The Relentless Ruthlessness of Existential Threats, A History Boy, 31/01/2016

I was originally going to shift my running posts about my aesthetic impressions of Doctor Who production leaders over the years to Sundays. But an idea dawned on me a few days ago that I wanted to get out in the form of a post. 

Here’s what it comes down to. Modern politics are polarized, fearful, demonizing, and violent because it’s now standard to understand your opponents as existential threats.

Millions have died in the last 12 years of fighting the
wars that began with the American invasion of Iraq.
Don't forget that, for all we rightfully attack Daesh,
the leaders and founders of Islamic State were members
of Al Qaeda and other anti-occupation rebels who
met in an American prison camp.
Grounded in Collective Trauma

I'm not the first one to comment that something’s shifted in the way we think about politics in our society. And I’m talking about just straight-up electoral politics,* the political parties who jockey for public support in voting processes to control state legislatures and bureaucracies.

* In contrast to where real politics, the radical transformations of societies, happen – in social movements, uprisings, mass migrations, and cultural revolutions.

I remember the tone of things beginning to change with September 11, the slack-jawed incomprehension at the fawning, worshipful tone so much of the mainstream media took with the Bush Administration and the invasion of Iraq.

We saw a terrible mistake happening, one we knew would have horrifying results – instability across the region, massive violence, the killings of millions with horrible weaponry and the crunching terror of neighbours going house to house, murdering. 

We knew it in 2002 when the marches against the Iraq invasion began. We knew it as we watched all the most nightmarish visions of the anti-war movement come true. The Iraq invasion was a blunt instrument wielded with blatant disregard for even such ordinary tasks as contingency planning. 

Something rotten and horribly destructive took control of the American government. Even the worst interventions of the Cold War – the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, the murder of Patrice Lumumba, Augusto Pinochet’s coup and Operation Condor, the invasion of Grenada, stoking civil wars and paramilitary terrorism across Latin America – weren’t as horrifying as the invasion of Iraq.

Even the Vietnam War had a logic underlying its justification. The “It’s all about oil!” protesters of 2003 were desperate that there be some sensible reason for Bush’s war. But the worst really was true. 

Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft and the rest of them all thought you could invade and occupy a country, and they’d be grateful to you for unleashing a society of unrestrained violent mercenaries and stationing a massive military presence in their communities. Then it got worse.

Carl Schmitt, the German philosopher who
first developed the concept of the existential
threat, a social conception of an enemy
whose mere existence is an act of violence
toward you.
Bush League

The reason so many people supported the Iraq war was because they were all so freaked and collectively traumatized over the theatrical terror of the September 11 attacks. The majority of Americans – maybe 200 million people – felt the burning presence of existential threat.

Bush did one respectable thing in this instance – he distinguished terror from Islam and Muslim people. Despite the anti-Muslim racism that grew prevalent in America, he didn’t encourage it. But the existential threat of nameless Islamist terrorism galvanized millions.

And we got used to it. Existential threat became an ordinary part of political thinking for most people. That made it get even worse.

The election of Barack Obama constituted an existential threat to just about everyone in America who still had enough anti-black racism in their personality to consider his Presidency illegitimate. The racial roots of the Tea Party lie in the refusal to accept that a black person legitimately gained and holds the authority of the President’s office.

But the politics of existential threats had settled into the left as well. Bush, if anything was the left’s first existential threat. Bush seemed unstoppable, a demon more than a man. He committed terrible acts that we thought would invalidate him from office, then he won re-election by a bigger margin than he got in the first place!

When Bush left office, he was at his lowest low of popularity. His policies had caused a worldwide economic recession, the Iraq war was a univocal disaster, and the response he oversaw to Hurricane Katrina was so incompetent as to leave hundreds dead and many thousands internally displaced.

I cried when Obama won his first Presidential election, because I thought the nightmare was finally over.

No, there's certainly no racism in populist American
opposition to Barack Obama. Just policy disagreements,
I'm sure.
The Nightmare Truly Begins

I seriously thought it would end. I thought politics would become more rational. But the Tea Party amped it up. The snowballing social collapse among the American white working class – permanent unemployment, economic stagnation, ubiquitous opiate addiction, a suicide epidemic – amped it up even more.

Hopelessness made millions feel as if their lifestyle really was under threat. Because it literally was under threat, thanks to all those social problems exploding from economic stagnation in white America crossing a threshold to become total collapse.

Yet these people didn’t realize that the threat to their culture’s existence was rooted in complex macroeconomic forces that had been unleashed decades ago and culminating in today’s mass social wreckage. Such hopeless people are the natural patrons of scapegoat politics and demagoguery. Hence the rise of Donald Trump.

Everything is an existential threat in America’s Trumpist movement. Refugees, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, gay and trans people, terrorists. All of these are threats to the American way of life for their very existence. 

More than that, even just ordinary political opponents: people who support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, or even people who support Rubio or Jeb Bush for President. To the Trumpist, all of these people are complicit in YOUR destruction. Opponents are not people to work with to someone who takes all opposition as an existential threats.

Existential threats can only be destroyed, because their existence imperils your own. That’s what an existential threat is.

In the words of one group of anti-Harper activists, he
encouraged his supporters to believe that Canadian
democracy was fragile enough that the entire state
institution could be destroyed by a mere change in
government. The heirs of this message in Canadian
culture now talk as if an anti-Trudeau coup is brewing.
Canada Is No Exception

It’s not like my own country hasn’t done this. The opposition to Stephen Harper, from its earliest days, was based in the notion that he was fundamentally un-Canadian. 

The notion that his goal was to undo all the work of social program, human rights advancement, and international peace-building. From the first days of his majority government, radical gestures of opposition followed him. We opponents of Stephen Harper saw his leadership as a fundamental threat to the social fabric of Canada itself.

The weird thing is, we were actually right. He did fundamentally change the nature of the Canadian government and state, and its relationship with its people. 

Harper’s Canada would be in thrall to the globe’s oil companies. Government science institutions would receive their marching orders from resource extraction companies, both oil and metals mining. No dissent allowed.

Canada’s government would be neutered and bankrupted through gutting its statistical data gathering powers and bleeding its public institutions through comprehensive tax cuts and inflated police, prison, and military spending. 

The F-35 boondoggle and other wasteful, misdirected military expansions, would have cost so much government money that no social program, even the health care system, would have been able to continue. 

Total privatization would have been the main theme of a second Harper majority. It may still be, since Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have no plans to restore the government revenue that Harper slashed.

Sierra Club activists plant trees in a San Francisco
neighbourhood. Stephen Harper considered these types
of people radical violent saboteurs and agitators.
Harper was an existential threat to the Canada that its progressive social movements and politicians built. And he made good on that threat. But he also based his own electoral strategy on the same hysteria that has reintroduced racist fascism to mainstream American politics.

Harper had always demonized political opponents. This was particularly true of environmentalist groups, which his government frequently lumped in with terrorist organizations. 

But leading up to the 2015 election, his communications vilified opponents as dangerous radical leftists – you know, Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair – whose policies would destroy Canada. He and others in his party also vilified observant Muslims and war refugees as radical, violent killers whose danger was so constant that they needed a special police tipline to inform on our neighbours’ barbaric cultural practices.

This Is Madness

Dealing with all your opponents as threats to the fabric of your society and your ability to live as you wish (or at all) can be very effective in stopping them. But it also causes a lot of horrifying collateral damage.

For one thing, conceiving of people as existential threats encourages actual mass slaughter. It what Hutus thought of Tutsis thanks to that class’ dominance of a colonially-structured state in Rwanda. It was what Germans thought of Jews as Hitler’s racial Darwinist dogma dominated the country’s politics. 

Will this be the face of America's future?
But it also animates politics to the intensity of constant hysteria. Political activity is the daily grind of working through issues among different people to live together peacefully. Seeing any group or type of people with which you live – an ethnic or religious minority, people with political differences – as existential threats destroys the ability to live peacefully at all.

When a person is an existential threat to you, there’s no negotiation. You sincerely and deeply believe that the existence of this person in your community is a fatal threat to you. When you believe that, the different person can’t stay in your community. They’ve got to go.

By any means necessary. We must not become our nightmares.

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