Tom swallows his Pride and goes to a Tea Party

Last Saturday, as temperatures plunged into the high 80s, Tucsonans were out in droves.

There was the Pride in the Desert thing, but I wasn't invited, which is weird, because I certainly take pride in our desert. So the choice came down to heading downtown for the Tucson Meet Yourself celebration, or heading over to Hi Corbett Field to check out what the Tea Party has morphed into this week. Basically, it was a choice between my belly and the dark underbelly of local politics.

As I neared Hi Corbett Field, the traffic was horrendous. Turns out the Pride thing was being held at Reid Park, and the Tucson Unified School District was holding an event in the park as well. I had to park south of 22nd Street; during the walk to the ballpark, I told myself to be nice, that these Tea Partiers were just folks like you 'n me. (Of course, I couldn't help but think of Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles, when his character, Jim, tried to explain the hostile townspeople to the new sheriff, saying, "These are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know ... morons.")

Last time I went to a Tea Party event, I amused myself by asking all of the constitutional experts in attendance exactly how many amendments there are to the Constitution. I received answers ranging from 13 to 87, without even one person getting it right. (There are 27.) This time, I told myself that I would just observe and report, no interaction whatsoever.

So, the first sign I saw read, "Take Back Our Country." I asked the woman holding it, "Take it back from whom, exactly?" She said, "Well ..." and then she froze on me like the common clay of the new West.

Tell me, Tea Partiers, take it back from whom? From someone like me, who works and pays taxes, who has been married to the same woman for 32 years, with whom I have raised two college-educated kids who go to church every week and don't drink, smoke, use drugs or even cuss? You feel this burning need to take back the country from me simply because I vote for Democrats? Does it surprise you at all that a whole lot of normal people see you as a collection of nutbirds and haters?

It's not your country or my country; it's our country. And if you would take a break from patting yourselves on the back for being self-declared (and -defined) über-patriots, you might realize that we're more alike than different. That might not be something that would make you feel the urge to scream out loud, but in the long run, it's worth celebrating, and perhaps it's even something we can build upon.

Later, I saw a sign that read, "It's not about his race. It's about his agenda."

As for the incessant cries of racism that surround your movement, I'm still willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Just because you hold an event to which thousands of white people—and virtually no blacks—show up doesn't mean that the event or the attendees are racist.

I mean, if somebody put on a concert, and the acts included Reba McEntire, the Jonas Brothers, the Lennon Sisters, Pat Boone, Debby Boone, T. Boone Pickens and Richard (but not Karen) Carpenter, no one would scream "racism" if the crowd that showed up looked like a reunion of everybody who has ever been in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The fact that the Tea Party is an almost-exclusively white movement might elicit charges of racism, but those charges may very well be simplistic and lazy. Another explanation might be that some of the tenets of the Tea Party movement are unappealing (or even off-putting) to people of color. Take, for example, the fact that the first successful Tea Party candidate, and perhaps the biggest name in the movement, Rand Paul, thinks it should be OK for restaurant-owners to deny people service based on the color of their skin. Yeah, black people, come join our cause as we openly question whether the Civil Rights Act was good or bad for America.

Since he first made that statement, Paul has backtracked, do-si-doed, and run over his own tow line like Captain Queeg, but he has never retracted the vulgar sentiment. And a whole lot of Tea Party people nod almost imperceptibly when the subject is raised, as though there were some kind of constitutional argument that could be made were it not for the fear of being branded a racist.

Then, of course, there is one of the core beliefs of the movement—that white males are the new oppressed minority in America. Come on, admit it: You either believe that to be true right now, or you see it right around the corner. Hordes of darker folks are closing in on you as though you were a lone-wolf lawman holed up in a farmhouse in a George Romero film.

Finally, crowd-size estimates have become a point of contention these days, so I thought I'd do my part. I started counting people, but after a while, I got bored and stopped. The official Tucson Weekly crowd total for the Tea Party event: at least 143.