For Sale: Slightly Used Country; Needs Work

(Well, I certainly hope macho dentist Walter “Small Dick” Palmer is returned to Zimbabwe to enjoy a few years in one of their prisons or better, shot.)

 

The non-American readers out there may be a bit in the dark concerning the government of the United States, inasmuch as it is virtually unique among the great powers. (Well, in addition to electing some truly stupid people to office.)  Unlike the parliamentary systems in Europe, where the actual head of government, the Prime Minister (or Chancellor), is elected by the members of the assembly, the parliament, the US has a presidential system, in which the head of government (who is also head of state), the President, is elected by the people (well, more or less). The Prime Minister generally remains in power so long as he holds the support of the parliament, either through his party or coalition of parties, whereas the American President serves a fixed term of four years and can be reelected once. There are many variations on these two basic systems, but the result is that the US has a representative democracy very different from those organized along parliamentary lines.

A Chancellor

A Chancellor

The President

The President

A Prime Minister

A Prime Minister

One major difference is the essential separation of the executive from the legislative assemblies, the Congress, which means the President and his party may not control the legislative bodies (as is presently the case). Many feel this is something of a virtue, since the two branches can check one another, and given the composition of Congress these days, getting nothing done may not be such a bad thing.
On the other hand, the system lends itself well to an increasingly powerful executive, who does not depend upon the support of the assembly to stay in power, at least for the next four years. He can veto any legislation, and while his veto can be overridden, it takes a two/thirds vote in both houses of Congress, not an easy task. Congress can impeach and throw out the President, but this is extremely difficult: only two Presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill “I did not have sex with that woman” Clinton) have had Articles of Impeachment passed against them. In both cases the motives were blatantly political, and both were acquitted.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson

Meanwhile, the power of the Presidency has grown steadily, both because of the changing nature of the country and world in the last couple of centuries and because no political institution, particularly an executive, is going to surrender any power if it can help it. And crises like World War II and 9/11 always result in new powers that are virtually never given up – the President can unilaterally send military forces into combat and more recently, execute without trial anyone deemed an enemy, including American citizens. Further, the President can game the system established by the Constitution: Executive Privilege, for example, is routinely abused, and the Executive Order, whose Constitutional basis is vague indeed, allows him to circumvent Congress.
The other big difference is the fixed term, which means loss of popular support has no immediate effect on the incumbent. After the experience of FDR the President was limited to two terms, a wise decision (despite my admiration for Roosevelt), but no such limitation exists for the Congress, and big money, citizen stupidity and the power of incumbency almost guarantee lifetime tenure, especially in the Senate with its six year terms. And regularly scheduled elections mean non-stop campaigning and money-raising.  No country in the history of the world has a campaigning period even remotely as long or expensive as America now does; it is at present more than a year to the general election and the candidates are already out in full force.  Members of the House of Representatives serve only two years, which means these guys are already sniffing out new money and prostituting themselves the moment they are elected. The single most important event in the life of a Congressman is not the vote but the fund raiser.
Along with being familiar with British parliamentary government, the Founding Fathers were also steeped in classical history and looked to Greece and Rome for models of democracy. They rejected the Athenian democracy, in which the assembly had the absolute last word on everything, as too inclined to instability and mob rule and favored the Roman Republic, which was successful over a half millennium. The Republican government was in practice an oligarchy of wealth centered in the Senate, but it was structurally democratic in that the citizens, through their assemblies, elected and legislated. This might actually be a description of the American government, except that the American oligarchy of wealth is not a group within the government but rather individual billionaires and corporations, who are essentially interested in their own concerns. The Roman Senator was of course motivated by enhancing his image and influence, but for four hundred years that came from actually serving the state.

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Too democratic

Too democratic

Besides, for all their democratic inclinations the economically successful men who wrote the Constitution did not completely trust the common folk. They knew what had happened to Athens. So, there would be a “people’s” assembly, the House of Representatives, where members would serve only two years, mimicking the amateur assemblies of Athens and Rome and insuring the body reflected the changing ideas of the common folk. The Senate would be more akin to the like-named body in Rome (and not so much the House of Lords), and serving for six years, the Senators would constitute a wiser and more capable group of legislators. (And also a somewhat less than representative body: every state has two Senators regardless of population.)
Further, the President (and Vice President) would not be directly elected by the often uneducated and easily misled people, but by electors selected in some manner by the states, presumably from the pillars of the community. There was apparently also some anticipation that the process would not always produce a clear winner, allowing Congress to make the final decision.
Finally, there was the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, which essentially states that there are areas where even the theoretically sovereign will of the people cannot go – at least without incredible difficulty. This of course limits the power of the people and makes the state less democratic, unlike fifth century Athens, where a majority in the assembly, which any citizen could attend, could pass any law it pleased. Period. Now, that is really putting your faith in the political wisdom of the people. I am, however, unwilling to trust my free speech to religious zealots, politically correct airheads, professional patriots and above all politicians.

The greatest political document ever

The greatest political document ever

Well, a marvelous and incomparable document, but it did not all work out as the Fathers had hoped. Parties rapidly emerged and the growing need for money followed, gradually producing more or less professional politicians (but not necessarily good rulers), even in the so-called people’s House. Gerrymandering, party power and economic clout conspired to make even a seat in the House a potential life-time job, for which one needed to continually campaign. Incidentally, in Republican Rome once the candidates were formally announced – only twenty-four days before the election! – a candidate seeking votes identified himself (as if the huge entourage were not a clue) by wearing an artificially whitened toga; it was candidus (lustrous white), and he was a candidatus.
For reasons not entirely clear to me – the winner takes all rule and the broad ideology of the parties are certainly important – the United States has essentially developed a two-party system. It is extremely difficult to achieve federal and even state office if you do not run as a Democrat or a Republican, and third party challenges seem only to guarantee one or the other of the two major parties wins the White House. This locks out differing ideas, since although there are factions within the major parties, they after all are parties, with a national party line. The parliamentary system provides a venue for new groups to appear and influence decision-making in the legislature, and the need to form coalitions schools the representatives in comprise, which is desperately lacking in the American system.
In the United States it is almost as if the Democratic and Republican parties were part of the governmental structure. They are the only parties to regularly hold state primaries, which are paid for by the taxpayers, even though many of those citizens will not be permitted to vote in them. Further, the two earliest primaries, which attract immense media attention, are in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are primarily rural, white and well off, hardly representative of the country as a whole. And Iowa is apparently packed with Tea Party and Christian screwballs, compelling the Republican Party to make stupidity part of its platform.
In fact, in some ways the United States is a one-party state. True, the underlying ideology of the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans is different, especially when their less moderate members are considered, so their legislative agendas differ. Yet, the basic concern of the vast majority of the politicians of both parties is getting reelected, which means raising money. There are a few, like Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, whose money comes primarily from the small folk, but this is extremely rare, and most all candidates are going to head for the big teats, which means billionaires and corporations, especially the latter. Granted, George Soros is not going to give serious money to a conservative nor Rupert Murdoch to a liberal, but corporations are not so fussy and will dish it out to anyone who might aid their business environment, which appears to include people in both parties.

Sheldon Adelson - part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Sheldon Adelson – part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Koch brothers - majority owners of the Republican Party

Koch brothers – majority owners of the Republican Party

George Soros

George Soros

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch

The American democracy is being bought and sold every election cycle, while candidates who have accepted millions from this or that individual or business are claiming such does not make them beholden to the donor. Sure, multi-nationals love to throw away money.
How did it come to this? The Fathers created a wonderful document in the Constitution, one that with some revisions has carried the nation through two centuries of dramatic change in the world. They were on the verge of the industrial age and knew serious developments were afoot, but one thing they apparently did not completely fathom was the potential impact of marketing. In the eighteenth century marketing was hanging a sign outside your pub or placing a simple ad in a newspaper; candidates marketed themselves with rallies, speeches and broadsheets. As mass marketing developed in the twentieth century, especially with the advent of radio and television, politicians had no choice but to take advantage of it – and the cost of trying to get elected skyrocketed.
Further, large corporations began emerging in the nineteenth century and businessmen certainly appreciated the advantage of political influence, especially when the government began attempting to regulate them in the late nineteenth century. The development of multinationals has made matters worse, inasmuch as they control huge amounts of wealth and are to a good degree stateless. They consequently have even less reason to be concerned with the interests of any host county, and buying politicians, however self-serving, ignorant or destructive to the country they might be, is now part of doing business. What’s good for General Motors (or Exxon or Goldman-Sachs or Bank of America) is clearly not what’s good for America, but since the Supreme Court decided corporations are “persons” they are entitled to contribute staggering sums of money to candidates who will help them makes America a better place – for shareholders.

Some of the good folks whoPfizer.svg[1] are bringing you America:200px-Boeing-Logo.svg[1]Apple_logo_black.svg[1]250px-Bank_of_America_logo.svg[1]300px-Lockheed_Martin.svg[1]Microsoft_logo_(2012).svg[1]250px-Time_Warner_wordmark.svg[1]Koch_logo.svg[1]Halliburton_logo.svg[1]New_Walmart_Logo.svg[1]ING_Group_N.V._logo.svg[1] Monsanto_logo.svg[1]194px-General_Motors.svg[1]222px-Exxon_Mobil_Logo.svg[1]150px-Goldman_Sachs.svg[1]150px-General_Electric_logo.svg[1]
My mother country is screwed.

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Free Speech. Where?

Freedom of speech is easily the most important of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, the most important freedom in any society.  If the people can say and write what they please, a government will have a difficult time becoming repressive, at least against the will of the people.  (There are clearly many who do not care what the government is doing so long as life is comfortable – five thousand years of civilization has not been so much a march towards greater freedom as towards greater comfort.)  Free expression is at the same time a fragile entity, easily damaged by political, economic and even social concerns.  Even liberal governments and politicians are very uncomfortable with free speech.  They do not like to be questioned or criticized or circumvented, and they certainly do not like to be made fun of.

 

The greatest threat to free expression inevitably appears when a society’s security is being threatened or perceived to be threatened.  Security is far and away the most common justification for enhancing the power of the government and at the same time checking the free speech that might be employed to expose and oppose the state’s actions.  Threats to the country are also the strongest motivation for the people themselves to do the government’s work and curtail the speech of those with unpopular and thus unpatriotic points of view.  Any American publically suggesting in 1942 that the Japanese were not entirely evil and had some reason to attack the US would immediately receive a personal and violent lesson in the limits of expression during wartime.  The popular protests against the war in Vietnam were tolerated in part because the state failed to demonstrate that there was in fact a serious threat to America.  It also allowed its credibility to be shattered by a news media permitted virtually unlimited access to the war, a situation that was corrected during the war against Iraq, when “embedded” reporters were fed carefully crafted reports.

 

The popular repression of speech that followed the 9/11 attack was particularly virulent, undoubtedly because the United States itself had been assaulted and we were suddenly at war with shadowy figures who might be lurking right around the corner.  Any criticism of government policies constituted a lack of patriotism, and even the barest suggestion that the terrorists had anything to do with our policy in the Middle East or that they were sacrificing their lives for a principle, benighted though it was, was akin to treason.  An admittedly insensitive crack about blowing up the Pentagon resulted in death threats and demands from individuals and state politicians for my dismissal from the university.  Meanwhile, the administration of the university, a place that should be a bastion of free speech, while justifiably criticizing my remark, refused to defend my right to make it and treated me as road kill,  requesting my retirement.  This attitude is of course that accepted by government, and in response to my comment the presidential press secretary publically stated that “Americans need to be careful about what they say!”  This is an outrageous idea and represents the sort of governmental intimidation that was subsequently built into the Patriot Act.

I worked here

I worked here

 

A more insidious threat to free speech comes with our attempts at social engineering, a questionable enterprise.  The unvoiced premise lurking behind much of this thinking is that freedom of expression means freedom of popular expression or decent expression or socially useful expression, all things that hardly need Constitutional protection.  So we now talk about “hate speech” and “fighting words,” that is, speech that is not popular, decent or socially useful but in fact constitutes a threat to social harmony and public safety.  This is all pernicious nonsense.  The only valid parameter for limiting speech is whether or not it is likely to cause immediate physical danger.  Inciting a crowd to riot would fall into this category, but hate speech that might indirectly lead to some problem in the future does not.  In the second case who would decide when offensive expression is offensive enough to be considered a danger to society?  Some government body?  Popular vote?  Do this and freedom of speech begins to crumble.  Or the “fighting words” notion, which maintains one cannot use speech that is so offensive to an individual that he assaults the speaker.  More nonsense.  You may be stupid for saying such provocative things, but speech can never justify doing violence to someone.

 

People seem to have a difficult time recognizing the burden of free expression: tolerance.  Your right to say what you please entails tolerating what others choose to say, no matter how disgusting you find it.  In fact, your duty as a citizen is to defend that person’s right to spout hate or nonsense. The grandest moment of the ACLU was defending the right of American Nazis to march through a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, a principled act that led to the resignation of many members.  These hypocrites were in effect saying “We believe in free speech, but…,” a statement that guarantees that the speaker is ready to limit that free speech.  Many appear to believe there is a clause in the Constitution that guarantees the right to get through life without ever being offended.

Even these idiots have the right to spew their venom

Even these idiots have the right to spew their venom

 

Truth is clearly not a necessary component of free expression.  If it were, politicians and advertisers would be in trouble.  Apart from the fact that it is often difficult to define precisely what is true and what is not, speaking nonsense is certainly protected by the right of free speech.  There is, however, a specific case of untrue speech being prohibited.  In Germany and Austria denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense, which is an outrageous abridgement of free expression, designed, presumably, to hinder the emergence of obnoxious and threatening groups.  While it is clear why this particular topic is a sensitive one in these countries, this is a dangerous practice.  Who is to decide what bits of history may not be denied or distorted?  When is an event in the past so horrible that one is punished for saying it did not happen?  Why not outlaw all speech which appears stupid or ignorant?

 

In Israel it is now illegal to publically support any agency or NGO engaged in boycotting Israeli products or services as a protest against the country’s policies regarding the Palestinians.  People who do so are “delegitimizing” Israel, an assertion that now takes a place alongside “anti-Semitism” as a standard reply to critics of Israel.  It may seem a small thing in a society that enjoys wide freedom of speech, but while an Israeli citizen is free to say all sorts of nasty things about his country, he cannot support or approve any boycott directed against Israel, which is to say, there is one traditional form of protest that is denied to him.  Asserting that it is criminal to “delegitimize” the state comes seriously close to punishing people who insult the state.

 

And now this Israeli – or at least Likud – assault on free speech in the interest of politics may be coming to America.  Opposing Israeli policies in Palestine, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has initiated an academic boycott of Israeli institutions and universities, which has now elicited a response from Israel’s many friends in the Congress.  The proposed Protect Academic Freedom Act provides that any academic institution that participates in the BDS movement will be denied federal funds under the Higher Education Act.  This is bad enough, but the definition of “participate” is breathtaking: “The Secretary shall consider an institution of higher education to be participating in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars if the institution, any significant part of the institution, or any organization significantly funded by the institution adopts a policy or resolution, issues a statement, or otherwise formally establishes the restriction of discourse, cooperation, exchange, or any other involvement with academic institutions or scholars on the basis of the connection of such institutions or such scholars to the state of Israel.”  Whatever one thinks of the BDS movement and the academic boycott, this ironically named bill would obviously put limits on free speech on the American university campus.

 

The man who introduced this constitutionally questionable act, Rep. Peter Roskam, explained: “These organizations are clearly free to do what they want to do under the First Amendment, but the American taxpayer doesn’t have to subsidize it. The American taxpayer doesn’t have to be complicit in it.  And the American taxpayer doesn’t have to play any part in it.”  (A perfect of example of “I believe in free speech, but…”)  So, federal funding of academic institutions that merely fund an organization that in turn makes a statement against a foreign country is somehow an unreasonable burden for American taxpayers to bear?  And only in the case of this one particular country?  The Congressman does not explain why it is on the other hand fine that the American taxpayer has to be complicit in and play a part in sending $3 billion dollars a year to a country that is universally recognized to be blatantly violating international covenants the civilized world is pledged to uphold.  How far is this from denying federal aid to a university that allows its faculty to publically support a boycott targeting American policy?  Well, probably very far, since the Congress often seems more concerned about Israel than the United States.

A bit frayed these days

A bit frayed these days

I don't need to show you no stinking Constitution

I don’t need to show you no stinking Constitution

 

Freedom of speech is the most fragile of our freedoms, since it is so easy to slowly pick away at it, to eliminate free expression in this or that seemingly small area in the interest of social and political welfare.  And most Americans will simply not care because it does not affect them.

 

A final historical observation concerning free expression.  While Athens was engaged in what would be a life and death struggle against Sparta, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the comic play-write Aristophanes was producing very successful satires of Athenian society and policy.  Not only did he constantly lampoon the leaders of Athens, but he openly attacked the Athenian empire and the war itself, and he did this in a state that lacked any constitutional guarantees whatsoever, a state where the people in their assembly could take virtually any action they pleased.  It is hard to find a greater commitment to free speech.

"Take your war and shove it."

“Take your war and shove it.”

 

 

No Worry Unless You Have Something To Hide

(I have nothing novel to say here; even allowing for the technology, no state in antiquity, even Egypt under their god-king, experienced this level of surveillance. I just need to vent on this subject.)

 

President Obama’s assault on the First and Fourth Amendments is in full swing. (The Second is completely safe.) It was bad enough to learn what our government was doing – in our name – under the Bush administration, but Obama’s security apparatus and his actions to protect it are staggering. We may no longer have renditions and blatant torture (force-feeding and prolonged periods of solitary confinement may qualify), but a Democratic and supposedly progressive President is actually laying the foundations of a police state, and Congress is helping, having found a bipartisan cause.

 
The public had long been aware, if unconcerned, of the constitutionally and morally questionable things the CIA has been doing, especially in conjunction with our seemingly endless wars, but inasmuch as the operations generally affect only other countries, the American public is mostly unconcerned. The recently revealed surveillance programs of the NSA, however, do affect Americans, and while most of our citizens have probably never heard of the Fourth Amendment, they do understand when they are being spied on. And so do our closest allies, even if their spooks and governments are enthusiastically cooperating with ours.

Amerikanische Reichssicherheitsdienst

Amerikanische Reichssicherheitsdienst

The situation has become even more threatening – and surreal – with the revelation of the Insider Threat Program, something right out of Stalinist Russia. By this directive federal employees and contractors are legally bound to watch for and report “high-risk persons or behavior” among their fellow workers, and failure to do so could result in penalties, including criminal charges. And any leaks concerning the program and its operation will be treated as espionage, even if the leak reveals illegal behavior. The only thing missing to complete the journey back to Moscow in the 1930s is any reference to “counterrevolutionaries, Trotskyites and wreckers.” Will this vigilance be rewarded with medals? Perhaps “Hero of America” or “Order of Washington”?

 
But wait, there’s more! In the name of security the government will also violate the First Amendment! That’s two Amendments for the price of one administration! No government has been friendly to leakers, not because of the typically stated reason of security but since the leak usually reveals the government has been doing something questionable, like monitoring all private communications. Under the Great Engineer of American Security, however, leakers are now being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917, even though they are not passing information to a foreign government, which I mistakenly thought was part of the basic definition of espionage.
Unless of course the news media is considered a foreign entity, which is certainly the view of every autocrat, even the elected ones, like Recep Erdoğan of Turkey, who is close to setting records for jailing journalists. The traditional method for punishing journalists, like Judith Miller of Valeria Plame fame, is to demand the names of their sources and then jail them for contempt when they will not reveal them. In the case of John Risen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was threatened with contempt if he did not testify against a former CIA source, a federal appeals court has just ruled that he was not covered by the First Amendment. This means that potentially every reporter is facing jail if he does not reveal sources.

 
And now there is a new twist: the journalist receiving the leaked information can also be charged with committing a crime, the exact nature of which the administration has not made clear. Journalist Glenn Greenwald was recently threatened with such a charge. Does this mean if you find a pile of classified documents on the ground, read them and talk to your friends about them, you are eligible for criminal prosecution? On the other hand, the government can spy on you all it wants apparently. For years the government has been monitoring Risen’s phone calls and emails, not in pursuit of a terrorist but to discover his sources. So, the security agencies can acquire taps on innocent civilians for the fairly specious reason that someone is revealing things to them.

 
The public opposes the NSA PRISM program by a 2 to 1 margin, but a recent effort to halt it was defeated in Congress, the amendment to the Defense bill being the subject of intense lobbying by the President (the liberal guy), the spooks and the contractors who make stuff for the spooks. Those who support the NSA of course talk about damaging our security, suggesting they know better than the average American, which has some basis in truth since we can find out virtually nothing about the program – or that it even existed until Snowden popped up. “Trust us” is not very convincing, coming from people who have regularly lied to the public.

 
The biggest joke of all is the fact that Obama touts his administration as the most transparent ever, when in fact it is actually one of the most opaque in history. The secrecy mania is out of control. In fiscal year 2011 more than 92 million documents were classified at a cost of more than $11 billion; the full numbers are unknown because at some agencies classification and its cost are classified. Are these all secrets that could harm the country if revealed?  That is hard to believe.  Classification covers mistakes, malfeasance, outright criminality and violations of the Constitution and civil rights, and very important, it enhances the status of the bureaucrat doing the classification.

 
And all this behavior for what? Because without such massive surveillance and secrecy one or two terrorists might blow up some people? Is this a sufficient reason to assault our own Constitution and freedom, especially when innocents are being killed in far greater numbers because of our love affair with the gun and inclination to solve problems with violence? Surveying the increased and constitutionally dubious powers of the government and its security apparatus and the concomitant free fall of America’s image in the world, I can only conclude that the 9/11 terrorist have won.

(The title is classified.)

We are now beginning to see the staggering extent to which the Patriot Act has undermined our Constitution and privacy, thanks to the actions of a man who is being labeled a traitor by politicians and a hero, if a self-righteous one, by more sensible people.  The broad and ambiguous powers granted the FBI are enough of a cause for concern, and now we learn the NSA has been conducting secret surveillance of apparently everyone on the planet who has access to a telephone, computer or credit card.  That would include Americans, whom the NSA is of course not empowered to spy on, but we cannot afford to be obsessive about details when it comes to national security.  Besides, the FBI, which is in fact commissioned to pry into our lives, is too busy with its own vastly expanded powers.

Is this process of collecting and analyzing astronomical amounts of data at all effective in combating terrorism?  Perhaps, but an independent estimation is impossible when virtually everything – including the very existence of the program – is classified, and the public knows only what the government deigns to release.  “Trust us, your elected officials,” says the President.  Trust Congress, which seems to be generally in the dark itself and in any case is focused on politics?  Trust the military, which has a long and rich history of lying to the people?  Trust the spooks, whose whole existence is deception?  Keep in mind that the Man, Director of Intelligence James Clapper, when asked before a Congressional committee if data on Americans was being collected, said no, deliberately lying to the body that is supposed to be providing oversight.

Head of the NSA

Head of the NSA

Perhaps the saddest thing in all this is that fully half the American population accepts this massive invasion of the Fourth Amendment.  This is hardly a surprise.  Judging from the apparent abandon and relish with which people, especially younger people, place personal and revealing information and photos on social media platforms, it would appear that many Americans have little interest in the Fourth Amendment.  Of course, most Americans would not be able to identify the Fourth Amendment, but most do have a sense that the Constitution guarantees privacy.  Besides, what is a little snooping if it prevents terror attacks?  Further, many are taken by the assurance – second only to national security as a reason for undermining civil liberties – that you have nothing to worry about if you are doing nothing wrong.  Well, at least until the government has some reason to find wrongdoing.

That the odds of being injured by a terrorist are infinitesimal compared to being shot or by a gun or hit by a drunk driver is seemingly unimportant.  For some obscure reason killing a couple of people with a bomb and a cause is a threat to national security, while gunning down a dozen people in the streets of Chicago is just crime.  And the mere mention of national security means the Constitution is likely to be assaulted.  I am constantly amazed that the same people who constantly remind us that men died to preserve the freedoms we exercise, especially when we criticize the government and military, are among the first to accept limitations on those freedoms whenever the cry of national security is raised.

But even more annoying than the surveillance programs and the sanctimonious defense of the same is the stupefying and frequently ludicrous application of secrecy.  Is there nothing done by our government that is not classified?  Of course, left to itself the government, in all its manifestations, would classify everything; it is the easiest way to cover mistakes, avoid blame and embarrassment and do illegal things.  The spooks obviously feel better when the public knows nothing, but generals and politicians can also operate more freely and feel superior and important when they know stuff the public is unaware of.

The constant refrain is that revealing pretty much anything about our security apparatus damages national security, though exactly how is inevitably left vague.  We are told, for example, that the outing of NSA’s PRISM program has caused “serious and irreversible damage to this nation.”  What, now all of a sudden the terrorists realize it is dangerous to use cell phones and credit cards?  Those plotting acts against America could hardly be that stupid; the stupid guys get to blow themselves up in Kabul.  Except among the stupid in the US, of whom there seem to be many (one even sits on the Intelligence Committee – Michele Bachmann), such outlandish claims only further undermine the already almost non-existent credibility of the government on these issues.  Incidentally, that same person, General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, also claimed the revelation undermined our relations to our allies, a rare burst of truth from such a source.

Why is the very budget of the NSA secret?  What can our enemies conclude from knowing exactly how much money is poured into the agency, when simply knowing that is a very large amount is enough to make a terrorist wary?  The only sensible reason is to hide the coast and extent of the NSA’s activities from the American public, which is exactly what is happening.  And for political reasons the government is now revealing little bits of information regarding the NSA’s programs.  Well, if this stuff can be declassified now without hurting our security, why was it classified in the first place?

This can get very silly.  James Clapper lied to Congress because he would have violated the laws binding him to secrecy had he replied truthfully.  Rep. Peter King, a poster child for ignorance, further explained that the Committee had placed the Director in an “untenable” position by asking him the question at all, even though Clapper was advised ahead of the hearing that he would be asked this.  Sen. Ron Wyden, who asked the question, later stated that he knew Clapper was lying but could not say so without violating his own security clearance agreements.  Clapper later explained that faced with the problem he answered “no” as the “most truthful, or least untruthful” reply.  He might just as well used the expression “truthiness.”  He lied, plain and simple, and his explanation only makes him look either disingenuous or stupid – or perhaps both.

But the whole business is in fact very serious for us, the people.  The Patriot Act is of course a public document, but apparently exactly how the government interprets its clauses is different from what one might suppose from reading the law.  Naturally, that interpretation is secret, presumably because any terrorist can read the law and thus undermine its effectiveness by understanding its provisions.  Or because the government is abusing even the broad unconstitutional powers granted by the Act.

And the most nefarious and ultimately destructive part of this compilation of police state laws is the provision for the establishment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is to provide the “oversight” promised by the politicians.  Of course, the court is secret.  It is staffed by judges appointed by the Chief Justice for seven year terms, and this should comfort us inasmuch as the Supreme Court is the defender of the Constitution, which, however, many scholars believe has already been violated by the Patriot Act itself.  There is no defense; the Justice Department makes its case for a warrant, and the judge decides, apparently positively in the vast majority of instances.   The arguments, the targets, the outcome and the information acquired are all secret.

No one is actually being tried before this court, although the decision to grant a warrant to the FBI might be considered the first step in a judicial process that could culminate in an individual’s arrest or death.  Nevertheless, it is a secret court, an institution traditionally associated with oppressive governments.  Like blowing up American citizens with a Hellfire missile (after a secret judgment in the White House), this court rests on a very slippery slope and establishes an incredibly dangerous precedent.  The next step is a secret court to try American citizens because the evidence used by the prosecution must be kept secret in the interests of national security, a development already emerging is the trials of foreign nationals and resident aliens.  The Patriot Act is transforming the Federal Bureau of Investigation into an actual Geheime Staatspolizei.

Head of the FBI

Head of the FBI

I see little hope.  The technology of spying has become so sophisticated, especially in connection with the information and communications structures, that resistance seems futile.  Not only has it become easier for the security services to spy and keep their operations secret, but the new electronic technologies are just too damn useful to the government, particularly regarding domestic concerns, and a generally ignorant Congress will continue to legalize activity ultimately destructive to a democratic society.  The Constitution is of course protected by the Supreme Court, but some of their recent decisions do not fill me with hope.  Besides, I am guessing that most of this stuff is also kept secret from the Justices.

One final thing: is Michele Bachmann actually entrusted with secrets?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Silly Superpower

America certainly engages in a fair amount of behavior that most enlightened people would find stupid, but then most voters and almost all American politicians are not enlightened. This is a pity because when America does stupid stuff, like invading Iraq or providing totally unqualified support to Israel, it often involves death and destruction. Unfortunately, the most serious stupid behavior generally falls under the purview of national security, which means it will be well supported, certainly by all politicians, who do not want to look weak on defense, even if the behavior is harmful to our national interests. There are, however, some practices that are so silly that one suspects even many, perhaps most Americans would question them. Here are my favorites.
Pennies
It now costs two cents to produce a penny, which means counting mint overhead the government wasted about $58,000,000 producing pennies in 2012. That may be a drop in the bucket compared to the federal budget, but for the average American it is a hell of a lot of money and in any case it was just thrown away. The cost in lost time for businesses in transactions involving pennies is much harder to estimate, but it is almost certainly exceeds the money wasted producing them. The penny is simply a coin whose monetary value has become too low for it to be practical. And the market value of the zinc and copper in the penny makes it almost profitable to melt them down. In fact, the market value of the zinc and nickel in the nickel, which costs ten cents to produce, does make it profitable to melt them down, compelling the government to pass stronger laws prohibiting such.
So, why do we still have pennies? Tradition has something to do with it, of course; politicians are always reluctant to change a national practice that has been going on for a century or more. The sole argument for keeping them is that prices would go up if the penny disappeared. Well, in most cases that would be by one cent. The real reason for retaining this useless coin: the zinc lobby. Whenever you see any stupid measure supported by the government, look for the lobby.
Liquor Ads
Liquor ads were banned from network TV presumably because there is as belief that showing the product will cause people to buy it. This is presumably true or business would not be spending billions on television advertising, but that marketing is intended to sway the consumer to buy a specific brand. It is not clear to me how the absence of liquor ads will cut down drinking. Will people forget that booze exists? Or conversely, are there people who upon seeing an ad for whiskey will rush out and buy a bottle? Yes, cigarette consumption has declined, but I suspect that has far more to do with price, the absence of any place to light up and better awareness of the health risks.
The ban seems to be one of those ineffective feel-good, look-we’re-dealing-with the-problem measures, but grant for the moment that it works. Why then are beer and wine exempted? Because it takes longer to get drunk with a fermented beverage? In fact, beer and wine play a much bigger role in drunkenness and drunk driving, especially for young people. Real reason? The powerful beer and broadcasting lobbies, which can play upon the popular illusion that fermented drinks are somehow safer.
And how about this for extreme silliness? You can show people with beer in any situation and suggest that all normal people drink at parties and especially sporting events, but you cannot show anybody actually drinking the stuff. I suppose the idea is that some extremely stupid persons will have no idea that you actually put the stuff in your mouth.
And what about those don’t drink and drive signs on highways? Are there actually people who are not aware of the problems associated with drunk driving? Or are the signs a reminder: Oh, that’s right! I forgot!

Drinking Age
Presumably the motivation for the federal government to impose upon the states a legal drinking age of 21 was to cut down on drunk driving and teenage drinking. If so, it has been a complete failure. Three countries, including Canada, have the limit at 19, five at 20 and eight, including the US, at 21 (it varies from 18-21 in the Indian states). In every other country on the planet the age is 18 or less (if allowed at all). And consider the other countries that require one to be 21: Tajikistan, Pakistan, Oman, Qatar, Kazakhstan, the UAE and Sri Lanka. See a pattern? Most of the civilized world except America says you can drink at 18.
It is silly enough to do this inasmuch as nothing has been changed by raising the age to 21, but the utter silliness becomes apparent when you consider what you can do at (or by) 18: vote, hold most political offices, serve in the military, buy any kind of firearm except handguns, own and drive a car and marry. The message is clear and seriously stupid: at 18 you are wise enough to vote, to kill and be killed for your country, to carry firearms and generally do everything associated with adulthood, but you are not smart enough to drink for another three years. I guess Europe and most of the rest of the world produce more clever citizens than we do.
Voting
Why the hell do we vote on Tuesdays? It is hard enough to get Americans to vote – understandable given the quality of the candidates – and we make it even harder by doing it on a workday. Whose idea was that? Do it on a Saturday or Sunday and entire families can make an occasion of it. Oh, that’s right – more lower income voters would show up. Well, economics should impact this outmoded tradition since snail mail and electronic voting are immensely cheaper. The electoral college is of course another obsolete tradition, but changing that would require messing with the Constitution and no thinking person wants the bozos in Congress and state legislatures to get anywhere near that document.
Censorship
Censorship is repellent and pernicious, but most censorship on television is also silly. When it comes to the human body, America is perhaps the most uptight country outside the Muslim world, and probably not much can be done about that since it is so ingrained in this society that some parts of the body must always be hidden. Yet sex sells and is consequently everywhere, leading to as fair amount of silliness. On network television you can show all the sex you want in all its varieties so long as you never show a breast or genitals. OK, you can show the breasts of women in primitive tribes. A woman nursing a baby is apparently offensive and disgusting but little animations depicting the use of feminine hygiene products are not.
The height of censorship silliness: pixilating the finger of anyone flipping a bird on film. Everyone above the age of five knows exactly what is being done, yet somehow an extended middle finger is acceptable if it is pixilated. This is akin to bleeping expletives. Everyone, including most children, knows what is being said and automatically thinks of the censored word. So what is the point?
All of this underscores the proposition that in politics appearance is far more important than reality.

Marketing Our Democracy

In the
Constitution the Founding Fathers created an amazingly flexible charter, able
to accommodate the social, economic and technological changes of the next
couple centuries, yet one difficult enough to change that it has been largely
protected from the fleeting whims of society.
But something the convention delegates could not imagine, even standing
at the door to the Industrial Revolution, something that two hundred and fifty
years later has dramatically undermined our democracy is marketing.  Economic power is political power, and
history has amply demonstrated that any economically powerful group must gain
access to the political apparatus or revolution will result.  Traditionally that has meant that the
economic elite are in fact identical to the political elite, but modern
corporations and nations, particularly the democracies, have opened the door to
indirect access to and control of the political system.  Rather than actually occupying the seats of
power, wealth can simply manage those who do.

Bribing or
buying politicians, functionaries and princes has of course been around since
the birth of civilization, but it is marketing, itself little more than a
century old, that has institutionalized such corruption and carried it to
undreamed of levels in the industrial democracies.  Having money has always helped in attaining
political office, but when campaigning essentially comprised personal
appearances, speeches, debates and pamphlets, getting elected could be achieved
on a very tiny budget.  The geographic
growth of our country made electioneering more difficult and expensive,
especially for national office, but men of modest and even humble backgrounds
could still be viable candidates for state houses, Congress and even the White
House.  And party supporters could help
cover those train rides, rented halls and newspaper ads.

This began
to change dramatically with the development of radio and television and the
concomitant burgeoning of mass marketing.
Access to air time rapidly became the key to a successful campaign,
dwarfing even the character and competence of the candidate himself.  It became clear that you could market a
candidate as easily as you could market a detergent and that the approach was
essentially the same: hammer the voter over and over with a simple
message.  This has resulted in two very
pernicious developments, a continuing and staggering increase in the cost of
election and a continuing and often staggering decline in the quality of
candidates.

Foolish or
stupid candidates are certainly nothing new in American politics, but marketing
now makes it far easier for these people to get elected, which can only
encourage more intellectually unfit candidates.
A candidate can mostly avoid the personal exchange and debate that would
reveal ignorance and instead bombard the voter with slogans and images.  This situation is not helped by the
precipitous decline in American education, which exacerbates the inherent flaw
in democracy: that high school dropout with his pants around his knees has a
vote equal to yours.  Democracy rises and
falls with the educational level of the electorate, and we seem now to be
considering for office some very ignorant and consequently dangerous
individuals.

Having
stupid politicians is bad enough, but having politicians, stupid or otherwise,
who are essentially controlled by the economic powers in the society must be
ultimately fatal to the democracy.  And
this is the price of marketing.  The
incredible cost of a serious campaign, especially on the national level,
absolutely demands that the candidate be funded by others, by the corporations,
banks, unions, organized lobbies and wealthy individuals that constitute the
economic muscle in and increasingly, out of the country.  And their protests notwithstanding, these
donors all expect something in return, and the potential office-holder is
already compromised.  His protests also
notwithstanding, he has been bought.  This is all nothing less than legalized
corruption.

The two
major candidates in the 2008 Presidential election together spent a billion
dollars, most of it on air time.  The
average voter simply can not compete for political leverage in such a fiscal
environment.  All he can hope to buy with
his contribution is the election of his candidate, while the big donors are
buying influence over the candidate once he is elected, which influence
typically pulls the official away from what the voters were led to expect.  The so-called “soft” money
contributed to the party rather than an individual candidate follows the same
rules, the two major parties being concerned less with ideology than electing
their candidates.  Reelection, the
apparent goal of virtually every politician, means the collection of money does
not stop on election night, and the big money sources can thus continue to
pressure the office holder, who in turn gains an advantage as the incumbent,
since unlike the challenger he can offer action instead of promises.   With no term limits the office thus tends to
become a life-time job and the incumbent part of a very slowly changing
political oligarchy.  The American Senate
has become almost a mirror of the Roman Senate, whose members served for
life.  Indeed, during the 1980s there was
greater turnover in the Soviet Politbureau than in the American Senate.

These huge
amounts of money are also one of the reasons that two parties, the Republicans
and the Democrats, have managed to monopolize the political process and become
virtually extensions of our political structure.  Party organization has always provided an
edge in political activity, and now it provides an edge in what has become
perhaps the most important aspect of that political activity, raising
money.  Further, the constant need to
raise ever larger amounts of money has rapidly lengthened campaigning almost to
the eve of the previous election, which in turn fuels the need for money.

Campaign
finance laws have been a complete failure.
Politicians are hardly likely to be enthusiastic about limiting their
own access to funds, especially if their party is better at raising money, and
in any case limiting what an individual or even a corporation can donate
immediately runs afoul of the First Amendment.  Exclusive public funding of elections will
also have constitutional problems, and in any case would never be passed by
Congress.  Perhaps the solution may be
found in the joke that politicians should dress like NASCAR drivers, covered
with patches identifying their supporters: a candidate can receive any amount
of money from any source, even foreign governments, but it must all be
publicized on websites and in major newspapers.
Failure to do this would result in the immediate ejection of the
offender from the race.  If voters
nevertheless still elect candidates bearing suspicious financial strings, then
we deserve what we get.