Thursday, March 10, 2011

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 right is not, in fact, "anti-government." As much as the press and some liberal commentators love to use that phrase as shorthand, it's difficult to imagine a characterization that could more grossly misrepresent the politics of contemporary conservatism. There are many "schools" of conservatism in the U.S., of course, but the core of the conservative base, at present, is made up of what may fairly be described as self-obsessed authoritarians. They're very opposed to government that taxes them. They're very opposed to the small "d" democratic elements of government, those responsive to the public. When it comes to pursuing their own cherished goals, though--which usually involve maintaining the aristocratic prerogatives of The Powers That Be, aggressive militarism, and enforcing social homogeneity--no amount of government ever proves to be enough.

This conservative core isn't opposed to jack-booted thuggery on the part of government. Those on the right have, in fact, always supported such thuggery, nurtured it, enabled it, even demanded it, for the simple reason that government thuggery has, historically, almost always been aimed at the left or at other groups despised by the right (immigrants, racial minorities, etc.), and the conservatives have been (and are) its enthusiastic advocates as long as that's the case.

When LaPierre made his comments, on the other hand, the right was out of power, and the narrative had shifted. Suddenly, the story peddled to the nuts was that a democratic--and, more importantly, Democratic--government was out to get white, right-wing rednecks. This was a handy way of inflaming the bumpkins against the other party, but reflected no genuine concern about government abuses.[*] During the just-concluded Bush administration, when a real thug was running the government and asserting the power to ignore the law and the constitution at will, kidnap, torture, and even murder American citizens with no pretense of due process, and so on, the conservatives virtually worshiped government power and their Maximal Leader, and the militia culture and movement, which had made such a pretense of being centrally concerned about government abuses in the '90s (when abuses were relatively minor), all but disappeared. When Democrats rolled over Republicans in the 2008 elections, though, the right went back to criticizing government again, and the militia culture was suddenly back again with a vengeance.

Back in the 1990s, the federal action against the Koresh cult in Texas became the central organizing cause for militant reactionaries. The broad narrative of the event that evolved on the nut right was that the cult was merely an unthreatening church that was attacked and besieged by the government for no real reason, then, at the end, was maliciously burned alive for refusing to submit. None of this had much of a relationship to the truth, but it made for a nifty organizing tool for years.

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 realize that's more of a mouthful, as explanations go, but the implication that condemning government thuggery is what makes LaPierre's comments reprehensible shouldn't be allowed to stand. They're reprehensible for entirely different reasons. Real government thuggery should always be condemned by every American worthy of the name.



[*] Back in the 1990s when LaPierre made his comment, the NRA was, in fact, trying to reinvent itself as a crime-fighting organization, circulating false "statistics" about how "soft on crime" America was, and advocating a "get tough" approach. In a word, thuggery.

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