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Apr 26 2010

Passivity in the face of authoritarianism

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have long since ceased to be shocked at the awful things that governments do while unctuously mouthing platitudes about freedom and democracy and the rule of law. This kind of deep and blatant hypocrisy is now so commonplace that while it still angers me, it no longer has the power to surprise. What still has the capacity to shock, however, is how people are so passive in the face of their government’s most appalling actions, letting the pro-establishment media decide for them what they should care about. While we hear about the tea-partiers all day long, how many people noticed or cared about the McCain-Lieberman bill that authorized harsh treatment for people who were merely suspected of evil intent? How many media outlets publicized its features? The media were much more excited over Tiger woods returning to playing golf, as cartoonist Matt Bors points out..

What really angers me are those supporters of Obama who yelled loudly when Bush and Cheney claimed kingly powers for themselves but now stay silent or make excuses when Obama does even worse things. Chris Floyd uses bitter sarcasm to express his frustration with the lack of outrage over the release of the WikiLeaks video and Justin Raimondo describes how some Obama cultists are now even attacking WikiLeaks. Glenn Greenwald adds:

And what about all the progressives who screamed for years about the Bush administration’s tyrannical treatment of Jose Padilla? Bush merely imprisoned Padilla for years without a trial. If that’s a vicious, tyrannical assault on the Constitution — and it was — what should they be saying about the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s assassination of American citizens without any due process?

Part of the problem is that in the US people give far too much respect to the president and other political leaders, allowing them to get away with literally murder. You may recall the shock expressed in the media when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You Lie!” during Obama’s speech to the joint session of congress on health care or how they clutched their pearls and tut-tutted when Supreme Court Justice Alito shook his head in disagreement when Obama criticized a Supreme Court ruling in his State of the Union speech. While such acts may be impolite, I was amused at how people reacted as if somehow the majesty of the presidency had been seriously damaged.

I am not a fan of this kind of phony civility. People in positions of great power are the last people who should be treated with such deference. It is the powerless who should be treated with great respect because they have little or no means of retaliating. The concept of civility in political discourse, rather than being a means of promoting calm dialogue, is being used as a weapon to stifle honest disagreement and debate. As Greenwald writes:

As HTML Mencken insightfully noted in what is one of the best blog posts ever written, our political mores demand vehement repudiation of petty acts of incivility (not all, but most) while tolerating and even approving of extremely consequential acts of indecency as long as they’re advocated with superficial civility. Those who use curse words to oppose torture, wars and lawbreaking are evil and unSerious (The Angry Left); those who politely and soberly advocate morally repugnant, indecent policies are respected and Serious. As long as one adheres to Beltway decorum, one can advocate the most amoral and even murderous policies without any repercussions whatsoever; it is only disruptive and impolite behavior that generates intense upset. Beltway culture hates “incivility” (public use of bad words) but embraces full-scale substantive indecency (torture, lawbreaking, unjustified wars, ownership of government by corporations, etc.).

This passivity in the face of a direct assault on the constitution should not be surprising to those who have observed the steady decline in respect in the US not just for law and order and due process, but just simple human values of decency and justice. Starting with the bland acceptance of torture and the killing of foreigners at Guantanamo and elsewhere around the world simply on mere suspicion of involvement in anti-US activities, we have seen a steady expansion in the range of people who can be denied basic human rights, and at each stage Americans have gone along with it, seemingly thinking that they were safe because it was ‘other’ people (foreign or foreign-sounding or not white or not Christian) who were targeted and thus ‘real’ Americans were safe from these abuses.

The danger of giving political leaders the right to make summary judgments of guilt should be obvious. If any evidence is needed, we have this news report that George Bush knew that most of the detainees in Guantanamo were innocent but did not want them released for fear of political repercussions. The courts have been slowly ordering the release of innocent people, many years after their detention and torture, the latest cases being those of Fahed Hashimi and Mohamedon Salahi. The latter is the 34th detainee deemed by the courts to have been held illegally. Jayne Lyn Stahl describes how Obama is actually going further than Bush-Cheney in entrenching the denial of basic legal and human rights.

It is clear that Obama, the supposed constitutional scholar, is in fact as much, if not more, of an enemy of the constitution as Bush and Cheney were. His assumption of kingly powers must be vigorously opposed. Appeals court justice Learned Hand, speaking in 1944, warned that if people don’t value and protect their constitutional rights, those rights will not be worth the paper they are written on, even if the constitution is kept in a glass case in the National Archives and venerated by tourists. He said:

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous poem about the passivity of people in the face of Nazi actions has become almost trite because of repeated invocation, but what we are seeing now is the modern day equivalent of it, as we slide into lawlessness. Adapted to the Bush-Cheney-Obama regimes, Niemoller’s poem would read:

THEY CAME FIRST to torture and kill the foreigners,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a foreigner.

THEN THEY CAME for the permanent residents,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a permanent resident.

THEN THEY CAME for the foreign-born US citizens,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a foreign-born US citizens.

THEN THEY CAME for the US-born Muslims or otherwise foreign-sounding Americans,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a US-born Muslim or otherwise foreign-sounding American.

THEN THEY CAME for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.

POST SCRIPT: Letter from WikiLeaks video soldiers

Josh Stieber and Ethan McCord, two of the soldiers who were members of the Bravo 2-16 company that did the killings revealed in the WikiLeaks Collateral Murder video, have now written a letter of apology for their actions to the families destroyed by their actions. McCord was the person in the video who found the wounded children from the van that had been shot up and killed their father and pulled them out and took them to a hospital. The letter says in part:

We have been speaking to whoever will listen, telling them that what was shown in the Wikileaks video only begins to depict the suffering we have created. From our own experiences, and the experiences of other veterans we have talked to, we know that the acts depicted in this video are everyday occurrences of this war: this is the nature of how U.S.-led wars are carried out in this region.

We acknowledge our part in the deaths and injuries of your loved ones as we tell Americans what we were trained to do and carried out in the name of “god and country”. The soldier in video said that your husband shouldn’t have brought your children to battle, but we are acknowledging our responsibility for bringing the battle to your neighborhood, and to your family. We did unto you what we would not want done to us. (my italics)

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