February 13, 2008

No One Is Safe: The Ruling Class Unleashed

My title announces that, "No one is safe." That's true -- but it has been true for many decades. A certain kind of political partisan will insist that our current disasters all (or largely) date from the installation of the Bush regime following the election of 2000. Such a view is profoundly mistaken, and frequently proceeds from less than honest motives. To the extent one believes that the current crisis arose in significant part in less than a decade, one confesses an astonishing ignorance of history, together with a complete inability to understand political and cultural developments over time. The view that the Bush regime is the source of (most) evil is superficial and trivial; often, with regard to those who are politically knowledgeable and politically active, it is morally suspect, and frequently morally deplorable.

The United States has thus far been spared foreign conquest or natural calamity on a massive scale. In the absence of such factors, our government has followed its own inexorable and logical path. The direction is and has always been toward the accumulation of more state power, more control over increasing aspects of all Americans' lives, and the destruction of Americans' ability to be left alone. Protection of the inalienable right to be left alone was once the purpose of our government. It has not been for more than a century.

In June 2004, I wrote an essay entitled, "The Waiting Game." (For the record, I note that an excerpt in that article from a still earlier post, written in the summer of 2003, contains certain formulations that I find very troubling now. Although the major points of that earlier excerpt remain valid in my view, I would not write certain passages in at all the same terms today.) "The Waiting Game" detailed the proliferation of regulations and controls that circumscribe our lives now. I used South Dakota as an example: "Because South Dakota is one of seven states with no state income tax, you might think South Dakota's regulatory structure would be somewhat smaller and less intrusive than that of many other states. You would be wrong. Here is a list of the government programs in South Dakota -- and I set it forth in full so you can appreciate the scope and depth of what this one state government controls..."

I still find that list astonishing. When I researched that essay, I considered using a list from another state -- but the lists of government programs in most states are much, much longer than South Dakota's. They were so long that it was impossible to reproduce them in the manner I did. After setting out that list, I wrote:
I suggest you read the list very carefully, and note the unavoidable conclusion: you can't do anything -- you can't work, and you can't do anything for "fun" -- without interacting with the government, directly or indirectly. You must ask "permission" from the government before doing anything at all.


[Y]ou can't do one damned thing without getting permission from the government. If you go ahead and do it anyway, you're breaking the law. In this manner, the endless proliferation of government regulations and laws makes criminals of us all. I very much doubt that you can go for a year, and perhaps not even a month or a day, without breaking some law, somewhere. Laws cover everything, without exception. Read that list of government programs again. Everything.

Of course, we did not arrive at this point overnight. Here is where the frog being boiled to death in water that is slowly warmed comes in: all these regulations accumulated over a period of many years and many decades. And with each new regulation, people think: "Well, that's not so bad. I can live with that." They fail to step back at any point to take in the overall picture -- and to realize what they have lost. And what they have lost is liberty -- and the right to be left alone.
The fact that every aspect of our lives is regulated, directed and controlled has a further result, one of the most dangerous of all: If someone in government decides to go after you, he has an endless array of weapons from which to choose. Even if you emerge from the battle with your life largely intact, anyone in government who wishes to do so can turn your life into hell for years on end, even for decades. It may all begin with some pathetic bureaucrat in a cramped, stifling cubicle. Perhaps someone cut him off in traffic that morning; perhaps he had a fight at home the night before. Perhaps he's just a rotten human being. He happens to come across your name on some document, and he thinks: "I know: I'll go after him. That could be fun." And your life is destroyed.

A still further result is of immense significance. Even with the destruction of liberty in the United States, the great majority of us may manage to live out our lives without being pursued by the government. But many of us will severely limit our choices; we will seek to avoid trouble, we will keep our heads lowered. We won't do anything to draw attention to ourselves. We know that it is unlikely that the government will target us -- but we know that it can and that, if it does, we may have no chance at all. We don't have to be tasered ourselves: we see the government tasering a few people, every now and then, and we know that if we aren't careful, it could happen to us. I can't recall where I read it, but several weeks ago, I saw a mention of the fact that the East German Stasi actually spied on "only" about one in ten people. But it was impossible to know who that one person was. If it wasn't you today, it might be you next week, or next month, or next year. When an authoritarian government accumulates sufficient power, it need only deploy it occasionally and strategically: fear does the rest.

This is where we are now: no one is safe. If most Americans aren't yet aware of it, they will be in the years to come. And this brings us to the latest FISA developments. Before discussing those developments, I want to repeat the most fundamental point about FISA in general. Not surprisingly, this is the point that almost no one mentions. In "Blinded by the Story," I wrote:
I must immediately interject that to discuss these issues with regard to FISA is ludicrous in a much deeper sense. As Jonathan Turley explains here, FISA itself is a secret court whose very purpose is to circumvent the requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The FISA court is no protection against illegitimate government intrusion at all. But as Turley notes, that we are fighting over whether to grant the executive branch and FISA still more untrammeled authority to disregard constitutional rights is a measure of how far we have already marched toward tyranny. And look at this chart to see just how compliant the FISA court is.
If you genuinely want to "reform" FISA, here's a suggestion: abolish it altogether. Go back to the Fourth Amendment and the procedures it requires. Period. Oh, I know: that's far too radical for most of you. It's not "practical." With enough people like you, we'd still be part of the British Commonwealth.

The basic facts of the latest Senate actions are bad enough:
After more than a year of wrangling, the Senate handed the White House a major victory on Tuesday by voting to broaden the government’s spy powers and to give legal protection to phone companies that cooperated in President Bush’s program of eavesdropping without warrants.

One by one, the Senate rejected amendments that would have imposed greater civil liberties checks on the government’s surveillance powers. Finally, the Senate voted 68 to 29 to approve legislation that the White House had been pushing for months. Mr. Bush hailed the vote and urged the House to move quickly in following the Senate’s lead.
In typically shortsighted and superficial fashion, the progressive blogosphere focused most of its energies on the question of retroactive immunity. (Has one progressive blogger ever called for FISA's abolition? Not to my knowledge. I'd be delighted to be surprised on that point.) This was a pitifully thin thread to hold up one's hopes. From "It's Called the Ruling Class Because It Rules":
Chris Dodd is attempting to stop, or at least slow down, this monstrous attack on truth, justice and (insert laugh track) the American way. Good for him. That the protection of fundamental principles of fairness -- to say nothing of some of the foundations of the original conception of American government -- should depend on such parliamentary strategems reflects only how frayed the imitation of a democratic republic that serves as the U.S. government has become. It is now so delicate that the entire edifice could be collapsed overnight. One more significant terrorist attack will certainly do it.

And, dear reader, let me ask you this. Do you honestly believe -- honestly, take a few moments to consider the matter in the privacy of your own mind, and we promise not to ask you to give the game away publicly -- that even if Dodd manages to stop this bill, the telecoms will ever suffer a penalty of any significance for what they have done? The telecoms and their full partner, the federal government, will avail themselves of endless evidentiary challenges and obstacles, they will delay any outcome through years of appeals, and they will dilute, postpone and otherwise render any judgment close to meaningless via numerous other routes. And what about the criminals who designed and ordered the surveillance in the first place? What about impeachment of at least one of the numerous criminals in this administration? If you're serious at all about "accountability," justice and similar notions -- all of which today have been ground into dust by the rampaging leviathan state -- impeachment proceedings would begin tomorrow. Oh, but that's "off the table." Of course. Thus does the ruling class protect itself.
Dodd fought to some extent (and more than anyone else), but not nearly hard enough. At every step, his actions were hemmed in by deals and "understandings" with those who controlled the legislative agenda -- and he agreed to all of it. I may have missed it, but I don't recall seeing an actual filibuster -- you know, the kind where someone gets up and says, "I'm going to stand here and read every goddamned phone book from every goddamned city and state in the goddamned country before I'll let you pass this bill!" And while he reads every goddamned phone book, perhaps public outrage grows as more Americans begin to understand what exactly is at stake: the last tattered shreds of liberty and privacy.

They have been very rare in American history, but there have been such heroes. Once, there was Thomas B. Reed, who had become Speaker of the House in 1889. Reed was unalterably opposed to the decision to embark on Empire in the 1890s, and he stood in lonely opposition to the Spanish-American War fever and propaganda, and to the unspeakable occupation of the Philippines. He fought as long as he could (the first excerpt is from Barbara Tuchman):
Reed's whole life was in Congress, in politics, in the exercise of representative government, with the qualification that for him it had to be exercised toward an end that he believed in. His party and his country were now bent on a course for which he felt deep distrust and disgust. To mention expansion to him, said a journalist, was like "touching a match" and brought forth "sulphurous language." The tide had turned against him; he could not turn it back and would not go with it.

Like his country, he had come to a time of choice.


To retain office as Speaker would be to carry through a policy in the Philippines abominable to him. It would be to continue as spokesman of the party of Lincoln, which had been his home for so long and which had now chosen, in another way than Lincoln meant, to "meanly lose the last best hope of earth." To his longtime friend and secretary, Asher Hinds, he said, "I have tried, perhaps not always successfully, to make the acts of my public life accord with my conscience and I cannot now do this thing." For him the purpose and savor of life in the political arena had departed. He had discovered mankind's tragedy: that it can draw the blueprints of goodness but it cannot live up to them.
In 1899, he let it be announced that he would retire from the House. He gave no public explanation, except to say in a letter to his constituents, "Office as a ribbon to stick in your coat is worth no-one's consideration." When reporters cornered him one day and insisted that the public wanted to hear from him, he said: "The public! I have no interest in the public."

America no longer wanted what Thomas B. Reed had to offer. Consider what we lost over a hundred years ago -- and grieve for your country.
Once, two decades after Reed left Congress, Robert La Follette was vilified for his unwavering courage in opposing the U.S. entrance into World War I, and for his profound opposition to the entire Wilson war program. He came very close to being expelled from the Senate as a traitor. But he never backed down:
ON March 25, 1921, at the age of sixty-five, Robert M. La Follette Sr. took the greatest risk of his long political career. Four years after he chose to lead the Congressional opposition to World War I, La Follette was still condemned in Washington and in his native state of Wisconsin as a traitor or--at best--an old man whose political instincts had finally failed him. But La Follette was not ready to surrender the U.S. Senate seat he had held since leaving Wisconsin's governorship in 1906. He wanted to return to Washington to do battle once more against what he perceived to be the twin evils of the still young century: corporate monopoly at home and imperialism abroad.

The reelection campaign that loomed just a year off would be difficult, he was told, perhaps even impossible. Old alliances had been strained by La Follette's lonely refusal to join in the war cries of 1917 and 1918. To rebuild them, the Senator's aides warned, he would have to abandon his continued calls for investigations of war profiteers and his passionate defense of socialist Eugene Victor Debs and others who had been jailed in the postwar Red Scare.

The place to backpedal, La Follette was told, would be in a speech before the crowded Wisconsin Assembly chamber in Madison. Moments before the white-haired Senator climbed to the podium on that cold March day, he was warned one last time by his aides to deliver a moderate address, to apply balm to the still-open wounds of the previous years, and, above all, to avoid mention of the war and his opposition to it.

La Follette began his speech with the formalities of the day, acknowledging old supporters and recognizing that this was a pivotal moment for him politically. Then, suddenly, La Follette pounded the lectern. "I am going to be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate," he declared, as the room shook with the thunder of a mighty orator reaching full force. Stretching a clenched fist into the air, La Follette bellowed: "I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."

The crowd sat in stunned silence for a moment before erupting into thunderous applause. Even his critics could not resist the courage of the man; indeed, one of his bitterest foes stood at the back of the hall, with tears running down his cheeks, and told a reporter: "I hate the son of a bitch. But, my God, what guts he's got."

This was the La Follette that his friend Emma Goldman referred to lovingly as "the finest, most inconsistent anarchist" of his time. This was the man so fierce in his convictions that he would risk consignment to political oblivion rather than abandon an unpopular position. The antithesis of the elected officials whose compromises characterize our contemporary condition, La Follette genuinely believed that the inheritors of America's revolutionary tradition would, if given the truth, opt not for moderation but for the most radical of solutions.
There is not a single individual in our national life today who even begins to approach this kind of courage. Given the performance of our ruling class, and given the nearly complete indifference of the American public to slaughter abroad and the destruction of liberty at home -- many Americans may not approve of either, but what do they do about it? Nothing -- one would have to conclude that we do not deserve to be saved, even if we could be.

As I have noted before, the Bush administration has altered one part of our situation, but it is not an aspect that concerns most people. That aspect is simply this: what had been hidden and kept under wraps before is now made explicit, and even boasted about. Our politicians felt the need to hide our government's crimes in earlier years. Now the evil walks in full daylight -- and no one does anything to stop it, not anything that matters.

The third paragraph of the NY Times story hints at this:
The outcome in the Senate amounted, in effect, to a broader proxy vote in support of Mr. Bush’s wiretapping program. The wide-ranging debate before the final vote presaged discussion that will play out this year in the presidential and Congressional elections on other issues testing the president’s wartime authority, including secret detentions, torture and Iraq war financing.
A few politicians may condemn torture now and then, but no one is seriously talking about repeal of the Military Commissions Act. Since that Act establishes the basic framework of a dictatorship and legitimizes torture as an official method of United States policy, the battle for liberty and the minimal requirements of a civilized society is over, without the battle even being seriously engaged. The American Revolutionaries would be proud.

The Democrats may condemn the Iraq invasion and occupation as the worst "blunder" in our history, but they will not condemn it as the war crime it is. And they keep paying for it. They are not murderers themselves, but every member of Congress who votes to pay for this continuing obscenity is an accomplice to murder and genocide.

I have expressed the more general point in these terms:
The Bush administration has announced to the world, and to all Americans, that this is what the United States now stands for: a vicious determination to dominate the world, criminal, genocidal wars of aggression, torture, and an increasingly brutal and brutalizing authoritarian state at home. That is what we stand for.

And who says otherwise? The Democrats could -- and the most forceful means of doing so, the only method that is appropriate to this historic moment, the method that is absolutely required if we are to turn away from this catastrophic, murderous course, is impeachment. That is the one method the Democrats will categorically, absolutely not utilize -- because the Democrats are a crucial, inextricable part of the identical authoritarian-corporatist system that has led us to these horrors. They have all worked toward this end over many decades, Democrats and Republicans alike, and now the horrors manifest themselves explicitly, without apology, even with the sickening boastfulness of the mass murderer who is proud of what he has done, and who vehemently believes he is right.

So the dare goes unanswered. These horrors are what the United States now stands for.
This is where we are now. This is what we stand for.

Evil walks the land. We all remain inside, heads bowed, minds narrowed, spirits shriveled, afraid to protest, afraid to do much of anything at all. No one is safe. Fear rules us.

We will not stop it.