Tea parties lack strong principles

It was Dec. 16, 1773, when thousands of Bostonians huddled in the city’s harbor to protest a massive tea tax imposed by the British Parliament. About 130 or so dressed as Indians, broke from the mob and tossed more than 300 chests of tea into the water, more content to do without the craved commodity than pay the dues on its import.

Wednesday, thousands gathered in the Save Mart Center parking lot and many thousands more in 2,300 locations across the country to protest a new era of taxation that many claim will threaten businesses and burden several generations with crippling debt passed off as stimulus spending. Hundreds carried signs that said things like “get government off my back” or “proud member of the homeland security threat list” and shouted slogans like “I cling to my God and my guns.”

In a way, it was nice to see so many mobilizing under a single cause and taking a collective stance in passionate opposition to government bailouts and stimulus programs. But I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps the tea party goers of our day are coming up short.

In Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau put the issue this way: “If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil: But if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”

Thoreau had a real problem with any social contract that required him to fund activities he was fundamentally opposed to. In 1849, Americans were profiting from imperialism and slavery. Thoreau refused to lend his support to these injustices.

Now I’m not suggesting we’ve reached the point and circumstances that we need to take Thoreau’s advice to the next level, but looking out at all those people with their angry signs and t-shirts, I had to wonder how many of them have their insurance through AIG or hold accounts through Bank of America or drive a Chevy.

Behind all the slogans, we’re still chained to the tax-assisted stimulus we decry. And with all the valid, well-spoken points, life for us continues pretty much the same.

The Bostonians in 1773 sacrificed tea. Sure, it may seem like a small thing to give up, but there were serious consequences if they were captured. Reportedly, one was even knocked unconscious by a crate of tea that fell on him. Thoreau spent a night in jail for his defiance. These aren’t just symbols, but real things. Meanwhile, the modern protesters offer a donation, a signature and if they’re lucky, a day off from work to attend a rally.

Thoreau also wrote, “If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied with knowing that you are cheated, or with saying that you are cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your due; but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount, and see that you are never cheated again. Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations.”

There’s little doubt that Wednesday’s audience at the Save Mart Center believed they were cheated. Co-organizer of the Fresno Tea Party, Steve Wayte, said we’ve been paying undue interest to the Federal Reserve for more than 25 years. That’s a long time to feel cheated and still pay into it, much less remedy the situation.

Perhaps our principles are not as strong as we would like them to be. I’m willing to concede that tax increases, even earmarks, have eventual benefits to the economy and our livelihoods. But I’ve been paying into a war I disagree with for the last six years. Yes, that makes me a hypocrite.

Thoreau believed more than anybody in the wisdom and convictions of the minority and that those convictions should lead people to action. For him, sacrificing his physical freedom was a more effectual option than appealing to the government for change. I think we could learn something from that.

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