August 17, 2007

Killing Us Softly -- with the Boot Always Nearby, and Strategically Utilized

Consider with me, if you will, several current dispatches from the increasingly dangerous frontier where government power intersects with the lives of individuals, followed by some observations that suggest a curious paradox. In fact, as we shall see, it is not a paradox at all.

First, via Scott Horton at Harper's, we have Matthew Good's description of his treatment by Department of Homeland Security personnel upon Good's arrival at the Detroit airport, after having been abroad in Lebanon:
They were actually very polite and I wasn’t really bothered until they pulled out my laptop. At first I thought they probably want me to just turn it on to make sure I wasn’t hiding a bomb in it. But then I was asked to put in my password and soon one of the customs officers was going through my personal files and photos. Something that really bothered me, I felt a complete invasion of privacy.

I was questioned behind the reason I had a document saved from a Lebanese newspaper, I then explained my interest in middle east politics and that I used to write for Dose and I blog occasionally. This was followed by the question "Do you write anti-American material?" I said I didn’t, that I mostly concentrated on Middle East politics but for some reason one of the officers said that sometimes even Americans wrote anti-American material. I really wanted to say that those are probably the ones that are in jail. They then asked for the websites addresses that I blog on (So Matt, you might get a couple of extra fans) I just thought the wording was interesting, I mean asking if I criticized US politics is one thing but to ask about Anti-American material made me feel like they were insulting my intelligence. I mean even if someone was would they really admit it?
Second, let us note the most recent installment of the ongoing, local Los Angeles version of the Drug War:
Los Angeles police said Wednesday that they will continue to participate in federal raids on local medical marijuana dispensaries against the wishes of some members of the City Council.

A continuing conflict between federal and state drug laws, they said, has created a stalemate that doesn't appear likely to soon end.

Officials with the Los Angeles Police Department contend that it's their job to help enforce the federal law. Council members argue that police raids, at best, send a mixed message about the city's support for the state law passed in 1996 to permit the use of marijuana for prescribed medical purposes.


The council last month placed a yearlong moratorium on permitting new dispensaries in the city while lawyers draw up an ordinance to regulate them. At the time, several members of the council reiterated their support for the state law that allows medical marijuana dispensaries to exist.

On the same day the council passed the moratorium, the DEA raided 10 dispensaries in Los Angeles, with LAPD officers providing logistical support. DEA officials said the timing of the raids was a coincidence and that they were merely enforcing federal law, which continues to prohibit any sale of marijuana.

As supporters of medical marijuana looked on, frequently applauding or booing during Wednesday's discussion, Doan told council members that the LAPD had a positive relationship with the DEA -- which helps with drug enforcement in the city -- and didn't want to risk damaging that relationship. It is also LAPD policy, Doan said, to provide assistance with lawful federal warrants.


DEA spokeswoman Sarah Pullen said Wednesday that the agency was not revealing the reasons it chose to raid the 10 facilities and that warrants for the searches remained under seal.

"The bottom line is anyone distributing marijuana is in violation of federal law," Pullen said.
As the third example for this exercise, consider again (or for the first time) the argument I recently made about the profoundly disturbing and increasing willingness to turn all questions concerning abortion rights -- that is, the right of a woman to her own body -- back to the states. As a few friends and I have noted in various emails to each other, if one grasps the political principles involved, this is like nothing so much as saying: "Let's avoid all this unpleasant haggling at the federal level. Here's the solution: turn the slavery question back to the states!" And just like that, it's the 1850s all over again.

On that last point, I can offer still one more example: the willingness of many leading Democratic politicians to let each state make its own laws about the "problem" of same-sex marriage, an issue I briefly discussed here. And as I noted a long time ago, in the essay titled, "George W. Bush: Traitor" (scroll down past the more recent introductory material), despite my own view that the state should have nothing whatsoever to do with marriage (and such involvement is a comparatively recent phenomenon in historic terms), that is not going to happen in this world, or in our lifetimes. Since the state has taken it upon itself to distribute numerous rights and privileges in conjunction with marriage, it is the most disgusting form of discrimination to deny those rights and privileges to one class of people, especially when that denial is predicated upon irrational prejudice. Once again, the abrogation of basic rights is not a question that is properly relegated to the states, so that one state may recognize those rights while another denies them completely.

With the above stories in mind, consider these especially provocative observations from IOZ:
If you asked me, "What would a contemporary police state look like?" I'd reply that it would look an awful lot like what America looks like right now. I would tell you that subsidized consumer affluence has proven a far more effective method of social control than centrally planned, faux-egalitarianism. I would tell you that someone finally figured out that breadlines breed rebellion but lines at the multiplex for the midnight opening of the next blockbuster do not. I would tell you that keeping up with the Joneses has proven a more effective enforcer of conformity than any book of Dear Leader's wisdom ever did. I would tell you that hope for Vegas vacations beats fear of the work camps for quashing dissent. I would tell you that subtle is better than overt, seemingly random better than routine, carnivalesque better than somber, colorful better than drab. Look at the billions of dollars and man-hours thrown into deciding between a guy from Massachusetts and a gal from New York who evince no convincingly held differences of belief. Has ever a nation been farther from revolution than the United States in the year 2007?
From IOZ's other writing, I think it can safely be said that this should not be read as indicating that IOZ favors revolution as a desirable means of restructuring the world, since such transformations are uniformly horrific affairs: bloodshed, murder, unspeakable violence, and all the rest. I also note that such concerns do not appear to trouble certain "progressive" leaders, who indulge themselves in lethally dangerous notions that revolution means Fun Times for All (and this from someone who proclaims that history is "a favorite hobby"). If I believed in intellectual crimes, which I absolutely do not, ignorance of this kind would be among those meriting the most severe punishment.

But look at the paradox suggested by IOZ's accurate portrayal of a significant aspect of contemporary American life, when that portrayal is set beside the preceding examples of an increasingly oppressive government (and those examples could obviously be multiplied many, many times). Americans seemingly are free in almost all the ways that are relevant to our daily lives: for the most part, we can work in whatever field we choose; we can live where we will; we can buy an endless array of consumer goods, most of which are remarkable only for their very short lifespans, at which point the next generation of gadgetry commands those dollars available to us; and so on. Within the limitations of class -- which is to say, those educational and vocational possibilities that are realistically open to us individually -- and acknowledging the further limitations of race, gender and sexual identity (all of which limitations are conspicuously absent from the Disney-Fox-Limbaugh version of "the American Way of Life"), the world would appear to be ours.

But is it? IOZ's final example, the ultimately meaningless charade of elections, provides an important clue. While the Democrats certainly have different, comparatively delimited policy preferences when set against the Republicans (perhaps the Democrats, or at least some of them, are more friendly to environmental concerns, more sympathetic to the dangers of global warming, and of course, are more determined to protect the bulwark of the nineteenth-century, conservative German safety net, Social Security -- and I note only that the crusader's flame burns considerably more brightly when lit less than a hundred and more years ago), both parties agree on the fundamental question: the state must always have more power, and it must always serve the interests of the ruling elites above all else. And both parties fully agree that the militarist-corporatist state needs war, war and more war. In the end, all the rest is superfluity. But how entertaining it is! By such means are the easily distracted and historically ignorant mass of Americans led to believe that their political debates have Significance, and that we will always look forward to The Most Important Election Ever.

With the non-existent importance of our electoral process firmly in mind (as that process affects the ultimate purposes of modern statecraft, which is not at all), we can see the apparent paradox vanish. Certainly, you may do whatever you want, buy whatever you want, go where you will -- so long as your activities do not impinge upon those areas most critical to the burgeoning state. And what is most critical to the state? Anything that gives meaning to your life in particular, or that brings you pleasure of special importance.

Your life may be profoundly enhanced by the exploration and incommunicable enjoyment of yourself as a sexual being, but it would hardly do to leave the possible consequences of that exploration up to you. So the state will constrict your choices, and thus constrict your freedom to experience pleasure.

Or you suffer from a terrible illness and seek relief from unbearable agony, and in that way you seek to preserve some sense of meaning in your life. Why, the state can't let you decide such matters. Do you actually think your body is yours, even when it causes you unending pain? It is not, and the state will forcibly remind you of that fact. As I wrote in an earlier entry about these detestable medical marijuana raids:
My position is absolute: all drug use should be decriminalized, period. [And for the most part, it once was in the United States; see, "Unwelcome History: Religion, the Progressives, Empire and the Drug War."] Your body is yours; it does not belong to some government bureaucrat, at either the state or federal level. What you choose to put into it is no one else's business. The ravages of the so-called "War on Drugs" are endlessly horrifying: this phony "War" tramples and destroys individual rights at every turn, it incarcerates millions of people for actions that harm no one at all, and not infrequently it murders innocent victims by means of government violence and brutality.

While I understand the resistance of many people to legalizing the use of any and all drugs by adults (although I think their position is utterly wrong and indefensible), the current governmental crackdown on medical marijuana use is truly unspeakable in its cruelty. Countless people suffer untold agonies because of cancer, AIDS and other illnesses. Using marijuana and other prohibited drugs is often the only way they can find some relief. To deny people who experience unendurable pain, nausea and other debilitating and often life-threatening symptoms the sole means by which they can make their lives at least bearable is worthy of torturers.

But then, of course, this is the same administration that has enshrined torture itself as a governmentally-approved and systematically utilized means of conducting its other purposely undefined and indefinable war, the "War on Terror." Both phony wars have the same ultimate purpose: the expansion of government power, and the destruction of personal liberty and of justice. Please note, as explained in that earlier essay, that both Bill and Hillary Clinton also approve the "limited" use of torture. Acceptance of these particular forms of evil knows no party boundaries.
And you may say and write whatever you choose -- except that, at critical moments, the state will remind that, well, no, perhaps you can't. After all, we can never be too careful, and we never know what additional "enemy combatants" are to be identified. It may be that nice neighbor down the street, or even your seemingly kind relative. Why are you complaining? The state is only protecting you.

Our mindless, comfortable lives proceed in their all too easily satisfied way. Look, an iPhone! The next war looms -- let's go see the new Bourne film! The government can now surveil you whenever it chooses -- can we go to Hawaii next year, honey?

So it goes. The earth is moving beneath you in ways that may irrevocably alter the world. You don't even notice. The colored lights blind you, just as the state and those who benefit from its voracious appetites intended. Have fun while you can.

I would say that you should remember that nothing, and no civilization regardless of its achievements, lasts forever. Of course, you don't want to hear that, either. Too many good times to enjoy, too many fun things to do.

The End. As it were.