Chris Bray: The Machine Just Keeps on Running

This piece by Chris Bray first featured in the The Irish Echo

It’s a loud, clear voice. But no one hears it. And I think I know why.

In the long effort against the foolish subpoenas of IRA interviews at Boston College, Irish-American groups have made reasoned arguments with persistence, determination, and seriousness. None of it appears to have mattered. Government grinds on, not listening or thinking.

In the United States and the United Kingdom alike, bureaucrats will do what they have set out to do, logic and consequences be damned. The machine, once switched on, just keeps running.

Most bizarrely, the government officials who will bother to speak publicly about the subpoenas all ritually chant the same line about the right of families to learn the truth regarding the victims of political violence. But the subpoenas will have precisely the opposite effect, signaling loudly to those who took up arms during the Troubles that anything they say can and will be used against them.

The current effort is a recipe against historical inquiry. It’s a guarantee of a return to silence. It seeks evidence in one case that closes the door to evidence in every other. It is obvious madness, and yet no one who lives on a government paycheck will be bothered to notice.

The first key to that madness is found in a single sentence that perfectly conveys the willful blindness of officialdom. It’s a line from the First Circuit’s decision in the appeal filed by Belfast Project researchers Anthony McIntyre and Ed Moloney: “The choice to investigate criminal activity belongs to the government and is not subject to veto by academic researchers.”

Let’s count the errors of judgment. First, government isn’t investigating criminal activity at all. Having never bothered to look into the murder of Jean McConville, the PSNI now merely seeks to appropriate someone else’s investigation. They have not interviewed Dolours Price, and have not shown evidence that they have tried or intended to do so.

This is a remarkable new standard for police “investigation.” The next time there’s a murder in Brooklyn, the NYPD should ignore the witnesses and the suspects, and instead just go raid the Daily News or the history department at CUNY.

Second, the events of a civil war – an armed struggle for independence by British colonists, for crying out loud, and we’re talking about a set of events that are playing out all of fifteen miles from Lexington and Concord – are now merely crimes, common murders with no political content.

By this standard, George Washington was an ordinary thug who murdered government employees for no reason while they dutifully strolled around in their lovely crimson jackets. The government that was once politically shrewd enough to see how harmful it would be to prosecute Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee now regards all armed struggle against the state as something akin to street crime.

The IRA and the Crips are moral and political equivalents; the Tamil Tigers are like a guy who robs a liquor store because he wants the cash. So was the Green Revolution in Iran an outbreak of crime? If academics interview opponents of the Iranian regime, will the First Circuit side with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s security forces when the subpoenas arrive? Let’s hope the question never comes up, because I no longer have any confidence in the answer.

And finally, the court has taken no notice at all of the timing with which government has made the “choice to investigate criminal activity.” After forty years of total neglect, the First Circuit is certain that the PSNI is doggedly following the trail of the killers in a stubborn and persistent hunt for justice. If you’re a con man, you may want to target federal judges – they seem to be an exceptionally credulous bunch.

The second key to this thinking comes from the recent comments of President Barack Obama and Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, who both know without question that government is the entire foundation of our lives.

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” Successful people drove on roads “the rest of us” paid for. State power is the channel through which all human effort must pass to be organized and validated; without government, we are nothing.

This idea is not the product of a gaffe, and it is not taken out of context. Rather, its context is very deliberate and precise. For several years, now, the UC Berkeley linguist, George Lakoff, has been urging progressive politicians to adopt a moral frame in their public communications that privileges state action as the single force that is inherently fair and morally just. In his latest book, written with graduate student Elisabeth Wehling, Lakoff offers prescriptive language that precisely reflects what Obama and Warren have been saying: “No one makes it on his or her own without the Public. No one who is wealthy has built her own roads and schools, educated his own knowledgeable employees, done her own basic research, is fully protected by his own army and police, or maintained her own food supply.”

In this formulation, the Public – Lakoff always capitalizes the term – is found only in the organizing force of state power. Civil society is merely an agglomeration of private interests.

The public sphere, thoroughly re-feudalized, is no longer a site of negotiation, no longer a two-way bridge between society and the state: it is a lectern, the place where our betters appear to lecture on the wisdom and benevolence of the sovereign.

The lunacy of this moral vision is the context that defines the discussion over the Boston College subpoenas. Irish-American civic organizations, speaking rationally about a righteous cause, are not the state, and so cannot be correct. Justice is government. The power to decide belongs to officials of the state, and is not subject to societal veto.

This encroaching authoritarianism is working as well as it usually does. When government stops listening, it stops working.

Chris Bray is a PhD candidate in the History Department at UCLA, and also a former United States Army soldier and journalist. His particular study of the Boston College case stems from his interest in the protection of research and the right of free inquiry.