reactionaries of the day who were precursors to the Tea Party movement. Know-Nothings were virulently opposed to immigration from Ireland and Germany–immigration by people with names like Beck, for example. They also thought that Catholics couldn’t be good citizens in a democracy, wanted Bible readings in the public schools, and otherwise endorsed positions that, with the change of a name or two, are all too common among those gathered on the Mall last Saturday.
Fortunately, the Know-Nothings became a footnote to history, and the monument was completed. Perhaps we could do worse than to have our symbols outlast those who now would speak in their name.
Photograph by Brendan Smialowski for the New York Times.