Monday, January 17, 2011

Illegitimacy and Violence

I've written this before, but these are the two questions I have in the debate over violent political rhetoric:
A) Is the large quantity of extreme rhetoric dangerous?
B) Is there more of it coming from the right?
I return to them because they still do not seem to have been answered very well.  Yet some clarity is needed in sorting out just where violent rhetoric comes from.  We know that it has historically been responsible for violence, and so we must think seriously about what is being said.

I'm not sure we can be certain about the first question. But it seems perfectly reasonable to assume so, especially considering the acts of violence we have seen that were specifically political, the worst of course being the Oklahoma City bombing.

I think we can be very certain about the second question. While extreme or violent rhetoric can also be found on the left, it doesn't exist in anywhere near the volume it does on the right. I think the main reason for this is that the violent language always seems to come from a sense of deep mistrust of an institution's legitimacy. In the 60's this was the government for the left. For eco-terrorists, this would be logging companies. For animal rights groups, research labs. But for the most part, the left has become quite centrist, favoring a strong balance of government and free markets.

The right however, is still in many forms preaching the illegitimacy of the government. Very high-profile figures on the right have expressed this view in clear language. It is no wonder then, that the instances of obviously violent rhetoric were based on this assumption, that our very existence as a nation is imperiled by an oppressive, illegitimate government.

There are many drivers of this view. And every paranoid conspiracy promoted on the right has been rooted in the question of legitimacy: FEMA camps, birthers, socialism, death panels, federal reserve, NAFTA highway, gun confiscation. These are all part of a narrative that the government is somehow on the verge of radical transformation, an imminent threat to our most basic liberties. Even without the crazy conspiracies, a modest form of this narrative is driving at least a majority of the current conservative movement.

So when people point to specific statements and argue over whether it was or was not a "call for violence", I think they are missing the larger point. An ecosystem which views the government not just as wrong yet functioning democratically, but wrong and functioning undemocratically, is defining that government as illegitimate. This is the definition of tyranny. And, as many on the right have pointed out, extra-governmental problems require extra-governmental solutions.

This is actually a popular debate happening on the right right now. At what point are we justified in violent revolt against an illegitimate government? It is a question that our founders obviously grappled with, and the tea party is a literal reflection of that sentiment. Whether you agree or not, the right is very concerned that we are reaching that point. Thus the talk of 2nd amendment rights/remedies, secession, and the "shredding of the constitution".

The left is simply not there. We were, decades ago. But not today. The reason you don't hear the same kind of rhetoric on the left is that there is no narrative for it, like there is on the right. Is the rhetoric dangerous? I think so. I think it comes from the exact place that the Oklahoma City bombing came from, along with countless militia groups and weapon stock-pilers. Most of this is just lazy thinking. And I'm not so worried that there will be any kind of armed revolt. But it is a climate in which weirdos can thrive. If serious thinkers are calling the government illegitimate, then it stands to reason that unserious thinkers are going to take the next step and blow up a building.

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