June 24, 2007

Posts to Afflict the Comfortable Tribalists (I): Both Parties Destroy Civil Liberties

Thus begins a series of posts, perhaps five or six over the next several days (including the republishing of some earlier essays of mine). These entries may well upset those readers who identify themselves as liberals or progressives. What can I say? If you continue to visit here regularly, and I hope you do, I'm afraid you'll have to get used to it.

My purpose in this series is not to provoke or upset a certain category of visitors for no reason. I have a compelling and unavoidable reason: this background is absolutely necessary for my upcoming series on tribalism in contemporary politics. Among other issues, I will be analyzing the causes and consequences of such tribalism, including the destruction in very large part of a principled approach to political-cultural analysis. It is impossible for me to make certain larger arguments in a meaningful way without the necessary factual and historic foundation. In certain crucial ways, those arguments will not be new: a critical part of the most general thesis is one of the primary themes of my "Dominion Over the World" series -- specifically, the unbroken continuity of U.S. foreign policy for slightly over a hundred years, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. (On this topic, see these parts of that series in particular: "The Open Door to Worldwide Hegemony," and "Global Interventionism -- A Disastrous Policy Supported by Indefensible Ideas.")

As I argue at length in that series, and with much supporting evidence, Bush is not any kind of exception to the long-standing policy of aggressive American interventionism abroad. To the contrary, he captures perfectly the essence of what our policy has been for a very long time. He is notable only for the brazenness and crudity of his approach: he has dispensed with the soft, rounded edges (including the hypocritical appeals to our "humanitarianism" and "good intentions"), which were always only a disguise hiding the actual nature of our actions, and revealed the brutal, cruel, misshapen club that is America's overwhelming military power, wielded with terrifying force against a series of nations and governments that never seriously threatened us.

As I put it in Part VI of the "Dominion" series:
In earlier parts of this series, I have explained how the Bush administration's foreign policy represents a continuation of the broad contours of our stance toward the world beyond our shores for more than a century. It similarly continues the policy embraced by all Democratic and Republican administrations since World War II. As Christopher Layne describes it, that policy's goal is to establish an Open Door world, a world that is "open" to both economic and ideological expansion by the United States. The Open Door doctrine considers such expansion a necessary component of national security; see the earlier essay for details. It is certainly true that the current administration is uniquely dangerous in certain ways. But in large part, and this is the absolutely crucial point, that is only because it has been and continues to be ruthlessly determined to cash in on the unavoidable implications of the policies pursued by those who have gone before.

To put it another way, and this is the issue that mere Democratic partisans adamantly refuse to acknowledge: Bush would not have been possible but for the Democrats who had preceded him. The historical record of the past century establishes beyond all question that the Open Door world is one sought just as eagerly by Democrats as by Republicans; in many cases, Democrats have been notably more zealous about this aim, as are many contemporary Democrats. As the inconceivable dangers of wider war, including possible nuclear exchanges, loom over us all, petty partisanship and party loyalty as the primary concern are morally distasteful at a minimum, and occasionally abhorrent in their worst manifestations, intellectually irresponsible, and immensely dangerous. Such an approach does nothing to decrease the continuing calamities that confront us, but only worsens them.
William Pfaff, whom I quote in that article, expresses the same point this way:
[L]ittle sign exists of a challenge in American foreign policy debates to the principles and assumptions of an international interventionism motivated by belief in a special national mission. The country might find itself with a new administration in 2009 which provides a less abrasive and more courteous version of the American pursuit of world hegemony, but one still condemned by the inherent impossibility of success.

The intellectual and material commitments made during the past half-century of American military, bureaucratic, and intellectual investment in global interventionism will be hard to reverse. The Washington political class remains largely convinced that the United States supplies the essential structure of international security, and that a withdrawal of American forces from their expanding network of overseas military bases, or disengagement from present American interventions into the affairs of many dozens of countries, would destabilize the international system and produce unacceptable consequences for American security. Why this should be so is rarely explained.
But there is much more to the similarities between the two nominally "opposed" political parties than the fact that, in each and every fundamental, they share the identical determination to ensure American hegemony across the entire world. For this first installment, I turn to Anthony Gregory and his article titled, "Will the Democrats Save Our Civil Liberties?" I urge you to read the article in its entirety; here are some key excerpts:
Many commentators have called the Democratic victory in the November elections a referendum on the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. They have also noted that the voting public is concerned by the attacks on civil liberties so loyally defended by nearly all the Republican lawmakers in fighting the war on terror. The Democrats, presumably, now have a mandate to reverse current trends in domestic as well as foreign anti-terror policy.

There is little reason for optimism that the Democrats will follow through on this supposed mandate, and deliver us from the evil of the growing police state of warrantless searches, indefinite detentions, sweeping surveillance, and other attacks on civil liberties.

For one thing, Democrats have supported the worst of Bush's policies. Only one Democrat in the Senate, Russ Feingold, opposed the Patriot Act when it was first proposed. Just this year, Democratic members of the House overwhelmingly, and Democratic Senators unanimously, approved the Defense Authorization Act for 2007, which contains frightening modifications of the Insurrection Act and new exceptions to Posse Comitatus, empowering the president to summon the National Guard, without gubernatorial authority, and to enforce martial law during "emergencies" ranging from natural disasters to health crises. More than 25 percent of Senate Democrats even voted for the Military Commissions Act, marking the first time since the Civil War that the federal government suspended Habeas Corpus.


Power corrupts, and Democrats in power have long shown a willingness to shred the Bill of Rights.

Woodrow Wilson arrested hundreds of antiwar Americans, including a presidential candidate, for protesting the draft; deported anarchists to Communist Russia; and imprisoned a movie producer for depicting the British as an American enemy in his film about the American Revolution. (Under the 1918 Sedition Act, it was a federal crime to criticize a U.S. ally, which Britain was.) Franklin Roosevelt oversaw an Office of Censorship, made plans to detain hundreds of peaceful political enemies, imprisoned war opponents, and interned 110,000 innocent Japanese Americans. Lyndon Johnson had the FBI spy on reporters and used the FBI and CIA to wiretap, monitor, and infiltrate the campaign of his presidential rival, Barry Goldwater.

But we don't need to go back so far to indict the Democrats on civil liberties issues. Under Bill Clinton, the police state grew perhaps as much as it feasibly could during a relative time of peace. According to the ACLU, Clinton expanded stealth surveillance of the citizenry far beyond anything seen under any prior administration. Clinton sought to allow the feds to peek at everyone's bank account, have a key to all private encryption and e-mail, and censor the Internet. After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton signed the draconian Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, expanding the authority of secret courts, unleashing the FBI to investigate First Amendment–protected activities, and allowing the INS to deport American citizens.


If the Democrats want to win points as better guardians of American liberty than the Republicans, they can begin by abolishing huge portions of the war on terror infrastructure—the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, and the new presidential powers over martial law. They should then challenge Bush on the principle of the unitary executive, block funding for warrantless military surveillance of the population, and strip away the Justice Department and military's power to indefinitely detain people without due process.

The Democrats, however, have had about as shameful a record on all this as the Republicans, even when they were the opposition party. Now that they have a better seat at the table of power, who thinks they'll do anything to curb the police state they helped so much to build?
I recently reread an essay of mine from October 2006, "The Politics of Lies: Suffer the Children." The central theme of that essay concerns the unspeakable cruelties perpetrated against defenseless children, including corporal punishment, which is still horrifyingly common in public schools. But there is another aspect of that essay that is more intriguingly presented than I had remembered:
Many people believe that there is a final, "revealed" truth. Although we most commonly encounter this idea in religious discussions, there is an equally significant secularized version of this notion. I have discussed one particular secular variation in my essays about the "Idea of Progress." Because this notion undergirds the interventionist foreign policy that is embraced by politicians at all points in our political spectrum, it is of especially critical importance. But the crucial point is this: what is viewed as revealed, final truth is largely the result of the political and cultural realities of a particular time. As those realities shift, so too does the "truth." The evolution of accepted, "approved" Christian doctrine demonstrates this kind of shift very clearly, as [Elaine] Pagels analyzes in detail, but it has occurred and continues to occur with many other ideas, as well.
I will be returning to this theme very soon, when I discuss a certain approach to political analysis that I've only recently come to understand much more fully than I had before.

But with regard to this series of posts designed to afflict political tribalists, this paragraph from the earlier article is worth repeating:
I have recounted the Democrats' complete failure to fight the Bush administration on any issue that matters; I will not repeat that litany of shame and cowardice here. But let us try to be clear about the political stakes here. There are only two overriding reasons to install Democratic majorities in the House and Senate: to undo the unspeakable horror of the Military Commissions Act, and to prevent (if possible) the coming attack on Iran. Even if they had majorities in both houses, I consider it impossible that the Democrats would do either. (See this NYT article for a discussion of how unforgivably modest the Democrats' aims are most likely to be. And if you want to see how the Democrats are likely to act with regard to Iran, especially given the overriding concern with the 2008 elections, read this truly terrifying article about what a Hillary Clinton could very easily do: "The tragedy that followed Hillary Clinton's bombing of Iran in 2009." And not one prominent Democrat disagrees with the foreign policy views that would lead Clinton to launch World War III.)
In fact, as I noted earlier today, the Democrats appear determined to do everything in their power to make an attack on Iran inevitable -- just as they are fully committed to an occupation of Iraq that will last for decades. (As David Swanson observed about Hillary Clinton's appearance at the Take Back America confab: "Clinton never mentioned the point Ted Koppel reported last week and Bill Richardson raised here yesterday -- that she intends to have the occupation of Iraq still going at the end of her second term, should she be elected." But as I've repeatedly observed, this is exactly what the governing class intended and wanted from the beginning.)

The Democrats talk -- but only every once in a while -- about restoring habeas corpus rights. But they have yet to do a single damned thing, even though they've controlled Congress for almost half a year. And in all the talk about restoring habeas corpus -- which I myself have argued at length is the foundation of all our liberties -- everyone seems to have forgotten that the Military Commissions Act also approves and legally codifies the official government use of torture. Does no one care about this any longer? Perhaps it's simply that when your leading candidate for president similarly approves the State's utilization of inhumane, sadistic cruelty, it's better simply to ignore the issue altogether. So much for principles, so much for integrity, so much for civilization. Well done, Democrats!

If one actually gives a damn about habeas corpus and the monstrous inhumanity of torture, the Military Commissions Act must be repealed. This is not a complicated point. The Democrats don't care. They have provided no reason whatsoever to think they would change this, even if they had huge majorities in both the House and Senate. And the exceedingly dangerous exceptions to Posse Comitatus -- which I discussed in "Living Under the Guillotine's Blade" -- appear to have fallen off everyone's radar.

As I've remarked before, my comments on the eve of last fall's election now seem positively mild, given the record compiled by the Democratic Congress thus far. And all of my predictions have come true. With only a handful of honorable individual exceptions, this entire government is an abomination.