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Liberty’s Deafening Bells

September 13, 2009

Matthew Yglesias writes:

Probably the weirdest thing about the Glenn Beck / Tea Party nexus to me is that it tends to rely so heavily on libertarian rhetoric and fear of incipient authoritarianism. These kind of sentiments would be a lot easier to take seriously if not for the fact that we didn’t see these people marching out in the streets when George W. Bush used the threat of terrorism to justify secret, illegal warrantless surveillance, detention without trial, torture, etc. Indeed, the very same people who spend Monday, Wednesday, and Friday complaining that Barack Obama’s “czars” are a threat to liberty not only weren’t worried about czars in the Bush years, they spend Tuesday and Thursday worrying that Obama’s not doing enough to ensure that intelligence operatives can break the law with impunity.

Jonah Goldberg, it seems to me, was the real pioneer in this brand of hypocrisy-driven hysteria—holding captives in secret where they’re hung by shackles from the ceiling and occasionally beaten to death is fine by him, but efforts to curb smoking are “liberal fascism.” And now this line of thinking seems to have completely taken over the right.

Yglesias, I think, misses the point. As I’ve tried to set forth in my review of Ted Widmer’s book, the concept of liberty has no inherent existence but is, rather, always situated within a larger view of the way things are.

For liberals like Widmer, the word liberty carries with it the concept of rights, specifically as articulated by Roosevelt in the 30s, and, later, by the civil rights movement in the 60s. The conservative tradition, by contrast, defines liberty as economic liberty — as the freedom not to pay for someone else’s health care or education. This tradition also posits that liberty depends on national security, which is why conservatives do not object to torturing suspected terrorists, or detaining them without trail. The upshot of all this is that, when Yglesias complains that the Tea Party /Glenn Beck crowd didn’t take to the streets during the Bush years, he is essentially complaining that conservatives are conservatives.

So arguing about “liberty” is mostly a fruitless exercise. Still, liberty is among the most powerful weapons in the polemicist’s arsenal, and there are few better ways to manipulate people than to blather on about freedom, especially if you happen to be FreedomWorks or FoxNews.

From a more relativistic vantage point, it is interesting to note that liberals and conservatives sometimes end up using identical words to express radically opposing agendas. On the one hand, you have the popular pro-choice slogan “keep your laws off my body”; on the other, the sign held by the woman at the center bottom of this photo:


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    September 13, 2009 7:08 pm

    Although this thought is anecdotal and not completely on target, I’ve dealt with many, many self-described conservatives through work or through the gun clubs/shooting ranges I belong to.

    Obama or liberals aren’t necessarily in the crosshair because they’re Obama or liberal, but because they’re in power. When Yglesias complains about Tea Party protests happening now and not during the Bush administration, he ignores said administration’s huge role in cultivating the disaffection underpinning today’s protests. Many of my fellow club members, coworkers, friends, and other seemingly typical conservatives were disgusted by the Bush administration’s executive power grab and aggressive growth in government power. Very few genuinely approved of Bush’s administration (not to mention the other parts of government) beyond 2005 or 2006.

    If anti-government disaffection amongst conservative types was at level X as a result of administrations and legislation past, shot up to level Y during and after the Bush era, and needs to be at level Z to spawn Tea Party style protests, the possibility of government-run health care has undoubtedly taken disaffection well past level Z.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    September 13, 2009 9:28 pm

    Your anecdotal comments are well-taken. I too noticed a souring on Bush among conservatives, particularly during the McCain campaign. For Obama, scoring political points was often as simple as making the suggestion that McCain would continue Bush era policies.

    I’m not sure I entirely agree, however, that the Tea Party protests have resulted from government growth crossing a certain threshold. The difference between then and now is, it seems to me, rather one of organization, funding, and publicity — all of which FoxNews and FreedomWorks have supplied in abundance to Tea Party protesters.

    True, the size of government has only continued to increase under Obama, and you are probably right that many conservatives have gone from frustration with Bush to outrage at Obama. Still, a FoxNews or FreedomWorks is simply not going to back protests against a Republican president, which would amount to admitting that both major political parties favor big government (which they do).

    What I would like to see is a revolt on the part of conservatives and libertarians against their Republican masters, who have proven to be incompetent and self-serving, for the most part. While I am myself left-leaning, I think an authentic movement in favor of limited government could potentially do the country good.

  3. The Glenn Beck Review permalink
    June 1, 2010 5:37 pm

    Beck is not just a liar and a hypocrite. I caught him with his pants down. See The Glenn Beck Review for details.

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