A Nation in Denial: Duck and Cover Revisited January 2003
The excretory system is a wonderful thing: what you don’t use, you lose. It appears that our Constitution’s protections are similarly designed.
Last year while digesting the aftermath of Nineleven, I suggested (in The Maine Progressive) we all take a moment to mindfully bake a pie, share it, and meditate on the principles our leaders insisted were the target of terrorist threats. I myself took to baking with a vengeance, withdrawing from public discourse at the behest of apolitical friends weary of my alarms and convinced that the nation was in good, if admittedly cretin, hands. Content in the satisfaction of manual work and its attendant illusion of control, I assumed the old “duck and cover” posture and waited for the system to clear itself.
Apparently I was not alone. This season holiday shoppers altered their buying habits en masse, reflecting a creeping national discomfort and a need to palliate the collective dyspepsia. We eschewed plastic tchotchkes in favor of snug-as-a-bug items from Martha’s armoir, cozying up in down comforters, L. L. Bean sweaters, and gas masks, reassured that we are safe and sound in our brand name homes, consumers ever loyal to the belief that this retreat to domesticity and debt will put us right with the Lord and keep me and mine safe from future threats to the status quo.
Years ago the public response to the Cuban Missile Crisis -- fallout shelters, basements stocked with enough canned goods for forty days and forty nights, duck-and-cover drills for school children -- revealed at least a more practical, if overly optimistic, response to the threat of imminent peril than the denial that’s sweeping the country as 2003 unfolds. That the source of our present danger is so ill defined contributes mightily to its ability to chasten – and to silence -- skepticism about possible responses. The nation has swallowed whole the broadly cast, highly indigestible, assumption that the most perilous threat to our way of life is of exterior origin – that old bogeyman, the “outside agitator” – and can be militarily defeated.
Sedative sales are up, as are alcohol consumption, visits to shrinks, and anxiety disorder prescription sales. Cognitive dissonance emanates from the screen in a blizzard of TV “snow”. But as the recovery folks like to say, God keeps sending you the same message ‘til you get it, and, short of being comatose, you can’t miss the sound of startling changes in the air every time you watch TV, hear a radio, or read the paper.
Parked in front of big screens offering endless escapism, we seem to have dozed off, adrift in comforting dreams of inchoate empire and military invincibility. Those screens, by the way, were purchased in record numbers over the holidays from discount chains, whose entire inventory came from countries where labor can be had for a pittance from workers desperate for income because their governments, our new trading partners, are hoarding all the dough.
Trouble sleeping? Pass the Pinot and Prozac. It will all work out in the end. And what do we mean by that – The End? Oh, let’s not go there. We can leave that concern to the new anti-Enlightenment Southern Protestant Calvinist cadre that’s taken charge of our safety, our constitution, and our democracy. These born again Bible-thumpers are sly and ardent purveyors of the very theocracy they decry in nations like Iran. These are not “good old boys”, just as Mr. Lott is not the exception to the rule. (And why did no one ask him exactly what he meant by “all these problems” anyway? I think that would have cleared the air nicely.)
Writer Michael Lind plows right through the snow job. He reminds us that Bush and his cronies come from that southern God fearing and vengeful (rather than turn the other cheek) Protestant tradition that aligns neatly with Ariel Sharon’s view of which people God has chosen to control the oil (for us) and water (for them) in the Middle East. This “violent Scots-Irish strain of Old Testament religiosity… that strongly favors commodity-driven capitalism of cotton and oil over high tech manufacturing and R and D” believes that Jefferson, Washington and Franklin were “infidels and agnostics”. Seen in this context the edicts of the Bush Administration portend a malevolent end to democracy as we knew it, and yet people seem okay with that. How did Americans slip into this state of acute mental sloth, ignorance and gullibility? Is it the carefully edited conglomerate media? Public education that disdains real knowledge? Obesity brought on by the sixty-eight fat calories in every Big Mac eaten five times a week – with fries?
We seem to have forgotten Ben Franklin’s warning, that it is only “A Republic, if you can keep it”. Keep it? Jefferson said, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone”. Keep it -- from whom? Monarchists (dictators) is probably who Franklin had in mind. And keep it for whom? We are handing over our democracy to a group of folks who over the last twenty years have publicly vowed, and have already begun in the name of (whose?) national security, to dismantle, one constitutional precept at a time, an open government that is the product of two centuries of evolution, until by any objective standard it will function more as a democratic (in name only) dictatorship (whose hallmark is arbitrary exercise of power, the Bush administration’s forte) than a democratic republic it should be – one where the people’s elected representatives do things like declare war on behalf of those who will do the fighting, and hold the now muscular executive and judiciary branches in check.
Can we really believe a president is still “elected” if citizens are selectively restrained from voting, or their votes invalidated? Virtually every recount of the valid votes in Florida gave the election to Gore, months after he conceded of course, a fact downplayed by nearly every media source. Bush and his team know they would not be sitting in the White House today were it not for the collusion and cooperation of Jeb Bush, Katherine Harris and a Supreme Court that stopped the vote counting. (And let’s not forget to give the religious right its due.) If these folks have no qualms about rigging a national election, should this not give us pause as to how serious they are about undermining the constitutional bases of our government altogether?
The Bushites know that most of the nation, exhausted from the 2000 election debacle, struggling for economic survival, and cowering with fear fueled by Nineleven and repeated danger alerts, is now asleep at the screen; but not everyone has amnesia, and many people were outraged by the judicial coup d’etat that was Bush v. Gore. Even if most folks didn’t really get how serious was that decision’s threat to democracy, everyone, even Bush voters, sensed a gaping “wound… to the loser…[that loser being] the Nation’s confidence in the judge as impartial guardian of the rule of law” following the majority’s order of “the disenfranchisement of an unknown number of voters” (Justice Stevens, dissenting). The dissenters’ opinions are a plea to our collective conscience.
The Bushites have succeeded in selling the idea that the past is irrelevant and dissent a selfish indulgence, politically incorrect, offensive to patriots; yet dissent is a democratic citizen’s only weapon against tyranny when elections no longer reflect the people’s will. The Democrats have recently begun to don the robes of bicameral opposition in the face of the looming 2004 race. But the American people, frustrated by Gore’s and the Democrats’ 2000 mute cave-in, and with an attention span conditioned by the remote control, rapid fire TV images, and a flurry of spin doctors afraid to tell it like it is, seem not to have the heart, despite a persistent queasiness urging them otherwise, to face the truth of their own complicity in failing to “keep” the republic.
In November of 2001, when asked what the most difficult aspect of the war on terror would be, Mr. Rumsfeld replied: “Selling it to the American people.” An odd response given our obvious vulnerability. What “product” did he think would need “selling”? The wildly inflated military budget whose allotments have more to do with Mr. Reagan’s fantasies than anti-terrorist precautions? The erosion of our constitutional protections?
Consider these recent items from The New York Times:
Electronic monitoring of civilian emails, online shopping, ATM transactions, travel booking, cell phone calls, electronic toll collection systems, and credit card terminals is already taking place. The Pentagon is developing software to connect these sources of data.
The INS has proposed a rule that would force airlines and shipping companies to submit to the government the name, birth date, passport number, sex, home country, and address of every passenger and crew member before leaving or returning to the US. The ACLU expressed concern that this information not be used for a national identification system.
Government openness experts describe the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy as a “sea change in government openness”. Examples: John Ashcroft’s new policy on the Freedom of Information Act directing government agencies to resist attempts by the public to access unclassified information; Dick Cheney’s refusal to reveal to Congress the records of his energy task force meetings; an 18% rise in the first year of the Bush administration of the number of documents marked classified, and three new agencies given the power to stamp documents “Secret”. (This is Mr. Cheney’s idea of “restoring the proper powers of the executive branch” – by whose definition of “proper”?); Mr. Bush’s gymnastic efforts to keep his papers as governor of Texas from public scrutiny; the White House directive, well before 9/11, delaying the release of Reagan’s (and V.P. Bush’s) presidential papers; and a second directive in November 2001 protecting the papers of nearly everyone associated with a president and any of his advisors for a essentially any reason. Until then the Archivist of the United States could reject a former president’s claim of privilege – no longer. This circle the wagons and cover your tracks tactic undermines our ability to assess “how our government has operated in the past” and to reshape our possible future. Without that ability we allow autocratic businessmen (those “greedy capitalists” President Hoover warned of) to edit and rewrite our national history and laws. And people don’t see this as Orwellian?
The list goes on: closed courtrooms, indefinite detentions, dismantled user friendly disclosure systems on government websites that inform communities about risks from nearby chemical plants and maps that located pipelines carrying oil, gas and hazardous substances, government requests to our libraries to withdraw federal information from their collections, insisting that the public does not need such information. Hey, that’s my call isn’t it? And isn’t that my information anyway? I paid for it. And so did you.
Experts say this sand of secrecy in the governmental gears serves to hamper the US research enterprise (as this anti-R & D crowd pinches the one area where we might actually grow the economy), to decrease national security, and to slow down the information highway in one direction, to the citizen, while speeding the flow to Big Brother’s CPU. Whoa there, cowboy, that is not the direction you said we were headed!
Should we pass out the Ritalin so everyone can focus long enough to connect the dots? But neither Ritalin nor Rolaids can give us the will to act. Shall we succumb to a fallacy of naïve faith that everything will turn out fine (since we are, after all, the nation under God) if we just stay home and keep making good pies? Who ever said democracy was static, inherently ensured once established? Certainly not the Founders, who cautioned the opposite, or the abolitionists, the suffragists, the labor union organizers, or the Freedom Riders.
When did it become un-American to have strong opinions in the face of injustice? To be an informed political partisan? To take indignation to the street, or write a strong letter to Congress? To spend a few hours with C-SPAN, or reading your Constitution and Bill of Rights? Start noticing that the neo-Calvinists are reinterpreting those documents faster than you can say “fatwa”. The ancient Greeks understood that truth never brings repose. Turn off the screen, head for the nearest Starbucks, and start talking with people about this. Rabble rouse with a passion for the principles that give you the legal prerogative to do that. Unexercised free speech is silence. In the face of fear it is repression. So use it or lose it. Sound the alarm! The Redcoats are back! And they are making off with the national treasure. We will no longer have the Republic we are not prepared to defend and “keep”.