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Hang the Dissidents!

by Kevin D. Williamson

When patriotism becomes treason

Maury Grimm is the perfect model of a modern online activist, and a great signer of petitions — for the Weekend Voting Act, against fracking, for the Equal Rights Amendment, for tighter fuel-economy standards, against trans fats in Colorado school lunches, for stronger EPA rules directed at preventing climate change. She is also the originator of at least one petition: to have members of Congress who vote in ways that displease her rounded up and put into prison — or, presumably, in front of a firing squad — on charges of treason.

Ms. Grimm’s petition was created through MoveOn.org, the Democratic group originally founded to oppose the impeachment of Bill Clinton and funded by such familiar Democratic moneymen as Peter B. Lewis, of Progressive Insurance Companies, and George Soros. (MoveOn.org disclaims any responsibility for the petitions created through its website.) Ms. Grimm, who writes in the shift-key-happy style of Internet political discourse, demands an investigation for capital-T Treason of Republican members of the House for thwarting the (cap, cap) “Will of the American People.” Some 1,555 people signed the entreaty within a matter of days, and a few offered suggestions for broadening its scope: Adrianne Daily of Castle Rock, Colo., suggested that Charles and David Koch be added to the list of indictable traitors; Holly Zell of Fairfax, Va., offered a cheery “Lock ’em up and throw away the key,” noting that the shutdown had cost her three weeks’ pay; Joseph Hine of Gloversville, N.Y., averred that conservatives should be charged with “sedition and treason” for “plotting against the U.S. government and the people”; Sharon Douglas of Belleville, Mich., added: “Treason, Sabotage, or Sedition — pick one or use all three. This can’t continue or be tolerated.” Taking a more eliminationist view, Cathy and Gary Elmore of Deer Park, Wash., declared: “We need to get rid of the anti-Americans.” Christine Mays of Stockton, Calif., showing exquisite moral clarity, declared that the shutdown was “just as much a terrorist act as 9/11 was. And justice must be served on these criminals!”

So, what’s a few (thousand) crackpots online? Perhaps the petitioners at MoveOn.org do not represent the mainstream of the progressive movement. (Perhaps it is also the case that poor spellers and people waving Confederate flags do not represent the mainstream of the tea-party movement.) Such ideas are hardly limited to the fringes. Robert Reich was secretary of labor of these United States during the Clinton administration and is a staple of respectable Democratic commentary on cable news and in print. His take on the shutdown is nearly indistinguishable from Ms. Grimm’s: “They are not legislators because they eschew the normal processes of legislation. They are not statesmen because they are willing to sacrifice the governing institutions of our nation. They are not leaders because they cower to a fanatical minority. They have chosen instead to get their way through extortion — holding the United States hostage to their weapons of mass economic destruction. What, then, are they? Would it be unfair to consider them traitors?” The word “traitor” often is used in a non-legal sense, but Professor Reich’s language here strongly suggests that using parliamentary tactics to force a shutdown and a debate over the debt limit is the moral equivalent, or something very close to the moral equivalent, of betraying one’s country, i.e., committing treason. Despite his cowardly phrasing — “Would it be unfair?” — Professor Reich’s implicit conclusion here is only a hair’s breadth removed, if even that, from Ms. Grimm’s: Members of Congress who vote in ways that displease him are criminals, at least theoretically subject to prosecution for a crime that is, let us not forget, punishable by death. Either Ms. Grimm’s petition must be taken as a legitimate expression of progressive views or it is beyond the pale, in which case the University of California at Berkeley and NBC should reconsider their relationships with Professor Reich.

Given that the world is full of morally illiterate people, the desire to literally criminalize political disagreement is a natural and indeed unavoidable outgrowth of the desire to rhetorically criminalize it. The rhetorical criminalization of conservative dissent has been under way for some time, with Democratic leaders talking about “anarchists,” “hostage-takers,” “arsonists,” and “terrorists” in relation to what was, after all, a refusal by the majority party in the House of Representatives to vote for a bill favored by Democrats and opposed by Republicans.

I corresponded a bit with Ms. Grimm about her petition, and the conversation was not edifying. But it was clarifying: She left no doubt at all that she means precisely what she wrote: that people should be held liable for a capital offense for disagreeing with her politically. Discounting a fundamental principle of constitutional government — protecting the rights of minorities against the majority — she justified herself on the grounds that “this was a minority, and a fringe minority to boot. . . . They cannot hold the American people hostage.”

Ms. Grimm, Professor Reich, and the thousands or millions who agree with them are espousing a philosophy that is self-evidently authoritarian. That is not without irony: Many of the same people are given to citing a questionable psychological condition that goes by the obvious enough name of “right-wing authoritarianism,” popularized by Bob Altemeyer, a retired professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba and a recipient of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s prize for research in behavioral science. The line between the psychological and the political is in this field of inquiry very blurry — Professor Altemeyer’s work is relied upon heavily by John Dean in his Conservatives without Conscience — and such rigor as the social sciences occasionally enjoy is casually set aside. Consider Professor Altemeyer’s analysis of the tea-party phenomenon:

Authoritarian followers submit to the people they consider authorities much more than non-authoritarians do. In this context, Tea Partiers seem to believe without question whatever their chosen authorities say. Rush Limbaugh, Glen [sic] Beck, various religious groups, the House and Senate GOP leaders, Sen. Grassley from Iowa, Rep. Bachmann from Minnesota, and of course Sarah Palin can say whatever they want about the Democrats, and the Tea Partiers will accept it and repeat it. The followers don’t find out for themselves what the Democratic leader truly said, what is really in a bill, what a treaty actually specifies, or whether taxes have really gone up. They are happy to let Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin do their thinking for them. It has gotten so bad that their leaders casually say preposterous things that are easily refuted, because they know their audience will never believe the truth, or even hear about it.

It will come as no surprise to you that Professor Altemeyer does not believe that there exists such a thing as left-wing authoritarianism, and that those inclined to share his views are, as he told Ronald Bailey, “fair-minded, even-handed, tolerant, nonaggressive persons. . . . They are not self-righteous; they do not feel superior to persons with opposing opinions.” That is perhaps as good an example of a self-refuting statement as one is likely to encounter.

One finds a fair sprinkling of the terms “RWAs” and “authoritarian followers” in liberal commentary, and no appreciation at all for the irony inherent in the concept itself: Treating political disagreement as a psychiatric condition has been a hallmark of authoritarian regimes throughout history, most notably in the Soviet Union. Perhaps the Soviets were secret tea partiers. We all remember Boris Yeltsin’s conflict with the Communist hardliners in the Duma: “Yeltsin Fends Off Conservatives,” read the headline in the Christian Science Monitor, which, along with much of the rest of the media, could not bring itself to describe the heirs of Josef Stalin as “the Left.”

When conservative dissent is not criminal or delusional in the eyes of the Left, it frequently is simply at odds with empirical reality. Thus the canard that conservatives are “anti-science” and the habit of Barack Obama of promising to put sound science back at the center of public policy, except when it is politically inconvenient to do so, e.g., in his administration’s support for EPA-mandated emissions rules that under no credible scientific estimate will do anything to reduce global warming. That particular trope is found most often in the debate over what we are not supposed to call “global warming” anymore, in which conservatives are labeled “climate deniers” in an intentional echo of the phrase “Holocaust deniers.” It is important to notice here that conservatives are labeled thus not because of their scientific opinions but because of policy differences. What to make of those such as Henrik Svensmark of the Technical University of Denmark, who hold contrary views on the scientific understanding of climate change, is another matter. A matter for whom?

Last week brought an entertaining finding from Dan M. Kahan, who is a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School. In the course of correlating tests of scientific comprehension with political affiliation, Professor Kahan made the startling — to him, most of all — discovery that self-identified tea partiers score slightly better than average. He set about busily explaining away this finding that the anti-science wing of the troglodyte party has better science comprehension than their more open-minded and literate neighbors:

The relationship is trivially small [but statistically significant], and can’t possibly be contributing in any way to the ferocious conflicts over decision-relevant science that we are experiencing.

I’ve got to confess, though, I found this result surprising. As I pushed the button to run the analysis on my computer, I fully expected I’d be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension.

But then again, I don’t know a single person who identifies with the Tea Party. All my impressions come from watching cable TV — & I don’t watch Fox News very often — and reading the “paper” (New York Times daily, plus a variety of politics-focused Internet sites like Huffington Post and Politico).

Professor Kahan is to be commended for admitting and attempting to correct his bias, but though he hits upon what is here the relevant point, he does not seem quite to appreciate it: Disputes over subjects such as EPA emissions rules may touch on questions of science but are not scientific questions — they are policy disputes. And never mind that the Left never misses a good crusade against science when it suits progressives’ tastes: There is not a shred of scientific evidence justifying the panic over GMO crops (Critical Reviews of Biotechnology has just published a massive review of the scientific literature confirming this), but the Left’s crusade against 21st-century agriculture continues unabated. Professor Kahan may not know any tea partiers, but surely he lives within easy driving distance of a Whole Foods.

And so the catalogue grows: Conservatism may be a criminal conspiracy, it may be a mental condition, it may be driven by an inability to comprehend basic science. It may be — and this convenient explanation is too banal to bear much attention — a product of racism, sexism, or some other species of specific hatred. It may be the result of greed and filthy lucre from the Koch brothers. We might even consider Joan Walsh’s daft insistence that the master decoder for understanding 21st-century conservatism is latent 19th-century Confederate revanchism — the website she edits contains some 961 references to the Confederacy and “neo-Confederates,” mostly in polemics that seek to explain/discredit conservative politicians from Bob McDonnell to Rand Paul to Sarah Palin. (If you think that neo-Confederate sympathies are unlikely to be a powerful current in the politics of Alaska, consider that some of our progressive friends believe that the same “the South will rise again” sentiment informs the governor of Maine.)

This is not simply an issue of irresponsible rhetoric. If we were to attempt to document every beef-witted or unjustifiable thing said in the course of political debate, we would have time for nothing else. There is a substantive problem here, and it is the problem of reasonableness. Consider the debate about gay marriage: On several occasions, courts have stepped in and overturned duly passed laws — the law of the land, just like the Affordable Care Act — on the grounds that these laws had no “rational basis” and therefore must simply be based on unreasoning animus. If progressives can convince those manning the levers of judicial and cultural power that conservative ideas are based on ignorance, mental defects, or malice, then their victory in the judicial process is all but assured and their chances of victory in the political process greatly bolstered.

The Left’s program here is not, in the end, to send conservatives to the gallows for refusing to vote a bill out of committee, or to clap Paul Ryan into an asylum for the criminally insane, but simply to narrow the scope of debate. When Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein published The Bell Curve, some took issue with their data and methodology, but many more declared that to ask questions about race and intelligence was in and of itself racist. The words “Why would you ask that question?” must have been heard 10,000 times during the debate. But the question “Why would you ask that question?” is, ironically enough, not asked as a question: No critic cared why Mr. Murray and Mr. Herrnstein would ask such questions; their opponents sought only to force them to defend their motives, at which point the substantial debate was over. There are similarly complex (if not so emotionally charged) questions related to the national debt, to its effect on long-term economic growth and national prosperity, to spending and taxing priorities, to the opportunity costs of federal expenditures, to the proper role of separated powers in a republic, to the constitutional specifics regarding executive and legislative powers, etc. There is a great deal of detail, specialized knowledge, and judgment necessary to meaningful participation in that debate. It is a far less intellectually demanding exercise to talk about treason, or madness, or the fact that all the right people agree about what they agree about.

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