Radley Balko reports that a group of his friends — young libertarians from the Washington DC area — met at the Jefferson Memorial last night to silently (wearing iPods) dance for a few minutes at midnight in celebration of Jefferson’s birthday. The Park Police showed up and ordered the dancers to disperse. When one young woman asked them why, they shoved her up against a pillar, handcuffed her, and arrested her. (Update: Here’s video.)
We probably couldn’t ask for a purer example of the principle that the primary mission of authority is to preserve authority. Even today, knowing that almost anyone could be holding a video camera and their actions could wind up on YouTube, cops will still bully and assault people for refusing to instantly defer to arbitrary authority. (That first video is a classic of the genre. The cop is a tubby man in a ridiculous uniform, riding around in a tiny vehicle that may as well be a clown car. His life as a cop isn’t turning out like it does in the movie and on TV, and he’s taking it out on anyone he can push around.)
Megan McArdle, another DC libertarian, picks up the story, and her comments section quickly fills with forelock-tuggers and knee-benders justifying the actions of the Park Police, even if they have to make up facts to do it. It’s practically a catalog of dishonest argumentation and propaganda. In fact, I think it’s useful to dissect the examples so that we can recognize them when we see similar arguments on the nation’s editorial pages. (This has turned out longer than I expected it to, but it’s not like we have to pay extra to print more pages.)
For example, a commenter named Jeff asks “If the Memorial is closed and people refuse to leave, why NOT arrest them for disorderly conduct?” — not aware that the memorial is open 24/7, too lazy to spend ten seconds on a Google search to check his facts, too lazy even to read the earlier comments where this had already been pointed out. When his mistake is rubbed in his face, Jeff adopts a faux-polite writing style and moves his goalposts. He argues first that the memorial is closed to certain kinds of events, of which group dancing might be one. (It might not, but hey, he doesn’t know, it might.) He later argues that since DC is a high-crime city, the Park Police have a legitimate concern, and even though it isn’t immediately clear, we need to grant them the benefit of the doubt. Of course, that’s totally ignoring the actual facts of the case — that the police didn’t arrest all the dancers, but merely the one who questioned their orders, and that the police offered no explanation for their actions. In Jeff’s mind, it’s only the authorities who get the benefit of the doubt. Ordinary citizens just have to obey orders.
Then we’ve got MarkG, who blames the dancers for appearing “odd”, and claims that “the police have to make a snap judgment about what to do”. Why exactly the police should need to make snap judgments in cases where no violence is occurring and no weapons or threat to life or limb are evident, that’s beyond me. Apparently, the fact that authorities sometimes unfortunately need to make snap judgments to preserve the lives of themselves or others means, in MarkG’s mind, that all judgments made by cops should be granted this same life-or-death importance.
MarkG later suggests that by dancing near where they lived, rather than spending several hours driving cars they might not have so they could dance in some other location, they were relying upon society to “provide them with a safe venue”. (Because we all know how safe DC is.) Somehow, he think that this means they shouldn’t complain when society fails to do so. Or something. He never actually completes the thought; his purpose here is to make a half-assed accusation of hypocrisy. See, by being in the city, they were relying on civilized standards of behavior, But by dancing, they were violating civilized standards of behavior. Because, y’know, dancing is weird! And as civilized people, we are obliged to crush out any impulses towards novelty, joy, or spontaneity.
Probably the sense of entitlemnt and arrogance common among this group of right wing libertarians pissed the cops off. They just didn’t like you. Can’t say I blame them much. They found you in contempt of cop. No reprieve.
He understands how authoritarians think, but he’s lost any hope for change. In his world, the bad guys have already won every battle, so there’s no point in fighting. Since he’s not in authority, he suffers from a sense of inferiority. He compensates by puffing himself up in arguments like this, playing the part of the smart guy who passes on the wisdom that you just can’t fight the system. His argument is designed to appeal to people who recognize the nature of authority, but don’t feel strong enough to buck it. It’s also a comforting argument for those who aren’t inclined to demonstrate or act weird, much the same way that assertions about things a crime victim might have done to invite the crime are comforting to those who fear they might one day be victims. These arguments tell you that as long as you obey the rules, you’ll be fine. (LWM also doesn’t know what “right wing” means, but that’s a post for another day.)
I’ve saved my favorite for last. Darkjethro:
Only in this country can one march in the streets of the capital obnoxiously protesting “the oppression inherent in the system” without fear of retribution.
He goes on to regurgitate the same points the other authoritarians had been making — dancing is so weird the cops have to investigate, the woman was asking for trouble when she questioned the dispersal order. He even goes on to blame the dancers for diverting the cops from the important task of protecting the rest of the park. But I want to admire that paragraph. One sentence of not even thirty words, and it packs at least three propagandistic payloads. Let’s unpack them:
1: “Only in this country” — In Darkjethro’s head, the United States is the only nation in the world that tolerates peaceful protest in the streets of its capital. England, Canada, France, Japan — all totalitarian nations, apparently. I bet he thinks the US is the only nation that accepts immigrants, too. The actual purpose of this phrase is to appeal to the little jingoistic spark of American exceptionalism that most Americans have programmed into them in grade school. It’s to get you nodding along, with a flag waving and “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing along in your head, to distract you for the rest of the payloads.
2: “‘[T]he oppression inherent in the system’” — You probably recognize this as a (distorted) quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In its original context, it’s spoken by a medieval peasant who’s just been spouting a lot of 20th century leftist jargon. He’s being assaulted by King Arthur, who’s annoyed at having his time wasted and authority questioned when he wants answers to simple questions. On the one hand, the scene is an example of an authority figure abusing a subject, there’s validity to the peasant’s complaint, but the peasant is also ascribing to “the system” an act of violence that’s primarily the result of his desire to argue about politics in a context where such argument will do little good. By using this quote, Darkjethro is attempting to paint political demonstrators in general as whiney complainers who have no understanding of the context within which their protests are embedded. Darkjethro’s misquote (substituting “oppression” for “violence”) might be accidental, but it furthers his propagandistic purposes. By casting his imagined demonstrations as protests over “oppression” rather than “violence”, he makes the demonstrators seem less sympathetic. It’s easy to sympathize with a victim of violence, but we all know people who shout “oppression” any time they don’t get their way.
3: “[W]ithout fear of retribution” — Here’s the ultimate payload. He’s asserting that the US is a country (the only country) where you can demonstrate in the capital without fear of retribution, even though the very article he’s responding to is about demonstrators facing arbitrary retribution in the nation’s capital! He’s trying to use your patriotic pride, your belief in your nation’s ideals, to get you to ignore the very betrayal of those ideals.
This tactic should be familiar to anyone who’s been watching the Bush administration deny that it tortures prisoners. Bush asserts as a normative statement that “Torture is never acceptable, nor do we hand over people to countries that do torture.” And yet, we do torture prisoners, and hand people over to other countries that torture them.
All of these tactics — the use of your ideals to overturn your trust in facts, the assertion of nebulous threats that justify arbitrary authority, the portrayal of protesters as lunatics, the claim that an all-encompassing bureaucracy has legitimate authority over our every breath and step, that you’ll be fine as long as you don’t “make trouble” — these tactics can be seen and heard every day wherever political discussion takes place. They’re the words with which once-free people talk themselves into tyranny.