A few posts back I discussed the disturbing trend in some parts of the American political landscape to categorize all “right-wingers” as being in some way inherently dangerous and violent. The more radical “liberal” voices in America have called for surveillance, pre-emptive arrests, and other measures that only a few months ago they would have decried. But a few months ago the other Party was in power. Now their Party is in power, and that makes all the things Bush et al did completely kosher. Because one’s own Party can do no wrong.
But I digress. Going back to the subject at hand, part of this trend to vilify “conservative” or “right-wing” elements includes such glorious acts of legislation as the “Hate Crimes Bill” that Alexander Cockburn has rightly condemned for its brazen assaults on free speech, as well as erasing the whole idea of equality before the law. Some animals are more equal than others. Measures like “hate crime” legislation, as well as the whole cultural milieu that reeks with disgust and loathing for lesser Americans- that is, conservative, right-wing, rural, uneducated, excessively religious, and so on; Americans who do not share the cultural, religious, and moral norms of the American elite and their followers. Many of the “wrong sort” of Americans are in the South, and many of them are lower-middle class or poorer whites, but not all. African-American Pentecostals in northern urban areas are just as frightening to the Great and the Good, though harder to attack and loathe due to their membership in one of the ostensibly “protected” groups.
But the usual target, or intended target anyway, of elite loathing and disgust is probably white, probably lower-middle class, somewhat educated perhaps (but not sufficiently in any case), “reactionary,” and dangerous. Particularly when they have guns- and God knows a bunch of them have guns. Sometimes their guns and their Bibles meet, and that’s a perfect storm of scariness, as in this weekend’s (rather bizarre to be sure) Kentucky guns in the church-house event. Everything about the situation is incomprehensible and frightening to many other Americans- the liberal elite, the “creative classes,” the Great and the Good in general. Read the comments at the New York Times article- the readers hailing from the East Coast, West Coast, Midwest maybe, but mostly the urban, elite, and educated seaboards- to gauge the levels of fear and disgust. The basic drift: these people are dangerous. They have guns, they have Bibles, they are not like us.
It follows then that these people, these backwards, Bible-toting and deer-killing crackers, need, at the very least, regulating, controlling. Some of their actions- whether it’s “hate speech” or gun-toting or child-raising- must be criminalized. Some of them need to be locked up, whether it’s as part of the war on hate or the war on guns or whatever.
Criminalizing vast swathes of the American population is of course nothing new. Many of the inhabitants of our inner cities and our outer rural hinterlands are part of a vast criminalized class as part of the war on drugs; occasional stabs at “reform” are occasionally made, to be sure, and some states are trying to reel back the extent of their criminalization of so much of society, but only because of rising costs and declining revenues. No one is particularly worried about the fact that we have consigned so many people to be perpetual “criminals,” always subject to the violence of the State and the violence of the drug-market and all its related evils, from broken households to prostitution to unstable inner-city economies. No one is worried because the inhabitants of this criminal class are also the wrong sort of people, are unattractive people, and, crucially, right and left pretty much agree on this. The left might moderate its language and sometimes its actions with weak calls to “reform” or greater emphasis on “rehabilitation,” but that’s about it. Undocumented immigrants comprise another “criminal class,” but their criminalization is at least somewhat more controversial, probably because many “illegal immigrants” are, after all, rather hard to condemn: hard workers, thrifty, family-oriented, and perhaps even physically attractive (certainly more so than, say, an inner city hooker or meth addict).
But to the already existing criminalized classes, some in this country would very much like to add another: the gun-toters, Bible-thumpers, intolerant hicks, however you want to label them. And at least some of the gears are in motion, certainly the ideological.Will the effort to create a new criminalized class succeed? Perhaps. But at the same time it could well overburden the system: there will increasingly be few people left in America who have not been criminalized, as whole states are in effect consigned to the outer darkness, their inhabitants condemned by the Great and the Good for any number of infractions. And the newly criminalized are unlikely to just lay down their guns- literally and metaphorically- and accept their lot; even more unlikely are they to reform their thoughts and accept their legislated proper behaviour. Rather, one should expect “blowback,” just as our meddling and cultural imperialism in other parts of the world have had less than pleasant consequences. Treat anyone like a colonial subject and he will react; if you continuously inject violence into a situation do not be surprised at the results. The strain of criminalizing so many in so much of American could perhaps prove to be too much for the system to bear- how many people can one nation realistically lock up? How much of the population can the State directly antagonize before it loses its ability to control and coerce all of them? How long before blowback, violent or otherwise? To be clear, I do not want to suggest that we will face, say, vast swathes of rural Southern America producing terrorists or something, anymore than most Muslims have become raging jihadis after years of American provocation. Nor is it likely- though I may be wrong- that the criminalization of “right-wingers” will ever reach the extent of the criminalization associated with the drug-war. But in the event of any ongoing campaign for mass criminalization, the results will not be pretty, and will certainly not contribute to a more decent and more just society.