Dissonant Notes

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The History and Beliefs of American Populist Libertarianism (Part 2)




(For Part 1, go here.)


With 9/11 came the Truther movement, a loose collective of activists who generally believed that the American government was responsible for 9/11. Initially, the Truther movement appealed more to left-wing conspiracy theorists but, as time went on, the line between left and right began to blur, and the opinions of stoned crust-punks and gun-toting libertarians became indistinguishable. The American government became the ultimate symbol of evil, with octopus-like tentacles manipulating and controlling the entire free world. In the Truther world, a person is either a free-thinking individual or a hopelessly deluded drone who believes everything the government tells them. This false dichotomy prompted the belief that either the American government was completely honest about the events of 9/11, or it carried out 9/11: Governments are known to lie, therefore the government version of events is a lie, therefore the government was behind 9/11.


The idea that the government may have been dishonest yet still did not plan the 9/11 attack hardly existed. If the 9/11 attack allowed the government of George W. Bush to move forward with an agenda that involved invading Afghanistan and Iraq, then it goes without saying that Bush and his cronies must have coordinated the entire attack. It seems plausible that the events of 9/11 prompted so much fear in the American populace that conspiracy theories provided a vital and indestructible way of processing both the fear and the multitude of voices which claimed to know exactly what happened and how. By latching on to a particular opinion and denouncing all those who disagree as government patsies, conspiracy theories provided much needed assurance in a suddenly terrifying world. The bigger problem with conspiracy theories is not so much the non-beliefs that they prompt (“I don’t believe a word the government says”) but rather the beliefs that spring up in place of previously held opinions. Sooner or later, conspiracy theorists must come up with explanations for what really happened, and the internet allowed these theories not only to disseminate, but also to solidify into accepted truths. Worse, conspiracy theorists generally do not attempt to find a one-off localised solution to events, but instead they let their imaginations run riot until they have found explanations for every major event that has ever occurred since the beginning of recorded history. In this worldview, there is only good or evil, light or dark, and conspiracy theorists believe themselves to be warriors of truth and freedom. Everything is always at stake all the time, and the world is perpetually on the verge of anarchy and armageddon where the forces of darkness run wild. Ironically, given that most libertarians promote the idea that governments are wasteful and incompetent, conspiracy theorists of a libertarian bent attribute devastatingly precise efficiency and powers of execution to the US government. The amount of work and organisation that needed to happen to ensure that the 9/11 attack was successful makes the American government look like the most well-oiled machine that has ever existed. Yet this same machine was unable to secure a military victory in Iraq and cannot be trusted to oversee healthcare for Americans. The government manages to be a terrifying, omnipresent evil one minute, and a bumbling, wasteful clown the next.


No other cultural artifact anticipated, accelerated, and benefitted from the conspiracy theory boom than The Matrix. In this movie, there are only two types of people: the free, and the enslaved. Given that the enslaved are unaware of their bondage, it means they could at any point be functioning enemy agents so as a result, the unfree must be treated as dangerous and expendable. The critical scene in the movie is the red pill/blue pill dichotomy. To take the red pill is to hurtle headlong into the truth. To take the blue pill is to wilfully accept illusion and slavery. This metaphor has been fully embraced by conspiracy theorists, eager to promote themselves as truth seekers who have swallowed the red pill. Anybody who disagrees has clearly taken the blue pill and as such are unable to accept the harsh truth of their enslavement. (The red pill/blue pill trope has also become popular with men’s rights activists, who dismiss men who disagree with their opinion as blue pill males who have bought the lie of feminism). Though Christopher Hitchens famously described conspiracy theories as “the exhaust fumes of democracy”, the unfortunate toxins that come about from the free flow of information, it appears that they are now functioning more like compost heaps. From the debris of popular culture, living philosophies have grown that are nourished by fear and confusion.



If 9/11 and the internet heralded a new beginning for conspiracy theorists, the presidency of Barack Obama was like a nuclear explosion. For reasons that nobody has yet been able to explain (if we discount the actual answer which is racism), the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House turned the libertarian conspiracy theory mindset into a mainstream political movement. The vague, inchoate rumblings and ramblings that emerged post-9/11 suddenly caught on like wildfire and, in doing so, it turned the conspiracy theory world into a mostly right-wing affair. The post-hippie, drug-addled mindset that emerged in the 1970s, and which was both illustrated and bolstered by influential conspiracy theory novel The Illuminatus! Trilogy (which induced readers to indulge in a half-serious embrace of conspiracy as a means to both promote paranoia and to gleefully muddy the waters), was resurrected as a humourless right-wing guide to living under the tyranny of Obama. Certain groups, most notably the Tea Party, began to gain massive popular support from a particular demographic, the disenchanted middle-class white Americans who had suffered as a result of the global economic crash which occurred just as George W. Bush was leaving office. The massive deregulation of the American financial sector, which had being going on since Nixon but had really picked up steam under Reagan, finally did what many economists were predicting it would do: it brought about the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. With bankers and financiers running amok with nobody to impose any order, the whole thing finally unravelled in 2007 as toxic loans and high risk investments (amongst other things) caused the entire global economy to shake and shudder. Millions lost their jobs, millions of dollars (and pounds, and euros, etc) were lost in investments and savings, with the end result being that the US government, and most European governments, had to step in and essentially prop up the global economy, then pass on the tab to taxpayers. The world economy was brought to the brink of disaster because of deregulated financial malfeasance and only survived because of taxes. How did Tea Party activists and libertarians respond to this economic disaster which occurred during the presidency of George W. Bush? They demanded less financial regulations, insisted that Americans should pay less taxes, and placed the blame for the disaster on Barack Obama.


The anger which has erupted during the presidency of Obama is unrivalled in its insistence that Barack Obama is both the worst and the most evil president in American history. Comparisons are made to Hitler (death toll: around 20 million), Stalin (death toll: somewhere between 40 and 60 million), and Chairman Mao (death toll: somewhere between 45 and 75 million). When the president passed the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare), an act which tried to ensure that every American had healthcare coverage and which also attempted to reduce healthcare costs, it was compared to slavery, the Holocaust, and war. Recently when Obama negotiated a deal with Iran in order to guarantee that Iran would slow down its nuclear weapons program, it was compared to the Holocaust. With nothing but inflammatory right-wing rhetoric gleaned from the numerous conspiracy theory/propaganda websites which proliferate the internet, Obama is painted as Satan himself, a malevolent force intent on destroying America, and freedom, forever. If this were merely a bunch of troglodyte cranks frantically typing their hate induced paranoia onto various web-sites the problem would be a small, if troubling, one. The bigger problem is that mainstream Republican politicians are endorsing these very fantasies and relentlessly playing into many voters’ paranoid fears in order to secure a vote. Many Republicans seem afraid to attack the extremist rhetoric for fear of being seen as soft, while others actively use the same rhetoric and appear to believe it. Obama has been accused of setting up death panels by mainstream politicians and continues to have his American citizenship questioned. By refusing to denounce extremism and conspiracy, the Republicans have allowed this toxic worldview to become part of everyday American political culture, as well as dominate Republican policy. In 2015, the Republican Party, by far the most powerful and most extreme right-wing party that wields real power in any democracy, are simply not extreme enough for many Americans. By fostering a fanatical and portentous approach to everyday politics the Republicans have succeeded in creating a large number of voters whose needs simply cannot be met by any reasonable democratic system, never mind the Republican Party.


As the Tea Party became more powerful in Republican circles, the GOP was plunged into a crisis. While inflammatory rhetoric fires up the right-wing, extremist language has no chance of enticing disenchanted Democrats. With no swing vote, the Republicans could not hope to secure the presidency. In the last two presidential elections the Republicans picked moderate (by Republican standards) candidates in an attempt to soothe the fears of those Americans who were alarmed by Tea Party grandiloquence. On both occasions the Republicans were defeated, and by Obama no less. This led many Republicans to believe that what was needed was a true Tea Party/libertarian candidate who could really fire up the electorate. Any future candidates who look weak on Tea Party talking points are dismissed as ‘establishment Republicans’ or RINO (Republican in Name Only). Even though it may look like the Tea Party’s moment has come and gone, in reality their philosophies have penetrated so deeply into Republican policy that it is only the name Tea Party that has become irrelevant. Uncomfortable with the idea of being part of the GOP establishment, and with the label Tea Party already feeling anachronistic, many right-wingers have instead embraced the moniker “libertarian” in an effort to distance themselves from rank-and-file Republicans. As the name Tea Party became unfashionable, the label of libertarian truly came into its own.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The History and Beliefs of American Populist Libertarianism (Part 1)



Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

... both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country's sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a 'one-world socialist government'."

Robert W. Welch, Jr., founder of the John Birch Society

The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Illuminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Grey Alien Theory. The truth is far more frightening. Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.

Alan Moore

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare
” 

W. B. Yeats


Since the 1990s, more and more Americans have taken to calling themselves libertarian. As a movement it had been growing steadily for most of the 20th Century; indeed it could be argued that it has always been an integral aspect of American politics but, until the arrival of the internet, it could never have been called a populist movement. Various right-wing intellectuals had grappled with libertarian ideas through the years, but the Republican Party as a whole still thought of itself as representing the silent majority who looked on in horror during the 1960s as the young behaved in ways that were scarcely believable to those born of a previous age. Devotion to the flag, to the church, and demands for modesty and restraint hardly screamed libertarian, yet it was from this uptight womb that American Populist Libertarianism was born.


When rock and roll first appeared in the 1950s, American conservatives were apoplectic. Young people were dressing in strange ways, being more open about their sexuality, and listening to music which was, at the very least, influenced by black artists. Despite their claims of wishing to increase the scope of individual freedoms, the right-wing in the 1950s wanted to do nothing of the sort. This social conservatism demanded respect for authority and enforced strict moral codes that frowned upon expanded social freedoms for anybody who was not a straight white male. The freedoms sought by conservatives in the 1950s were strictly business-related, i.e. less taxes, less regulations, and less government interference in the market. When it came to increased individual freedoms, however, conservatives were practically the opposite of libertarian.


From this mindset emerged the John Birch Society, a social conservative movement that thrived on conspiracy and anti-communist activism. They also promoted homeschooling and Christian family values while opposing feminism, civil rights, and just about anything which deviated from the white, male-dominated status quo. Along with Robert W. Welch, Jr, one of the founding members of the John Birch Society was Fred C. Koch, also founder of Koch Industries and father to Charles and David Koch, the two billionaires who helped bankroll the recent Tea Party movement (more on that later). At the time the John Birch Society was viewed as a joke by the majority of people, with conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr. publicly criticising them on a number of occasions. It is ironic that Buckley’s attempt to marry social conservatism with free-market capitalism actually helped pave the way for a reemergence of the John Birch Society’s paranoid, conspiracy-laden philosophy in the 1990s. In the 1960s, however, social conservatism and unquestioning devotion to authority became the most public aspects of the Republican Party.


During the 1970s, a battle for the soul of the Republican Party was raging. On one side were the old Republican liberals who dominated the party leadership but failed to appeal to voters. These Republicans were social conservatives who took a more pragmatic approach to the economy. On the other side were the new Republicans who preached individualism, Christian morals, respect for authority, low taxes, and laissez-faire capitalism. These contradictory elements appealed to many US voters who wished for nothing more than a return to the good old days of pre-1960s America. The hero of this new Republicanism was Ronald Reagan, the closest thing the Republican Party has to a saint.


Even though Reagan preached small-government, he actually increased the national debt from $907 billion to $2.6 trillion, as well as increasing the size of the federal workforce by 324,000 to reach a total of 5.3 million (in case you’re wondering, military personnel only accounted for 26% of that increase). In truth, the Reagan revolution was a triumph of rhetoric over reality. In his time as governor of California, Reagan (who remains the only divorced US President) signed bills which, amongst other things, made abortion easier and which stopped California residents from carrying loaded firearms, both of which would be considered political suicide in the Republican Party of the 21st century. Reagan’s War on Drugs led to the creation of a more militarised police force, which in turn led to a huge increase in US citizens under correctional control. In 1980 the total number of American people in jail, prison, or on parole was 1,840,400. By 1989 that number was a staggering 4,055,600. Didn’t Reagan cut taxes? He did, but he also raised them. In 1980 the total tax revenue of the US government was $517.1 billion. In 1989 it was $991.1 billion. Now let’s compare that to government expenditure. In 1980, government spending was $590.9 billion, meaning there was a deficit of $73.8 billion. In 1989 government spending was $1.1437 trillion, meaning there was a deficit of $152.6 billion. In every category, Reagan fails to meet the most basic standards of 21st century Republicanism (Clinton was a more successful president from a conservative perspective), yet he is consistently held up as the patron saint of modern conservatism and as some kind of tearful patriarch turning in his grave as his beautiful vision is debased. Why is this the case? Reagan’s sublime status is the result of the most important element of modern conservatism: complete estrangement from, and denial of, facts.


The triumph of the Reagan years was not related in any way to Reagan’s actions (other than perhaps the fall of communist Russia, a feat for which Reagan can barely take any actual credit) but rather what he seemed to represent. Reagan managed to convince America that there was nothing contradictory about being a Christian and an unabashed capitalist. Even though America was founded on these contradictory elements, it was only under Reagan that the two were intertwined so powerfully. How did a religion whose holy book contained such statements as “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God” and “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" manage to demonise the poor and celebrate wealth?


According to Max Weber, the various Protestant sects which dominated colonial America had rejected the Catholic idea of entering into heaven through pious words and deeds. To the Protestants, everything was preordained from birth so going to a priest to ask forgiveness was worthless. You were either destined for heaven from day one or you were destined for hell. In an instant the great power of Rome was undone, but it was replaced by a spiritual insecurity on the part of the Protestants, who wondered whether their place in heaven was assured. Instead of going to a priest for guarantees, the Protestants instead looked for signs that God favoured them. One of the main signs was personal prosperity. Wealth began to indicate that you were one of God’s chosen people, but ostentatiousness was frowned upon. Any colonial Protestants who grew wealthy made sure that they did so in an unassuming manner, lest they be frowned upon by the community.


Victory in the American Revolutionary War led many Americans to believe that they were truly God’s chosen people. Despite the continuance of slavery and the genocidal fury unleashed on Native Americans, Protestant America felt very pleased with itself, imagining that only in America could people truly be free (by people they of course meant prosperous white males). If the Protestant white male in America avoided indiscreet displays of wealth, he didn’t avoid indiscreet displays of power. So emerged the image of the proudly humble, entitled, white American male, pious to a fault but ever ready to brutalise and belittle those whom he felt beneath him. In a sense, nothing much has changed since those times, other than some additional rights for those who have traditionally been denied any, and therein lies the new insecurity that haunts the white American male. The traditional ruler of America feels his power threatened, and when that happens it always means trouble for those who are the cause of the insecurity.


The Reagan years marked the first steps towards populist libertarianism. The extreme forces on the far right of the Republican Party scored major victories both ideologically and with the public, as Reagan convinced voters that Christian fundamentalism and laissez-faire capitalism were the perfect match. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Reagan managed to represent the humble Christian who believed, as the founding fathers did, that government should be limited. Yet the larger change was the full-on embrace of materialist individualism. In America, Christianity finally outed itself as the religion of the wealthy. The Protestant belief that wealth was a sign of God’s favour went into overdrive, and the 1980s became a decade forever connected to unbounded wealth and excess. America threw off the shackles of Protestant reserve and in doing so believed it was returning to the values that America was founded on. It was correct in many ways, but the severing of association with Protestant moderation effectively destroyed the right-wing intellectual tradition in America. Debate about the individual, civic duty, commerce, and religion were swept aside as Republicans put forth the idea that the Republican Party represented the true America, the one that was being eroded by liberal values. In truth it was the individualistic materialism of the Republican Party and capitalism which was destroying the moral underpinnings of white Protestant America. Yet even as it came undone, Protestant America desperately clung to the symbols of Christianity in the hopes of that it would cover up the moral black hole that was opening up.


If Reagan welded capitalism and Christianity together, it was communism which first brought them closer. As the Cold War began to dominate post-WWII politics in America and Europe, America sought to distance itself from godless communism by reaffirming its religious foundations and, as such, God started to emerge as a symbol of capitalism and individuality. It was in 1954 that the words “under God” were first added to the Pledge of Allegiance, in 1956 that “In God We Trust” was adopted as the official motto of America, and in 1957 that those same words appeared for the first time on paper money. Communism made America more religious and, in doing so, it prepared the ground for Reagan and the unholy marriage of capitalism and Christianity. The dreaded House of Un-American Activities, and later Joseph McCarthy, rose to fame during this time, going after some of the most famous names in the arts and sciences such as Thomas Mann, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, Langston Hughes, Nelson Algren, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Dorothy Parker. Free-thinking artists were viewed as elitist snobs who had been duped by communism, while universities were seen as communist breeding grounds with hapless students unable to resist the charms of their red professors. The Red Scare left an indelible mark on the psyche of white America, creating a twisted individualism which was anti-intellectual, religious, patriotic, and paranoid. These characteristics would shape the mindset of populist libertarians, creating a rigid, suspicious personality that fed on end-times scenarios and the inherent nobility of the average Joe; the white, American, Christian male.


After Reagan’s presidency, Bush Sr. and Clinton were cautiously conservative by comparison. Indeed, by Republican standards, Bill Clinton’s achievements dwarfed those of Reagan by quite some margin. Yet Clinton was hated by Republicans and in 1998 he became only the second president in the history of America to be impeached. The anger generated against Clinton represented something beyond mere difference of opinion in a political sense. Despite his ability to balance the budget and bring economic growth, a feeling began to emerge among many Republicans that Clinton was truly immoral and as such he had to be brought down by any means necessary. As a political tactic it moved from merely attacking a person’s political beliefs to instead insinuating something truly hostile at the heart of America. The tactic ultimately failed, but as the internet began to take off in a big way it set the tone for future Republican attacks on Barack Obama. Internet chat pages allowed isolated individuals to interact with those of a similar mindset and helped facilitate the return of John Birch-inspired paranoia. Websites dedicated to conspiracy theories multiplied at an alarming rate, but the true beginning of modern conspiracy theory was the 9/11 attack, an event which coincided with the presidency of George W. Bush.

Why Isn't Black Lives Matter Considered A Hate Group?



Why isn't Black Lives Matter considered a hate group? This question is, right now, being asked by various Americans as they struggle to comprehend the motives of the group. To answer the question properly, we need to define exactly what a hate group is. According to Wikipedia, a hate group is:

"an organized group or movement that advocates and practices hatred, hostility, or violence towards members of a race, ethnicity, nation, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other designated sector of society."

With that in mind, I present to you a non-comprehensive list of violent attacks carried out by people in the name of a particular belief or beliefs. Once you have read the list, you may judge for yourself whether the term hate group is appropriate.


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July 29 1994: Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard James Barrett are shot dead by Christian anti-abortion terrorist Paul Jennings Hill.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

December 30 1994: Christian terrorist John Salvi murders two (receptionists Lee Ann Nichols and Shannon Lowney),  and wounds five when attacking two Planned Parenthood clinics in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

April 19 1995: Timothy McVeigh kills 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. McVeigh was a libertarian, anti-government, pro-gun activist.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

July 27 1996: Christian terrorist Eric Rudolph (who also fought against the "homosexual agenda") explodes a bomb at Centennial Olympic Park, killing 1 and injuring 111 others.

Rudolph also bombed a gay bar in Atlanta, an abortion clinic in Atlanta, and bombed an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama that resulted in the death of Robert Sanderson, a police officer. Emily Lyons, a nurse who worked there, lost an eye in the explosion.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

October 23 1998: Christian terrorist James Charles Kopp murders abortion doctor Barnett Slepian.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

July 27 2008: Two are killed and seven are injured when anti-liberal, anti-Democrat, anti-abortion, and anti-gay activist Jim David Adkisson starts shooting randomly at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

May 31 2009: Christian terrorist Scott Roeder shoots abortion doctor George Tiller dead. Tiller had previously survived an attack after being shot 5 times by Christian terrorist Shelly Shannon. Bill O'Reilly constantly referred to Tiller as "Tiller the baby killer", even after the first assassination attempt.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

January 8 2011: Anti-semite Jared Lee Loughner kills six and wounds Democratic US Representative (and Jew) Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona. Previous to the attack, Gifford's name had appeared in a rifle sight under a list of Democrats that Sarah Palin thought should lose their seat. Palin used language such as "Don't retreat, reload" and other gun imagery in her campaign.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

August 5 2012: Right wing white supremacist Wade Michael Page kills six in an attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Page mistakenly thought they were Muslims.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

June 8 2014: Two police officers (Igor Soldo and Alyn Beck) and one civilian (Joseph Wilcox) are killed in Las Vegas by libertarian anti-government activists Jerad and Amanda Miller. The Gadsden Flag, the flag of the libertarian movement, was found placed on the bodies of the police officers.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

June 17 2015: White supremacist Dylan Roof kills nine at a church in South Carolina. His victims were all black and included Democratic state senator Clementa C. Pinckney. Roof chose the church for its historic connection to Civil Rights. Roof was a supporter of the Confederate Flag and wanted to start a race war in America. Roof was also a frequent visitor to the Council of Conservative Citizens website, a right-wing, white supremacist group.

Neither Christians, Republicans, libertarians, nor Fox News as groups/organisations were held to be responsible or connected in any way.

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Not a single killing of a police officer, or indeed the killing of anybody at all, can be tied to the group Black Lives Matter. As of right now they have been blamed for an increase in violence against the police, even though there has been no increase, and several right wing outlets, including Fox News, have openly indicated that they should be considered a hate group. Since there is zero evidence to make such a claim, then it seems only proper that Fox News, Christians, Republicans, libertarians, and Confederate Flag supporters should be considered hate groups, given the amount of blood they have on their hands.