Conservatives Debate: Is ‘Teabagger’ Their ‘N-Word’?

December 3, 2009 1:11 pm

In the latest issue of National Review, Jay Nordlinger details the history of ‘teabagging’ and reports on the conservative debate about what to do about it. But it’s not what you think — no, really, it’s not what you think.

Nordlinger’s article isn’t about tea bagging in the fun sense, nor is it about the long-term effects on the GOP from teabagging in the tri-corn hat-and-time-on-your-hands sense. Rather, it’s the story of how conservatives are trying to fix the mess they made when they first decided to call for the “teabagging” of Nancy Pelosi with a straight face.The key moment in the early history of the tea party movement, described by Nordlinger in his article Rise of an Epithet:

The first big day for this movement was Tax Day, April 15. And organizers had a gimmick. They asked people to send a tea bag to the Oval Office. One of the exhortations was “Tea Bag the Fools in D.C.” A protester was spotted with a sign saying, “Tea Bag the Liberal Dems Before They Tea Bag You.” So, conservatives started it: started with this terminology. But others ran with it and ran with it.

The article then goes through the sophomoric early days of ‘teabagging’ among progressives — the collective “Teabaggers, eh? Well, if you insist…” from knowledgeable snarkers on the left. The lesson: if you want serious coverage of your new political movement, it’s probably best not to give your first call to action the same as a sex act. Don’t expect that the press (or your opponents) will take the high road. By the end of that first era of the tea partier, Nordlinger writes, conservatives were embarrassed and liberals were still laughing:

Some on the right are using “teabagger,” but mainly the word is a putdown from the left. Conservatives realize that nothing friendly is meant by it. You can tell by tone and context, for one thing.

You might think that would be the end — it would be completely understandable if tea partiers just decided to pretend the whole “teabagging” thing never happened and never, ever discussed it again. Let’s just call it a rookie mistake, right?


As Nordlinger reports, conservatives are now debating whether to embrace the “teabagger” epithet as a kind of badge of honor, “like ‘Christian'” or…well, how about we let him explain it:

When I was growing up, in Ann Arbor, Mich., there was a little debate: Should school officials try to prevent black students from using the N-word? I don’t believe the issue was ever settled. And this brings up the question of whether “teabagger” could be kind of a conservative N-word: to be used in the family, but radioactive outside the family.

In the end, though, Nordlinger decides this is probably a bad idea — or at least an unworkable one:

[I]t may well be too late to purge “teabagger” from our discourse, certainly from discourse controlled by liberals. But I’m for giving it a try: for running “teabagger” out of town, even at this late date. It is really a lowdown term. “Tea partier” is a neutral term. “Tea-party patriots” is a positive term, used by some of the protesters themselves. “Teabagger” — not so positive, and not so neutral.

Late Update: Washington Independent‘s Dave Weigel fact-checks Nordlinger, and finds that his recollection of tea partier history is a bit off. The first mention of “teabagging” came on Feb. 27, Weigel writes, not on April 15.

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