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Where Did David Brooks Get the Bizarre Idea That the Tea Party Crowd Resembles '60s Movements?

The Tea Party that worships Sarah Palin and screams for Barack Obama's birth certificate doesn't merit comparison to positive social movements of the 1960s.

There is a fresh interpretive fad in the young field of Tea Party Studies: The New Right of 2010 as the New Left of the 1960s.

According to this nascent meme, today’s conservative grassroots holds strong echoes of earlier radicalism on the left. The Tea Party movement that worships Sarah Palin and screams for Barack Obama’s birth certificate is, in this view, more than just the latest herpetic outbreak of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid “pseudo-conservatism.” It is a reincarnation of the New Left and 1960s counterculture. The Tea Partiers, it is becoming fashionable to argue, are the heirs not just of the John Birch Society and the young Barry Goldwater, but also of Students for a Democratic Society and the young Abbie Hoffman.

If this analogy smells suspect, it’s for good reason. Yet it appears to be gaining traction, especially among a certain breed of moderate with confused understandings of Tea Party conservatism, the New Left, and '60s counterculture. In late February, Michael Lind wrote a Salon piece in which he claimed, "The tea partiers are the hippies of our time…In Glenn Beck, the countercultural right has found its own Abbie Hoffman."

Although Hoffman was never a hippie (he called flower children "glassy eyed zombies" and passed through the civil rights and antiwar movements on his way to founding the Youth International Party in 1968), and Beck is neither exuberant nor radical (he is a sexually repressed Mormon businessman who exemplifies modern crackpot reaction), Lind’s strange comparison nonetheless found an admirer in David Brooks of the New York Times. Last Friday, March 4, Brooks expanded on Lind’s thesis in a column titled "The Wal-Mart Hippies." Echoing Lind, Brooks writes that, much like 1960s leftwing radicals, the Tea Partiers want "to take on The Man, return power to the people, upend the elites and lead a revolution." He called Lind's comparison of Beck to Hoffman “astute.”

"Obtuse" would be a better description, says Paul Krassner, a founding member of the Yippies and a friend of the late Abbie Hoffman. "Whereas the Yippies saw through the propaganda machine, the Teabaggers are soaked in it," explains Krassner. "We were active in a time of abundance, they are active in a time of economic catastrophe; so we fought villains and they fight scapegoats. Abbie Hoffman was a seeker of justice; Glenn Beck rationalizes injustice. Abbie was hysterically funny; he made people laugh and think simultaneously. Beck promulgates hysteria; he exploits the fear that he helps create. To link them as part of the same tradition is sixties bashing at worst and sloppy journalism at best.”

Brooks is a particularly sloppy practitioner of '60s bashing. He opens his piece by declaring, “About 40 years ago, a social movement arose to destroy the establishment [we] call the New Left."

This chronology places the New Left’s creation in 1970, around the time the movement peaked and imploded in a spasm of factionalist nihilism. The year of the New Left's birth was actually 1962, when Tom Hayden, then an undergraduate, conceived and coauthored “The Port Huron Statement.” This document and the new generational liberalism it symbolized did not aim, as Brooks claims, to destroy the establishment. It merely asked probing and fundamental questions about American society and the obligations of citizenship in what was then a deeply flawed and incomplete democracy.

No comparable document marks the creation of the Tea Party movement. In place of the “Port Huron Statement” and the proto-New Left works of scholars like C. Wright Mills, Paul Goodman and William Appleman Williams, the Tea Partiers have "Santelli’s Rant," Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed and Glenn Beck’s "We Surround Them” Fox special costarring Chuck Norris.

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