The statist “We don’t”

When rioting St. Paul cops arrested Amy Goodman, CREDO Mobile published the video and issued an action alert with the odd declarative title This is America. We don’t arrest journalists here..

The first problem is the false subject. We don’t arrest journalists, or anyone else. Government cops arrest people. I don’t, and neither do you.

So, let’s rephrase: This is America. Police don’t arrest journalists here.

But what’s the don’t supposed to mean here? If it’s supposed to be a simple declarative statement, then it’s obviously false. Police evidently do arrest journalists here; I know because I saw it happen in the video CREDO linked to.

Obviously, even though the statement seems to be declarative, it’s actually intended to do something other than state a fact. The statement is being made in the context of an outraged action alert, so it seems fair to interpret it as a normative claim instead of a descriptive claim. If I say You just don’t treat people that way, what I’m saying is that you shouldn’t treat people like that. So let’s rephrase: This is America. Police shouldn’t arrest journalists here.

That’s certainly true. Police shouldn’t arrest journalists. But then what’s the purpose of the This is America and the here? It’s true that police shouldn’t arrest journalists in America; but that’s no less true in Egypt or China. Police shouldn’t arrest journalists anywhere. So what did CREDO really mean?

There’s another voice in which people sometimes use this kind of talk — a voice different from the statement of fact, and a voice different from the expression of a moral judgment. It is the voice of authority laying down an expectation for others to follow. (We don’t use that kind of language in this household; Catholics do not use birth control; etc.) And I think here we have a clear understanding of what it was CREDO meant to say, and what purpose the This is America is supposed to serve. Not content with simply pointing out the fact that it’s wrong for police to arrest journalists — that this kind of conduct is violent, repressive, tyrannical, and indeed evil — what they wanted to do was to cite an authority on their side. The authority is supposedly wrapped up in the idea of America (meaning the U.S.A.) — U.S. norms, U.S. political culture, and the U.S. Constitution.

But what good does it do to try to assume the voice of authority here? What justifies the claim? What purpose does it serve? In St. Paul, several different police agencies, ramrodded by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s department, staged massive pre-emptive raids against houses where activists were staying and against the RNC Welcoming Committee’s convergence space. Many of the imprisoned protesters were held for days without charges. Many were abused by their jailers, including a woman being knocked to the ground and dragged by her hair, several protesters being denied prescription or over-the-counter medications for serious medical conditions, and a 19-year-old activist named Elliot Hughes, who was beaten and tortured for over an hour because, according to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s department, he was being verbally disruptive.

There is little or no evidence that any legal authority, either executive or judicial, will ever hold any of these cops or jailers accountable for what they did. Nobody in a position of authority disapproves. Nobody in a position of authority cares. Whatever source of authority CREDO hopes to invoke here is a dead letter; the very people that it gave the power to interpret it and enforce it have decided that there’s nothing to forbid police to harass and terrorize journalists like this. If those authorities are right, then CREDO’s attempt to speak in the voice of authority is fraudulent: the authority that they are trying to invoke has nothing to say for them. If those authorities are wrong, then CREDO’s attempt to speak in the voice of authority is idle: the same system that they hope to call to their aid is constructed so that CREDO can do nothing about it.

The first step is admitting that you have a problem. We live in a state where the highest authorities consider this repressive violence perfectly acceptable behavior in the name of Law and Order. And it is long past time to give up on the delusion that the Authorities and the Law will get our back against this kind of abuse of power.

They haven’t.

They aren’t.

They won’t.

It is long past time to give up on the voice of authority and its false promises. To be willing to make our demands in the voice of morality, to speak up for our rights as human rights, not as the easily-revoked privileges of a paper constitution. America, if that means the political entity that rules over this territory, is not our friend, or our ally. It will do nothing for us. When we protest, it will turn those very cops on us. We are in no position to lay down expectations or give orders to our occupiers. We have no authority that they will ever recognize. What we have to do is to speak to the justice of our cause, and the righteousness of our resistance against acts that are unjust and tyrannical, no matter where they may be committed. Peace, freedom, and justice are good enough to stand on their own, just as they are, whether in America, or Egypt, or China, or anywhere else in the world.

Happy International Ignore the Constitution Day, fellow citizens.

See also:

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8 replies to The statist “We don’t” Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. LadyVetinari

    I think the “We don’t” is supposed to be less about authority and more about American ideals, which I would say are universally valuable ideals. But even so a big part of American history revolves around the articulation of those ideals (not so much about living up to them, obviously), and people think we ought to live up to them. E.g. “We don’t do that” means “Americans ought to live by ideals that forbid doing that.”

  2. Roderick T. Long

    Maybe it’s an Aristotelean categorical.

— 2009 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-04-13 – The grammar of war:

    […] GT 2008-09-17: The statist We don’t […]

— 2010 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2010-02-04 – Against legalization (cont’d):

    […] because the we in de Soto’s sentence doesn’t really mean us. It’s a false we, the statist we, which people in the legally-regulated straight economy all too often use to grab at an illusion of […]

— 2011 —

— 2014 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People's Daily 2014-01-28 – Welcome, Reasoners:

    […] GT 2008-09-17: The statist We don’t, GT 2005-09-17: International Ignore the Constitution Day, and GT 2007-12-28: A Higher Law Than the Constitution explain why I’m not a Constitutionalist, and why I think appeals to the paper Constitution are either useless or harmful struggles for liberty and peace. […]

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