How Do We Stop Slow Motion Sedition?
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Apr 11, 2010 at 11:14:30 PM EST
Sara Robinson has an important essay at the blog of the liberal Campaign for America's Future that sets some of the work of Talk to Action's Bruce Wilson and Rachel Tabachnick in the wider context of the far right and the militia movement, as well as the recent outbreak of violence and threats of violence against Democratic Party offices and government officials.

Robinson starts out with a discussion of the rise of the evolution of the ethos of a growing rightist culture of sedition that is not limited to the actual crime of sedition to which the Hutaree Militia was charged last week. Sedition is defined as the "Crime of creating a revolt, disturbance, or violence against lawful civil authority with the intent to cause its overthrow or destruction."

Then she starts the discussion of what we should be doing about it.

Robinson thinks we all need to pay greater attention to the seditious ideas and language of the conservative movement and make it an issue over which they should be confronted. But she also cautions that the word not become an epithet, such that is becomes debased to the point of meaninglessness the way that for example, the word "fascism" generally has.  

She charges that what the conservative movement and the Republican Party has  been up to amounts to "sedition in slow motion, a gradual corrosive undermining of the government's authority and capacity to run the country. And it's been at the core of their politics going all the way back to Goldwater." There are both secular and religious and overlapping seditious ideas, (that are certainly well represented in the Hutaree case) tossed on the sea of factions, personalities and institutions of the right. Robinson's broad point is worth carefully considering since it clarifies the nature of the threat posed by a wide swath of the right, and anyone who has watched the news in recent weeks can understand the issue.  More immediately, Robinson says that rightist and GOP leaders waving around revolutionary flags, shouting revolutionary slogans at Tea Party functions, and engaging in eliminationist rhetoric is "play acting" and "playing with fire" and that "they need to bring this incendiary campaign to a screeching halt. Right now." While that is most unlikely, finding ways to hold them to account is an obvious first step.

Here is where she thinks we need to begin:  

We need to start talking about this for what it is, and calling it out whenever it happens. Leonard Zeskind points out that the feds have never been able to make a sedition charge stick against a right-wing group (if the Hutaree are convicted, it'll be a first); but the first step in stopping sedition is making sure everybody knows exactly what it is when they see it. And that means calling out the S-word every time we see the conservatives defiantly flinging their hands and feet out over that line to score a few cheap political points.

I think she is right, and I would add a point or two towards what needs to be a wider conversation.

Firstly, I would say that we need to sort out which elements on the Religious Right embrace seditious ideas, particularly those who are taking explicit steps to take action on such ideas.  Robinson correctly points to Wilson and Tabachnick's work in this regard. Her summary is excerpted below:

When the "spiritual warriors" of the Transformations movement proudly announce that they've mapped every town in America -- literally creating target maps of "demonic activity" that pinpoint government offices, non-Evangelical houses of worship, clinics, theaters, Indian mounds and sites; or even just households with Muslims, neo-pagans, Goth-baby teenagers, or Obama stickers on their cars -- they're putting us on notice that they've identified the specific people and places that need to be "cleansed" in order to purify their communities. According to researchers Rachel Tabachnick and Bruce Wilson, these "transformation" attempts have already become government-level issues in New Jersey, Arizona, Texas, and Hawaii.

At present, they claim that they're only mapping their neighborhoods so they can pray over us all; and their attempts to take over local government are being done by purely democratic means. But, as has often happened before (yes, the Nazis started out just this way), the day may come when they'll decide that mere prayer and organizing is not enough. Like any street gang, they've taken proprietary responsibility for a piece of turf; and they believe God is holding them accountable for everything that happens there. The resulting performance pressure is a perfect setup to justify more aggressive cleansing tactics if they can't convert the town by peaceful means.

And some of these groups have already effectively crossed the line, in spirit if not in prosecutable fact. When the Christian dominionists train up "Joel's Army" by sending their sons to the US armed services so they can get the combat experience they'll need to set up a worldwide theocracy, that's evidence of an active plan to effect an armed government takeover. When senior US military officers put their commitment to Jesus ahead of their commitment to uphold the Constitution and regard the military as God's force in the world, we should be very afraid.

For years now, we've dismissed all of this as crazy talk, the rantings of a loony fringe that will never get enough traction to become a material threat to our democracy. But we're well past the point where it's no longer quaint and funny, or an embarrassing breach of democratic etiquette that polite people should just ignore.

Second, we need to renew the broad principles of the Talk to Action project,  one of which I reiterated the other day,

we have taken the view from the beginning, that labeling, demonization and epithets are poor and often counterproductive substitutes for terms that allow for actual discussion and help us all to better understand the Religious Right in its many, and ever evolving, factions, leaders, ideologies and so on.

In that regard, too many people still resort to meaningless epithets such as "Christianist" and "American Taliban" as if these terms have any resonance with anyone; without any regard for the counterproductivity of calling people stupid names; and what they actually communicate when they are used.  

One of the consequences of labeling and demonization tactics is that adopting misleading and loaded language can limit our own capacity to understand the various elements of the Religious Right. By developing our thinking around pejorative epithets, we limit our capacity to grasp the breadth and depth of the subject. It is as if, for example, we were going to try to study and to report on the entire world of stone, minerals, ore, crystals and so on and insisting on only using the word "rocks."

A further consequence is that we can limit our capacity to meaningfully communicate with one another as well as with broader publics about these complex and controversial subjects, by substituting fashionable epithets for the powerful vocabularies that are readily available to meet our intellectual and communications needs. We use such vocabularies all the time on this site.

My conversion from anti-Christian was due to this site, and I am guilty of still using loaded name-calling to object to certain actions by the religious right. I will look out for these, and work at talking about the actual problems, rather than be lazy.

by trog69 on Mon Apr 12, 2010 at 08:55:06 AM EST

talking to conservative leaning folks is as difficult as it was to talk with antiwar protestors, people who think they are doing right, but if you are doing it the wrong way, that makes right wrong. I have seen several articles about how one side demonizes the other and then that makes it alright to treat people and their opinions less than human.  You are messing with your salvation when you do this.  What really frustrates me is the level of cognitive dissonance radicals on both sides employ to embrace their ideas and ideals.  Opinions are not truth, especially when they are grounded in bad facts and other opinions.

by hutchbilly on Mon Apr 12, 2010 at 11:28:21 AM EST

As a kind of complementary read to Sara Robinson's essay there a short interesting and important review written by Matthew Rothschild on the Progressive website today of a recent speech by Noam Chomsky:  Chomsky Warns of Risk of Fascism in America. In his speech, Chomsky makes the point that the stresses on democracy right now are like nothing we have seen in recent history. He reminds us of the Weimar republic and how it was considered a 'model of democracy' and how quickly it deteriorated.

Sara Robinson's essay reminds us how the mainstream politicians are fueling the flames of sedition. Chomsky gives us historical perspective to tell us this is not a period of 'business as usual' but rather a time of real danger to our secular democracy. He quotes Chomsky who points out:  "When farmers, the petit bourgeoisie, and Christian organizations joined forces with the Nazis, "the center very quickly collapsed,"

One bit in particular that jumped out for me as relevant to your post is this quote from Chomsky:
"Ridiculing the tea party shenanigans is a serious error... People want some answers. They are hearing answers from only one place: Fox, talk radio, and Sarah Palin"

Given all that, I want to make a point about your call for thoughtful discussion, free of easy and simplistic 'epitaphs' such as American Taliban or Christianists. And though I agree with you by temperament, I would raise the question...what is actually going to counter the enormous growing right wing influence on populist sentiment. Right wing and some religious elements are effectively channeling the very real and justified rage that many people feel. How are they doing that? With a constant stream of emotionally powerful and easy to grasp taglines, like 'death panels' or comparing progressives to a disease as Glen Beck does regularly.

They are purposefully choosing words that substitute for thought and actual debate. The right is winning the war of words precisely because they  are shamelessly  ready to employ all forms of inflammatory and simplistic speech.

My point is that the danger to democracy is not coming in the form of well reasoned debate that can be countered with same.

by marktypos on Mon Apr 12, 2010 at 04:35:25 PM EST

that we may not even be able understand what is going on, let alone communicate about it, if we limit our vocabulary to or distort our conversation with epithets (not epitaphs, btw.) It is as if we are giving ourselves a case of the stupids and congratulating ourselves for our intellect.

It is certainly true that finding answers to the various threats to democracy -- something I have written about for many years -- is an urgent and necessary task.  But I really do insist that many of the conversations we need to have are hamstrung due in part to certain self-defeating fashions in labeling. It is also fair to say that these labels sometimes conceal a rather vast ignorance about the right, which also tends to hamper strategic conversation.

That said, I think it is possible to be forceful, articulate and passionate in political speech and be effective in the way one would hope leaders of various sorts would be.

What do do under these circumstances is always the challenge. How does a democratic society contend with vociferous anti-democratic elements? How do we respect their rights to free speech and assembly while also contending and competing with methods that are designed to corrode and destroy the democratic order that allows them to exist?

These are questions for the ages and for, as MLK and Barack Obama have put it, the fierce urgency of now.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Apr 12, 2010 at 05:43:19 PM EST

I agree with you but at the same time can't help the feeling that this is asymmetrical warfare and while one side is reflecting on the nuances of the other the other is eating the first one's lunch.

by marktypos on Mon Apr 12, 2010 at 09:36:45 PM EST
And being able to converse about that knowledge, matters.

Advantages in contests from baseball to military conflict often come from sound knowledge of the history, methods, personalities, ideologies, strengths and weaknesses of one's adversaries, and being able to discuss tactics and strategy with one's allies.

I wonder what makes anyone think that it is a good idea to substitute calling one's formidable adversaries stupid names in favor of mastering well understood terms that relate to underlying bodies of knowledge so that effective strategy can actually be developed.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Apr 12, 2010 at 09:56:44 PM EST

and that's my point as well. As you say,  one must understand the adversary "so that an effective strategy can be developed".  But, it could be that the effective strategy is in fact to call one's adversaries stupid names. I simplify--but that's how they use language. And it's working for them.
It certainly worked for Goebbels.

Here's a little parenthetical point. Once a false statement has been made (say matching 911 and Saddam Hussein)  factual refutations do not work to correct the information in people's minds. They actually have the reverse effect and reinforce the false connection. People remember the first statement but not the refutation. So what's the strategy that works?

by marktypos on Mon Apr 12, 2010 at 10:33:17 PM EST

One that goes unaddressed all the time, in considerable part because the political consultants, pollsters, and interest groups don't know very much about this subject. So you get the use of designer labels like "religious political extremist" passing for smart strategy. Is it really any wonder that major Pew polls showed that the public felt that the Democratic Party was actually "hostile" to people of faith?  I think combined with years of religious right attacks on liberals and the party, those who used the term (and its annual focus grouped updates) generated the blowback -- which is to say, unanticipated, unintended consequences -- that the party and liberals are still struggling to overcome. Those progressives who have adopted made up epithets like those discussed in this essay are making a similar error, and with even less data than their predecessors to justify this behavior.

Let's try knowing what we are talking about in our own society; our own adversaries in our own time, than worrying about what worked for Goebbels.  

It is true that facts (which, BTW, are often subject to dispute) do not always persuade, and that passion and other emotions -- such as the confidence that is projected from well founded views, and the used of terms that show that we care about what we are saying to our audiences -- count more.  So where do we get our passions in ways that connect with our values and allow us to articulate them in ways that call out the dangers of the far right and make progressivism, or at least democracy, attractive?  Until a large swath of the liberal left abandons the knee jerk politics of sneer, we may be unable to answer that question.

by Frederick Clarkson on Mon Apr 12, 2010 at 11:01:49 PM EST

Please excuse the lateness of my reply.

I have been a long time reader of and this has to be one of the worst ideas I have ever heard of.  There is no crime worse in our country than sedition.  It is the only crime mentioned in our Constitution, i.e. treason (we can argue about the semantic differences between sedition and treason, but for practical purposes they are the same).  To accuse someone of sedition, or being a "seditionist" is to accuse them of being truly un-American, a traitor.  The accusation of sedition has lead to some of the most draconian and frightening moments in US History, from the Alien and Sedition Acts in the late 18th Century, to the Smith Act in the 1950s to the hysteria over terrorism that rules today.  Calling someone a "seditionist" is much worse than calling someone a "religious political extremist," a "Christianist" or a member of the "Christian Taliban."  

Please, please reconsider this.

"I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair" - JFK, Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association
by hardindr on Wed Apr 14, 2010 at 09:20:34 PM EST

that there is a difference between calling people inflammatory names that do no more than to muddy the issues and create a blowback of negative reaction along a spectrum of anger, and actually naming the activity in which people are engaged.

If people are calling for overthrowing the government, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to acknowledge and address that.  This is not about necessarily labeling people, but it is taking head on a dangerous constellation of attitudes and actions.

If there is reconsideration to be done, I would gently suggest that rather than reacting in fear about things past, you might want to consider what needs to be done in light of current events. Yes, we need to learn from history and take it reasonably into account.  We also need to be able to comprehend and be able to function in the present.

Let me offer an example. I have encountered a number of well informed lefties over the years who were fearful of calling out criminal violence of antiabortion groups because they were afraid of political repression from the feds. The latter, based on events in living memory is not unwarranted -- but it was also outrageous to turn a blind eye to the rightwing violence aimed at abortion providers.  

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed Apr 14, 2010 at 10:26:02 PM EST

I think the comment above about sedition raises a really interesting point. However, I react in the opposite fashion, with a little irony perhaps-I would say bravo. We've hit on some message control, a tagline people can grab onto and understand viscerally. Sedition!
The commenter's really good point is that this is a charged word and a serious charge. A word that carries more emotional weight with more people than 'America Taliban'.  Yes, Robinson in her essay "cautions that the word not become an epithet, such that is becomes debased to the point of meaninglessness the way that for example, the word "fascism" generally has." This is another way of saying the word fascism is overused and therefore bereft of emotional heft--let's use this 'new' stronger one-sedition.

by marktypos on Thu Apr 15, 2010 at 01:00:30 PM EST

Outside of the Hutaree militia and a few smaller groups, who is engaging in (alleged) seditious acts?  Who is calling for the government to be overthrown?  Tea Partiers attending rallies?  Really?  Why is waving revolutionary era flags and shouting revolutionary slogans seditious?  Much of the rhetoric is contemptible, inflammatory and disgusting.  It should be confronted, condemned and corrected but it isn't seditious.

Progressives should never turn a blind eye to their opponents who use violence.  People who use violence to try to achieve their political goals in the US deserve to face the power of the law, whether they are on the Left or the Right.  In the end, you either play by the rules of democratic pluralism, or you shouldn't be treated with respect.

Labeling the people who are attending Tea Parties as seditious is counterproductive to progressive goals.  For example, are these two people seditious?  To me, they sound like people who have been taken for a ride.  But in the end, they'll just be mocked nightly on "progressive" TV on MSNBC with a failed ex-ESPN sports caster and an ex-Rhode scholar who can make a cat sick with her smirk.

"I believe in a President whose views on religion are his own private affair" - JFK, Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association
by hardindr on Thu Apr 15, 2010 at 01:59:09 PM EST

Her thesis, and it is a good one I think, is that there is a great deal that emerges out of the conservative movement that is in fact, an ideology of sedition. But even if that were not so, there are now and have been for a long time many groups that are overtly, obviously, no kidding around seditious.  I have been writing about some of them for many years.

The idea of avoiding labeling and demonization remains the same. I maintain that knowing what you are talking about is far more important than exactly what words one uses. The aphorism I use from time to time is that "its the substance, not the slogan." That I have gotten impatient with those who insist on name calling should be obvious to anyone who reads this blog. And I oppose simply substituting sedition for fascist or American Taliban or any of the latest fashions in liberal sneer.  There is no substitute for sound knowledge and the good thinking that generally flows from it.

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