Thursday, March 25, 2010

Liberals with guns: scarier than Tea Partiers

I often begin my political science courses with a brief introduction to the idea of "the state." The state is the entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, force and coercion. If an individual travels to another country and kills its citizens, we call it terrorism. If the state does it, we call it war. If a man kills his neighbor it is murder; if the state does it is the death penalty. If an individual takes his neighbor's money, it is theft; if the state does it, it is taxation.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell* is a professor at Princeton University, as so subtly alluded to in the above excerpt from her latest drivel for The Nation, and she's concerned about the "legitimacy" of the state -- a legitimacy she assumes but doesn't explain -- which she notes some backwards reactionaries have had the temerity to challenge in the age of Democratic government. Now, considering that U.S. government imprisons more of its own citizens than any other in the history, with 25 percent of the world's prisoners; that it has more military bases in more countries than any previous empire in history, and has killed millions of people from Iraq to Vietnam; and that its current head, Barack Obama, is openly targeting for extrajudicial killing Americans and foreigners alike, one might ask: why is a liberal magazine so concerned about this state's legitimacy?

Because of the Tea Party movement, you see, whose flashes of racism and disrespect toward politicians is of more concern to Ivy League academics than the "legitimate" state violence they applaud. Tea Partiers, by accusing the current administration of "various forms of totalitarianism . . . are arguing that this government has no right to levy taxes or make policy," the professor writes, apparently under the mistaken belief that most taxes the state levies go to gumdrop bridges and fairy dust health clinics, rather than less wholesome things like aircraft carriers and daisy cutters. Rather than focusing on what the state actually does, though, Harris-Lacewell, like most liberals, would prefer we focus on their shining, abstract ideal of what it could be, while sanctimoniously dismissing those who see no distinction between state-sponsored and private sector murder, an approach befitting the wait-until-you're-called merit-class liberal mentality that dominates the Democratic Party and the progressive press.

As The Nation's house political scientist explains it, adopting an argument that one could never imagine being applied to the left, "When protesters spit on and scream at duly elected representatives of the United States government it is more than act of racism. It is an act of sedition."

Put another way: offenses against the state are inherently more despicable than any offense one could commit against some poor schmuck civilian. An overstatement? Well, no, as Harris-Lacewell herself demonstrates in writing about Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), who "is no longer just a brave American fighting for the soul of his country- he is an elected official. He is an embodiment of the state." Yeah, you know, before Lewis just marched in the streets against racism and state-enforced segregation as a (ho-hum) private citizen, but now he chairs a subcommittee -- show him some respect!

Hooting and hollering at an elected official -- sorry, "an embodiment of the state" -- might give liberals at The Nation the vapors, and right-wing protesters who cheered on the Bush administration's abuses of power may not be my cup of tea, but color me unimpressed with the argument that I have more to fear from the talk radio right than I do the incarcerating-and-assassinating state. Now while there's little chance you'll catch me marching against compact fluorescent light-bulbs or Obamacare anytime soon -- though I promise nothing -- I just don't fear a rollback of the Reconstruction period "and the descent of a vicious new Jim Crow terrorism" as much as I fear and abhor the actual, happening-right-now terrorism carried out by my esteemed public officials with the tacit approval of the humanitarian progressives too busy lecturing the rabble on the need to pay taxes and pledge allegiance to their betters in Washington than to challenge their leader's wars. In addition to the hundreds killed without so much as a show trial by hellfire missiles since the glorious advent of The Liberal Ascendancy, agents of the U.S. government have been implicated in several headline-grabbing atrocities, the latest of which involved the pre-dawn slaying of a pair of pregnant women and a teenage girl. That female civilians are being killed at a level on par with Afghan males is no doubt being hailed in the halls of Brookings as a feminist triumph, but it's more troubling to me than the idea of some people questioning the legitimacy of the perpetrators' employer.

Perhaps they shouldn't just be ignored, but until Glenn Beck's followers kill two dozen people in a remote village, I'm going to spend most of my time focusing on those with control over the tanks and nuclear weapons. And rather than seeking to bolster the state and reinforce the idea of some mythical, mystical social contract, I just might seek to undermine this government, so far as I can, for as long as it continues enriching a politically connected corporate elite while imprisoning and enlisting the rest of its population, no matter how "duly elected" our politicians might be as a result of the sham two-party electoral system. When political leaders are engaged in senseless war and widespread human rights abuses -- and the occupation of Afghanistan and the U.S. prison system at home and abroad qualify -- the person of conscience's duty is not to the state but to justice, which usually means opposing the state and questioning its presumed legitimacy.

The proper attitude toward a criminal government is not deference and respect, however much some at The Nation might love a smooth-talking Democrat, but defiance and rebellion -- of the non-violent variety.

*I originally wrote Maria Harris-Lacewell.

Update: Read the follow-up to this post.


  1. You go overboard conflating "liberals" with statists. Many, many, many "liberals" or "progressives" or "leftists" are in favor of using govt programs, via taxing and spending, to promote equality and provide services to the poor, etc. -- yet are strongly opposed to the use of govt for violence such as the death penalty, war and other militarism, etc.

    In other words, the progressives I know (including myself) are not at all the statists you characterize them to be. And in fact, the brief quotation from the professor that you offer at the top of your post could easily be read (by progressives) as attempting to highlight the irony, and underscore the cause for suspicion, of such a construct that allows the state to do what we don't want individuals to do.

    Bottom line: you don't play fair at all here. You have a legit complaint against statists -- but you conflate and blur distinctions so as to use that complaint against all "liberals." Bad form.

    1. our post completely expresses how I’m feeling right now,

  2. I should add that I agree with a lot of what you're saying. I just think you reach to far to ensnare too many on the left in your criticism.

    And you also do a little too much to give the Tea Partiers a free pass.

  3. Jason,

    You act as if you can divorce all the good things the state does from all the (much more numerous) bad things it does -- try doing that when you file your taxes. That liberals are propagandizing on behalf of the legitimacy of a mass-murdering state -- and if you've seen the effects of U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think you'd conclude that's not an overstatement -- then it seems to me quite fair to critique them, even if they wish the government would do more to help homeless people and, say, less to lock them up on non-violent drug offense. As Tolstoy and other opponents of non-violence have long argued, if it is violence you oppose, then one should oppose the greatest purveyor of it: the state. Most liberals, on the other hand, appear more interested in ensuring we recognize its legitimacy, no matter how much its power has been abused.

    Also, if you read the post I was responding to it's abundantly clear Harris-Lacewell is most certainly not defining the state's "legitimate" monopoly on violence as a means of pointing out the irony of allowing governments to steal and murder. She is citing it as a matter-of-fact explanation that the state exists on a separate moral plane than you or I. Now that's bad form.

  4. Jason,

    I appreciate the respectful criticism. Maybe I'm due for a good Tea Party-bashing post, it's just I get tired of reading outraged liberals posting about the latest dumb thing Glenn Beck said when it is Barack Obama, not some Fox News host, dropping the bombs.

  5. Anonymous1:20 PM

    Focusing on the Evil Rethuglicans or the Tea Partiers is simply a way to swing people's loyalty toward the Donkle, or to keep it there.

    I can't see the distinctions Jason makes, though I'll grant that he may be sincere in his hair-splitting. I'm not one for counting angels on pinheads, but I realize that many enjoy that pastime, thinking it both productive socially, and a good use of one's noggin.

  6. I don't think Tea Party folks (God I hate that phrase) aren't protesting the State's legitimacy so much as their tax $ going to help blacks and Mexicans. But I certainly agree with your overall point. Our shitty electoral options are like choosing between two serial-killer landlords. In that case, I'll reluctantly choose the one who recycles and doesn't discriminate against black tenants (i.e., not Donald Sterling).

    On a lighter note, I take it you're not joining Tom Friedman's "Tea Party Without Nuts"?

  7. Indy,

    If you agreed with all of my points I'd probably have to report you to DHS.

    As for Tom Friedman, well, I actually form my opinions by reading his columns and believing the exact opposite of whatever position he takes. Works like a charm.

  8. Modern politics is just a pantomime designed to keep us distracted from the true purpose of the system (i.e. keeping a small fraction of the population rich and powerful). But it's a very good pantomime, and it's easy to get caught up in it. I know I do all the time, and have to step back and realise that it's futile to get involved (and instead try to divert my energy towards *real* change).

    I don't think it's constructive to lambaste those people who are caught up in the illusion, but otherwise show admirable qualities. Those who support something like Obamacare because they care about their fellow humans, and would rather pay higher taxes than have people suffer or die unnecessarily are in this category.

    The fact that they don't realise that the whole system is utterly broken and needs to be rebuilt from scratch doesn't make them bad people. In fact, they're the kind of people who need to be educated about the *real* alternatives that are available, because once they see there are ways that are genuinely superior to what we have now, they may well put their energies behind those causes. And those causes become much stronger.

    If your intent was to help enlighten those who believe the pantomime, then I applaud you. However, your tone comes across (to me anyway) as a little bit combative, which in my opinion only serves to put people on the defensive. So, perhaps, a slightly lesser 'rant' would be more constructive, at least if you're really interested in helping create change.

  9. "Many, many, many "liberals" or "progressives" or "leftists" are in favor of using govt programs, via taxing and spending, to promote equality and provide services to the poor, etc. -- yet are strongly opposed to the use of govt for violence such as the death penalty, war and other militarism, etc.

    In other words, the progressives I know (including myself) are not at all the statists you characterize them to be."

    No, you are statists, in every sense of the word. You can't have the welfare state without the warfare state, and the domestic police state, too.

    Where do the resources come from to deliver those services to the poor? They are collected under threat of violence from your neighbors, or coerced in tribute from foreigners wishing to trade here.

    How do you "promote equality" if the free and voluntary interaction of individuals in the marketplace results in inequality? Why, at gunpoint, of course! And who else will do that, but the state?

    A gun in the face is no means to legitimate ends, yet that is how the state achieves all its goals, Jason. You're fooling yourself if you believe otherwise.

  10. Anonymous7:05 AM

    Gosh, I almost feel... insulted by Sam C. The dripping condescension via superior stance, the pretense at humility while denigrating those who don't think like Sam C... it's almost... "progressive" in nature.

  11. Liberals have never used the gun to alter or push a political agenda in America but conservative have. Just look at the 1960s. So I can see why anyone would be affraid of the tea party and their agenda.

  12. Liberals have never used the gun to alter or push a political agenda in America but conservative have. Just look at the 1960s.

    Uh, Thom? I wasn't alive in the 1960s, but I do recall reading about plenty of liberals using guns -- and bombs -- to pursue a political agenda back then. Just ask the Vietnamese.

  13. Anonymous12:19 PM

    Thom does his dutiful Pwoggie Donkle best to rewrite history.

    Thom might do well to examine the military actions of America in the 20th and 21st Centuries, and examine which gang got us into militarism each time. HINT: the GOP wasn't the gang.

    Charles's example of Vietnam is a good one. There's also Slick Willie Cumstain's attack on the Serbs and Croats. Barry O'Barmy's attack on Afghanis, Iraqis, Iranians, Somalians. And that's just in the past 20 years!

    big big OOPS there, Thom!

  14. I enjoyed this very much, Mr. Davis. I only wish I'd discovered your blog earlier. Keep it up, and I'll look forward to future visits!

  15. I like your introduction: "The state is the entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, force and coercion."

    However, I feel that the people have a moral power above all governments & that is to fight tyranny.

    My favorite quote: “In times of Universal Deceit, telling the truth is revolutionary act.” George Orwell

    You might want to read that new book out about a small town that does take a stand cause history does repeat itself whether we want it or not. It's a great read of American history & how freedom is not free.

  16. Anonymous6:54 PM

    This recent msm crying about tea partiers is stupid. I seem to recall an awful lot of people yelling bush is hitler and burning effigies. It would be interesting to contrast the media response. I would be willing to bet there was some racist (anti-Powell or anti-rice) sentiment

  17. Jenny3:59 PM

    You might be wrong about the tea parties:

  18. Jenny,

    Thanks for the link, but I don't see how it contradicts anything I wrote here. Tea Partiers aren't all neo-Nazis, but neither are they one Chomsky lecture away from being anarcho-syndicalists. Regardless, the hyper-ventilating fear they provoke in some liberals seems to me terribly disproportionate to their actual desire and ability to commit violence; like with liberals, I think we have more to fear from the state violence they'd support than any they'd carry out themselves.

  19. This post sails right past outstanding and doesn't stop until it reaches fantabularrific. Nicely done.

    And about this:

    So, perhaps, a slightly lesser 'rant' would be more constructive, at least if you're really interested in helping create change.

    Sam, there are already "rants" like that at all levels of rantiness, and none of them are making a dent in the worldview of the people who you posit would be too offended by this posting to understand its critical insight. I think it's safe to say that liberals like M H-L are not just one polite article away from seeing the light.

    And I can also tell you that back in the day when I was still a Nice Liberal but still teetering on the edge, the irrefutable logic of this posting would have made an impression on me. If someone's ready to hear it, they'll hear it.

  20. I must say, I really do like reading pretty much anything critical of the Nation, while also being intelligent and non-reactionary. Most of the Nation's intellect is wrapped up in the silly dance of "progressives who work with Democrats". I can't stand their unending capacity for compromise.

  21. Charlie, your post here inspired me to write my own perspective about this column by Lacewell, one of the oddest things I've seen from a progressive for quite some time

    in addition to her romanticization of the state, her assertion that the federal government accepted desegregation because it would have otherwise lost legitimacy strikes me as without any basis whatsoever

  22. Your post completely expresses how I’m feeling right now, and I know a few- a very few- who agree. Then there are the white middle-class fair-weather lefties. Why are they so shallow, gullible and intrinsically craven? Why do they lick the hand (or nether regions) of authority at any opportunity? They drive me up the wall.

  23. Puddy Dunne12:00 PM

    Mr. Davis has rightly ruffled the feathers of some liberal apologists.

    Drivel was kind to describe the nonsense from MH-L and typical of the left to set themselves apart from the state Mr. Davis points out so well.

    The change is merely the movement of the two-party paradigm to identify dissent as terrorism as orchestrated by a multitude of campaigns recently.

    The militia movement which in the case of Hutarre, a clear staging by state sponsored operatives both in law enforcement and private sectors like the SPLC and ADL.

    The bullying/suicide case and the healthcare bill are examples of the growing totalitarian state and world order governance being manipulated by both sides.

    The effort to corral all these dissenters into a tidy little group if seditious homegrown terrorists being the goal, can be easily be pinned to the liberal faction of the state as mentioned previously and historically as Mr. Davis points out in Vietnam.

    But even prior to WWII with the aid of democratic statists FDR, Truman against Japan.

    They were quick to sign off on GW Bush's Iraq WOT as they were to defend the Japanese internment but like to condemn the torture policies of the Neo-Con version of WAR. That's a head scratcher for certain.

    "Liberals are very broadminded: they are always willing to give careful consideration to both sides of the same side."

  24. Thanks for the great article! I usually joke that I'm from the anarchist wing of the Republican Party. I'm a gun-totin', home-schoolin', small-business farmer that believes in "small" government--so small it doesn't exist at all. I write in dead anarchists like Murray Rothbard on election forms.

    An anarcho-syndicalist friend and neighbor of mine sent me a link to your article. Just wanted to let you know that some folks are gradually shaking off this left-right false dichotomy and realizing that it is far, far more important to stop the theft and mass-murder of the state than it is to worry about someone else's lifestyle.

    Go in peace and enjoy life!

  25. A lot of 'progressives' think that the way to get the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan is to shout at Karl Rove at book signings.

    When Code Pink, the PDA, Dennis Kucinich, et al call for the impeachment and war crimes trial of Obama and his war planners, I'll take them seriously. Until then...

  26. Some people think it's "ok" for the state to tax and murder it's citizens as long as the state's motives are "good" ("your taxes are going to HELP people!"). Sorry, the definition of "good" tends to be whatever the people doing this can sell to the public. You're no less a statist if you support it's actions in the name of "feeding the poor" than in the name of "protecting the borders", "bringing democracy to the world", or "lining the pockets of the people who bought the politicians". Of course, some people fall for "the ends justifys the means" even though it's been used to justify the worst horrors of human history (and always -ALWAYS- in the name of "doing good").

  27. Anonymous6:51 AM

    I am impressed with this blog author, his merit class liberal, reference blew my mind. We always knew they where out there, just when its so stuck in your face, it makes (Reminds me of 'Terminal Preppy' song from the Dead Kennedies). When we see the huffington post, as well as liberal Slate magazine punt so much for hypocrite moral crusader/Prostitute-loving Eliot Spitzer (, yet he was the very man punishing and pushing these laws prosecuting the common person. (If you talk the talk, you have to walk the walk). There are 305 million Americans out there, lets pick our politicians carefully. Dig a damn ditch for money, like all us out of work fallen angels, you SOB.

  28. Anonymous7:44 AM

    Payback the $elf-Insurance Company $to' and Wall $treet-walker$ by cancelling your elective insurance policies, taking the ca$h value and $avings and put 'em in a local bank/credit union, instead! That's UNDERMINING by Cutting 'em Off at the BILL$!

  29. Anonymous9:10 AM

    Hey Thom,

    By referring to the violence in the 60's, you did mean like, say, William Ayers?

  30. I was confused by Mr. Davis's quoted opening paragraph because it simply didn't occur to me that one could seriously knowingly defend the State's right to murder and steal. Still hard to get my mind around that one. And I thought I'd lost my naivete! There goes another bit! That it is a supposed "liberal" spouting such cack is perhaps a bit more surprising than it being a university professor, but I no longer know or even waste my time on what the state-loving murderers are calling themselves these days. Now we are truly post partisan since now the partisans pretty much all fall under the general rubric of "war criminal."

  31. It may well be that Melissa Harris-Lacewell was advocating a special respect for the state, even worship, but I read the quoted words as a frank description of the way it is.

    Our culture has a growing number of people who do worship the state, who put a special legitimacy in the state.

    Most people see Washington as the arbitrator of right and wrong, the great provider, the source of benevolence, the one who validates, the sword against enemies, the essence of right motivation, that which must not be blasphemed and the embodiment of ideals. That is, Washington is a god.

    While we might encourage people to stay away from this idolatry (or statolatry), we should recognize a truth in the assessment.

    As many of my fellow Christians became disturbed when the Beatles said they were more popular than God, many of us also recognized the truth and took it as a wake-up call.

    In the same way, we can recognize the growing statolatry on both the left and the right, and that awareness can inform in decisions.

  32. Charles-

    Thank you for this great article. I am sure that you have many agreeing with you and the numbers of voices of those who disagree are getting smaller.

    I "seeded a link" @ newsvine that I found on a Ron Paul site: Liberty Forest. We would all be thrilled if you have time to join in on some of these conversations. Sending you very best wishes!

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