Monday, June 27, 2005

The hunting of the liberals

This bumper sticker was spotted by Left in SF over the weekend -- disturbingly, on an SUV parked among a crowd of cars out for a gay-pride rally.

These "permits" have been around for awhile now, mostly circulating on the fringes of the far right, but they've been increasingly making their way into broader circulation. One of the Minutemen described in Andy Isaacson's mash letter to that extremist phenomenon sported just such a sticker on his rig.

The people sporting such stickers, no doubt, will contend that it's just a joke -- as though such a fig leaf could disguise the violent attitudes and beliefs required to find it humorous. Next they'll argue that stickers saying "Hitler Needed to Finish the Job" are just meant to be funny.

This is, of course, just another permutation of the rising tide of eliminationist rhetoric directed at liberals. It's everywhere -- including now, thanks to Karl Rove, the highest echelons of the Bush administration.

I can't say I was terribly surprised by Rove's remarks, but they are well worth noting for their precise content:
"Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers," Mr. Rove, the senior political adviser to President Bush, said at a fund-raiser in Midtown for the Conservative Party of New York State.

Citing calls by progressive groups to respond carefully to the attacks, Mr. Rove said to the applause of several hundred audience members, "I don't know about you, but moderation and restraint is not what I felt when I watched the twin towers crumble to the ground, a side of the Pentagon destroyed, and almost 3,000 of our fellow citizens perish in flames and rubble."

...Mr. Rove also said American armed forces overseas were in more jeopardy as a result of remarks last week by Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who compared American mistreatment of detainees to the acts of "Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime - Pol Pot or others."

"Has there ever been a more revealing moment this year?" Mr. Rove asked. "Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals."

Rather predictably, the right, from Michelle Malkin to Tom DeLay, has closed ranks and defended Rove's remarks as "the truth." (Malkin says Rove distilled "the fundamental difference between the left and the right's approaches to terrorism in the wake of 9/11.")

But there should be no real surprise that Rove made these remarks. They've been a long time coming. I mean, Ann Coulter published Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism two years ago. Sean Hannity's Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism came out a year ago. Michael Savage published The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith, and Military last year too. Meanwhile, there's been a steady drumbeat on the airwaves from Rush Limbaugh and his thousand little imitators making the same charges.

This is how propaganda is supposed to work: Circulate ideas on the popular level first, perhaps disguised as "humor" or "edgy commentary," until they become part of a broadly popular "conventional wisdom." Seemingly "outrageous" ideas gradually gain broader acceptance, leveraging the populace toward the movement's agenda. Then, when these notions are enunciated at the official and most powerful levels of government, any outrage that might be voiced is easily ignored. (Indeed, Rove's remarks are notable for being the embodiment of a panoply of propaganda techniques all rolled into one.)

Of course, I've been warning about the trend toward eliminationism for some time now. Some points I made in a more recent version of this are worth repeating:
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the resulting "war on terror" and subsequent invasion of Iraq all played major roles in fomenting this syndrome. At each step of the drama, liberals (increasingly defined as "anyone not in line with conservative movement dogma") in the media and elsewhere were accused of aiding and abetting the enemy, and increasingly became identified with the enemy. Manipulating a traumatized national psyche, the conservative movement throughout the drama began responding to its critics by mobilizing intimidation campaigns both from above and below, further shutting liberals off from national discourse, and doing their utmost to silence dissent, especially as its intiatives on a variety of fronts began producing grotesque disasters.

These campaigns played a decisive role in the way American journalists covered the misbegotten decision to invade Iraq, an invasion we now know was based on false pretenses. ...

What's important to understand is what the nature of these appeals -- and their self-evident success -- tells us simultaneously about the nature of the audience. Because the very nature of fundamentalist apocalypticism is profoundly dualist -- entirely contingent on a black-and-white Manichean worldview -- it is clear that the majority of at least the religious followers of the conservative movement are what is known as "totalists".

Fundamental to understanding totalitarianism is realizing that, contrary to the "brainwashing" model in which the totalitarian regime is imposed on a society from without and against their will, the reality is that nearly every totalitarian regime in history has succeeded because of the avid and willing participation of citizens eager to be its subjects.

As I've gone on to explain elsewhere, the emergence of Manichean totalism in the American electorate has become unmistakable in recent months. The open embrace of eliminationist rhetoric by the Bush administration, after years of propagandization by right-wing agitators that made this possible, raises the stakes to genuinely serious levels.

"Liberal hunting licenses" are only the ground-level expression of this rhetoric. If these sentiments were confined to a few bumper stickers by a handful of nutjobs, they might not be cause for concern. But there's a clear connection between Limbaugh's eliminationism aimed at liberals and its more explicit manifestations, just as there's a connection between Limbaugh's rhetoric and Rove's.

There are historical antecedents to this particular motif from right-wing hatemongers as well. The Klan and Aryan Nations, for instance, used to commonly circulate similar "nigger hunting license" as "jokes" (some dating back to the lynching era).

And then there were these, available in Seattle back in 1944:

And, lest we forget, it's perhaps helpful to observe what happened to the targets of these previous "hunting licenses":

We may comfort ourselves with the easy dismissal of such "jokes" as mere crude humor. But they are a signal of something much deeper, and much more dangerous.

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