Tea And Sympathy

[ Posted Monday, April 13th, 2009 – 16:15 UTC ]

Tea doesn't get much respect in America. This historical snubbing will continue Wednesday, with protests across America meant to evoke the Boston Tea Party, a seminal event in the foundation of our county. How effective these protests will be is going to be open to interpretation, however.

But first, some sympathy for tea itself. Americans consume far more coffee than tea, and don't even realize that the reason they do so can be traced back to the Boston Tea Party itself. Tea is such a quintessentially English drink that during and after the Revolution, not drinking it was a simple political statement: "We're not British, we're Americans." Even today, tea is held to be somewhat suspect, rather feminine, and not as red-blooded American as drinking coffee. A quick observation of any Denny's in the country at breakfast will confirm the ratio of coffee drinkers to tea drinkers among today's Americans. If you don't believe that patriotic feelings get attached to food, then you must not remember "freedom fries" from a few years back. Such feelings sometimes get so ingrained in society that the reason behind them is lost in time. As happened with tea in America.

So tea's an easy target for a protest, once again. The fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with the protest itself is immaterial to the protestors. They mean to evoke a certain historical revolutionary glow to the event by their choice of scapegoat.

When you look closely at even the original event, tea wasn't even central to the debate back then, either. It was symbolic from the beginning, from both the British side and the American side. We all learn a very simplified version of this as schoolchildren, which could best be summed up as: "Americans were protesting higher British taxes on tea."

The reality is a lot more complicated, and is closer to the Main Street protests against big-box stores like WalMart coming to town. Because the law the rebels were actually protesting was a lower tax on tea. They were protesting lower prices for American tea consumers. It sounds pretty backwards to what we all were taught in Elementary School, and it is in a way. But it wasn't even really about the money -- for either side.

The British were preserving a monopoly on tea within Britain and the American Colonies for the British East India Company. They were doing so by a typical move of a monopoly -- undercutting the cost of competitors, in this case tea smuggled in by the Dutch and other European traders. The rest of Europe didn't have a high tea tax (at one point there was a 25 percent tariff on all tea imported into Britain), and so could sell to the Americans cheaper. Even in Britain, smuggling was rampant, which led to the British East India Company ending up with a huge inventory of very expensive tea that they couldn't sell in the British market because they were being undercut by their (black-market) competitors. They were approaching bankruptcy as a result.

So they appealed to the British government for what we would call a "bailout" today. The government responded by slashing the tea tax, and giving the company exemptions to send their tea to the colonies, so that it could be "dumped" on the market -- cheaper than even the smugglers could sell it.

In other words, it was a case of a government saving a monopoly by manipulating the market and bailing out a company seen as "too big to fail."

The problem was that Britain was now going to actually collect the taxes in America. Previously, tea in America could be bought from Britain for something akin to $3.00 a pound, and from the smugglers for perhaps $2.10 per pound. But the new British price would have been about $2.00 per pound, meaning American consumers would have gotten a better deal.

The Americans didn't see it that way, at least the ones chucking the tea overboard in Boston Harbor. Because Britain also indicated that it was not only going to collect the taxes in America, but also crack down on anyone selling smuggled tea. In other words: buy our cheap tea, or we will close down your shoppe.

This enraged the rebels, for two reasons -- one philosophical, and one economic. Philosophically, this was a continuation of a fight where the colonists demanded that Britain had no right to tax them at all, and that only their colonial governments had that right. This is where the whole "taxation without representation" cry came from, because Americans had no members of Parliament to speak for them. There was an ongoing battle of wills between the two, and this was just one episode within this protracted struggle. In fact, when the Tea Tax was announced, the Americans had won nearly everything they had previously asked for, since at the same time, all the previous draconian tax measures levied on the Colonies had just been repealed. The Americans won nearly every concession they wanted from Parliament.

Except the Tea Tax. This was important for two reasons -- Britain wanted to retain the right to tax their colonies as they saw fit, and it also allowed them to help the British East India Company stave off bankruptcy by selling its "toxic assets" to the colonies on the cheap. But this enraged the colonials for an economic reason: they saw the tea monopoly as a threat to local merchants. Main Street businesses were afraid of a giant competitor (this was before the "big box" building style entered the scene, but parallels can be drawn nonetheless), who could always undercut them with cheaper product. So the merchant class was against it, to preserve their businesses.

So, like I said, the whole thing was complicated. It wasn't higher-priced tea that caused the ruckus, it was actually lower-priced tea -- even with the Tea Tax. And it wasn't fear of high taxes, it was fear of a crackdown on smuggling that send shockwaves through the merchants who bought the smuggled tea.

I leave it to the reader as to what comparisons to make between what happened in Boston hundreds of years ago, and what is about to happen this Wednesday.

Now, if the modern-day Tea Parties are smart, they would try to educate the public and hang their whole protest on the "anti-bailout" hook, because you can actually draw some connections between the British East India Company's woes, and what is happening on Wall Street these days. But my guess is that they'll miss this opportunity, and instead make the theme of their protest an "anti-tax" one. Most people don't know their history, and most of us (including television anchors) just remember vaguely that the Boston Tea Party was about taxes, so it must have been about paying higher taxes. In other words, they can probably get away with this historical fiction, because it is a widely-believed fiction.

But it breaks down on two key points. Unless you live in Washington, D.C., it's hard to make a case for "taxation without representation" these days (District residents do have a case to make on this front, which is why they put the phrase on their license plates as a smack in the face to every congressman who drives around D.C.). The case they're making is actually an un-democratic one, since the Republicans have badly lost the past two elections. "Taxation without representation" from a Tea Party attendee this Wednesday most likely means (when stripped of its rhetoric): "Republicans should have a veto on everything, and we're really angry that they don't." Because (again, outside D.C.), every single one of those people at these Tea Parties is indeed represented in Congress by three people -- their House member and their two Senators. That's what the American Revolution was all about, and that's the way it's been for over two hundred years. They have representation, what they don't have (any more) is a majority. But that's the way the system is supposed to work. Which they sure weren't complaining about when Republicans ran the show.

The second key point where the Tea Party argument breaks down is that -- once again -- they are actually protesting lower taxes. The only tax change President Obama has signed so far was to lower everyone's payroll tax who makes under $250,000 a year. Which is (except for the media types covering it) pretty much everyone in the Tea Party audience. They're mad as Hell and they're not going to take it any more! They're being forced -- forced! -- by the tyrannical Obama administration... to pay less taxes.

There is one segment of the population that this is not true of, however -- smokers. The only other federal tax change that has happened since Obama took office was a steep hike on cigarette taxes. So it would make a lot more sense for the protestors to be shredding cigarettes and decrying high taxes, instead of tea (which is symbolic of absolutely nothing except being a media hook to tie their protests to American history). But that wouldn't have as wide an impact, so I guess they decided to go with tea.

Protesting in modern day America is (at best) difficult and ineffective, no matter which side of the political spectrum the protests come from. So to conclude this preview of the Tea Parties, I'd like to actually offer some advice to whoever is organizing these events. I have to give them credit, as they've already got a major media network worked up about the day (Fox, which should shock exactly nobody). Getting any media to cover protests is an extremely high bar to cross. And getting them to cover your protest seriously is even harder (instead of the typical: "Oh, look -- protestors! How quaint! How cute!" or, alternatively: "Deranged anarchist mob in the streets... film at eleven" storylines these things usually get in the media). Fox is apparently going to have a day-long Tea Party of their own, which is a media platform most protests never achieve (no matter what they do).

But this gavel-to-gavel coverage comes with a danger of its own. Because most every protest attracts a fringe element to it, which usually has nothing to do with the protest subject itself. This leads to dilution of the main message, at best. At worst, it showcases some serious nut jobs who happen to agree with your protest. They weasel their way onto the stage, and rant and rave about some entirely different subject, often to the embarrassment of the protestors themselves. And the right certainly has some doozies in their tin-foil hat brigades. To be fair, so does the left. But lefties are used to this sort of thing, since they're usually the ones in the streets protesting. Righties don't go in for the popular protest much (unless American military action is somehow involved), so their philosophical "fellow travelers" aren't as generally well-known.

In other words, figure out exactly what you are against. This is already pretty muddied, other than that you hate tea. Pick a theme and stick to it rigorously. Don't let your protest be swallowed in the swamps of irrelevancy, or else your message (such as it is) will be entirely lost, and you even risk being laughed at and wind up looking like buffoons as a result.

So I caution the Tea Party folks, in the bipartisan and sympathetic spirit of celebrating the concept of protest itself (rather than agreeing with their protest's content) -- keep the raving conspiracy-theorists off the stage. If the (non-Fox) media decides to use some bit of choice lunacy as their lead soundbite, you will wind up doing your cause more harm than good.


[Full disclosure: I drank two cups of tea while writing this. Both were black, hair-on-your-chest teas, one from England and one from Ireland. I'm not aware of how much tax I paid on either one of these, sorry.]

[Research note: I couldn't find any way to work this in, but the best quote I came across while researching this was from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where (both these characters are British) the irreverent Spike saves the meek librarian Giles from certain death; and then mocks him by saying: "Did your life pass before your eyes? Cuppa tea, cuppa tea, almost got shagged, cuppa tea?" As I said, it didn't really fit in the article, but I just had to mention it for the Buffy fans out there (who are legion).]


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


5 Comments on “Tea And Sympathy”

  1. [1] 
    kevinem2 wrote:

    Nice article. Sadly, it took me back to my early childhood when my mother would serve me tea and a soft-boiled egg for breakfast (in an egg cup accompanied by toast sliced into strips so I could dip them into the egg yolk). I miss that innocence, now I just have two cups of instant coffee before noon...

  2. [2] 
    fstanley wrote:

    While I admire groups that try to be active citzens and protest unfair treatment by the government, I am often disappointed in the form that these protests often take. They seem to spend way too much time on the symbolism and not enough on actually trying to change things. They don't seem to reach the people who can make a difference and it becomes a 60 second sound bite on the news which may or may not report it as a serious story but rather turn it into a joke or silly clip.


  3. [3] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    fstanley, the teabaggers (their term!) are not grassroots. They're astroturf. And when you go to the rallies, all you meet are fringe wackos. I'm all in favor of protest, too, but this particular protest is self-parody.

  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    We are legion!

    Spike: I don't understand. This sort of thing's never happened to me before.
    Willow [timidly trying to offer comfort]: Maybe you were nervous.

    p.s. Great piece of history. Best article I've seen yet on this. Interesting parallels, but not the parallels everyone thinks.

  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    akadjian -

    I always thought Buffy was a little corny (my wife is a big fan, however), but I got drawn into it because Whedon is one of the better writers of dialog I've ever seen. And Spike was an absolute riot. Willow was no slouch either in the hilariously funny line department...

    To close this comment in the proper fashion, I of course must end with:

    Grrr! Argh!



Comments for this article are closed.