Tag Archives: civil liberties

The Liberating Value of Reconciliation

Two things amaze me, again and again, about American enthusiasm for rancor in politics.

I. Vengeance welcomes and relishes any opportunities to humiliate or oppress one’s opponents, but shows no foresight of how this creates a precedent—a legal and cultural blueprint for how one could be destroyed by the same methods, once the enemies one has made have similar opportunities.

The ones who now clamor to deny their opponents freedom of political speech, and (for instance) demand putting conservatives on no-fly lists as punishment today seem to have no memory of putting antiwar activists and Muslims on them yesterday (figuratively speaking). They seem to have no imagination for how their own civil liberties could be curtailed in the future by other no-appeal persecutions and exclusions, if the supposedly-abominable category of beliefs were simply adjusted to a different definition, and re-assigned to one’s own group—just as it happened in this case!

And those of us who vividly remember how words like traitor, disloyal, sedition, unpatriotic, pro-terrorist, etc. were used to silence dissent during the post 9-11 administrations (not to mention, during the McCarthyite Cold War and before), have been very unhappy to witness the comeback of these rhetorical bludgeons, which have so often excused official crimes against civil liberties of valuable dissidents and whistleblowers, as well as minorities.

Nothing more enlightened or generous than long-term self-interest is necessary to realize the value of protecting civil liberties of people one doesn’t like, and vehemently disagrees with.

II. But another amazing thing is an evident incomprehension of the famous principle, divide and rule.

It seems the more gullible because we may observe eager divisiveness not only among the political class, but also among those who are essentially almost powerless, without influence, who pick up crumbs left in the jostling of corporatist plutocracy, party oligarchy, and inexorable bureaucracy. It’s not amazing at all that members of the political class and state—which is to say, the ruling class extended broadly beyond politicians and plutocrats to bureaucrats and policy experts, prosecutors, media and pundits, ideologues and activists, and invested enforcers—should deliberately engender rancor, with a stake and some means to profit by conflict. Even petty members of those guilds are at least in a position to gain attention, or status in an aggrieved group, if not other currency.

But of course, the fantasy everyone has is that they become part of the ruling class, because they take political action, or engage in political argument, or feel outraged. This is the fantasy helped along by media incitement and magnification of arguments, but also by the ideology of democracy, in which we are all supposedly included in the “power of the people.” In Grand Illusions, I explained how the fantasy works against any sensible assessment of one’s own power and influence, or rationally assessing the dog one might have in a fight. But it also leads to a strategy that cuts one’s own legs off, in terms of any ability to resist one’s true oppressors, or even to identify the true and implacable enemies of one’s liberty and opportunity to carve out a better life.

To seek understanding of one’s apparent opponents, instead of deliberately obscuring facts in order to score rhetorical points and humiliate them, and to try to find common ground instead of making all political opponents one disagrees with morally untouchable (with invective like “white supremacist” or “communist” or “Nazi” etc.) are both potent weapons against actual oppressors as judged by tangible measures.

Oppressors may comprise a quite different category from outstanding offenders, who attract so much attention by things they say, and essentially performative acts. Oppressors who control the state can continue quietly to appropriate billions or trillions of dollars in all, and subjugate or murder thousands of people. Whole industries fall so they could gain without earning, and whole communities perish at their whims. Meanwhile, it’s quite easy to take offense caused by someone who has caused little to no injury (whether because they were incapable, incompetent, or less malevolent than it seems)—and pay far better attention to that insult. Do not imagine then that the former category have any trouble seeing the value of distractions.

Politically-active Americans, like many who engage in politics around the world, have quite a lot of trouble with this realism. Politics rests on so much myth-making that offense feels more appreciable. Hysteria is easily caused by offense to pride or “desecration” of symbols.

But the truth is that even the most offensive persons who lack power have a great deal of trouble causing even a fraction of the harm done by “good intentions” and the vast power of a bureaucracy. Even outspoken, genuine racists are rendered marginal and trivial without state power, whereas the power of the state, were it sanitized of either true white supremacy or MAGA-style nativism, would continue to be used to oppress, either in favor of dozens of other ideologies and supremacies—nationalism and militarism among them—or simply for age-old self-aggrandizement, the enrichment of cronies and personal greed. The basic corruption of politicians, of the sort that regularly empowers lucrative war or police-state interests and accepts bribes from brutal autocrats, doesn’t harm its victims less than some grandiose goal for the state’s apparatus.

The fear that is sold by fearmongers is of course, Just wait! Destroy them now, or be terrified of what your enemies will do—would do—if you treat them like anything less than anathema. Look how offensive they already are! So called “conservatives” and “right-wingers” are often told they can’t reason with “liberals” and “left-wingers,” and vice versa, because the Other seeks to destroy all they hold dear.

This is the logic that never permits an end to war, and makes the war of politics perpetual.

Those who are not incorrigible suckers should ask themselves: who really profits from such a state of affairs—this Eternal State of antagonism? Well, who profits from a never-ending drug war? Who profits from a never-ending “war on terror”? Who—as a matter of fact—just managed to add a new category to the “terrorists” we must either be against, or with?

The continuing fantasy that we are part of the Good Fight, that we are relevant to a Good Fight, appeals to very basic emotions. These emotions obscure the incredible power disparity of “the state,” which is to say connected people, versus most other people. We haven’t the awesome power of legalized recourse to compulsion and violence, legal favoritism, and access to the “public money” taken from us en masse. Surely we can summon up some of that base resentment and anger instead against being tricked, fooled so miserably, for so very long.

The Political Correctness of Death Threats, and the positive right to not be offended

In a blog post I recommend, Katabasis writes about multiple cases in Britain in which “Three separate University Atheist / Secularist student societies have come under attack from islamists” but also politically-correct peers. One case involved a cartoon depicting “Jesus and Mo.” In another at Queen Mary:

students had organised a talk on ‘Sharia Law and Human Rights’. An Islamist thug turned up (with help apparently), filmed members of the audience and threatened violence against them if he heard of any “insult to the prophet”.

Having now spent some time with the Queen Mary students to find out first hand what happened I can tell you that these kids are feeling not only scared, but also very isolated. Not only do the various students unions involved in these debacles appear to be uncritcially taking the Islamist side against all reason, demanding that the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist societies censor themselves or – in the case of LSE – face expulsion from the Union, but I’ve heard a number of them asking ‘where is the left’?

The university “left,” mired in PC culture and allergic to offense to the point of a zealot’s intolerance in their own right, responded by attacking the victims of death threats such as beheading. Take for example the LSESU Socialist Workers Society statement: “The Atheist Society’s efforts to publish inflammatory “satirical” cartoons in a deliberate attempt to offend Muslims serve to highlight a festering undercurrent of racism.”

It is disgraceful but typical of PC reactionaries that actual oppression doesn’t matter compared to conceptualized victimhood—on behalf of someone else!—or rather some collective identity idol that’s not intended to be interactive or reflective of real people.

The entire account of the surreal PC university culture from the LSE Society is here and worth reading, as is the entire post by Katabasis, particularly to get a sense of just how serious these threats have been, and how unserious and inadequate the response of offense-policing censors and offense-averse police has been.

An American observer may note the irony here that the “creeping tide of sharia” feared by so many anti-Muslim bigots in America since 9-11 is to some extent a reality in exemptions from British law, but while almost exclusively nonviolent and mostly moderate Muslims have been persecuted extensively in the US, actual violent Islamists have been allowed to force their sensibilities of offense upon British society and threaten critics, while those critics have been dutifully attacked for stirring up trouble.

Non-white Muslims are among the special, protected groups under a sanctimonious, multicultural (that is, anti-white, anti-Western, and anti-Anglo) regime of victimhood—so much so that pretend religious adherence can be used as a defense for savagely attacking a woman for being white.

(Americans should also note that Britain is a country where people who defend themselves may be prosecuted, and will be excoriated by the politically correct. In that linked case, the woman’s boyfriend had the gall to fend off four women ripping her hair out, which in its threatening maleness was seen as a mitigating factor by the judge.)

The British infection is at a very advanced state. But I’m not talking about the Islamists, for if they were not treated to special rights to threaten others and impose their will by force, they would stop. Far worse is the cultural infection of pusillanimous political correctness which routinely blames real victims even as special victimhood is cultivated like a renewable resource.*

It’s a predictable disaster when people allow free speech to be trumped by the presumed right to not be offended.

This is an ideal occasion to explain the difference between negative rights and positive rights, the importance of the distinction, and why positive rights set a dangerous precedent.

Traditional, negative rights like freedoms of expression and private property are simply based on people being left alone to do what they will, or treated equally from an official legal perspective—like rights of the accused.

The “right not to be offended” is an example of a positive right. In order for you to not be offended, someone else has to be MADE to shut up. Who’s going to do that? And of course, someone has to determine what the fuck “offensive” means, even though it’s clearly in the eye of the beholder. So with that one pseudo-right, we would empower an entire social apparatus of political correctness to adjudicate and require compulsive thuggery on a massive scale if we wished to enforce it.

Officializing such a right makes these problems even worse, not only metastasizing the state to control citizens so they refrain from “offense,” but ensuring arguments over the official definition. Real illustrations extend from mandated censorship of “bad words” in broadcasts (see George Carlin’s seven dirty words routine) to censoring dissidents during every major war—for nothing is more offensive to jingoes.

Other examples of presumed (positive) rights include food, jobs, high wages, housing, etc. Someone else must be compelled to provide these things for you, so they inherently violate negative rights. They violate the freedoms not to be forced to serve others, or comply with the demands of others.

Positive rights aren’t rights in the traditional sense at all, they are demands on others.

It’s worth noting that “human rights” documents such as the European Convention on Human Rights and UN Declaration  make no proper distinction between the two, in addition to qualifying rights so that they are subject to interpretations of political and bureaucratic officials, and thus useless. The common public perception of human rights is a muddle between licenses to enable tyrannical demands in the name of good ends, and rights that were devices used to help ensure personal freedoms since the Magna Carta and more recently, the American Constitution.

*Addendum: In another stark indication of this abysmal cultivation of victimhood even at the expense of real victims, the violence, hooliganism, and thievery of opportunist rioters in 2011 provided an opportunity for many PC British leftists to sermonize about racial and economic justice, privilege, and other buzzwords, and lecture about the plight of the downtrodden in underprivileged welfare communities—never mind that many of those subsequently arrested turned out to have good jobs, and never mind that the rioters’ targets were often the local businesses serving these communities.

Why Some Political Issues Must Come First

Glenn Greenwald writes:

If you don’t really care about these issues — war, empire, the denial of due process, suffocating secrecy, ongoing killing of foreign civilians, oligarchical manipulation of the Fed and other government policies, militarized foreign policy and police practices, etc. —  then it’s easy to blithely dismiss the need to find some way [that Ron Paul provides] to challenge the bipartisan consensus on those issues.

One final point that should be made: I do not believe that the issues on which I principally focus are objectively The Most Important Ones. There are many issues of vital importance that I write about rarely or almost never: climate change, tax policy, abortion, even the issue which affects me most personally: gay equality. None of us can write about every issue meaningfully. The issues on which I focus are ones where I believe I can contribute expertise, or express views and points not being heard elsewhere. But there are many other issues of genuine importance, and I have no objection to those who, when forced to choose, prioritize those concerns over the ones about which I write most frequently. That is why I wrote — and meant — that “there are all sorts of legitimate reasons for progressives to oppose Ron Paul’s candidacy on the whole” and “it’s perfectly rational and reasonable for progressives to decide that the evils of their candidate [Obama] are outweighed by the evils of the GOP candidate, whether Ron Paul or anyone else.”

As much as I admire this guru of civil liberties, I think he’s wrong here, in practical terms. Some issues must sensibly come first, if others are to be considered at all.

For example: I would be very surprised if—assuming that Paul is not elected and nothing is done about spending and debt—the national-and-international debt house of cards collapses, the dollar is massively devalued, people are struggling to feed and clothe their families, and the worst thing gay Americans have to worry about is whether the state will sanction their marriage.

At least, in the worst-hit, most desperate communities, gays will not only find themselves scrabbling along with everyone else, but potentially defending themselves along with other minorities (including dissidents like myself), who are so often demonized and blamed during difficult times.

Outsiders by nature or circumstance—all those of unusual and outspoken beliefs, lifestyles, and minority identities—will find ourselves on the fringe of whatever new ‘mainstream’ emerges in many communities, which will almost certainly be intolerant. Lynchings and other attacks will occur. It’s worth remembering that the major factor behind lynchings in the South wasn’t an aimless “racism” but resentment over postwar devastation, economic suffering, and occupation that rendered Southern white men powerless and poor and hungry for someone even less powerful to hurt.

Even worse, in such a scenario it becomes rather likely that scared, angry and desperate people will resort to supporting a system or competing systems of abject fascism —especially given the burgeoning police-state precedents which no major candidate but Ron Paul has opposed—and it will almost certainly not be a gay-friendly or minority-friendly fascism but a fundamentalist-friendly one.

Reproductive rights aren’t very often thought about either when governments are hounded by hungry people and desperate to control or placate them. Control will include intrusions into personal life far greater than the bogeyman of potentially having to argue a legal case about abortion at a state level (the specter raised against states’ rights); placation will include pandering to powerful fundamentalist Christian interests who are intolerant of abortion or even birth control.

It will be easier to rule by dividing, and set groups against each other than to solve severe economic problems.

It also makes little sense to debate the greater importance of a positive-rights social issue such as gay marriage over traditional negative-rights civil liberties when the entire principle of open debate is being challenged, along with the right to protest. The time for debates over other issues is once, first, the right to debate is itself secured against imminent threats.

At present, only one presidential candidate in the US race can credibly claim to be devoted to defending the right to speak out against the government, and that is Ron Paul. The freedom of political speech, most especially including the right to attack the powerful, comes first in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights for a reason. Whether you admire all of Paul’s policies and ideas—who can expect this from a politician?—or detest some of them, or whether you like him or hate him personally is all irrelevant compared to that. We can’t even have that conversation without the right to speak out and disagree together.

The remaining Republican field and the sitting president are all, more or less, for criminalizing free speech and setting precedents which will erode this right for the future. For example, effective reporting and dissent from Wikileaks led to open threats by the Obama administration and threats against Julian Assange by openly fascist candidates such as Newt Gingrich, who called him an “enemy combatant”; only Ron Paul defended Wikileaks and Bradley Manning. The Obama administration also believes the president has the right to detain and assassinate citizens on the basis of activities formerly protected under the First Amendment, and to the general agreement of the Republican field save Ron Paul.  Even public discourse on the internet is under attack. The entire social climate since 2001 has increasingly become intolerant of differing opinions, and only one major candidate opposes this direction entirely.

Once precedents are set, it will be irrelevant why the measures were first enacted—for IP or for “terrorism.” They will be used for anything and every case in which the government or connected corporations wish to suppress free speech and open debate, just as anti-terror surveillance measures and other extralegal procedures provided under the Patriot Act were primarily used against suspects in the drug war, not accused terrorists.

This is not a time when we have the luxury of having whatever political priorities we like. We are genuinely under threat of fascist control and economic collapse. First, we must secure a minimal right to dissent and free spaces for debate in public, in print, and online, and for that we—civil or fiscal libertarians, classical liberals or progressive liberals, anarchists, individualists or communitarians, independents, left/right/miscellaneous—must work together. Then we can all worry about debating what we really want.

And yes, a similar rationale of priorities trumping social issues for progressives would also indicate that anarchists, nonvoters, and all those who perhaps sensibly refuse to participate in politics normally would be well-advised to consider that their luxury of non-participation is not guaranteed. Those like myself who object to the system in which we find ourselves coerced would prefer not to sanction it with participation, because we do not agree with its very existence. And yet, it is patently absurd to suggest that a voluntarist or anarchist has no immediate interest at stake between a lone neo-Jeffersonian presidential candidate and a field of police-state fascists presiding over an economy drowning in debt.

Again: first, we must secure a minimal right to dissent, and opportunities to make alternate cases to people who will care about something besides fear-based survival and finding someone to blame.  Then we can argue the abolition of the state. We should also expect this to be far easier with sympathetic Jeffersonians or even semi-libertarians than with authoritarians.