A recent letter writer in our local paper asserted that “Oregon is a state run by liberal special interests who bully and use Gestapo tactics to get their way.” The issue had to do with a defeated Nestle plan to open a water bottling plant near the city of Cascade Locks on the Columbia River about three hours west of us. It’s a controversial issue around here because Nestle simply moved east a few hundred miles and is trying again in a rural town not far from us. In this case, the letter writer was in favor of the Nestle plan, and bitterly disappointed that it was repulsed by opponents whom he accused of being liberals with special interest allies using Gestapo tactics. Water, water rights, and bottled water are important issues everywhere, but especially important to our area because we live in the high desert where water is dear, and no new water rights are being issued. As important as the water issue is, I want to focus this essay on something else: the language of labeling liberals, special interests, and Gestapo tactics.
My guess is that the letter writer has only a limited idea of what liberal might mean, but at its core it’s about big government, socialism, and limits on individual freedom. A few weeks ago, another letter writer submitted a list of all the characteristics of liberal she could come up with. It was long and colorful, but it all boiled down to liberals being the worst of freedom stealing big government socialists who want nothing more than to turn America into a communist waste land. I suspect water plan letter writer would agree.
How is it that those who favor the ideals of our liberal democracy have became such a threat? Some part of it may have to do with the belief that liberals are in cahoots with Wall Street to enslave what used to be the blue collar middle class, and the proof is the outsourcing of all the best jobs to other countries. You can roll out all the data you want to show that those jobs came to a predictable end through a combination of a growing world economy and technological changes in manufacturing. It won’t help because you won’t be believed. Why not? Because experts who know about things are not to be trusted, or so says Paul Ryan, in one of his fund raising letters where he writes that “Democrats and their special interest allies – that so often provide…experts and ideas – have only added to our problems.” Yes indeed, there is nothing worse than an expert who knows something about a problem to make the problem worse.
It isn’t that liberals are liberal, it’s that they are seen as elitist. Those who aspire to acquire as much political power as possible know how to use that image to mobilize grass roots discontent against the elite, especially the intellectual elite, as a means to get it. Never mind that they, Paul Ryan in this case, are among the economic and political elite. It’s a charade, they know its a charade, but if they can pull it off the power will be theirs. In a curious twist, Ryan even asserts that, thanks to liberals, “Big Government and Big Business aren’t fighting each other, they’re feeding off each other.” There is some truth in that, but seeds of the arrangement were planted and nurtured by the politics and politicians of his party acting in the name of conservative free market principles. Like I said, it’s a charade.
The repeated accusation at the national level that liberals and special interests are allied in malevolent ways is, I suspect, the reason why local letter writers use the the same language. I doubt that many give any thought to what a special interest is, or who they are. If I recall, Democrats used similar language in their propaganda when Reagan and the Bushes were in office. Special interest is a useful catchall bugaboo precisely because it can mean anything or nothing. Special interests, like ogres and the Grinch, are bad, and in the current environment they are claimed to be allied with liberals.
So what about Gestapo tactics? What are Gestapo tactics? The record is pretty clear, and whatever the opponents of the Nestle plan in Oregon might have done, they bore no similarity to that record. Why use such an outlandishly inappropriate term? Probably because the opponents were an unpleasant nuisance through a variety of protests with yelling, badgering, placard waving, obstructing behavior that easily gets under most anyone’s skin. Gestapo like it isn’t. Nuisance it is. The guy’s letter would have been more effective if he had simply catalogued the behaviors he didn’t like. On the other hand, maybe he was thinking about how the Gestapo was proficient at fostering divisions among people, herding them into groups labeled as enemies of the state until the only safe place to be was in party’s own group, and even there one had to be alert to traitors. If that is what he was thinking, he was parroting a consistent line from Republican campaign material that accuses Democrats of using lofty rhetoric of hope and change to divide people against each other. That could be it.
In the end I find this kind of propagandizing morally and emotionally discouraging. Labels are slapped on with little understanding of what they mean. Words like liberal and conservative are narrowed down to their most extreme manifestations. Ignorance of political history abounds, as do conspiracy fantasies more suited to super market tabloids. For some, like the letter writer, it is utterly irresponsible, juvenile behavior that prevents important issues from being worked out in common sense ways. For more sophisticated political operators it is crass manipulation having no intent other than the acquisition of power and position with little concern for the well being of those whom they are manipulating.