Adam Sieff, Staff Writer
Ideology: Liberal | Writing from: Columbia University
Those who reduce politics to a distinction between friends and enemies insist that every nation have a horrific foe threatening its very existence. Most importantly, the enemy must come from within the state, for the “true patriot” cannot admit that his nation could ever fall to any foreign power.
It was along these lines that the betrayal myth (dolchstosslegende) arose in Germany from the blood and rubble of 1918. Unable to admit defeat by the allied powers, German leaders told returning veterans that “no enemy” had vanquished them. The implication was that the Reichsheer had been betrayed from within—and we all know what happened next.
But somehow, sometime after World War II, the betrayal myth migrated to America. It has since been the sustaining device of modern U.S. nationalism and, more specifically, the instrument of the American right to resuscitate itself and avoid responsibility for its gravest mistakes.
We today witness another chapter in the tale of alleged betrayal. To wash its hands of the Great Recession its policies produced, the right has begun transforming even the moderate center-left into subversive agents of a secret socialist agenda. Totalitarian. Statist. Fascist. The worn and repulsive adjectives of 1939, born anew in 2010.
In truth, the unhinged rage of tea partiers, though ostensibly directed at the President’s “traitorous” embrace of these adjectives, is but a displaced expression of the shame of unemployment. Why else do Republicans block the renewal of unemployment benefits for its suffering constituents when the national unemployment rate is higher than it has been since the 1930s? Tea partiers are like starved animals. Keep them hungry, and they’ll thrash with the force of life when Dick Armey releases them from tour buses onto the National Mall. The leadership on the right knows this, so they impede anything that might alleviate the pain felt by these well-intentioned, if suggestible, patriots.
The tactics are not new, but I fear we are approaching a threshold where the mantra of betrayal goes too far.
When members of a political community viscerally accept the vulgar reduction of domestic politics to existential enmity, the specter of combat, and the possibility of physical killing, becomes real. For combat is the existential elimination of the enemy, and it necessarily follows from conditions of extreme enmity. According to this radical perspective of politics, a nation is defined by its ability to demand human beings to kill and be prepared to die themselves, and a citizen is one who accepts these stipulations.
For years, we have heard about the manufactured division in American politics. For months, we have seen posters about the “blood of patriots.” For weeks, we have heard the poorly shrouded allusions to secession and the more explicit calls for insurrection. Now, with the passage of healthcare reform, we are seeing the violence.
A man can only hear so much in an echo-chamber about being so different from the “enemy” around him before he no longer identifies himself with his neighbors. They become strangers belonging to a strange nation who cannot possibly understand his values because they cannot accept his values. Fueled by the shame of unemployment, he is left with a feeling of superfluity. Even active protest is no longer fulfilling, nor capable of consuming all of his free-time. But he is hungry.
Instead of transforming the victims of market fluctuations and misguided economic policy into a partisan militia, why not help them? This nation needs jobs, not inflammatory partisanship, and it needs them soon. The sinews of our republic are not infallible, but we give in to the worst demons of our nature that threaten our dissolution when we stoke the desperate among us.
In the words of a man more eloquent than I, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passions may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Let us be friends, let us help each other.