Do You Hear That Trampling in the Distance?

Tuesday, February 9, 2021 - 12:30
White House

People who revel in hurting others, we label as sadistic. Quick, give me an equivalent expression we can apply to those who seek to injure, destabilize and even destroy not just others, but entire institutions and societies.

I’m grappling with this question after listening to NPR’s Terry Gross interview Atlantic magazine contributor Mike Giglio about The Oath Keepers, a group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, that:

…claims tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members…[and] is one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today. While it claims only to be defending the Constitution, the entire organization is based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans.

Giglio characterizes The Oath Keepers as an armed, organized fringe faction actively preparing for an incipient American civil war. A student of civic and social breakdown and the chaos, confusion, death and destruction wrought by civil war, Giglio spent years reporting from global hot zones. He knows of what he speaks and harbors a wish that he could take these self-deputized defenders of American freedom to someplace like Iran or eastern Ukraine for a close-up view of the grotesque reality of societies in freefall they so fervently wish to imitate here on our own soil. The Oath Keepers piece recalls another Atlantic article earlier this year by McKay Coppins about the disinformation campaign waged to influence in favor of the incumbent our recent national election.

Coppins describes a determined group of political allies lining up to discredit, diminish and reputationally destroy journalists and mainstream media institutions. Collectively, and on the down-low, they’ve spent years scraping Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms for postings, personal information and other fragments they can use to undermine the credibility of freelancers, reporters, editors and the institutions that provide them outlets and pay them for their work. The civic sadism of this illiberal cabal, playing on self-centered fears of the pliable, the frightened and the politically ignorant, seeks nothing less than to undermine public confidence in a free and independent press to be replaced by hyped and manipulative propaganda.

In my lifetime, this tendency poked its head from the political sewers with pronounced intensity as government, scaled to the needs of a large and growing nation, became a target of discredit and debasement in the era of Ronald Reagan. Reagan propagated a simple-minded “government is the problem” trope made memorable when Grover Norquist, a Reagan acolyte, said on NPR in May 2001, “I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” But, in a democracy built on pluralistic ideals, the act of drowning government adds up to drowning the governed. 

Political developments of steroidal scale, at this moment in our shared history, suggest the extremity of Norquist’s sentiment has ripened to considerations of actual civicide. Defined by the Urban Dictionary as “the willful and intentional destruction of a great city, including murder and exile of its inhabitants,” the term warrants a more expansive definition to include the planned murder of what we think of as the public sphere and what we engage in as informed, evidence-based civic discourse.

What happens when you dismantle a free press and other tools for gathering, vetting, publishing and sustaining the output of factual reporting – “news” – about what’s going on in the world? What happens when reliable reporting institutions weaken and fizzle in the face of a politically manipulated public appetite fattened on a diet of expedient falsehoods meant to deceive? Or, worse, what happens to society when a flood of fabrications – clever artifice, essentially – replaces the actual, verifiable human actions and events that determine the destinies of millions or billions of people? Observable acts, or what we often refer to as “facts on the ground” because we see them and directly experience their consequences, said John Dewey in the early 1900s, form the basis for any notion of a public.

Break my sense of bondedness to a place in the public sphere and I become simply a private person privately concerned only about the private matters that make a difference to me alone. I don’t have to concern myself with you and your problems because I see you and what concerns you through an “artifactual” lens of my own making. That homeless person on the street who’s sick and stumbling? A failure of will. The one who is in good enough shape to spend all day at the end of a freeway offramp begging contributions with a sign scribbled on cardboard? Shiftless and irresponsible, likely to flush away spare change on drugs or alcohol. To someone else, the homeless represent plucky, or just lucky survivors of late-stage capitalism’s obscenely acceptable margin that tolerates a waste stream of humanity, exiled from the world of productive work and left to fend for scraps perilously close to the edge of existence.

Taken to extremes, this hyper-personalization of what the civic realm should be – caterer and coddler to my interests, me and me alone – cedes democracy’s precious ideal of common ground to opportunists, thugs, grifters, true believers, sycophants, psychopaths and wannabe tyrants. Enough, please, of the finger-wagging, accusation, shaming and other you-bad/me-good abominations lobbed with malicious intent into people who would dare to defend the public square. Extremes serve only to erect a towering gallows and tear down the charitable center, a pre-condition for shared stability, safety and security.

After living through years of intolerant Twitter-bombing, lies and coercive disunion, I’m spotting in the blurry distance what I hope is a legion of thinking, caring people, frazzled yet determined, marching toward one another from a diversity of points on the political compass. We’re in luck if the trampling of their footsteps augurs not for wrath and vengeance against either freedom itself or the enemies of freedom, but rather for laying down the instruments of discord and paving the path to a new American community.


"White House" by Diego Cambiaso is marked with CC By 2.0