09 December 2010

The Wild, Violent, and Lawless West

There's a certain nostalgia that most Americans feel towards our pioneer past.  That ideal of the solitary homesteader family setting up on their own piece of real estate and working that land to make it productive.  The lone rider making his way across the plains and the mountains and the deserts, with only his Colt .45 and his personal code to protect him.  This is certainly the past that the libertarian strand of Americans believe in, but it also the mythology that many others, who perhaps don't idealize that past to quite the same extent, believe.

But, of course, it wasn't really like that for a huge number of those pioneers who made their way into the untamed West.  I'm not even going to get into the genocide of the Native Americans, or the bigotry and dehumanization of the Chinese and of most African Americans who dared to venture into this new world to try to make a life for themselves and their descendants.  Even within white society, lawlessness and near complete "freedom" were not beneficial to the vast majority of the people.  Many died on the journey, and many more died once they reached their primitive destinations in a harsh, exposed, and unforgiving environment.  If you failed, you starved, or if you were lucky, there was a town nearby where you could be exploited for your destitution in a cattle yard or as a laborer on someone else's ranch or farm.  If you were a woman alone without a husband or father, there might be a job for you upstairs from the saloon, at least until you were used up and worn out.

The old Westerns had a few things right. Mainly, the hero in many of those stories was the traveling lawman, the Wyatt Earp who rode in to clean up a dirty, corrupt town. Sometimes the bad guys are common criminals; thieves and murderers, gangsters and cattle rustlers. In the better films, we are reminded that behind the men in the black hats were often rich ranchers and other "big men" who were either above the existing law, or they owned the law as it was.

The West has changed much since then, and yet in many ways it hasn't.  Perhaps more accurately, the West made a great deal of progress towards civilizing into a society of law and equal justice thereunder over the hundred years after the days of the "Wild West", but now seems to be nearing the end of a generation-long decline in social justice culminating in hurtling off the edge of the cliff back into a neo-feudal wealth disparity unseen since the Gilded Age.  The slow, steady democratization of America, from the suffrage of blacks and women, to the rise of organized labor, to the New Deal and the civil rights movement, is now in full retreat.  In the new century, we are seeing the triumph of the moneyed elite over not only the frontier, but the entire society, and the purposeful destruction of every institution that created the American Middle Class, which in turn turned the United States into the most advanced and powerful nation the world has ever known.

The "law" is, and has always been, the mortal enemy of the powerful.  For 1000 years, the Anglo-American legal tradition has been one of the increasing power of the law over the power of men.  The Magna Carta established that the king ruled at the mercy of the nobles.  The Glorious Revolution established the primacy of Parliament over the Crown.  The Founders of the American Republic, and their intellectual brethren in Britain, laid the philosophical groundwork for a nation "of the People, by the People, and for the People."  Every great document and court ruling over the past two centuries has been about the expansion of the rights and powers of the People versus those of the powerful.  That is, until the last 30 years or so...

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the fall of the American nation began.  Perhaps it was when John Kennedy was assassinated, or when Richard Nixon was elected.  By the time Reagan came on the scene, the society was clearly already in noticeable decline, and this allowed for the rise of the politics of fear, hatred and ignorance to gain a foothold at the top of the ladder in a way that never been possible, or necessary in the past. 

Through a coalition (the construction of which I will address in depth in a later post) of the racially bigoted, the jingoistically authoritarian, and perhaps most importantly, the unquestioningly faithfully religious fundamentalists, the new American right has grown over the last 40 years into a voting bloc that is always a force to be reckoned with.  When the left and center are unenthusiastic about their leadership choices, that hard right bloc can even win on a national level. 

And whose interests does the Republican Party, for whom that bloc votes religiously, serve?  Is it the bigots?  Not really.  Those ignorant troglodytes just need to have some vaguely racist statements dogwhistled to them every once in a while to convince them that the Party's leaders share their prejudices.  What they really want is to believe that just because they have white skin and Northern European names that they are in the same class as the Bluebloods who actually run the show, and who consider the rednecks to be the lowest form, of gutter trash.

How about the military hawks?  They get their little bits of red meat to rub their diminutive pistols to, what with the endless wars and universal praise for anyone who ever wore a uniform as a "hero".  But interestingly, the ones who actually have to go and risk their lives, rather than those who merely have season ticket skybox seats for the wars, tend to come home a lot less cavalier about blowing those other people to smithereens, unless they were sociopaths to begin with.

Oh, but certainly the Christian social warriors must be getting what they paid for by dutifully performing as the foot soldiers of the Republican Party for the past 40 years.  Let's see.  Abortion, still legal.  Prayer in schools, still illegal.  Gays, making civil rights progress.  Evolution, still true.  It makes you wonder if maybe there has never been any intention to act on any of the major social conservative regressive platforms, since the religious followers are much more useful being strung along indefinitely, and since they don't seem to be too quick on the uptake when someone is telling them demonstrable falsehoods.

No, the only people who have ever, or will ever truly benefit from the governance of the modern Republican Party are the moneyed elite.  Taxes have been taught to their minions to be socialism.  The rich create jobs, don't ya know?  War is for national security, not just to line the pockets of the Military-Industrial Complex.  War is peace.  Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength.  And YOU are the REAL Americans, and are always right, because we will tell you when you're right.

Cut to today, and America is run by the outlaws.  Corporate and financial cowboys on Wall Street, with no regulations to tie them down, play poker games with billions, betting on their own companies to lose and cashing in on insurance policies they themselves created to cover those losses.  No fear of being shot under the table anymore either, since everybody at the table wins no matter what cards are dealt, and they're not playing with their own money.

Gangsters start wars in order to create business for their friends in the defense contracting industry, and to create instability that drives up the price of their vast oil stock holdings.  Nice bonus that we have this volunteer military these days, so that there are no draft protests from those middle class kids, or their parents, who know which way the wind blows and whose lives may depend on speaking out. 

The civil liberties of the little People are irrelevant if it comes to their need to know about the activities of their government, or if the government wants to know about the People's activities.  So they'll just bug your phones and datamine your emails, 4th Amendment be damned.  And forget about a fair trial if you are found to be an enemy of the party, er I mean, the State.  They'll just invent some new quasi-legal classification for you that will allow them to lock you away forever in some no-man's land, or ship you off to some God forsaken hole in a country that has never known the concept of democracy, to be tortured until you ... something or other.

It's called American Exceptionalism, and it means that we're better than they are because we say we are.
A key theme is the claim that the United States and its people differ from other nations, at least on a historical basis, as an association of people who came from numerous places throughout the world but who hold a common bond in standing for certain self-evident truths, like freedom, inalienable natural and human rights, democracy, republicanism, the rule of law, civil liberty, civic virtue, the common good, fair play, private property, and Constitutional government.
Any American willing to take an honest look at America of 2010 would have hard time reconciling American Exceptionalism with reality. For while we should certainly take pride in our centuries-old experiment in representative democracy, one cannot deny that we have managed to make those virtues not so exceptional. We have largely succeeded in exporting them around the world. In 1900, not even the United States would have been considered a democracy by today's standards. There was not a single sovereign democracy in the entire world. But by 2000, there were more than 100. That meant over 63 percent of the world's population lived in a society where belief in American civic values was common. How can one be exceptional in a world where such beliefs are so widely held? [...]  In fact, there is a good argument that some of the older European nations have become even more free than we are due to our ever-expanding national security/police state apparatus. One need only look at our prison statistics as evidence.
Insisting, however, that we are somehow running the table on being special or unique isn't backed up by the facts. Notably, if we strictly measure our greatness in terms of military lethality, we are certainly the most powerful and capable nation in the world.
What "American Exceptionalism" means for Sarah Palin is, essentially, robust flag waving. It does not involve taking steps to see to it that American become #1 in this or that particular statistic. Those facts are not used in factoring America's greatness by her reckoning. [...] What matters, appropriately for Palin, is spirited cheerleading.  Palin's problem is that she doesn't want America to actually be #1. Rather, her problem is that she thinks it is sufficient to merely believe it and cheer it.
We just had a cheerleader as president and it didn't work out so well.

There's no need to follow "laws".  We're the "big man" and we can get what we want through intimidation.
As usual, when wielded by American authorities, the term "terrorist" means nothing more than: "those who impede or defy the will of the U.S. Government with any degree of efficacy."  Anyone who does that is, by definition, a Terrorist.  And note McConnell's typical, highly representative view that if someone he wants to punish isn't a criminal under the law, then you just "change the law" to make him one.  
But that sort of legal scheming isn't even necessary.  The U.S. and its "friends" in the Western and business worlds are more than able and happy to severely punish anyone they want without the slightest basis in "law."  That's what the lawless, Wild Western World is:  political leaders punishing whomever they want without any limits, certainly without regard to bothersome concepts of "law."  Anyone who doubts that should just look at what has been done to Wikileaks and Assange over the last week.  In this series of events, there are indeed genuine and pernicious threats to basic freedom and security; they most assuredly aren't coming from WikiLeaks or Julian Assange. 
People often have a hard time believing that the terms "authoritarian" and "tyranny" apply to their own government, but that's because those who meekly stay in line and remain unthreatening are never targeted by such forces.  The face of authoritarianism and tyranny reveals itself with how it responds to those who meaningfully dissent from and effectively challenge its authority:  do they act within the law or solely through the use of unconstrained force?
Welcome to the new Wild West.

No comments:

Post a Comment