Political Language on Police States and Political Language

photo by Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune, captioned "A Chicago police officer throws a punch at a protester who broke a stick over another officer's head."

Andrew Exum -- who blogs for the "Center for a New American Security" -- doesn't like the fact that people on twitter used the word "police state" to describe what happened in Chicago yesterday:

Yesterday, I watched some folks describe the United States as a "police state" because of some allegations of police brutality in Chicago. Without either defending the Chicago police department or agreeing with its critics, I tweeted that those who describe the United States as a "police state" have never lived in or visited an actual police state. I then watched as leftists went berserk in response.

And yes, fair enough. Exum is right that if we compare the US of the present moment to Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Bashar al-Assad's Syria, and if we use the latter as the dictionary definition of "police state," then the USA will stand out as much less repressive by virtue of the comparison. Good for us! We are not, Exum is right in saying, what Merriam-Webster defines as a police state:

a political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures.

But I think this argument is much less interesting for what it takes for granted than for what it actually says. For example, note this admission from Exum:

...a white guy such as myself shouldn't take his largely positive interactions with law enforcement authorities as being representative of, say, the experiences of African-Americans who live in my neighborhood.

In one sense, that statement is not an argument but a rejection of a certain frame for debate, the disinclination to discuss the subject of American policing by reference to racial discrimination, say, or by reference to the increasingly politicized policing of dissent. Exum doesn't want to have an argument about the ways that if you are a certain kind of person, you will not have the same rights that he enjoys and that your interactions with police will not resemble his. He doesn't want to have this conversation, perhaps, because he knows that people who have had the pleasure of experiencing this form of "interaction with law enforcement authorities" know what they know quite well, and don't care very much about whether the Syrian military is more brutal than, say, the Oakland Police Department or the Chicago Police Department. Which is not to say that they are right or wrong, but just that Exum knows he will not convince such people, nor does he want to try. And he doesn't want to deny that American police do a whole lot of really bad evil shit. So he concedes the point and moves on.

That concession, on the other hand, is still an implicit claim about what is significant and what isn't. Conceding that point -- e.g. "yes, police are really shitty towards black people and protesters, but" -- is actually a way of dismissing its importance, not so very different from saying "yes, there were no WMD's in Iraq, but we still had to invade." It admits that the people you are arguing with have a valid point, only to then compartmentalize and thereby diminish that point's consequences: it may be true but it's beside the point. There are bigger fish to fry.

Exum wants to have this argument instead, a kind of Orwell-redux claim that precision of language is more important, because imprecise language produces bad politics:

[W]hen polemicists and activists on both the left and the right so carelessly throw around pejorative terms like "police state" and "facism" and "totalitarian," the only thing they accomplish is to strip these terms of any real meaning so that when we really do need them, they are rendered useless. After all, if the United States is a police state, can Syria really be that much worse?

In short, when we call the US a police state, we lose the ability to describe how much worse Syria is. If these words are stripped of their meaning, then they will have no conjuring power "when we really do need them."

Ok, sure. I will concede that point. But let me now compartmentalize and diminish the consequences of the point Exum is making: it may be true but it's beside the point. There are bigger fish to fry.

For example, let us ask this question: when will we really need them? When will using these words be useful?

Some examples of when they are useful:

  • In 2002, in front of the UN, George W. Bush described Iraq this way: "Wives are tortured in front of their husbands; children in the presence of their parents; and all of these horrors concealed from the world by the apparatus of a totalitarian state."
  • In 2003, in front of the UN, Colin Powell described how "Saddam Hussein's police state ruthlessly eliminates anyone who dares to dissent."
  • And, of course, "Islamo-fascism" is a right wing talking point for advocating war on Iran (or wherever).

By contrast, all sorts of people have been calling Syria every terrible name they can think of, and it has accomplished nothing. Which should clarify for us what such words are and aren't good for. It is quite useful to describe the (real) difference between us and them if you want to legitimize a war of aggression, whether that be a go-it-alone crusade to Mesopotamia under a cowboy president or a NATO alliance to bomb Libya. But if you want to convince Russian to disavow Syria, well, calling Syria "fascist" will win you zero votes in the UN. In geopolitics -- and no one demonstrates this more clearly than realists like Exum himself -- terms that reference black and white moralisms are good for domestic consumption, and almost nothing else.

I don't think Andrew Exum would deny this, actually; I just suspect that his priorities are very different than mine, and I want to clarify how. For me, being able to describe the (real) differences between Syria and the United States is not all that important, and I think the last ten years have demonstrated why quite nicely. Draining the power of such words to legitimize wars of aggression would not be such a very great loss. By contrast, being able to think through the ways our governmental logic is creeping steadily towards the forms of active policing of dissent/ethnicity that characterize what Exum would call a real police state? That seems to me to be really important, as does calling out the bullshit euphemisms that let thugs get away with being thugs (when their thuggery is politically useful). If we aren't a police state now, who would deny that we've become more like one in the last few years? If George Orwell were to rise from the grave as an American, somehow I suspect he would know which side he was on; I don't suspect his paramount concern would be leftists using imprecise political language.

This is not to say that I want to make the argument that the US is a police state either. Exum has a point. But the real problem is that the term is flawed from the start and the whole argument is a distraction. Who would deny that Egyptian police, just to pick one example, have been running rough-shod over whoever they wanted for decades now? And yet does this make Egypt a "police state"? The term explains nothing, and obscures much, starting with the way the FBI provided training and equipment for the very same Egyptian police. This doesn't mean the difference between the Egyptian police and the FBI is insignificant; it means it's much more complicated than an "us" and "them" dichotomy could ever speak to. Indeed, it is a kind of complexity that black and white distinctions actively obscure. Which is why we should retire the phrase, at least as a reference point for the US police force. Not because it's untrue, but because it's not even wrong: saying we are not a police state is only misleading in a different way than saying we are.

Instead, we should think about how our national approach has become what Jonathan Simon characterizes as "Governing Through Crime." As he notes (in the book of that name), it is simply a truism for all states that the police sometimes use direct violence to compel particular forms of order, and that the threat of this violence exists even where it is not actually exerted:

[B]ehind all forms of law, public or private, lurks a background threat of violence within the law, generally embodied in the penal or criminal law. So if you refuse to perform on a binding contract, the other party may bring a civil law suit against you. If your adversary prevails and obtains a monetary judgment against you, your failure to honor it will ultimately result in a forcible taking of your assets, any resistance to which will generally constitute a criminal act. In this sense governing through crime might seem to state a rather unsurprising syllogism. Since all governance, public or private, in American society takes places within a structure of legal authority (of public officers but also parents, employers, property owners, and so on), and since all legal authority ultimately rests on the threat of lawful violence within the criminal law, all governance is “through” the implied threat of making resistance at some stage a “crime.” This is a useful balance to the frequent celebration of liberal capitalist societies as ones governed by consent and through the instruments of free exchange (Cover 1986).

So while the difference between the Syrian police and the American police is incredibly significant, it isn't one of fundamental kind: the police do what the political class tells them to do, enforcing whatever order it is that the state deems legitimate. And so the important point about the US, in the last 30 years, is not that it's "better" than Syrias (though it is) but that the US political class has come to think of the problems of governance in significantly different ways than it had in the previous era; as Simon continues:

The distinction I wish to draw with the way that American democracy has been deformed by the war on crime is one of priority. In the conventional syllogism, crime (and the violence it authorizes) is generally a last response, the end point of a pathway of resistance to lawful governance. What is visibly different about the way we govern since the 1960s is the degree to which crime is a first response.

Or as Mike Konczal puts it -- in a truly must read-piece of writing -- we have come to be "Against Law, For Order." But whether we're a "Police State" or merely "Governing Through Crime" is not, in fact, all that important, at least not relative to the basic fact that both terms indicate, the conflation of state and police function that allows "justice" to become a function of the political class's self-interested desires. One can quibble over terminology and argue for a sense of proportion -- and even be basically right! -- but I would defy anyone to deny that this, which is what most people who say things like "This is what a police state looks like" actually mean, is actually what is actually happening.