June 04, 2005

The Waiting Game

In a number of essays over the last several years, I have maintained that a crucial element in our nation's soul has fundamentally shifted. Recent events have made the nature of this shift clearer. I've seen a number of articles and blog entries which address this issue to one extent or another, but in my view, none of them provides the entire picture.

For example, Billmon wrote the following, which I view as (typically) enormously perceptive and which comes tantalizingly close to providing the full picture. As always, you should read his entire essay. After discussing the Mark Felt-Deep Throat story and identifying some significant institutional changes and failures which explain why, with regard to the Bush administration, "justice has not been done," Billmon writes:
All this may just be a long-winded way of saying that 9/11 changed everything. But it's still hard to escape the conclusion that the American people have had, generally speaking, plenty of opportunities to learn the filthy truth about this administration and this war -- that is, if they were actually interested in the truth, which many of them (up to 51%, judging from the last election) apparently are not.

What the health of the Republic requires, in other words, may not be a new crop of leakers and whistleblowers, or a fresh young generation of Woodwards and Bernsteins -- or even a more independent, aggressive media. What it may need is a new population (or half of a population, anyway), one that hasn't been stupified or brainwashed into blind submission, that won't look upon sadistic corruption and call it patriotism, and that will refuse to trade the Bill of Rights for a plastic Jesus and a wholly false sense of security.

That's a much taller order than asking the Gods to send us another Deep Throat -- or even a Luke Skywalker. It's also not an easy thing for liberals, with their old-fashioned faith in democracy, to face: That the Evil Emperor might have a majority (a narrow one, but still a majority) on his side. But a truth isn't any less true for being politically unpalatable.

Which is why right now it's easy for me to imagine Richard Nixon, looking up from the inner circle of hell and lamenting his immense bad luck in being elected to the presidency 30 years too soon.
Billmon also points to this Salon article, which is similarly perceptive about one issue involved (and which concludes with the same point about Nixon):
As a tool for exposing corruption, anonymous sourcing wore itself out by the late 1990s. No need for unnamed accusers to expose wrongdoing when well-financed characters are willing to go before cameras with embarrassing revelations about their employers, political enemies, celebrities, families, even themselves.

The Bush administration has developed so many ways of manipulating information that anonymous sourcing would now be of little use. Secret "military" tribunals, indefinite detention without charge, torture, kidnapping, dressing up official press releases as news stories for complicit publishers -- these all make the Watergate coverup seem quaint.

In another era, the revelations in the Post shocked the nation and stirred Congress to start impeachment proceedings, driving Nixon from office. The more horrific crimes and misdemeanors of the current White House have been exposed by insiders and outsiders, but so far the wheels of justice have not started to grind. If Nixon were still with us, he'd be envious.
I have pointed out in earlier entries that many Americans, including our president, speak of the United States today as if it is the same country founded over 200 years ago, and that nothing has fundamentally changed. In addition to the profound changes noted by Billmon and in the Salon piece, any serious review of our history makes clear that such a contention is simply not true. Obviously, one of the major changes is the degree of government regulation, regulation which now covers every conceivable business and every conceivable human activity.

Many people, including many liberals, will readily acknowledge this point, since it cannot be reasonably disputed. But I think a lot of people don't appreciate exactly what I mean by this. (The responses to my earlier essays on this subject also revealed that many self-identified "libertarians" don't understand it either.) In a series of posts from some time ago, I talked about "living by permission" -- that is, how we must now ask permission from government before engaging in countless activities, in a manner Americans of 100 years ago would have found unimaginable. Rather than repost those earlier entries, I will reconstruct the central argument I made.

An example can often convey the point more forcefully than any argument alone. As I did before, I will use the example of South Dakota. 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:
Absentee Voting Form
Accident Records
Accountability/Accreditation/Teacher Certification
Administrative Hearings (Social Services)
Administrative Rules
Adult Basic Education
Adult Corrections
Adult Services and Aging
Ag Development
Ag Services
Air Quality
Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Animal Industry Board
Arts Council
Attorney General Larry Long
Authentications and Apostilles
Bills of the 76th Session
Board of Chiropractic Examiners
Board of Dentistry
Board of Examiners for Nursing Facility Administrators
Board of Examiners in Optometry
Board of Funeral Service
Board of Hearing Aid Dispensers & Audiologists
Board of Medical & Osteopathic Examiners
Board of Nursing
Board of Pardons & Paroles
Board of Pharmacy
Board of Podiatry Examiners
Board of Regents
Budget Analysis
Buildings and Grounds
Business Tax
Campaign Finance
Catastrophic County Poor Relief Program
Central Duplication
Central Mail Services
Central Supply
Child and Adult Nutrition Services
Child Care Licensing
Child Care Services
Child Protection Services
Child Support
Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
Cities in South Dakota
Community Assistance Program
Community Health Services & Public Health Alliance
Comprehensive Services for Adult and Children
Constitution of South Dakota
Consumer Affairs, Public Utilities Comm.
Council on Developmental Disabilities
Crime Victims' Compensation Program
Custer State Park
Developmental Disabilities
Disease Prevention
Division of Fiscal & Public Assistance
Division of Operations
Division of Planning & Engineering
Domestic Abuse Program
Drinking Water
Driver Licensing
Dutities and Responsibilities
Election Information
Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT)
Emergency Management
Emergency Medical Services
Energy Assistance
Environmental Plans & Specifications Review
Environmental Press Releases
Estate Recovery Program
Executive Management Finance Office
Family Health
Federal Surplus Property
Financial Compliance
Financial Systems
Fire Marshal
Fleet and Travel
Food Stamp Program
Game Fish & Parks Administration
Game Fish & Parks Commission
Game Fish & Parks News
Gaming Commission
Geological Survey
Governor Mike Rounds
Ground Water Quality
Health Facilities Licensure and Certification
Health Lab
Health Promotion
Health Protection
Help America Vote Act (HAVA)
Highway Patrol
Highway Restriction & Closure Report (Const. Map)
Highway Safety
Historical Society
History & Heritage
House and Senate Members
Human Rights
Human Services Administration
Human Services Center
Job Training
Juvenile Corrections
Labor and Management
Labor Market Information Center
Laws of South Dakota
Lobbyist Information
Lt. Governor Dennis Daugaard
Medical Eligibility
Medical Services
Mental Health
Minerals and Mining
Motor Vehicles
National Job Search
Native American Culture
Notary Public Handbook
Office of Data Collection
Office of Grants Management
Office of Hearing Examiners
Office of Technical Assistance
Office of Technology
Office of the Secretary
Office of the State Engineer
Outdoor Campus
Parks & Monuments
Parks & Recreation
Parole Services
Petroleum Release Compensation Fund
Procurement Management
Property Management
Property Tax
Provider Reimbursement & Audits
Public Utilities Commission Office
Records Management
Recoveries and Fraud Investigations
Rehabilitation Services
Resource Conservation & Forestry
Revenue Statistical Information
Risk Management
Rural Health
Rx Access Program (Medication Assistance)
Sales Tax on Food Refund Program
School Finance
SD Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners
SD Retirement System: Calculate Benefits
SD Retirement System: General Info
SD Retirement System: Publications
SD Surplus Property
Senior Health Information & Insurance Education
Service to the Blind and Visually Impaired
South Dakota Abstracters Board of Examiners
South Dakota Board of Accountancy
South Dakota Board of Barber Examiners
South Dakota Board of Counselor Examiners
South Dakota Board of Examiners of Psychologists
South Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners
South Dakota Board of Technical Professions
South Dakota Cosmetology Commission
South Dakota Developmental Center-Redfield
South Dakota Real Estate Commission
South Dakota State Plumbing Commission
Space Management
Special Education
Special Taxes
State Aid
State Electrical Commission
State Job Openings
State Job Search
State Library
STIP - 5 year construction plan
Surface Water Quality
Tax Forms
Tax Laws and Regulations
Tax Publications
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
Tourism and State Development/Office of History
Tourism: Maps
Tourism: Travel Tips
Tourism: Vacation Sites
Trademark Registration
Transportation Bid Letting Contractor Information
Unclaimed Property
Unemployment Insurance
Uniform Commercial Code - UCC - Filings
Veteran Services
Veterans Home
Vital Records (Birth, Death etc.)
Voting Registration
Waste Management Program
Water and Waste Funding
Water Rights
Watershed Protection
Weights & Measures
Welfare Fraud
Wildland Fire Suppression
Winning Numbers
Winter Road Conditions
Workforce and Career Preparation
Here is the page where this list appears -- and each of the above entries is a link which goes to still more government programs. 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.

Let me note just two examples. Consider this page, which lists the state-mandated requirements for becoming a plumber, and for working in related fields. Consider the detail of the requirements, and the arbitrariness of many of them. Then read this essay about the ultimate origins of such government regulation -- which have nothing at all to do with protecting the amorphous, never-defined "public," but everything to do with protecting already entrenched business interests from unwanted competition. Of course, those entrenched business interests must have the right "connections" to those with political power, and such corruption, including the buying of legislators (by campaign contributions, by outright graft, or by means of some other "trade" as the case may be), has a long and dishonorable history in the United States, extending back to the nineteenth century.

It is always instructive to look at how the government controls what we do in our leisure time. Almost everyone now accepts the notion that government should control business, since almost everyone seems to believe that people are basically rotten and will lie, exploit and manipulate others if given half a chance. The idea of a man or woman in business who thinks that honesty and integrity might be a means to success now seems to be utterly foreign to our way of thinking. Therefore, government -- which people conveniently forget is run by other people, but people who somehow are far more perfect than the rest of us will ever be and not subject to the foibles which plague all non-governmental humans -- must regulate business for "the public good."

But when the government controls our recreational activities, you might think people would complain at least a little bit. They don't, of course. Take a look at South Dakota's schedule of Fishing and Hunting License Fees. If you want to fish for a day -- one day -- you have to pay the government $7.00. The annual fishing fee is $25.00 -- but if the government takes pity on you because you're old, then it's only $10.00. Those are the rates for residents of South Dakota. If you come from anywhere else, the rates are higher.

But I think my favorite fee might be the one for hunting deer -- on your own land. That costs you $17.50. Think about that. You can't hunt deer on your own land unless you pay the government for the "privilege." Now, even if you think the government ought to control such things -- because we have to protect the environment, and wild life, and animals, and the planet, etc. -- that doesn't alter the point I'm making: you 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.

It is precisely the right to be left alone that once formed the basis of our government. Those days ended a long, long time ago. Today, the government doesn't leave us alone in any area of our lives -- not what we do to earn a living, not what we do for fun and, if certain theocratically-inclined individuals had their way, not what we do for sexual pleasure, what we watch on television, or what we read. And most Americans not only accept all this; most Americans never even complain about it. And many Americans want still more government control.

This is not the America of 200 years ago, or even 100 or fifty years ago. This is an America that looks to the government for almost everything, and thinks that is the natural way of things. But of all the things that a population can depend on its government for, the worst is perfect safety. By definition, "perfect" safety can never be achieved. Life by its nature entails risk, and finally the certainty of death. But this demand that government protect us and make us safe -- no matter how oppressive the government must be to achieve this goal, even though it can never be achieved, and no matter what rights may be destroyed in the process -- is particularly dangerous because of how easily it can be abused.

It is also especially dangerous because it is driven for the most part not by thought, analysis or reason -- but by fear. Fear destroys the capacity for thought, from the inside out. This brings us to 9/11, and to the crisis we now face.

The already deeply eroded foundation of our nation received the gravest and most serious of shocks on 9/11. We need to recall the effect that day had on all of us, regardless of our political views and regardless of which party (or no party) might hold our allegiance. The effect was profound, and I think every single one of us experienced it, simply by virtue of being American, and more importantly, by virtue of being human. Here is how I described it in the summer of 2003:
The attacks of 9/11 were a profound cultural shock, and a genuinely traumatic event for all of us. I remember, as if it were yesterday, sitting virtually motionless in front of my television for almost three days, watching the events unfold -- and watching those replays of the Twin Towers crumbling an endless number of times. I think it is safe to say that for many people, including me, cogent, analytical thought was simply not possible in those first few weeks, and perhaps even for the first few months after 9/11. I believed then, and I still believe today, that everyone responsible for the terrible and evil acts of that day should be brought to justice -- or, preferably in my view, simply killed.

What many people felt in those first awful days was simply: We have to do something. We have to get those bastards. Indeed we do -- and that is a feeling I fully share, and continue to experience. However, many people seem to have become frozen in the intellectual paralysis of those initial weeks and months. ... But at a certain point, much more rigorous analysis is necessary, in order to determine the best and most efficient way to achieve that end -- a way which does not feed the growth of domestic and international corporatism and statism, as I have documented it in other essays.

The more I've thought about it, the more it appears to me that many people have remained psychologically frozen in the trauma which understandably followed in the days immediately after 9/11. It is as if the picture of the World Trade Center towers crashing down has also brought down their ability to think in terms of principles, to think long-range, and to think about all the implications of our current foreign policy.

9/11 was a terrible, ghastly day -- but the emotions one felt in its aftermath do not constitute the basis for a foreign policy. In fact, as my earlier comments suggest, they do not constitute the basis for any kind of complex action. Eventually, one has to try to put the horror aside, and to think about the issues and principles involved by means of cold, clear reason, and buckets of it. And one must consult political philosophy and history to try to ascertain what the best course is to follow now -- a course which will increase our own security while not simultaneously feeding the growth of the system of corporate statism which is strangling what remains of freedom in the United States.

Many hawks have not successfully made this transition in my view. They talk as if it is possible to transplant our form of government onto a culture which is alien to it in most ways -- and they talk as if it is possible to engineer a better form of government for the entire Middle East from the outside. And even many libertarians, who condemn central planning in every other context -- and who acknowledge its myriad failures, and why it is inherently doomed to fail -- endorse central planning for the entire globe, while they decry it in connection with running one aspect of a single country's economy.
The significant point is that the aftermath of 9/11 would not have been so devastating, and this intellectual paralysis would not have persisted until now, unless a number of factors had already existed: the constantly diminishing concern with liberty and individual rights on the part of so many Americans, the dependence on government for more benefits of all kinds, for more controls and, above all, for perfect safety, the general deterioration and extremely aggressive anti-intellectualism of our culture and the inability to conduct a serious discussion about any subject at all, the decline of our media into obsolescence and irrelevance on all matters of importance -- and then, added to all this, the determined, unrelenting efforts by the Bush administration to achieve their ignoble aims by whatever means necessary.

In this sense, what we are now experiencing is the perfect cultural storm, and the perfect cultural nightmare: a storm which can easily destroy what remains of liberty here at home, and simultaneously lead to world war, a war which might kill a significant portion of mankind.

For these reasons, and as I have detailed in many other essays here, I do think that we live in a uniquely and profoundly dangerous time in historic terms. This particular combination of factors has never existed in America before. When an administration is known to assault individual rights on a continuing basis, when our government seeks to place itself and all its actions beyond the reach of all law and all restraints, when the United States engages in abuse and torture across the world, when we attack another country on the basis of lies when that other nation never threatened us -- when all of this is known and is out in the open, and when the American public utters barely one word of protest and doesn't object to a degree which need concern the administration at all -- then the stage is set for the ultimate catastrophe.

If and when there is another 9/11 or worse on our own soil, that may well be the end of our remaining liberty for our lifetimes. The cultural atmosphere established in the wake of the first 9/11 has still not dissipated -- and a second series of attacks would probably finish us off as a people. Congress would rush through another, much worse Patriot Act -- one which would give the government control over everyone and everything, since "safety" will again be demanded above all. People will not stop to reflect that the government failed to protect us from the second attacks, just as it failed to protect us on 9/11, but they will be ready to believe once again that giving the government still more power will finally solve the problem. And our officials will be only too happy to take advantage of this fear-driven demand for "safety" to the fullest extent they can. At that point, the government will undoubtedly demand control of the "war news" -- that is, it will demand censorship.

And in the current cultural context, that will truly be the end. As I have emphasized, this is not the same country that existed during World War I or World War II. Censorship was widely enforced during those conflicts, and we survived. (I note, however, that many people were unjustly imprisoned and otherwise penalized and the after-effects were deeply negative, and that the entire enterprise was utterly unjustified and unnecessary in the first place. Moreover, some of those after-effects extend down to today -- including the massive growth of an increasingly oppressive regulatory-authoritarian central government.) But those conflicts were limited in time, and limited by the identity of the enemies we faced. But now, the Bush administration has deliberately created an endless war against a faceless enemy -- against "terrorism." This is the kind of war that intentionally can never be won, and that will never be over. By these means, government power can be extended and consolidated in perpetuity.

I have no solution to this terrible dilemma, except to state the obvious: those of us who see what is happening must continue to speak and write about these issues on every possible occasion, and we must try to convince those who disagree with us that they are very badly mistaken in their views. Perhaps, as the war in Iraq continues on its awful, pointless, bloody path, enough people will finally begin to question those "truths" they have accepted, and begin to seek for another way to deal with the genuine enemies we face. Perhaps a sufficient number of people will change their minds in time.

But do we have enough time before another crisis, real or manufactured, overtakes us? I don't know. Nobody knows. That is what we now wait to find out.