October 28, 2019

"Tyranny Comes Home" Symposium: John Tirman

Commentary by John Tirman

John Tirman

On August 30, 2018, the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University hosted a PPE Workshop Book Panel on Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism by Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall. The following symposium is comprised of edited versions of the commentary by Christopher J. Coyne (Economics, George Mason University), Miriam Cohen (Law, Université de Montréal), and John Tirman (Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) from that book panel event.

Thank you for coming out and thanks to the organizers for inviting me. I’ve blurbed this book and I can tell you, as a blurbist, one has certain moral obligations to uphold the blurb. But I’m happy to do that because I’ve read through the book again for a second time just last week, and I do recommend it very highly, it is a very insightful, original work, and I dare say important. People who write books like to think that their books are important, and sometimes they are, so I hope this one is too. I’m going to make two very different kinds of comments about the subject matter.

The first one, very briefly, is about suppression of free speech as a result of war-making. I focus on this particular item because it’s something that, in effect, happened to me in the last war, the Iraq War, the Invasion in 2003. Not suppressed in the sense of being arrested or going to jail or anything like that, not that heroic, but because I raised questions about how many people were dying in the Iraq War along with some people who actually did the calculation. We did a household survey in Iraq, published it in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, and then we promoted it, wrote about it, spoke about it, and so on.


And it was a very eye-opening experience to go through in the following way. This was 2006, the war had been, of course, going on for almost three years when we went — when the research epidemiologists associated with Johns Hopkins went to the field to do the survey, a survey that went to 1,800 households randomly selected in Iraq, and came up with a number of excess deaths, as it’s called, of 600,000 at that point. This was treated by most of the mainstream news media and certainly almost every single politician as a kind of travesty, a bold lie that was not even feasible in political discourse at that point.

So, we had the Wall Street Journal denouncing us in print, in an editorial attributing this number somehow to George Soros, because Soros’ foundation happened to fund some of the work. There was an article in the National Journal that was just a really kind of crazy set of allegations, 80 some mistakes as I counted them, and on and on through a lot of the news media and a lot of the political discourse. Two days after the survey results were announced, George Bush was asked about it in a press conference, by a CNN reporter remarkably enough, and he said that 600,000 was a ridiculously high number. It’s closer to 30,000 and that the methodology had pretty much been discredited. Now, for George Bush to say that a scientific methodology had been discredited was really the kind of bold claim that needed some examining.

“I’ve seen this happen firsthand, and I think that it really is remarkable how it can happen in this society.”

But in any case, we went on like this for many months and years. My role was relatively minor, I commissioned the survey and I wrote a lot about it and so on, organized some of the response. But it was really something to watch on a day to day basis how this militarization, this war that had become a very sore point in American politics, nevertheless had this dampening effect on debate.

You basically couldn’t even discuss it without being accused of one thing or another — usually making up the number or somehow distorting the data. I’ve seen this happen firsthand, and I think that it really is remarkable how it can happen in this society. But we’re seeing since then many remarkable things happen which we never thought would.

My second point is much broader and difficult, of a different kind of point of analysis. That is, what Coyne and Hall are discussing has a backdrop that they allude to now and again, but I’d like to make it more explicit because I think it’s very explanatory. And that is what I would call the master narrative of the American experience.

And what I mean by narrative is a story, a story about America that has gained a kind of standard truth and is taught to us in many, many different ways. It began with the first successful European settlement of America, that is the Puritans in Massachusetts. This narrative, which has been most thoroughly explicated by the cultural historian, Richard Slotkin in a trilogy, which I recommend very strongly to you. Regeneration Through Violence is the first of three volumes, 2,000 pages. So it’s not something to be taken lightly, but it’s a remarkable piece of scholarship in which he talks about what this narrative is. Slotkin calls it the myth of the frontier, and it has to do with how the Puritans and then subsequent actors in American history regarded the frontier as the life-giving confrontation between the settlers and the wilderness, what the Puritans called The Errand — An Errand to the Wilderness. Errand to the Wilderness, which in their reckoning was divinely ordained, involved subduing the savages of the wilderness and reaping the bounty of the wilderness. This theme has come back time and time and time again throughout American history, and this is what Slotkin shows in his history, and other historians like William Appleman Williams among others have also written about it.

“They saw the frontier then as being something that we should purse overseas.”

The importance of this narrative for this book is that at the end of the 19th century the wilderness, or the frontier on this continent, was pretty much over in a sense that there was no frontier left. We had “settled” the entire continent. Thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson among many others saw the frontier, the American frontier, and they associated it with the values of democracy and self-reliance and other sort of distinctly American qualities or ones that we thought of as being part of this sort of American exceptionalism. They were in a kind of a panic, so to speak, because if the frontier was over, then the forging of these important values might also be over.

They saw the frontier then as being something that we should pursue overseas. They had in mind China more than any other place, but it actually applies to a number of overseas adventures. If you look at the language that has been used in many of these overseas adventures, especially in the wars of the last century in Vietnam, Iraq, Korea, and so on, you’ll see this language pop up again — that we are the civilizing influence. That the people that we are subduing are savages in some way or another, just like the indigenous peoples of this continent were the savages of the first three centuries and so on.

John Gast’s American Progress

It goes on and on, and it’s really quite striking even when you look at something as recent as the Iraq war, how often this imagery and these kinds of illusions come up time and time again. Cowboys and Indians, illusions of various kinds, captivity narratives, the whole package of this Frontier Thesis. Now, why is this important to this book? Well, my contention is that the difference between foreign adventurism and domestic politics is almost an illusion itself because of the origins of this ideology. That is that it was one continuous flow of subduing the wilderness rather than looking at it as something that was just domestic or just foreign.

Let me give you an example from this morning’s news. In fact, once you start looking at things through this lens, you see it everywhere. This morning it’s reported that the United States government is denying passports to citizens who were Hispanic people, who were born or who earned citizenship, and lived near the border with Mexico. I’m not quite sure the whole dimension of what’s actually being done, but it’s being reported that way. The sensible reason for this is that they believe the documents were false — the government believes they were false — that they have false birth certificates.

But if you think about the larger narrative of how the United States and particular certain factions in the United States have been treating immigrants in political discourse in the last several years, you begin to see that they are being treated as basically savages. And that we are using all kinds of legal and sometimes even extra-legal remedies to keep them out of the country or to expel them out of the United States, even those who were born in the United States. So, for example, the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has denied birth certificates to children born in Texas to parents who are here without authorization, that’s a direct violation of the 14th Amendment.

This kind of stuff has been going on now for quite a long time. And, of course, it’s accelerating, the story about the border kids and all the rest of it. When you look at how these immigrants, not just those who are here illicitly but those mainly of Hispanic origin have been portrayed within the political discourse in this country, as people who are rapists and murderers and drug dealers and so on. You see that they’re being depicted essentially as savages. This is, in my view, a direct consequence of how we have regarded people from Mexico and other places, south of the border, along with our own indigenous people.

Many of them are, of course, indigenous origin people themselves. One other example, which I think is relevant, because this cascades into a number of civil liberties issues — not just denial of some rights for immigrants — is trying to explain the dynamics of gun culture in this country. This constant sort of fretting on the left and defensiveness on the right about what gun culture is, when there’s a mass shooting, people begin to start talking about this again. Those on the Right side with the Second Amendment, those on the left side with the statistics of tens of thousands of people dying every year because of gun violence.

“It’s not simply something that is happening only as it has been explained here, but there’s deep cultural roots to how these issue play out. I think the Frontier Thesis explains quite a bit of it.”

You know, one thing that I think — it’s just one factor, it’s not the only factor — goes into explaining what gun culture is goes back to the Frontier Thesis. That is that guns and self-protection and the responsibility for protecting yourself and your family was very much an idea that came out of the frontier experience. I think that quite a few people who own guns relate to that — precisely to that ethos. You can see it to some extent in surveys of people who own guns. You’ve asked them, “Why do you own guns?” The principal answer is for self-protection.

If you explore that a little bit further, you’ll see that it’s protection against certain kinds of people. So that’s just one example among many possibilities of how this divide between violence, between foreigners, between domestic politics and so on, all these sort of membranes of American politics really can flow very quickly either way, that is, what is foreign becomes domestic and vice versa. So that would be my one, not a criticism but an addition I suppose, to the analysis that Chris and Abby have put forward, that there is a backdrop to all this. It’s not simply something that is happening only as it has been explained here but there’s deep cultural roots to how these issues play out. I think the Frontier Thesis explains quite a bit of it.

Read more of the symposium here:

· Tyranny Comes Home: An Overview by Christopher J. Coyne

· Tyranny Comes Home: Commentary by Miriam Cohen

To learn more about the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, visit hayek.mercatus.org.

About the Author

John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist at the Center for International Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.