Members Only | May 29, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Naming America’s Political Perverts
Another aspect of barbarism in the age of Donald Trump.
I introduced Wednesday the idea of barbarism. “Fascism,” “white supremacy,” “autocracy” and other such labels go some way toward describing our political moment, but, as I said, they are abstract and “do not carry the weight of blood and pain that ‘barbarism’ carries.” We can’t shame a president and Republican Party immune to shame, but we can, and must, name their behavior. When “liberty” means sacrificing the old and weak; when “law and order” means tolerating homicide by agents of the state; when “security” means kidnapping infants—that’s barbarism.
Perversion is taking something we think of as right and good, and turning it into something wrong and bad.
In this, I’m borrowing from the peerless Jedediah Britton-Purdy, who offered two definitions of barbarism in Dissent’s special issue on “Democracy and Barbarism.” First: “a system that makes people into one another’s enemies, victims, and oppressors.” Second: “a system that keeps its people in the dark and gives them no way out. A system, that is, that makes the world as it is both inescapable and unintelligible.”
I want to gloss his work more today by discussing a related aspect: perversion.
By this, I mean taking something we would normally think of as right and good, and turning it into something wrong and bad. Consider, for instance, wearing masks in public. Any reasonable person would say wearing masks in the middle of a pandemic that has now killed more than 103,000 people (that’s thirty-four 9/11s) and unemployed more than 40 million is a no-brainer. At the very least, better safe than sorry. In fact, wearing a mask is for your benefit as well as the benefit of everyone around you.
Put something good in the tip jar!
Fortunately, polls tell us most people agree. Some don’t, of course, and that’s OK, except that they don’t stop at disagreeing. They take something right and good and turn into something wrong and bad, because doing so advances whatever agenda they might have, which might be merely the barbaric desire to watch the world burn, as Bruce Wayne’s butler said in one of the Batman movies. One propagandist went so far as to call masks a symbol of “social control” intended to deprive us of our freedom. The article, since retweeted by the president, is a perfect example of perversion. The headline: “Mandatory Masks Aren’t About Safety, They’re About Social Control.”
It’s a perfect example not only because it flips morality on its head, but because it masks (no pun intended) the context of power in which political behavior occurs. It conceals who’s doing what to whom. Indeed, there may be bad actors trying to control us, but they are not people wearing masks or politely asking that you wear one. More likely, they are people sabotaging the common good, creating conditions in which a deadly virus can spread more easily, thus pinning normal people between the need to stay healthy and the need to stay employed, literally robbing their freedom. If anyone is abetting social control, it’s paid propagandists yawping about “social control.”
You could call it hypocrisy. It’s better to call it perversion.
Perversion comes in racist forms, too. It’s not just taking something that’s good and making it bad. It can pervert morality so what’s good for white people is bad for black people. White people carrying semi-automatic rifles to intimidate legislators responsible for the health and well-being of their constituents? That’s an exercise of their guaranteed constitutional rights. That’s good! Unarmed black people demanding justice after a white cop murdered an unarmed black man on video? That’s not good! Those are thugs fomenting a violent insurrection deserving the full force of the state.
Fox’s Tucker Carlson is a masterful pervert. In truth, it’s African-Americans and other citizens of color who need protection from the legitimate but unjust violence of the state. In Carlson’s perverse world, however, everything is upside down, backward and inside out. It’s “society,” Carlson said, that needs protection by the state from people suffering from the legitimate but unjust violence of the state. If that sounds like a recipe for crazy-making, that’s because it is—and it is intended. As Britton-Purdy said of systemic barbarism: It “makes the world as it is both inescapable and unintelligible.”
You could call all this hypocrisy, but that doesn’t have much effect on a president or a party immune to shame. Perversion, however, is more accurate and much more potent. Moreover, barbarism and perversion are retreats from civility, but they’re more than that. They are retreats from the social contract, common good and civilization. Some people are deserving of the law’s privileges and protections. Some people are deserving of the law’s restrictions and punishments. This hierarchy of power is inherently sadist, because sadism is inherent to its preservation. Someone must suffer. Someone will.
But not someone else. Perverts and barbarians like Tucker Carlson don’t believe they’re hurting themselves but in time everyone suffers. A free and open political community cannot endure when some of its members pervert its values. At some point, other members are going to understand, with finality, that those claiming to be champions of the republic are truly its enemies. When that happens, they will be barred from the public square, and from appealing to the common good. There can be no common cause or common fate with political perverts and barbarians. The only answer is exile.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.