Datagate and the Death of American Liberalism

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The widely noted poll showing Democrats are now the biggest cheerleaders for the Surveillance State has conservatives delightedly calling out the left for “hypocrisy,” noting with glee the leftie pundits who denounced George W. Bush’s administration for trampling on our civil liberties and are now defending the Regime against the Snowden-Greenwald revelations. Their liberal targets come out swinging, however, rightly pointing out that that PRISM and the phone collection program originated under George W. Bush’s watch, back when all these born-again civil libertarians of the right were either silent or supportive of these measures.

Indeed, the left has gone on the offensive, crowing that what Edward Snowden calls the “architecture of oppression” is all perfectly legal, pointing out that the NSA went through the FISA court – a secret “court” whose orders are classified top, and that, out of thousands of such requests, has only denied the government a grand total of 11 times. This left-right dynamic dramatizes the symbiotic relationship between authoritarians on both sides of the political spectrum – and, perhaps, explains how the Panopticon unveiled by Snowden came to be built and legitimized.

Now it is the liberals’ turn to justify the demolition of the Constitution, and especially to give the final push to take down that once-mighty and now greatly eroded bulwark against tyranny, the Bill of Rights. Anyone who is surprised by the alacrity with which they have taken up this task is unfamiliar with the history of American liberalism and the left in general.

Being a liberal, or any number of degrees to the left, didn’t always mean hating J. Edgar Hoover and the “architecture of oppression” – a superstructure that emerged in all its wartime glory in the 1930s and 40s, in the heyday of what is known as the “Red Decade.” It was American leftists who cheered FDR’s wartime dictatorship the loudest, and called for ever more repressive methods to deal with recalcitrant elements. It was the “liberals” who whooped it up for the farcical Great Sedition Trial of 1944, in which the brilliant African-American anti-interventionist Lawrence Dennis and 29 other defendants were accused of treason for their “isolationist” views and jailed. These memorable (yet now mysteriously forgotten) anti-Japanese cartoons by Theodor Seuss Geisel, left-wing author of the “Dr. Seuss” books, hailed the internment camps in which thousands of Japanese-Americans were held.

A listening device was planted in the office of Col. Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the fiercely antiwar, anti-New DealChicago Tribune. The push to jail the leaders of the anti-war movement was spearheaded by the Communist Party, which was then selling the line that “Communism is 20th century Americanism”: the Communists urged their many allies in the Roosevelt administration to widen the Justice Department’s net to include prominent leaders of the America First Committee and members of Congress who opposed getting into the war. The President, for his part, made a point of asking his reluctant Attorney General, Francis Biddle, at every Cabinet meeting: “When are you going to indict the seditionists?” (The Trotskyists got the same treatment, and a “sedition” trial of their own, while the Stalinists and the “liberals” at The Nation stood and cheered.)

Far from opposing government surveillance of Americans in America, the left in those days was busy helping the FBI with their own “private” intelligence-gathering operations, such as the “Friends of Democracy,” and other groups, most of them Communist front organizations. These folks saw themselves as adjuncts of law enforcement, playing much the same role as the Southern Poverty Law Center does today: fingering “fifth columnists” and other “seditionists” and “extremists” who posed a threat to the Roosevelt regime.

Journalists, intellectuals, and publicists played a key role in the left’s war on civil liberties: it was a Washington Post reporter, Dillard Stokes, who posed as a serviceman and asked the defendants in the 1944 trial to send him literature. These letters turned up at the trial as “evidence” that the defendants were trying to undermine the morale of US servicemen: thus the charge of sedition. The left-wing anti-subversion movement had an entire New York City daily newspaper, PM, devoted to publishing its endless exposes of the anti-interventionist movement as a Nazi fifth column.

During the cold war era, however, suddenly the left became the champion of civil liberties and the Constitution, with particular attention to the Bill of Rights – as so many of them had to take the Fifth at numerous congressional hearings investigating suspected Communist activities in the US. Throughthe 1960s, and right up on through the Bush era, American liberals – who began calling themselves “progressives” sometime around the Clinton years – continued to fight for basic civil liberties, which were under attack from the right and the insensible “center.” All that changed, however, when Barack Obama became the first Democratic president of the post-9/11 era.

The post-Obama left in America is rapidly regressing to a former incarnation: the police state “progressivism” of the 1930s and 40s. Some of the more old-fashioned liberals may be baffled by this, but fortunately Joshua Marshall, of the decidedly “progressive” Talking Points Memo blog – who approves of the spying and thinks Snowden is a criminal – has been good enough to provide an ideological rationale for what seems on the surface to be mere partisan loyalty to the Obama administration.

In response to the shock and anger of the more old-fashioned liberals who inhabit TPM’s comment threads, Marshall says he’s “trying to think through what is the difference between the prisms we’re looking through that makes us see [Snowden's actions] so differently.”

“Here is I think the essential difference and where it comes back to what I referred to before – a basic difference in one’s idea about the state and the larger political community. If you see the state as essentially malevolent or a bad actor then really anything you can do to put a stick in its spokes is a good thing. Same if you think the conduct of US foreign policy is fundamentally a bad thing. Then opening up its books for the world to see is a good thing simply because it exposes it or damages it. It forces change on any number of levels.

“From that perspective, there’s no really no balancing to be done. All disclosure is good. Either from the perspective of transparency in principle or upending something you believe must be radically changed.

“On the other hand, if you basically identify with the country and the state, then indiscriminate leaks like this are purely destructive. They’re attacks on something you fundamentally believe in, identify with, think is working on your behalf.”

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the clear implication that Snowden’s defenders are anti-American fanatics intent on defending what amounts to treason: that’s none too interesting, in any case, because it is merely a page torn from the neocons’ manual. It captures our interest only because Marshall takes it one step farther than even the Bush brigade did, deriving a defense of the all-seeing all-knowing NSA from a radically revised liberal theory of the state, and linking conservative fear of overweening government power to “attacks on something you fundamentally believe in,” i.e. on America itself, or, at least, Marshall’s idea of America. Because in Marshall’s world “the country” and “the state” are interchangeable concepts, which is one of the ways “modern” liberalism differs from the old-fashioned variety.

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