Democracy, The ‘Anti-National,’ And The Seditionist

In my essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books on the Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera, currently serving a fifty-five year jail term in Federal prison for seditious conspiracy, I had written:

The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 remain a blot on American democracy; John Adams deeply regretted — till the day of his death — being their prime mover. The crimes they charge citizens with — and the notion of a political dissident imprisoned for holding political beliefs supposedly dangerous — are an embarrassment for democracies. The very idea of sedition induces puzzlement in a student of politics: how can a liberal democracy punish the entertainment of beliefs?

Recent events in India–the crackdown on student protests at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in particular–suggest that this lesson has not yet been learned by democracies everywhere. (A pair of articles by Ruchir JoshiA Rash of Fascisms” and Mukul KesavanRepublic vs. Nation” makes this point in the Indian context quite eloquently.)

What is it that those who seek to crack down on the slogans, claims, and activities of the alleged seditionist fear? Because a nation is an idea, an abstract entity, and not a piece of land or a group of people, this question becomes a little more puzzling.

The nationalist has, of course, conflated himself with the nation; he perceives the attack on the nation as an attack on himself. The arch-nationalist thus reveals himself as a deeply paranoid, insecure type. Rather than seeing the fulminations of the political radical as an opening salvo in a debate, he perceives it as a material attack upon himself and his life’s projects; he has dedicated himself to the unblinking service of something whose provenance, dimensions, and nature he does not fully understand and now finds himself all at sea, unable to coherently defend, without descending into inarticulate rage, this mysterious notion. He is, as I noted in another context, “all unsatisfied Id, no Ego.”

I went on to note:

The accusation of seditious conspiracy is political: nothing enrages the patriot like the seditionist. He is a fifth columnist, a cancer on the body politic. The seditionist assaults the idea of the nation and offends our sensibilities by proclaiming that our idols have feet of clay. Sedition incites rebellions by encouraging citizens to rise up against their state; the existence of the seditionist is a threat to the public and psychic order underwritten by nationalist sentiment. In the old days, those who spoke against dominant paradigms, who placed the earth at the center of the universe and the like, were tortured, torn apart by mobs, burnt at the stake.

Unsurprisingly, we find religious fervor in the prosecution of this variant of political heresy. Nietzsche described the punishment felt suitable for this kind of citizen as:

A declaration of war and a war measure against an enemy of peace, law, order, authority, who is fought as dangerous to the life of the community, in breach of the contract on which the community is founded, as a rebel, a traitor and breaker of the peace, with all the means war can provide.

As might be expected, this rhetoric has shown up in the discourse surrounding the arrest and physical abuse of the students arrested in India.

Democracy is a young thing, a mere fledgling; it places a fairly onerous responsibility upon those charged with its care. Many, it seems, are simply not up to the task.

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