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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Tuesday, 25 April 2006
What Adults Do
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

What Adults Do

Glenn Greenwald is that constitutional law attorney in New York, the one who writes the political blog, "Unclaimed Territory," often cited in these pages. Oddly enough, he's also written for the magazine American Conservative, and you see him on television now and then, or hear him on the radio. He's been on C-Span's "Washington Journal" and Air America's "Majority Report" - and on Public Radio International's "To the Point." You find him doing his blend of reporting and analysis in print and online here and there. He was on fire when the NSA warrantless story broke, or he covered that like white on rice - choose your own cliché. Greenwald didn't much care for the president saying that, yes, he knew there was a law requiring that if any president was going to have his NSA folks secretly spy on American citizens - listening to their phone calls and reading their email and such - that president had to run that past a special court for approval in the form of a warrant, but the White House legal staff had assured him that the correct way of looking at the constitution showed he could ignore that law, and the congress and the courts did not have any authority to make him follow that law, or any other that he decided, without review by anyone, just didn't apply to him.

Of course, the implications of this new and special way of seeing the constitution were enormous. And the president's "spying on anyone he chooses" business was matched by the signing statements, the most widely discussed one being when the president attached a signing statement to the McCain legislation the definitively outlawed any agency of our government doing anything like torture. The president attached a statement that said as he read the legislation it was fine, but he reserved the right, under his plenary powers as commander-in-chief, to ignore the law when he decided it would be better to ignore it, and that wasn't open to review, as he saw it, and the White House attorneys assured him.

The idea was you just had to trust the president that any secret spying on American citizens, that no one would ever know about, would only be for the purest of motives, to get terrorists, and never to find out things about political opponents and their plan, or anything like that. The president seemed more than a little surprised and a bit miffed that anyone would even think otherwise. And as for torture, the president time and time again said, in spite of all the obvious evidence, we never do that. But then, he reserved the right to order just that if he alone decided it might be useful, and no one had the authority to stop him from ordering torture when he so decided.

You see where all that leads. Yes, when confronted with the many calls from recently retired top generals for the Secretary of Defense to be replaced, the president simply said "I'm the decider." Case closed. He stays. No real substance, no reasons he's the right man. Not open to discussion. This is a distinct new view of presidential powers. There are no limits on them, except for an election every four years. Congress has no authority at all, with their "laws." And the courts have no jurisdiction.

All this is the sort of thing that drives constitutional law attorneys up the wall, although, considering the results of the last presidential election, it was just fine with slightly more than half of all Americans. When you're convinced the world is a scary place full of very odd people, many of whom want to kill us all, and no one anywhere likes us much anyway, you elect a strong daddy who will fix things without tedious explanations. You may suspect some very nasty things are going on, but you don't ask, and daddy doesn't tell. It's a mutual bargain.

The problem is that the more you inadvertently discover about what is actually going on, and what it can lead to, the more you may want out of the bargain. You can be told, again and again, this is just what you agreed to, and there's no backing out, and, if you have a problem with any little or large bit of it, go do something about it in the voting booth in 2008, but just shut up now.

That worked fine for the administration after the events of September 11, 2001, when almost ninety percent of the angry, frightened and confused public bought into the bargain. Now that's down to thirty-two percent. That would be the thirty-two percent who would still like to be treated as children, and who just trust daddy, because not to trust daddy is just too scary.

And that brings us back to Glenn Greenwald, who has just written a book for the growing majority of people who think that bargains you made when you were a child, to keep the monsters under the bed from attacking you in the night, can be discarded, along with GI Joe and Barbie.

The odd thing about the book is that, as of six in the evening, Pacific Time, Tuesday, April 25, 2006, it was sixth on the Amazon bestseller list, and hadn't been published yet. The ranking was based solely on pre-orders. Times have changed quite a bit.

If you don't want to be left out - if you're tired of sitting at the children's table while the adults are across the room with the good food and interesting talk - here's the book.

How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok
Glenn Greenwald
Paperback: 146 pages
Publisher: Working Assets Publishing (May 15, 2006)
ISBN: 097794400X

What Greenwald says about it over at his blog is this -
What I hope will be the book's principal impact is to cast a very bright light on the fact that all of these Bush administration scandals which are always discussed in isolation - lawless detentions, secret prisons, the use of torture, illegal eavesdropping, etc. - are merely symptoms of a profound political crisis which our country faces, brought about by the fact that this administration has adopted radical theories of power whereby the President literally and expressly claims the right to act without restraint, including those imposed by law. The powers seized by this president are exactly those powers about which the founders most urgently and explicitly warned, and which they sought, first and foremost, to prevent.

A substantial portion of the book is devoted to highlighting the ways in which the administration has used rank fear-mongering and an endless exploitation of the terrorist threat to attempt to obscure and justify these abuses. Those manipulative tactics have not only enabled them to embrace these most un-American powers right out in the open, but they are also threatening to alter, perhaps irreversibly, our national character.

Perhaps most importantly, the book documents the fact that even when all other intended checks on government excesses fail - when the media, the Congress and the courts are co-opted or are otherwise neutralized - Americans always have the ability, inherent in our system of government, to put a stop to abuses and excesses, provided they choose to exercise that power. But to do so, it is necessary that it first be understood just how radical and dangerous our government has become under this administration, and making the case that we have arrived at exactly that point is the primary purpose of the book.
So it's time to walk away from the bargain we made four years ago, and this is the precise time to do it. Part of it is walking away from childish things - the need for a strong daddy and a fear of thinking about what to do and then the responsibility that goes along with actually making decisions about what to do. Part of it has to do with all the things that used to be associated with being an American doing the right thing - not cheating or lying or hiding information to get what you want, a system of laws everyone follows and some kind of "justice for all," a governmental structure that keeps any one person or party from having all the power. It's all that stuff from civics classes, about how things run here, and the constitution that provides the basic user manual.

Note this from Digby at Hullabaloo, from his comments on the new Greenwald book -
The founders knew that relying on the good will of men in power is stupid and we are seeing their predictions come true before our very eyes. The modern Republican leadership may currently have a monopoly on authoritarian impulses, but they are by no means the only people in this country who could be seduced by this Republican notion of executive authority. The constitution is what protects all Americans from the dark side of human nature when it has power over others, regardless of party or political philosophy. Those of us who worry about this usurpation of the constitution and degradation of the Bill of Rights know that this is not a passing fashion that will easily be tucked back into its former shape. Once you allow powerful men to seize power it's awfully hard to persuade their successors to give it back.

... Unless we insist upon accountability for what these people have done, I fear that the country will not be able to recover. People need to see that our system of government can not only survive such assaults on its integrity, but that justice and the rule of law will reassert themselves under responsible leadership. It must be publicly demonstrated that this doctrine of unlimited presidential authority is unacceptable and un-American.

A distorted, authoritarian undemocratic view of American government has persisted now for more than a generation among certain conservatives. This philosophy has taken us from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Impeachment to the Supreme Court deciding a presidential election and the last five years of unprecedented assaults on the constitution in the name of a war that has no end. We need to drive a stake through the heart of this philosophy once and for all before it kills us.
Well, we may not be fighting the undead, even if the image fits in an odd sort of way (Nixon rising from the grave and all that). But it may be time for a bit of a new American Revolution, to get us back to where we were after the first one, unless you think what happened four years ago "changed everything" as the president and his supporters so often say. Time to choose.

Who will you have for company if you leave the children's table? There is Bruce Springsteen of all people -
"I guess my take on some of the last experiences we've had," Springsteen says, "is that a small group of men with a very particular ideology found their way into power and pressed themselves on an immature president. They were able to literally get what they wanted: They got their tax cuts, they got their war, they got their money going to the places they wanted it to go to. I don't think that's being cynical."
No, that's just realistic. Time to do something.

After all, things like these below can't go on forever. Someone has to deal with them, preferably an adult, who knows how to work with others and together figure out what to do.

This is just a sample from Tuesday, April 25th.

A few days after the audio tape from Osama bin Laden - he doesn't much like our "Zionist-crusader war on Islam" and is urging militants to fight in Sudan, and calls for attacks on civilians in the west, as they elected those waging war on Islam - we get this - "Terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi revealed his face for the first time Tuesday in a dramatic video in which he dismissed Iraq's new government as an American 'stooge' and called it a 'poisoned dagger' in the heart of the Muslim world."

And this wasn't a tape delivered to al Jazeera by a series of couriers with lots of clever cut-outs. This was a video web broadcast, and he showed his face - no hood or anything. So we know just what he looks like at the moment. He doesn't care.

This war is not going well, and it could use a "rethink." Admit it's a mess, get a lot of adults together, the thoughtful and maybe the irritating contrarians, and let's figure out a new way to deal with this. Why not? Maybe daddy doesn't know best and all the adults could come up with something. That seems unlikely. But it's an idea.

And the same day there was this - "Iran ratcheted up its defiance ahead of a U.N. Security Council deadline to suspend uranium enrichment, threatening Tuesday to hide its program if the West takes 'harsh measures' and to transfer nuclear technology to chaos-ridden Sudan."

Okay, same thing, get a lot of adults together, the thoughtful and maybe the irritating contrarians, and let's figure out a new way to deal with this. Making threats seems to be making matters worse, so why bother? And the United States refuses face-to-face talks with Iran, preferring "proxy diplomacy" - the UN or NATO or somebody better fix this or we really will bomb the crap out of Iran. Of course, adults do the adult and responsible thing - when you have a problem with someone you sit down with them and figure out what's going on. They talk, you listen, and you talk and hope they listen. It's unpleasant, but that's what adults do. Children hide behind others and make threats.

But what do we get? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Europe with this - she's asking NATO to do something harsh to show Iran they're being very, very bad. She says the NATO nations really need to support us on this. The item doesn't mention any NATO ambassador asking her why, if this is such an urgent problem, doesn't Bush send her to Tehran to sit down and talk with them and explain the concerns and see if something can be worked out, or just go himself if he's so hot and bothered.

That no one asked the question indicates what people know of us now - we don't do that sort of thing. We ask the grownups to do that talking stuff, while we pout and hide. Why even bother to pose the question? This was in Athens, and there were anti-American riots in the streets - tear gas and everything - with the crowds telling her to go home. Who needs a brat, or more precisely a princess, whining that no one will do what she won't do?

As for the big story of the day, it was the president delivering a major speech saying the government really was going to do something about the record high gasoline prices.

CNN - "Calling the oil issue a matter of national security, President Bush outlined a plan Tuesday to cut gasoline costs and temporarily stopped deposits to the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve."

The New York Times - "President Bush today announced a series of short-term steps that he said might slightly ease energy prices, including a suspension of government purchases to refill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and investigations into possible price gouging and price fixing. The moves reflect growing concern among Republicans that the price hikes would become another election-year liability for them."

Buried in each story was also dropping all the environmental regulations for now, so you will be able to get anything at all at the pump, and anyone who wants to build a refinery can build anything they'd like, no matter what it does to the air or ground water.

And they admit it really won't fix anything. The price of gasoline will only go higher. But they care.

Bill Montgomery here and what else they could try -
They could even try telling the truth: That sky-high gas prices are the product of many forces, including the economic rise of China, our national allergic reaction to conservation, the security nightmare of trying to protect a far-flung global energy infrastructure, and, most of all, the inevitable fact that the supply of light sweet crude is finite, and production is probably nearing its peak.

They could explain to the American people that there is no quick fix, no miracle fuels on the horizon, no package of tax incentives or industry subsidies that is going to make the problem go away.

They could warn them that even if there was such a solution, current fossil fuel consumption trends still wouldn't be sustainable, not unless we're willing to turn most of coastal cities into salt water swimming pools.

And they could try to make our pampered upper and middle classes understand that the sooner they adjust their bloated lifestyles to reflect these unpleasant facts, the better off we will all be in the long run.

But it looks like they want to keep their jobs.
On the other hand, given Greenwald's not-yet-published bestseller, it would seem that the idea that you keep your job by concealing the unpleasant truth may be an idea that's just outmoded. What Montgomery proposes is treating people like adults, rational participants in events that effect them, and able to handle the facts.

Some of us would like to be treated that way. In fact, there are more and more of us everyday. Someone should tell the White House, but maybe that comes in November.

Posted by Alan at 22:27 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 26 April 2006 07:36 PDT home

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