Ben has written a very insightful post which problematizes the norm of the use of state power against religious minority sects in way that encourages the deeper exploration of this matter both as a theoretical and empirical problem. That being said, I don’t feel like agreeing with what Ben writes.
The first question I have to ask is: does anyone really care about the massacre at Waco? Don’t misunderstand me, it was a tragedy. But, it was a tragedy that occurred 20 years ago. As an exemplar of the voracious appetite of the state, it’s not so unique. And conservatives have been warning of the statist apocalypse for a while. In any or none of the following figures and laws on this arbitrary and woefully incomplete list may be found the conservative root of all statist evil
I hope that the few people reading this list can sympathize with the difficulty I have when I attempt to determine an adequate causal pattern to explain the rise of the state. When reading typical anti-statist literature, I just can’t figure out a time when the modern state was not present. If encroachment and centralization are the names of this game, then the modern state has been around in various iterations for a long time. So, the fun of variations on a theme notwithstanding, this makes for perplexingly selective history and even more baffling and unhelpful analysis.
The second question I have is: did Ben and I read the same article? Ben’s blame-the-big-state trope is undermined by the Jenkin’s article from which he extensively excerpts: it was not the big state as such which is to be pointed to as the cause, but rather the linkage of “separatist compounds” with violent and extremist political movements that helped to make the raid possible. That is excised from the excerpt Ben uses to support his argument in his post. I don’t quite get the logic of Ben’s analysis at the point that we’re excluding from discussion this seemingly central perceptual frame which played so important a causal role in the tragedy. Jenkins himself writes in his piece that these patterns of relationships that preceded the Waco siege contributed to the perception of the Branch Davidians as being more of the same – and the behavior of the Branch Davidians simple confirmed for the feds their belief about the group in a tragic example of feedback.
Ultimately, what Ben has done is to refute the traditionalist dictum of history, instead to be in favor of an ideologically appealing and comparatively thin abstract explanation which ignores or denies the fluidity and tension of the temporal that is at the heart of a historical understanding of politics.
And that is a problem for conservatism. If conservatives want to produce work that is read, that is thought about and that is engaged, then we’re going to have to do a better job than the empirically thin, theoretically vague and maddeningly irrelevant material of mass produced replications of a theme that conservatives have not moved away from since conservatives started complaining about how much the world is changing.
Seriously, we’ve been writing about the demise of community and the ascent of the state for years now (even before Russell Kirk). Waco is just another confirmation of this pattern that I can’t help but begin to think is the norm – which makes us look like tinfoil hat wearing oddballs. We’re busy trying to chronicle and explain something that really isn’t all that abnormal, finding causal, phenomenal or rhetorical significance in events – like Waco – while ignoring the events, effects, and patterns that can produce some neat insights into a social phenomena (like state power) and contribute to our cumulative knowledge of it. We conservatives need to think of some new stuff to say, instead of pimping out themes that were battered and chapped even thirty years ago. But here we are… new puzzle, new problem, same answer. And we still haven’t bothered to touch the “why” of this power. Sure, we theorize about it. But the theory is stale. We need some new stuff. For a class of people who prides ourselves on being historically acute and astute, we’re not living up to our claim.
While Ben’s post is an interesting meditation on the nature, structure and behavior of the modern state, it’s reliance on the Waco example – or, Jenkin’s on Waco – obscures more than it illuminates. It’s heavy theory and light fact produce an interesting, albeit confusing and ultimately dissatisfying, thought experiment.