Monday, July 22, 2013
The Democratic Convention of July 1944 must rank as one of the most dramatic in history. The drama did not concern the presidency, since Franklin Roosevelt, with WWII still raging, was sure to be nominated for his fourth term. The question concerned his Vice President, Henry A. Wallace. Wallace had been the center of FDR’s New Deal, the greatest Secretary of Agriculture in history—responsible for initiating food stamps, support for small farmers (he himself farmed in his native Iowa) going bankrupt due to overproduction and plummeting crop prices, the policy of storing grain against lean years, and a host of other far-reaching programs. He was generally considered to be the brightest cabinet officer in a cabinet of giants, a renaissance man whose activities ran the gamut from dirt farming himself to inventing hybrid corn to teaching himself genetics to philosophy and mysticism. In 1940, over the objection of many conservatives, FDR chose him to be his vice president. After a controversial three years serving as possibly the most powerful vice president ever up to that time, and with the worldwide conflict still not decided, the time came to set the stage for the 1944 campaign. The problem was that most pols knew that FDR would probably not last through his fourth term: weakened by 11 years of furious activity due to Depression and War, the President had recently been found to have hypertension and arteriosclerosis, his once-legendary energy reduced to a shadow of its former level. Whoever became Vice President was virtually certain to be President, and the conservatives in the party were terrified that it would be Henry Wallace—the man many considered to be not only a dreamer and a hopelessly naïve idealist, but a virtual Communist (he was, in fact, a quintessentially American democrat and capitalist, though keenly aware of the need for the world to realize its unity and interdependence in the post-World War II era, and its need for the self-determination of all its peoples). For that reason, an actual conspiracy gathered to deny Wallace the nomination and give it to one of the other contenders: presidential assistant Jimmy Byrnes; Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas; Senator Alben Barkley; or, most importantly, an obscure product of the infamous Boss Pendergast machine of St. Louis, Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman. The conspiracy was initiated by Edwin Pauley, the wealthy conservative oilman from California who would later play a role in bringing Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Pauley loathed Wallace and his ideas of “economic democracy,” and was determined to block him from ever ascending to the presidency. He recruited allies like “Pa” Watson, FDR’s appointments secretary who controlled access to the President, along with other bosses from the Democratic Party, and they hatched their plans—first to get to the ailing FDR to see if he would deny Wallace the job, and if not, to try for some sort of commitment from the president to accept one of the replacements, hopefully Truman. They did manage to get a semi-approval from FDR for either Douglas or Truman, if Wallace weren’t nominated, but as usual, FDR was loathe to commit himself. He would leave it up to the convention, he said, and then took off for a secret meeting with General MacArthur and the military in Honolulu.
FDR’s half approval gave the conspirators the opening they needed. They put out a steady drumbeat of anti-Wallace propaganda, most suggesting that the Vice President was a socialist if not an outright Communist (possibly the first campaign targeting a government official for being “soft on Communism.”) They were helped in this by Wallace’s ill-advised trip to Asia just prior to the convention, in which he extolled the accomplishments of the Soviet Union in Siberia, and criticized Chiang-Kai-shek for ignoring the threat building within his country by Mao’s communists. They were also helped by Wallace’s genuine interest in what he thought of as the Soviet experiment in bringing about a more equal society, a society that would emphasize economic as well as political democracy. He also knew of the indispensable role the Soviet Union had played in stopping Hitler (the Soviets lost 6,000,000 men in halting Hitler’s eastern thrust, literally saving the Allies and Britain from certain destruction, at enormous cost to their homeland), and the double-crossing British role in delaying the “second front” invasion of France. Churchill and the British, Wallace knew, were working hard to put off the Allied invasion as long as possible so the Soviets and Nazis would continue “killing each other.” Wallace also knew the British were more concerned about maintaining the last elements of their empire than in aiding their Soviet ally, and certainly more interested in reviving their empire after the war than in bringing about the postwar age of cooperation among all nations and peoples that Wallace had spoken about often. In fact, the British sent Roald Dahl to the U.S. to spy on Wallace and keep them apprised of his “loony” ideas for post-war peace—especially about providing self-determination to the former British colonies such as India. So Wallace had not only a homegrown conspiracy working against his re-election to the vice presidency, he also had an international one featuring Winston Churchill.
Thus were set in motion the machinations at the convention. The conspirators—especially Robert Hannegan, a Truman protégé who was named chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1944; Chicago Mayor and political boss, Edward Kelly; national Democratic secretary George Allen; and two previous national chairmen, Ed Flynn, boss of the Bronx, and Postmaster General Frank Walker—planned every detail to deny Wallace the nomination on the first ballot, and then arrange a favorite-sons floor fight to dilute Wallace’s strength and maneuver a compromise nomination of Truman. Their plan was byzantine, thorough and brilliantly crafty. What they did not count on, however, was Wallace’s genuine popularity with both Democrats and the American public. On the eve of the convention, a Gallup poll revealed that Wallace was running at 65% favorable, with the other putative VP candidates running in single digits and Truman barely registering 2%. Though alarming, such news could be dealt with. What shocked the conspirators was the response to Wallace’s convention speech. Not noted for his oratory or his charisma, the shy, self-effacing Wallace, who had not even wanted to attend the convention, eventually relented and entered the fight in earnest. Most notably, he prepared a barn-burner of a speech. It was distinctly not political; in fact it was called “tactless,” for it did everything a politician usually tries to avoid: give direct voice to his deepest philosophy and the policies he believed in, and throw it in the faces of his enemies. Here’s some of what he said:
“The strength of the Democratic Party has always been the people—plain people like so many of those here in this convention—ordinary folks, farmers, workers, and business men along Main Street….The future belongs to those who go down the line unswervingly for the liberal principles of both political democracy and economic democracy regardless of race, color or religion. In a political, educational and economic sense there must be no inferior races. The poll tax must go. Equal educational opportunities must come. The future must bring equal wages for equal work regardless of sex or race.
Roosevelt stands for all this. That is why certain people hate him so…” (p. 360, American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace, by John Culver and John Hyde. Emphasis added.)
The 40,000 convention goers in Chicago Stadium went crazy, cheering and demonstrating for the man they clearly favored as vice president. Commentators like Thomas Stokes called the speech magnificent, causing him to leap from his feet in tears, but to write “goddam it, it isn’t smart politics.” Time magazine called it “the first speech that riveted the delegates’ attention..blunt, grave, tactless.” And former senator George Norris, too ill to attend but listening in Nebraska, wrote this to Wallace:
“If you had been trying to appease somebody you made a mistake, but you were talking straight into the faces of your enemies who were trying to defeat you, and no matter what they may think or what effect it may have on them, the effect on the country and all those who will read that speech is that it was one of the most courageous exhibitions ever seen at a political convention in this country.” (p. 361, American Dreamer)
In fact, the effect on Wallace’s enemies was panic. They tried to get word to reporters that FDR had privately endorsed not Wallace, but either Truman or Douglas, but few were convinced. Most were anticipating the evening session when the President himself was to deliver a speech radio-broadcast from his wartime location, a Pacific naval base. The speech was vintage Roosevelt, denying that he had any eagerness for the job, but insisting that he was doing so out of his sense of duty, to complete the job he had started: winning the war, winning the peace afterwards, and then building a peacetime economy to employ returning veterans and all Americans. Predictably, the convention crowd cheered loud and long for their heroic president. But then came the unpredictable—at least to the conspirators. The crowd segued from cheering for Roosevelt to cheering and calling for the vice president: “We want Wallace! We want Wallace!” Sam Jackson, in on the conspiracy, tried to gavel the crowd back to order, but to no avail. The chant went on, growing louder by the second. It grew even more raucous when the organist, though a loyalist to Chicago Boss Kelly, got caught up himself and began playing the “Iowa Corn Song.” The convention turned to pandemonium, and was fast slipping into acclamation for Wallace and well out of conspiratorial control.
There was only one card for the conspirators to play, and they played it: close the convention down. There were fire laws, said Mayor Kelly and he began to throw open doors and direct workers to cut off the organ and cut power cables if necessary. Meantime, Senator Claude Pepper, a staunch New Deal liberal and leader of the Florida delegation, began trying to put Wallace’s name in nomination, knowing the vote would have been overwhelmingly in the vice president’s favor on the first ballot. Pepper began jumping up and down trying to get recognized by the podium, but Chairman Jackson refused to acknowledge him. Nor could the Florida senator address the chair by microphone because the power had been cut. Desperate, Pepper began shoving and elbowing his way to the podium, got to the steps and was five feet from the podium pushing his way up. Chairman Hannegan saw the situation and screamed to Chairman Jackson to call for adjournment, but Jackson was fearful or a riot, saying “This crowd is too hot. I can’t.” Hannegan then shouted louder for adjournment, insisting that “I’m taking orders from the president!” Which, of course, he was not.
By now Claude Pepper was one step away from changing the course of history, but Jackson finally called for yeas and nays to adjourn, and though the crowd screamed “No, no, no, no!” Jackson doggedly insisted that the ayes had it, and gaveled the session to a close. The organ was stopped, the lights were cut, and police began to clear the aisles. Culver and Hyde conclude with this comparison to another valiant but failed American charge:
“It was over. Pepper had led the Pickett’s Charge of the Wallace movement.”
Sadly, that was the case. By next morning, the bosses had reasserted control, kept anyone they thought might be a Wallace supporter out of the convention hall, promised bribes to most of the leaders of state delegations, and went through the motions of pretending to have a first ballot—which Wallace came within 100 votes or so of winning. Then they proceeded to orchestrate subsequent ballots, calling in their favors, and managed a landslide on the third ballot for the until-then obscure senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman.
Though for politicians the result meant only that a new, more conservative bosses’ pick had become vice president, within less than a year and throughout the rest of the twentieth century, the 1944 convention theft had monumental effects. On April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and the New Deal he had crafted so carefully and in the face of so much opposition, died with him. So did FDR’s ability to deal with Joseph Stalin, the Russian leader, in a partly even-handed way. President Truman immediately came under the influence of conservatives like Jimmy Byrnes of South Carolina, the military, Wall Streeters, and the southern senators who controlled much of the Senate. When he learned that the United States had successfully exploded an atomic device, the diffident son who had always been bullied at school became a cock of the walk. He dominated and threatened Stalin at the Potsdam conference, and he heartily approved the bombing of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, even though the Japanese had already signaled they were defeated, and even in the face of contrary advice from some on his general staff. And thereafter, he bought completely into the concept of the Cold War with the Soviet Union that dominated world affairs for the second half of the twentieth century.
No one knows, of course, what might have happened if Henry Wallace had been allowed the victory he clearly deserved at that 1944 convention. Or if he had been successful in his independent run for the presidency as a Progressive in 1948 (he lost badly, viciously tarred as a Communist, and finishing behind even the Dixiecrat, Strom Thurmond). But given his record as a man who wanted peace instead of conflict, who understood that cooperation rather than competition was the only way forward for a world weary of war and selfishness, we can speculate. As early as 1933, in one of his first speeches as Agriculture Secretary, he said to the Federal Council of Churches that “the world is one world.” In the Fall of that same year, he said in a radio broadcast, “Selfishness has ceased to be the mainspring of progress…there is something more…There is a new social machinery in the making.” In 1941, in answer to Time/Life publisher Henry Luce’s claim that the twentieth century was poised to become the ‘American Century,’ a time of unparalleled power and domination for the United States, Wallace countered with his most famous utterance, the Century-of-the-Common-Man speech:
Some have spoken of the “American Century.” I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can be and must be the century of the common man. Everywhere the common man must learn to build his own industries with his own hands in a practical fashion…No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the push to industrialization, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism…the people’s revolution is on the march, and the devil and all his angels cannot prevent it.
Finally, and on a similar theme, he said in a 1957 interview with Rexford Tugwell that what all people need is a “Declaration of Interdependence, a recognition of our essential unity and our absolute reliance upon one another.”
This is not to say that Henry A. Wallace never made a mistake, or would have been an effective president. One never knows about that. But given what has happened to others who ascended to that high office (Harry Truman comes immediately to mind, whom Wallace described in his diary as “a small, opportunistic man, a man of good instincts, but therefore probably all the more dangerous”), we might expect that something similar would have happened to Wallace. We might also expect that much of the suffering and wastage of American treasure that has been sunk into wars and preparation for wars and propaganda about the alleged strength of our enemies necessitating wars might have been avoided. We might also expect—especially from his behavior on the campaign trail in 1948, when he refused to abide by segregationist laws in the South and openly drove alongside his Negro secretary—that the endlessly delayed road to full civil rights for African Americans and full economic rights for them and all Americans might have taken a front, rather than a back seat in our national affairs. How refreshing, how salutary, how even salvational that might have been.
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
I recently gave a reading in a gallery displaying the paintings, done in Italy, by Anthony Holdsworth (see www.anthonyholdsworth.com). One of them, portraying a run-down, boarded-up farmhouse, bore the title, Questa Era Bella. This was beautiful. Holdsworth made it the title painting of the collection because it expresses his artist’s sense that Italy, that most human-scale of countries, is Americanizing so fast that the ancient, effortless beauty for which its villages and landscapes are known is being gobbled up and ruined by its rush to industrialization and commercialization. In this sense, the title fits perfectly the more general feeling I would like to portray here, the spirit that runs through human affairs, through life itself: that each moment is already gone by the time we perceive it, and that we all exist, thereby, in a constant state of nostalgia and regret over what’s going.
We are always told, of course, not to regret what’s past: as Edith Piaf sang constantly, Rien, Je ne regrette rien. But it’s neither that simple, nor, fundamentally, in the control of each of us as individuals. That is to say, each perception, especially of what we consider beautiful or precious, is always already compromised by our knowledge that its beauty is, in some way, enhanced, even created by the knowledge of its passing. That’s because when we think of what’s most beautiful and precious, it is always those things that last for moments only. A flower—aside from the vain attempts of florists to make it last—is really a momentary thing. That is what makes it beautiful and precious: the fact that we know it must quickly fade, turn brown and fall. So is a baby. We know that it is going to grow up, is going to soon be assaulted by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ but for the moments that it is innocent and takes joy in every small aspect of its world, we value it and envy it and subconsciously mourn what we know will be its passing. All things are like this. The grass of spring is glorious, as are the wildflowers that sprout at the same time because we know they are ephemeral, here for a moment, and then gone. The peak of an athlete’s performance is thrilling because his or her peak lasts only for a short time, and will soon be buried in aches and pains and injuries, to return no more. The pristine beauty of a landscape or a city after a snowfall aches our hearts because we know with certainty that too soon its purity will melt away, or be blackened by soot and shoes and motor oil and plows that will make piles of the filth it has become, that must be carted away. And though we like to think that only others—other things or other beings or distant landscapes or cities or civilizations are marred by this truth—we eventually must come to see that the same truth underlies our own nostalgia for our very selves. For the lives we once imagined we would always have.
The story of a classmate of mine appeared recently in my alumni magazine. Barry Corbet was one of the chosen ones, model handsome with the highest IQ of any freshman who ever entered the college. Not only that, he was a superb athlete, mountain climber, geologist and skier who spent much of his time climbing and conquering both college buildings and peaks in the Grand Tetons. After graduation, he was selected to join America’s first official team to attempt Mount Everest, along with several of his classmates, one of whom was killed in an avalanche on the second day of the ascent. Though he had paved the way for the historic attempt to reach the unclimbed West Ridge, the death of his friend affected Corbet deeply, and he insisted on yielding his right to two others in the party to make the climb to history on May 22, 1963. After that, Corbet continued his career in the mountains, branching out into acting and filmmaking as well. On one filmmaking expedition near Aspen, CO, he agreed to shoot aerial shots from a helicopter. Unfortunately, the low-flying helicopter snagged on a bump and crashed. Corbet was nearly killed and, though he survived, it was as a paraplegic who would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. It took him a while to pull out of the resulting depression, but he eventually decided he had to keep moving, and set out to become “the most active gimp who ever lived.” He was. Since river kayaking requires mainly upper body strength, he became a daring kayaker and a pioneer “Super Crip.” But so much stress on his upper body eventually injured the rotator cuffs in his shoulders, and he became not just a paraplegic but a quadriplegic. Yet again, Corbet fashioned a new life, first as an advocate for disabled people like himself, and then as editor of a magazine for the disabled, New Mobility. It was at this point that he took up meditation and began to see himself, and all others in a different way. Everyone, he said, “should accurately be described as TABs, or ‘temporarily able-bodied.’ Everyone will be disabled at some point—it’s just a matter of time” (all material and quotes from “Second Chapter,” by Broughton Coburn, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, July/Aug. 2013).
Barry Corbet was once a beautiful young man, a supremely able-bodied athlete. His devastating injury and a great deal of work, both physical and spiritual, led him to understand that this beauty, this ability, were more temporary than he, or anyone imagines. Shakespeare, in Richard III, puts this in a phrase uttered by Hastings, who is about to be executed in the Tower of London: “Oh momentary grace of mortal men.” We are momentary creatures, our grace, our attraction, our good fortune momentary at best. Compared to the immense skein of eons involved in life on earth, or in the evolution of the entire universe, our little lives and their successes and failures, regardless of how much we attribute to them, are brief moments in time, infinitesimal flashes of light that appear like motes in the sun, and then are gone. Mel Allen, the great Yankee announcer who reigned on the radio when I was a Yankee fan in the 1940s, had a signature call when a player hit a home run: “That one’s hit deep to left field, back, way back, It’s Going, Going, GONE!” Though Mel Allen meant it as a tribute to the thrill that is a home run, it is also, in another sense, what we are. Going, going, gone. Oddly enough, the central Buddhist sutra, the Heart Sutra, concludes with a similar phrase or mantra in Sanskrit: gate, gate, para gate, parasam gate (pron: Gah tay). The words mean something like: ‘Gone, gone, completely gone, beyond completely gone’ and, though untranslatable, refer approximately to the enlightened state far beyond human conception or expression. Or perhaps simply to all of us, who go and are beyond human conception. Our momentary grace is beyond human conception. We do not really know who or what we are. All we know is that we are temporary manifestations of something immense and mysteriously beyond. The ancient Greeks tried to come to terms with this paradox of human existence, with our knowledge of our own being-in-mortality. This knowledge, said the Greeks, is both our tragedy and our glory. Unique among creatures, we know we are going to die, which is a tragedy. But this knowledge is also our glory: we teach it to others. We humans teach each other how to die; which is to say, how to live in the knowledge of the certainty of our death, our evanescence. That is what makes us human. That is what makes human existence glorious. We know we are dying in every moment, and yet we live, if we have any wisdom at all, any culture at all (which the Greeks knew they had), with this knowledge as our glory. Our badge of courage, perhaps. The Gods, said the Greeks, have it easy (as do the animals, for the opposite reason, their ignorance). They, the Gods, are immortal and so never have to live with the knowledge of their coming demise. Easy. To live knowing that you are doomed to die, however—that takes courage, that takes grace, that is our glory as humans. We are flowers who know that our beauty is already fading, and yet...
Buddhism tries to come to terms with this same conundrum. Change is constant, and we all hate change. We all want to be permanent, permanently invulnerable, we want what is good and beautiful to last, and what is painful and ugly to pass from us quickly. We can have neither. Everything, not only what is outside us, like flowers and landscapes and animals and other humans, but what is inside us, our very organs and limbs and hair and cells and the sense of ourselves that they produce—all are changing every single moment. And while what we want is to make this change stop so we don’t have to suffer it, what Buddhism teaches is the simple but profound acceptance of this root fact. We change, we are change, we are nothing but change. And trying to hold on to any momentary grace or make it permanent is simply ignorance. Is simply suffering. Barry Corbet seems to have learned something about this, for when he knew his body was finally giving out completely, he quietly refused all attempts to keep him alive, stopped eating, and rested calm and content and without apparent regret in his now, or still going, going, gone body.
This, then, is our paradox. That which is most beautiful is that which is most fragile, most temporary. Which is us. All of us. All of our beautiful moments, from moments of supreme confidence in athletics, to moments of supreme joy in family, or individual accomplishment, or sex—all of them are shadowed by this knowledge of their passing even as we enjoy them. Even as we try to make them last as long as possible. Even as we know that this attempt to make them last is futile. Which is what, coming full circle, in fact makes them beautiful and precious. The French song, Plaisir d’amour, expresses this in music and verse. ‘The joy of love, is but a moment long.’ And the next line, ‘the pain of love endures the whole life long,’ expresses the down side, our complaint, our longing to have pleasure endure and pain momentary. Unexpressed is the corollary: the fact that pain endures and pleasure is momentary is what makes the pleasure so precious. But even that’s not quite right, because this seems to suggest that you need pain to have pleasure, and that they succeed each other in time. What is being posited here is that the beauty and the pleasure and its fading are simultaneous, more, that the beauty and the pleasure are literally constituted by the fact of their simultaneous passing. Without passing, without change, no beauty. No pleasure.
And yet, as humans we always, always try to make perceived beauty, felt pleasure, our supremely able bodies persist, survive, last. We are even now feverishly inventing plastics and prostheses and medications and computerized avatars of ourselves to outlast the fragile physical bodies which many of us have come to hate. We hire plastic surgeons to shore up our chins and our bellies and our buttocks with plastic, and starve ourselves to avoid the drooping of that flesh which has come to seem our enemy. Clinging. It is the root cause of suffering in Buddhism. The Greeks implied the same thing: fretting about our mortality, wanting to be like gods (the Romans literally tried, the emperors and their families tried to pass laws and entreat their successors to make them gods), wanting to be immortal and godlike was to ignore the real glory of being human: knowing we will die. Knowing that what decays and dies is the only thing that has real value. And the modern world in a thousand different ways is obsessed by the same ignorance: dying is terrible; decaying unto death is a fate everyone must avoid, must fight even if it causes immense pain and humiliation and a plastic world that never dies and in thus not dying creates a proliferating monstrosity that will one day put a permanent end to us all, for real.
All of which is to say that we moderns have a long way to go to reach the wisdom the Greeks and Gautama reached more than two thousand years ago.
On this Fourth of July, the holiday when Americans wave flags and march in parades and sing God Bless America while eating hot dogs, and speechify about why this is the greatest country on God’s earth—on this day I am thinking something else. I am thinking of how the Declaration we profess to celebrate as one of the greatest pieces of rhetoric ever penned—by Thomas Jefferson, probably our greatest citizen ever—flew in the face of what Jefferson himself, a slave owner, knew: that saying “all men are created equal” was a lie (and not just because it excluded half the human race, which it did). It was a lie because at the very time he penned it, many of the colleagues pledging their sacred honor to defend the newly birthing country were slave owners like himself. And that these same men would shortly, after winning from Great Britain their precious independence, collude in a Constitution that sanctioned the enslavement of black Africans in direct contradiction to their fine words condemning their “enslavement” by Great Britain, and coldly count them, the African slaves, as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of representation in their hallowed House of Representatives. It is a hypocrisy, a contradiction, a violation of every law of man and god they so piously claimed to revere, and it has persisted, in spite of a violent war and continual legislation attempting to end it, for nearly 250 years.
I am also thinking of the brave souls who have taken this document seriously, and are even now paying the price for that position. I mean Pfc Bradley Manning—the man who released the stunning video of outright murder by helicopter in Iraq, as well as thousands of battle-action and state department documents to Wikileaks that have proved excruciatingly embarrassing to those in power—who is now on trial for his life in a military court. I mean Julian Assange, the man who set up the site known as Wikileaks, and who is spending his second year in the Ecuadorian embassy in London because he knows if he steps out, he will be sent to Sweden to be prosecuted not for alleged sexual harassment but for his role in exposing United States’ crimes. I mean Edward Snowden, the former CIA analyst and NSA-contracted worker for Booz Allen Hamilton, who released thousands of secret documents to Glenn Greenwald of England’s Guardian, revealing the wholesale spying by the NSA and its contractors on Americans and just about everyone else in the world—who is now a man without a country being hounded by the US authorities for violating the 1917 law known as the Espionage Act.
All of these people, like Daniel Ellsberg before them, are being pursued as if they were the most dangerous of terrorists for the crime of letting the American people know what their government is doing. They are speaking out. They have taken seriously the right stated in the First Amendment that speech is protected by the Constitution of the United States, and that their duty as citizens is to let their fellow citizens know what their government is doing behind closed doors. That those hitherto secret actions of their government are dangerous and criminal and should be known by the American people. For this they have been charged with “unauthorized communication” of the information they have been privy to, and theft of classified government property. Many in Congress and elsewhere have also charged them with providing aid and comfort to the enemy, i.e. being traitors to their country, which is punishable by death. The military is trying to pin this charge on Bradley Manning. But the truth is that what he and the others are really being charged with is a form of free speech. A form of truth-telling mandated by the Nuremberg precedents. These truths, though, have not set them free. These truths have set upon them the all-powerful forces of the most all-powerful country in the history of the world. For these truths have proven embarrassing to that all-powerful country and its alleged leaders, and therefore must be punished, must be discouraged, must be exterminated from the armory of those who would dare to tell the truth in the future. Which is why most other leaders around the world have kept their distance from these truth-tellers. Incendiaries, spies, war profiteers, assassins—these are acceptable to and welcomed by leaders everywhere. But truth-tellers, as Socrates learned two thousand years ago, are anathema. A terror.
In this regard, Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznick’s Untold History of the United States has reminded me of the words of the great labor leader of the early part of the 20th century, EugeneVictor Debs. The uncanny thing about Debs is that his words protesting war and corporate corruption in America could have been written yesterday. Debs, for example, was actually arrested and tried under the very same act, The Espionage Act, that is now being used to prosecute Edward Snowden. Debs was one of its first victims. Having already been targeted as a rabble rouser (he had helped found the IWW and the American Railway Union), and having run for President on the Socialist Party ticket in 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912, Debs was speaking out regularly against American involvement in World War I. One speech in particular, given in Canton Ohio in June 1918, led the authorities—who had passed the Espionage Act to discourage just such “traitorous speech”—to arrest and try him for sedition. Debs hired no lawyers and called no witnesses; rather, he defended himself not with denials of his guilt but with the logic and truth of his position. It cost him. In September of 1918, Debs was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Undaunted, in 1920 he ran for President again, this time from his prison cell in Atlanta’s Federal Prison. He also appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, which ruled that while his words did not technically violate the Espionage Act, they had the effect of obstructing the draft, since he had praised some of those already imprisoned for resisting it. He stayed in jail, eventually to be released for time served by President Warren Harding in 1921, and died in 1926 of heart failure.
Aside from his accomplishments as an activist, it is Debs’ words that make him relevant in our time. His words, in addition to the fact that the infamous Espionage Act under which he was convicted is still being used to silence whistleblowers in America, are what I would like to highlight. Here, for instance, are some excerpts from that Canton, OH speech, excerpts that attack false patriotism of the kind we are likely to see on Independence Day, as well as war, the master class that is behind all wars, the unfairness of judges and courts, the uselessness of conventional political parties, and the murder of truth and truth-tellers.
They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. This is too much, even for a joke. But it is not a subject for levity; it is an exceedingly serious matter…
Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder…And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.
To whom do the Wall Street Junkers in our country marry their daughters? After they have wrung their countless millions from your sweat, your agony and your life’s blood, in a time of war as in a time of peace, they invest these untold millions in the purchase of titles of broken-down aristocrats, such as princes, dukes, counts and other parasites and no-accounts. Would they be satisfied to wed their daughters to honest workingmen? To real democrats? Oh, no! They scour the markets of Europe for vampires who are titled and nothing else. And they swap their millions for the titles, so that matrimony with them becomes literally a matter of money.
These are the gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty, eager to apply the brand of treason to the men who dare to even whisper their opposition to Junker rule in the United Sates. No wonder Sam Johnson declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people.
… The other day they sentenced Kate Richards O’Hare to the penitentiary for five years. Think of sentencing a woman to the penitentiary simply for talking. The United States, under plutocratic rule, is the only country that would send a woman to prison for five years for exercising the right of free speech. If this be treason, let them make the most of it.
Who appoints our federal judges? The people? In all the history of the country, the working class have never named a federal judge. There are 121 of these judges and every solitary one holds his position, his tenure, through the influence and power of corporate capital. The corporations and trusts dictate their appointment. And when they go to the bench, they go, not to serve the people, but to serve the interests that place them and keep them where they are.
Why, the other day, by a vote of five to four—a kind of craps game—come seven, come ‘leven —they declared the child labor law unconstitutional—a law secured after twenty years of education and agitation on the part of all kinds of people. And yet, by a majority of one, the Supreme Court, a body of corporation lawyers, with just one exception, wiped that law from the statute books, and this in our so-called democracy, so that we may continue to grind the flesh and blood and bones of puny little children into profits for the Junkers of Wall Street. And this in a country that boasts of fighting to make the world safe for democracy! The history of this country is being written in the blood of the childhood the industrial lords have murdered. (see: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/eugenedebscantonspeech.html
I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose war if I stood alone…
I believe in the Constitution of the United States. Isn’t it strange that we Socialists stand almost alone today in defending the constitution of the United States? The revolutionary fathers who had been oppressed under king rule understood that free speech and free press and the right of free assemblage by the people were the fundamental principles of democratic government. The very first amendment to the constitution reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
That is perfectly plain English. It can be understood by a child. I believe the revolutionary fathers meant just what is here stated…That is the right that I exercised at Canton on the 16th day of last June…
I have told you that I am no lawyer, but it seems to me that I know enough to know that if Congress enacts any law that conflicts with this provision in the Constitution, that law is void. If the Espionage law finally stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead. If that law is not the negation of every fundamental principle established by the Constitution, then certainly I am unable to read or to understand the English language.
…With every drop of blood in my veins I despise Kaiserism and all that Kaiserism expresses and implies. I have my sympathy with the struggling, suffering people everywhere. It does not make any difference under what flag they were born, or where they live, I have sympathy with them all. I would, if I could, establish a social system that would embrace them all.
Then, after having been found guilty, and before being sentenced, Debs addressed the court again.
Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship within all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
Finally, even though he ran for President several times, and led the fight for unions and the causes of labor, Debs expressed his suspicion of, his contempt for most leaders. This excerpt is also from his Canton Ohio Speech, June 1918:
I never had much faith in leaders. I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses — you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.
That was Eugene V. Debs. Everyone should read him, read his speeches, read about his dedication to the cause to which he committed his life. It was, yes, Socialism and Debs made no bones about it, nor about his belief that unions were crucial in the fight for fairness, nor that he was for cooperatives and the critical point that the fruit of labor should go to the people who do the work. Too bad there isn’t someone like him in our midst today. We could use another Eugene V. Debs, if for nothing else than to remind us what independence and free speech and courage in a public figure are really about.
The title above is that of a Frontline documentary by the irrepressible Bill Moyers that aired last night, July 9, 2013. Needless to say, it’s a marvelous piece of work—one that Moyers and his colleague Kathleen Hughes started all the way back in 1991 when the unraveling of America’s industrial base was going into high gear. It follows two Milwaukee families—one white, one black, both with several children and houses of their own—as they move from fairly secure lower-middle class existence to near poverty after the closing of factories and then several more economic shocks culminating in the financial meltdown of 2008. In both cases, the male of the house started with a job in the manufacturing sector that once made Milwaukee a prosperous industrial city. The comparison with any number of cities in both the Midwest and the Northeast and even the South is quite obvious. Like Detroit, like Bridgeport CT where I grew up, the busy factories in these towns supported countless families in the period after World War II, providing jobs with good benefits and wages that allowed a single, usually male worker to support his family, pay a mortgage, send his children to school and college, and save for retirement. Since then, under Ronald Reagan and the conservative assault on government, unions, and the social safety net created by Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, those jobs have withered away. Corporations have been allowed to take their factories to countries like China or Bangladesh or Mexico where labor costs are a fraction of American costs. The result has been an American landscape littered with boarded-up factories, and increasingly since 2008, boarded-up houses whose one-time occupants can no longer afford the mortgages or the upkeep of neighborhoods going to seed.
Moyers takes each family in turn and shows its relative peace and prosperity in 1991. These families are not wealthy, by any means, but both live in tidy neighborhoods and both have men who work in apparently secure factory jobs. The white guy, Tony Neumann, works as a machinist in the Briggs & Stratton factory making what turns out to be the princely sum of $18 per hour, plus benefits. His wife Terry can be a stay-at-home mom, taking care of their two, then three children. On the strength of the Briggs & Stratton job, they buy a house, with a mortgage of $820 a month, and a plastic backyard pool. The African American Stanleys appear similarly prosperous at first, with Claude working a good job at the A.O. Smith factory. They have five children and Claude doubles as a preacher, then a pastor at his own tiny church. This faith sustains him and his family through very hard times, and also gives the Stanleys what appears to be a bit more of a social connection than the Neumanns—though the Neumanns are also religious, being devout Catholics.
But even before the 1990s, things begin to go sour for both families. Both men lose their good factory jobs when their factories depart for cheaper climes. Though this is a major blow, both remain positive and apply for what will be lesser jobs, hoping that something will replace the lost income. It turns out to be a vain hope: one of the points made by the documentary is that good factory jobs are leaving Milwaukee and elsewhere in the United States forever. Tony goes out right away and applies for jobs at places like Wal-Mart, Sam’s, McDonald’s and other ‘big box’ horrors, all offering less than $6 per hour. It is a huge comedown from the $18 he was making, but he keeps doing it, keeps trying to retrain himself for something a little better. Each time he finds a promising job, however, that too falls through when the factory or business closes. Knowing that the wolf is at the door (the wolf being the bank that keeps demanding the now-in-arrears mortgage payment), Kathy tries at first to sell skin-care products, something she can do from home. She ends up losing money on the venture and gives it up. She is forced to go to food banks to keep her family fed. The scene is much the same for the Stanleys. Having lost his good job, Claude takes a job waterproofing basements for less than $7/hour, not even half what he was making. It is an exhausting, grimy job but he does it with energy and eventually becomes foreman for a little more money. But with five kids to support, the Stanleys have the same trouble making the mortgage payments as the Neumanns. So Jackie, who had also worked at Briggs, finds a job selling real estate—she had been studying it even while working at Briggs when she saw the handwriting on the wall. Unable to sell in other areas of the city because of her color, she still sells a house every now and then and manages to keep her family barely above water. But then Claude contracts a lung disease and ends up in the hospital for several weeks, with a bill of over $30,000. Buoyed by faith, they manage to keep going, with the sons starting their own lawn-care service, and Claude working on a garbage truck. And on the strength of their combined drive, they even manage to send their eldest son, Keith, to Alabama State College where he somehow—borrowing on credit cards and every other means—manages to graduate. This sets them a bit apart, for at the end of the film, we see Keith having managed to find a good job working with a city councilman, owning his own house, and even supporting one of his sister’s sons. But having seen the struggle his parents went and still go through, he has refrained from marriage, fearing he might not be able to afford children of his own.
As to the Neumanns, their trajectory is much more severe. Beaten down by constant worry, Tony and Kathy finally split into divorce. By this time, their children are grown but each one seems headed for the same fate, struggling with the low-wage jobs that now dominate Milwaukee’s economy—if it can be called that. Kathy is finally unable to pay her mortgage, and despite her pleas with the bank for a modification, lands in foreclosure. The most agonizing moment is when she returns to the house that once rang with the noise of her family, now owned by an Asian couple who purchased it in foreclosure for around $40,000. Some of her last words are poignant, even tragic, acknowledging that she doesn’t think she’ll ever get back to where she was, even though she has undergone training and become an aide in a nursing facility, working the overnight shift. Salary, $11.50 an hour, plus benefits. She lives in the house of a friend, having crashed with relatives on and off since the foreclosure, the only dream she has left that of being able to buy a place in a trailer park. When asked by Moyers if she thought she’d ever be secure, she said she doubted it, given the way the economy was going. What then? asked Moyers. Just keep going, she said:
“We’ll just work until we collapse and keel over and die.”
Two American Families packs a powerful punch—at least for those who can imagine the same thing happening to them. Because that is its radical message: the American Dream—at least as it has always been touted to average Americans, that with hard work, anyone can succeed—is dead. Has been dead for quite some time. For as the financiers and banksters and CEOs and hucksters consume (or perhaps one should say “steal”) an ever greater portion of the national wealth, average Americans like the Neumanns and the Stanleys are left with the indigestible crumbs of low-wage slavery. Through no fault of their own—rather through the greed of corporatists and militarists and their precious globalization—the jobs they could once count on have disappeared. Gone for good. Without the means to a good college education, without the communal power needed to counter the satanic power of capital, they are condemned to lives of anguish, poverty, humiliation, and self-blame. And unless something drastic is done, and quickly, more and more Americans, even those who manage to borrow and work their way through college with ever mounting debts, are sure to join them.
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
By the border down Mexico way
We build fences like the Berlin wall
To make it harder to play
The toughest charade of all
Can you crawl despite your thirst?
Can you run despite your fear?
And will the patrol get you first
Or will you make it free and clear?
You may break your heart and die
Or break the law and try
To earn a living in the sun
But either way you’ll fry
And hiding is no fun
The US Senate is considering an amazing bill that would legalize standardized indentured servitude of 13 years for immigrants, where the rights of an immigrant are not only restricted, but where the immigrant would have to pay a penalty while living in the shadows and being forced to work under the table. It is at once a travesty against humanity and simultaneously a more human alternative than the US House of Representatives that sees immigrants as a privatizing boondoggle for security and construction while forbidding entry to anybody through our south. It means nothing that our national security threats have been mostly from the north (Canada) or from our airports or the Saudis. Is this the best of all worlds in the land of opportunity or what? Will either alternative preserve families? Well, not exactly.
We hear and read virtually every reason for “sealing our borders,” but the reality is that the only border we focus on is the Mexican border. There are some real reasons for this, however, are they reasonable? There are millions from countries south of the United States that have a seriously impoverished class of inhabitants. They migrate into Mexico and some stay while others continue north into the US. The migration is a sign of human desperation and because people are desperate, they will take risks that others avoid. Grinding poverty is an incentive for emigrating. In 1870s Italy, people starved and the government even assisted people wanting to leave for the US or Argentina. During the potato famine, the exodus of people from Ireland was a matter of desperate clinging to life. In some states south of Mexico and in Mexico itself, the differential between rich and poor is sharp and vast. The problem is economics and the reaction is not only half vast, but strangely targeted. We will spend far more to seal a border from economic refugees than we might spend to invest in the people facing deprivation and even starvation. We are soon to spend $46 Billion, by one recent estimate, for construction and high-tech electronic and human detection systems on our southern border. That level of investment in education and training of our neighbors would pay high dividends and spark internal investment in agriculture and even manufacturing in poor nations. Actually, 10% of that money expended on sustainable industries could reduce poverty and the need to emigrate. If we spent the rest on educating and training our own workforce, then high paying jobs could become a reality for thousands or even millions of Americans. Silicon Valley complains bitterly that we do not educate our citizens for the jobs they have and will have.
If you define slavery as humans being involuntarily exploited, then we are moving at warp speed to that end. In fact, a Saudi princess just last week was arrested for overt slavery in Irvine, California. She was placed on $ 5 Million in bail, but now it appears that there may have been 4 slaves in that household alone. The princess confiscated their passports and required 12-hour days for 7 days each week while paying them only a pittance and not what they contracted for before coming to America. The de facto slavery is equally onerous and yet it has become so common that we are becoming inured. Given the relentless threat of disclosure and deportation, when men and women can only work “under the table” where they are usually paid less than minimum wage, they are afraid to complain or to notify authorities. Strangely, the overt slave in Irvine clutched a pamphlet on worker rights that she had saved from before her travel to the US. She had that in her hand when she met police. She was less afraid than the typical immigrant who is forced to live in the shadows. The conservative House of Representatives wants no part of the “liberal” senate bill. Their only exception to any bill is to spend more money for privatizing the border security. Strangely, they also attack their hero Ronald Reagan for his “amnesty” for immigrants and they accuse the Senate of the same.
What does the current policy of keeping the status quo or reinforcing the border do? For one, it maintains a sub minimum wage structure that is akin to black-marketing goods. It is the black-marketing or gray-marketing labor services. Have you noticed that the usual entry jobs in fast foods and personal services like landscaping have gone from white teens to older whites and Hispanics? Is there a restaurant in your area that does not employ Hispanics in the kitchen? Historical protections of labor unions have been systematically removed by “right to work” laws and targeted removal by those such as the Governor of Wisconsin. Average wages have actually fallen in the past 11 years; in states like Wisconsin, total employment has shrunk even as wages have been forced down. Wisconsin’s economic activity is on the decline since the election of Scott Walker who has taken his economic lessons from Europe where austerity is king in a post royal era. Europe and Wisconsin are on the decline. Ironically, Europeans have gotten tough on immigration, and they are losing the foreign labor they depended upon.
We need to look at all the reasons for immigration and the damage that our current ad hoc cheapening of labor is doing to our economy as well as our social structures. Farmers are unable to harvest many crops that still use hand labor unless they employ migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented. Would documentation of working aliens be that difficult? We could then monitor the working conditions and see that workers are paid and wages are taxed properly. Instead of building a bigger and better wall, we could have processing centers at the border to match migration to labor needs. We must have photo ID that identifies the worker, and states the purpose and length of the visa with simplified reporting by scanning ID. It is feasible and cheaper than building a $46 Billion dollar wall. Now if the purpose of immigration is to maintain a black-market labor pool to undercut the American worker and destroy unions, then our current non-system is perfect. The House of Representatives is correct in building walls and privatizing our non-system. What is wrong with privatizing greed anyway? The rich will not only get richer, but they will do so faster and with legal protection to create new victims and get cheaper labor. Maybe Lincoln did not end American slavery, after all; it has simply morphed into a new era of economic immigrants without rights. Would you like some fries with that?
The Senate legislation deals with the estimated 11 million current undocumented immigrants unrealistically and unreasonably, but at least immigrants are recognized as existing. That is better than the House that seems to ignore them entirely. Thirteen years of additional hidden living for our current immigrants is excessive and subject to the whims of future bureaucrats and bigots who will trade rights for votes and onions for apples in future negotiations. Must we force immigrants to live in the shadows? They feed us in restaurants; care for our children; harvest our crops; landscape our yards and give example for families. Cannot this be done in three years? Do we need three presidential elections plus a year to determine their stability here? Most immigrants pay wage taxes now. What will forcing fines and longer indenture prove? They have shown their desire to be Americans by the difficulty of their passage and the sacrifices of their labor.
17 July 2013
Monday, July 01, 2013
About a year ago, I wrote a blog called “Big Brother Wants More,” describing a bill then being discussed in Congress called CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, authored by Michigan Republican Mike Rogers. What Rogers wanted CISPA to do was provide a shield from lawsuits to U.S. companies (mostly in telecommunications) that furnish information to the government about any ‘suspect’ they find. The bill passed the Republican-led House but, as far as I can tell, died in the Senate. No matter; the revelations this week from whistleblower Edward Snowden about the extent of the spying the NSA is already doing, and the amount of information routinely coming from telephone companies like Verizon and internet companies like ALL of them from Microsoft to Google to Yahoo to Facebook, pretty much makes Rogers’ bill obsolete. That’s because, according to the stories published by Glenn Greenwald in London’s Guardian, the NSA already has “backdoor” access to all overseas phone calls going through Verizon (and the others as well), and, through another program called PRISM, server access to all email, Skype, Facebook, phone and other traffic going out over the internet. The NSA and FBI, through their spokespeople and the heads of Homeland Security and Cybersecurity in the U.S., plus Congressional shills like Diane Feinstein and the aforementioned Mike Rogers, all insist that the data being collected on Americans is “legal,” and besides does not contain actual conversations or words but only “metadata.” This is simply a red herring. Big Brother doesn’t need to listen to your actual words; as long as he has the records of every call you make and every email you send, and keeps them forever—which is what the system calls for—you are permanently in the database, always available, always under suspicion. As Birgitta Jonsdottir, the radical member of Iceland’s Parliament (she has just promised to aid Edward Snowden in seeking asylum) said yesterday on KPFA, regardless of who in a foreign country the NSA targets, the program implicitly focuses on not just the calls made by the target, but the target’s calling partners, and the calling partners of those partners. In effect, this means that simply targeting one person’s calls or emails automatically makes available tens, hundreds, or thousands of others who are in touch with him and his contacts, innocently or not. As Barton Gellman of the Washington Post put it on June 6,
Even..with no American singled out for targeting, the NSA routinely collects a great deal of American content. That is described as “incidental,” and it is inherent in contact chaining, one of the basic tools of the trade. To collect on a suspected spy or foreign terrorist means, at minimum, that everyone in the suspect’s inbox or outbox is swept in. Intelligence analysts are typically taught to chain through contacts two “hops” out from their target, which increases “incidental collection” exponentially. (emphases mine)
What we have, then, is new and now documented revelations that the NSA and the FBI and god knows what other U.S. government agencies are routinely spying on Americans and everyone else in the world, all of whom use giant American telecommunications companies.
What we are also learning is that this has been going on for a long time—which many of us had learned earlier from writers like James Bamford, James Risen and Dana Priest—but that right after 9/11 the Congress voted to flood the spy agencies with so much money that they have had to work overtime to try to spend it. One of the ways they’ve done this, of course, is to build scores of new facilities. Another is to contract with private corporations, many of which sprang up like rotten toadstools after 9/11 to get in on the spying bonanza, to use up the money. Booz Allen Hamilton, the $5 billion corporation for whom Edward Snowden worked (as did the current head of U.S. intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr.), is one of these; the telecom companies mentioned above also feed at this same trough. But to get some idea of the scale of all this, consider what Dana Priest and William Arkin revealed in their recent series in the Washington Post, “Top Secret America.” The figures are literally mind-boggling. First, “some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.” One of the locations still being built, according to James Bamford, is a super-computer in Oak Ridge, TN that is so large it occupies an entire warehouse. It will be the fastest computer in the world—a necessity when one considers the billions upon billions of data pieces that NSA and the rest are now gathering, and which something has to try to make sense of. Second, around 854,000 people in these organizations hold top-secret security clearance, of which Edward Snowden was apparently one. Third, “in Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001.” That’s the equivalent of almost three (3) Pentagons. Fourth, many of these agencies do the same work, “creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands…track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.” Fifth, all this generates some “50,000 intelligence reports each year—a volume so large that many [reports] are routinely ignored.” Sixth, “every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications. The NSA sorts a fraction of those into 70 separate databases. The same problem bedevils every other intelligence agency, none of which have enough analysts and translators for all this work.” (all quotes from “Top Secret America.”)
The thing about all of this spying is that most of it circumvents the most basic of our rights against “unreasonable searches and seizures” embodied in the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It may be useful to restate that centerpiece of American democracy here:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
This means that in order for government officials to even enter your house and look at your private possessions, they must have a Warrant—obtained from a judge—specifically stating what it is they are looking for, and giving probable cause for why they think a crime might have been, or is about to be committed. Note the specificity here: they can’t enter because they just have a “gut feeling” that you might be involved in a crime; officials, that is, can’t just enter and look over everything in hopes of finding something incriminating. They have to provide a reasonable justification for their search (reasonable enough to convince a judge) and be looking for specific evidence of a specific crime. It should go without even saying that trolling through billions of phone calls and emails and skype or facebook or twitter conversations and comments is not specific and does not offer any reasonable evidence of a crime either committed or about to be committed. And especially if your records have come up “incidentally” in connection to some chain of someone else’s calls or contacts is a reasonable or probable cause lacking. It is for this reason that Sen. Rand Paul has already stated his intention to go to the Supreme Court to challenge the random capturing of the communications of millions of American citizens in the programs recently revealed. It is unconstitutional. Period.
As noted above, however, the shills for government spying—our so-called representatives allegedly protecting our rights—have been out in force defending the “legality” of all this spying. Feinstein, head of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, assured the public on June 6 that warrantless searches were “perfectly fine” because the information was only “meta”:
“Our courts have consistently recognized that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in this type of metadata information and thus no search warrant is required to obtain it,” she said, adding that “any subsequent effort to obtain the content of an American’s communications would require a specific order from the FISA court.” (quoted by Jane Mayer, “What’s the Matter with Metadata,” New Yorker June 6, 2013.)
Feinstein added that 11 judges of the FISA court, meeting in secret, had authorized all this data collection and Congress had authorized it. (Concerning Edward Snowden, she called what he did “treason,” meaning she thinks his prosecution should seek the death penalty.) This would seem to suggest that Diane Feinstein, despite her position, doesn’t understand what metadata means or why it’s probably more dangerous than actual phone conversations. Susan Landau, a mathematician and Sun Microsystems engineer, pointed out why this is so in the same Jane Mayer article noted above. “It’s much more intrusive than content,” Landau said, explaining that vast amounts of information can be gleaned from studying “who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening—you don’t need the content.” Patterns of phone calls from key business executives “can reveal impending corporate takeovers.” Phone calls to a series of physicians—a gynecologist, an oncologist, close family members—can indicate the precise nature of a personal crisis. Especially where reporters are concerned, the pattern of phone calls can reveal exactly who is giving information to whom and when, revealing all-important sources. All of this data, even without actual conversations has, according to Landau, already helped reduce the amount of time it takes U.S. Marshals to capture someone from 42 days to two days.
When it comes to whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, and a few years ago, Bradley Manning—even now being tried for “aiding the enemy” for his release, to Wikileaks, of a treasure trove of documents and the infamous video showing U.S. helicopter pilots in Iraq murdering innocent civilians, including two Reuters reporters and a good Samaritan father and his children trying to aid one of the wounded reporters—and before that William Binney and Thomas Drake for exposing the NSA program they designed and that they knew was threatening to “create an Orwellian state,” the Obama administration has become more draconian in its response than any administration in history. The administration and its spokespeople, of course, claim they are only trying to keep the American people safe. What they are really trying to do, however, as several observers have noted, is to keep themselves and their tattered reputations and bloated institutions safe from embarrassment. That is what all the prosecutions are about, that is what all the hand-wringing is about, that is what the desperate attempts to whitewash the massive violations of American privacy are about. America is being revealed as a police state, at least, and a totalitarian one, at worst. Hopefully, the measures to intimidate whistleblowers will all be in vain, and the whole apparatus will come tumbling down. But don’t hold your breath. It’s going to take some informed opposition, some courageous opposition, and an American public that is more attentive to its vanishing rights than to the latest celebrity scandal. And it may take the demolition of the capitalist system itself—as Bamford noted when he said, ‘there could never be a Church Committee today; too much money is at stake for both the corporations involved, and the Congresspeople who get their coffers filled by these corporations.
Meantime, let your alleged representative know what you think about this massive evisceration of fundamental American rights. Let him or her know that it is not OK with you, that you are not willing to exchange your privacy and constitutional rights for some over-hyped, supposed “war” on terror. Let him or her know that the scandalous collusion between the all-powerful state and the corporations that make billions serving (or is it stealing?) in a digital-military complex has long had a name, and it is not a kind one: fascism.
And do everything possible to make sure that courageous whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are not railroaded into endless incarceration for doing what every American should be doing: pointing out that the Emperor and the Empire he manages has been stripped of even a semblance of clothes.