Magazine December 7, 2009, Issue

Rise of an Epithet

‘Teabagger’ and what to do

To “teabag” or not to “teabag”: That is not the most pressing question of these times, but it is a question to consider. Routinely, conservative protesters in the “tea party” movement are called “teabaggers,” and those calling them that do not mean it in a nice way. Many conservatives are mulling what to do about this term: fight it, embrace it, what?

First, a little history. After Barack Obama was sworn in as president, with his big majorities in Congress, the Democrats launched quite a bit of federal spending: particularly with the “stimulus” package. Some Americans were determined to counter this. And, before you knew it, we had the “tea party” movement. What protesters were doing, of course, was invoking the spirit of the American Revolutionaries, and their Boston Tea Party. According to the website of the Tea Party Patriots, the movement is committed to three “core values”: fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets.

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.

I have no doubt you are sexually hip, but just in case you’re not, please know that “teabag” has a particular meaning in certain circles. In order to have a discussion of our general topic, we must be aware of that meaning, and I call on the Source of All Knowledge, Wikipedia: “‘Teabagging’ is a slang term for the act of a man placing his scrotum in the mouth or on or around the face (including the top of the head) of another person, often in a repeated in-and-out motion as in irrumatio. The practice resembles dipping a tea bag into a cup of tea.” I could quote you more, but you have had enough.

The liberal media, to use a convenient tag, went after the protesters with glee. Take Anderson Cooper, the acclaimed anchorman for CNN. He was interviewing David Gergen, the political pundit. And Gergen was saying that, after two very bad elections, conservatives and Republicans were “searching for their voice.” Cooper responded, “It’s hard to talk when you’re teabagging.” He said this with a smirk.

MSNBC had an outright field day. Rachel Maddow and a guest of hers, Ana Marie Cox, made teabag jokes to each other for minutes on end: having great, chortling fun at the conservatives’ expense. And here is the performance of another host, David Shuster:

“For most Americans, Wednesday, April 15, will be Tax Day, but . . . it’s going to be Teabagging Day for the right wing, and they’re going nuts for it. Thousands of them whipped out the festivities early this past weekend, and while the parties are officially toothless, the teabaggers are full-throated about their goals. They want to give President Obama a strong tongue-lashing and lick government spending.”

Shuster went on to say that Fox News personalities were “looking forward to an up-close-and-personal taste of teabagging.” Etc., etc., etc. All the while, MSNBC was picturing Republican figures, and the following words were on the screen: “TEABAG MOUTHPIECES.”

Ma and Pa America may not have been in on the joke, but plenty of other people were. On HBO, the lefty comedian Bill Maher commented, “When the year started, ‘teabagging’ was a phrase that referred to dangling one’s testicles in someone else’s face.” And the tea-party protesters “managed to turn it into something gross and ridiculous.” Tuh-dum.

After Cooper and the others smirked about “teabagging,” the word went utterly mainstream — although you could say that, if Cooper used it, it started mainstream: because how much more mainstream can you get than a CNN anchor? On ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, E. J. Dionne, the liberal columnist, spoke of “a right-wing candidate supported by the teabaggers.” The host himself, Stephanopoulos, followed suit. On PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, senior correspondent Gwen Ifill used “teabaggers” as well. At the New York Times, Paul Krugman used it in a column. Elsewhere, Roger Ebert used it in a movie review. And so on.

Some politicians — Democrats — have talked about “teabagging” and “teabaggers” too. And that includes the biggest Democratic politicians of them all. Recently, both President Obama and former president Bill Clinton spoke to congressional Democrats behind closed doors. They were giving pep talks on health-care legislation. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse reported Clinton as saying, “The reason the teabaggers are so inflamed is because we are winning.” Rep. Earl Blumenauer reported Obama as saying, “Does anybody think that the teabag, anti-government people are going to support them if they bring down health care?”

It will be interesting to see whether the president — or Bill Clinton, for that matter — ever uses “teabag” and the like in public. And if not, why not?

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. (Or is that two things?) Of course, some people use “teabagger” in innocence — unaware of any vulgar connotation. One such person is, or was, Gwen Ifill. Some of her NewsHour viewers wrote to complain. And Ifill later said, “Turns out I am the only person with access to email who never knew this was a term with a sexual meaning. I used it in an offhand manner as a shorthand referring to the ‘tea party’ movement. It was a slip I was unaware of, and I regret it.”

Now to the question of what to do. How should conservatives handle this matter? Should we challenge the language, let it slide, adopt it? Many conservatives — most, I would say — are of a mind to fight. According to this point of view, people who use “teabagger” and such should be called on it, especially if they smirk. “What do you mean by that?” one might ask. “What do you mean by ‘teabagger,’ and why do you smirk?” In other words, conservatives want to introduce a little shame. And the responses of liberals could be kind of interesting.

I myself have enjoyed “calling out” opponents in debate — not on “teabagger” (no opportunity yet), but on other words. “Neocon,” for example. “What do you mean by ‘neocon’?” I’ll say. “What’s a ‘neocon’?” Also “Zionist”: “What do you mean by ‘Zionist’? What’s a Zionist, in your mind?” These words have real meanings, but often people don’t know them. They just mean them as putdowns.

Some conservatives are happy to embrace “teabagger,” or are at least willing to do so. They are “owning the insult,” which is to say, taking what is intended as a slur and wearing it proudly. There are many words and names in our vocabulary that started out as slurs and became something else. Several of these words and names are found in religion — “Christian,” for example. According to a Bible dictionary, this was “the name given by the Greeks or Romans, probably in reproach, to the followers of Jesus.” Soon enough, it “was universally accepted.” “Jesuit” had a defamatory beginning. Same with “Methodist,” “Unitarian,” “Quaker,” and “Shaker.” (You can sort of tell with those last two, can’t you?)

We have had this phenomenon in politics, too. “Tory” and “Whig” were putdowns when they originated, and so was “neoconservative.” (All things are new again, I guess.) “Yankee Doodle” was none too nice. That second word probably relates to the male organ. In the world of art, “Impressionist” was a putdown directed at those who painted rather gauzily or suggestively, rather than accurately. But no one today would consider Monet defamed if called an Impressionist.

What about a special case — the worst word in American English, as some of us see it, namely the N-word? 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.

We grant that one can always look at things too literally, or too etymologically. In 1998, a major Clinton foe, Rep. Dan Burton (R., Ind.), called the president a “scumbag.” The same year, Sen. Al D’Amato (R., N.Y.), running for reelection, called his opponent — Rep. Charles Schumer — a “putzhead.” Many in the media were careful to explain to people that Burton had called Clinton a “used condom,” and that D’Amato, borrowing from Yiddish, had called Schumer a “penis head.” (Always with the penis.) But did Burton and D’Amato mean those words in quite those senses?

In any event, it 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.

It could well be that liberals at large are recognizing this too. In a discussion at Slate, the online magazine, Sam Tanenhaus wrote, “Even today the right insists it is driven by ideas, even if the leading thinkers are now Limbaugh and Beck, and the shock troops are tea-baggers and anti-tax demonstrators.” As he told me, he subsequently learned that “teabagger” had this vulgar meaning, and was used as a pejorative. So he changed his text to “tea-partiers”: “tea-partiers and anti-tax demonstrators.” Much better, don’t you think?

 

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