The Fatal Difference
As the Occupy Wall Street movement drags on, and law enforcement agencies make the foolish but predictable decision to respond to its persistence with violence, a fundamental contradiction begins to make itself known in our political lives.
It has always been a basic assumption of even the most partisan political disagreements that one’s opponent comes by their opposition honestly. No matter how much disagreement there may be between leftists, who believe the government has a responsibility to help citizens in need, and rightists, who believe the government’s role is minimal and largely consists of staying out of the way, civil life demands that we believe each side truly believes in a genuine philosophical position, and we accept on good faith the arguments that are made in favor of that position.
The question of whether or not it helps the economy in hard times to increase taxes on the wealthy, for example, or the general efficacy of deregulation: no matter how settled I think these questions may be, no matter how far back I can cite the historical record, I must allow myself to believe that those who disagree do so out of an honest interpretation of an opposing, but legitimate, alternative view of economics. Opposing opinions on the value of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, too — indeed, the whole idea of an aggressive and belligerent foreign policy as opposed to cooperative or isolationist ones — must be taken at face value if the all-important common ground, the cornerstone of political progress, is to be found. Even obviously self-serving attempts to line up the facts in a partisan way is acceptable, provided we can all agree on what the facts are. The belief in good faith is as essential to democracy as voting, and while we may forgive our political opponents for ignorance, we must not suspect them of deception.
What has emerged in the last 20 years or so, in conjunction with (if not because of) the rise of new media and the deepening of political division, is something different — not new, but ugly and old. It is an argumentation based on deliberate falsehood and distortion, which is not politics, but propaganda. And propaganda is not a tool of civil society; it is an instrument of war.
More and more, the rhetoric and argument that has crept in from the fringes of the right wing to its political mainstream is based on intentional lies and group slander, of the sort found in the language of eliminationism. The goal of this type of language is not to win a political debate, or to shape policy; it is to dehumanize the very possession of an alternative viewpoint, to wage war against entire groups of people, to not just defeat an opponent’s argument but to drive it from the face of the Earth. There is precious little difference between the characterization of the entire political left as an agglomeration of thugs, crypto-Soviets, race-baiters, terrorist sympathizers and hippie freeloaders and the Soviet view of capitalists, backsliders and kulaks, or the Nazi cartoons of Jews as parasites and wreckers. None of these arguments are about politics, and their presumptions are not based on practical analysis of policies and results, but on apocalyptic pronouncements of ruination and evil. They are, at heart, moral and existential judgements, not political arguments, and this makes them extremely dangerous.
And perhaps the most dangerous thing about them is their increasing frequency in mainstream political discourse. With unemployment at near-record highs and unprecedented lengths, the get-a-job hoots — nonsensical but a real crowdpleaser with the right-wing crazies — continue to ring out despite their obvious absurdity. Anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to the news knows that jobs are scarce and joblessness is at record highs. (Particularly egregious is the vituperation directed at people collecting unemployment insurance, who are not only being repaid money already put into the system, but who are, by definition, blameless; in almost all circumstances, you cannot collect UI if you quit or were fired for cause.) And yet it begins to be heard, not just from the amateur busybodies in comment sections and blogs, but from mainstream, legitimate candidates like Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain. Almost every leading Republican has repeated the malicious lie that the majority of poor and working-class people do not pay taxes; this is beyond a partisan interpretation and into the realm of a deliberate and harmful untruth designed to paint huge segments of struggling Americans as leeches and scum. It’s a falsehood that has no place in legitimate political discourse, but it has come out of the mouth of GOP heir apparent Mitt Romney on several occasions, though he surely knows it is a lie.
The most curious thing is the reversal taking place, and how easily it is accepted: liberals and Democrats are the ones who are called radical socialists, wreckers of the social fabric, usurpers of the Constitution, and Occupy Wall Street Protesters termed dangerous lunatics seeking the destruction of our sacred institutions. And yet, outside of a few fringe types, the Democratic party could not be more mainstream and moderate, and the OWS crowd’s demands — for jobs, for government aid to stimulate the economy during a lengthy and profound slump, for more responsibility and accountability from fearsomely powerful institutions — are hardly those of the Supreme Soviet. It is from mainstream Republicans that the truly radical proposals stem, and they could not be more open about it: Newt Gingrich calls for our only national retirement program to be dismantled. Rick Perry demands the wholesale elimination of government departments charged with vital roles — at least, the ones he can remember. Grover Norquist has politicians sign pledges to take part in the murder of the entire concept of public governance. Every major candidate speaks of a return to the time of robber barons and Edwardian poverty — and it is those who oppose such mad notions who are called out of touch with the mainstream.
The inevitable upshot of talking about your political opponents as if they are immoral, inhuman, and unwanted is that you begin treating them the same way. I have spoken elsewhere about the need, and even the desirability, of forcing law enforcement into a confrontational position, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy watching the ugly, ’60s-style brutality unleashed on OWS participants in the last few weeks. It’s bad enough to see protestors gassed, beaten and shot at, but it’s absolutely galling to hear the victims referred to as the threats. At the now-infamous UC-Davis incident, the chief of the campus police made the claim that her officers felt “threatened” by the peaceful student protestors, who gave them “no way out”; even a cursory glance at photographs and video footage of the incident shows what an utter fantasy this is. And, lest this be thought of as an aberration, it’s become increasingly clear that this is the officially sanctioned response: media blackouts have been an integral part of the anti-OWS crackdown, as if the press keeping tabs on the tactics used by police to break up harmless protests is itself a crime to be prevented, and the Department of Homeland Security — itself a grotesque partisan power grab in response to an exaggerated existential threat — has coordinated local responses, making it perfectly clear what side the federal government is on. Governments calling upon law enforcement to shut down peaceful expressions of popular sentiment is never a good thing, but the fact that thousands of OWS activists have gone to jail while not a single one of the multimillionaires responsible for the current economic crisis has even been charged with a crime ought to be a national disgrace. (It’s particularly ironic timing, since both the federal government and many conservatives, have loudly deplored the use of similar tactics against pro-democracy protestors in Egypt. Freedom abroad and repression at home is not a policy to be proud of.)
The difference between politics and propaganda is that one is based on a disagreement, and the other is based on a lie. One is an instrument of policy, and the other is a weapon of war. And while the outcome of politics can be unpredictable, the outcome of propaganda never is: it can, and will, only ever end with a dead body, who will immediately be declared an enemy of the state. The kind of eliminationist rhetoric being employed by even the highest levels of the right — against people whose only crime is to be victims of a painful economic downturn — is the kind that inevitably leads to the kind of violence we are beginning, and hopefully not only beginning, to see. Our sympathies do not belong with the police, or with the government, or with the bankers and financiers; they belong with their victims. And yet we hear Ann Coulter speaking in a positive way about the Kent State killings, suggesting that a few state-sponsored murders would put an end to the protests that so irritate her. She will surely make this out to be a joke, but Kent State was and is a shameful moment in our history, and it is difficult to fathom the kind of mind who finds anything funny about theoretical democide against the poor.
If this is the message the right wants us to hear — that they hold the power, that they consider the police and the wealthy they protect our proper rulers by simple possession of power, and that they feel that any dissent, however peaceful, against the exercise of the rule by divine right of wealth is an act of treason to be punished by a swift and powerful blow — then they are telling us the kind of world they believe we are living in, and I hope we have the courage and the strength to respond in kind. But if they truly believe in democracy as anything other than a convenient farce they must play to get their hands on the levers of power, then it’s about time they back off the propaganda and start speaking as if their opponents were living human beings.