Monday, November 08, 2004

Eliminating the enemy

Good ol' Republicans. Give 'em an inch, and they'll take an eon. Give 'em a "mandate," and they'll take a monocracy.

There's no spectacle like the right gorged on its own power. (I'm from Idaho. I know all about this.) Eventually they become so stuffed with hubris that they explode like the "just one thin mint" man in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. The question, of course, is just how much damage they can inflict upon the rest of us along the way.

It's looking like the answer is, "a lot."

As I've already noted, it didn't take long for the right's post-election mask of "civility" to come off. If President Bush's message wasn't clear enough, right-wing talkers around the dial have left no doubt that if there's any compromising to be done, it's liberals who will be doing it. Bipartisanship, indeed.

If conservatives are "building bridges," then they have a remarkable one-way orientation. In the meantime, it seems that, according to movement conservatives, the only "hate" we're dealing with is that emanating from the left. Right.

A consistent theme now running throughout the campaign that Bill Bennett calls "our long, national cultural renewal" is the notion that those on the right are engaged in a heroic enterprise. Contingent on any such enterprise is the naming of an Enemy.

In the past, the right focused its energies on external enemies -- particularly the specter of Global Communism. With the fall of the Soviet Union, though, and the demise of this Enemy, those energies have turned inward. For the conservative movement, the Enemy, now, has been named. It is any American who, for the movement, is Not One Of Us. Better known by the short handle, "liberal."

At the official level, this is only hinted at darkly. But the right's leading propagandists -- particularly the hatemongers of talk radio -- have been making this explicit.

The worst of these, as always, has been Michael Savage, to whom I've been tuning in the past few days. Savage has been unusually vicious in relegating liberalism to the ashbin of history.

On his Thursday show, Savage was reiterating the point made by Mark McKinnon to Ron Suskind, asking: "When are these people going to figure out that we don't like them?"

OK, Michael. Message received, I think.

On the same show, he went on to tell liberals to "crawl back in their holes," proclaiming, "You're done." The same eliminationist tone prevailed throughout the Thursday and Friday shows. It was, in fact, relentless, and as usual, replete with falsehoods and gross distortions. Among them: In the course of reading over news accounts of Bush's victory from the "liberal media," he even attacked MCNBC's Tom Curry as "liberal scum" -- a charge that should come as a bit of a shock to Curry, who has a well-established record as a conservative sympathetic to Republican issues.

None of this should surprise anyone. This is, after all, the author of The Enemy Within: Saving America From the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith and Military, the preface to which lays out his thesis:
Analyzing both sides of this equation, you will come to see the right-wing supports God, country, family, the military, and has far higher moral standards than the Left. The Left operates specifically to undermine God, country, family, and the military. They use the courts to undermine the popular will. What they cannot gain through the ballot box they gain through the gavel. In California we recently saw how the ACLU with three leftist judges tried to stop an election to recall a failed, corrupt governor.

Analyzing recent Supreme Court decisions on sodomy and affirmative action, you will see the vast left-wing conspiracy as its worst, legitimizing the use of race as opposed to achievement and destabilizing family values. Left-wing operatives have come very far in their plans.

It is clear to me if God could vote, He would be a member of the vast right-wing conspiracy. In fact, to the mad dog leftists in the ACLU, The National Lawyers Guild, and the Democratic party, God is the enemy.

In this sense then, this book is not so much about naming names as it is about defining terms. The extreme Left has attempted to redefine family and patriotism among other clearly evident concepts: to redefine marriage to conform to their own perverse worldview and to redefine patriotism to mean stabbing our troops in the back while they are under fire.

Savage's screed, in fact, is rife with fascist "mobilizing passions" and themes, ranging from the "Dolchstosslegende" to the descriptions to liberals as vicious animals and vermin, as well as obsessing on their "conspiracy."

Savage is an outlier, of course: He's often dismissed as a fringe lunatic. This would be more credible a dismissal if he did not have a national audience in the millions, estimated at No. 3 behind Rush Limbaugh and "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger.

But Savage is hardly alone. Earlier this week, Limbaugh too was sounding the same themes, referring to Democrats as "the enemy" and sounding the following notes of bridge-building:
And, of course, the Democrats have gotta get it through their heads that they lost. If there's going to be some people crossing party lines, it's going to have to be them -- and that's because the president laid out his agenda today, and I think perhaps the most important thing he said in this press conference was -- and before he said it there was an implied, "You're not listening to me." He said, "I meant what I said." I didn't come here to bide my time. I came here to get things done. I'm laying out my agenda.

And what to do with those liberals who decline to "cross party lines"? Well, just eliminate them.

That at least seems to be the final solution proposed by a fellow named Mike Thompson, who recently published an essay in Human Events titled "Declaration of Expulsion: A Modest Proposal: It's Time to Reconfigure the United States".

It lays out a plan for expelling the hard-core Blue states from the Union, but spends most of its time excoriating liberalism in vicious terms:
For many decades, conservative citizens and like-minded political leaders (starting with President Calvin Coolidge) have been denigrated by the vilest of lies and characterizations from hordes of liberals who now won't even admit that they are liberals--because the word connotes such moral stink and political silliness. As a class, liberals no longer are merely the vigorous opponents of the Right; they are spiteful enemies of civilization's core decency and traditions.

Defamation, never envisioned by our Founding Fathers as being protected by the First Amendment, flourishes and passes today for acceptable political discourse. Movies, magazines, newspapers, radio/TV programs, plays, concerts, public schools, colleges, and most other public vehicles openly traffic in slander and libel. Hollywood salivated over the idea of placing another golden Oscar into Michael Moore's fat hands, for his Fahrenheit 9/11 jeremiad, the most bogus, deceitful film documentary since Herr Hitler and Herr Goebbels gave propaganda a bad name.

When they tire of showering conservative victims with ideological mud, liberals promote the only other subjects with which they feel conversationally comfortable: Obscenity and sexual perversion. It's as if the genes of liberals have rendered them immune to all forms of filth.

... The truth is, America is not just broken -- it is becoming irreparable. If you believe that recent years of uncivil behavior are burdensome, imagine the likelihood of a future in which all bizarre acts are the norm, and a government-booted foot stands permanently on your face.

That is why the unthinkable must become thinkable. If the so-called "Red States" (those that voted for George W. Bush) cannot be respected or at least tolerated by the "Blue States" (those that voted for Al Gore and John Kerry), then the most disparate of them must live apart -- not by secession of the former (a majority), but by expulsion of the latter. Here is how to do it.

Thompson goes on to lay out a plan of expulsion. The 12 states that must go: California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, and Delaware. (It's hard to say why he omits other Blue states, such as Washington, which after all now has not only voted for the Democratic candidate in every election since 1988, it maintains an all-Democratic Senate delegation, and five of its eight congressional seats are held by Democrats as well. Perhaps because if he excluded all the Blue states, including ours, the America he envisions would have no ports on the Pacific.)

Of course, by calling it a "modest proposal" he deflects criticism of its noxious contents, since it's intended as Swiftian "satire" -- which, of course, it is not. Indeed, Thompson says so at the essay's outset:
As an admitted "modest proposal" (a la Swift's satiric story of the same name), it is nevertheless serious in pointing out the cancer that continues to threaten our body politic.]

Thompson's claim to be offering "satire" is akin to the Limbaugh/Coulter claim that their vicious attacks on liberals are really just meant to be humorous entertainment, when in fact they are clearly right-wing propaganda whose purpose is to demonize the left. Every word of Swift's "Modest Proposal" clearly was lodged between his tongue and his cheek; but Thompson's screed, like his talk-radio cohorts' "jokes," is deadly serious. He means every word of it -- but really, he's just kidding. Not. [For those who have read "The Rise of Pseudo Fascism," the modus operandi here should be familiar.]

Naming the enemy, identifying him for purposes of elimination and purification, is the clear theme here, and it is one the religious right in particular has been sounding since the election as well. The Los Angeles Times earlier this week ran an op-ed from a "Christian radio" talk-show host named Frank Pastore that denounced liberalism as "evil" and demanded that the victorious right refuse to compromise:
Christians, in politics as in evangelism, are not against people or the world. But we are against false ideas that hold good people captive. On Tuesday, this nation rejected liberalism, primarily because liberalism has been taken captive by the left. Since 1968, the left has taken millions captive, and we must help those Democrats who truly want to be free to actually break free of this evil ideology.

In the weeks and months to come, we will hear the voices of well-meaning people beseeching the victor to compromise with the vanquished. This would be a mistake. Conservatives must not compromise with the left. Good people holding false ideas are won over only if we defeat what is false with the truth.

Pastore's description of the left makes clear that, in the Christian right's conception of the world, they are truly seen as demonic, while their own self-image is one in which they are only defending themselves from what it sees is a sustained assault:
The left bewitches with its potions and elixirs, served daily in its strongholds of academe, Hollywood and old media. It vomits upon the morals, values and traditions we hold sacred: God, family and country. As we learned Tuesday, it is clear the left holds the majority of Americans, the majority of us, in contempt.

Simply, a majority of Americans have rejected John Kerry and John Edwards and the left because they are wrong. They are wrong because there are not two Americas. We are one nation under a God they reject. We remain indivisible despite their attempts to divide Americans through their relentless warfare against class, ethnic and religious unity.

This fear of national decay, an outright assault on their own core values at the hands of godless liberalism, is essential to the Christian right's worldview, and understanding it is essential to comprehending the outcome of last week's election. As Mrs. Robinson explains in one of my comments threads:
Karen Armstrong says that the fear of cultural annihilation is THE mortal dread that lies at the very root of all fundamentalisms. This is what I'm also hearing in several of the above posts. Thanks for bringing it up. I think it's critical to our understanding of the situation.

What matters most to fundies -- more than their own lives, or those of their children, even -- is that their sacred traditions and way of life survive. Whether it's Arab nomads on the desert, or American farmers on their family land, it's all about being free to live like Grandpa did -- and perhaps more importantly, to ensure the survival of Grandpa's God. As irrational as it sounds to secular ears, these folks are gripped by a mortal panic that transcends anything we can imagine. They see themselves as surrounded, trapped -- brave, doomed warriors in a battle that has raged, and will rage, for generations.

This is because (as Armstrong also points out) fundamentalism is, in essence, a reaction against modernity. Fundamentalist movements have been a near-constant within all three major Western religions ever since the Enlightenment sun dawned on the modern world. Not everybody welcomed industrialization, science, reason, objective truth, natural rights, and constitutional democracy. Many people -- Muslim, Jew, and Christian -- felt that this "liberation" dis-enchanted the world, and drained it of its sacred juice. (Many of us spent the 60s and 70s trying to find that juice, and put it back in.) Our modern fundies are still fighting a rear-guard action, hoping to repeal the whole modern edifice and undo 250 years of human progress. For them, it's the only way to restore God's kingdom on Earth.

These are the "powers and principalities" they believe they are struggling against. The "reality-based" world we live in is one that they have never accepted, and never will. They are willing to die -- or kill -- to see it ended.

So when Pat Robertson gets on TV and seriously insists that American Christians are "the worst persecuted minority in the history of the world," it's not hyperbole, at least not in his mind. The Holocaust is a small skirmish in the centuries-long war he thinks he's fighting -- and he's sure he's going to win, because God is on his side.

One of the best examinations of the mindset that relies on mythopoeic heroism can be found in sociologist James A. Aho's text, This Thing of Darkness: A Sociology of the Enemy. Aho describes the symbiotic relationship between heroism and enemy-naming:
The warrior needs an enemy. Without one there is nothing against which to fight, nothing from which to save the world, nothing to give his life meaning. What this means, of course, is that if an enemy is not ontologically present in the nature of things, one must be manufactured. The Nazi needs an international Jewish banker and conspiratorial Mason to serve his purposes of self-aggrandizement, and thus sets about creating one, at least unconsciously. By the same token, the radical Zionist locks himself in perverse symbiosis with his Palestinian "persecutors," the Communist with his "imperialistic capitalist running dogs," the capitalist with his Communist "subversives."

In naming our own enemies, we go through a process of reification, that is, "the way in which people come perceive their own creations, incorrectly or falsely, as things for which they have no responsibility, over which they have no power." This process takes place through a series of steps: naming, or labeling; legitimation, that is, getting the label to stick; mythmaking, or elevating the subject to the level of monstrous evil; sedimentation, which is the spread of the myth across societies and generations; and ritual, by which the enemy is expunged, "with secrecy, caution, cunning, and, if necessary, cruelty."

Aho goes on to describe how the enemy is constructed in detail:
[W]hether embodied in thing or in person, the enemy in essence represents putrefaction and death: either its instrumentality, its location (dirt, filth, garbage, excrement), its carriers (vermin, pests, bacilli), or all of these together. ...

The enemy typically is experienced as issuing from the "dregs" of society, from its lower parts, the "bowels of the underworld." It is sewage from the gutter, "trash" excreted as poison from society's affairs -- church, school, workplace, and family.

The enemy's visitation on our borders is tantamount to impending pestilence. ... The enemy's presence in our midst is a pathology of the social organism serious enough to require the most far-reaching remedies: quarantine, political excision, or, to use a particularly revealing, expression, liquidation and expulsion. As another American broadsheet says regarding the "cancer" of homosexuality: "already countless young boys have been "infected." What is therefore needed is "immediate and systematic cauterization." The "operation as projected" will not be complete until "the whole sordid situation is cleared up, and the premises thoroughly cleansed and disinfected. This is what we demand, and this is what we expect." [The paper in question, incidentally, is the Idaho Statesman in 1964, cited in John Gerassi's The Boys of Boise (New York: Macmillan, 1966). -- ed.]

What's noteworthy in all this is that This Thing of Darkness was an examination of right-wing extremism and the dynamic in the American body politic that creates it. Aho's previous work, The Politics of Righteousness: Idaho Christian Patriotism (1991), was the first (and as far as I know, still the only) serious sociological study of right-wing extremism that created a substantive database of information about the beliefs and backgrounds of followers of the Aryan Nations and related "Christian Patriot" groups. The later study, published in 1994, was an attempt to come to terms with the dynamics underlying such cases as the Weavers at Ruby Ridge and the murders of the Goldmark family.

What Aho describes is a dynamic latent in all sectors of American society but which finds a virulent expression in right-wing extremism. The dynamic he describes is one in which both sides -- the heroic exemplars the far right and their named "enemies," that is, Jews, civil-rights advocates and the government -- essentially exchange roles in their respective perceptions; the self is always heroic, the other always the enemy. Each sees the other as the demonic enemy, feeding the others' fears and paranoias in an increasingly threatening spiral that eventually breaks out in the form of real violence.

Ten years later, it's clear that the hero/enemy dynamic is in play not just on the far right but on the mainstream right. To the extent that we continue to hear this theme trumpeted more and more by movement conservatives, the more they continue on the track towards fascism.

Aho does, however, also argue for a way to escape this dynamic, to break the cycle. And it requires, on the part of those seeking to oppose this kind of extremism, a recognition of their own propensity toward naming the enemy and adopting the self-aggrandizing pose of the hero:
As Ernest Becker has convincingly shown, the call to heroism still resonates in modern hearts. However, we are in the habit of either equating heroism with celebrity ("TV Actress Tops List of Students' Heroes") or caricaturing the hero as a bluff-and-swagger patriot/soldier making the world safe for, say, Christian democracy. In these ways heroism is portrayed as a rather happy if not entirely risk-free venture that earns one public plaudits. Today we are asked to learn that, in the deepest and truest sense. Heroism is really none of these things, but a largely private vocation requiring stamina, discipline, responsibility, and above all courage. Not just the ascetic courage to cleanse our personal lives of what we have been taught is filth, or even less to cleanse society of the alleged carriers of this filth, but, as Jung displayed, the fortitude to release our claim on moral purity and perfection. At a personal and cultural level, I believe this is the only way to transcend the logic of enemies.

For all of its logic and love of science, modern liberalism is weighed down by its most consistent flaw: an overweening belief in its own moral superiority. (Not, of course, that conservatives are any better in this regard; factoring in the religious right and the "moral values" vote, they are objectively worse.) This tendency becomes especially noticeable in urban liberal societies, which for all their enlightenment and love of tolerance are maddeningly and disturbingly intolerant of the "ignorance" of their rural counterparts. It's not an omnipresent attitude, but it is pervasive enough that rural dwellers' perceptions of it are certainly not without basis. There's a similar stigma attached to religious beliefs as well, especially among the more secular liberals, and that in turn has given birth to a predictable counter-reaction that is only partially misunderstanding.

If we want to look at all those red counties and come to terms with the reasons for them, it's important to come to terms with our own prejudices and willingness to treat our fellow Americans -- the ones who are not like us -- with contempt and disrespect.

If we want to know why we are being told, "We don't like you," that's a good place to start. Likewise the increasingly common expressions of utter hatred for all things liberal.

That's not to suggest that we respond to such provocations with touchy-feely attempts at "reaching out" to the other side; these are always rejected with contempt, or viewed as a sign of weakness. Indeed, it's vital to fight back. But if progressives want to win, they need to break this dynamic; and to do that, some self-reflection will go a long way.

Respecting those from rural areas, those who hold deep religious beliefs, doesn't force progressives to compromise their own beliefs or standards. It simply means being part of a democracy, which is enriched by its diversity. Certainly traditional rural values should have a place among all that diversity that liberals are fond of celebrating.

Because until they learn to accord it that respect, they are doomed to remain trapped in the vicious cycle being fueled on both sides. Obviously, conservatives have no incentive to do so. For liberals, it may be a matter of survival -- especially if the rabid right's fantasies ever come to fruition.

[I'll have some more thoughts on how progressives can cultivate a real rural revival, and more on why they should, later this week.]

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