John Perry Barlow, referring to the 2004 elections, writes:
We can’t afford to lose this one, folks. If we do, we’ll have to set our watches back 60 years. If they even let us have watches in the camps, that is.
“If they even let us have watches in the camps.” This is a perfect example
of a kind of left-wing rhetorical posturing that makes me want to go out and
vote for conservatives I normally loathe. In this it has exactly the opposite
effect from what John Perry Barlow intends.
Barlow wants to leave us with an if-this-goes-on image of a Bush-dominated
future in which Barlow and his friends are hauled off to concentration camps
by mirrorshaded thugs, crushing dissent as though the U.S. were pre-liberation
Iraq or something.
I would love to be able to echo Charles Babbage and say that I am
not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that
could provoke such a statement. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I find it
all too comprehensible, and not in a way that’s very flattering to
John Perry Barlow or others like him. It’s a form of posturing by
anticipatory martyrdom, simultaneously demonizing Barlow’s enemies and
inflating his own importance.
“Oh, look at me!” it says. “I’m a brave speaker of truth
to power, so brave that I’m going to say bad things about Republicans
despite the fact that they will certainly throw me in the gulags as
soon as they think they can get away with it.” I’ve been around long
enough to know that this is a line lefties of Barlow’s and my age
originally learned in order to pick up women back in those halcyon
radical-chic days of forty years ago. It gets a bit old after your
third decade of waiting for the Man to bust your door down.
Let’s get real. Even supposing Bush were really the concretization
of all those 1960s nightmares, an evil bastard backed by a cabal of
goose-stepping minions, from their point of view throwing John Perry
Barlow in the Lubyanka would be a ridiculous thing to do.
Remember how conservatives think: from their point of view, Barlow is
just another aging hippie burnout given to occasional quasi-coherent
rants about that Internet thing. In their model of reality, all
they’d be doing by giving him the Solzhenitzyn treatment is conferring
an importance on him that he doesn’t possess.
I have somewhat more respect for Barlow myself, enough that it
survived the fact that the last time I was actually face-to-face with
him he was obnoxiously drunk and patronizing. He’s an erratic but
occasionally brilliant polemicist. But trying to imagine anybody in
the inner circle of Skull & Bones (or whatever the left-wingers’ hate
focus is this week) taking him seriously enough to bother bagging and
tagging him just makes me laugh.
And if I can’t believe John Perry Barlow is enough of a threat to
get gulaged by the mythical Bush stormtroopers, how seriously am I
supposed to take the-Man’s-coming-for-us posturing from the rank and
file of the Bush-haters? Yeah, sure, the black marias are coming for
all of you, all you twentysomething unemployed sysadmins and riot grrls
and latte makers with your piercings and your Green Party T-shirts.
There are lots of objective reasons this scenario is silly. One of
many is that our institutions won’t support it. I know the police in
my town; they wouldn’t obey orders to throw Dean voters in jail. I
just got through reading a book about the force structure of today’s
U.S. infantry, and I can tell you that even if the second Bush
administration were to complete the trashing of the posse
comitatus laws that Clinton began and withdraw every damn grunt
from overseas, there aren’t enough troops. Even assuming
100% of them signed up to be concentration-camp guards, there
wouldn’t be enough of them to man the camps. And the trends are all
towards a smaller, more skill-intensive military, so in the future
assembling enough goons for a darkess-at-noon scenario will be
harder rather than easier.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that Attorney-General Ashcroft is
not pushing for federalized gun control and a ban on civilian
firearms. Which is the first damn thing any right-wing cabal (or any
left-wing one, for that matter) would do if they were contemplating
really serious dissent-crushing. Again, the trend is in the other
direction — the assault-weapon ban is going to lapse, and the
Bush crowd is going to let it happen. Much of the American left
fools itself that civilian firearms don’t matter in the political
power equation, but conservatives know better.
For that matter, I am certain — because I’ve discussed
related topics with him — that John Perry Barlow himself knows
better. Which makes his willingness to posture about the Man coming
to throw us in concentration camps less forgiveable than it would be
in someone who’s a complete moron on the subject, like (say) Michael
But what really repels me about the kind of posturing I’m nailing
John Perry Barlow for isn’t the objective silliness of it, it’s the
fact that it represents a kind of triumph of paranoid self-absorption
as a political style. People in the (mainly left-wing) anti-Bush
crowd snort with derision when they hear hard-right propaganda about
how the Zionist Occupation Government is going to come after all true
American white men with those black helicopters; why do they tolerate
rhetoric that is just as narcissistic coming from their own?
Idiots. They make me want to go vote for somebody like Pat Buchanan
just out of spite. Fortunately, I’m not a spiteful person, and have so
far resisted this temptation.
And I don’t think it’s just me that sees people like John Perry
Barlow actually dealing themselves out of the future when they make
remarks like this. Narcissistic politics is not a luxury we can
afford any more. It was OK during our holiday from history,
1992-2001, between the fall of the Soviet Union and 9/11, but we’re in
serious times now. Our nation, and our civilization, are under
continuing threat by terrorists who have demonstrated both the will
and the ability to commit atrocities against Americans, and who loudly
trumpet their intention to keep killing us.
We need people like John Perry Barlow to be in the debate
about how to cope with this. That means we need people like John Perry
Barlow not to trivialize and disqualify themselves with silly
posturing. Please get real, people. George Bush has flaws I could
list from here to Sunday, but pretending that you’re all doomed
victims if he’s re-elected is pathological.
And deep down, you know better, too. The last two years have given
us not just relatively smart people like John Perry Barlow but legions
of mindless show-biz glitterati making a particularly ironic spectacle
of themselves — protesting the crushing of dissent in front of
huge audiences. Thereby demonstrating their own lack of
contact with reality in a way that can only help the very opponents they
think of as a sinister cabal. With enemies this visibly stupid and
feckless, who needs friends? They’ll drive the big middle of the
electorate right into Republican arms.
Let’s state the consequences very simply: Every time somebody like
John Perry Barlow goes on in public about how the camps are waiting
for us all, Karl Rove laughs and, quite rightly, figures his guy Bush
is more of a lock this November. And you know what? He’s right.
Because if I hear much more of this crap, even I am going to
vote Republican for the first time in more than a quarter-century.