From the Homeland

Instead of a Revolution

Not long ago, and not for the first time, I noted that Barack Obama asserts powers far greater than those of George III. “And we all know what we did to him,” I added.

The words disappeared into the ether.

The revolution will not be televised, because — of course — there will be no revolution.

But why not? And why “of course”? Why is it obvious that there isn’t a revolution?

We could blame what Malcolm Gladwell calls weak-tie activism. Rather than a small group of intense personal friends, we nowadays have Friends(tm) on Facebook(tm).

The difference? Friends inspire lunch-counter sit-ins. Friends(tm) inspire us to a few stray mouseclicks. Mouseclicks seem like activism, but they aren’t. Gladwell writes:

[Clay] Shirky considers this model of activism an upgrade. But it is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.

Yesterday Radley Balko described Obama’s assassination orders as “tyranny.” I agree. It is tyranny. So what do I do? Tweet it? Something about tweeting says inconsequence.

Not to pick on Radley — good lord, we’re all guilty here, every one of us, myself most certainly included — but do you know what was at the top of his Twitter feed this morning? “Real talk, Nashville: The Pancake Pantry is overrated.”

Not death squads. Pancakes.

Maybe that’s just Twitter for you. Radley is a hero of mine. I admire him profoundly. I trust that he is serious and that his dedication to civil liberties is second to none. But is this simply what it’s like to live in alarming times? Or is it a particular failing of our own time? Is it important to keep a certain levity? Or is it a distraction born of the weak-tie world?

Lately I’ve been listening compulsively to Laurie Anderson’s new album. I promise, this isn’t more pancakes. Or rather, Homeland is precisely about the weak-tie world and its tendency to fill every waking moment with pancakes. It’s about the shameless abundance of the trivial. It’s about the dash of poison we learn to ignore:

And so finally here we are, at the beginning of a whole new era.
The start of a brand new world.
And now what?
How do we start?
How do we begin again?

There are some things you can simply look up, such as:
The size of Greenland, the dates of the famous 19th century rubber wars, Persian adjectives, the composition of snow.
And other things you just have to guess at.

And then again today’s the day and those were the days and now these are the days and now the clock points histrionically to noon.
Some new kind of north.
And so which way do we go?
What are days for?
To wake us up, to put between the endless nights…

And you, you who can be silent in four languages: Your silence will be considered your consent.

Oh but those were the days before the audience, and what the audience wanted, and what the audience said it wanted.

And you know the reason I really love the stars is that we cannot hunt them.
We can’t burn them or melt them or make them overflow. We can’t flood them or blow them up or turn them out.
But we are reaching for them.
We are reaching for them.

Some say our empire is passing, as all empires do.
And others haven’t a clue what time it is or where it goes or even where the clock is.

And oh, the majesty of dreams.
An unstoppable train. Different colored wonderlands.
Freedom of speech and sex with strangers.

And:

And you thought there were things that had disappeared forever.
Things from the Middle Ages.
Beheadings and hangings and people in cages.

And suddenly they were everywhere.
And suddenly they’re alright.
Welcome to, welcome to, welcome to the American night.

If this is all a shade too Robert Putnam for you — We lost our freedom because we lost our community! — well, I somewhat agree. There are political/structural reasons behind our new order, and community has very little to say about these.

The erosion of our liberties has the bipartisan support of the Washington power elite. When, from the fluorescent comfort of their offices, they order someone shot, it makes them feel tough. They no doubt feel like heroes. They fear not shooting people, because they know that the other side will. And then the non-shooters will seem weak.

There is a class of people who like to feel that they are making the hard decisions, and I suppose we should be grateful that it’s still a hard decision to subvert the Constitution. But it’s pretty cold comfort.

We might have hoped for the Democrats to check the worst Republican excesses in this area, but President Obama now stands even further to the authoritarian right, and very few dare to speak against him. Now the Democrats, not the Republicans, are the ones saying “Person X is a very bad man,” as if it were a defense against lawlessness.

Even the Tea Party is silent. Where are you guys, seriously? Why aren’t you resisting this shameless power grab by faceless, unelected, smarter-than-thou bureaucrats? You were outraged by death panels, but death squads get a pass? Forgive me if your politics leaves me cold. You say you oppose Obama? Everywhere but here?

Now the Tea Party is busy trying to throw Russ Feingold out of the Senate. Russ Feingold, the Senate’s only non-millionaire, a champion of civil liberties, the only Senator who voted against the USA-PATRIOT Act. If I had to remove the Democrats from the Senate one by one, it would give me great pleasure. But Feingold would probably be the very last one to go. No, he’s not perfect, but I’m not looking for perfection anymore. I’m looking for basic decency.

Timothy B. Lee gets it exactly right:

If you’re not worried about the actual jack-booted thugs staging actual midnight raids in America today, you can’t expect to be taken seriously seriously when you warn that some policy you oppose could lead to jack-booted thugs staging midnight raids at some point in the future. And the party that has pushed relentlessly for warrantless surveillance, imprisonment without trial, and the normalization of torture has no business lecturing us about how the other party’s policies will, eventually, lead us to a police state.

For the moment, few of us are implicated in the rise of the extrajudicial state. The flimsy justifications, the enormous powers, the atrocities are all abstract to us. I have the sense that the words “just this once” are quietly doing a lot of work in the minds of the president’s supporters.

They will remain supporters, perhaps, until it is too late, and until the theories are applied not just to one or two people, but to tens of thousands. What is done now and to one man, could be repeated, on the same legal theory, to everyone: To liberals, those subversives. To conservatives, those reactionaries. To moderates, for their moderation. (Don’t laugh. It’s happened before.) By then it will be too late, for all of us, and in a very practical sense.

The Logical Necessity of a Trial

Make no mistake about it — trials are happening. Trials of a kind, anyway. Consider.

I have read in this space and elsewhere that Anwar Al-Aulaqi doesn’t need a trial. The man is guilty as sin; the evidence is overwhelming; a trial would be a waste of scarce judicial resources. A bullet is cheap, and times are hard.

But ask yourself — who decided all this? It wasn’t you. You didn’t review the evidence. It is, by the government’s own assertion, secret evidence. But someone reviewed it. Someone, or some group, sitting in fluorescent comfort in an office somewhere, free from all public scrutiny. They reviewed it.

You who say you don’t need a trial — you trust these people. You trust them to perform the precise functions of a judge and a jury, only without the safeguards of either. And you could not so much as name them.

You trust their secret review of secret evidence, by procedures unknown and undeclared. You are certain of it. You are so certain of them that you would scrap centuries of Anglo-American tradition going back to King John and the Magna Carta.

That’s some impressive trust of some very new institutions. (I’m curious — do you still call yourself a “conservative”?)

But let’s grant these premises, just for the sake of argument.

Now let’s imagine a different man, one less obviously guilty than Anwar Al-Aulaqi. We’re playing make-believe, so imagine whatever things might raise some doubts in your own mind. Make him white, if it helps.

Now ask yourself: Does this man get a trial?

Maybe he does. Or maybe he doesn’t. But then — who decides? Again, it isn’t you. The faceless, nameless, smarter-than-thou bureaucrats already have that power. The experts. They will decide. Not only will they decide guilt or innocence, they will decide who decides, and when, and how. That’s the real trial. And you have already signed away your right to complain. (Back in the real world, did you ever complain about “activist judges”?)

Such impressive trust, really.

The rule of law, however, is simple on this matter, and utterly clear. All criminal suspects get trials. No exceptions. Not even for monsters. Not even for traitors, whose crime is specifically named in the Constitution. We gave Jeffrey Dahmer a trial, and we found a severed head in his refrigerator. We gave the Rosenbergs a trial, and they gave the atom bomb to Stalin.

Now, I can’t personally imagine a single act more evil than giving the atom bomb to Stalin. Outside space opera, I don’t think it’s possible. And yes, people screamed about how wrong it was to try the Rosenbergs.

But you know what? They got a trial. And it was right that they did.

That rightness doesn’t come from the goodness or badness of the Rosenbergs. It doesn’t come from the clear, obvious guilt of the Dahmers. The rule holding that all suspects get trials achieves something wonderful entirely by itself, regardless of its object. That’s why we have it.

The rule “trials for all suspects” eliminates the otherwise very tough choice of whether to hold a trial at all. It eliminates the temptation to arbitary power. Always. Everywhere.

That’s because the borderline cases are never that far away. Indeed, turning “Should we have a trial?” into a live question turns all cases into borderline cases. The power to deny a trial won’t always and only be used for the Dahmers and the Rosenbergs. Allow it, and it will be present at all trials.

Someone gets to decide. An expert. You invited him to do it. And now he will decide about you.

About That Homeland

The idea that an unreviewable executive decision can mark citizens for death contravenes every shred of our Constitution. Once we go there, it’s probably best to admit that we simply don’t have a Constitution anymore. It’s just a list of quaint old notions someone once took a shine to, a long time ago. It will bear no more relationship to our government than the tales of Mother Goose.

But my opinion may not matter. More than ever, opinions get lost. In a single day, the Internet misplaces more opinions than I’ll ever get around to having. Our world is full of tweets, not action.

I know I sound paranoid. As a partial defense, paranoia is nothing new in American politics. I do wish that more of those already inclined to paranoia could be paranoid about this. Give away the big stuff, and there isn’t much left. The possibility of a homeland disappears. The experts move in.

It baffles me that this isn’t the political story of our time. It further baffles me that a new, libertarian, anti-government movement rose up in our time — and was silent about this issue. Or that it was quietly on the other side.

But it doesn’t actually baffle me that Obama the candidate denounced the clear civil liberties violations of the previous administration… and then that Obama the president promptly grabbed more power. The temptation to power is nothing new. That’s why we have rules, like the right to a trial, in the first place. The first principle of our government is that power be called to account for itself. That’s still worth fighting for.

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61 thoughts on “From the Homeland

  1. It’s sad and dispiriting, the cowardice of it all. Obama is doing it, it seems to me when I’m feeling charitably, perhaps because he thinks it’s the right thing to do or his advisors are convincing him that it’s the least bad option. But I usually suspect in my cynical way that it’s just institutional cowardice writ large. If they don’t breach these civil liberties, if they don’t go all the way and something, anything, gets through and perpetrates another attack then of course Obama and his administration will be finished. It’s political cowardice, that desperate cowardice that has marked so many of his decisions to muddle in the mushy middle and not move decisively on anything.
    The right are crazy and criminal on one side, then the left is cowardly and cynical. I just don’t know how it’s going to stop. Very dispiriting.

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    • @North,

      “If they don’t breach these civil liberties, if they don’t go all the way and something, anything, gets through and perpetrates another attack then of course Obama and his administration will be finished.”

      Wouldn’t you say that it is true that Obama and his administration would be “finished” were another attack to get through, especially if they didn’t go “all the way”? I believe this is true and would be true no matter what administration was in charge.

      This is because, sadly, I can think of no faction in the country – the press, the opposition party or the population at large – that would back up the administration’s decision to not go “all the way” were a tragic attack to occur.

      Based on this, I see two ways to get to the dynamic I desire. One would be for a faction to rise up that could be counted on to defend civil liberties in the face of a tragic outcome and that faction would need to have enough power to prevent an administration from being finished. The other possibility would be to have an administration that would accept being “finished” for the sake of doing the right thing. This is what I had hoped for from the Obama administration and what has been so disappointing in his record.

      While I agree with where you are coming from with regard to cowardice, I struggle with it. (Are you cowardly if something really is out to get you?) Is being “finished” as an administration merely relinquishing power or does it entail the sacrifice of all those your administration meant to serve through their agenda? A powerful force in American politics that steadfastly stood for civil liberties would certainly improve the likelihood that our leaders would risk being principled.

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      • @62across,
        Well yes 62across, you’d be finished either way if a terrorist attack got through. But if you discard civil liberties in theory at least you’re doing -everything- that can be done to prevent it from happening so the assumption is that your odds of one slipping through are lower when you don’t reign torture in.
        If it were this alone I wouldn’t assume cowardice but this institutional spinelessnesss has characterized the Obama administration on pretty much every subject. A mad scrambling for consensus and bipartisan cover on healthcare that verged on the comedic. An utter absence of fierce advocacy for, well, anything. On almost every front both foreign and domestic a series of choices that, while moving feebly towards improving the situation had an almost pathological aversion to dramatic or strong change.
        It’s like his hope and change mantra turned into hope for change.

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  2. I’m not sure why so much focus is put on the Tea Party — two large voices associated with the Tea Party — Ron Paul and Glenn Beck, and both have been on this. The Tea Party itself is calling for limitation of government power, which is the root cause. The main culprits of complicity are the ones who have the power to stop it — our representatives and the MSM — a bipartisan effort should call hearings and an investigation, and the NYT and WaPo and all major networks ought to be screaming bloody murder and for heads to roll. We can’t quibble and divert blame — it’s squarely on Obama, the three branches of government and the media.

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    • @MFarmer,

      Very simple. The remedy to these problems does not lie with the Republican Party.

      I’m much more interested in electing politicians who care about civil liberties from both parties. Or from a new party entirely.

      Both established parties seem to have some good folks within them, including Ron Paul and I suppose Glenn Beck. But neither party, as a party, seems to be the answer, and the rank and file of Republican Tea Party activists don’t really seem to care too much about this stuff.

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    • @MFarmer, Maybe if the TPers were forming their own party Mike then that’d make sense. But they’re just advocating putting the old crooks who set the whole damn mess up to begin with back in power. And for the matter the tea Partiers don’t outline anything realistic to cut (seeing as they’re mostly elderly and militaristic that’s no surprise since the lions share of the budget goes to defense, social security and medicare). Doesn’t seem like a solution to me.

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  3. Here’s what I plan to do:

    Throw the bums out. Find the people who are incumbents and vote for the other guy.

    Come 2012, I may actually have to vote for a Republican for President for the first time in my life (and vote for a “real” party for the first time since 1992).

    I also do what I can online to vote for more rights seated in the individual rather than seated in government largesse.

    What more can you ask of me? I have a wife.

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    • @Jaybird, Wish I had your luxury of being able to vote for the opposition Jay. Maybe I’ll vote for some third party instead. That’s not quite staying home (and I’m opposed on principle to not voting) but I could never cast a ballot for a Republican, at least not as the party is currently constituted.

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          • @gregiank, there’s national, regional, local, and then one’s own circle.

            I’ve no doubt that there are areas where “throwing the bums out” means voting Democratic. (For Congress, Colorado Springs is one such place.)

            In my circle, however? The bums are, and have always been , the Republicans who run everything… and any criticism of the Democrats invites the question “why didn’t you complain about this when the Republicans did it?”

            (At which point I usually say “I did, you explained to me that I use roads and the fire department and so don’t have a leg to stand on.”)

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        • @Jaybird, It’s kindof a luxury Jay, the GOP does not have “actively persecuting and making life miserable for people like Jaybird” in their party platform. Unfortunatly they do in my case. I’ll vote libertarian long before I’d ever consider voting GOP.

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          • @North, ah, that’s true too… and, of course, it’s very much a factor for you in a way that it isn’t so much for me.

            I suppose I could also hide behind the whole “if I had to vote for a party that was good on (issue important to me), I’d have to vote 3rd Party” thing too… given that there isn’t exactly a whole lot of movement from the Democrats (on a National level, anyway) when it comes to equality.

            Which brings me back to the whole “voting for gridlock” thing.

            It’s not a vote in support of a platform.

            It’s just throwing bums out and hoping that the new bums accomplish nothing (given that my two choices are “things getting worse” and “nothing”).

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            • @Jaybird, Absent the aformentioned platform plank I could easily be on board with you Jay. But then again absent that platform plank it’s entirely possible I could have at least considered supporting the party as it was represented by, say, Bush the elder when I was coming of my political age.

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            • @North, if I were to vote *FOR* someone, I’d probably vote Boston Tea again (16th Place, Baby!!!) but here is my current debate:

              Repudiating the party in power
              vs.
              The abject terror I feel that the Republicans will think they are actually supported when they look at the vote count

              I am a full-throated, 100% supporter of the former.

              I am absolutely and positively against the latter.

              And my current debate is to weigh the upsides of the former against the downsides of the latter.

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          • @Jaybird, but Gridlock is no longer helpful. It’s the Executive that’s claiming tyrannical powers. The judiciary is traditionally defers to Congress and the President in times of “war” (we are, without question, in exactly the state of perpetual war Orwell warned us would bring the end of freedom). That’s because the Legislature is supposed to be applying pressure on the President when such pressure is needed.

            But our Congress won’t do anything about it, because they’re so focused on getting re-elected by a populace that apparently doesn’t care about living in the Land of the Free any more.

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            • @Boegiboe, I think a switch may have flipped in my head.

              I think that I see the choices before me as “staying the same” and “getting worse”.

              Out of those two, I’d have to pick “staying the same”.

              I wish that “getting better” was an option, but… well, it seems to me that “we need to vote for Something Better!” tends to result in administrations like Obama’s.

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            • @Boegiboe, I know Boe but what can we do? Hopey mc-changepants turned into Torture and hopey I don’t get blamed for a terrorist-attack-pants as soon as he was elected. I suspected he would back when I was championing Hillary, I’ve never been so sad to be proven right. Full disclosure, I don’t know that she’d have been much of a civil liberties warrior on principle either, but maybe she’d have embraced civil liberties out of spite. She would have -loved- prosecuting her old persecutors for torture crimes.

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            • @North, Yeah – I owe you and my step-mother-in-law for encouraging my wife to vote for Obama in the primary. I wanted Obama in the hope we might get less partisanship – as it turns out we got the same amount of partisanship and a president who just doesn’t seem to be very good at it. Although to be fair to him, the vice of attempting to compromise with imaginary Republicans while the real ones more-or-less ignore him and ramble on about death panels, socialism and cutting the deficit by spending more money is currently shared by most of the Democratic party.

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    • @Jaybird, 2012 will be the first major US election I will be able to vote in. Right now I find the prospect depressing. I’m vaguely hoping the Republican nominee manages to get to the general without having promised to do anything actively unconstitutional, criminal or barbaric. Unfortunately I think the prospects are poor and I’ll end up having to choose between the third party candidates.

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  4. On the main point, I think the collective ho-hum stems from three major things.
    1. Paranoia – The overwhelming majority of Americans are either so paranoid about the dangers posed by ‘terrorists’ or so trusting of Obama that they’re willing to sign over their most basic human right to the judgment of the executive. Between the two I bet you cover 80% of voters.
    2. No leader in opposition – There are no prominent people out there fighting this battle. The T.P is a joke on this issue – they’re consumed by opposition to the Democratic domestic agenda and fear-mongering about taxes/inflation. This falls under foreign policy to them where there is not any coherent viewpoint shared across the board. Democrats with rare exception only care about getting elected and are afraid of being painted as weak. Republicans only care about getting elected and are determined to paint anything the White House does as too weak.
    Without that, there is no coordinated opposition. Who is going to get this in the center of political discourse? Who can I vote for in the Fall that can at least give my opposition a voice? Where can I spend money and time fighting it?
    3. Cult of the Executive – As Boegiboe said above, the deline of the Congress as an institution has inevitably marched us to this point. Admire that gridlock if you want, but the vacuum must be filled and the Executive has been doing it for years.

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    • @Plinko, I agree absolutely. There’s also the huge specter of administrative cost/benefit analysis. Consider:

      Obama becomes civil rights warrior. Torture stops. America’s soul is saved.
      His reward: A miniscule proportion of todays most plugged in commentators and hopefully a majority of historians in the distant future will see stars and love him forever. Everyone else yawns.

      His risk: One terrorist attack slips through, all his relaxed “security measures” turn into an exploding bomb around his neck that blows up his administration. He’s swept from power and spit on in the streets.

      When viewed with a cold political lizard like cost/benefit brain it’s a loosing strategy. I consider this proof that Obama’s just a politician like all the rest. Nothing remakable about him except some extra mellonin in his hide.

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  5. Thanks for the Feingold advocacy. Just attended a rally in which Russ Feingold appeared with Barack Obama, FWIW. I’ll make a prediction: Anwar al-Awlaki will not be assassinated under this administration. That doesn’t diminish the significance of the power grab, but it is worth preserving the distinction between legal claims and actual actions in the world.

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      • @Dan Miller, Not saying otherwise. We’d find out eventually – not saying we’ll know in real time. Jst saying that whatever the visibility, it’s not actually gonna happen (obviously I’m going out on a limb on that). I think if it did, at least some of the outrage Jason rightly calls for would materialize (and on that, too, I could be very wrong). But even if it doesn’t happen, the damage is profound if they prevail legally, because any subsequent president could take the action. All I’m saying is as harmful as that is, it’s still worth keeping account of what has occurred and what hasn’t. Some have approached this matter as if that is a distinction that is flat out doesn’t exist, much less does it matter. I’m just saying it exists, however much you think it matters.

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  6. Regarding weak-tie activism, I remember hearing an interview with an anarchist sufi writer on French television in which he said that there would be a cultural shift when people who cared realized all at once how counterrevolutionary the Internet is. I don’t know that I agree, but I still remember that comment.

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