Politics & Media
Jul 12, 2023, 05:57AM

Triumph of the Willful Freakout

Selective enforcement is bad for politics and law.

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What some of us knew decades ago should by now be obvious to everyone, which is that the media pick and choose when to be alarmed, and government picks and chooses when to pretend a problem warrants vigorous action. Then the real morons—the overrated but pitiable general public—take their cues about what to find important, and politicians, marketers, and tech people corral them accordingly for later use.

A cop shoots a north-African-descended teen in France? It’s a new Bastille Day paralyzing France, and the U.S. looks on the protesters with sympathy.

Mildly rough protest two and a half years ago at the U.S. Capitol? Still tracking down and jailing participants with facial recognition software and every resource at the disposal of the federal government.

Reports of a trans-seeming BLM activist killing five people in Philly? No broader speculation about whether he was enmeshed in violent movements, please—unless his odd positive comments about Trump and the Second Amendment were to blame. Too many mixed political signals, best to move on and ignore it. Better luck next massacre with the clear messaging! (Current efforts at redefining all gym-goers as fascists might help…)

The establishment’s freakouts aren’t just arbitrary or random, though. They freak out when their own power is threatened. From this side of the Atlantic, intellectuals can look on the French riots with tolerance and sympathy. For Macron, by contrast, it’s not only a crisis calling into question his legitimacy but an excuse for him to propose giving government the power to cut off all Internet access during “emergencies”—as if that power won’t tend to be used more when the “emergency” threatens the administration currently in power.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the Biden administration continues to fight for the right for government officials to collude with social media companies in censorship projects. Why worry?

The dangers of selective enforcement should be obvious. As a corrupt establishment, you barely even need to change the law if you’re simply willing to apply existing laws more harshly to your foes than your own allies, more harshly to rebels than predictable conformists. Both right and left love doing that lately.

With the left, it’s the sheer volume and complexity of regulations that make partisan moves hard to detect (and bribery both tempting and lucrative). With the right, the growing danger is that activists are too pig-headed and indifferent to long-term consequences to care about the corrupting institutional effects of bending the rules to smash the foes they hate most today.

You hear it in Trump’s fantasies about withholding broadcasting licenses from critics and DeSantis’ spat with Disney, but it’s more troubling to me that so many young right-wingers take the nihilistic ”We gotta do it to them before they do it to us!” attitude toward authoritarian measures—without seeming to have given the slightest thought to whether this downward-spiraling road leads anywhere good or has been tried countless times before.

But then, one also has to suspect selective enforcement at play in the very bedrock of the justice system when the case against Trump for sloppy document storage at Mar-a-Lago proceeds while the establishment—for now—dismisses the document heaps in Biden’s garage (maybe the establishment is for now less nervous about politicians accused of close ties to China than politicians accused of close ties to Russia).

But hey, maybe further selective enforcement within the Department of Justice will end up rescuing Trump from the selective enforcement of document-storage laws: There has been talk of the Mar-a-Lago case being dismissed over DOJ misconduct, since they seem to have threatened a defense lawyer with denial of a chance to become a judge later in his career unless he helps them against Trump. Even at the highest level, on the purportedly most important cases, it always seems people are making it up as they go along, bending rules to suit the current project.

You can’t even go to the movies without encountering weird political flip-flops. I went to see the crime thriller movie Sound of Freedom last week (about sting operations against Latin American child-trafficking networks) in part because star Jim Caviezel also starred in the 2000s remake of the 1960s libertarian TV series The Prisoner (a remake that also featured Ian McKellen and Ruth Wilson) and in the 2010s was in the comparably surveillance-themed crime drama series Person of Interest.

Little did I realize that much of the same media establishment that a decade ago praised the real-life raids on which the film is based (real clips of which are visible at the beginning and end of the film) now dismisses the film as conspiracy theory nonsense for no better reason than that now the QAnon crowd and Caviezel hate child-trafficking (and like Trump). Nothing the establishment loves is so good that they won’t turn against it later if it appears it might now aid their political foes.

Shelved for some reason for five years by Disney after that company absorbed Fox, Sound of Freedom easily made its tiny $14.5 million budget back in a few days, earning $42 million in its first week of release—and for its plucky efforts got slammed as “the QAnon-adjacent thriller seducing America” in an ugly Guardian headline, endured Washington Post warning readers of “What to know about the movie, QAnon ties,” was labeled “a Superhero Movie for Dads with Brainworms” by Rolling Stone, and was dismissed as “Fantasy Fit for QAnon” by feminist site Jezebel. Harsh. Yet it was good—simple and straightforward with little speechifying until a special message from Caviezel during the end credits.

Even the noble child-rescuers are contributing to the problem of people deciding what to enforce when in a sloppy, biased fashion, though: The real-life organization that inspired and promotes the film is opposed to “trafficking” and in favor of general border enforcement, but as libertarians nowadays struggle to teach their right-wing acquaintances, there’s a world of difference between selling a child into sex slavery and, say, helping someone get the papers needed to work for his cousin’s convenience store up north in Nevada. People who can’t see that distinction and condemn it all as “trafficking” aren’t really trying too hard.

The easiest way to ensure even-handed application of laws would be to repeal virtually all of them, punishing only outright assault, theft, and fraud—but in the meantime, there would be a certain rough justice in the DEA raiding the White House over that cocaine sample recently found there, then seizing the whole building under asset forfeiture laws and auctioning it off. We know there will be bidders.

Until then, the Biden team has hinted the cocaine might’ve come from a part of the White House grounds under Vice President Harris’ purview, which makes one wonder whether Drug War architect Joe Biden had a long-term plan since way back in the 1980s to blame things on the black lady if the cops showed up. In a world of endless rules and partisan bureaucrats, they can always get you for something while letting the other guy slide.

—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey


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