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When is a tea party not a tea party?

Political movement is complicating marketing of actual beverage

By Rex W. Huppke, Tribune reporter
8:58 p.m. CST, March 7, 2010

On a trip to China in 2006, Tony Gebely fell in love with tea, both the drink and the ceremony of enjoying a calm cup. Embracing his passion, the Chicagoan recently launched an online tea business but has already run into unexpected problems making sure his chicagoteagarden.com site gets noticed on the Web.

"When I look at search engine results for ‘Chicago tea,' I find a whole bunch of Chicago tea party movement sites," Gebely said. "There are a few tea places and then all this political stuff. It's pretty annoying."

Purveyors of fine tea and tea enthusiasts in general find themselves steeped in a linguistic shift, their beloved beverage now associated with a conservative political movement routinely praised or pilloried on talk radio and cable news shows. The tea party movement's name, a reference to the tax protests that led to the Revolutionary War, has nothing, really, to do with tea. But that doesn't seem to matter.

"I certainly can see and have seen some confusion with regard to the name they've chosen for their movement," said Dan Robertson, owner of The Tea House in Naperville, a major tea distributor. "When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can sell them some tea.' Then I realized that probably wasn't going to happen."

He said he recently sent tea samples to a prospective client in Memphis, who is starting a business called The Memphis Tea Party. He searched that on Google and came up with nothing but news of political rallies and links to the actual Memphis tea party organization.

"Clearly that name is going to cause some confusion," Robertson said.

Gregory Ward, a professor of linguistics at Northwestern University, said that if the tea party movement continues to be a presence in the media it could permanently change what we associate with the term "tea party."

"A social movement can certainly trump the original use of a term," Ward said. "If the movement has any lasting power, then it will become the primary use. That was the case with the word ‘gay.' When ‘gay' first came on the horizon as a sort of nonclinical term for homosexual, the response among many non-gay people was, ‘Now there goes a perfectly innocent word being co-opted by militant homosexuals for their own use.' But clearly the gay rights movement won out."

And Ward predicts that businesses as innocent as the American Girl Place doll store — which hosts afternoon tea parties for children and their dolls — might end up renaming their events.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see a place like American Girl start avoiding the term ‘tea party,' even though we know the tea party from England, the afternoon tea have nothing to do with the political movement. My prediction would be we're going to find a replacement for that social event, if the political movement continues."

That certainly wouldn't bother Steve Stevlic, coordinator of Tea Party Patriots Chicago. He sees confusion over "tea party," the event, and "tea party," the movement, as evidence of the movement's success.

"I think what we're doing is resonating," Stevlic said. "I think it also signifies that it is, in fact, a movement. It's gone from just having a few thousand people taking to the streets last year to millions of people participating in and supporting tea parties. It's been just a meteoric rise."

So fast, in fact, that in its early stages it managed to catch at least one longtime tea connoisseur off-guard.

Pearl Dexter, editor of Tea: A Magazine, was invited to a tea party meeting last year in Connecticut, where her magazine is based. She showed up with several copies of the magazine, including one that had an image of newly inaugurated President Barack Obama on the cover.

"When I started to read the information they had there, I thought, ‘Well, this is not going to be for me,'" Dexter said. "And it was very clear when they saw the magazine cover with President Obama on it that they had changed their minds about me as well."

Of course not all tea partiers would clash with the tea party.

Don Shapiro has gone to afternoon teas in Chicago for about 25 years, savoring the serenity and civility of the tradition.

"I am a tea enthusiast and I have been for years, and lately I've been embracing some of the ideas behind the tea party movement," said Shapiro, who can be found almost weekly sipping a vanilla black tea at the Four Seasons. "I'm personally dissatisfied with the way government is running in the past year or so. and I think things need to be shaken up a bit."

Shapiro and many others in tea circles admit that the juxtaposition between the often rowdy media images of political tea partiers and the serene images of whole-leaf-organic-tea tea partiers reveals an unmistakable dissonance.

Sipping a cup of king-grade Tie Guan Yin tea in his Naperville shop, Robertson, the tea importer, took a politically neutral stance on the movement. He did, however, wonder whether tea party members might be calmer if they drank something better than tea made with the cheap tea bags they hoist at protests and mail off to politicians.

"I worry that they're drinking bad tea," Robertson said. "They don't know how to relax. If you just sit back and have a good cup of tea and talk, things tend to work out."

rhuppke@tribune.com


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Added: Mar-8-2010 Occurred On: Mar-7-2010
By: gregory_peckory
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Tags: tea party, marketing, tea,
Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States (load item map)
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