April 11, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Silencing dissent is the point

The pattern in Tennessee is repeating itself nationwide.

Justin Pearson, left, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson.
Justin Pearson, left, Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson.

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Two Democratic legislators in the Tennessee House were expelled last week. They had led a protest on the chamber floor in support of tighter gun laws after a shooting massacre in Nashville left three children and three adults shot to pieces. The Republican majority justified the expulsion on the grounds that they violated state House rules of decorum.

It was a hardball move. Two young, handsome, intelligent and Black men raised some hell over a political issue that’s dear to white-power politics. Meanwhile, a white woman representative involved in the same protest was spared. Expelling them was totally racist. C’mon.

But let’s be real. White power was always already present in the Tennessee House (as always in these United States). If white power were the reason, they’d have been expelled a long time ago. 

The Tennessee GOP can’t stop other people from speaking their minds. They can’t stop other government bodies from reacting, or counteracting, their decisions. They can, however, make their intentions clear.

The state House Republicans didn’t have to do this. They could have let it blow over, safe in the knowledge that their dominance would mean Tennessee’s gun laws remain loosey-goosey for years. They could have let it go while claiming the Tennessee 3 had a right to free expression. They could have appeared to stand for gun rights and speech rights.

Yet they didn’t. That suggests that state House Republicans don’t fear accountability for appearing to infringe not only on free speech but democracy itself. (The Tennessee 3 are duly elected representatives.) 

And in the end, it may be of no use.

Last night, the Nashville metropolitan council, the body responsible for filling vacancies in its district, sent Justin Jones back to the House, pending a special election. The Shelby County Commission is responsible for vacancies in the Memphis district. It is expected to do the same for Justin Pearson. Both men say they are running again. Two members shut out last week may be sent back this week. If this were a victory for the state House Republicans, it was entirely symbolic.

We should pay attention to that.

These Republicans can’t really stop other people from speaking their minds. They can’t really stop other government bodies from reacting, or counteracting, their decisions (short of extreme measures to suppress city and county governments, which isn’t out of the question – these are authoritarians we’re talking about, after all). They can, however, make their intentions clear. That’s what they’ve accomplished.

What are their intentions? To silence enemies.

Lies, in rightwing politics, are not tools for achieving an end. They are the end. The lies constitute the reality of rightwing politics. They believe the lies, because they are the lies. You can’t speak truthfully with those who embody lies. The truth destabilizes the lies, which destabilizes those who embody them. To them, the truth is violence.

That’s why those who embody lies cannot tolerate people who don’t. When you take to the floor of the state House to demand tighter gun laws in the aftermath of a massacre, you’re not merely demanding overdue, commonsense reform. You’re an aggressor. You’re a criminal, even. Disagreement isn’t disagreement. It’s straight annihilation. 

The biggest lie is “the natural order of things.” It puts white Christian men on top. Liberal democracy keeps challenging the natural order of things. Liberal democracy, therefore, must be stopped. How? It’s not by way of competition in the marketplace of ideas. It’s through cold-blooded, hardball maneuvers, like expelling hostile enemies.

We’re seeing this pattern of suppression repeating itself around the country. Various and sundry programs and laws are aimed at silencing “hostile enemies” who keep insisting on finding and speaking the truth.

Florida passed a law stifling the right to assemble at the capitol. It passed a law censoring words spoken in classrooms. It passed a law censoring lessons in Black history. GOP-controlled states are banning or regulating the performing arts with laws targeting drag shows

Republican-controlled states are banning books from libraries, defunding libraries or hinting at the government regulation of for-profit bookstores. The American Library Association says ban books have soared. “Half of the top 10 most challenged books in 2021 were flagged because of LGBTQ content,” according to USA Today.

I don’t know exactly why rightwing politics appears so emboldened, but I suspect it’s because of the US Supreme Court. After striking down Roe, it established the political equivalent of moral hazard. (That’s a term of economics, when banks do what they want believing the government will bail them out.) Republicans are free to do what they want believing the court’s rightwing supermajority will bail them out.

When the Supreme Court took the side of individual liberty – for instance, that “separate but equal” is unequal and unconstitutional – agents of the government were persona non grata in rightwing politics. Government was the problem, not the solution, because the government protected minority rights against the tyranny of the majority. That’s why, even in rightwing politics, there used to be lip service to the liberal values of free assembly, speech and movement.

That itself was a reversal from a couple of centuries in which state governments oppressed their residents in any way they saw fit. That reversal has now been reversed – or it has been reversing, but the collapse of reproductive rights seems to have consolidated the view that the end of that era has arrived, such that Republican lawmakers in authoritarian states feel comfortable once again oppressing their residents, even those who are elected, in any way they see fit.

Debating political issues, like gun laws that facilitated a massacre of innocents, is too risky for those who embody lies about those same political issues. The risk is being shown wrong, an intolerable injury. Why debate the enemy when you have the power to silence it?

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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