Monday, May 3, 2010

The Right Kind of Terrorism

Last weekend you might have seen two links posted on your Facebook or sent to your inbox repeatedly. The first, by the brilliant Tim Wise, asks us to, "Imagine the Tea Party Was Black." The second, a slickly produced video from the Republican Governor's Association, asks us to "Remember November," a cynical distortion borrowing from the movie V for Vendetta. While there have been several thoughtful pieces about both, no one has mentioned that the impulses driving both pieces of theater are the same.

Wise's piece speaks for itself, and you should read it if you have the time. Assuming you're swamped: it recalls conservative actions and rhetoric from the past two years and asks if we'd countenance the same actions from non-whites. His best example is the recent teaparty gathering in Washington in which whites armed with assault rifles announced that they were willing to start another revolution if they didn't get their way in government. This is little more than a threat of coming bloodshed — their common "the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants" signs say as much — a gunpoint extortion of the body politic. If black citizens armed themselves under a Republican administration and issued a list of demands, FOX News would howl and run a 24/7 graphic of Flavor Flav wearing a dynamite-laden clock above a chyron: "AMERICA'S BLACKS: A TICKING TIME BOMB?"

Wise cites numerous other examples (including the "FreeRepublic v. Sasha and Malia Obama" story covered here before anybody else felt like bothering with it), but the crux of his thesis is this:
To ask any of these questions is to answer them. Protest is only seen as fundamentally American when those who have long had the luxury of seeing themselves as prototypically American engage in it. When the dangerous and dark “other” does so, however, it isn’t viewed as normal or natural, let alone patriotic. Which is why Rush Limbaugh could say, this past week, that the Tea Parties are the first time since the Civil War that ordinary, common Americans stood up for their rights: a statement that erases the normalcy and “American-ness” of blacks in the civil rights struggle, not to mention women in the fight for suffrage and equality, working people in the fight for better working conditions, and LGBT folks as they struggle to be treated as full and equal human beings.
I've not had the luxury of reading all of Wise's books, and I think that he was likely pressed for time or space, but what's interesting is how the conditions he's describing neatly explain drivel like the RGA's "Remember November" video.

What Wise starts to get at here is that conservative definitions of patriotism are essentially hegemonic, rather than philosophical. People defend what they consider the functional elements of the status quo, not abstractions of the principle of governance. There might be nice quotes from founding fathers on posterboards, but they're mostly meaningless. For all the right's rhetoric about originalism, very few of the women or non-whites in attendance at tea parties seem to have any interest in divesting themselves of the right to vote, nor do any renters seem particularly interested in reinstating minimum property requirements. (Nor, one supposes, do most white teapartiers want to know what property requirements would look like in adjusted dollars.)

And for all their evocations of modern principles of government, these people were happily at home two years ago. Advocates of responsible spending didn't take to the streets as tax cuts were handed out during one war and in prologue to another. Nor did "populist" penny-pinchers assemble when George Bush's administration asked for (and received) $700 billion in TARP funds to bail out insolvent banks that gambled on markets they had rigged to fail. States' rights advocates kept mum about an unfunded federal mandate in No Child Left Behind. Crusaders against socialized medicine stayed put when Bush pushed a prescription drug benefit for Medicare.

At the most generous, ignorance kept these people indoors one year and out of doors the next. But it's hard not to attribute the behavior to hypocrisy when they took to the streets last year to bemoan an "Obama" tax rate bequeathed by the previous administration; then took to the streets this year in protest of an Obama rate that granted most of them larger tax returns. It was likely hypocrisy that this year saw them defending Medicaid because they believed it to be "under attack" from "socialized medicine." This is, I guess, like throwing out antibiotics because you think they destroy your white blood cells. It doesn't make sense. Unless you hate the prescribing doctor.

That last factor represents really the only fundamental change in these peoples' lives. A rich white man and another rich white man used to tell them that they were awesome. Now a white lady and a black man tell them that maybe they should read a Fact-Check sheet at a .gov website to explain away their misconceptions about what the government is trying to do. There used to be a bunch of white dudes in charge who weren't going to take guns away. Now there's a white lady and a black dude in charge, and neither of them really gives a shit about guns, but are you just gonna sit there and let a bitch and some boy tell you what to do? If that sounds like a reductive characterization, it's because the subjects don't deserve better. Cloaking yourself in the mantle of patriotism when your vision for the political landscape is, "I want the status quo from 24 months ago back," is stupid at best and disingenuous at worst.

Patriots know that the government enshrined in the Constitution has evolved over 200 years and been officially tweaked over 20 times. Patriots have read the text and remember that while contracts might be protected, "free-market capitalism" was not enshrined as an uncompromising and inalterable bulwark of governance. Patriots know that a republic is a governmental model and socialism is an economic model, and the two are not antipodes. Patriots know that dissent might be the highest form of patriotism, but that dissent is not a guarantor that the government functions as you like. Patriotism acknowledges that one of the fundamental articles of the national contract is that, despite your best efforts, you may never get to have your way at all. But this is patriotism as an ism, a profoundly rich conceptual thing that has meaning but doesn't have permanent exemplars — an idea that is forced to adapt as society adapts and doesn't have the luxury, as a word that means something, of stopping at a line of development and announcing, "Society's Apogee Begins Here."

The need to repudiate this understanding stands at the heart of the conservative compulsion to constantly draw and re-draw contracts with America. There was Newt Gingrich's in 1994, and there's the current "Contract from America." Each attempts to enshrine the status quo, a few vague and profitable ideas, and elements from a proximate status quo ante as the terminus of the American experiment. Contracts are binding: they're law and stuff. In effect they try to make absolutes out of all the interpretations of the Constitution that only conservatives see, make inviolable principles to which only they subscribe and criminalize or penalize, by contracted-party understanding, things that aren't enshrined, binding or even recognized. As the broad American status quo alters, a new contract will be promulgated to retrench its effects in the name of a new conservative blueprint for patriots, itself a new fingernail-clutch at their "status quo."

Doubtless it sounds more complex than it actually is, but essentially these contracts, be they Gingrich's or a teaparty's, represent an end run on interpretation of the Constitution, changing socioeconomic conditions, history and the meaning of words themselves. That last aspect touches on all those preceding. The conservative definition of patriotism always tends toward the hegemonic and away from the actual definition. It says that what was dominant and working is what is. ("A is A.") It says, "What we consider normal is the normative definition. Concepts that admit of adaptation are moral relativism and moral hazards. Throw out the dictionary; go on our experience. Until the next decade when we re-draw the absolutes again."

The enemy, too, is drawn and redrawn. The natural enemy of the patriot is the traitor or the terrorist, but these words suffer just as much from the conservative need to create word pictures where dictionaries are merely inadequate tools of liberal absolutism (something that liberal moral relativism does just to "fool" real people, one supposes). Patriots are people who love America where the status quo or hegemonic reality is a Republican administration. Likewise, patriots are people who embrace the rhetoric or firearms necessary for armed insurrection when an administration is anything else. The attitudes are antithetical to one another, and the country remains the same, but it's patriotism either way.

Nothing illustrates this better than the recent RGA "Remember November" video. Salon's Gabriel Wynant for the most part does an excellent job deconstructing how stupid this video is conceptually. (For instance, how can you couch a video in tropes of tyranny and the necessity of insurrection while concluding it with an appeal to exercise your free democratic voice in a coming free election?) But the broader point that Wise hinted at and that Wynant should have run with is that this video embraces terrorism and patriotism as normatively indivisible, so long as they emanate from the same conservative source.

V for Vendetta — both the movie and the graphic novel — refer to the Gunpowder Plot, wherein a group of English traitors plotted to explode the parliament and the king. The plotters were discovered, hanged and condemned. England's Guy Fawkes' Day, if it has any historical or ideological component (mostly it's just for fun), is a condemnation of the man. The man was a terrorist. Conservatives should applaud his failure and his treatment. He turned against his own people and government; patriots rooted him out; then he was tortured ineffectually before finally giving up names he knew his torturers already had and wanted to hear. It's a GOP fairy tale, like a stage production of Oh, Guantanamo! where you don't have to hire any non-whites.

But it's here, on issuing the video, that the entire conservative rhetorical edifice hits a stumbling block of its own devising, because every interpretation of their use of the video represents a conceptual failure. For one, they appropriate filmic tropes from something conceived as a repudiation of the Bush administration and based on a graphic novel's brutal satire of the English conservative hero Margaret Thatcher. They could push the notion that the Democrats are soft on national-security and our coming global doom with an attack ad comprised solely of Dr. Strangelove dialogue and create less of a dissonant farce.

Next there's the fact that, for all we might want to say about the court of King James I (or, for that matter, what we might want to say about the Obama administration), it conducted itself in accord with then existing common law, and that plotting to blow it up was unambiguously treasonous and a violation of the legal order. Moreover, like former GOP congressmen whose central claim to the existence of tyranny is the fact that fewer people voted for them, the plotters weren't noble men unjustly ousted from the corridors of power and obliged to take extreme action to regain rights usurped. Their aim wasn't to destroy a cancer on the lawful structure of government and allow the existing order to right itself in accordance with tradition: they wanted to eliminate their enemies and replace them with figureheads or co-conspirators. The plotters arrogated to themselves the right to destroy the existing order when it stood between them and personal enrichment, claiming a spiritual mandate for murder that never plausibly effaced their material motives.

Finally, there's the uncomfortable fact that Catholics in James I's England were suspected of being terrorists, saboteurs and spies in thrall to foreign governments (notably Spain) who advocated at least a nominal global unity under Roman Christendom. That this global-power sleeper-agent vision of Catholics neatly describes conservatives' paranoid characterization of Muslims and Arab-Americans for the last eight years is only garnish on top of the existing pile of tone-deaf offenses against historicity. "Remember November" answers Wise's question without even intending to.

If there were a tea party comprised of armed black people, it would be an illegitimate force for terror, because it would offend the sensibilities that embrace the conservative status quo and see any hindrance of it as usurpation. It's this same sense of inerrant destiny for whatever they conceive of themselves as, for the moment, that allows them to create something like "Remember November." This childlike self-regard and deafness to nuance and fact instantly validates anything. They celebrate a terroristic conspiracy conducted by crypto-religious absolutists and see in the plotting traitors a reflection of everything they want, admiringly costuming themselves in essentially the same clothes as their greatest lurking nemesis of the last decade.

This Janus profile extenuates from the narrative they craft for themselves and the principle upon which they stand. When they win, they announce a covenant with America that determines the end of history. The apex status quo has been reached — one of permanent victory for conservatism. The problems with this thinking bear no relationship to events that follow or the maneuverings of other parties. The problem is that their permanent victories and attitude toward the future always relies on an understanding of America wherein conservatism and white baby-boomer dominance are immune to death and disease, an everlasting agglomeration of intellectual, social and economic ossification — like a narcissism-fueled version of the Fourth Reich.

Their victories are always based on an appeal to naturalism, rather than an attempt to build coalitions or persuade. They happen because they are Americans, real Americans. When they lost in 2008, it was due to business non-regulation, demographic indifference, an unexamined and monomaniacal foreign policy and a catastrophic abandonment of their stewardship of their own citizens: these are all matters of piddling inconsequence to destiny. But instead of persuading or building coalitions, they're left with only identity as a means to victory — their mystical rightness. This identity is what allows a person to see two parties indistinguishable in form but different in color and presume one a vanguard and another a fifth column, to see itself in 17th century Catholics and not at all in 21st century crypto-Islamists.

Such a mentality is not a political method or argument: it's a terrorist's motivation, an extremist's world-view. Still the Real Americans in their mind, they must have been dethroned by illegitimacy and imaginary external connivances. That failure is procedural. Were the failure substantive, it would suggest that the substance of what they represent is less than immutably true. But because they cling to a narrative of self-evidence, procedure is irrelevant and unwanted: compromise, debate and reconciliation are reviled and unnecessary.

When conservatives fail procedurally, it is democracy that fails them. The undeserved heirs of ultimate power, enshrined by divine right of nativism and race, do not make deals with brown people, they do not compromise with hippies. These kinds of establishmentarians outside the establishment — these hegemonic people without hegemony — are terrorists. They can't be anything else.