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A Mad Tea-Party: An Essay-Collage

[The following is a talk I gave at Buzzer Thirty in Queens for an exhibition called “…no right to assume otherwise,” which was a response to The Tea Party and related movements of extreme conservatism.]


“The Tea Party is saying, ‘We’re tired of this, you guys caused this, and if we don’t wake up to this, the American dream we’ve talked about since the ’50s will die,’” said Jeff McQueen, a Tea Party organizer in Rochester, Mich., who was laid off from his job in international sales for an auto parts company. “Things we had in the ’50s were better. If a mom wanted to work, she could, if she didn’t, she didn’t have to. Tell me how many mothers work now? Now it’s a necessity.”

[Kate Zernike, “Tea Party Supporters Doing Fine, but Angry Nonetheless,” The New York Times, April 16, 2010]


Want to learn how to arrange a tea party and supper? This DVD shows you everything you need to know from the days when throwing a tea party was quite the popular thing to do! There are three digitized film reels on this DVD. One film deals with arranging the tea table; one film deals with arranging the supper; one film deals with all the general aspects of throwing the tea party. Don’t miss out on this great etiquette collector’s item!

“Arranging The Tea Table”: This film teaches the budding post-war typical American family housewife how to impress her friends and neighbors with the amount of caring and consideration she can display by setting a beautiful tea table with creative tea party ideas… A painstaking attention to detail really shines…

[from Tea Party Films DVD (1950s), Copyright 2004-2009 Quality Information Publishers Inc.]

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head…The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: “No room! No room!” they cried out when they saw Alice coming. “There’s plenty of room!” said Alice indignantly…

[Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1866)]


In the 1950s in Oklahoma and most southern states, blacks weren’t allowed to eat in most drug and department store lunch counters.

[The Oklahoma Historical Society]


“Have some wine,” the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. “I don’t see any wine,” she remarked.

“There isn’t any,” said the March Hare.

“Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,” said Alice angrily.

“It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,” said the March Hare.


In 1960 four freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro walked into the F. W. Woolworth store and quietly sat down at the lunch counter. They were refused service, but they stayed until closing time.

[African American Odyssey, Library of Congress]


“Imagine,” says Bill Hennessy, cofounder of the St. Louis Tea Party and author of The Conservative Manifesto, “that the ‘tea party’ movement continued to expand in size and influence… What would America look like then?”

“First, we would trim federal legislation, reducing the Federal Register – the daily publication of federal rules, regulations, orders, and notices – from more than 69,000 pages to, say, 10,000 pages, as it was in 1950.”

[Quotes taken from Bill Hennessy, “‘Tea party’ founder: Why our movement will succeed — and why it’s good for America,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 23, 2010]


Alice had been looking over his shoulder with some curiosity. “What a funny watch!” she remarked. “It tells the day of the month, and doesn’t tell what o’clock it is!”

“Why should it?” muttered the Hatter. “Does your watch tell you what year it is?”


In 1950, the census counted 124,780,860 white people born in the United States.


With one less “t,” “hatter” spells “hater.”


According to Hennessy, “In 1949, federal spending equaled 14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP); in 2009, the government spent 25 percent of GDP, a 70 percent increase.”


“take back”:

  1. a. trans. To take possession of again, resume
  2. b. To withdraw, retract, recall, unsay (a statement, promise, etc.)
  3. c. To carry back in thought to a past time


Although the tea party wants so much to “take back” America, this is impossible: the receipt has been lost and it is now over 380 years after purchase.


In the blurry photo on Flickr, the misspelled sign with removable letters reads: “VILLAGE OF CRESTWOOD / ENGLISH IS OUR / LANGUAGE / NO EXCETIONS [sic] / LEARN IT / MAYOR CHESTER STRANCZEK”


[= F. thé, Sp. te, It. , Du. and Ger. thee, Da., Sw. te, mod.L. thea; ad. (perh. through Malay te, teh) Chinese, Amoy dialect te, in Fuchau tiä = Mandarin ch’a (in ancient Chinese prob. kia); whence Pg. and obs. Sp. cha, obs. It. cià, Russian cha , Pers., Urdu ch (10th c.), Arab. sh y, Turkish ch y. The Portuguese brought the form cha (which is Cantonese as well as Mandarin) from Macao. This form also passed overland into Russia. The form te (thé) was brought into Europe by the Dutch, prob. from the Malay at Bantam (if not from Formosa, where the Fuhkien or Amoy form was used). The original English pronunciation (te ), sometimes indicated by spelling tay, is found in rimes down to 1762, and remains in many dialects; but the current (ti ) is found already in the 17th c., shown in rimes and by the spelling tee.] [Oxford English Dictionary]


TEA is an acronym that stands for “Taxed Enough Already” and thus should not be confused with the etymology above.


Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. “I don’t quite understand you,” she said, as politely as she could.


Little Rock, Arkansas. 1959. In the black and white photograph, protestors have amassed outside the State Capitol.   To the right, several white men are bearing the American flag.  The angry man with the crew cut in the foreground is gripping a rockabilly-style microphone; he looks like he could be R. Lee Ermey as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket (1987) or as the demented sheriff in the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003).  Both roles seem to me to be essentially the same.  Behind him is a partially obscured picket sign that one can, nevertheless, read with ease: “RACE MIXING * IS * COMMUNISM.”  The two stars that flank the word “is” are a nice touch—not only because they echo the white stars on the flags but in the way that they so confidently punctuate the copula.  Bill Clinton, an Arkansawian himself, whom Toni Morrison called “the first black president,” might remark: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”


On an early winter night in 1773, white, male Americans staked a unique and privileged claim to liberty and nationhood.  They acted through the channels cut by European traditions of carnival and misrule, traditions that they made uniquely their own through the use of Indian Others…As one of the foundational moments of American identity, the Tea Party stands at the heart of a darkness subsequent Americans have struggled to reveal.

[Philip Joseph Deloria, Playing Indian (1998)]


“One of the ships laid at the wharf, the others a little way out in the stream, with their warps made fast to the wharf. To prevent discovery, we agreed to wear ragged clothes and disfigure ourselves, dressing to resemble Indians as much as possible, smearing our faces with grease and lamp black or soot, and should not have known each other except by our voices…We surely resembled devils from the bottomless pit rather than men.”

[Francis Samuel Drake, Tea Leaves: Being a Collection of Letters and Documents Related to the Shipment of Tea to the American Colonies in the Year 1773 by the East India Tea Company (1884)]


Massachusetts could either abolish slavery (in 1772, the landmark Somerset case would effectively end slavery in England) or it could lead the colonies in the effort to resist parliamentary rule. It could not do both. When the anti-slavery bill finally came up for a vote, a friend warned John Adams, “If passed into an act, it should have a bad effect on the union of the colonies.” It failed. In 1773, Boston’s blacks petitioned the Assembly, “We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them.” That summer, the question at Harvard’s graduation debate was “the Legality of Enslaving the Africans.” By then, though, everyone was concerned about tea.

[Jill Lepore, “Tea and Sympathy: Who Owns the American Revolution?” The New Yorker, May 3, 2010]


Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010)—for all its pseudo-feminist posturings—is a deeply nostalgic, even reactionary film.

After the revolutionary Alice (dressed as a kind of Joan of Arc) slays the Jabberwocky with the vorpal sword, she returns to the garden party of polite British society and quite predictably refuses Hamish’s marriage proposal.

She then says to Lord Ascot, who is not only Hamish’s father but also the owner of the trading company that once belonged to Alice’s father: “You and I have business to discuss, sir.”

In Ascot’s study, she continues: “My father told me he planned to expand his trade route to include Bombay… But I don’t think he was looking far enough. Why stop in India? Why not expand the company’s trade route all the way to China?”  Pleased, Ascot replies: “I’m very sorry you’re not going to marry my son, Alice. But I may have a way to keep you in the family.”  In other words, in relinquishing her role as daughter-in-law, Alice refigures her identity as imperialist explorer.  The film ends with a shot of Alice on board the S.S. Wonder—with its helm pointed toward the Orient.


Given the present growth of the Chinese Economy, this nostalgia for a prior stage of globalization—that is 19th Century colonialism—is perfectly understandable as this was a time when power relations between imperial center and colonial periphery was so much more of a one-way street.


In “Tea Party with a Difference” (NY Times, April 24, 2010), Thomas Friedman proposes a “Green Tea Party,” which would support a clean energy bill to control CO2 emissions.

“[T]he bill,” says Friedman, “is a step in the right direction toward reducing greenhouse gases and expanding our base of clean power technologies so we can compete with China in this newest global industry.”  “And if we don’t start now,” he concludes, “every solar panel, electric car and wind turbine we’ll have to buy when climate change really hits will come with instructions in Chinese.”


“Well, I’d hardly finished the first verse,” said the Hatter, “when the Queen bawled out ‘He’s murdering the time! Off with his head!’”

“How dreadfully savage!” exclaimed Alice.


As seen at recent McCain events, this afternoon’s crowd was vocal in their support for McCain and their anger with Senator Obama. At one point one man could be heard yelling, “Off with his head,” when McCain spoke about Obama’s tax plan.

[Adam Aigner, “McCain’s ‘fellow prisoners’?,” First Read, October 8, 2008]


In the photo, the young boy is smiling—obviously proud of the homemade sign he’s displaying.  He could be at a baseball game.  Or a professional wrestling match.  His sign says, “Obama-nomics: Monkey See, Monkey Spend!”


Caption: “Tea party supporters Linda Lester (L) and Deanna Lamoureux at a recent rally in Searchlight, Nevada. A poll by Quinnipiac University suggests that women make up a majority of the tea party movement.” Patrik Jonsson, “Amid Harsh Criticisms, ‘Tea Party’ Slips into the Manistream,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 2010

“At any rate I’ll never go there again!” said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. “It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!”

6 thoughts on “A Mad Tea-Party: An Essay-Collage

  1. Wonderful! I’m not sure which is more absurd, the turn-back-the-clock mentality of the conservative Tea Party or Alice’s party with the Mad Hatter. Comedy of manners, indeed.

    There’s a lot of nice interplay and cross-talk in the sections here. My favorites include the cultural hodgepodge etymology against the acronym of TEA meaning “Taxed Enough Already”; and the sections on the Boston Tea Party. Philip Joseph Deloria’s critique is spot-on.

    And dig that neologism: “excetion”. Hilarious! It’s great when your rival makes an ass of himself.

    I haven’t seen Burton’s Alice, but your assessment of it seems to nail the coffin on it for me.

    1. Thanks, John, for the comments. Yeah, definitely save your time and cash and see something else besides Alice!

    1. Sure, Edward– the Boston Tea Party, on the one hand, seems like such a foundational and mythologized event in American history. But, on the other hand, it was a bunch of white guys playing red face… thanks!

    1. Hadn’t thought of this, John, but interesting mention. I read with Jennifer last Fall in Brooklyn– though haven’t had a chance to look at the book yet.

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