Know Your Enemy: Political Contradictions of
As right-wing forces consolidate their control over the commanding heights of national power, reaping the fruits of both their mobilization and liberals’ demobilization, it has become increasingly urgent for serious progressives to examine the outstanding contradictions which mark many of the Right’s main political positions. For as conservatism gains more power and prominence, it becomes increasingly difficult for it to sustain momentum by merely blaming its favorite boogeyman -- the now marginalized “left” -- as causing all America’s ills. Stripped of this crucial crutch, conservatism’s bold advance regresses into a limping gait -- a fact of some consequence -- but only if we are willing to expose and attack the Right’s weaknesses and inconsistencies.
Right-wing ideology is mostly a game of smoke and mirrors. Outside the narrow segment of the very wealthy, it achieves its appeal by cleverly capitalizing upon the inchoate prejudices, suspicions, fears, and insecurities prevalent among the public. The method is simple but effective: for any given problem, introduce a few crucial codewords and phrases that both eject said problem’s real dimensions and inject as many emotionally-loaded, jingoistic, and anxiety-inducing intimations as possible. These Trojan horses, once inserted into public discourse, arouse the appropriate psychological insecurities and pre-existing prejudices, and soon come to reshape the framework of public discourse itself. The trick is to recognize this game from the outset -- and to reject and dismantle the imposed framework -- instead of hopelessly banging on the walls from inside the asylum.
Take, for instance, the two pillars buttressing the much-touted “moral values” platform that has demoralized many liberals: opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Bowing before the authority of the “moral majority,” cowed liberals have simply accepted the supposed necessity of retreating on these social issues, of conjuring up candidates and platforms more amenable to a more conservative America. But why accept wooden horses as new deities? In reality, there is nothing majoritarian, moral, or authoritative about these political positions, derived as they are from politics shaped by fear, propped up by far-right financing, enabled by a deluge of liberal eulogizing and emboldened by a drought of leftist organizing. A closer look at conservative stances on both abortion and gay marriage reveal them as utterly hollow and inconsistent by any standard of judgment.
The great hue and cry over abortion, according to its pious opposition, is all about “the culture of life” -- one of those key codewords. Abortion is wrong because it ends life prematurely, it denies potential human beings the chance of life. Angry mobs assemble outside abortion clinics to harass -- or worse -- both doctors and patients in order to get across their message of moral consternation. It is most curious, then, that these moral crusaders do not assemble on behalf of those many millions of poor children with working single mothers who struggle daily to keep them fed, clothed, and cared for. Quite the contrary, the Right assembles precisely against these children and their mothers; against their demands for better jobs, higher wages, and affordable childcare and healthcare, condemning them as “lazy”, “undeserving” or “uppity” -- though these women should, after all, be judged “moral” for not having had abortions. “The culture of life,” it seems, is a culture of promoting life when it does not actually exist, and abandoning it when it does.
But abandonment is only the more compassionate side of conservatism’s stance. The passionate voices of our zealous crusaders for an “unborn child’s right to life” are nowhere to be found when real children are being bombed, starved, or otherwise obliterated in a painfully unequal war between the world’s largest military behemoth and a small defenseless country – unless those voices are railing in favor of exterminating the Muslim heathen from fiery pulpits. In the twelve years separating our last incineration of Iraq from our newest one, the UN and various aid groups calculated a toll of several hundred thousand children who died as a direct result of US-led economic embargoes; the British medical journal The Lancet recently estimated about 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of the war since its inception; and it has now been revealed that “[a]cute malnutrition among young children in Iraq has nearly doubled since the United States led an invasion of the country 20 months ago.” Where are our moralists now? Where the outraged “good Christians” insisting on the “sanctity of life?” Perhaps preoccupied counting the millions accrued from denying it.
The same kind of conservative doublethink and hypocrisy surrounds the issue of gay marriage. In this case, the operative codeword is “preserving the sanctity” or “integrity” of marriage. Gay marriage, conservatives complain, is an insult to the very dignity of the contract of marriage, which hinges on marriage remaining the exclusive domain of union between men and women. This is absurd posturing. What is the present state of marital relations in America -- leaving aside entirely the question of gays and lesbians? Do all heterosexual couples who once declared their vows still “love and cherish” one another, are they committed till “death do [them] part?” Hardly. About half -- half -- of American marriages today end in divorce. Moreover, divorce rates are significantly higher in the Republican states than in Democratic ones -- the divorce rate in Texas, for instance, is about 125% higher than it is in Massachusetts. So it appears that limiting marriage to heterosexuals has not resulted in maintaining its “sanctity”, even -- especially -- if you live in a morally-pure “red state.”
Further contradictions on this score abound. It is most amusing to see conservatives, who strike heroic poses as defenders of “little people” against “big government”, insist that the true meaning of marriage should be decided not by the two people wanting to be married, but by the government and its authority to issue a piece of paper. Even more ridiculous is the overblown rhetoric about gays and lesbians destroying marriage “as an institution.” Do men and women marry because they love each other and are committed to one another -- or for the grandiose purpose of upholding “the institution?” This vague invocation of “the institution” of marriage is rendered more absurd by the fact that, as an institution, marriage was traditionally simply a means of men securing land and property rights, with women having little power to decide their fate. Surely, our “freedom-loving” conservatives do not pine for those days when women were pawns. Just ask Bill O’Reilly.
O’Reilly and other right-wing pundits also like to pontificate freely on other matters, foremost among them the war in Iraq. They display the requisite affectations to prove that they “support the troops,” bellowing in favor of more war and more aggression, and moralistically pounce on people who oppose the war as traitors who are against the soldiers. There is enough hot air in these assertions to fly a hundred helium balloons. In reality, conservatives continue to back a war which has (a) seen all of its pretexts utterly demolished, (b) achieved the exact opposite effect of what the war planners claim was intended (containing terrorism), (c) left over 130,000 overextended soldiers fighting an unexpected and unplanned for high-level guerrilla insurgency in which 1,232 of them have been killed and thousands more severely crippled for life. As the anti-war activist and veteran of the war in Iraq Jim Talib noted in his recent interview with Left Hook co-editor Derek Seidman, “When I was in the National Guard it was certainly true that most of the people were there for the college money, and that's tragic since many working class kids trying to get an education are now forward deployed in Iraq, in combat, not in college.” How can thrusting youth onto the front lines of an unwinnable war where prospects of injury and death loom large be considered “supporting” them?
As illustrated, the smug and sanctimonious posturing of conservatives regarding their dear interest in “moral values” cannot withstand serious scrutiny. Republicans offer not values but cheap, shallow gimmicks designed to disguise both the genuine dimensions of any given issue and the poverty of their own perspectives on the issue. The crucial point, however, is that conservatives often couch their real aims in terms that directly contradict those aims, because the terms -- appeals to the importance of life, the value of family, the need to support those making sacrifices -- resonate, whereas the actual aims do not. For a Left that takes itself and wants others to take it seriously, it is not enough to strip away such positive terms to expose the Right’s negative aims; we must also take those terms and back them up with a bold, all-sided movement willing to fight for the aims that complement them.
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