Blogs > Cliopatria > Masters and Children (III)

Apr 6, 2010 3:07 pm

Masters and Children (III)

How Historians Might See the Tea Party Movement
Part Three of Four

(Part One is here. Part Two is here.)

In a climate of economic crisis and its aftermath, Massachusetts Governor William Shirley spent the late-1740s complaining about a"Mobbish turn" in Boston politics that centered on the involvement of"working artificers, seafaring men, and low sorts of people" in the institution of the town meeting. Worse, the low sorts of people had their own press: In January of 1748, a group that included the local brewer Samuel Adams started their own newspaper, the Independent Advertiser.

In the decades that followed, fiercely partisan newspapers became the clearinghouse for a war of words between governing elites and their increasingly radical critics. As Gary Nash writes,"Newspaper essays became extreme with charges of 'Racoon,' 'stinking Skunk,' 'Pimp,' 'wild beast,' 'drunkard,' and other choice titles. But more important than the invective itself was the deep-seated, class-driven animosity that the polemical pieces exposed: suspicion of laboring people and hatred of their leaders on the part of the Hutchinsonians; contempt and anger toward the wealthy, Anglican elite by the common people."

By 1775, newspapers were divided in absolutely clear terms between those supportive of British authority and those opposed to it. In the days after April 19, each waged what David Hackett Fischer has called the"second battle of Lexington and Concord," a campaign to shape public opinion. The publisher of the Salem Gazette would eventually contribute to that campaign with a broadside topped with the image of coffins, and the headline,"Bloody Butchery by the British, or the Runaway Fight of the Regulars."

Loyalist newspapers took the direction of the wind and turned aside the official account of the battle sent to them by Major General Thomas Gage. One shut down its presses; another, the Boston News-Letter, announced that it was unable to puzzle through accounts of the battle well enough to provide a report on it. A British naval officer sent men ashore to arrest disloyal printers, but anti-British accounts poured out of presses smuggled out of town to safety.

A division of loyalties had been reflected in the emergence of newspapers with competing audiences; while those newspapers took one form of leadership in shaping the political narrative that followed, they were part of the larger discussion from which they had grown. The"Bloody Butchery by the British" broadside from a newspaper publisher didn't invent a narrative -- it followed one.

Two hundred years later, a confrontation between police and local citizens started the spiraling conflict that became the Watts Riots. As Timothy Tyson writes, a convenient target presented itself for misguided blame: Robert F. Williams, a well-known advocate of armed self-defense by black communities. After a series of armed confrontations with police in his home state of North Carolina, Williams had fled to Cuba, where he was welcomed and offered support. He quickly began to broadcast a regular program,"Radio Free Dixie," with a powerful signal that reached throughout most of the United States.

Williams had intervened directly in the Watts uprising, broadcasting a message that was heard in Los Angeles during those days of violence:"Let us be prepared to fight to the death. Let it be known to the world that we shall meet their sophisticated weapons of violence with the crude and simple flame of a match. Let us resist tyranny to the death. Resist, resist, resist! Burn, burn, burn! Death to the oppressor! Down with the thug cops! To the streets and let our battle cry be heard around the world! Freedom, freedom, freedom now or death!"

But Williams wasn't a catalyst in 1965; by then, far away from the fight, he was substantially a reflection of a movement that was moving along multiple paths. Robin D.G. Kelley has famously described a 1963 Birmingham riot in which black"onlookers" or"bystanders" supposedly outside the Civil Rights Movement responded to a pair of bomb attacks on civil rights leaders by directly attacking local police:

"One patrolman chased a group of rioters down a dark alley and emerged with three stab wounds in his back. A police inspector was found soaked in blood, having been 'brained by a rock.'"

In Los Angeles, as in Boston two centuries before, media outlets were a part of a larger fabric of resistance and rage. But they didn't invent either the anger or the action, and they wouldn't have found an audience without people who were ready for the message they presented.

What's more, the resistance in both cases -- as in the case of Shays's Rebellion, discussed in the previous post -- wasn't what authorities and their elite backers believed it to be. In 1965, Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker notoriously described Watts rioters as"monkeys in a zoo"; aggression against the established social and political order was seen as regressive and incoherent. It was neither.

I've offered two examples from different centuries and different settings, but they can be linked by many examples in between. To give just one, Alan Brinkley has written that Depression-era followers of Huey Long and Father Coughlin were"men and women clinging precariously to their hard-won middle-class lifestyles; people with valued but imperiled stakes in their local communities."

In the 1930s, New Deal leaders and supporters regarded followers of Long and Coughlin as crude people governed by emotion and fear and looking for simple answers; Brinkley concludes that they were"manifestations of one of the most powerful impulses of the Great Depression, and of many decades of American life before it: the urge to defend the autonomy of the individual and the independence of the community against encroachments from the modern industrial state...They called, rather, for a society in which the individual retained control of his own life and livelihood; in which power resided in visible, accessible institutions; in which wealth was equitably (if not necessarily equally) shared."

Three cases, three movements with media at their center. All three misunderstood by established elites at the time they took place. And all three driven by agendas that led them to particular messages, rather than having been led to beliefs inculcated by messaging.

Last post tomorrow.

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