You know things have taken a weird turn when liberals start sounding like members of the American Legion. There are some words I just don’t use, because you can’t use them without sounding like a goddamned Republican. And “sedition” is one of them.
Sara Robinson, a fellow at Campaign for America’s Future who also writes for David Neiwert’s blog, has a column out accusing the anti-government Right of sedition. Well, sort of, anyway. It’s hard to tell, because her column is–ahem–less than perfectly coherent.
In some places she says that only groups like the Hutaree have crossed the line to actual sedition (defined as “creating a revolt, disturbance, or violence against lawful civil authority with the intent to cause its overthrow or destruction”) by planning violent attacks on the government. And she tries to make it clear that even advocating the overthrow of the government, as such, is protected speech. Only overt acts meet the standard of actual sedition.
But her statement of principle is obviously only a tip of the hat. If she stuck to the line that only those engaged in actual violence were guilty of sedition, and that advocating the overthrow of the government was protected speech, it would undermine the whole point–which is to hit the anti-government Right over the head with the word “sedition.” She does this by arguing that, even if they’re not technically guilty of actual sedition, and even if their anti-government rhetoric is technically protected speech, they’re still morally culpable for creating an atmosphere that facilitates sedition by “systematically delegitimizing the very idea of US government.” They “mismanage and defund” government when in power, refuse to participate in good faith in governing when out of power, attempt to “thwart the democratic process,” and resort to polarizing rhetoric that makes the country ungovernable.
All this, Robinson says, is “sedition in slow motion, a gradual corrosive undermining of the government’s authority and capability to run the country.” What’s more, that’s been “at the core of their politics going all the way back to Goldwater.”
In other words, despite all her disclaimers, Robinson considers even those engaged in Goldwater’s level of anti-government rhetoric as guilty–even if not technically and legally–at least morally of sedition.
What’s more, even using the language of “populist revolt” is an appeal to sedition. Robinson intends for “Progressives” to draw a line in the sand, and to demand the anti-Big Gummint voices on the Republican Right either explicitly avow their intention to overthrow the United States government by force (and “follow through, and face the charges”), or stop using the language of populist revolt altogether. “They’re either Americans, committed to working in good faith within the democratic process to create our common future; or else they’re seditionists in intention or fact–and thus enemies of the state, plain and simple.”
I think the term Robinson’s actually looking for is “seditious libel”: language that tends to defame, discredit, criticize, impugn, embarrass, challenge, or question the government, its policies, or its officials. And that’s clearly the kind of language, coming from the Right, that Robinson treats as seditious in spirit. In this, she puts herself in good company with previous enemies of sedition: blue-nose, powdered-wig conservatives like John Adams, and the know-nothing Legionnaires and Red Squads who rounded up Wobblies and Socialists during the War Hysteria under Woodrow Wilson. In both cases, they were guilty of calling into question the legitimacy of the state, using language that called it into disrepute, undermining the moral authority needed to carry out its policies, and in some cases directly impeding the execution of those policies.
In the pink-ass, “Why Mommy is a Democrat,” suburban world of most mainstream liberals, apparently, the bounds of permissible non-seditious discourse are pretty limited. It doesn’t take much of a deviation from plain vanilla-flavored, managerial-professional centrism to qualify one as an extremist–at least when liberals are in power.
My, how things have changed. Back in August 2006 Keith Olbermann, in response to Rumsfeld’s suggestion that critics of the Iraq war were “disloyal,” warned that the country was threatened by “a new type of fascism”: “This is a Democracy. Still. Sometimes just barely…. The confusion is about whether this Secretary of Defense, and this Administration, are in fact now accomplishing what they claim the terrorists seek: The destruction of our freedoms…”
That sounds pretty damned seditious. He wasn’t just disagreeing with the wisdom of the government’s policy; he was attacking the very motives and intentions of those at the helm of the state, accusing them of encompassing the desruction of our freedoms. Now Olbermann’s the one throwing around the word “treason” just about every time you turn on his show.
Just in passing, it’s amazing how Olbermann et al have mirrored the Right, in de-radicalizing the American Revolution and its aftermath, turning it into just another patriotic foreign war against Britain rather than a seditious overthrow of the legitimate government authority here at home. Regardless of what Chris Matthews says, the Gadsden Flag wasn’t just aimed at a “foreign enemy,” as opposed to governments here at home. And regardless of what Mark Potok says, Jefferson’s remarks about the Tree of Liberty and blood of tyrants didn’t just refer to participating in the political process to change the government.
The problem with Robinson’s standard of seditious libel is, it hits me way too close to where I live on the Left. See, I constantly engage–and the people I admire most on the Left have engaged–in casting doubt on the legitimacy and moral authority of the state.
For example: if you read the books by William Blum and Noam Chomsky on the history of U.S. foreign policy, it becomes pretty clear that the atrocities and crimes against humanity weren’t just “mistakes” or “excesses” that sometimes occurred in the execution of a policy whose primary goal was to promote peace and human freedom; the aims of the policies themselves were crimes against humanity. The foreign policies of the U.S. government, throughout the 20th century and right up to today, were the policies of a class state–a state serving as executive committee of the corporate ruling class. The wars of the U.S. government have all been fought in the primary interest of a corporate system of world order. As Howard Zinn put it: “there has always been, and is today, a profound conflict of interest between the government and the people of the United States.” Now if that doesn’t qualify as undermining the moral authority of the U.S. government, calling its legitimacy into question, I don’t know what does.
When Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, USMC, ret., said he’d been a high-class muscle man, a racketeer, a global enforcer for American corporate interests, either he met Robinson’s standard for the “moral equivalent of sedition,” or no one does.
And speaking of Zinn, his People’s History of the United States is packed from beginning to end with examples of how the U.S. government has functioned, not as an instrument for “all of us working together,” not as an instrument of the “national interest” or “general welfare,” but as a class state whose main purpose has been to enable the people who own the country to feed off of those who live and work in it.
Glen Greenwald, writing of the recent video on WikiLeaks of American troops gleefully slaughtering civilians in Iraq, pointed out that the slaugher was “not an aberration”: “it’s par for the course, standard operating procedure, what we do in wars, invasions, and occupation. The only thing that’s rare about the Apache helicopter killings is that we know about it and are seeing what happened on video.”
And as with previous cases, in which “bad apples” like William Calley or Lynndie England took the fall, the real criminals–the real monsters–are soft-spoken, unassuming men with manicured fingernails, sitting in tastefully appointed offices at the highest levels of power. I don’t see how one can publicly acknowledge this without falling afoul of Robinson’s standard of seditious libel.
Because the fact of the matter is, the U.S. government has pursued evil ends, has served the desire of wicked men for unearned wealth, and left a monstrous trail of blood and devastation in so doing. The U.S. government has lied and manipulated the American people into war after war to meet manufactured foreign “threats,” when the real “threat” it had in mind was the threat to global corporate power. It has overthrown democratically elected governments whose main crime was land reform. It has backed military coups and military torturers, including the domino chain of coups Kissinger instigated in South America, and provided fraternal aid to terrorist death squads, with the blood of millions of innocent people on the hands of every American president since at least the mid-20th century.
When the U.S. government acts on the side of wickedness, I cheerfully admit to being on the side of those who obstruct and thwart the execution of its criminal policies. When the Wobblies organized West Coast longshoremen to obstruct the shipping of materiel to Iraq, I cheered them on. And if either Bush or Obama had launched a military attack on Iran or Venezuela, I’d have wished for Sunburn missiles to sink every carrier group involved to the bottom of the ocean.
That’s the problem: I don’t know of any standard of seditious libel, of undermining the legitimacy and moral authority of the United States government, that wouldn’t catch me, Chomsky, Zinn and Greenwald in the net, along with all those right-wingers.
We live under a class state, a system of class rule, and the machinery of the corporate state serves the interests of that class rule. “Moderates” and “centrists,” by definition, are those who accept that system as fundamentally legitimate in all its essentials, and just want to tinker around the edges of corporate rule without altering its fundamental nature.
I refuse to accept it as legitimate, or to play nice within the lines of acceptable discourse that Robinson draws.
If this be sedition, then make the most of it.
Addendum. Reason Magazine’s Jesse Walker brought this Sara Robinson quote to my attention (from “Fascist America: Are We There Yet?”):
“All through the dark years of the Bush Administration, progressives watched in horror as Constitutional protections vanished, nativist rhetoric ratcheted up, hate speech turned into intimidation and violence, and the president of the United States seized for himself powers only demanded by history’s worst dictators. With each new outrage, the small handful of us who’d made ourselves experts on right-wing culture and politics would hear once again from worried readers: Is this it? Have we finally become a fascist state? Are we there yet?”
Accusing the Bush administration of seizing dictatorial power, conspiring in a fascist alliance with terroristic brownshirt elements of the population, etc…. Sounds pretty damned seditious to me. It certainly seems like something that would poison the well, and undermine the government’s moral authority and ability to govern. And it sounds like something she’d call seditious if Michelle Bachmann said it about Obama.
But maybe it depends on who’s making the accusation, or on whether the accusation is “true” or not, rather than on the material substance and tone of the accusation itself. IOKIYAAL (It’s OK If You Are A Liberal)?
For the record, I was afraid the Bush administration was enthusiastically seizing dictatorial powers, and that the demographic elements that went on to form the Tea Party base really were more prone to eliminationist rhetoric, authoritarianism and violence than liberal Democrats. I believe I described them in a previous column as seeming likely to bite the heads off of snakes or start speaking in tongues.
And for the record, I find Obama a lot less scary than Bush. He’s left most of the bureaucratic apparatus of dictatorial executive power in place, and shown a lot less enthusiasm about dismantling it after the election than he was before. But he seems a lot less into it than Bush and especially Cheney, if you know what I mean–especially compared to Cheney, who really did seem all gung ho for asserting dictatorial claims like Charles I before the Civil War. And as I’ve indicated before, I find the people at “townhall meetings” about “fascism” and “Marxism” and “death panels” quite distasteful.
But that’s all beside the point. If accusations of a certain nature are out of bounds, they’re out of bounds for everybody. Either Mrs. Robinson must alter her definitions of “extremism” and “sedition” to allow broad attacks on the basic intentions and trustworthiness of those controlling the state, or she is hoist by her own petard.