Your guide to teabagging

The right gears up for a wave of "tea parties" on Tax Day, while the left points out that the protesters might want to pick a better metaphor.


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Alex Koppelman
April 15, 2009 5:00AM (UTC)

April 15th is always everyone's least favorite holiday -- Tax Day. This year, though, conservatives have reason to be happy about it: They're holding "tea parties" all over the country, protests against taxes, government spending and the growing federal deficit. It's set to be the biggest moment so far in what, with the help of Fox News and various conservative advocacy groups and think tanks, has become a growing movement.

Since Americans unwisely gave up on loose tea years ago, the symbol of these tea parties isn't colonists dumping whole barrels of the stuff into Boston Harbor but the humble tea bag. If you happen to stop by one of the protests on Wednesday, you're likely to see a few around, and there have even been campaigns to send tea bags to members of Congress. (Given that this is the post-9/11 era, this hasn't always gone so well.)

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Problem is, the right couldn't have picked an easier symbol for opponents to mock. So as not to spoil Salon's image as a wholesome, family-friendly site, let's just say that when used as a verb, the words "tea bag" and "teabagging" have nothing to do with a hot, soothing drink. And so various liberals and lefties have reveled in poking fun at the protesters.

MSNBC personalities, especially, have gotten in on the fun. The network's Rachel Maddow, for instance -- joined by former Wonketeer Ana Marie Cox -- has spent a fair amount of time on her show recently making as many tea bag-related puns as possible, all while feigning innocence. (Video below.) Maddow's colleague David Shuster, discussing the role former Rep. Dick Armey's group Freedom Works has played in organizing the demonstrations, cracked, "if you are planning simultaneous tea bagging all around the country, you’re going to need a Dick Armey." And, of course, the liberal blogs have been all over the gag. In fact, to read the blogs, and to watch MSNBC, you'd think the only people not in the joke were the conservatives themselves.

Truth be told, though, for the most part conservatives haven't actually been using the words in such a way as to lend themselves to double entendre. With one or two exceptions, almost all of it has actually been coming from the left, which seems to have adopted the joke en masse during an earlier round of these protests back in February. After many hours of investigative journalism -- the kind that makes you wish you'd just gone to law school instead -- I think I've traced the meme's birth back to February 27th, when blogs like Instaputz and Wonkette started using it independently of one another. They were inspired by a photo that the Washington Independent's David Weigel shot of one protester carrying a sign that was, if you knew that second meaning, pretty funny: "Tea bag the liberal Dems before they tea bag you !!" (sic).

There have been other examples, as well. In a clip picked up by Maddow and "The Daily Show," Fox News reporter Griff Jenkins said demonstrators were going to "teabag the White House," and quoted one Web site that was organizing protests as saying, "Teabag the fools in D.C." The site, ReTeaParty.com, didn't seem to get the joke, but Jenkins may well have -- he seemed to be having a little fun with the whole thing, and besides, he's known for having reported from Times Square wearing nothing but a Speedo.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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