Attacks on critical thinking vs. cheers for scapegoating

By Pete Dolack

On the surface, it seems a mystery. Occupy Wall Street protestors organized peaceful protests, concentrated their critiques on the financial institutions responsible for the worst economic downturn in eight decades and consciously used inclusive language to unite people. Yet Occupy was subjected to brutal police assaults as part of a coordinated government campaign against it, and has increasingly faced volleys of disapproval in the mass media.

By contrast, “Tea Party” protestors routinely used threatening language, brought weapons not only to their own demonstrations but to public talks of government office holders, attacked government institutions in denunciatory language and sought to divide people through scapegoating. Yet the Tea Party was lovingly embraced by the mass media and allowed to operate unimpeded by law enforcement and other institutions.

These contrasting responses were not monolithic, and we can all cite exceptions. Nonetheless, there is no mistaking the general tenor of the responses. On the surface this may appear to be a mystery, but it is not at all mysterious once we examine a little closer.

Occupy was and is a genuine grassroots movement, and the hundreds of Occupies that spontaneously followed the example of Occupy Wall Street demonstrated that a large pool of discontent and anger about the corporate domination of the United States exists. That discontent may sometimes be unfocused — leading to a sometimes confusing plethora of messages at Occupy encampments and demonstrations — but it is very real, based on the reality of the lives of working people (including students). And it is precisely this bottom-up self-organization that engendered the wrath of the establishment.

The Tea Party seeks to deflect anger from corporate elites consumed by greed and arrogance who bend the country’s institutions to their benefit, and instead pin the blame on “the government,” on minorities, on immigrants and any other handy scapegoat. This movement, although calculated to tap into genuine grassroots anger, was manufactured and materially supported by corporate benefactors. And this is the key to understanding the warm embrace given it.

Both movements result from a pervasive feeling of anxiety over an economic crisis now measured in years with no end in sight; both movements are fueled by people who know that “something is wrong” and seek answers as to why the present is bleak, why the future appears bleak and what can be done to change the stagnation or downward trend of the economy and all the social problems that piggyback on economic distress. Anxiety is not only due to worries about today or fears of tomorrow in times of uncertainty and instability; anxiety also flows from a lack of understanding. Why has the economy turned so sour, why is the malaise so persistent, why is this happening to me even though I went to work every day and studied hard in school?

We naturally wish to find the answers to these questions. One way to seek answers is to channel anxiety, anger, fear and frustration into study: Read, watch, listen, observe and discuss, until a picture begins to emerge. Modern economics and society is complex and globalization only hastens further complexity. But these are human constructions, and so most humans can understand them. It is only when we understand what had seemed to work but no longer does that we can begin to construct ideas and plans to improve our lives and give ourselves stability.

Another way to seek answers is to channel anxiety, anger, fear and frustration into emotional release: Designate scapegoats from groups that are either unpopular or are vulnerable. Those scapegoats can be immigrants, they can be racial, ethnic or religious minorities, they can be women. Or the scapegoat can be “the government,” reduced to an abstract entity that somehow hovers above society as an alien force. Scapegoats have in common that they represent an “Other,” somebody or something outside or different, and thus liable to be portrayed as an impurity “polluting” society.

Scapegoating is seductive because it taps into emotion. Very real emotion, for the anxiety, anger, fear and frustration felt by Tea Partiers, Occupiers, sympathizers of one or the other and people who do not identify with either movement is based on the concrete realities of their lives. A belief that tomorrow will be better than today, that our children will live more comfortably than their parents is woven deeply into the fabric of advanced capitalist countries, and perhaps that sense of optimism has been nowhere stronger than in the United States, where such beliefs are inseparable from the expansionism, dynamism and geographical diversity that are foundations of its traditional ethos.

When long-held beliefs crumble, answers are naturally sought. Easy answers tap into emotion. Emotions are real, genuine and should be taken seriously. We share many emotions; we share a desire to understand. A cliché that is often repeated because it is true despite being a cliché is the statement that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can finish lacing up its boots. A parallel can, and should, be drawn: Emotions take root much faster than the concrete. In no way is that meant to suggest that emotions are “lies” — emotions, again, are very real. In our personal lives, we become upset, but we talk and analyze, and although we may still be upset, we come to understand and thus are much better equipped to do something to change the situation that made us upset.

Zooming out from the personal to the societal, we can see similarities. But, since we are back to discussing large, impersonal social forces and institutions, what if the controllers of those institutions want to deflect attention and avoid blame for their actions? Tapping into emotions is a sure way of achieving those results, and if those institutions are very wealthy and very powerful, they can create entire movements (and new institutions) to suit their purposes.

The Tea Party is a prominent example. Tea Partiers wanted answers as to why the foundations around them are crumbling. Just as the Wizard of Oz wanted Dorothy to look elsewhere, Tea Party organizers point in another direction and yell, “It’s them, over there.” And who are the organizers of the Tea Party? By that question, I mean the originators and, in particular, the funders of the Tea Parties, not the people who became involved and assumed leadership roles in their local communities. We can readily see that some of the most active members of Corporate America are the organizers.

At the very top of the list are three entities: the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, FreedomWorks and Fox News. FreedomWorks is a group of corporate lobbyists run by Dick Armey (a hard-line Republican Party operative who once was majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives) that was the primary organizer of the early Tea Party protests. Americans for Prosperity is a lavishly funded and tightly controlled pressure group founded by David and Charles Koch dedicated to promoting the Koch brothers’ business interests and extremist political philosophies. Fox News is one of the most notorious pieces of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, an empire dedicated to promoting Murdoch’s business interests and extremist political philosophies.

Other corporate interests have made their contributions, but without these three groups there would be no Tea Party. Americans for Prosperity is a crucial funder of FreedomWorks, and both organizations are behind a series of initiatives to deny the reality of global warming, attack any and all regulation of business and promote libertarian political ideas, such as eliminating Social Security. Fox News is an active promoter of these agendas. Together, bottomless sums of money, corporate muscle, the ability to control a myriad of institutions and the power to have their agenda adopted by the corporate mass media was leveraged to coordinate and tap into the anger felt by millions of people, creating the corporate-inspired Tea Party.

As many other corporate elites similarly backed these agendas, they were undoubtedly happy to free-ride on the money and influence wielded by Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks and Fox News, the three of which provided the Tea Party with organizers, money, material support and publicity. Within any group, there will always be those who are the most active; the Koch Brothers, who fund a network of institutions to do their bidding, are among them in the ranks of big capitalists. Such people have the immense wealth and all the power that goes with that wealth to have their viewpoints and messages suffused throughout a society through continual repetition via a spectrum of outlets.

A critical component of those messages must be a deflection of blame. Government is a handy scapegoat, and an easy one because very few of us has not had at least one frustrating experience with a bureaucracy. Government has to be portrayed as an alien force disembodied from society, demonized for “interfering” in the lives of people. But government is not an abstract entity, it is a reflection of the social forces inherent within a society; its actions and policies will most often harmonize with the most powerful.

No objective analysis of government can deny that corporations reap enormous benefits from government — through contracts in an ever increasing variety of industries, the passing of laws in legislatures that not only benefit them but are frequently written by their lobbyists, the building and maintenance of transportation and other public infrastructure, the public assumption of the costs of business such as pollution mitigation, and an ever widening collection of subsidies.

If government is part of the problem, than it is because it has become dominated by corporate elites. Corporate elites reap the benefits of inequality and want to keep it that way, or widen the inequality. It is corporate elites who benefit from moving factories to new countries, from mass layoffs and a system that funnels enormous sums of money upward. It is a big job to obscure these obvious facts. And only corporate elites have the money to fund such a campaign so they can continue to reap personal rewards from this system’s continuation.

Given the web of domination by corporate elites, it then becomes no surprise that their creation, the Tea Party, is lavished with affection while the Occupy movement that challenges them and fosters independent thinking is attacked. Today is the national holiday in the United States in which the country celebrates its founding and its defining themes of “freedom” and “liberty.” But, as always, we should ask: Freedom for who? Freedom for what?