Tuesday, June 11, 2013

authoritarianism from the inside

The conceit of this piece by Josh Marshall is that there's some great mystery to why some people feel differently than he does about whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. In fact it's brutally simple: Marshall sees nothing to fear from authority and the state, because he is one of the Chosen People of authority and the state. Meanwhile, those who are not among the elect fear and distrust authority, because it daily oppresses them. This fear and distrust is as rational as a thing can be, but Marshall cannot bring himself to believe in it.

Marshall has that in common with Jeffrey Toobin, Richard Cohen, and David Brooks: no reason to fear the police state. Why should they? They are, all of them, American aristocrats: white, male, rich, and properly deferential to anyone with a title or a badge or authority or an office. Of course they don't know why anyone would worry about limitless surveillance. They themselves have nothing to fear because they are the overclass. They can't imagine what it might be like to be Muslim or black or poor or to have any other characteristic that removes them from the ranks of the assumed blameless.

But the story of America is the story of people with reason to fear power. It's the story of how very dangerous it can be to find oneself outside of the overclass, how relentlessly the state and the moneyed work to crush difference. Marshall's notion that men like Manning and Snowden should simply have backed off and played by the rules is one of the most consistent and dishonest messages in American political history. It was the message delivered to the AIDS activists who are profiled in How to Stop a Plague. It was the message delivered to Martin Luther King and the rest of the Civil Rights movement. It was the message delivered to the suffragettes. It was the message delivered to the abolitionists. It was the message delivered to the American revolutionaries. In each case, self-serious men told those who perceived themselves to be oppressed and suffering to get on board and play by the rules, in deference to the community.

Would Marshall have told the Black Panthers that they should have colored within the lines? Would he have told them that they had nothing to fear from the state? Ask Fred Hampton if he had anything to fear from the security state. I don't know how Marshall would regard the Black Panthers. He might be the type of liberal to cluck his tongue at their radicalism. The other movements I mentioned have all become lacquered in bronze in the American mind, and I don't doubt that he'd rush to say that of course he would have supported their movements. And that, really, is the contemporary American liberal in its Platonic state: supportive of all resistance movements, so long as they live in history. Today's movements never rate. They are too challenging, too impolite.

That's part of Corey Robin's point, in this post. He points out that Brooks's limp appeals to family and community are in keeping with traditional methods used to bring radicals and subversives to heel. For someone like Brooks, there's no contradiction between communal fidelity and deference to power. His community is power. His family is the overclass. He wants you to defer to society because he knows no society but the society of the comfortable, of the safe, of the privileged. Perhaps Josh Marshall has, in the realm of pure theory, a greater regard for those who find themselves outside of the benevolent embrace of the American establishment. But as he demonstrates, he cannot see to really understand what it means to be disfavored by power, to be disfavored by government. Again and again in the past few days, we have read people delivering some version of the same argument. "I don't see what they have to worry about." That's the real crime, of the people who attack Edward Snowden instead of grappling with what it means to be a subversive in the eyes of the state: a profound failure of imagination.

15 comments:

Novanglus said...

Yes! You've said it right, man! To me, this aspect of Marshall, this not very deeply buried authoritarianism, is what most strongly emerges from his reaction to Snowden. Frankly, I find it repellent, and it has been the nail in the coffin for me with regard to TPM. When you're The Man, The Man doesn't look so bad.
Marshall does have a type that seems to recur throughout American history -- you can find him in the 1770s, the 1830s, the 1850s, and of course, today.

ohtarzie said...

Well said.

Freddie said...

Thanks.

Phil Perspective said...

And it sure is interesting coming 2 weeks, or so, after Marshall's off-the-record visit to the White House.

jcapan said...

As Colbert said of our adversarial press corps-tiers:

The President makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!


Ethan Gach said...

I can handle the disagreement and the concern trolling--but so much of the naysaying has reached levels of condescension and hypocrisy that make me physically ill.

Abonilox said...

Best summary I've read. No shame for these guys. Privilege must be protected. Also appreciated your recent bit on Sullivan although I think he's a lost cause.

PR said...

Excellent analysis.

Skye said...

The Second Bank of the United States was the forerunner to the modern surveillance state in terms of the discourse arrayed in support of it.
Henry Clay (defender of the Bank and the overclass and 'great compromiser') told the Senate in 1833, "We are in the midst of a revolution...If Congress do not apply an instantaneous and effective remedy, the fatal collapse will soon come on, and we will die--ignobly die--base, mean, and abject slaves; the scorn and contempt of mankind; unpitied, unwept, unmourned!"


[quote from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. The Age of Jackson]

TGGP said...

I agree with you, but Manning & Snowden are both white males (part of the military-industrial complex, no less!) like you. I would not assume that members of the national media are less pro-leak than the rest of the general public. It's possible, but I don't know. I think you're pre-existing complaints about Marshall, Brooks and so on are distorting your view of the reasons they disagree with you and I on the leaks.

ohtarzie said...

"I would not assume that members of the national media are less pro-leak than the rest of the general public. "

Polls are indicating that the public is roughly split down the middle. I had a discussion recently with someone about opinion and class and was struck by how polls that actually differentiate results based on income of 100k or thereabout for their cutoff. In other words, there is no way to identify gaps between the rabble and the elite.

The closest things we have to regular surveys of opinions held by people who are more or less immune to state violence are the op-ed pages of the New York Times and WaPo, cable news pundits and the US Senate, all of which seem to confirm Freddie's point.

ohtarzie said...

It bears mentioning, though, that even among elites, Josh Marshall is among the select who actually get their talking points from the president.. There is no way he is going to diverge from Dear Leader on this one. A lot of these people are arguing backwards from career-mandated positions.

Heliopause said...

Can we just come to terms with the fact that a certain percentage of the populace are cult-of-personality liberals? It just keeps happening; a few percent change their minds, sometimes overnight, on issues such as civil liberties, drones, Guantanamo, marriage equality, chained CPI, and on and on.

Heliopause said...

How about this survey from Gallup:

http://www.gallup.com/poll/163043/americans-disapprove-government-surveillance-programs.aspx

Different surveys can yield different results as we know, but what's interesting here is the partisan breakdown. Greatest supporters of the recently revealed programs? Democrats.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Considering that the civil rights marchers managed to get massive legal change enacted, while the Panthers revolutionary pose achieved nothing but a lot of gunfire and death, I'd say "color inside the lines" would have been very good advice for Fred Hampton to take. If you truly believe you have something to fear from the state, then you'd best treat it with the care you'd give a dangerous animal, rather than poking it with a stick. Encouraging people to poke it with a stick means either you don't really believe you have something to fear---you're like a kid throwing rocks at a chained dog---or you want someone else to be so inspired by your urgings that they get themselves sacrificed and can become as a convenient martyr to keen over.