Symbols, Context, and Myths of Exceptionalism

(UPDATED 1/12/07 - go to update) Well, folks, Right Thinking Girl is at it again. She's been at it all along, more or less, but there's only so many bloggable hours in a day (and I needed a break). As a matter of fact, she actually makes a novel point in her latest: ridiculing Bush as a fascist totalitarian actually implies a particular history of fascism and totalitarianism. That's a valid (if somewhat obvious) point.

It's sad that a concept pregnant with possibilities for better understanding human nature and current events suffers the same fate as all her barely conscious kneejerk posts. This unwritten rule RTG invariably follows, as best I can understand it, is to make some salient observation, followed by haphazardly projecting abstractions or free associations onto it (in other words, to rant). Thus, a somewhat thoughtful idea becomes yet another excuse to channel crude Coulter-esque nationalism masquerading as reflective observation. Even her best ideas have to be clumsily shoehorned into her fascist framework.

Case in point: she points out that direct comparisons between 20th century totalitarians and Bush are not justified. Since Bush hasn't killed as many people as Hitler or Stalin, comparing them on ANY terms is in bad faith. The source of this bad faith, of course, is typical: moral and mental weakness / depravity. Us liberals just can't wrap our heads around the conservative morality because we see everything as symbols disconnected from the weightiness of actual reality.

When liberals compare President Bush to Hilter, it is a great deal more than just extravagant hyperbole. It is in fact a certain indicator that the person speaking doesn't have the first clue what Hilter actually was. To those people, Hitler is nothing more than a symbol of evil, which is a way to mitigate his actions (whether the observer realizes it or not.) It is ignoring the fact that these things happened. The Holocaust happened. Stalin's starvation strategy happened. Hussein's open torture and death policy happened. These are not symbols of other things: they are actual things.

Before going on, I'd just like to point out that this assertion that liberals are running defense for Hitler is completely unsupported. There's nothing about seeing somebody as a symbol of something that qualifies as a defense of that somebody - at least, not in this universe. But, for the purposes of this post, accept it at face value and continue reading:

There is no excuse. There is no comparing them. When liberals speak of oppression, they are indignant that President Bush authorized the US to listen to the phone calls of known terrorists. In the literal sense, it means what it actually is: to whit: being forced to go to all-day meetings in which you must listen to propaganda; being forced to speak of your government or your leaders in glowing terms (ie, ‘our beloved leader'); being forced to give up all your belongings for the sake of the ‘community'; being stripped of your right to earn money; being stripped of your ability to feed yourself or sustain existance; being spied on by officials and neighbors; being dragged away to camps; being killed for impudence; being tried in courts that are created on the fly; being restricted in your movements; being forbidden to seek out information; being lied to by your government; being punished for speaking the truth. Under no wild stretch of the imagination can you accuse President Bush of these things, but they were apt descriptions of daily life under so many dictators for most of human history.

So, if I understand RTG's points correctly, they can be summarized as follows:

  1. Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam were murderers and tyrants, and that's all that matters.
  2. Because Bush hasn't done things nearly as bad as the above three, any comparison between them is automatically invalid (because of point 1).
  3. If one insists on a comparison, the whole argument can be summarily dismissed as incompatible with objective reality.

On each one of these points, RTG is erring rhetorically in pretty significant ways. The most important error is the hypocrisy of her argument: she's taking just as one-dimensional and symbolical a view of these tyrants as the view she's attacking (it bears mentioning that whenever RTG attacks a liberal stance, there's almost never any resemblance between her straw man and the genuine article). Yes, it's an inescapably ugly truth that Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam extinguished the lives of an unfathomable number of people, as RTG takes dramatic pains to reminds us. However, they did other things as well that contributed to the final horrible outcome, and that underlying, less "symbolic" context matters.

Tyrants of history do not just appear out of thin air as convenient abstractions of evil. They usually arrive in political office as, well, politicians. Which means politics has a lot to do with their rise to power and all attendant tragedies - and not just "evil politics", but politics as legislation, politics as executive actions, politics as party dynamics, politics as opportunism in a social climate, etc. - the dimensions are vast. It follows that to understand the big successes of evil, you need to understand the small successes that made them possible.

The ultimate totalitarian agenda is never sold as such, and it's eventual domination is the result of lots of intermediate steps to expand a particular agenda through State authority. For example, the Nazi party and Hitler took many steps in the 20s and 30s that, while not in and of themselves maximally oppressive or murderous, laid the groundwork for the grim future. These include the suspension of habeus corpus and press/ speech liberties, harassment of the opposition, crackdowns on pornography and homosexuals, massive regulation and co-opting of independent institutions, militarization of law enforcement and society at large, repudiation of federalism (states' rights), new hostility and different laws for foreigners, etc.

All of the incremental increases in State power under Hitler occurred up to 8 years before the Holocaust began. The precedents of social regimentation, centralization of power, and massive intervention could have been halted. Such a setback would have hindered if not prevented the prosecution of the Nazi program. However, these steps were important to the Nazis and Hitler in order to gain the type of control they'd need to implement the most horrible portions of the program.

Now, if we're serious about preventing such atrocities in the future, it makes sense not to wait until a dictator arises and executes a holocaust. Moreover, it makes sense to analyze the intermediate steps which led to the atrocity so that we can identify telltale signs of abuse of power before they actually occur. In the sense that Bush has taken many, many steps that are similar to those taken by other tyrants, a comparison of him with other dictators on those terms makes sense. To put it another way, we're not comparing Bush to the Hitler of 1943 but rather to the Hitler of 1933.

In fully understanding the horrible reality of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia it is insufficient to reduce the entire matter to some very, very bad men. Such a simplification of quite complex historical, economic, political, social, and other undercurrents is precisely the same type of symbolism for which RTG bashes the President's detractors! RTG once again makes the cardinal error of ignoring the context in which events occur, preferring a monochrome, symbolist version of morality and history. Comparisons are always relevant, so long as they occur in the proper context.

And the unsupported assertions that only conservatives can really feel and understand mass murder are just trash talk to set the stage for more "America! Fuck yeah!" cheerleading. For her, the worst of it is not that such comparsions insult her, like, favoritest President ever. It's that such talk is not the American Way™, gosh darn it!

I said earlier that it is not enough to say that we are fortunate to live in America. I think that to appreciate what we have is to take full advantage of it, to throw yourself into the American way of life. And that is what I am going to do in the year 2007. My goal is to become ever more vocal about my beliefs and to take advantage of every blessing that is mine through my divine dice-roll of being an American. I know, I know… it's rather broad. But I think it's important to keep your view wide and broad and deep instead of getting ensared in the daily problems that plague us.

It's as if this fairy tale myth of American exceptionalism requires some sort of complementarily dramatic myth of exceptional evil. It can't happen here, and it will happen over there - so nuke 'em first and buy stuff! If anybody has turned history into a passion play of allegory and symbolism, it is RTG, vapid priestess of Objectivism Lite™.

UPDATE: There was a point I meant to make about the exceptionalism myth that I had forgotten. One of the central tactics of inculcating the myth among the people is to focus on all the negative aspects of "the enemy" while failing to mention similar activities on the part of allies or one's own government. In any case, genocide is certainly not some exceptional new policy we discovered in the 20th century. The 19th century witnessed genocide campaigns by western, "democratic" governments: the U.S. government against native Americans and the British government against the Irish.

There's nothing wrong with failing to mention these genocides, except when you seek to divvy up the world into good guy states and bad guy states without accounting for the history. Purveyors of exceptionalist myths like RTG seek to hold America and western civilization as some unique force in history while painting the enemy states as exceptionally evil and bad. They don't realize that by turning history into a comic book version of state propaganda they do their own thesis a grave disservice.

But, then again, short term political brownie points is their goal, not truth.

Read this article
Written on Tuesday, January 09, 2007