Like people everywhere, Tea Party adherents have mostly got their own history wrong. What people generally seem to do is absorb bits and pieces of history, such as a name-Paul Revere, or the Titanic, and hang onto it along with the simplest outlines of the story. Paul Revere rode a horse in Massachusetts proclaiming the British are coming! The Titanic, of course, sank. It’s storybook stuff, appealing to first graders who are probably also learning to make feather hats out of colored construction paper for Thanksgiving.
These days, the Tea Party is not so much in the news as in the House, with a grip on American society they would not have if not for cheating (gerrymandering) and enormous financial support (the Koch brothers). It seems like ancient history when then-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, ever-folky Alaskan in expensive shoes, infamously said two years ago that Paul Revere “warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms.” She went on to say that there were British soldiers in the area for years before Revere’s legendary ride, and that he was warning them, as well as his fellow colonists.
“Part of his ride was to warn the British that were already there that ‘hey, you’re not going to take American arms, you are not going to beat our own well-armed persons individual private militia that we have.’” (On April 18, 1775, a man named Dr. Joseph Warren told Paul Revere to ride to Lexington, Mass., to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were marching to arrest them.)
Aside from the Tea Party conservatives who loved her, the American public reeled at Palin’s comments – the Tea Party itself deriving its pseudo-historical name from the eighteenth century and all that the Revolutionary Era supposedly stood for. Yet what is distilled in popular memory but that Paul Revere “warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms,” along with some gobbledegook about the Second Amendment (I think): “you are not going to beat our own well-armed persons individual private militia that we have.” Huh?
To be fair, the Second Amendment is rather inscrutable, its language belonging to the late eighteenth century in the same way, say, that William Shakespeare belongs to the sixteenth. (The most recent interpretation of this amendment (Heller v. DC), which emphasized the individual right to bear arms, is, really just that: the most recent interpretation. Supreme Court judges are human, and law, like history, is ultimately subjective because it cannot be separated either from a person’s values, or the era in which it is written.)
And yet, it’s important to at least try to get history right, especially if you’re going to use it to justify your actions and values today. Second Amendment ideologues – and especially the silent gun makers behind them, so many of whom are Austrian and Italian – would turn modern America into that other great American mythic place, the Old West. Yet if this were the 1870s, “and the NRA was convening in Dodge City [instead of Houston, Texas, where it is meeting this weekend], members would be required to check their guns at the city limits.”
In Houston this weekend, gun-toting Americans in thrall to an idealized past they know nothing about, will be allowed to carry their weapons into town.