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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fear as a Political, Social, and Cultural Tool: Using External Enemies to Crush Domestic Dissent

Fear as a Political, Social, and Cultural Tool: Using External Enemies to Crush Domestic Dissent
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: Library of Congress
Click for full-sized Image

I hope no one was too disappointed at my absence last week. I started to suspect that people might be getting too close to discovering where I was so I had to take some time off to move to a new Undisclosed Location. It'll be a lot harder for you to find me where I am now, I'm sure.

This week I'd like to write about the same topic I was going to address last week — it was more timely last week, perhaps, but it never goes out of style: the conservative, Republican use of fear as a political weapon against internal enemies, dissenters, and political opponents. On January 31st, Amanda Marcotte wrote about how conservative pundit Mike Gallagher actually admitted that terrorism would be a good thing for Republican political ambitions:

Seeing Jane Fonda Saturday was enough to make me wish the unthinkable: it will take another terror attack on American soil in order to render these left-leaning crazies irrelevant again. Remember how quiet they were after 9/11? No one dared take them seriously. It was the United States against the terrorist world, just like it should be.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — but I think he might have been wrong. I think that we should also perhaps fear, or at least be very wary of, those in our society who would use our fears for their own political agendas. Mike Gallagher's comments are not an isolated instance of political insanity — similar thoughts have been expressed to varying degrees by a number of conservatives and Republicans over the past few years. There are many who look fondly on the 9/11 attacks because they provided an excuse to push through domestic and international policies they had long advocated, but could not successfully impose on others because there wasn't enough fear in American society to help.

The use of political fear to enact new policies against foreign enemies and to silence domestic political opponents, is easy to see and imagine. What I'd like to focus on here, though, is to the use of political fear as an excuse to move against the less powerful in society in order to ensure that they don't get any more power. Economic and political elites work hard to fuse foreign enemies with "internal" enemies who seek domestic reform. This isn't easy, but it's common and often successful — Dinesh D'Souza and Newt Gingrich are two obvious examples of this operating currently.

We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that these people are just cynically manipulating our fears of foreign enemies to get us to move against domestic reformers. They are manipulating our fears, it is true, but it's out of a conviction of the rightness of their cause. They are True Believers that domestic reform movements threaten their power, the overall national unity, and civic order every bit as much as foreign enemies do. Foreign and domestic enemies constitute a seamless whole; national unity, civic order, and their social power constitute a seamless whole as well.

In Fear: The History of a Political Idea, Corey Robin explains how all of this took hold of America during the Cold War:

J. Edgar Hoover, still an unappreciated influence on the course of American anticommunism, was born and raised in turn-of-the-century Washington, D.C., at the time the northernmost outpost of "Southern, white, Christian, small town" civilization. Racism and segregation were his articles of faith; religious pluralism meant that Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists worshiped within walking distance of each other. When Hoover deemed communism a menace to civilization, it was this civilization he thought menaced. So he turned the FBI on everyone from the AACP and Martin Luther King to Sammy Davis, Jr. and Cesar Chavez, all of whom he deemed, as he would later declare of the women's movement, "part of the enemy, a challenge to American values" and thus a threat to the "internal security of the nation"...

Such views actively influenced the course of repressive anticommunism in the United States, leading to the suppression of not only the Communist Party but the labor and civil rights movements as well. Government loyalty boards asked employees whether they believed the blood supply of the Red Cross ought to be desegregated, the poll tax abolished, and federal antilynching legislation passed — all policies advocated by the Communist Party. Affirmative answers to such questions prompted further investigation and firing.

As the chair of one board explained, "Of course, the fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn't prove that he's a Communist, but it certainly makes you look twice, doesn't it? You can't get away from the fact that racial equality is part of the Communist line." Or, in the words of the chair of a state legislative committee, "If someone insists that there is discrimination against the Negroes in this country, or that there is inequality of wealth, there is every reason to believe that person is a Communist." The effect of such ideologically fused fears, where civil rights and labor unions were associated with foreign threats, could be devastating.

Ponder, for a moment, the mentality of someone who was able to sincerely and honestly believe that there was something odd about anyone who imagined there to be such a thing as racial discrimination or income inequality in America. All right-thinking people knew that those were just enemy propaganda. America was a racial and economic paradise! Anyone who thought differently must have either succumbed to enemy propaganda or was actively promoting it; either way, they had to be investigated for the good of the nation. They certainly couldn't be allowed to go on expressing their dissenting, disloyal beliefs without suffering the consequences.

It's not hard to find parallels between the Cold War of 40 years ago and War on Terrorism today:

Condemning a planned protest in Washington, D.C., in late September 2001 against the IMF and the World Bank, [The New Republic's] editor declared that if the protest came off, the antiglobalization movement would "in the eyes of the nation, have joined the terrorists in a united front." He continued: "This nation is now at war. And in such an environment, domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides. By canceling the upcoming protests — and acknowledging that it is less important to ruin the meetings of the IMF and the World Bank than to let Washington recover — that is exactly the statement the antiglobalization movement would be making." Antiglobalization activists and intellectuals quickly felt the power of such rhetoric: many, including the AFL-CIO, stayed away from the protest, and the movement has since fallen into abeyance.

[V]arious security agencies operating in the interest of national security have leveraged their coercive power in ways that target dissenters posing no conceivable threat of terrorism. FBI officials and local police departments have repeatedly taken individual statements of opposition to U.S. foreign policy or the Bush administration as a sign of possible terrorist inclinations, leaving the individuals targeted for investigation with a fear of being watched and pursued for their beliefs. Various government agencies have established "no fly" lists, so that members of the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Green Party, and the Catholic Church are stopped at airports and held for lengthy questioning, sometimes overnight....

With the exception of Muslims and Arabs in the United States, the labor movement since 9/11 has felt the greatest brunt of this elite fusion of foreign and domestic fears. In January 2003, Republican leader Tom Delay, or one of his staffers, sent out a fundraising letter on Delay's letterhead to thousands of supporters of the National Right to Work Foundation, an antiunion group seeking to overturn labor legislation in the United States.

Claiming that the labor movement since 9/11 "presents a clear-and-present-danger to the security of the United States at home and the safety of our Armed Forces overseas, the letter denounces "Big labor Bosses...willing to harm free-loving workers, the war effort, and the economy to acquire more power!" It asks recipients to donate upward of one thousand dollars so that "the legal ground troops of the National Right to Work Foundation" will "have the ammo they need" to carry out their campaign against unions.

Within Congress, Delay and his conservative allies have worked closely with President Bush to use the threat of terrorism to deny union and civil service rights — including whistleblower protections — to 170,000 federal employees in the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Even though many of these employees are clerical, even though clerical employees in the Defense Department are not denied such rights, and even though it was the lack of basic labor protections within the FBI that helped create a culture of intimidation where individual agents like Coleen Rowley were discouraged from speaking out on vital issues of national security, Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge has insisted that removing union and other employment protections would make his department as "agile and aggressive as the terrorists themselves."

Delay may be history, but efforts to erode what little power America's workers have are alive and well. Consider, for example, how many Republican Senators recently voted to eliminate the federal minimum wage entirely — do you really suppose that it's not connected to other efforts to reduce the scope of unionization, never mind older efforts reduce the power of racial minorities, religious minorities, and everyone else who doesn’t fit the mold of a White, Protestant, Christian America?

The presence of terrible, existence-threatening enemies abroad will always encourage people to "circle the wagons" and insist on greater demonstrations of internal loyalty. Too much internal disagreement or dissent is perceived as something that weakens us in the face of enemies who would destroy us, or so the argument goes, and it doesn't take any manipulation to get people to believe this. Where the manipulation occurs is in the creation of direct connections between external enemies and internal dissenters, reformers, and critics.

It's not enough that internal dissenters create "weakness" by not joining the Party Line; instead, they must also be shown to be working with our external enemies. Democrats aren't merely aiding our enemies by disagreeing with the President, they actively want our enemies to win. Atheists, according to Debbie Schlussel, are all just future Muslim extremists. Defenders of civil liberties who want accused terrorists to be accorded basic legal protections aren't just hindering the War on Terrorism, they are actively complicit in the terrorists' anti-American, anti-liberty agenda.

The above image is based on a World War I poster from Germany with basically the same theme. It said "Protect Your Home" and asked for volunteers to enlist.

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