Corey Robin On Liberty Versus Security

Corey Robin on “Liberty versus Security”

Corey Robin’s review essay in the London Review of Books raises a raft of important questions about civil liberties and “security.”

His canny remarks, and the books he reviews, make clear that the American Right is about establishing difference and hierarchy in society and ensuring that not everyone is treated the same.

Most industrialized democracies owe a great deal to Rousseau and Jefferson, and the idea of the equality of all citizens.

You have to ask yourself, why does the Right like to create and perpetuate levels of citizenship? Former US Attorney General John Ashcroft was a segregationist when he was younger, and the American Right fought desegregation and the Civil Rights movement tooth and nail. Rightwingers such as David Horowitz are still attempting to ensure that there is no redress for centuries of formal discrimination against African-Americans. Trent Lott had to step down as the majority leader of the US Senate because he expressed regret that the racist, segregationist platform of Strom Thurmond lost in 1948. (Lott had helped, when a university student, lead the fight to keep African-Americans out of his fraternity.)

And, everyone knows that white Southerners switched over to the Republican Party when the Democrats supported the end of Jim Crow–otherwise they would have had to be equal partners with Blacks in the same party. The Republican Party does not have racial hierarchy as an explicit part of its platform, and it does have a handful of African-American members, but it de facto functions to reinforce that hierarchy.

As Robin details, the surveillance and sanctioning of gays in the 1940s and 1950s also consumed enormous energies on the Right, which was more worried about gays in Washington than Communists in the State Department. Even more recently the Department of Defense, which desperately needs Arabic speakers, has fired 55 of its Arabic instructors for being gay. One was outed by an admission that he was involved in community theater, Robin says.

More recently, the Right is targeting Arab-Americans, Muslim Americans, and legal residents lacking citizenship. They don’t have the same rights as others. Recently Raed Jarar was prevented from boarding an airplane in New York because he was wearing a t-shirt with a peace slogan printed on it in Arabic! He would not have been stopped if it had been in Thai or Amharic. The Arabic script itself, used by hundreds of millions of people in the world, is now an object of discrimination!

So why? Why should a Right that claims a genealogy in egalitarian Enlightenment thinkers have these smelly entanglements with racial, sexual, religious and other hierarchies?

I think it is because of a central contradiction in capitalist democracy. As capitalism actually operates in real societies, advantages accrue to the wealthy. You can see it in the lesser prison terms for white collar crime. I remember when those Wall Street scandals were breaking a few years ago, and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal was debating punishments for security fraud. One of the editors insisted that just having his (he just said “his”) license to trade stocks revoked would be sufficient punishment for someone who had essentially stolen tens of millions of dollars. He thought a prison term excessive. But in California, a poor person who committed a burglary and then shoplifted $50 worth of merchandise on two separate occasions and got caught each time could face life imprisonment as a habitual offender.

Democracy teaches that no one should be treated differently under the law or be given or denied rights based on ascribed identities such as race, gender, religion, wealth or social status. So capitalist democracy is a contradiction in terms, with the two constantly at war with one another.

In a democracy, it would theoretically be possible for the people to deny special treatment to the wealthy. Or even for the people to make claims on the resources of the wealthy for the good of the nation. The wealthy in an authoritarian state that represents them (i.e. in a Bonapartist state) do not have to worry about such popular claims on their resources. But in a democracy, all the people would have to do is put socialists or advocates of a graduated income tax into the legislature, and bingo. I’m not suggesting that the wealthy in general mind a graduated income tax. But the Grover Norquists of the world certainly do.

I think this uncertainty causes at least some of the less secure or more selfish wealthy classes to work against the very ideology of egalitarianism. If there are groups of people who are either legally or de facto treated differently from others, and if such a system of hierachies is accepted as natural, then the idea of social equality is undermined and perhaps even discredited. Unequal favorable treatment of the wealthy seems less strange if European-Americans also receive better treatment than Latinos, e.g. The hierarchies and divisions also, of course, make it harder or impossible for the popular classes to cooperate with one another against the rapaciousness of the less savory among the wealthy. Lower middle class European-Americans in the South now vote Republican and cannot ally with lower middle class and poor African-Americans.

Capitalism doesn’t have to create racial or sexual or religious hierarchies. Indeed, it can work to break them down. But promoting such hierarchies appeals to some on the Right as a way of justifying unequal treatment for the wealthy and of making class alliances across status groups and ethnicities more difficult.

I think all this explains why Dick Cheney wants to create an underclass of non-citizen residents with lesser rights than citizens, and why he voted against having a Martin Luther King Day when he was in Congress. He is about there being unequal levels in society. Because they in turn justify the inequality in treatment of wealthy people like himself. And the issue of “security” is only a McGuffin that drives the plot. External threats are invoked to justify weakening civil liberties, which in turn allow the reinforcement of hierarchies of rights. The relationship of the concern for “security” and the actual legislation creating inequalities is usually tenuous to say the least.

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