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.