Last week, when I logged onto Facebook, two stories were near the top of my feed. The first was about the plot of at least four U.S. soldiers who had plans to carry out acts of domestic terrorism, including assassination of President Obama, and who had killed a fellow soldier and his girlfriend in order to stop them from reporting the group’s intentions. Their sated goal: “To give America back to the people.”
The second story was a post by a friend, a Vietnam War veteran who writes beautifully about his journey through the world, still grappling with PTSD, still seeking peace. He was very upset to have stumbled upon a grotesque, right-wing image, a variation on the famous Obama “Hope” poster depicting the president hanged in a noose with the word Hope changed to Rope.
I recognize with some amusement that some readers of my commentary will make the mistaken assumption that I am a right-wing conservative, which only underscores for this mostly liberal Democrat just how incoherent political dialogue has become. When we speak in memes instead of nuance, and when all issues are associatively lumped together, our narrative becomes useless at best, and the raw ingredients for the ambitions of psychos at worst.
For the first podcast on this site, I had the pleasure of speaking to Christopher Dickey about journalism in the digital age, but Dickey is also an expert on extremism, terrorism, and counter-terrorism, having reported on these issues for thirty years. In a discussion that didn’t make the cut for the podcast, Dickey described the three elements one always finds in the anarchist, extremist, or terrorist. Neatly packaged into the acronym TNT, the components are Testosterone, Narrative, and Theater; and it is that middle component, narrative, that compels me to focus on many issues in the way I do.
Narrative, as Dickey defines it in this context is “one of oppression, some wrong that is being righted,” and after all, what politically or humanistically motivated citizen does not possess such a narrative? Doctors Without Borders are righting a wrong, are they not? But when that sensibility combines with stupidity (testosterone), and egomania (theater), it becomes a volatile mixture that I believe is actually fueled by even relatively innocuous anti-establishment rancor. For instance, what OWS and the Tea Party inadvertently have in common is a generalized agenda of tearing down institutions without envisioning new institutions in their place. Our critical narrative has shifted so that bad or failed policies within our institutions are not the enemy, but the institutions themselves are. And we all feed this narrative from our own political points of view, preaching to our own little choirs in cyberspace.
This excellent article in The Daily Beast suggests that the Fort Stewart F.E.A.R. plot is indicative of “rising domestic terrorism,” and the article explains how a DHS report on right-wing extremist organizations was criticized by conservative pundits (and John Boehner) as “an attempt to smear or criminalize right-wing free speech.” There it is again — the First Amendment being used as an excuse to apply blunt thinking to a complex issue, to capitulate to the notion that we cannot possibly make a distinction between conservative ideas and violent extremists. And perhaps that’s because the narrative of the two is way too similar. I think it’s fair to say that if the voice of the contemporary right wing sounded like William F. Buckley instead of FOX News, these dumb soldiers would have been less likely to hear their misguided sentiments echoed in the mainstream. That is not a cause and effect assertion. I don’t propose that FOX News causes these acts of violence any more than Marilyn Manson was responsible for Columbine; but the psychotic hears the coded messages he wants to hear; and there is no question that the conservative plank of “small government” has mutated into a more virulent strain of anti-government (often laced with racism).
But I don’t single out conservatives in dialing up the destructive rhetoric. While liberals tend toward fewer violent metaphors, I do find parallel fear-mongering among my liberal friends. It’s hard to tell the difference, for instance, between liberals insisting earlier this year that the NDAA gives the feds the right to “assassinate citizens in the streets” and conservatives labeling HR347 an “anti-peaceable assembly bill.” In these instances, everybody has a motive for writing a narrative of oppression, and that motive is often the aforementioned theater itself. TV, radio, print, and web pundits need to make theater (and individuals want stuff to post on their walls). So everybody adds a little spectacle to otherwise mundane bits of legislation, and we’re off to the races.
I pick these two examples because the rhetoric from both the right and the left on each bill is completely interchangeable. It really doesn’t matter if it’s Glenn Beck or my liberal friends predicting Storm Troopers in the streets. Both are making theater, and I believe both are in some way feeding the very real paranoia of the next violent extremist. And that brings me back to my underlying point regarding the lens I apply to the issues discussed here. When the narrative coming from opposing sides on a given subject begins to produce identical rhetoric, it’s probably a good sign that we’ve stopped discussing anything grounded in practical or humanistic reality.