From classicliberal2 at Left Hook:
Setting the Record Straight on “Jack-Booted Thugs”
I’m still not really up to writing much, or well, but an item over at Media Matters caught my eye tonight, and I felt compelled to offer some thoughts on it.
Adam Shah of Media Matters For America offers this as his set-up:
National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre is the last person a responsible media outlet should have on its airwaves to comment on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). That’s because LaPierre once referred to ATF agents as “jack-booted government thugs” and reportedly called for “lifting the assault weapons ban to even the odds in the struggle between ordinary citizens and ‘jack-booted government thugs.’”
Shah’s framing can be read in such a way as to suggest that anyone who would call government agents “jack-booted government thugs” is inherently nuts. The gripe I have with this is that government agents frequently are jack-booted thugs. That LaPierre said so isn’t why his comments were problematic.
LaPierre is a reactionary who deals in the nuttiest sort of black-helicopter conspiracism. His rhetoric, offered in the 1990s, is indistinguishable from that of the militia movement that grew like a cancer in that same period, and it’s this context that elevated his “jack-booted government thugs” comment from a truism to an eye-raiser.
But it takes some space to explain why….
The full discussion is worth reading, but skipping down a bit, we get to the part where he gets to the LaPierre writing a letter where he refernces the Koresh cult, which the rightwing militas portrayed as a bunch of innocents attacked by the government for no reason:
LaPierre was opportunistically playing to this sentiment when he made his “jack-booted government thugs” comment. In the same letter in which he wrote those words, he even made explicit reference to the action against the Koresh cult, and, further, added
“Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens. Not today.”
Of course, such a thing hadn’t been “unthinkable” to left-wing political parties, the civil rights movement, radical groups, labor unions, anti-war groups, and more other non-conservative and anti-conservative groups than can be named–they’d been on the receiving end of government violence for over a century, by that point. It was only “unthinkable” to white Christian conservative good ol’ boys who had never been subjected to it. LaPierre was part of a cadre of reactionaries who, for purposes of political expediency, was trying to make it thinkable to them. The world learned how thinkable some of them found it when a fertilizer bomb went off in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds.
I couldn’t agree more. After all, it wasn’t the ATF necessarily, but when gov’t agents came for Fred Hampton and scores of other Black Panthers, they were indeed jack-booted thugs.
There’s a vitally import point here, wrapped up in who LaPierre and his audience are, that usually seems incredibly abstract & philosophical to many. To wit: all discourse is embedded, embodied, contextual. It is NEVER trascendent and disembodied no matter what it might pretend. It is NEVER simply about objects devoid of context in philosophical Cartesian space. There is always a subject who speaks and a subject spoken to. American rightwing “anti-government” rhetoric ALWAYS comes out of a discourse where the speaking subject and the audience subject are white (even if it gets picked up by minorities and repurposed because of its white-supremacist cultural credibility).
There is nothing whatsoever abstract & philophical about this, of course, and feminism in particular has done a good deal to make awareness of this commonly available to everyone. But this doesn’t just apply to white supremacists. Far from it. It applies to classic liberalism as well, as Mike Konczal pointed out this week at Rortybomb in a piece titled “International Woman’s Day, Wendy Brown, and What Feminist Theory Can Do For You.” In it, he refers to an article by Brown:
Brown also has a critique of liberalism in an article that is sadly not online, Liberalism’s Family Values (collected in States of Injury). Like Okin, she deals with the liberal tradition being predicated on a liberal subject that is the antithesis on the conceptual and practical role women play in society. The eight values of a liberalism positioned next to the values they exclude from the political realm is a particularly sharp explanation of what is going on under the hood of liberalism. From the article:
I want to make a quick argument that this critique is important for those who want to rebuild an economy where prosperity is broadly shared and concentrations of power are held in check….
Why? Academic feminism has thought deeply about two arguments that need to be addressed. The first is that that the project is larger than stagnating wages, something that can’t be addressed by the differential inflationary impacts of the consumption of cheap electronic goods and really cheap food. The issue is about freedom and autonomy. The subject that can lead a life of equality, liberty, autonomy in the public is not a given or a prerequisite to society but instead a political creation, something created only through struggle.
The second is that a contract, like a marriage contract or like a labor contract, can be “freely” entered into but still contain elements of coercion to it. Coercion can still be the central characteristic of it. That the market is a series of voluntary transactions, and any outcome of it just, is an illusion. How to pull away that veil is the project, and feminist thought gives us a start on it.
What Brown is doing here is, in a sense, critiquing the formal structure of liberal political theory, if we think of the formal structure as that which contextualizes and shapes that which is the content of the theory. As soon as I began reading this, I immediately thought of Robert Kegan’s levels of cognitive complexity, particularly the fifth level, about which I’ve written relatively little online. Here, for the sake of completeness, is my crib sheet on the subject:
Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan has developed a theoretical framework for integrating the developmental theories of Jean Piaget and later developmental psychologists, such as Lawrence Kohlberg and Erik Erikson. Kegan argues that at each developmental stage, what was the background/context/subject of consciousness in the previous stage now becomes foreground/content/object. The result is the table below:
Feminist theory of the sort that Brown practices belongs to Level 5. It takes liberal political theory (a Level 4 theory concerned with autonomy/self-authorship) as its subject. Level 5 is particularly concerned with opposites, and transforming their seemingly absolutist nature into more tractable forms. In short, it takes them out of the realm of absolutes that define us and turns them into objects that we may manipulate and define for ourselves. This is why, at the deepest and most fundamental level, feminism is a theory of liberation for men as much as it is for women.
Conservatives, for the most part, are either stuck at Level 3, the level of traditional social order, where the self is defined by the social roles and relations of society, or at Level 2, an even more primative level associated with late childhood and early adolesence. (Libertarian “you’re not the boss of me!” temper-tantrums, anyone?) Liberals, OTOH, tend to be fixated at Level 4, based on a mascunilist model of autonomy, which Brown’s article excerpt above provides an embrionic critique of.
Marxism also provided this sort of a crtique, but there were relatvely few people around in the 19th century who capable of grasping the Marxist critique at the level it was offered. That’s because day-to-day consciousness levels tend to be determined by the complexity of the world that people live in, and the sorts of experiential supports they encounter which enable them to comprehend and deal with the complexity around them. Because today’s world is considerably more complex than the 19th century was, Level 5 consciousness is far more common today than it was back then. And so we have a much better chance of making sense of a critique of Level 4 ideology, thus enabling us to overcome the limitations it carries with it.
Paul Rosenberg is not a dirty hippy. He bathes once a month, whether he needs it or not. An erstwhile programmer, he was a freelance op-ed and book review writer from 1994/96 to 2002, and has been a staff writer & editor at Random Lengths News, an alternative bi-weekly in the Los Angeles harbor area from 2002 to date. His October 2002 story “Iraq Attack-The Aims and Origins of Bush’s Plans” shared the Project Censored #1 Censored Story award for 2004.
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