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It’s not possible to fully understand American politics without understanding the language that is employed in political discourse, and how the terms are defined by those who use them. Interestingly, one American political faction has come to define all terms as precisely the opposite of what the rest of us have long understood them to mean.

Whereas some people, for instance, think that the word “liberty” refers to a lack of infringement on freedom of thought and action, and lack of intrusion on privacy, careful observation of how those on the Right use it reveals that we have all been mistaken all these years. Apparently, it really means:

1) allowing members of the dominant race, ethnicity, religion, and sex to impose their will on all others and to protect the privileges inherited from a history of oppressing and exploiting others;

2) facilitating the displacement of political power from the people, through their elected representatives, to private corporations unhindered by democratic processes or public accountability;

3) ensuring that individuals are as unprotected as possible from the greatest threats to their well-being, posed by organized others in service to an obscenely inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity, while simultaneously ensuring that we react as vindictively and counterproductively as possible toward the impoverished and destitute;

4) fetishizing both privately owned instruments of violence and nationally organized acts of violence (as long as the perpetrator of the latter is one’s own nation); and

5) insisting on policies that have led to the incarceration of the highest percentage of any national population, and the highest absolute number of people, of any nation on Earth, bar none (making the United States, in the most literal sense, the least free nation on Earth).

More specifically, “liberty,” apparently, is a value which dictates that

1) Adherents of Islam who have engaged in no crimes nor done anything to draw suspicion should be placed under covert surveillance and have dossiers dedicated to them in order to ensure that any crimes they might commit in the future are pre-empted (otherwise known as “Ethnically and Religiously Exclusive Liberty,” or, more simply, “Police State Liberty”);

2) Impoverished people who migrate toward greater opportunity without governmental permission, or the children of such people who migrated with them as infants, should be rounded up and placed in detention centers, often subjected to poorly maintained facilities and poor treatment, until such time as they can be forcibly removed from the “land of opportunity” to which they migrated (Otherwise known as “Geographically Exclusive Liberty,” or “Fortress America Liberty,” or “‘If You’re Lucky’ Liberty”);

3) Women should be reduced to the legal status of human incubators, with no rights over their own bodies once they become impregnated, whether by their own choice or by force (otherwise known as “‘You’re a Toaster’ Liberty”); and

4) People who are sexually attracted to people of the same sex should be denied the kinds of legally and socially defined rights that those who are attracted to people of the opposite sex enjoy, because it as an affront to the ideal of “liberty” not to discriminate against those who are different from you in any significant way (otherwise known as “‘Liberty as long as we white Christian heterosexuals are okay with how you use it, but otherwise, not so much’ Liberty”).

5) Each of us has a God-given right to leave our home packing heat and looking for people to defend ourselves against, decide that an unarmed black teen in a hoodie innocently walking home from the store is just such a person, pursue them and initiate an altercation that leads to the armed person out looking for trouble shooting to death the unarmed black teen walking home from the store, and then complain bitterly whenever anyone points out that maybe, just maybe, that teen’s right to his life was greater than the shooter’s right to go out looking for people to “defend” himself against.

This imaginative definition of “liberty” is reminiscent of how this political faction’s historical predecessors used the word. For instance, John C. Calhoun, the famous Antebellum Southern politician, used the word “liberty” to refer to the freedom to own slaves, and “minority” to refer to those who believed that they had an inalienable right to own slaves, and was very strongly committed to protecting the rights and liberties of that embattled minority. In other words, to these neo-nullifcation-doctrine adherents, liberty means “my freedom to screw everyone else.”

Similarly, the venerable phrase “United States Constitution,” which to most of us means that document drafted by a group of very intelligent but historically contextualized propertied white men in 1787 in order to strengthen the federal government and overcome the disintegrative dysfunctionality of The Articles of Confederation which had preceded it, and which is the foundation of our rule of law, in reality refers to the complete disregard for the actual provisions of that document or to the rule of law established in accordance with those provisions. Rather, it refers to a strange, incoherent combination of Fundamentalist Christian theocracy, corporate oligarchy, and indifference to gross social injustices produced by current and historical distributions of privilege disproportionately favoring the racial, religious, ethnic and sexual orientation categories to which those who adhere to this imaginative interpretation of the phrase “United States Constitution” coincidentally belong.

For instance, Article I, Section 8, Clause 1, which grants Congress the power to tax and spend in service to the general welfare, in reality prohibits Congress from taxing and spending in service to the general welfare, the rest of us failing to understand that the Founding Fathers meant that Clause tongue-in-cheek, and that a literal, non-judicial-activist reading of the Constitution requires us to realize that it means the exact opposite of what it says.

Or, the First Amendment, which protects the right of each to adhere to and practice the religion of their choice, and ensures that the government does not favor any religion over any other, really means that the government must assiduously favor Christianity over all other religions, and decline to extend the same permission and accommodation to, for instance, adherents of Islam practicing their religion, because to do so would be to force good, all-American white Christians to endure people of other religions practicing non-Judeo-Christian religions in “our” country (not “their” country, because, of course, if they’re Muslim, then they’re not American…, right?).

“Liberty,” in Right-Wing New-Speak, means indifference, injustice, predation, violence and mass incarceration. “Freedom of religion” means Christian Theocracy and intolerance of any disfavored religions. The provision granting Congress the authority to tax and spend for the general welfare means that Congress is prohibited from taxing and spending for the general welfare. You almost have to admire such an impressive commitment to the complete inversion of reality.

So, if you find yourself driving a car with a right-wing ideologue riding shot-gun, and he or she shouts in a panic “Floor it!” …don’t. Hit the brakes instead. The wayward gay Muslim Hispanic pedestrian who wandered into your path will thank you for it.

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  • sblecher:

    I read the novel 1984 a long time ago, and it made a lasting impression me. Newspeak had two main goals: to simplify language to the point where it didn’t require thinking, and redefine words to mean the opposite of what they meant in Oldspeak. Bumper stickers and Newspeak are made for each other. Winston Smith worked at the Ministry of Truth, where he helped revise history by cutting and pasting old newspaper articles. Today we have computers that do the task much more efficiently. As I mentioned previously, right wing organizations have their own secret language. You seem to be referring to the Christian Patriot movement, that turns the Constitution and history upside down, and I don’t know what can be done about it. They have websites on the Internet that promote their ideology, and I’m sure you must have seen them. At present I’m not even contemplating progressive thought and action, because it will take every bit of our energy to prevent the country from regressing 200 years practically overnight.

  • Steve, in response to your last statement, here’s some good advice from a management tome I recently read: never let the urgent constantly displace the important, because the two are not the same thing. Keeping the country from slipping into the Medieval paradise of constricted intelligence and increased inhumanity that the radical right is fighting tooth-and-nail to impose on this country is urgent; working toward establishing and nurturing a growing nucleus of a naturally growing influence of reason and goodwill in popular opinion and policy formation is important. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and if we are forever focused only on that which is immediate and urgent, then we are forever evolving more unconsciously and unintentionally, and less probably in benign directions.

  • sblecher:

    I’m actually engaged in a long range goal of overturning Citizens United. The Republicans are catering to the far right and throwing everybody else under the bus. I don’t see how that can be a winning strategy, but at the same time they have a huge propaganda machine that has no concern for the truth, and they will try to convince everybody that higher gas prices are the work of Obama. People will sell their children into slavery for the promise of lower gas prices. If the Republicans win the election, we may never get the opportunity to promote reason and goodwill.

  • Overturning Citizen’s United would be a positive move (mostly because it would get rid of Superpacs), but I disagree with the conventional wisdom that that is the holy grail of political reform, for several reasons:

    1) We’ve continually discovered that campaign finance reform is like trying to damn a major river by tossing pebbles into it. There are so many paths along which money can flow, and so difficult to effectively damn them, that all attempts just end up rerouting it, often (more often than not, in fact) in ways more dysfunctional than those that were addressed by the reform in the first place. We need to be more imaginative, and seek a completely different approach.

    2) Since you said “overturn Citizens United” rather than pass a Constitutional amendment defining corporations as not human beings, you’ve circumvented one of my major criticisms associated with this particular mania: Changing the legal status of corporations would have no effect on the holding in Citizens United, or, indeed, on a literal reasding of the First Amendment, which says nothing about whose or what’s speech is being protected (“the right to free speech shall not be infringed”). As much as I think that it’s bad policy, I reluctantly have to admit that I think it’s sound legal analysis and Constitutional interpretation.

    3) Given what I said in 1 and 2, above, I think the most productive and likely strategy for addressing the policy problems involved is to proliferate competing forms of speech. We find ourselves at a moment in history when the salience of expensive traditional mass media marketing, while still enormous, is starting to decline due to practically free, very robust, and rapidly growing alternatives. We’ve seen the effects of this around the world, with the Arab Spring, and events elsewhere in the world, in which completely centralized control of the traditional mass media could no longer exert the centralized control over thought and action that they once did.

    There are no panaceas. The ability of capital interests to monopolize traditional, expensive mass media outlets is highly problematic, and should not be trivialized. But the solutions are also complex and difficult to assertain in perfect clarity. It’s an ongoing challenge, and focusing all thought and action on one idolized demon to be vanquished, I believe, does us more harm than good.

    Perhaps more importantly, it’s simply not a very imaginative or ambitious goal. (Sorry, that sounds harsh; you know I meant nothing personal by it.) There are deeper and richer currents in play right now, and subtler and more far-reaching possibilities within reach. You’ve identified attacking an intermediate means of social control as the ultimate goal we, as a nation, can conveive of or meaningfully address. That would be like saving ourselves from excessive corporate influence by relegating ourselves to a constriction of consciousness and imagination almost (or perhaps just) as soul-deadening.

    The whole reason why money in politics is an issue is because it buys communication messages, which affects what people believe and how they see the world. It controls Congressional votes by being a carrot and a stick over representatives re-election prospects, due to this affect on what people believe and think. The ultimate goal, then, isn’t money in politics, but rather affecting what people believe and think, and how they/we perceive the world.

    When we keep our eye on that ultimate goal, which includes the issues wrapped up in campaign finance reform, money in politics, and Citizens United, we see the larger landscape involved. My ultimate goal is very much rooted in that larger landscape, in the issue of how we see the world, of how our beliefs and perceptions are formed. But stopping-up one of almost limitless paths through which money can flow into politics is not going to address the bigger issue of how we affect human perceptions in more profound, consequential, and enduring ways.

    We need to focus on that challenge, in its entirety, not reduced to one tiny moment of it. The question is: How do we cultivate frames and narratives more conducive to the ever-increasing salience of reason, imagination, and goodwill in American consciousness and policy? That is not an individual-level question; it does not depend on people dramatically changing their habits of thought and action. It is a social systemic question.

    Just as humans today, for instance, are fundamentally similar to humans before the scientific revolution, science has nevetheless had a profound impact on our lives. Just as humans today are fundamentally similar to humans before the major humanistic advances of the Enlightenment associated with concepts such as “Natural Rights,” or “Human Rights,” the Enlightenment and the advance of those concepts as central features of our social structure have had profound impacts on our lives.

    The challenge we are faced with today is the challenge of extending and advancing and refining those developments, resurrecting them the way some artistic souls resurrected Classical forms and ideas in the Renaissance, which, along with the Reformation, catalyzed the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and the poltical revolutions associated with it, the Industrial Revolution, and the, for good and ill, accelerating dynamic of widescale and far reaching social and technological change that we have been thrown into ever since.

    The role of Citizens United in that dynamic, while significant, is marginal. It should not define the limits of our vision, or the entirety of our aspirations. For an alternative approach, see

  • BTW, Steve, Citizens United is currently operating in a way to increase Obama’s odds of re-election, not decrease them. It is due to Citizens United that superpacs exist, which can spend unlimited amounts on a candidate. Prior to that, primaries squeezed out those who could not raise sufficient funds from sufficient donors (who were individually constrained by campaign finance rules) due to early losses or poor prospects. Now, candidates with early losses and poor prospects can stay in, if they have one or few enormous donors willing to keep them afloat. Gingrich, at least, and probably Santorum as well, would not have stayed in the primary race this long if not for Citizens United. And their continued presence is helping Obama.

    There’s a great lesson in this about complexity and unintended consequences. Similarly, in Colorado, Republicans in the 1990s were pushing for term limits for state legislators, which meant that Republicans who would have been in their seats forever had to step down and leave open seats that wouldn’t have been open otherwise. At the same time, Republican-driven state campaign finance reform created an opening for 501(c)(3)’s to take over state campaigns and campaign financing (indirectly), which Democrats exploited far more rapidly and effectively than Republicans. This led to an amazing turn-over in the Colorado political landscape, with Democrats holding the Governor’s office, both houses of the General Assembly, the Secretary of State’s office, and the state treasurer’s office, just a couple of years after it looked as though it would be Republicans holding that monopoly into the indefinite future.

    Our social institutional landscape is rich enough, the dynamics by which it operates complex enough, that the obvious is often wrong, and the depths of subtlety are often where the real challenge resides.

  • sblecher:

    I didn’t claim that super-pacs benefit only Republicans. They are just fundamentally wrong for a democratic society. Already they are so obnoxious that the great majority of people think they should be outlawed, and the political campaign season has barely begun. Ultimately super-pacs may be self defeating. The Republican candidates are competing with each other to appeal to the most extreme elements of the Base. I don’t see how that will be a winning strategy in the long run, but who am I to advise them. Sometimes stupidity is punished.

  • My point wasn’t that superpacs politically benefit Democrats as well as Republicans, and therefore aren’t a major issue. (Notice that when I said getting rid of Citizens United would be a good thing, the primary reason I cited was the elimination of superpacs.) My point was that when we hierarchicalize issues on the bases of which are of more or less fundamental importance, we need to take into account the true nature of the world we live in, which is non-linear and complex. If we are almost entirely driven by the pursuit of linear goals (addressing simple isolated chains of cause-and-effect), our efforts won’t be well atuned to the nature of the world we are trying to influence, and the “slippage” (prevalence of unintended consequences over intended consequences) in our efforts will be high.

    If the reason why Citizens United is bad is because it places too much power in corporate hands, and the means by which it does so is to allow corporations to have a disproportionate influence on what people think and believe (which is ultimately what money in politics is all about), it pays not to focus on Citizens United or money in politics as “the ultimate issue,” but rather on the formation of what people think and believe as “the ultimate issue.” (See “the politics of consciousness,”, for my discussion of that issue in detail.) The issue of money in politics, and Citizens United, certainly plays a role within that more encompassing frame, but how we look at the challenge, what avenues we identify through which to address it, the ultimate purpose of the avenues we choose, are all better taken into account by focusing on the ultimate issue rather than one intermediate instance of it.

    What if it were the case (and I’m not suggesting it is, but merely offering a hypothetical), for instance, that, due to the complexity and non-linearity of our society, and due to the unintended consequences of policies that seemed directly to serve one purpose but, unexpectedly, ended up indirectly serving the opposite purpose more robustly, getting rid of Citizens United actually, by convoluted implications that had not been foreseen, ended up increasing rather than decreasing the concentration of power in how public opinions and perceptions are influenced? Making “getting rid of Citizens United” the ultimate goal would ensure that that anomaly would not be detected, while making “reducing the concentration of influence in how public opinion and perceptions are influenced” leaves open the possibility.

    Personally, I would go deeper still. I don’t think that the ultimate goal is to reduce the concentration of influence on how public opinion and perceptions are influenced, but rather ensuring that the evolution of public opinion and perceptions continues to ever-more robustly favor reason over irrationality, imagination over the lack thereof, and goodwill over belligerence.

    None of this precludes making the overturning of Citizens United the most urgent intermediate goal, and the particular goal on which the political energies of those who agree with my reformulation are focused. It just makes sure that it’s a fully-informed and considered choice, and that it is a choice made in the context of a never-neglected eye on more fundamental, essential and enduring goals.

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