Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

There are Four Lights: Paranoia target as ideological clue

In Domestic Politics on March 7, 2010 at 5:00 pm

There is a famous episode of Star Trek, the Next Generation in which Captain Picard is tortured and psychologically manipulated in an attempt to break his will (yes, I realize that I have outed myself on the status of my pop-cultural taste). The  episode is really quite nice as a placeholder for a kind of heroic recalcitrance in the face of ideological manipulation. There are times when I feel the need to state the obvious –to channel my inner Picard.  Not to overdramatize the situation, but this feels like one of those times. Whatever others might like us to believe, the recent set of violent attacks on the government have something in common. These are not isolated tragedies.

The anti-government violence seems to be getting closer to home. We now have another terrible story of a young man who decided to attack the Pentagon single handedly in support of his idiosyncratic worldview. I am sure that this poor soul was not well. This may be something that we keep in mind when we judge other terrorists as well. In this case, we had the warning  of the family, who suggested that the man had purchased weapons and was in the grip of a set of ideas that could prove dangerous. This reminds me most of Abdulmutallab who would have downed a jet on Christmas. His effort was the last word after the passage of the health care bill in the Senate and before the Scott Brown victory. Association is intriguing if potentially spurious at times.

I think it is important to think historically about the form of American extremism. Remember the major finding in the political science literature that there is little ideological constraint in American public opinion. Just because you hold one idea, does not mean that you hold others that are logically associated with it. This holds at an individual level, but not necessarily at the group level. This means that we can find a set of ideas that characterize the ideal type of a group’s mind without finding much coherence in the individuals who comprise it. The more extreme the group, the more variable the correlations of disparate ideas one should expect to find, but the group may a kind of coherence of idiosyncrasy even of the  individuals are simply incoherent.

This would fit for the New Left of the 1960s, whose members espoused a variety of eclectic leftish views, many of which would not make sense to espouse together.  The lack of coherence of such views led to the creation of hippie tourism (the summer of love had tour buses), the remnants of which are with us today. It is fun to ogle others with whom one disagrees when the other’s views do not make much sense. Recently Jaywalking with Leno has much the same feel.

In trying to piece together the logic, such as it is, that seems to be on the rise in the America, we have to keep this principle in mind. The ideas that are tossed together might not make much sense, but there is a common vector of hatred that is revealed most tellingly by the terrorists choice of adversary. I insist on using the word terrorist, because I think that when one plots mass (large numbers) violence under the influence of an ideology, we have an act of terrorism. To find what the vector of hatred is, we should look to the set of events that cohere in their tactics and targets.

I am far from the first person to notice that in the past year we have three events that seem to fit a mode of operation. The first is the attack on the Holocaust museum, the second is the attack on the IRS building in Austin Texas and the third is this attack on the entrance to the Pentagon. In each of these events we had an attack on a government building, in which the assailant left behind a trail of literature that pointed in clear ways to his frame of mind.   In the Von Brunn case, it was a kind of virulent racism. In the Stack case, it was a kind of common man tax phobia. In this recent case, it may be something like 9/11 conspiracy meets libertarian. These views are not necessarily related and are not, in each individual case, so thoughtfully argued so that they reveal the political leanings of the extremists. But they do reveal that the nature of extremism has a common core that is developing. We have mixture of race anxiety, individualism and anti-authoritarian paranoia that is combined in eclectic and highly variable packages. It is not clear if this movement is more left or right in political views, but it is certainly not liberal or progressive. I think the best label we could muster would be something like liberty terrorism, because all the events have a libertarian tone.

There may be reason to suspect that the dislocations of this second wave of globalization are producing a round libertarian extremists much like the first wave in the nineteenth century produced a round of anarchist terrorists. We know that the extreme views are there; now we know that the extreme tactics are developing.

To get a sense of why the groups seem so variable and so mixed in their combinations of ideas, just consider the American church system. The doctrinal flexibility of the American church has long been noted as source of its strength in holding worshipers, in contrast to the fixed systems of Europe, where church attendance is much lower. What holds for American religion also holds for American politics. We have a wide variety of clutches in which your libertarian excesses can be rehearsed and cultivated. The groups that lash out at the progressive trend of the global political economy will be free to find their optimal mix of radical views. In many cases the extremists will not even be members of groups at all. This is the solipsistic asymptote of American individualism.

I am waiting to see the new logos for the movement. The best would be a play on the old anarchist examples. Put a letter L inside the letter O and you have it: the cry of the movement can be “Liberty is Order!” There are legitimating historical exemplars to draw upon. Here is a prototype logo.

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