I often begin my political science courses with a brief introduction to the idea of “the state.” The state is the entity that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, force and coercion. If an individual travels to another country and kills its citizens, we call it terrorism. If the state does it, we call it war. If a man kills his neighbor it is murder; if the state does it is the death penalty. If an individual takes his neighbor’s money, it is theft; if the state does it, it is taxation.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell* is a professor at Princeton University, as so subtly alluded to in the above excerpt from her latest drivel for The Nation, and she’s concerned about the “legitimacy” of the state — a legitimacy she assumes but doesn’t explain — which she notes some backwards reactionaries have had the temerity to challenge in the age of Democratic government. Now, considering that U.S. government imprisons more of its own citizens than any other in the history, with 25 percent of the world’s prisoners; that it has more military bases in more countries than any previous empire in history, and has killed millions of people from Iraq to Vietnam; and that its current head, Barack Obama, is openly targeting for extrajudicial killing Americans and foreigners alike, one might ask: why is a liberal magazine so concerned about this state’s legitimacy?
Because of the Tea Party movement, you see, whose flashes of racism and disrespect toward politicians is of more concern to Ivy League academics than the “legitimate” state violence they applaud. Tea Partiers, by accusing the current administration of “various forms of totalitarianism . . . are arguing that this government has no right to levy taxes or make policy,” the professor writes, apparently under the mistaken belief that most taxes the state levies go to gumdrop bridges and fairy dust health clinics, rather than less wholesome things like aircraft carriers and daisy cutters. Rather than focusing on what the state actually does, though, Harris-Lacewell, like most liberals, would prefer we focus on their shining, abstract ideal of what it could be, while sanctimoniously dismissing those who see no distinction between state-sponsored and private sector murder, an approach befitting the wait-until-you’re-called merit-class liberal mentality that dominates the Democratic Party and the progressive press.
As The Nation’s house political scientist explains it, adopting an argument that one could never imagine being applied to the left, “When protesters spit on and scream at duly elected representatives of the United States government it is more than act of racism. It is an act of sedition.”
Put another way: offenses against the state are inherently more despicable than any offense one could commit against some poor schmuck civilian. An overstatement? Well, no, as Harris-Lacewell herself demonstrates in writing about Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), who “is no longer just a brave American fighting for the soul of his country- he is an elected official. He is an embodiment of the state.” Yeah, you know, before Lewis just marched in the streets against racism and state-enforced segregation as a (ho-hum) private citizen, but now he chairs a subcommittee — show him some respect!
Hooting and hollering at an elected official — sorry, “an embodiment of the state” — might give liberals at The Nation the vapors, and right-wing protesters who cheered on the Bush administration’s abuses of power may not be my cup of tea, but color me unimpressed with the argument that I have more to fear from the talk radio right than I do the incarcerating-and-assassinating state. Now while there’s little chance you’ll catch me marching against compact fluorescent light-bulbs or Obamacare anytime soon — though I promise nothing — I just don’t fear a rollback of the Reconstruction period “and the descent of a vicious new Jim Crow terrorism” as much as I fear and abhor the actual, happening-right-now terrorism carried out by my esteemed public officials with the tacit approval of the humanitarian progressives too busy lecturing the rabble on the need to pay taxes and pledge allegiance to their betters in Washington than to challenge their leader’s wars. In addition to the hundreds killed without so much as a show trial by hellfire missiles since the glorious advent of The Liberal Ascendancy, agents of the U.S. government have been implicated in several headline-grabbing atrocities, the latest of which involved the pre-dawn slaying of a pair of pregnant women and a teenage girl. That female civilians are being killed at a level on par with Afghan males is no doubt being hailed in the halls of Brookings as a feminist triumph, but it’s more troubling to me than the idea of some people questioning the legitimacy of the perpetrators’ employer.
Perhaps they shouldn’t just be ignored, but until Glenn Beck’s followers kill two dozen people in a remote village, I’m going to spend most of my time focusing on those with control over the tanks and nuclear weapons. And rather than seeking to bolster the state and reinforce the idea of some mythical, mystical social contract, I just might seek to undermine this government, so far as I can, for as long as it continues enriching a politically connected corporate elite while imprisoning and enlisting the rest of its population, no matter how “duly elected” our politicians might be as a result of the sham two-party electoral system. When political leaders are engaged in senseless war and widespread human rights abuses — and the occupation of Afghanistan and the U.S. prison system at home and abroad qualify — the person of conscience’s duty is not to the state but to justice, which usually means opposing the state and questioning its presumed legitimacy.
The proper attitude toward a criminal government is not deference and respect, however much some at The Nation might love a smooth-talking Democrat, but defiance and rebellion — of the non-violent variety.
*I originally wrote Maria Harris-Lacewell.
Update: Read the follow-up to this post.