Books about politics that made me think

“The religious right showed no mercy and no charity toward these groups when it had the power to impose its will, but when it lost that power, it turned to invoking the importance of religious tolerance and pluralism in a democratic society.” Adam Serwer on how some on the right, having failed to win that way, now reject democracy.

Rereading THE POLITICS OF UNREASON: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab confirms my memory that rejecting democracy is not anything new in America. This history of extremist movements shows there’s nothing new about status anxiety, backlash, anti-immigrant paranoia, alliances between the down-and-out and rich elitists and fear of the Illuminati (there’s at least one book out already blaming them for the Satanic pedophile conspiracy QAnon is fighting against). Reading now, it feels depressingly prescient.

It does make me wonder how well QAnon will work out in the long run, given the authors argue that truly powerful conspiracy theoies require both a Shadowy Cabal and Vulnerable Targets (e.g., the Papacy and Irish Immigrants or the Elders of Zion and American Jews); does a conspiracy identifying prominent Democrats and Tom Hanks as the face of the Satanic Pedophile Cabal do the trick? I guess we’ll find out.

LICENSE TO HARASS: Law, Hierarchy and Offensive Public Speech by Laura Beth Nielsen looks at how the law handles panhandling, racist street harassment and sexual harassment, and how victims think it should be handled. Nielsen finds that even most victims aren’t in favor of restrictions for reasons ranging from freedom of speech to fear of being seen as a victim to cynicism about the law, favoring instead options such as not letting it get to you or talking back. Except, as she points out, harassment victims don’t talk back and do indeed let it get to you.

The point that stuck with me is that Nielsen’s surveys show targets of panhandlers feel much less harassed than if someone throws the n-word or a sexist come-on (regarding the undead sexist cliche that women are criminalizing harmless compliments, women report far more offensive than innocuous cat-calls) yet it’s much more widely regulated. If yelling “suck my dick” is free speech, if regulations have to be content-neutral (i.e., you can’t simply ban sexist or racist speech — as the book reminded me, you can’t even ban cross-burning completely) why is it okay to have content-specific bans on people saying “please give me money?” She concludes it’s because this is the type most likely to affect high-ranked white men, if not directly then by driving people away from businesses (women altering where they go and when to avoid harassment doesn’t trigger the same worries. Big surprise). Probably the best argument I’ve seen that unrestricted free speech works in favor of the established hierarchy.

THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS was a 1978 essay by Czech dissident, playwright, political prisoner and later president Vaclav Havel about the nature of dictatorship and the role of dissent. I read it last year hoping it would give me some insight into our current political moment (it did) and how to fight it (not much help). Havel argues that the Eastern Bloc dictatorships of his era are “post totalitarian,” a thing apart from the military dictatorships of the past. The old-school totalitarians simply seized power through brute force; their government had no real roots in the country or the culture, or any ideology beyond the will to power. The Communist states, by contrast, draw on their nations’ pasts — Russia’s pre-existing tendency to authoritarian government, for instance — and they’re rationalized by ideology that explains whatever they’re doing is justified and righteous. “The center of power,” Havel says, “is identical with the center of truth,” which does indeed sound like the Age of Trump.

In such a setting, and given the increased ability of the state to crush the opposition, Havel sees dissidents as the best shot at destabilizing the regime, not because they represent a rival political force (“Why was Solzhenitsyn driven out of his own country? Certainly not because he represented a unit of real power, that is, not because any of the regime’s representatives felt he might unseat them and take their place in government.”) but because simply by writing, saying and doing the things they want to do, they create cracks in the government’s vision of reality. While I can see how that works — just by walking around being normal people, gays undercut the myth that they’re some monstrous regiment of perverts — I’m not sure it translates into anything I can practice in my own life. An interesting essay, nonetheless.

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1 Comment

Filed under Politics, Reading, Undead sexist cliches

One response to “Books about politics that made me think

  1. Pingback: If you become what you hate, is that why Republicans are now Commies? | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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