The paranoids are right to be terrified of the scale of our permanent war economy and its dehumanizing effects. / Lim Choon Meng
Scott Beauchamp,  May 7, 2015

Knows a Little of What’s Going On

The paranoids are right to be terrified of the scale of our permanent war economy and its dehumanizing effects. / Lim Choon Meng
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In Ferguson and Baltimore, out and out racism has hidden behind the conceptual cudgel of “supporting the police.” Less iconic but almost as ubiquitous as the protests themselves have been the counter demonstrations of much smaller crowds, nearly all white, gathered in a vitriolic quorum of khaki shorts and pro-police placards. It’s sort of an interesting position for many conservatives to be in, considering one of the defining traits of present-day movement conservatism is a libertarian-tinged knee-jerk distrust of the coercive powers of the state.

The hypocrisy hasn’t gone unnoticed, even among some small-c conservatives like Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote in The Atlantic: “Most conservatives either ignored or were oblivious to the Baltimore police department’s stunning record of egregious, normalized brutality and civil rights abuses.” Gracy Olmstead, a localist conservative, accused people of “us[ing] the crimes of the rioters to excuse the crimes of the cops,” in The American Conservative. A subhead in The Federalist read, “Government agents free to kill unarmed Americans like Freddie Gray—and have the support of conservatives while they do it—is simply unimaginable.”

Unfortunately, the rest of us don’t have to use our creative facilities to imagine hypocritical conservatives who cherry pick when and where to be weary of state power based solely on . . . let’s call them “racial considerations.”

The Oath Keepers are a useful example of a group of folks who, by virtue of their cartoonishness, amplify this underlying racial duplicity. A heavily armed group of former military, police, and first responders who support a strict, constructionist interpretation of the Constitution by threat of violence, you might think of them as sort of an Antonin Scalia militia. They showed up at the Bundy Ranch confrontation to square off with federal agents, and they’re currently involved in the ongoing Sugar Pine Mine mineral rights situation in Oregon—both scenarios that pit them against armed representatives of the State, allowing them to wear the mantle of David in standing up to the Goliath of militarized government overreach.

But in between Bundy Ranch and Sugar Pine Mine, they also showed up in Ferguson.

The Oath Keepers didn’t put in an appearance in Missouri to support the constitutional rights of protestors and average citizens against the maliciousness of an oppressive and unlawful government. In fact, they came to somehow assist the police by posting up on roofs with sniper rifles. For the Oath Keepers apparently, living out your oath to defend the constitution against government intrusion extends only as far as supporting land disputes lodged by white men against the federal government.

One wonders what would have become of a similarly armed pro-Constitutional rights group composed primarily of African Americans. How long would their armed rooftop vigil have lasted?

The Oath Keepers and people who share in their intellectual depravity have been making waves most recently by opposing a massive military exercise called “Jade Helm 15.” Jade Helm 15 is a multistate war game scenario that’s taking place in the American Southwest from June 15 through September 15. It’s huge, but not entirely unprecedented. Regardless, people on the fringe of the fringe of the paranoid right started spreading word that the long awaited Obama takeover of Texas was going down this summer. The message then somehow moved up the chain of command all the way to the governor of Texas, who notified the National Guard to be on alert in case of a coup attempt by the federal government. Ted Cruz and Chuck Norris chimed in, corroborating the paranoid fantasy by suggesting that when it comes to the federal government, you just never can tell.

Liberals could barely conceal their titillation behind a hastily constructed facade of exasperation. There’s nothing modern liberals love more than making fun of yokels. (The unofficial motto of the left at least since the Vietnam War has been, after all, “anything but country.”) The left are too busy smirking to say: “Look, if you really care about unconstitutional government overreach, there’s this place called Baltimore…” Liberals are so preoccupied with faulting the paranoids for being dumb that conservatives’ hypocritical attitudes towards government overreach get a free pass.

But being hypocritical doesn’t make you entirely wrong. William Burroughs, channeling Ambrose Bierce and prophesying David Cronenberg, had a working definition of insanity that described it as a confusion of the allegorical and the literal. He also said that a paranoid is someone who “knows a little of what’s going on.” The people opposing Jade Helm 15 are paranoids who labor under confusion of levels of reality: the military isn’t going to literally “invade” Texas. Yet that hardly matters, because Texas has already been completely absorbed within the incomprehensibly vast latticework of the American military industrial complex. So though the paranoids are wrong about a military takeover of Texas, they’re wrong for the right reasons. They’re right to be terrified of the scale of our permanent war economy and its dehumanizing effects.

It isn’t enough for liberals to condemn the systemic police dereliction in Baltimore and then laugh at conservative paranoia about state coercion on a larger, more abstract level. We live in a national security state just as, if not more, odious than anything experienced during the height of the Cold War. Our bloated defense budget is larger than the next seven countries’ combined. We have troops stationed in about 150 countries around the globe, not counting all the ships at sea. Our police are militarized as a result of weird defense cash trickle-down, and a failed war on drugs has lead to Soviet Gulag-levels of incarceration with an attendant government property seizure free for all. And let’s not forget that our security agencies are spying on American citizens.

These overreaches, operating on a massive scale and emanating from the netherworld of the corridors of Washington power, are related to the systemic police overreach in Baltimore at a fundamental level. They share the same DNA. 

Scott Beauchamp is a writer and veteran who lives in Maine. His work has appeared in The AtlanticRolling Stone, and the Village Voice, among other places.

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