Rejecting the Language of the Leviathan

The ugly history of enforcement rhetoric in modern US politics winds its way from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, by way of Bill Clinton. It’s a history of cynical deception and manipulation based on racist fear and violent lust for domination and subjugation, conceived and championed by Republicans but all too often embraced by the slide-rule triangulations of Beltway Democrats preoccupied more with the engineerings of government power than the lives and struggles of the governed.

Richard Nixon knew exactly what he was doing when he ran his 1968 presidential campaign on the two philosophically inconsistent promises of enforcing law and order and stopping big government. Those tenets were never meant to be substantive or even rational. In fact, it was better for them to be jarringly irrational, because that was part of their acid-gut appeal, a Colbertian anti-intellectual assertion of primal fear over reason. In the midst of the 60s urban uprisings and race riots, these were smashface calls for white identity politics, explicitly designed to mobilize an emotionally volatile backlash against the Civil Rights movement and the imagined derailing of the 1950s White American Dream.

Nixon’s enforcement rhetoric (“tough on crime”, “law and order”) implicitly promised to crack down on brown people and put them back in their place at the bottom of society; while the attacks on “big government” generated false narratives that white magnanimity had gone too far and had resulted in dangerous hoardes of ungrateful welfare leeches who soaked up tax dollars, benefited from racial quotas, and gave nothing back to society. These constructs were, of course, not grounded in any sort of measurable reality. They were strictly drawn from the deep well of racism, built into the very foundation of this nation, seared into the psyche of every US American as solidly as the opening words of the Constitution.

As the renowned Republican strategist Lee Atwater put it in a 1981 interview with Bob Herbert on the so-called “Southern Strategy”:

By 1968 you can’t say “n—-r”. That hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now […] because obviously sitting around saying “We want to cut this” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N—-r, n—-r!”

Not a particulary refined or elevated political strategy. But Nixon rode it to victory in 1968, as did Ronald Reagan in 1980 (“welfare queens”) and George H. W. Bush in 1988 (Willie Horton). The lesson that Washington DC’s professional class of electoral manipulators drew from these outcomes was that national politicians could always count on the racism of white America.

Thus the rise of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1980s and 90s. Rather than confront and expose the GOP’s debased demagoguery; rather than elevate national discourse by aggressively defending the strides of the Civil Rights movement and attacking racist fearmongering using a principled grown-up language based on human rights; rather than expand the dwindling electorate by reaching into disenfranchised communities who would respond well to a message of progressive populism, the Democratic Party ceded the debate to the most reactionary forces in US politics and adopted the discourse of coded racist narratives.

Bill Clinton won the presidency, ended “welfare as we know it”, ended “the era of big government”, doubled the prison population with mandatory minimums and an explosion of privatized prison construction, slapped NAFTA onto the continent unleashing new levels of unemployment, homelessness, and cross-border migration, and generally devastated countless communities of color.

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Today, the Obama administration and the Democratic Party are apparently on the verge of tackling “comprehensive immigration reform” (CIR) once and for all. How will the debate play out? Exactly which policies will and will not constitute CIR? What political ploys and marketing schemes are DC consultants, motivated primarily by the desire to notch a “win” on their resumes, whispering into the ears of Democratic politicians and mass media lackeys? What legislative package will eventually be passed into law? And what tangible effects will that law have on the lives and struggles of both worthy and “unworthy” members of our communities?

Those questions remain up in the air, and the answers that eventually fall into place will depend in part on the strength and adamancy with which people of conscience assert the voice and power of a mobilized and progressive civic society on the public debate as it unfolds.

As I see it, a fundamental starting point for embarking upon the path to CIR is rejecting the racially-coded enforcement rhetoric which has characterized a great deal of the xenophobic hysteria and racial hatred of our country’s reactionary anti-immigrant forces. I describe this rhetoric as the language of the Leviathan, in reference to Hobbesian political theory, because it reduces the rule of law to the most base human impulses of domination and subjugation, promulgating the submission of individual liberty to the draconian sovereignty of ruler and state by means of a unilateral monopoly on coercive violence.

Obviously every society requires laws, ethical norms, rules of social conduct. But law should elevate society rather than debase it, and the sleight of hand inherent in Nixonian enforcement rhetoric is the manner in which it truncates democratic dialogue and social progress by falsely representing a corrupt and outdated legal, intellectual, and moral framework as a legitimate foundation for reform, when in fact reform must begin with a new, revitalized framework. As the Clinton years demonstrated, liberals cannot adopt reactionary rhetoric as a political tactic and then expect anything other than reactionary social results.

Unfortunately, DC Dems are showing seedy signs of supineness, with “leading” liberal figures such as Senator Charles Schumer resorting to cartoonishly-cynical “get tough” posturing and even President Obama blurting loaded exhortations to “get to the back of the line”. What line? There’s no line, there’s never been one; it’s always been a rigged game. The first folks to be singled out to “get in line” were the Chinese. The vast majority of European folks who came to this country, whether in pursuit of genocidal land grabs or as penniless workers or both, faced no line. Only certain groups are berated with that barked order. Now descendants of those Europeans actually think they have a stronger claim to this continent than the indigenous people themselves.

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As Nezua wrote in an op-ed for The Commonweal Institute entitled “The Power of Truth and The Weakness of Tough Talk”:

When Democrats concede that the proper starting point is fear and revulsion of the Alien Other, they adopt the lens of xenophobia and feed the toxic environment in which race-based violence is bred.  This stance is not productive nor is it rooted in truth. […]

“Go to the back of the line” is an intentionally punitive and domineering phrase. But instead of stroking our desire to dominate the new outsiders, we would benefit from a discussion on the many ways in which “the line” has broken down. From human trafficking rings in which foreign nationals are lured into exploitative US jobs, to foreign-born soldiers denied earned citizenship, the system is overwhelmed with a backlog of over 200,000 cases.

Even if rationalized as standard political posturing, any validation of language and ideas promoted by fringe elements that act violently to defend a “disappearing culture” from “illegals” cannot be excused. […] Who will give the Democrats a tough talk? Who will tell them that in order to rise above the well-entrenched practices of the Right, they will need to be daring, intelligent, and original? Who will assure them they possess the ability to be both honest and victorious?

Indeed those who spout the language of the Leviathan can never serve the cause of social progress, because their tongues are tied to the rigid despotism of the state rather than the rising aspirations of downtrodden communities.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led a march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, he was disobeying a federal court injunction; his mainstream critics decried this “illegal” march and a majority of US public opinion disapproved of the action. But something strange happened after that march. The winds shifted. Hardened positions became more fluid. Even in white America, a flicker of self-doubt flashed across social consciousness. Openings appeared in the fabric of society and the impossible suddenly became possible. Addressing a nationally televised joint session of Congress two days after the first Selma march, President Lyndon Johnson famously declared:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

It is said that a single tear rolled down Dr. King’s cheek when he heard that line on TV.

The Voting Rights Act passed 5 months later, not because Washington insiders hatched the right marketing scheme with the correct compromises, but because people grounded in a moral vision of social justice stood up, walked forward with heads held high, and didn’t back down in the face of the Leviathan.


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12 comments for “Rejecting the Language of the Leviathan

  1. lilacsigil
    July 14, 2009 at 12:24 am

    “get to the back of the line”. What line? There’s no line, there’s never been one; it’s always been a rigged game.

    I find this really interesting – Australia has a small number of highly visible (and brown, often Tamil or Muslim) asylum seekers who arrive by boat. They are subjected to all the “queue-jumper”, “greedy”, “dangerous terrorist” rhetoric, as you can imagine, and worse (google “Children Overboard” or “SIEV-X” for worse). Then groups of Sudanese migrants, who had indeed waited under UN resettlement guidelines, arrived by plane. The tabloids were all over these “proper” asylum seekers, who had paperwork and pre-approval. They were even supported (by the media) in their attempts to bring over other family members still in refugee camps in Egypt or Kenya. Less than a year later, most of the city press turned to stories about terrible, criminal Africans – their terrible driving, their tendency to hang around in groups, their refusal to learn English, their big families, their dole-bludging. The “law and order” rhetoric kicked right in. The acceptable Other had just become the Other. (I will note that in rural areas, the press is still highly positive towards Sudanese immigrants – stories about community organisation, driving and English lessons, hard-working immigrants, their struggle to find family members, etc. I wait to see when this will turn.)

  2. July 14, 2009 at 7:00 am

    As the Clinton years demonstrated, liberals cannot adopt reactionary rhetoric as a political tactic and then expect anything other than reactionary social results.

    Right ON!

  3. July 14, 2009 at 7:52 am

    So, you’re saying that Clinton was NOT the first black president?

    /snark

    I remember him preaching the need for “personal responsibility” to black audiences.

    What kind of self-denial did it take for him to move his post-presidency offices to Harlem, of all places? Either that or it was pure audacity.

  4. William
    July 14, 2009 at 8:28 am

    I describe this rhetoric as the language of the Leviathan, in reference to Hobbesian political theory, because it reduces the rule of law to the most base human impulses of domination and subjugation, promulgating the submission of individual liberty to the draconian sovereignty of ruler and state by means of a unilateral monopoly on coercive violence.

    Its good to see that some people still remember what was supposed to be the foundational concept of this American Experiment. Too bad we haven’t had a president, or even a major candidate, whose understood that in my lifetime.

  5. Nezua
    July 14, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Way to set it straight, bro. Written with clarity and honesty and power. Qualities sadly alien to today’s political discussions and to almost all of our “representatives” in government. And I always love when remembrances of MLK correctly contextualize him and his energy and ideas. He wasn’t no Hallmark card writer! He was as radical as they came.

    Keep rockin it, hermano.

  6. Habeas
    July 14, 2009 at 10:38 am

    You raise a great question: is it possible to discuss immigration reform while “rejecting the racially-coded enforcement rhetoric” of the past? Agreed that it should be: it seems impossible to talk about immigration without necessarily drawing a line between the “citizen” and the “foreigner”. These have of course been racially loaded terms in the past–can progressives redefine them in order to articulate an immigration politics that doesn’t auto-identify “foreigner” with “brown”? If immigration policy by definition is exclusionary, since it defines who is inside and outside the circle of “citizenship”, isn’t a consequence of the past you describe that any such exclusionary language will be automatically assumed to be racially coded?

  7. ZC
    July 14, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    It behooves us to study the civil rights movement, learn what worked, what didn’t, recognize what remains undone, and how immigration reform is an extension of the same force of people challenging “…the most base human impulses of domination and subjugation…” in all its forms.

    Opponents of the natural force of human migration are bigots using the same old divide and conquer mentality, with “…slide-rule triangulations of Beltway Democrats…” (ha!) going along to save their own asses. When politicos/media/etc., start using “enforcement rhetoric” against a category of people, chances are there is power there, and they are resisting that natural power inherent in people striving for their human rights.

  8. freddybak
    July 14, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    I see the criticism with respect to going overboard on the language. Calling people aliens is degrading and I at least see how saying “go to the end of the line” is offensive and hypocritical when so many others (not only Europeans, mind you) didn’t have to wait in line.

    Having said all of that, if you have to allow “human migration” or be a bigot then the vast majority of countries in the world are full of bigots. If you have a problem with the moder nation state, fine. But if you think there shouldn’t be some kind of line and that anyone should be able to go anywhere, then the U.S. is hardly the worst offender on this front. But if you do think that there should be some orderly way in which people immigrate to the US, then there’s got to be some line. It is unfair to all of the immigrants who go through all of the burdensome procedures to get into the country (i.e. go through the line) to be treated like those who flout the law.

    But as I implied before, if the policy argument here is that we should have an anarchist system of some sort, well then best of luck to ya.

  9. Jenn
    July 14, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    This is an excellent article. Thanks for exploring this really important issue. The migrant rights movement is absolutely apart of the broader civil rights movement. The arguments used to scapegoat and dehumanize immigrants, rely on the same racially charged narratives and fears that have been used to justify the repression of other minorities.

    The get-tough rhetoric surrounding the political debate makes me physically ill. I can not imagine the emotional harm that this constant scapegoating, dehumanizing, and dignity denying language has on the children of immigrants, especially the children of undocumented immigrants. The vitriol literally makes my stomach hurt.

  10. Jenn
    July 14, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    You are right, the political discussions surrounding immigration are more about exploiting old fears for political gain than for addressing actual issues. It is amazing how the political debate surrounding immigration seems so totally divorced from the actual, well documented, even uncontroversial reality of the actual immigration issues and laws.

    There are so many essentially fabricated immigration issues that carry substatial political weight. Like you mentioned, there literally is no “line” for most undocumented immigrants to get into, and the few options that exist for immigrants with American family members can actually (no exaggeration) take over a decade. Yet tough-talk calls to “get in line” are echoed at even the highest levels of government, where they surely know better.

    Another example of the politically created immigration issues, is the mythical “anchor-baby,” or in less dehumanizing terms, the US citizen child of an undocumented immigrant. Supposedly, these little US citizens provide their immigrant parents with an easy path legal status. In reality, there is no such thing as an anchor baby, having a US citizen children will not provide you with a path toward citizenship because children cannot sponsor their parents until they are adults (two decades) and the process of sponsoring your parents as an adult can take years, over a decade if you are from Mexico. In rare occasions a parent facing deportation my get a stop or delay on an deportation due to “extreme and unusual hardship” but this is rarely granted. So clearly, US citizen children are an impractical vehicle for gaining a legal status in the US. Yet, the mythical anchor-baby continues to pull substantial political weight and was mentioned numerous times as a top issue during the 08 republican primaries and is the topic of a current California ballot initiative.

    Yet this fierce debate over largely imaginary issues, renders invisible real the real immigration issues such as the imprisonment families (babies and children included), serious lack of due process in immigration courts (many immigrants are not represented by a lawyer in court), plight of undocumented children who have grown up in the US but will never be allowed to hold a legal job, the families divided and sent into poverty by deportation of breadwinners, lack of access to police and legal protection due to immigration status issues…the list of real issues goes on and on.

    Sorry, for this long post.

  11. July 14, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    as a current CA resident, i’m seeing a lot of this play out in real time in the context of the state budget crisis. there are currently proposed laws that would cut off services to immigrants (including non-emergency medical care and any form of cash benefit or public assistance). but it goes further – they are proposing to cut all benefits, including welfare, to their US-born citizen children, under the theory that providing those services rewards and encourages “anchor-baby” strategies. there is even something about revising birth certificate rules to make it more difficult for children of immigrants to establish citizenship.

    so it’s quite clear that both the language and the thought which created the language is still very much in use. it’s clear that because of the terror of the financial crisis, people are searching for any scapegoat, even though it’s not at all clear that any of the proposals would have a significant effect on the budget deficit. in fact, even seen through a solely economic lens those proposals don’t make sense – denying these benefits would lead to increased homelessness, lower educational outcomes, and poor health outcomes, reducing the efficacy of the state workforce and requiring more significant investments in crisis interventions that are more expensive. despite all that, the fear and loathing is driving people.

    i’ve been struggling with the language issues for a while now – undocumented instead of illegal, etc – but it feels impossibly difficult to make a real change given that the framework used by obama/congress/everyone is so irrevocably based on those bigoted and divisive ideas.

    i’m a welfare attorney who has never met a welfare queen after years and years of work, and i’ve been struggling with those frameworks and vocabularies for just as long. i’m finally seeing some articles about people forced on to welfare due to the economic crisis and how the lack of supportive services or meaningful training/education opportunities are a real problem – of course it’s only an issue when raised by “deserving poor” who need welfare because their company went bankrupt because of madoff or whatever. but it’s been wildly frustrating not to see that framework budge even a tiny bit. i’m afraid that’s where we are on immigration issues also and feel at a loss as to how to progress in either area.

  12. lilacsigil
    July 14, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    But if you do think that there should be some orderly way in which people immigrate to the US, then there’s got to be some line.

    Sure. And if there was such a line and it was administered equitably, that’s fine. But the point that the article makes is that the idea of “a line” is actually a giant barrier against people of colour, people who don’t speak English, genuine refugees and people escaping poverty, and that barrier doesn’t vanish if they happen to get into the US/Australia/UK/wherever. The major visa overstayers and illegal workers – by a vast majority – in my country are white British and New Zealanders. Guess who is almost never in detention centres? Guess who doesn’t get told to get in the line? And guess which colour Zimbabweans are most likely to get into Australia?

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