Time for another tea party?

Alex Morgan

Winning the world cup on Sunday was the second most interesting story involving the USA women’s football team last week.

The most interesting was the unlikely twitter-storm that erupted when USA striker Alex Morgan celebrated her winning semi-final goal against England by pretending to drink a cup of tea.

You might think that sounds fairly tame, but England’s players – and most of the UK tabloids – were outraged. ‘Distasteful’ and ‘disrespectful’, they fumed.

Morgan herself tried to deflect criticism with an unconvincing explanation that her celebration was linked to the expression ‘that’s the tea’, which has recently become a thing in American popular culture.

The US tabloids, however, were in no doubt what she really meant – and they loved it. ‘Not since Boston dumped it in the sea has England been dissed with tea like this’ crowed the New York Post.

To understand why such an apparently innocuous gesture should carry so much weight, you have to understand the significance of The Boston Tea Party in defining America’s national identity.

This was the night, in 1773, when colonists in Massachussets sneaked aboard an East India Company ship and tossed its cargo of tea into Boston harbour.

The colonists were furious that the East India Company was being allowed to sell tea in the American states, without paying tax – while local tea importers, who did have to pay tax, found it impossible to compete.

The British authorities responded with fierce reprisals – and many see this as the catalyst for the War of independence which followed three years later.

So Morgan’s gesture is interesting for three reasons.

First, because it reminds us how important storytelling is as a way of defining identity.

Second, because it reminds us that facts are much less important than interpretation. In this case, the actions of the colonists might be seen as heroic and defiant. Or they might also be characterised as drunken hooliganism, criminal damage and even racism (many of them were dressed as native Americans, arguably in the hope that any repercussions would fall on the already-oppressed original owners of the land they had colonised).

The third reason is because the Boston Tea Party reminds us how angry people get when they see wealthy, powerful corporations being allowed to skirt around the tax rules that apply to all their smaller and less well-connected competitors.

Something a few large American corporations (Amazon, Google, Apple) might care to reflect on when deciding how much tax they ought to pay in the United Kingdom.

That’s the thing about fairness. It’s much more fun to talk about when you’re not the bad guy.

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