In America’s fevered, paranoid imagination the “internal other” as drug dealer tempts the good citizens and leads them from the clear air of the palace roof down into the basements of sin. But the terrorist, the “external other,” wants to tunnel under the walls and destroy the palace itself. Since long before 9/11/2001, the fear mongers have been in the lucrative business of reducing rational human beings to quivering children, willing to trade their celebrated freedoms for a thin promise of temporary safety. Doing so, as Benjamin Franklin said, they “deserve neither.”
The truth, as people are finally beginning to realize, is that in the past sixty years right-wingers and white supremacists have perpetrated the vast majority of terrorist incidents in America: the Kennedy and King assassinations; the Oklahoma City bombing; literally dozens of racially motivated church-burnings (civil rights activists used to call Birmingham, Alabama, “Bombingham”); and countless bombings and shootings by right-wing Cuban-Americans and anti-abortion fanatics. And let’s not forget that the vast majority of mass shootings, of which there have been well over 300 so far in 2018, are perpetrated by white men.
Our image of domestic terrorism is a classic example of the inversion of fact. Its shadow is the agent provocateur, who has been present as an agent of the state, both local and national, at countless public demonstrations for 50 years (at least since the 1968 protests at the Democratic convention in Chicago), deliberately creating the impression that protest against the powers that be always leads to violence. “We agree with your goals,” lecture the smug media gatekeepers, “but we disapprove of your methods.”
Progressive and left-wing activists rarely describe themselves as provocateurs. On the far right-wing, however, when white supremacist intentions align with the interests of the billionaires who actually fund them, people like Milo Yiannopoulos proudly use the term.
In 2018 fear of the outsider is stronger than ever, and that fear was nurtured through the deliberate creation of an image. For four decades, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI (yes, the same FBI later headed by Mueller and Comey) demonized anyone who threatened the status quo, regardless of their nationality, as “outside agitators” – a truly unique phrase, we must admit.
Hoover meant that these outsiders would “agitate” our belief systems into a froth of meaninglessness and relativity that could be more easily infected by un-American ideas. He particularly patronized African-Americans with the phrase, claiming in the 1950s that on their own, Black people would never conceive of demanding their civil rights unless foreigners – Northerners, that is – prodded them to do so.
But when hatred rises to the level of poetry, we know that we are in the realm of myth, and myth points toward collective psychology. When we use such terms as provocateur and agitator, we are talking not about the Other, but about ourselves. We are acknowledging that we have repressed some part of ourselves so deeply and for so long that it can (and will) rise into consciousness only when we project it outwards onto someone else, whom we then feel justified in demonizing. His presence in our field of awareness has agitated us at a level deeper than Hoover could ever imagine.
Agitate (v.): from Latin agitatus, past participle of agitare, “to put in constant or violent motion, drive onward, impel.”
This image of the Dionysian menace implies three assumptions about us, the inhabitants of the polis. The first is innocence: when we are blameless by definition, then evil must come, quite simply, from outside. It implies that the communist ideas that Hoover warned us about couldn’t possibly originate among authentic, white, Christian Americans. The notion that an American empire would perpetrate mass violence in dozens of countries is inconceivable. Terrorism, quips Noam Chomsky, is “what others do to us.”
Long after Hoover left us, the media continue to demonize protestors with the term “outside agitators,” as this anonymous blogger suggests:
On August 19 (2014), ten days after police murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a slew of corporate media stories appeared charging that “criminals” and “outside agitators” were responsible for clashes during the protests. CNN alleged that “all sides agree there are a select number of people—distinct from the majority of protesters—who are fomenting violence,” quoting a State Highway Patrol Captain, a State Senator, and a former FBI assistant director to confirm this.
…we have to understand the deployment of rhetoric about “outside agitators” as a military operation intended to isolate and target an enemy: divide and conquer…The ultimate goal of the police is not so much to brutalize and pacify specific individuals as it is to extract rebelliousness itself from the social fabric. They seek to externalize agitation, so anyone who stands up for herself will be seen as an outsider, as deviant and antisocial.
A second assumption is weakness. Just as youths seemingly cannot resist the corrupt attraction of drugs or sex, the polis can entertain only the mildest diversity of opinion. If allowed access to the children, communists (now what? Muslims? Transgender people? Latino children?) would prevent discrimination of right from wrong and infect the national immune system with their “agit-prop,” another product of Hoover’s propaganda poetry.
A third assumption about us – these are all assumptions, I remind you, about us – is fairness. The macho boy-king Pentheus, who would attack directly, throws fastballs, while Dionysus throws curves. The terrorist could be a friend or co-worker. In a mythology (and a political system) that vastly overrates and idealizes the needs and opinions of conservative rural people who have somehow remained untainted by “cosmopolitan” values, he is urban, possibly Jewish. He infects us through trickery rather than through direct, “manly” confrontation. Since he refuses to play by the rules, we are justified in our righteous and overpowering vengeance. We call upon his mirror-opposite, the lone American superhero (or politicians who claim to embody him), who is equally willing to forego the rules of fairness.
Willing to drop our pretense of fairness so as to achieve a bit of temporary safety, perhaps we deserve neither.
You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men. We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated…So I think it’s a way…you know, it could very well be the ultimate Trojan horse. – DJT
Fairness? It would appear that when the rhetoric of race-baiting and warmongering is not enough to fully mobilize the haters, it becomes a simple matter of providing actual agitators from the inside, the provocateurs. Here is a photo of an Oakland policeman who was unmasked as an actual provocateur at a demonstration, also in 2014:
Both actual terrorists and young men of color provoke the curiosity of the innocent, white citizen because they are close, much closer than the rest of us, to death. In the psyche, death evokes initiation. Perhaps the deniers of death, writes psychologist Luigi Zoja, envy the initiate, “he or she who has contact with another dimension… someone to whom a truth has been revealed.”
This speculation leads us to the original Greek meaning of scapegoat, the pharmakos, who was both the poison and its antidote. Anthropologists agree that sacrifice (literally, “to make sacred”) is a religious act, in which the victim is raised to the status of the deity so as to briefly bridge (Latin, pons, root of pontiff) the gap between the worlds, unite the community and wash away their sins. The communist, the outside agitator, the terrorist, the drug dealer all populate our mythic American imagination, just as the “red Indian” did for 350 years, so that we may remain innocent. But they are also there as provocateurs.
Provocateur: one who provokes. Provoke: Latin provocare, “call forth, challenge.” This word is related, very significantly, to evoke and invoke. Imagine the ritual possibilities: At some level we all, like Pentheus, can choose. We can invoke or evoke our own Dionysian nature, or we can innocently project it outwards, only to provoke its expression somewhere else.