It is not controversial to assert that the values, ideals, and opinions held by people on social and political matters vary in accordance with their place on the political spectrum. What if, however, it was posited that on one end of this spectrum, politics consists not only of pursuing stated aims, but also of crafting codewords and rhetoric designed to lure in others who would not otherwise be interested in those aims? Judging from the output of its vast array of columnists, pundits, and intellectuals, the modern American Right perfectly fits this description. For it is the rare conservative who will openly declare from the outset that he is in favor of waging war on weaker nations, cutting down safeguards for disadvantaged citizens, heaping aid upon the wealthy, plundering the environment, and so on. Far more common is the conservative who, in pursuing these very same aims, will invoke with much sincerity the cherished terms of security, responsibility, freedom, and optimism. It would be helpful, I think, if we took a look at a few of the very carefully constructed frameworks, codewords, and values invoked by the Right and see how they match up against actual reality.
This seems straightforward enough: terrorism is the act of terrorizing someone. In a political context, you could terrorize a whole population in myriad ways: kill citizens at random, kill them systematically, steal their land, plunder their resources, imprison them through physical confinement, starve them economically with embargoes or blockades, sabotage their society by installing puppet leaders, and so on.
But when the Right uses the word â€œterrorism,â€ they are never referring to anything but the first listed form of terrorism â€“ that is, the form employed some extreme Islamist groups. Needless to say this is a very convenient misappropriation, since all the other forms of terrorism have been and continue to be widely employed by the United States and Israel, with much more destructive results than anything Islamists have been able to inflict.
So for instance, if around 100,000 Iraqis have been killed mostly by US air bombing, thatâ€™s not terrorism. If 1,000,000 Iraqis died from US-led economic sanctions, thatâ€™s not terrorism. If thousands of Afghans and Palestinians have been killed by US-made military hardware, like tanks and fighter jets and sniper guns, thatâ€™s not terrorism.
In the Rightâ€™s universe, terrorism only happens when a Muslim commits violence. The violence inflicted upon the Muslim, neatly excised from the definition of terrorism, is not reclassified under any other category â€“ except perhaps benevolence. Usually it simply slips down the memory hole.
This is a term the Right uses to clean up the contradictions left behind by their distortion of the word â€œterrorism.â€ For instance, if you talk about foreign civilians killed in the wars weâ€™ve started to illustrate that we too have committed terrorism, thatâ€™s called â€œmoral equivalencyâ€ â€“ the equating of non-American lives with American ones, an apparent crime under the moral rubric of conservatism. Likewise, pointing out that many more Palestinians than Israelis have been killed (not to mention occupied, tortured, expropriated, etc.) in that conflict is also â€œmoral equivalencyâ€ – committing the sin of assigning non-white, non-Western life the same worth as that accorded to Israeli life.
The exchange rate for American-Israeli life vis-Ã -vis Arab-Muslim life varies depending on the conflict and time period. Looking at 9-11 casualties (3,000) versus Iraqi casualties for this war (100,000) the going rate is around 33:1 â€“ every 33 of their innocents killed matters as much as every one of ours. Of course, that would assume someone saying Americans and Muslims have both attacked each other â€œequallyâ€ â€“ an already racist position but once which the ultra-racist American Right considers anathema.
Usually the bare logic of this expression is concealed with concocted moral outrage over the specific method used by the enemy â€“ suicide attacks, beheadings, and guerrilla war. So supposedly killing a civilian from the safety of your tank or airplane is more morally sound than blowing yourself up to achieve the same end, and being caught by a reporter on camera shooting a wounded person lying on the ground – or taking photos of torture yourself for amusement – is better than videotaping killing a person. Exacting standards, no doubt.
No word has fallen prey to political evisceration more than this one. Certainly it has inspiring connotations, but in reality you can have the â€œfreedomâ€ to live without fear as well as the â€œfreedomâ€ to impose fear on somebody else. You can be free from killing, or free to kill. The dual capacity of this word is very useful for the Right.
For instance, it can justify breaking unions by giving workers the â€œfreedomâ€ to not join unions, even though unions are historically a major gain for the working class in the struggle against employersâ€™ greed, and all the figures clearly show unionized workers fare much better than their non-unionized counterparts in terms of pay, benefits, and job security. But who can question the power of the freedom to suffer?
Heralded with similar misty-eyed melodramatics is the â€œfreedomâ€ afforded by â€œfreeâ€ market solutions to economic issues. After all, what better prescription for a problem than to grant â€œfreedomâ€? Of course here we mean freedom for businessmen to decide the fate of everyone working under them and the environment they inhabit without bearing consequences themselves. This very approach is being heralded in the effort to eviscerate social security: take away the money from â€œevil government bureaucratsâ€ and hand it over to less accountable – but somehow less evil – stock-brokerage firms.
A key component of the Rightâ€™s supposed notion of â€œrugged individualismâ€ is the insistence that the plight of any individual in society is mainly, if not solely, the result of some flaw in that individualâ€™s personality or behavior. Sniggering contempt is displayed for anyone who tries to highlight the flaws of the actual social system in which the individual lives. Anyone who canâ€™t find employment or fails to advance in some field need only hang his head at his own stupidity, weakness, or whatever other personal shortcoming; all other actors and agents on the social scene are absolved of responsibility.
But this ethic is applied with extreme selectiveness: poor people, minorities, oppressed groups, and the working-class are sternly instructed to adhere to this protocol, but the business elite and their government friends are neatly exempted.
Hence, businesses are allowed to â€œexternalize costsâ€ â€“ let owners reap maximum short-term profits by offloading longer-term consequences of production on the health of employees and the environment. Wealthy corporations also hold out their hands so they can stuff into their bulging pockets public money – generously thrown to them by the government â€“ as â€œcorporate subsidies,â€ thus avoiding the perilous fate meted out to less fortunate souls in the glorious free-market system. Failing businesses run by grossly overpaid managers are also free to slash wages, benefits, and jobs of those underneath them to cut down costs which ballooned only because of their own incompetence, forcing employees to cope with unpredictable and sometimes dire consequences for their bossesâ€™ mistakes.
Precisely the same sorry, irresponsible, trend can be observed in government behavior in foreign policy. The vast reservoir of growing hatred and resentment felt by hundreds of millions of people around the world for America is the direct result of this governmentâ€™s underwriting of major atrocities across the globe â€“ a fact openly recognized this year in the form of two major reports, one by the Defense Science Board and the other by the National Intelligence Council.
And because we live in the ugly untidy world of reality and not on an ideal fantasy island, people victimized by US aggression abroad (be it torture, mass bombardment, or supporting puppet dictators) do not necessarily make neat and clean distinctions between government agents and civilians. Therefore, America saw September 11th, a day on which thousands of innocents were murdered because the US government betrayed them, by (a) funding the very same cast of characters who struck the towers back when they were deemed â€œfreedom fightersâ€ for combating Soviet Marxism, and (b) leaving American civilians to deal with the fatal consequences of the eliteâ€™s power and profit-driven meddling in the Middle East. Just another case of externalized costs.
This remarkable codeword is ensconced within the general framework of the earlier-dissected term moral equivalency, but deserves individual treatment because of its popularity among rightists, who reach to it almost intuitively. The basic premise is that affirmative action – for blacks in college considerations for instance â€“ is merely racism in reverse, and therefore inherently unfair against whites. The very basis of the complaint operates on one of three assumptions at any given time: it denies the history of blacks being on the receiving end of an inherently unfair system of discrimination in the first place; assumes somehow that an equalization of opportunity has magically taken place very recently; or posits that since blacks are of less value than whites, their history of oppression is irrelevant and need not be compensated for.
The point was starkly illustrated when rightists on some college campuses set up politicized bakery sales in which whites had to pay a higher price for baked goods than blacks. Using the same setup, however, the point can also be utterly demolished. The bake sale demonstration completely covers up the historical reality preceding affirmative action â€“ that is, it does not take into account the centuries of affirmative action enjoyed by whites. After all, if the bake sale demonstration was historically representative, for nine-tenths of the time the sale was going on it would have to be blacks who pay a higher price, since for centuries whites have, still speaking figuratively, been buying up the baked goods at far less cost than blacks. More bluntly, blacks were either slaving away under the white whip to produce the â€œgoodsâ€ or producing them at such a menial wage to make them affordable to white consumers.
To paraphrase Cornel West, the choice is between letting blacks face a job environment in which they will be discriminated against, or letting blacks face a job environment in which they will be discriminated against, with institutionalized mechanisms to grant them some protections. At its heart, the argument against affirmative action simply reflects the fact that we still live in a racist society. The uproar over affirmative action-type programs, then, only validates the need to have them there in the first place.
An all-encompassing mythical boogeyman held responsible for every problem in America, the â€œliberal eliteâ€ is ultimately a projection of cultural-conservative angst. Cultural conservatives consider themselves as victims, people seriously persecuted by a contemptuous, snobbish cabal of better-educated, better-paid people ensconced mainly in Hollywood, academia, and gay clubs nationwide, who indulge in fancy, foreign-oriented brands and are disconnected from practical reality.
The power of this concept lies in the fact that, at its root, it is a class-based complaint. Because the left has been in a state of paralysis, the concept of class antagonism locating the capitalists as the bad guys keeping down working people has been pilfered and re-engineered by the right. The liberals are now painted as the parasites, who are responsible for the (very real) hardships endured by the working-class. Capitalism is not even mentioned in this new model, so millionaires like Bush preserve an aura of being an â€œeverymanâ€™s manâ€ even though their income, assets, and power place them far above any such standing, and the reality of capitalismâ€™s role in social decay is substituted for the myth of the liberal cabal.
More disturbingly, other ill effects of capitalismâ€™s divide and conquer effect on working people â€“ aggravation of racism, sexism, and nationalism â€“ has produced in part a white working class that exhibits all these features in an extreme form. They tend to blame blacks, gays, women, and immigrants for their plight. This is all infused with class anger aimed at wealthier professional workers – who are in fact usually more progressive in their outlook – creating a very noxious and bitter form of right-wing populism.
The mobilization of this populist sentiment has been a very effective tool in bludgeoning even mildly progressive ideas, vis-Ã -vis the demonization of those celebrities who hold some moderately progressive views. Derided as â€œlimousine liberals,â€ their great crime, apparently, is to have some concern for those less fortunate than themselves, while not themselves being less fortunate. So what we end up with is a bizarre process whereby rich people who are reactionaries use the class resentment of the white working-class to attack rich people who are semi-progressive, thus discrediting the very notion of progressive ideas among a large portion of these white workers.