Monday, June 27, 2011

The worst people in the world, then and now

Because I'm nothing if not eager to brood resentfully about the past, I've been thinking back, recently, on the aftermath of the Jared Lee Loughner mass shooting in Arizona. (See my previous remarks here.) It's impressive how quickly that seems to have gone down the memory hole once the accumulation of actual information about Loughner and his motives meant that the  “anti-government nut driven to mass murder by those horrid people saying mean things about Democrats” fantasy so many media figures and rank-and-file progressives were luxuriating in was no longer tenable. So frustrating, when reality interrupts a good wet dream that way.

After I published this post last November, I had started to wonder if I'd been overly harsh when I'd referred to the mainstream Left's "fascistic true colors" and described its predominant attitude towards dissent as “berserk, hysterical rage and hatred.” That was then. Now I'm just wondering why I beat around the bush with that milquetoast "-ic" suffix. Many rank-and-file progressives no doubt mean well and would recoil from things they currently accept or support if they fully understood them- but, to paraphrase what I said in that post, a successful statist ideology needs to be good at making sure it isn't understood too well.

The response to the Jared Loughner shooting didn't show me anything that I didn't, at least in broad outlines,already know.  The frenzied, triumphant eruption of demonisation and hatred directed by so many liberal commentators, politicians, and everyday folks at anyone with an unkind word to say about Obama, Democrats, or the sacred federal government after the Loughner shooting, before anyone had gone through the formality of actually finding out what the shooter's motives were was the natural evolution of liberal/centrist discourse, and the message is what it always was: Shut up. It has been readily apparent for some time that mainline left-liberal opinion-makers and political figures consider any meaningful dissent to be utterly beyond the pale. If you're on board with the existing state and its continued expansion and want to suggest some tweaks while you're submitting, that's fine, and that's as far as legitimate, responsible “differences” can go. That's been the consistent pattern since Obama took office; at a (usually) less hysterical/gleeful level it's been an ongoing theme in American politics for at least half a century.

(All three of those links are to articles by Jesse Walker that I recommend very highly.)

When attempts to use the Jared Loughner shooting to demonize dissenters into silence were at fever pitch, some people rebutted that all this liberal caterwauling about “civility” and right-wing “hate” was grossly hypocritical in light of the sort of things many liberals were saying during the Bush years. That's true enough, but it wrongly implies the existence of some radical discontinuity between the Bush era and the years preceding it.

I came of political age in the Clinton years, and- unlike the significant percentage of the population that was apparently sent into some sort of amnesiac fugue state by the shock of 9/11- I remember them.  As much as the state of pro-war conservative rhetoric during the George W. Bush years repelled me, liberal complaints about being called “anti-American” or the like were always ridiculous to me. I certainly agree that the accusation was rarely if ever true, and that a large proportion of right-wing political speech after 9/11 consisted of shrill, hysterical insults based on nothing but the fact that you had the temerity to disagree about the war in Iraq or the PATRIOT Act or whatever. I was subjected to it myself on more than one occasion.

(There was the time I was accused of wanting "Islamo-Fascists" to conquer America, have women stoned to death, outlaw liquor, and send everyone to gas chambers, for instance.)

But to have taken liberal outrage over the likes of David Horowitz calling people “traitors” or “America-hating” seriously,  I'd have to have believed that relentlessly  accusing people of being cruel, heartless, greedy, selfish, hate-filled, fascist, racist, misogynistic, violent, or dangerous for daring to disagree with you is just fine, but that calling someone unpatriotic is somehow beyond the pale. I would have to forget the militia scare, when people with much louder megaphones than the likes of Ann Coulter were talking about the ominous, dangerous “extremism” of folks like me, who didn't like the vast power wielded by the national government or thought that things like the government-instigated bloodbath at Waco or the cold-blooded murder of Vicki Weaver were worth being mad about. I'd have to imagine that the shocked, hysterical whining of a spoiled bully outraged to discover that someone was actually willing and able to hit him back somehow deserved my respect.

I also think the extent to which the political Left got nastier during the Bush years is somewhat exaggerated- they were quite fierce, certainly, but the previous baseline was already quite high. There was a genuine increase in liberal acrimony, but the chief difference is that the most hated opponents of liberals during the Clinton years were a more diffuse target, and after a while liberal demonisation of them became the political equivalent of white noise from an air conditioner- loud, but so uniform that after a while you stop consciously noticing it unless you specifically decide to think about it. The Bush administration provided conspicuous specific personalities like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney who drew much more concentrated and thus more attention-grabbing hostility. It's like replacing four 50-watt light bulbs lighting a room with two 50-watt light bulbs lighting a room and a 100-watt laser burning someone's face off- getting attention isn't just a matter of raw output.

More importantly, however,the Bush era is much less revealing than the state of liberal and centrist rhetoric after Bush, during the same period when critics of the Obama administration were supposedly being whipped into a murderous rage by antigovernment rhetoric and the ensorcerelled bullseyes on Sarah Palin's evil hypno-map. What has characterized the speech of the Left and the "vital center"? For fairness' sake, let's limit it to mainstream figures and publications.

Mindless, reflexive, sweeping condemnations of dissent as "racism." A litany of accusations that people who oppose a government takeover of healthcare are insurance industry shills and/or causing the deaths of hordes of fellow Americans out of sheer greed or callousness, . Blaming opponents of the new administration for inciting the "murder" of a government employee that, awkwardly, turned out to have never taken place. Comparisons of people at peaceful rallies to StalinDescription of the Tea Party movement as "small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht." An apparent Jack Chick-like inability to even conceive of someone who's heard their program and yet rejects it for reasons other than bigotry, greed, or sheer wickedness.

Declaring criticism of or opposition to liberal politicians, their polices, or the power of the federal government to be sedition- that is to say, criminal.

And, of course, a seemingly endless series of claims that widespread, significant opposition to Obama's policies represent some sort of rising tide of "fascism" or sinister "extremism" that threatens an imminent explosion of violence. Calling actual, significant expansions of government power instigated and controlled by people who actually hold power "fascism" is absurd, paranoid, extremist, and irresponsible, whereas calling peaceful political speech by private citizens opposed to such expansion of state power "fascism" or "terrorism"is perfectly reasonable.  This is probably where liberal hypocrisy about "civility" is most glaring- if anti-Obama groups ever managed to pull off something half as disruptive and noisy as the liberal response to Scott Walker's attempts to weaken government employee unions in Wisconsin,  they'd probably be screaming for the President to declare martial law.The overwrought hysteria and terror so many liberals in the media and government display at the prospect of non-liberals daring to actually organize and protest would be hilarious if it weren't so  ominous.

In fact, in my experience liberal commentators have been far more vitriolic and eager to demonize opposition since Bush left office than while he was in it. Even if you don't share my assessment that it's actually gotten worse, it's still rather curious considering what it's in response to.

During the Bush administration, Bush and other Republicans (and many Democrats, like Obama's current Secretary of State) launched a pointless, costly, devastating and highly controversial war due to what was at best terrible judgment and at worst consciously perpetrated fraud, severely attacked civil liberties, and assumed office through an extremely controversial election victory that many liberals considered fraudulent or corrupt. Whatever  else I may say about liberal discourse during the Bush years, which rarely dared to question liberal statism and put too much emphasis on a few figures like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney while giving short shrift to the decades of accumulated precedents leading up to them, the sheer fury directed towards men like Bush made sense given the situation.

(If not always the reasons for it- in terms of the animosity it generated, Bush's failure to speak with a proper General American Walter Cronkite accent was probably worth at least a few tens of thousands of dead Iraqis.)

The targets of liberal ire during the Obama administration, on the other hand, have been rather less accomplished. Criticism of federal spending has become fiercer and more common than it was during the Bush years.  Republican congressmen- some of whom are apparently under the impression that winning the Presidential election only gives the winner the powers of a President and not a Roman dictator- wouldn't vote for Obamacare, causing it to be passed slightly later then would have otherwise been the case. There's a cable network with programming that often portrays President Obama and other Democrats in a hostile light, and many talk radio shows do likewise. Non-liberals have had the temerity to hold peaceful public rallies, lawfully exercise their right to bear arms in public, and even mouth off to their betters during what were supposed to be carefully managed propaganda events.

Even if you don't approve of these things, they still seem rather unimpressive compared to the reasons for liberals to be angry during the Bush years, and yet they produce at least as much rage and loathing as the outrages of the Bush administration. The sheer scale of it has certainly grown since the Bush years, from something directed predominantly at relatively prominent, influential figures such as politicians and media personalities to a more democratized sort of  demonisation of far larger groups of people.

The mere existence of significant, outspoken dissent against liberal domestic politics- dissent which was ultimately unsuccessful, since it didn't stop the Democratic majority in both houses of Congress at that time from passing the health care bill, or the bailout of the automobile industry and its associated unions, or hundreds of billions of dollars in “stimulus” spending- provokes at least as much rage and loathing as a pointless war that has killed hundreds of thousands of foreigners and thousands of Americans, the squandering of hundreds of billions of dollars and much of America's international reputation, all sorts of outrageous attacks against civil liberties and due process, and a possibly stolen election.  During the Bush years- and still today,  occasionally- some liberals, usually those of a more radical sort, advocated prosecuting Bush as a war criminal for starting a war of aggression that killed thousands. Now we've got mainstream liberal figures and publications like The Nation talking about prosecuting people for criticizing politicians.

I used to find this counterintuitive. I no longer do.  For all the condemnation he received, George W. Bush was never a threat to liberalism/progressivism's core principles.

The near-total evaporation of the anti-war movement has been remarked upon many times, so I won't belabor it here. In addition to that, I would remind everybody that  President Bill Clinton's enforcement of UN sanctions against Iraq during his 8 years in office killed  hundreds of thousands of people.  Aside from libertarians, some paleoconservatives, and the sort of leftists who probably find Democratic Party fund-raising letters in their mail and think “I should see if my parakeet's cage needs to be cleaned,” most people didn't care much. Stacks of dead foreigners simply aren't that big an issue.

Bush's attacks on civil liberties and due process at home drew plenty of heat while he was in office. There are still outspoken people on the Left, such as Glenn Greenwald, who haven't let up on the issue.  As we've seen since Obama took office, however, most liberals treat those issues as at best a minor sideshow when a Democrat is in the White House. They don't necessarily like or advocate them- I'm sure many devoted liberals would, all else equal, prefer it if the government wasn't claiming the right to assassinate American citizens at will or groping children's pubic regions at airports- but things that Bush was excoriated for, or would have been if he had actually dared to do them, barely register now.

And of course, there's no shortage of  liberals who will actually defend these things. (Or, more cleverly, claim nominal disapproval and them and go on the attack against people who demonstrate actual disapproval, a la Mark Ames and Yasha Levine.) If there is an assault on people's freedom, privacy, or dignity so grotesque that large numbers of liberals won't rally to defend it, it has yet to be discovered.

The most conspicuously objectionable things Bush did simply aren't things most mainstream liberals actually oppose all that strongly, if at all.The lie that Bush was some sort of radical free-marketeer has become firmly established now,  but when he was in office Bush barely even pretended to have interests in that direction. He was a “compassionate conservative,” not one of those scary anti-government types; he had disputes with liberals about the precise implementation of the welfare and regulatory state, and about the specific areas and rate of its future expansion, but he didn't even pretend to take the anti-statist rhetoric of the Clinton era seriously.

And here we run into a striking difference between Bush and the sort of people that some of the folks at America's oldest and most venerable journal of left-of-center political opinion wants imprisoned for sedition. The tea party movement defines itself by its hostility to domestic statism, or at least economic statism. Many politicians who've associated themselves with it are no doubt just opportunists, and many rank-and-file supporters are no doubt not terribly consistent. Still, I think there clearly is a lot of genuine hostility to domestic statism in the movement, though I remain cautiously pessimistic about the prospects of any long-term effects.

(My default stance is to assume that any seemingly positive development is either a mistake, a trick, or unstoppably careening towards a catastrophic plunge over the side of an unseen cliff, so “cautiously pessimistic” is actually fairly high praise.)

In any case, their harshest detractors usually seem to consider them a genuine menace to the modern welfare/regulatory/cronyist state. Unlike George W. Bush, the Tea Party movement is avowedly hostile to liberal principles that, unlike privacy or not immolating foreigners for no good reason, are not negotiable:welfare statism, interventionism, ever-greater management of the economy and society by government technocrats. Tea Party rhetoric is anti-government, whereas he great bulk of what the loudest right-wingers during the Bush administration had to say was merely anti-Left- and the venom of liberalism's harshest critics during the Bush years was primarily targeted at things that have now been shown to be disposable appendages of American liberalism rather than vital principles. Here there is a strong parallel with establishment conservatism, which forgives virtually any amount of contempt for its supposed principles of free markets and “limited government” if you're sufficiently supportive of the warfare state and is indifferent to any amount of support for them if you're not.

Sincerely or not, consistently or not, the ideas being expressed by people like the Tea Partiers strike at the very heart of mainline American leftist/liberal and centrist values in a way George W. Bush never did. And so it's perfectly natural that peaceful people ineffectually protesting bailouts or health care mandates cause as much rage and horror as government-sanctioned torture, the destruction of habeas corpus, and hundreds of thousands of senseless deaths. Gotta keep your priorities in order.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

1 comment:

JOR said...

"As much as the state of pro-war conservative rhetoric during the George W. Bush years repelled me, liberal complaints about being called “anti-American” or the like were always ridiculous to me."

Funny. I felt the same way, but also feel the same way about Tea Party and conservative complaints about the government, liberal media, etc. smearing them as racists or domestic terrorists or whatever. Needless to say, I can't say I share even your cautious pessimism and sympathy for the Tea Party. I remember where these sorts of people went the last time their team took power. It looked a lot like where the "Dissent is patriotic!" liberals all seem to have gone.

None of this is to say we shouldn't oppose the lies and slander and smears. Dishonesty is worth opposing for its own sake, as is standing up for dissent.