It seems the right doesn’t have a monopoly on American exceptionalism, after all. We’re all used to hearing right-wingers like Liz Cheney using “American exceptionalism” as a shibboleth for weeding out heresy in the foreign policy realm.
But liberals have their own version of that doctrine when it comes to the domestic functions of the state, apparently.
Recently I saw Ed Schultz on MSNBC, in the context of a story on the murdered census worker in Kentucky, running a clip of Michelle Bachmann’s comments. She claimed that census data had been used by the government in the past to round up American citizens (namely the Japanese-American Nisei on the West coast in early 1942). “The government rounding up American citizens?” Schultz asked incredulously. “That goes beyond psycho talk.”
Now, I’ll be the first to stipulate that Michelle Bachmann goes beyond psycho.
But Schultz acted as though the idea of the U.S. government rounding citizens up was so ludicrous, on its very face, as not to deserve refutation.
Why? Because the U.S. government is run by the kinds of angels that James Madison wrote of? Because the American people are uniquely predisposed to resist authoritarianism? Or just because there’s something “different” about the American genetic makeup, or maybe something different in the water here?
The idea of the U.S. government as an object of fear, that its growing police state powers might be used against the American people for the wholesale suppression of dissent, is hardly a right-wing preserve, as Schultz seems to suggest.
There have been plenty of left-wingers, like Frank Morales and Alexander Cockburn, who have chronicled with a great deal of alarm the upward ratcheting of the police state apparatus over the past three decades. And there were plenty of left-wingers, myself among them, who freely used the words “dictatorship” and “dictatorial” to describe the powers conferred on the U.S. government by USA PATRIOT and the weakening of the Posse Comitatus Act.
I vividly recall my own reaction, waking up on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, to hear the news of the WTC bombings on my clock radio. My first thought was not of the danger of further Al Qaeda attacks, or of the possibility that they would present a significant threat to the average American. I figured my chances of getting hurt by Al Qaeda were about as great as getting hit by lightning. No, I immediately thought of the heightened danger from the U.S. government. My first thought was “Well, Bush and Ashcroft will probably be able to railroad through the FBI’s entire laundry list of police state measures they didn’t manage to force through after the Oklahoma City bombing.” My next thought was “And they’ll give the national security state a blank check to make the world safe for corporate power, in the name of ‘fighting terrorism.’” And guess what my third thought was? “Oh, shit. My Wobbly red card’s probably gonna get me put in an internment camp before this is over.”
Anyone who thinks there’s something unique in the water or in the average person’s genetic makeup that means “It can’t happen here,” should bear in mind that it already has happened here—many times.
A few years ago Peggy Treiber, a local liberal columnist here in Northwest Arkansas, wrote a pro-gun control column ridiculing the idea of private firearm ownership as a defense against government tyranny. It was unthinkable, she said, that the government would turn against its own people.
Now, if she’d read Howard Zinn’s account of American history, she’d consider it more remarkable if the U.S. government ever STOPPED engaging in repressive action against its own people. My God, the most important direct spur to the formation of the U.S. government in the first place was Shays’ Rebellion. The people who’d fought the Revolution, seeing the Massachusetts state government taken over by the same Court Party that had governed them under the royal charter, decided it was time for another revolution. As a result, the Federalist clique of war bond speculators, mercantile and landed interests, seeing their own party almost defeated by a popular uprising in Massachusetts, perceived an urgent need for a strong central government to be ready to restore order when people like Shays’ militia took that “democracy” nonsense too seriously.
Since then, political repression of the left and of racial minorities has been a common theme throughout American history. Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, carried out mass arrests of political prisoners during the war hysteria and Red Scare. Whether or not census data was actually used, FDR did in fact round up thousands of Japanese-Americans completely outside the framework of law. The McCarran Internal Security Act provided for preventive detention of “subversives” in the event of a national emergency, and a long series of Executive Orders issued under Eisenhower and Kennedy gave the U.S. government comprehensive power to nationalize the economy and conscript the entire civilian labor force in the event of a “national emergency.” COINTELPRO systematically destroyed a major portion of the American left in the late 1960s, through covert police action. Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, carried out joint martial law exercises between the National Guard and state and local police, under the terms of GARDEN PLOT. As President, Reagan conducted similar martial law exercises (REX-83 and REX-84). Jose Padilla, an American citizen arrested on American soil, was held without charge for years and tortured into a near-vegetative state, to the point that he was no longer fit to stand trial when the Bush junta finally decided to hand him over to the regular courts. Cheney, we recently found out, pushed to use the military to arrest the Lackawanna Six on American soil. You may have missed it in the mainstream press’s plain vanilla coverage, but the anarchist blogosphere in September was full of first-hand accounts of federal, state, and local police officers treating the locked-down population of New Orleans as an occupied enemy.
There’s absolutely nothing in the psychological makeup of American officialdom that immunizes it against the normal functioning of Acton’s Dictum. Walter Cronkite observed, in his early years as a newspaperman in Texas, that it was standard practice for local cops embarrassed by an unsolved crime to take some friendless drifter into a back cell and break his fingers until he “confessed,” so they could close the books on the crime. The phrase “shot trying to escape” (as in civil rights workers) deserves a prominent place in American Orwellianisms alongside “found no evidence of wrongdoing.”
Liberals who laugh at the know-nothingism implicit in right-wing outrage over talk of American Empire, and the like, should remove the beams from their own eyes.