Category Archives: Politics
It seems to boil down to this:
One side says, we have a constitutional right, a guaranteed freedom to own firearms. The occasional mass killings that occur are the regrettable price we pay for that freedom.
The other side says, I have a right to privacy, freedom from unconstitutional government surveillance. If that means we are less secure as a result, that is the price we pay for that freedom.
Trade-offs. If you want freedom, you must endure a certain degree of risk. Benjamin Franklin said those who relinquish their freedoms for the sake of greater security will have neither. One side quotes Franklin, the other cites the necessity for prudence, that this is a world more dangerous than Franklin ever dreamed of.
Freedom versus security is not a conflict resolvable by argument. It’s a matter of preference. No other nation I know of asserts as much freedom as does America in our constitution. The British, from whom we claim much of our law and political tradition, certainly does not. You dare not say or publish there what you may here without second thought. In many continental nations you may not deny certain aspects of history. Some of us think such restrictions are excessive, that, in our own case, pulling down statues of Confederate Civil War heroes goes too far. Others say those public displays are an insult to the very reasons that war was fought at such great cost to the nation.
Liberal or Conservative, we tailor our opinions about freedom to our own experiences. I would think some residents of Sandy Hook where so many schoolchildren were slain by a teenager armed with assault weapons might now favor more gun control than they did previously. And if a large-scale terrorist attack like 9/11 were to occur again, plenty of those who refuse to accept the government’s maintaining records of our telephone conversations and online activity would also see things differently.
Asserting freedoms is easy when it’s just a matter of mouthing a political bias. It’s another matter after we’ve watched what can happen as a result of those freedoms. Not to mention the difficulty involved in obtaining the facts with regard to the risks involved. Over the last ten years on average there have been about 56 deaths each year in the US from lawn mower accidents. 29 people died as the result of gun-wielding toddlers. 2 died as a result of Islamic terrorism. But the deadly lawn mower and bloodthirsty toddler don’t get much airtime on the evening news. We pick and choose our monsters, or rather they are chosen for us.
The gun lobby resists attempts to screen potential gun buyers more effectively, a reasonable policy it would seem for at least reducing the number of victims to insane gun owners. But any abridgment of a freedom, they would argue, is an assault on the freedom in principle. Others maintain that any intrusion into our private lives by the government unless sanctioned as necessary by a well-informed judge strikes at the heart of the Fourth Amendment.
Are both sides right? Is neither? Is the issue even resolvable, or is it a perennial source of contention that we must endure as a consequence of the constitution we have and the way we interpret it? The pendulum of freedom seems to swing one way, then the other. The period just before and after we entered the first world war was surely a low ebb for political freedom in this country, when any expression of disagreement with the president’s war propaganda could land you in jail. Other times the interpretation of our constitutional rights was at high tide and seemed permanently guaranteed.
The Supreme Court guarantees racial apartheid in one generation, denounces it in another. In every case the court takes up it’s supposedly the constitution that decides the matter, not the justices’ personal preferences. But members of the Supreme Court are not just men and women, they are political animals. And even if that doesn’t translate into obvious ideological bias, each has her or his own ideas of right and wrong and what’s in the nation’s best interest (or in some cases, his or her own). No definitive, permanent agreed constitution is possible given the fact of human nature, just inevitable argument about what a written document means and how literally it should be taken. Even the oldest religions have altered the content and interpretation of their dogmas over the centuries as the result of changing circumstances and personnel.
As is the case with so much else about democracy, it’s the worst of political systems — except for all the others. At least, it could be the best if we truly participated and could make our voices heard. Loss of representation by our elected bodies for what the majorities of the population want is the true crisis of our time. Assaults on our constitutional liberties are just instances of what such loss of representation can mean.
My latest at Eclectica.org.
Terrorism is a reality, if by “terrorism” we mean an act of violence directed at civilians for a political, social or religious purpose to free one’s land of an oppressive or occupying power, to intimidate or drive away an unwelcome minority, to expel an objectionable religious group.
But terrorism is a tactic, not a goal, and certainly not something that exists on its own. It’s the means by which people with a grievance who don’t have the wherewithal to wage outright war can engage its enemy in a violent way. It’s also the choice of governments when they want to intimidate and demoralize a weak adversary. An F-15 is as much an instrument of terror as is a suicide bomber’s belt of explosives.
Terrorism or “terror,” though, has in the last few decades become more than just a word designating a particular kind of violence. It has taken on a much bigger, substantive meaning, just as “evil” came to mean something that exists on it own like a nation-state or an army. We now take up arms against terrorism in much the same way some people believe they are fighting “evil.” It’s our modern equivalent of the Devil or his agents.
There used to be a phenomenon that was seen and treated in much the same way we deal with terrorism today. It was called witchcraft. From the early fifteen to the mid-seventeenth centuries a large number of women – almost always women – inspired fear in the population of Europe. They were believed to be dealing in matters of the occult, had in fact signed a pact with the Devil and consorted with him regularly, sometimes in mass orgies. Almost anyone could find herself accused of witchcraft for unauthorized healing (such women had preserved a knowledge of beneficial herbs from pre-Christian days), for putting a curse on a neighbor or a neighbor’s child, even for being too ugly…or too pretty.
Kill them all, was the response of the authorities, especially the religious ones, Catholic and Protestant alike, the usual punishment being burning at the stake. A similar response is advocated today for all terrorists by politicians of every stripe and carried out by both liberal and conservative heads of state both here in the US and abroad.
No one knows how many women were killed simply for providing bella donna to ease the pain of someone in pain or for incurring the ire of a jealous neighbor. Such was the fear people had of witchcraft that they allowed the authorities the most extreme measures to deal with it, forgoing what today we would consider any right of due process should they be similarly accused, never mind freedom from religious persecution. Anyone could be denounced as a witch, and no doubt objecting to harsh measures taken against women so designated could make you liable to the same charge. Bishops bragged about how many women they had executed in one day – sometimes hundreds.
This was a fever that went on for two centuries in both northern and southern Europe as well as in the American colonies, Salem, Massachusetts being the most notorious. Ironically, it died out in Spain under the Inquisition before it did in the north, probably because they already had so many heretics and other malefactors to deal with. When it ended, it did so remarkably swiftly in the mid-seventeen hundreds, more or less at the same time the beginnings of modern science was being born. It continues today, though, in many parts of the world – India and Africa, to name two. A woman there can be denounced for having caused the death of someone’s child or other relative through occult means or for just about any other ill fortune that visits someone in her village. And the result is the same: a horrible death, though these days carried out by neighbors rather than by an established religion.
We like to think we have progressed beyond a mentality that believes an ordinary-looking woman can ride a broom at night to have a rendezvous with the Prince of Darkness. But human nature has been remarkably consistent throughout recorded history. Before we cheer on the next drone strike or look the other way when a Muslim neighbor is hauled off to prison without benefit of the law we believe will protect us from such treatment, we should think again. To rephrase words spoken with remorse after the last great witch hunt of our civilization, the Nazi era: If we say nothing when they come for Muslims or undocumented immigrants and torture and imprison them without a public outcry, the witch-hunters may end up coming for us as well.
I supported Bernie Sanders, but then, like almost everyone else, I assumed Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump. I was surprised by the actual outcome but was amazed and then shocked by the strength and quality of the reaction to his election by those who had supported HRC. Like other middle-class “liberals,” I had viewed my side as the more reasonable one, or at least not the one that would descend into vicious personal attacks on the opposition candidate, up to and including a hope for his assassination. In 2008 I had watched right-wing Republicans call Obama a foreign-born, Muslim terrorist who only sought the presidency so he could use it to destroy the nation, pledging that they, the opposition, would do everything they could to frustrate him at every turn and make him a failed president. Now I am seeing liberal Democrats behave the same way, calling for immediate impeachment, believing every accusation made about the president-elect, declaring – as had their right-wing counterparts – that he would not be their president. A university education and middle-class income is apparently no match for deep outrage.
I have learned a great deal about my fellow Americans as a result of this election. I have learned perhaps even more about the continuity of human nature across all classes and economic levels of humanity. And, thanks to the history I had been reading previous to and since November 8, 2016, I think I understand better how ordinary people can come to tolerate or even condone the persecution of their neighbors over ideological or religious differences. I see how they can care more about their own prejudices and injured feelings than they do about the future of their nation or their own offspring.
It ain’t pretty.
“Bring no more vain ablations; incense is an abomination unto me: the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth. They are a trouble to me; I am weary to bear them; and when ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you. Yea! when ye make many prayers, I will not hear. YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgement; relieve the oppressed; judge for the fatherless; plead for the widow.” -Isaiah, as quoted by Frederick Douglass
The founding myths of nations are created after the fact, after the thing itself is secured. Then the story is put about by that nation’s leading historians that the land rightly belongs to the people of that nation because they have lived there since time immemorial, since the Gauls, the Teutons, since Socrates and Moses. History for these historians is no impediment. It is simply ignored. The bloodlines are verified, the big lie of “the people” is given official endorsement by the intellectual elite which exists largely for this purpose.
Every year at this time we renew our faith in our own founding myth, that of the day we declared our separation from Great Britain, our Independence Day. On that day we became a people too. We did not do so, like the Greeks of the 19th century, who were more Slav than Greek or the Italians of that time who varied from descendants of
Visigoths in the north to the progeny of North Africans in the South, because we had inhabited this continent ever since the beginning of time. We claimed a right to self-governance because we formed a nation of free men, free “white” men at least, who deserved self-rule on their own soil as much as did any Dutchman or Englishman.
It was very much an 18th-century argument, based on reason and “natural law,” derived from the great French thinkers of the Enlightenment and from middle-class rebels of Britain’s Glorious Revolution of the century before. The racial — today we would say “ethnic” — argument for nationhood that arose in the 19th century, a product of Romanticism, was about blood not reason. And if there is a good definition for Roman-ticism it is “storybook thinking.” Walter Scott provided the rationale for a Scottish people, Wagner for a German one.
It is no accident that racism in its modern sense flowers at the same time as the idea of a separate nation-state for every people. The formula Blood = Land is as basic to the Wilsonian principle of Self-determination as it is to the Nazi idea of racial purity. The word anti-Semitism dates to 1882, and as should be obvious denotes not a religious but an ethnic group, a “people” (also a modern concept) with a common language and culture. Africans and other non-white peoples became scientifically distinguishable at that time as a kind of sub-species of the higher, northern-European race. Modern genetics has since demolished that idea, but our presidents no less than our intellectuals and ordinary citizens still speak of “race” as if it were based at least to some degree on biology. Think how readily we use the word “bi-racial.”
On July 5th, 1852 Frederick Douglass delivered a speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Rochester Hall, New York. Douglass, of course is himself the preeminent abolitionist, a man who escaped slavery and went on to champion not just the cause of freedom for American slaves but for all people, including the near-slaves of Ireland who received him with great warmth.
The first part of his speech (the full text is available here and is well worth reading to the end) is restrained, even apologetic in tone, though he carefully maintains a wording that places him as an outsider to the festive observances
of the 4th of July. Later in the speech he makes up for his earlier diffidence with a thundering indictment of the American nation, the most famous passage from which is:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.
“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
That was then, we might say, this is now. Things have changed.
They have indeed. There was a Civil War in the offing that would cost the lives of 600,000 Americans, most of them what we call “white,” who as the war progressed believed they were fighting as much against slavery as against the secession of the Southern states from the Union.
After the North’s victory in that war there was a period of Reconstruction, barely a decade, during which the former slaves enjoyed something like freedom. But then the North withdrew and left the South again to its own devices which promptly included a new system of social and economic repression of the freed slaves that was almost as beneficial to their former masters as was chattel slavery. That was the beginning as well of Jim Crow, the de facto apartheid system under which Southerners of African ancestry lived until the latter part of the 20th century.
What kind of speech would Frederick Douglass make today if he could come back and give one? Early on in the talk he gave in Rochester he speaks of the youthfulness of the American nation, how it is easier for a young nation to make changes than it is for one that has been doing things the same way for many centuries. He lauds the Founding Fathers for the principles they espoused: love of liberty, putting country before self, bravery. He calls upon America to make good use of those virtues and end the abominable practice of slavery, though it’s clear by his words that he sees a nation whose citizens would rather celebrate the greatness of their ancestors once a year than emulate that greatness in the present.
The last time I checked there was still no major museum to the atrocity of American slavery or the genocide of the American Indian. Our righteous emotions are reserved for foreign travesties committed by foreigners, not by God-fearing Americans. Our sins go unacknowledged, our glories loudly celebrated.
But there is a school of thought that would say Douglass was too generous in his depiction of the motives of the revolutionaries of 1776. The scholar Gerald Horne is one such. Professor Horne’s research (The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States) argues the American Revolution was fought in large part to avoid the abolition of slavery toward which Britain was moving. The end of slavery would have meant a major economic adjustment for the colonies. The fact that slavery was in fact expanded after independence, just as it had been expanded earlier after it was deregulated by the British crown, taking it out of the hands of the King and placing it in those of the entrepreneurial class, makes this argument seem all the more plausible.
A similar argument has been made by other historians who maintain that the British when they made treaties with the Indians did so more or less in good faith, while the colonists never intended to honor those treaties and waged a revolutionary war largely to free themselves from the restraints placed upon them by the crown from pushing Indian tribes further and further west, in the process destroying their civilizations, not to mention the slaughters that occurred when they resisted displacement.
Those two motives — removal of restraint by the mother country on further westward expansion and forestalling Britain’s declaring slavery illegal — seem to me sufficient in themselves to explain the Revolution without bringing in the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
Among the long list of grievances brought against the crown in the Declaration is the following:
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
It takes a certain cheek to write words like that after the way Europeans had treated the indigenous peoples for the previous two centuries.
Shortly before the Revolutionary War broke out the colonists had fought against the French settlers in America in the so-called French and Indian War, 1754-1763, the American version of the Seven Years War in Europe. During this war some of the Indians who fought on the French side did indeed torture and massacre British captives, something Mr. Jefferson & Co. chose not to forget. But the outcome of the war was that France ceded its territory east of the Mississippi to Great Britain, and French Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (including New Orleans) was ceded to its ally Spain in compensation for Spain’s loss of Florida to Britain. This opened up vast new territories which the colonists saw as their manifest destiny to populate with their kind, the indigenous people on that land being mere obstructions to that God-given purpose.
There is no mention of slavery in the Declaration of Independence and only a political one in the later Constitution which allowed the South to count 3/5’s of its slave population as citizens for the purpose of gaining more representation in Congress than they would otherwise have been entitled to. The very silence of the Founders on
the subject of slavery in their official documents, though, speaks loudly. A nation economically dependent on a system of chattel slavery was an embarrassment to everything those high-minded men claimed to stand for in their fine words about all men being created equal. And, as Douglass points out, then and in his own day there was no question but that the master class knew the humans they owned and worked like animals were human beings. In the early days of settlement as well they recognized the native people’s humanity, depended on their knowledge and know-how for their own very existence. Later, when the settlers had the upper hand and had demoralized the Indians they regarded those peoples with contempt.
There’s nothing uniquely American about our refusal to face up to our national disgraces, the results of which continue to plague tens of millions of our fellow citizens as well as the descendants of those indigenous peoples we exiled and slaughtered. Turkey has yet to acknowledge its genocide of the million Armenians slaughtered in 1919. Japan refuses to take responsibility for their own massacres in China and elsewhere. The Allied Powers of the second world war prefer not to talk about the fire-bombing of German and Japanese cities, which caused more civilian deaths than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If hypocrisy is an indication of a bad conscience, we have a bad conscience of epic proportions. There’s no reason why we could not celebrate the independence of this nation without leaving out the moral and practical work which, more than two centuries later, still needs to be attended to. A true celebration of the Fourth would include a bill of grievances that is still outstanding, starting with a factual account of how our nation was cobbled together out of the land of other peoples, and not just Indians. One third of the United States was taken by force from Mexico, though to what extent Mexico itself had a legitimate right to “own” that land I’ll leave to a Mexican to determine. The consequences of several long centuries of slavery and then the slightly more subtle forms of repression and abuse that followed must also be dealt with if we are ever to be morally whole as Frederick Douglass hoped we would be.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen. We will celebrate the 4th as we always do, with fireworks and hot dogs, no more thinking of the nation’s unfinished business than a child does. We have in effect decided we have done enough. We have other fish to fry — “terrorists” to kill or torture, foreign “enemies” to contain or punish.
The American empire, like all others, will fall eventually, and not all it stood for will be seen as hypocrisy and violence. Wouldn’t it be nice if before that day of judgment arrives we could add to the list of things we did well the setting right of the outstanding moral obligations bequeathed to us by those same sons of the revolution we make so much of on this July 4th? We are only a century and a half older than we were when Douglass held out the hope that a nation as young as the United States could still mend its ways.
Or are we like the drunk who would rather have another drink to forget what he hasn’t the will to face and overcome? Perhaps we are not young after all, not high-minded, and perhaps never were. Someone said a hypocrite is salvageable because he at least acknowledges virtue even though he chooses vice. Beneath our self-inflicted national amnesia there is a broad reservoir of decency in our people not shared by most of its elected officials and other elite. If that decency were to be mobilized and expressed, not even the powers-that-be could resist it and we could claim in good faith and with a clear conscience to be the nation we like to believe ourselves to be.
The term “Orwellian” is common enough that it should be used without capitalization. His warnings about how language molds thinking, which in turn molds politics, is as true for our society as it was for the overtly totalitarian ones that existed in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. But I’m beginning to wonder if a different cultural reference isn’t just as relevant as Orwell, perhaps more so….
My latest at Eclectica.com: