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.

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