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The Problem With Wolf’s Anti-Federal Fetish

[ 33 ] November 28, 2011 |

Corey Robin has more, and it’s crucial reading:

Like many critics of state coercion in America, Wolf seems to assume that political repression requires or entails national coordination and centralized direction from the feds. But as I argued in this piece in the Boston Review in 2005, and in a much longer piece in the Missouri Law Review [pdf], that notion gets it wrong.

From the battles over abolition to the labor wars at the turn of the last century to the Red Squads of the twentieth-century police departments to the struggles over Jim Crow, state repression in America has often been decentralized, displaying that very same can-do spirit of local initiative that has been celebrated by everyone from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putnam. Though Tocqueville and Putnam were talking of course about things like creating churches and buildings roads, the fact is: if the locals can build a church or a road on their own, they can also get rid of dissenters on their own, too, no?

Obviously, there have been major instances of federal repression, and we don’t even know to an absolute certainty that the OWS crackdown wasn’t a federal initiative (although this is implausible and is supported by no evidence.)   But the fact is that local governments have been the primary initiator of political repression in the United States, and to assume that the OWS crackdowns must have been initiated by the feds plays into states-centric biases that in the context of American politics are inexorably reactionary.

see also.

Comments (33)

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  1. mark f says:

    we don’t even know to an absolute certainty that the OWS crackdown wasn’t a federal initiative (although this is implausible and is supported by no evidence.)

    That just proves the depth of the conspiracy. Wake up Obots! You’re the ones being bullied!

  2. Peter says:

    i celebrate festish … its like festivus, only different

  3. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    As I said in the other Naomi Wolf thread, I agree with you that she is building a bad argument for the existence of DHS coordination based on little-to-no evidence.

    But what leads you–or Corey Robin–to conclude that her argument is the result of an “anti-federal fetish”?

    Robin is entirely correct to point that Americans have a strong bias in favor of the view that “liberty and localism work together,” while, in fact, throughout American history, local law enforcement has often been among the most oppressive of dissent.

    But Wolf doesn’t give a pass to local officials. She just imagines that they coordinated their actions with DHS.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      Or to put this another way: Wolf does not, in fact, argue that the attacks must have been initiated by the feds. She merely argues that they were initiated by the feds, although she lacks the evidence to make a convincing case.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        I’m baffled by this distinction. She argues that they were with no evidence, hence the anti-federal bias.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          No, Scott. Her argument is based on this In These Times piece (to which Wolf links), which in turn is based on a report by Rick Ellis on Examiner.com that claims that an anonymous official told him that various federal agencies were involved in conference calls with mayors (though, in fact, Ellis’s anonymous source stressed that the decisions were made at the local level).

          As I’ve repeatedly said (on both this and the other Wolf threads), Wolf’s evidence doesn’t come close to saying what she claims it says.

          But bad or misused evidence is not no evidence. And your imputation of an “anti-federal fetish” seems like mind-reading to me.

          • Ed Marshall says:

            Alright, maybe she is a fucking idiot. Is that mind reading to?

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            This still doesn’t make any sense, because you’re sanitizing her actual argument. The (transparently unreliable) evidence she cites says that DHS officials were contacted. It absolutely does not say that the crackdowns were initiated by Congress and approved by Obama, which was her actual claim. It’s clearly based on an assumption that it would never have occurred to local authorities to suppress the unrest, so it must have been a federal operation.

          • No, Scott. Her argument is based on this In These Times piece (to which Wolf links), which in turn is based on a report by Rick Ellis on Examiner.com

            What is this, evidence-laundering?

            A claim made without evidence doesn’t turn into evidence when somebody cites it.

      • rea says:

        Since she seems to be treating the fact that the attacks were initiated as evidence that they were initiated by the feds, then it’s fair to say that her position is that such attacks must be initiated by the feds.

        Or maybe she’s just babbling nonsense.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Right. It’s not “mind-reading”; her argument is literally nonsensical without an assumption that the feds must be the bad guys.

          • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

            I still don’t see where you get your must from.

            In a sense, you’re giving Wolf’s argument more coherence than it has. She has essentially imagined a conspiracy, largely by misreading someone else’s already poorly sourced article.

            Since the belief that the feds are the only possible source of a crackdown is, as you and Corey Robin point out, ridiculous, I don’t see how imputing such a belief to Wolf as you do makes her argument any less nonsensical.

            • Hogan says:

              It does seem to me that a kind of a priori belief that political repression always happens from the top down is doing the work that ought to be done by actual evidence in Wolf’s reasoning. “This thing must be working this way because this is how these things work.” That kind of “must.”

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Since the belief that the feds are the only possible source of a crackdown is, as you and Corey Robin point out, ridiculous,

              Well, yes, we think it’s ridiculous, because we don’t have the fetish for decentralized power that many Americans do. Her assumptions here make it pretty clear that she’s one of them.

              • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

                Where does Wolf suggest in any way that local law enforcement is innocent? Rather than, in effect, arguing that her case would be more coherent if she held the belief that decentralized power is always good and all evil comes from the federal government, please quote a passage from her op-ed that says anything remotely like this. It simply doesn’t exist. “Nonsensical babbling” comes a lot closer to capturing the tone of Wolf’s op-ed.

                Wolf’s piece is incoherent enough that it can apparently be used to prove the existence of a whole series of (supposed) sins of progressives in general.

                In the “see also” link above, Karoli detects in Wolf not an “anti-federal fetish” but a general hatred of government:

                Progressives, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot argue that government is capable of good when it fits your agenda and assume without evidence that government is doing bad things. Every time you go down this rabbit hole you affirm the tenets of the right wing. Every single time.

                Putting aside, for the moment, the fact that the right doesn’t actually believe that government is always bad, this makes even less sense than the “anti-federal fetish” line.

                Sometimes governments do good things. Sometimes governments do bad things. When they do the former they deserve praise. When they do the latter they deserve criticism.

                The problem with Wolf’s piece is that the evidence she provides for her claims of DHS coordination is nearly non-existent. Were there any such evidence, progressives would be entirely correct to criticize DHS. And we wouldn’t be “affirming the tenets of the right wing” by doing so.

                Wolf’s op-ed is just lousy punditry, not secret wingnuttery.

                • Hogan says:

                  Where does Wolf suggest in any way that local law enforcement is innocent?

                  She may not suggest that they’re innocent; she does claim that thy’re passive.

                  ” . . . the logic of its chain of command and accountability implies that congressional overseers, with the blessing of the White House, told the DHS to authorise mayors to order their police forces – pumped up with millions of dollars of hardware and training from the DHS – to make war on peaceful citizens.”

                  “It is a battle in which members of Congress, with the collusion of the American president, sent violent, organised suppression against the people they are supposed to represent.”

                  If it’s evil, the feds must be behind it. Evidence? Who needs evidence?

                • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

                  Actually, the passage you quote Hogan doesn’t assume that local law enforcement is just following orders; she has already “proven” that point (to her satisfaction) by this paragraph. Her claim that DHS was calling the shots is based (ridiculously) on the In These Times piece that she links to.

                  The quoted paragraph concerns who ordered DHS to order local law enrocement to crack down. It concerns the chain of command within the federal government, not federal-local relations. And, yes, like most other aspects of this op-ed, it’s pretty nonsensical.

                  To the extent that one can derive a general theory of the way the world works from the mess of her op-ed, Wolf seems to suggest that all those in power–from the White House to Republicans in Congress to local law enforcement–are working together to wage a civil war on the American people.

                • Hob says:

                  I agree that Wolf’s writing is incoherent. The phrase “told the DHS to authorise mayors to order their police forces … to make war on peaceful citizens” certainly makes it sound as if local law enforcement had no choice in the matter, but it’s impossible to tell what Wolf thinks about the free will of the mayors, since “authorise” doesn’t make much sense in this context. That is, unless one imagines there’s a special DHS permission slip that local executives need before they can give orders to their local police departments.

  4. Interesting angle.

    I’m reminded of the blow-up over the Arizona and Alabama immigration bills. The local authorities kept insisting that they were just enforcing the (federal) law, even as they went well beyond what the federal government itself was doing, or was willing to countenance.

  5. wiley says:

    Many forms of repression— like dysfunctional family dynamics— wouldn’t have been as effectively repressive if all the repressors consciously coordinated their repressing ways and schemes. So much of what we do is unconscious and rooted in pre-verbal hang-ups from our misspent infancies.

    Humans. We’re so strange.

  6. ploeg says:

    It can’t be just misguided or wrong or pig-ignorant or even flat-out batshit crazy, it has to be reactionary, huh?

    As an issue separate from the Wolf matter, and as noted in the linked article, it seems like it is worth reviewing the role that federal funds play in making local cops into stormtroopers. It’s certainly nothing new (as witnessed by the twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was that Officer Obie had), but it’s worth looking into.

    But getting back to the Wolf matter, at the very least, I don’t think that the specter of reactionary, states-rights-based politics is bound to infect the Occupy folks anytime soon. For whatever talk about what’s going on behind the scenes, they know who beat them up and tore down the camps, and it wasn’t federal agents.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I don’t think that the specter of reactionary, states-rights-based politics is bound to infect the Occupy folks anytime soon.

      Indeed, but I have no idea what this has to do with my argument. I’ve never said that Wolf’s stupid and reactionary arguments were the OWS party line or something.

      • ploeg says:

        Who exactly, then, do you think is going to take this conspiracy theory to the point that it’s a basis for limiting federal power in favor of local power? You’re not. I’m not. The Occupy people aren’t. And as for Wolf, well, she’s in a world where the President and Congress can send forth local police to do their bidding. If you asked her whether she would be willing to take those powers away from the President and Congress and give those powers to the local authorities, in those exact words, do you think that she’d be fine with that? I’m not so sure about that.

  7. jon says:

    How about we focus on what seems to be the collusion and conspiring across state lines, on the part of state and local officials, to specifically target citizens and deny them their first amendment rights. It appears that agencies and officials of the federal government aided and abetted those actions as well. Seems like a big enough issue to me.

    Follow that for a bit and you might find out conclusively whether of not there was federal direction, coordination or encouragement, and at what level, if any. It’s useless to speculate on theories without evidence, beyond framing a working hypothesis.

  8. Jim Lynch says:

    I don’t doubt that the “Homeland Security (Uber Alles)” department is fully apprised of the attitude and actions of every municipality hosting OWS. It’s why it was created- it’s the nature of the beast, so to speak. Those who believe it was designed to combat foreign threats are naive in the extreme.

    While I doubt it’s happened yet, if a decision is made to coordinate a response within the HSUA department, orders will be followed. Whether local governments will play ball when called upon remains to be seen. My guess is that a sizable percentage will be amenable to following centralized dictates. Undoubtedly city and state governments are already talking amongst themselves and their federal allies in tentative fashion. After all, it doesn’t take a Nostradamus to predict the summer and fall of 2012 will be tumultuous.

    Simply put, there are ramifications when local political and police agencies are shoveled fistfuls of cash by the centralized government in the name of domestic/national security. (one example: the ‘star wars trooper’ look among crowd control cops that’s nowadays uniform across the country). It’ll be next year, as citizen exercise their right to assemble during an election season, when we’ll be able to best gauge just how successful the Cheney and Addison’s (et.al.) have been in shredding the machinery of our Republic.

  9. Tirxu says:

    I think that there is, in part, the appeal of having a single, identified ennemy that you may one day defeat.

    How can you fight the good fight if winning just mean having to do the same thing the next day, in the next city, ad nauseam?

  10. [...] The Problem With Wolf’s Anti-Federal Festish : Lawyers, Guns & Money – November 28, 2011 [...] Robin has more, and it’s crucial reading: Like many critics of state coercion in America, Wolf seems to [...] [...]

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