June 12, 2009

Tribal Politics: Principles, Liberty and Peace Need Not Apply

The consistently perceptive Jesse Walker offers some sane and -- dare I say it? yes, I dare -- principled commentary about a couple of recent murders and the ensuing enthusiastic efforts to breathe legitimacy and wisdom into the Department of Homeland Security report on domestic terrorism. Those efforts burble forth from an assortment of liberals no less, as Walker documents in his opening paragraph, as well as from those who now worship at the Shrine of Obama (such as the reliably awful Andrew Sullivan), both because the Shrine of Bush became unpopular, which fate is worse than any other, and because life without a Shrine, any widely celebrated Shrine will do, before which to prostrate oneself is unendurable. In the Age of Obama, the breathtakingly rapid abandonment of ideas that liberals (and assorted others) had once proclaimed to be central to their existence is as odious as it was predictable. It also replicates almost perfectly the similar abandonment of principles by many conservatives and alleged libertarians during the late, unlamented Age of Bush the Younger.

Walker writes:
So the Department of Homeland Security, a bloated and dysfunctional agency that shouldn't exist in the first place, should spend its time tracking the possibility that a criminal kook with no co-conspirators will decide to shoot a doctor or a security guard? From preventing another 9/11 to preventing unorganized shootings: Talk about mission creep.
Walker goes on to offer additional valuable observations which I omit here, for which you should consult the original.

Walker's last paragraph is the one I want to focus on:
Why did the DHS report come under such fire? It wasn't because far-right cranks are incapable of committing crimes. It's because the paper blew the threat of right-wing terror out of proportion, just as the Clinton administration did in the '90s; because it treated "extremism" itself as a potential threat, while offering a definition of extremist so broad it seemed it include anyone who opposed abortion or immigration or excessive federal power; and because it fretted about the danger of "the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities." (Note that neither the killing in Kansas last month nor the shooting in Washington yesterday was committed by an Iraq or Afghanistan vet.) The effect isn't to make right-wing terror attacks less likely. It's to make it easier to smear nonviolent, noncriminal figures on the right, just as the most substantial effect of a red scare was to make it easier to smear nonviolent, noncriminal figures on the left. The fact that communist spies really existed didn't justify Joseph McCarthy's antics, and the fact that armed extremists really exist doesn't justify the Department of Homeland Security's report.
Toward the conclusion of my historical review in "Blinded by the Story: Liberals and Progressives as Political Creationists," I discussed Clinton's deplorable "anti-terrorism" program. In large part, I relied on an article by the indispensable Jim Bovard, "The Hypocritical War on Terrorism," an article that dates from 1996. I remind you of just part of what Bovard wrote:
President Clinton is continuing to agitate for new powers to suppress terrorists. He is demanding more powers for wiretaps, more powers to prevent people from using encryption for their e-mail, more powers to classify normal crimes as terrorist offenses, and so forth. As usual, Clinton's solution to every problem is more power for himself and his cronies. Clinton has scorned opponents of his terrorist proposals, claiming that they want to "turn America into a safe house for terrorists."


Further evidence of Clinton's hunger for more power is clear in his proposed antiterrorism bill. David Kopel and Joseph Olson recently observed in the Oklahoma City Law Review:

"The new terrorism bill defines virtually any crime as 'terrorism,' whether or not related to actual terrorism. 'Terrorist' offenses are defined as follows: any assault with a dangerous weapon, assault causing serious bodily injury, or any killing, kidnapping, or maiming, or any unlawful destruction of property. Snapping someone's pencil, breaking someone's arm in a bar fight, threatening someone with a knife, or burning down an outhouse would all be considered 'terrorist' offenses. Any attempt to perpetrate any of these terrorist crimes would be subject to the same punishment as a completed offense. Even a threat to commit the offense (i.e., 'One of these days, I'm going to snap your pencil') is likewise labeled 'terrorism.' The extra federal power created by the legislation is superfluous to genuine anti-terrorism. It was already a serious federal felony to make a real terrorist threat, as by threatening to set off a bomb, or to assassinate the president."

Clinton and Democratic congressional candidates this year are making political hay over the fact that the Republicans have not yet kowtowed to this particular Clinton power-grab.
My earlier essay has much more. A great many people remember none of this. Such omissions from memory are terribly convenient for those who wish to amass more power for the State, now that their tribe is in power once again.

An article by Justin Raimondo amplifies some of the same points made by Walker, and adds some new ones. We should note, as Raimondo does, the definition of "rightwing extremism" offered in the DHS report now championed by liberals:
Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.
Raimondo then observes:
If, say, the Chinese government issued a "report" on Chinese "extremism" targeting "anti-government" groups that reject the highly-centralized Communist state system "in favor of state or local authority," limousine liberals like [Joan] Walsh — and Nancy Pelosi, her Sinophobic fellow San Francisco Democrat — would be screaming bloody murder, waving the bloody flag of Tiananmen, and generally bloviating about the lack of basic liberties in China. Oh, but it’s okay if we do it – or, more specifically, if Janet Napolitano does it — because, you see, we’re the exception, the anointed, the Good Guys. And that means we get to do anything we damn well please.
To add a somewhat different phrase to that last point: "we get to do anything we damn well please" -- provided that Democrats are in charge.

For that's all that's involved here: the adoration of one's chosen political tribe, to which anything is permitted -- while nothing is permitted to any other tribe, except by reluctant and rare permission. In fact, I made this precise point almost three years ago, in an essay about the lies of "humanitarian" intervention similarly championed by liberals. From "Liberal Hypocrisy in the Name of 'Humanitarianism'":
I realize that in our current cultural atmosphere, where everything is politicized and every debate is a conflict between "us" and "them," intellectual consistency is too much to expect from anyone. Nonetheless, it must be noted that the level of hypocrisy and bullshit is truly overwhelming. Almost anything is permitted if "our" gang does it -- and almost nothing is allowed if "their" gang does it, even when "it" is, in principle, the same exact thing. It is a measure of the lack of seriousness in our political debates, and of the fact that obvious hackery is allowed to pass as in-depth commentary, that this game continues without challenge. And I wouldn't care that these propagandists relegate themselves to the edges of intellectual respectability and far beyond, but for the fact that a hell of a lot of people get killed along the way, and that we thereby create an even more dangerous world.
Much more on these issues will be found in my recently begun series on contemporary political tribalism, particularly in this installment. For our purposes here, note my third point especially: "The basic dynamics of all tribes are the same." See the full essay for the details.

For those who have been paying attention, this utter lack of consistency and principle has long been evident among liberals. Consider the thunderbolts of damnation hurled at Bush and the Republicans generally in connection with all the lies about Iraq. Some of us offered equal if not greater damnation on this point, the difference being that we meant it and apply that judgment regardless of who is or was telling the lies.

Many liberals are not so choosy. Many of them continue to repeat to this very hour the numerous lies about Clinton's Balkan interventions, beginning with the first and most notable lie: that the U.S. had to do something, because a genocide was going on. Except that it wasn't. Adoration of one's tribe permits the sanctification of all those lies told by fellow tribal members, especially when they advance the tribe's own power. And see the Laura Flanders article excerpted here, for proof as to the enthusiasm with which many allegedly "antiwar" progressive organizations support the Empire's wars now that Democrats direct them.

On the broader point, also see another essay, concerning the "false narratives" that many liberals repeatedly declared to be so damaging and destructive:
So all that earlier (and present) concern with false narratives was not concern with false narratives because they were false. No, indeed: it was concern with false narratives that didn't help Democrats. But if false narratives are believed to affirmatively help Democrats, according to some especially vile series of political calculations (which are usually wrong, as they are with regard to impeachment)...well, as Dear Leader might say, bring 'em on!
In his column, Raimondo makes a further point, one that carries especially ironic and bitter significance for me. Excerpting posts and comments at Daily Kos and Crooks & Liars, Raimondo shows how these same liberals are eager to clamp down on political speech that they happen to disfavor and disapprove, now that Democrats are firmly in charge of all the major levers of power. They characterize such speech as "hate speech," but all proffered definitions of that phrase are necessarily and purposely elastic, conveniently expanding to include all speech that those in power wish to demonize and prohibit. One test that immediately reveals the hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty involved consists of asking a single question: How would these people react if Bush and/or Republicans proposed doing the exact same thing? Any honest observer knows full well that many liberals would be the first to condemn it in the strongest terms.

And in fact, that's precisely what they once did. In addition to general observation, I know this directly from my own experience, because of a post of mine that many liberal blogs eagerly linked when it first appeared. For just a few of those links, see here (also from Crooks & Liars, just to focus and deepen the irony). "The Light of Reason" was the title of an earlier incarnation of my blog. I had to republish that particular essay, as I've had to republish many others, when my blog archives became corrupted. That entry from 2005 -- "The Censorship Campaign Gets a Boost: Nothing but Good News 24/7, Please ... and Don't Make Us Make You!," and now found at that link -- concerned certain desperate and hysterical attacks on an entirely unremarkable bit of reporting ("Newsweek Lied. People Died." Malkin shrieked). In part, I wrote all those years ago:
Censorship is what they're after, and don't let them tell you otherwise. They announced this goal unmistakably at least a year ago. (Here's the classic, regret-filled formulation: "And here's a question: Freedom of the press, as it exists today (and didn't exist, really, until the 1960s) is unlikely to survive if a majority -- or even a large and angry minority -- of Americans comes to conclude that the press is untrustworthy and unpatriotic. How far are we from that point?") Of course, they "regret" that censorship might be necessary. It's a terrible shame and all that. But damn it, if magazines like Newsweek ARE GOING TO GET PEOPLE KILLED...well, what can we do? We obviously have to shut them up. They brought it on themselves. It's their own damned fault. Of course, we'd like to have a free press, but THEY'RE GETTING PEOPLE KILLED!
When Bush and the conservatives made these arguments, liberals and progressives couldn't condemn them quickly or harshly enough. But now that we have a Democratic president and Congress, the prospect of censorship is not only fine -- it is the goal. After all, if you "reject[] government authority entirely," or if you even "reject[] federal authority in favor of state or local authority," YOU MIGHT GET PEOPLE KILLED. You're obviously a terrorist, or at least a terrorist sympathizer -- even if you reject the initiation of violence by anyone in any circumstances, and even if you regard violence as justified only in response to a direct, immediate threat to your own life and person (and then, only in direct proportion to the seriousness of the threat involved).

But now that Democrats are in power, many liberals and progressives insist that we need not trouble ourselves with any of these issues. For many people, the tribe is all. For our tribe, everything is allowed. Thus are principles, integrity, honesty, consistency, decency, and respect for the value of human life banished from our political debate.

And thus we come closer to hell.