‘Tea Party Coloring Book’ is kiddie propaganda art

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As kids, lots of people had their first participatory art experience with coloring books. Simplified contour drawings in thick black lines leave blank spaces to be filled in with crayons or colored pencils.

Now, just in time for the November election, a small Midwest publisher has come up with a distinctive hybrid: a coloring book merged with kiddie propaganda.

‘The Tea Party Coloring Book for Kids’ is a 32-page ‘special edition’ on the right-wing political movement, produced by a division of Really Big Coloring Books Inc. The online imprint of the St. Louis-based publisher produces one other special-edition product: a 2008 coloring book on then President-elect Barack Obama.


Cheerful in tone, semi-literate in its writing and factually challenged, ‘The Tea Party Coloring Book for Kids’ offers itself as ‘a teaching and learning tool’ for children ages 2 and up.

There aren’t any drawings of tea bags suspended from sun hats, nor racist depictions of Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose. Instead, puzzles, lyrics to patriotic songs and line drawings of the Statue of Liberty, edifices in Washington and the facade of the New York Stock Exchange are interspersed with free-market-obsessed texts.

Next to a big dollar sign, ‘Freedom of Choice and Economics’ extols the ‘ability to choose your job in America’s free market.’ Bright-eyed teen doctors flank ‘Good Health Care for All Americans,’ which means private medicine ‘not restricted by federal or state governments.’ ‘No more taxes!’ is largely self-explanatory, a sentiment floating in the clouds above Mt. Rushmore.

Some of the drawings are funny. Pigs at a trough (‘pork’) look sick to their stomachs. The Mt. Rushmore presidents appear grave but worried. All of the citizens -- young or old -- wear big smiles on vacant, happy faces. Cluttered details on some of the drawings make the prospect of actual coloring dubious.

One drawing apparently cheering the virtues of agribusiness subsidies for the production of corn-based ethanol wouldn’t cause Van Gogh to lose any sleep. A composition near the end, just before the workbook section on how to write your congressman, shows a wedge formation of striding young citizens that would likely pass muster with the Kukryniksy, the Moscow art collective that rose to the rank of People’s Artist in the old USSR.

The texts are less funny. Government is ‘suppose [sic] to use our tax dollars’ wisely. Federal debt has ‘become a life style because as [sic] this will bankrupt our country.’ Run-on sentences are rife, which would have caused my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Adams, apoplexy.

But it’s the premise of the coloring book that is the real eye-roller. Inside the front cover, the unidentified author explains that the origins of today’s tea party are found in the iconic 1773 event in Boston’s harbor -- and gets the history wrong.

The coloring book casts the pre-Revolutionary War episode in full fairy-tale mode, as a dispute between freedom-loving American colonists and an oppressive, far-away government that imposed taxes without their input.

In reality, a government deal with the British East India Company, one of the first and largest transnational corporations in history, meant that small businesses in the Colonies were going under because they could not compete. The Boston Tea Party was a popular uprising against big corporate tax cuts enacted by the British Parliament, many of whose members were, like King George III, major company stockholders.

Speaking of deals, in 2004, Really Big Coloring Books entered into a partnership with MeadWestvaco Corp. to print and distribute its product line, an arrangement expanded in 2008 and now including the ‘Tea Party’ tome. A business with global interests in packaging, office products, chemicals and real estate in 30 countries, the company also has an active political action committee based in Richmond, Va.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, MeadWestvaco’s PAC has spent more than $95,000 in the current election cycle on contributions to 17 House and nine Senate candidates, 91% Republicans. In May, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led a forum at MeadWestvaco’s Richmond offices calling for repeal of healthcare legislation passed this year by Congress.

A report by Britain’s Guardian newspaper says the coloring book, which retails for $3.95, has sold in the thousands. It is being reprinted daily, presumably without corrections, to keep up with demand.

-- Christopher Knight


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