Our Unhealthy Politicized Society

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I have never been to Amherst, Massachusetts, and have not seen the campus of the University of Massachusetts, and the same can be said of most readers of this commentary. Neither do I know any students or faculty members at UMass, and do not foresee that state of affairs changing anytime soon.

This past week, however, a student columnist for the UMass student newspaper wrote a column about a U.S. soldier named Pat Tillman, who died in action in Afghanistan April 22. The student wrote that Tillman, who gave up a very promising career as an NFL defensive back to enlist following the September 11 attacks, was no hero, but rather was a sap. Tillman, the student charged, "Got what he deserved."

Whether or not Tillman was a hero or a misguided grunt is not for me to declare in this commentary. One can admire the man’s devotion to duty and the internal drive that pushed an undersized athlete who was ignored by the NFL scouts into a professional football all-star. Furthermore, I wish there were more Pat Tillmans in this world, overachievers who in the course of their activities provide leadership for those who seem to achieve less with more.

Tillman is not the subject of this analysis. Instead, I am choosing to examine the reaction to the student’s column, and to apply that reaction to what I think is the most terminal disease that our modern society has produced, and has been producing for a long time: politicization of nearly everything.

Anyone who follows the news in even a cursory manner has been aware of the reaction to the student’s unfortunate column. The CNN website listed it and the reaction of the Umass president (he condemned the column) as one of the top stories in the news. While I do not have television reception in my home, I suspect that it was bandied about on all of the nation’s talk shows, television and radio. The student, who a few days ago was about as obscure as anyone could be, suddenly has become a subject of national conversation. His apology to Tillman’s family made national headlines, and no doubt people will remember him for a long time as a man who "besmirched" the reputation of an "American hero."

However, I tend to see this entire incident not as an "injustice" made right, but rather as a symptom of the larger sickness of American society. Our lives have been hopelessly politicized to the point where every comment, every phrase, and every action is first filtered through the lens of the current political climate.

As one who teaches a diverse group of students, I am quite aware of the possibility that a stray phrase that I might utter could be the subject of national conversation. That is not because I am prominent (which I am not), nor a well-known figure (ditto), but because the octopus-like tentacles of the insistence by many that all statements made in any forum, public or private, be interpreted only in one of the political categories of race, sex, and the like. All that is needed is for either me or one of my students to make a statement (or ask a question) that is deemed "insensitive" to individuals who fit into certain politically-favored categories, and we are off to the races. If knowledge of the "offending utterance" filters out of the classroom and into emails and ultimately the Internet, then the whole thing becomes national news or is the subject of a contrived demonstration. (It is not unusual on college campuses these days to have "candlelight vigils" to protest an alleged insensitive statement, no matter what the circumstances might be, which further publicizes and politicizes the whole thing.)

In a politicized society, things have no meaning unless they can be interpreted (or re-interpreted) in a political light. Does a child bring a gun to school and shoot another student? This is not interpreted as a monstrous act and a tragedy for those involved; no, it becomes the latest hook for the talking heads to argue whether or not the political classes should make it illegal for individuals to own guns.

When a South Carolina woman in 1996 killed her two sons by strapping them into car seats and driving the car into a lake, Newt Gingrich, then House Majority Leader, declared that the incident was a reminder that people should vote Republican in the upcoming election. Nor does the madness stop with how the political classes respond to crimes.

Whenever a drought strikes or it is unusually hot for a few days, Democrats trot out the "global warming" nonsense and insist that it is the fault of Republicans and private enterprise that the weather is not good. Indeed, in the 2000 election, one of Al Gore’s platforms was that he would bring us better weather if elected. Thus, even the weather becomes politicized, as though the political classes actually have the power that belongs only to God.

In Boris Pasternak’s Nobel-Prize winning book Dr. Zhivago, a group of Red Army soldiers fighting during the Russian Civil War that raged from 1917—1921 are discussing who will be considered the heroes of the cause. The political officer in their midst reminds them that after the war, the heroes will be decided by their political merits, not by how they fought.

George Orwell, who fought alongside Republican soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, wrote in Homage to Catalonia that the publicized heroes of the communist cause usually were the apparatchiks who did almost no fighting, or who bungled their assignments, leading others to die unnecessarily. Ultimately, because communist societies are the ultimate politicized communities, all that matters is who has political power. Merit means nothing, and ability and accomplishments are seen as things to be hated, and those with superior abilities or who have demonstrated superiority at something are determined to be enemies of society.

Take the current assault on private medicine, resurrected in a recent New York Times Magazine article featuring Hillary Clinton. Like Al Gore, Clinton advocates a government takeover of what is left of private medicine, uttering mantras like "universal coverage." Anyone even remotely familiar with government (read that politicized) healthcare knows of the terrible inequities in the system, the long waiting lines, the long-endured suffering that some must bear while waiting for surgery, and the terrible shortages that are the normal course of events in places like Canada.

Yet, the political classes continue to demand that we confiscate the last of private medical practices and turn everything over to the state. They do not insist because they believe that out of this morass will emerge a superior arrangement to a truly private system. No, they are clever enough to realize that if they are successful in this endeavor, then all of us will be dependent upon the Hillary Clintons and their ilk for all of our medical care.

The great fear of the political classes and their allies is being irrelevant. Americans are discovering daily, for example, that the current war in Iraq not only was not necessary, but is increasingly becoming a liability to our own well-being (not to mention the well-being of the Iraqis). Yet, President George W. Bush and those who support the war insist that is being waged ultimately for our welfare — to "protect" us from terrorism, although the clear signs are that it has made us even more vulnerable to attack by Muslims who are outraged at the conduct of the U.S. Armed Forces and are prepared to take out that rage on the rest of us.

For that matter, the "gun control" argument is more about expanding and maintaining the monopoly on "public protection" that the police and political classes have established than about real public safety. For example, in Great Britain, it is illegal for individuals to protect themselves with what the authorities call an "offensive weapon" if they are bodily attacked by others. The upshot is that when burglars break into British homes (even when the owners are home), they simply stand back and permit the robbers to take what they want, given that if they fight back, they most likely will be sentenced to longer prison terms than the criminals themselves (if the police even catch the criminals, which is doubtful).

The British policy — what the political classes here would like us to have — does not exist out of ignorance or a misunderstanding of the nature of crime. Instead, it is a very deliberate reminder to law-abiding citizens that they must depend upon the political classes for everything, including protection, and should they seek to provide that protection themselves, they will be severely punished.

The politicization of society means that the political classes will seek to imprison a Martha Stewart for non-crimes, prattle on and on about Enron’s collapse, then lie about the larger issues of war and government spending. The people who demand imprisonment of CEOs of failed companies are the same ones who have created perhaps the greatest fiscal crisis that the U.S. Government has ever faced, lying continuously about the whole affair. It is a crime for individuals to tell government bureaucrats something that those officials do not wish to hear or to "withhold evidence," but it is official government policy for politicians to lie on a regular basis and demand that their own acts and documents remain state secrets.

In response to this awful reality, we should not deceive ourselves that the answer lies in electing the "right people" to public office. Indeed, politicians do not campaign as members of the political classes; instead, they swear that they are "outsiders" who do not want "business as usual" in Washington or elsewhere, and who will do things to make our lives better.

In other words, politics will not rid us of the problem of politics. The only way, I believe, to make headway against this awful trend of politicizing everything is for us who believe in a free society not to engage in the same behavior. Furthermore, we should use those services — as much as is humanly possible — that are not provided by the state, thereby making us less beholden to the politicians who have provided such "services" through acts of theft and treachery.

Obviously, we cannot rid ourselves of the bad effects of the political classes. However, we do not have to bow down to them, nor give them the adulation they crave. Whenever possible, we should ignore them. That does not mean that we will not cross them — or pay no consequences for the "sin" of refusing to worship the political classes — but in the end we will have clear consciences, and perhaps we will be able to influence others to do the same.

May 3, 2004

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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