Charles Davis (via Jon Schwarz) has an incisive take on the high fluttery flail induced in our imperial courtiers by the latest Tea Party tantrums. Davis demolishes a piece in The Nation by progressive paladin Melissa Harris-Lacewell, in which she waxes lyrical — not to nonsensical — about the great threat to “the legitimacy of the state” posed by Tea Partiers disrespecting our elected officials. These acts — spitting, swearing, insulting, shouting, etc. — which might have been considered legitimate expressions of citizen anger (or at least good clean fun) if directed at, say, George Dubya or Dick Nixon, are now to be regarded as — I kid you not — “an act of sedition” when aimed at the ruling party.
It’s this kind of thing that gives insipid sycophancy a bad name. But Davis is on the case:
Now, considering that U.S. government imprisons more of its own citizens than any other in the history, with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners; that it has more military bases in more countries than any previous empire in history, and has killed millions of people from Iraq to Vietnam; and that its current head, Barack Obama, is openly targeting for extrajudicial killing Americans and foreigners alike, one might ask: why is a liberal magazine so concerned about this state’s legitimacy?
Or as Thoreau put it (in a quote that is pretty much the slogan for this blog): “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”
Davis is right to draw attention to Obama’s astonishingly brazen claim of arbitrary power over the life and death of every person in the world, including American citizens. This is perhaps his most atrocious act of “continuity” with his despised and criminal predecessor. But unlike Bush, Obama has not been hugger-mugger about this assertion of world-engulfing authoritarianism, dribbling it out piecemeal in nods and winks, secret directives, cunning leaks and oblique references. No, he sent his National Intelligence Director, Dennis Blair, to proclaim the president’s universal license to kill in open testimony before Congress. Just a few weeks ago, the intelligence poo-bah told the House Intelligence Committee (my, my, so much “Intelligence” around town these days, and so few brains) that Americans (and everyone else) could be killed — without charge, arrest, trial or defense — by the U.S. government if said government decides — secretly, of course — that the target poses “a threat” of some kind. This assertion of arbitrary power beyond the dreams of even the maddest Roman emperor was greeted with absolute silence by the great and good of the constitutional American republic. No thunderous editorials, no outraged demonstrations — just nods of acquiescence and indifference.
(Odd that the Tea Partiers — so het up about encroachments on their liberty — don’t spit about this kind of thing. But then again, a good many of them crave strong-man rule, a tough guy who will ‘do what it takes’ without fussing about a bunch of namby-pamby rules. They just don’t like one of those darkies wielding it.)
But as Davis notes, whatever small, or nascent, or possibly potential threat that the frothier fringe of marginal militants might pose, it is the gargantuan crimes now being committed by our militarist state that we should fear, and resist:
[C]olor me unimpressed with the argument that I have more to fear from the talk radio right than I do the incarcerating-and-assassinating state. … In addition to the hundreds killed without so much as a show trial by hellfire missiles since the glorious advent of The Liberal Ascendancy, agents of the U.S. government have been implicated in several headline-grabbing atrocities, the latest of which involved the pre-dawn slaying of a pair of pregnant women and a teenage girl. That female civilians are being killed at a level on par with Afghan males is no doubt being hailed in the halls of Brookings as a feminist triumph, but it’s more troubling to me than the idea of some people questioning the legitimacy of the perpetrators’ employer.
Perhaps they shouldn’t just be ignored, but until Glenn Beck’s followers kill two dozen people in a remote village, I’m going to spend most of my time focusing on those with control over the tanks and nuclear weapons. And rather than seeking to bolster the state and reinforce the idea of some mythical, mystical social contract, I just might seek to undermine this government, so far as I can, for as long as it continues enriching a politically connected corporate elite while imprisoning and enlisting the rest of its population, no matter how “duly elected” our politicians might be as a result of the sham two-party electoral system. When political leaders are engaged in senseless war and widespread human rights abuses — and the occupation of Afghanistan and the U.S. prison system at home and abroad qualify — the person of conscience’s duty is not to the state but to justice, which usually means opposing the state and questioning its presumed legitimacy.
But you can be sure that most of our conscience-laden progressives will be more upset about Obama’s move to open up vast tracts of coastal waters to oil drilling than his intensification of the wars of dominion on the imperial frontiers. (Obama’s oil caper is yet another example where he is treading farther rightward than even Dubya dared to go. But Arthur Silber, among others, nailed this long ago, back during the campaign: Obama’s more presentable persona will allow him to entrench and expand the militarist-corporatist system far more effectively than any bumbling, bellicose right-winger could.)
One should never dismiss the “yearning for fascism” that is abroad in the country, of course, a fell and growing mood that Chris Hedges describes so well here. Hedges also locates one of the root causes of this yearning: the complete and utter collapse of the ‘left’ (using that term very broadly to mean alternatives to the militarist-corporatist imperial system), and its eager co-option by one of the principal pillars of that system: the Democratic Party. As Hedges notes:
The Democrats and their liberal apologists are so oblivious to the profound personal and economic despair sweeping through this country that they think offering unemployed people the right to keep their unemployed children on their nonexistent health care policies is a step forward. They think that passing a jobs bill that will give tax credits to corporations is a rational response to an unemployment rate that is, in real terms, close to 20 percent. They think that making ordinary Americans, one in eight of whom depends on food stamps to eat, fork over trillions in taxpayer dollars to pay for the crimes of Wall Street and war is acceptable. They think that the refusal to save the estimated 2.4 million people who will be forced out of their homes by foreclosure this year is justified by the bloodless language of fiscal austerity. The message is clear. Laws do not apply to the power elite. Our government does not work. And the longer we stand by and do nothing, the longer we refuse to embrace and recognize the legitimate rage of the working class, the faster we will see our anemic democracy die … If we do not embrace this outrage and distrust as our own it will be expressed through a terrifying right-wing backlash.
But to head off this backlash, we must focus on the system that is producing this miasma of chaos, anger, anxiety and hate — a system that is teaching its people, by example, that violence, force and lawlessness are glorious and worthy, are, in fact, legitimate. Hedges quotes Cynthia McKinney on this point:
I am a child of the South. Janet Napolitano tells me I need to be afraid of people who are labeled white supremacists but I was raised around white supremacists. I am not afraid of white supremacists. I am concerned about my own government. The Patriot Act did not come from the white supremacists, it came from the White House and Congress. Citizens United did not come from white supremacists, it came from the Supreme Court.
The War Machine — and the Democrats’ avid fealty to it — is at the corroded heart of the matter. But this love of war (as long as it is visited on other people, far away) is not confined to the ruling elite alone. And this is one reason why even if the inchoate anger expressed by Tea Partiers and others could be harnessed and directed at its proper targets (many of whom, of course, are happily stoking this misdirected rage to keep it away from their own golden nest eggs), it would still fall short of transforming the system. Yes, you could, for example, put our crooked banksters on trial for fraud; but if they were simply replaced by new bankers who, even with heavier regulations and restrictions, still financed the War Machine, then the same corrupting cycle of blood money and bellicosity would rage on unabated. Until Americans drop their addiction to war — which is inextricably bound up with the widespread, bipartisan cult of exceptionalism — there will be no stability, no security, no peace, no prosperity for ordinary people, neither at home or abroad. As I noted here last year:
This is the system we have. It’s right out in the open. There is a deep-rooted expectation – and not, alas, just among the elite — that the world should jump to America’s tune, by force if necessary. And when, for whatever reason, some part of the world does not jump – or bump and grind – to the Potomac beat, then it becomes a “problem” that must be “solved,” by one means or another, with, of course, “all options on the table,” all the time. And whether these “problems” are approached with blunt, bullying talk or a degree of cajolery and pious rhetoric, the chosen stance is always backed up with the ever-present threat of military action, up to and including the last of those “options” that always decorate the table: utter annihilation.
This is not even questioned, must less debated or challenged. America’s right to intervene in the affairs other nations by violent force (along with a constant series of illegal covert activities) – and to impose an empire of military plantations across the length and breadth of the entire planet – is the basic assumption, the underlying principle, the fervently held faith shared by both national parties, and the entire elite Establishment. And if you want to have the necessary instruments to maintain such a state of hegemony, then you must indeed structure your society and economy around war.
Many nations – all vanished now – have done this. The Roman Empire was one. Nazi Germany was another. At great cost to the economic, social and political life of ordinary Germans, Adolf Hitler geared the state to produce the war machine necessary to assert the dominance in world affairs which he felt was Germany’s natural right. One of his chief aims was to procure enough “living space” and natural resources in Eastern Europe to compete with America’s growing economic might. The Holocaust of European Jews was, for all its horror, just a preliminary to the greater “ethnic cleansing” to come. As historian Adam Tooze reminds us in The Wages of Destruction, the Nazis had drawn up detailed plans for the extermination – by active mass murder and deliberate starvation – of up to 40 million East Europeans.
Today, we all recognize the inhuman madness behind this hegemonic ambition. We shake our heads and say, “Whatever evils we may be accused of, we have never and would never do such a thing.” Perhaps. But leaving aside for a moment the millions – millions – of African slaves and Native Americans who died in order to procure the living space and natural resources of North and South America for European peoples, it is clear that most Americans – the elite above all – can easily countenance the deaths of, say, more than one million innocent Iraqis, or upwards of three million Southeast Asians, without any disturbance in their sense of national righteousness, their bedrock belief that the United States has the natural right, even the duty, to assert its hegemony over world affairs.
Unless there is some profound shift in American consciousness, of the sort that Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to effect in his last years, all of this will continue — even if we have genuine health care reform, genuine rescue of those ravaged by our financial sharks, genuine environmental protection, and so on.
But of course we will not have these “genuines” in any case — as long as those who profess to oppose the corporatist-militarist system simultaneously support the very people who are directing it. Again, as we noted here:
….the constantly asserted vow to keep the nuclear option “on the table” at all times means that every single action or policy toward a “problem” nation carries with it the explicit threat to kill millions of people – to outdo the Holocaust in a matter of minutes.
Can one really look at such plans and attitudes, and at the towering, Everest-like mountain of corpses produced by American polices – just in the last generation – and say that there is not also a form of inhuman madness behind this hegemonic ambition as well? Is this really a system that one can be associated with honorably in any way? What should we think about a person who wants to lead such a system, who wants to take hold of the driving wheel of the war machine, to use it, to expand it, to accept all of its premises, to keep all of its horrific “options” forever on the table, to feed it and gorge it and coddle it and appease it at every turn, while millions of their own people sink further into degradation and diminishment?
Shouldn’t someone who knowingly, willingly, eagerly bent all of their energies toward taking power in such a system instantly and irretrievably forfeit our regard and support? Should we really give such a “leader” the benefit of the doubt, cut him some slack, be ready to praise him when he or his government momentarily behaves in a normal, rational or legal manner? Should we grimly insist that he is the only choice we have, that his heart is probably in the right place, and that all we can do is try and cajole him into being “better”?
As we began with Davis, let’s give him the last word:
The proper attitude toward a criminal government is not deference and respect, however much some at The Nation might love a smooth-talking Democrat, but defiance and rebellion — of the non-violent variety.
UPDATE: The original text of this piece misspelled Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s first name. My apologies. The error is now corrected.