Blaming “outside agitators” for populist opposition is a standard tactic of tyrants and demagogues. Syria’s Assad government peddles conspiracy theories that foreign agitators are stoking the uprising there, and the dictators who’ve already fallen before the wave of the Arab Spring did the same in their countries.
During the civil rights movement’s Freedom Rides in 1961, Alabama’s white supremacist governor John Patterson began his declaration of martial law thus: “Whereas, as a result of outside agitators coming into Alabama to violate our laws and customs…” (quote from Freedom Riders by Raymond Arsenault, p. 239). He even leveled the charge against federal authorities: When the Kennedy Administration sent federal marshals to help control KKK-incited rioting, Patterson said, “We consider you interlopers here, and we feel that your presence here will only serve to agitate and provoke the racial situation.” (ibid p. 228).
You don’t have to travel to distant lands or the previous century to observe the phenomenon.
This year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, fighting a recall drive by activists protesting his anti-union measures, told The New Yorker, “We’ve always had a kind of Spirit of Wisconsin…And I think a lot of that kind of changed when the money and the bodies came in from outside of Wisconsin.” Opponents of an Oklahoma plan to eliminate a state income tax have gone so far as to criticize Oklahoma’s governor for consulting Arthur Laffer, a prominent economist who has the gall to not be from Oklahoma. It gets even more local than that; just last week, for example, the Santa Monica Daily Press used the term “outside agitators” in reporting a fight over a tuition rise at a local college. And so on.
This tendency to unfairly fix blame away from ourselves not only corrupts us as moral beings but can have awful consequences for whole populations. Yet Western culture as a whole has a problem with taking responsibility. Senator Jeff Sessions picked at this scab just the other day when, according to an AP report, he told reporters that President Obama needs to take responsibility for the Secret Service, GSA and Solyndra scandals, but that “I don’t sense that this president has shown that kind of managerial leadership.” There’s no easier way to denigrate someone than to accuse him of abdicating responsibility, and if you’re a national leader, whether Barack Obama or Bashar al-Assad, you’ve got an awful lot of it you could abdicate.
It’s a deadly squeeze, isn’t it? Anxious to save our reputations, we’re prone to shifting blame away from ourselves, either onto some variety of “outside agitators” or, in other contexts, onto our political opponents. But we look pretty bad when we’re called on it – or, as in the possible case of Scott Walker, recalled on it.