Monday, August 12, 2013

The Slow-Creep Back to Tyranny (or, how to metaphorically boil America)

This is not where you sit in the big picture...
Whether or not a frog will actually allow itself to be boiled alive in a slowly heated frying pan (the expert opinion seems divided on the subject), their supposedly more highly evolved mammalian relatives--humans, to be precise--will do, and have done, just that. In our case, the old analogy of jumping out of frying pans into fires would be more suitably modified to jumping into another frying pan, which has yet to heat up to the hellish conditions that finally stoked our allegorical frog to make the first leap. It may be time for a second.

What on earth is all the metaphorical gibberish with frogs and fryers about? It's about America; in fact, it is about the heart of America, the reasons for its creation, and the familiar bubbles of history returning to present-day politics.

Within the Declaration of Independence, a good deal of the indictments against King George had to do with the removal of protections of the individual from the government. To give you an idea of what exactly motivated our geographical ancestors to violently rebel against and overthrow their government, it is worth quoting the document at length:
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
The most noteworthy of these offences is, in my opinion, the final one from this abridged excerpt. In the early 17th century, the Charters were the anchors and foundations of Colonial government and law, much as our own national Constitution is today. Theodore Draper describes at length the importance of the Charters in his excellent history, A Struggle for Power: "[T]ampering with colonial charters threatened the entire system of chartering, on which much of property rights and local autonomy in England itself was based. The colonies could always hold the English authorities at arms length--or much farther away--by appealing to their charters as if they were so sacred that no king or Parliament could touch them." Many colonials described their charters in tones of reverence on par with the Bible, and a few even credited Jesus Christ as the buyer of their evidently divine documents. Perhaps it was just as well, since the Crown was at that time God's own megaphone in Britain.

My point is that the removal of the colonial Charters was on par with the destruction of Constitutional protections of the individual from the government. The presumption of innocence, which is remarkably rooted in game theory and human evolution, as Dr. Robert Sapolsky beautifully explains in his Stanford lectures on behavioral biology, is among those currently "under destruction" by the NSA and various law enforcement agency's continuation of the war on drugs and war on terror. The "castle doctrine," an ancient legal philosophy dating back to Cicero, and its children, the 3rd and 4th articles in our bill of rights, are further casualties of our government's zealous efforts to root out so-called "public enemies." In his well-researched and terrifying book Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko proves rather forcefully that, for all intents and purposes, our modern-day police force is a standing army:
No one made the decision  to militarize the police in America. The change has come slowly, the result of a generation of politicians and public officials fanning and exploiting public fears by declaring war on abstractions like crime, drug use, and terrorism. The resulting policies have made those war metaphors increasingly real.
If you go back and re-read the specific indictments against King George, you'll find that every single one of them could arguably apply to our recent President George, and even more forcefully apply to President Obama, whose lip-service opposition to such tyrannical policies adds the crime of perjury to the basket. Between the increased political power of the military and military-linked organizations like the police force and the NSA, the continuation of Guantanamo Bay and the detainment and even assassination of American Citizens without warrant or trial, and the abuse of the Espionage and Sedition acts to imprison journalists for the crime of actually speaking truth to power. Orwell's essay on Politics and the English Language, an under-read and underrated piece of writing for its short length, has much to say on the legitimacy and trustworthiness of such "wars on abstractions." Suffice to say, one should be skeptical and suspicious of the motives of those who call the mob to arms against foes that do not exist and cannot be defeated.

The one charge from the list that I included which President Obama might be acquitted on at the moment is the accusation of subjecting Americans to foreign jurisdictions without consent. His defense of free expression at the United Nations, in opposition to an attempt to pass an anti-blasphemy law, was in my opinion one of his more eloquent moments. But recent events (and prior reservations) have completely shattered my previously half-held expectations that Obama might be trusted to stand by this position should push come to shove in the political arena.

If you are like a friend and near-opponent of mine at the public debate stand who declined to follow through on the old, "who am I to take a stand on these things?" argument, I hope I can preempt your humble apathy. I might start by reminding you that Thomas Paine was merely a corset-maker, but there are actually two more powerful rhetorical responses to the sly evasion in the question form: "who's asking?" and "who are you not to take a stand on these things?" The old axiom about evil triumphing when good men do nothing seems always to refer to those 'other' good men, standing around letting the world go to hell, as the speaker impugns the moral degradation of the apathetic masses between comfortable and activism-free days. To hell with that.

More relevantly to the issue at hand, however, I would quote the man who authored our Constitution at age 36, after having started in politics at merely 25:
It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it.
Writhe in your grave, James. The pan is near boiling and the frog hasn't jumped out yet.

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