Monday, September 08, 2008

SOMETHING WORSE ALREADY HERE

Last night I had a chance to watch the DVD of “Goodnight and Good Luck” for the first time. It’s based on the struggle that Edward R. Murrow waged to inform his era just what Joe McCarthy was up to, and what it meant for the country. There are liberal – you should pardon the expression – sequences of actual newsreel footage of Congressional hearings and other venues where Senator McCarthy said his say.

It’s a by-the-by that unspools during one of the hearings that caught my attention.

As a black woman – a transmission clerk attached to the code division of a government office – is assertively interviewed as to whether or not she is or ever was a communist or a communist sympathizer or had ever had any sympathy or knowledge of same, a Senator whose name escapes me speaks up in open session: he doesn’t like the idea of any citizen being “tried” anywhere but in a court of law, and not through the use of hearsay and innuendo in any other venue.

He speaks clearly and forthrightly, exuding not an in-your-face brassiness but rather a rock-like seriousness and deliberateness that draws the attention of all. He’s got a more or less southern accent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a less-than-sterling record on ‘Negro civil rights’. Yet he knows – better than McCarthy, certainly – just what is at stake in this sort of gambit that McCarthy is trying to pull off. He senses a threat to the fundaments of constitutional order. He isn’t going to sit still for it. It’s impressive.

But something Pham Binh mentioned in an article about which I Posted two entries ago suddenly clicked. In a by-the-by of his own, Binh wrote in that article that “If Ronald Reagan was doing this, they’d be dragging poor kids up to the White House in wheelchairs to oppose this”. He was speaking of Clinton’s abolition of welfare in 1996 (a fateful year for the Constitution and the Republic and the constitutional ethos, still insufficiently appreciated as such). If only Nixon could go to China, only a Democrat could undo the New Deal.

It occurred to me: here was a newsreel recalling to Us a type of national politician, serious and forthright, speaking for the cameras and for the record on a matter of great import, bringing his craggy and un-photogenic face to bear on McCarthy and the cameras like a captain bringing the gun-punctuated side of his multi-decked man-o’-war to bear on the target looming up ahead of him.

McCarthy was at the crest of a wide wave of anti-communist ‘fervor’, more accurately described as ‘fear’, ‘anxiety’, ‘agitation’, ‘uncertainty’, all whipped up to ‘hysteria’ pitch, alloyed with a hot, un-thinking urge for immediate action, any action, that would offer ‘release’ if not ‘solution’, and the hell with consequences tomorrow or next week or next year. After all, how bad can consequences be for Americans who – by definition – are world-savers and specially ordained by God for the task … ?

What would have happened to this truth-talking Senator if McCarthy had been a little more ahead of his time and deployed a platoon of ‘victims’ on the steps of the Capitol, Americans who had somehow been ‘victimized’ by communism and who were now before the cameras to tell their sad tales and suggest that anybody so inconsiderate of the ‘pain’ of ‘victims’ must be a communist himself … ? Who might suggest – themselves or through cooperatively useful media mouthpieces – that insensitive, scheming, brutish politicians were merely using the Constitution to hide behind as they went about betraying and victimizing America and its citizenry of victims … ? Who were perfectly available as a moral backdrop for those who – sincerely or otherwise – felt that corrupting the constitutional ethos in order to protect it was precisely what was needed, given the ‘emergency’ posed by the times.

It then dawned on me that I’ve been spending much time looking at the original Revolutions of the Identities, those that began in the late-‘60s. They had come first chronologically, and so I thought they were the most significant.

But I think now that I was looking too fixedly at the ‘beginning times’. Yes, there was the Democratic-supported emphasis on Feminism of the Second Wave, which –oddly – though it sought to establish ‘women’ as the equals in competence of allegedly ‘rational’ and truly violent ‘men’, yet deployed its main strength in vividly highlighting women’s vulnerability and fear, making highly emotional claims about the value of ‘feeling’ and ‘intuition’ along an entire spectrum of issues.

And as the Founders had always feared, the sleepless voracity of any government to expand its power and control, even over – and especially over – its own people found a way to make use of the very campaign of ‘liberation’ being waged ostensibly for … liberation. Whereas in the beginning the prosecutors and police felt that the intrusion of ‘women’ into the mano-a-mano of cops and criminals was nothing but a new-fangled ‘burden’ imposed by the new ‘political correctness’, they eventually came to realize that ‘the women’ were potentially far more of a blessing than a curse.

The agents of the government police power had come to notice that when women inserted themselves into the courtroom, often involving the ever-hungry TV news cameras with a shrewd and noisy skill, their plaints became much harder for juries to resist. Convictions came more easily, and that being the case, arrests became more cost-efficient, and successful arrests and prosecutions are a siren-song to the law enforcement folk; ‘success’ is a powerful drug, even – as the military would find out in the Spring of 2003 – when its later consequences dwarf its small though happy beginning.

This worked best in cases where women had been the objects of a crime of lesser or larger violence. It worked especially well in cases where women in relationships claimed a crime of violence had been committed against them – which heretofore criminal jurisprudence had wisely avoided, on the hardly outlandish assumptions that a) such he said-she said cases could never be well adjudicated due to the paucity or unreliability of evidence and the variously motivated interests of the parties, and b) since the long and wise struggle, lasting centuries in the West, to get the government police power out of the citizens’ lives would be placed in huge jeopardy of regression if the government police power were now to become an indispensable presence not only in the home but in the bedroom and – on top of that – assuming the role of overseeing the very act of sex, and almost inevitably on behalf of one of the potential parties, i.e. the female.

And in the United States, which had been founded precisely as the culmination of the West’s long and hard climb to political maturity and the effort to provide the largest possible sphere of government-free activity for the citizenry, then such regression to government oversight in the very core of ‘privacy’ and the inevitable expansion of government police influence and authority that must accompany such a regression … would invariably if insidiously weaken the entire basis of the political structures of governance that the Founders had so carefully and anxiously erected.

But the two fires had met and thus combined to burn together: the interests of the government power and the interests of the Second Wave. Like the Civil War, the intensity of this new blaze created something entirely unexpected; and so unexpected that it was not seen immediately for what it was.

Victimism – for lack of a better word – took on a life and dynamics of its own. Against any objection, or doubt, or hesitation, or question – whether out of conceptual opposition, or uncertainty, or skepticism, or a desire to learn and study and deliberate more – there was deployed ‘the victim’, whose ‘story’ or ‘pain’ was strategically placed before cameras, perhaps before the target’s office door or the steps of the courthouse where a target was standing trial.

This objective of this deployment was not to ‘inform’ or to draw attention, but to ‘trump’, to overwhelm any deliberation with the ‘emergency’ of ‘pain’, pain brandished – like the ‘Bloody Shirt’ of an earlier era – as a weapon. Its ‘enemy’ was whatever stood in the way of what the brandishers wanted.

No public authority could speak without first considering the consequences of being on the receiving end of that weapon. Any thought, any principle, any established practice or sworn responsibility – to weigh, to judge, to deliberate, to object, to speak one’s mind, to call for a sense of context or of proportion – could and most likely would result in ‘bad publicity’ for appointed and elected officials alike. That’s a powerful drug to administer in such quantities to public authorities.

As a result, not only law enforcement authorities but legislators themselves stopped taking responsibility.

As did courts, when legislators then weakened core rules of evidence long established, so as to better ensure that the legislators themselves could not be accused of being ‘soft’ on this or that. Much as McCarthy had – for the duration of his run – accused anyone who opposed him as being ‘soft’ on communism (not even Dwight Eisenhower – five-star general, architect (with Marshall and Roosevelt and Churchill) of victory in Europe, now President and a Republican – escaped McCarthy’s insinuations, innuendo, and accusations).

They stopped taking responsibility; but they went on making more arrests and prosecutions, even making laws, not only on the State but on the national level, and figuring that they’d succeeded if the cameras went away happy with them. Consequences were somebody else’s problem.

But in a Republic such as Ours, especially if you are Congress, then what ‘somebody else’ could there be?

As We are finding out as the economy unravels, revealing monstrous levels of institutionalized corruption among the financial elites, with the full connivance of Congress, a bipartisanship of treachery … it is The People upon whom the burden of all that self-serving dereliction will fall.

As We are finding out in Our new wars of choice, approved almost without opposition by a bipartisan alliance of politicians who – especially the ones under the age of 70 – have never known an era when legislators saw themselves as responsible for taking public positions and voting on proposed laws according to the most acute decisions they could arrive at after serious consideration … it is The People upon whom the burden of all that self-serving dereliction will fall.

But the effects of ‘victimism’ have bored deep into the foundations of Our political ethos. The either-or simplicity of its ‘reasoning’, the raw recourse to emotion rather than to reason, the shrewd rejection of any questioning that might weaken the ‘story’ that is their primary tool and weapon, the dismissal of any analysis that does not support their demands … these results can now describe Republican as well as Democrat, Presidents as well as legislators, even military officers and high-level intelligence operatives who are theoretically responsible for providing independent and accurate analysis in matters of the highest and gravest national import. ‘Facts don’t matter’, except in History, which ‘we’ make anyway.

I don’t think this can be called a regression to ‘mob rule’. There are no ‘mobs’. I think it’s closer to a far more serious and actually possible danger, ‘plebiscitary rule’, rule by plebiscite, as feared by Burke and Adams. Rule by ‘plebiscite’ simply sidesteps any government authorities, and places the authority for large decisions directly upon the citizens. It was a gambit deployed by Hitler, when he was sure that he had either dazzled or cowed enough of the German people and didn’t want to waste time getting the approval of the Reichstag.

It would, of course, work even better if ‘the public authorities’ very much desired to be by-passed, left without responsibility for decisions, secure in their office but no longer required to do any of the heavy-lifting for which they had taken their oaths, nor run any of the risks run by mature officials courageous enough to speak their mind, nor even undertake any of the exertions required to achieve such virtues as maturity and courage and integrity in the first place.

But I don’t think ‘victimism’ is actually a species of voting by plebiscite. Because ‘the people’ themselves are not really involved. There is a relatively small group of ‘advocates’ who know how to present themselves to the media, and thus amplified, they appear much larger than they are.

And, even more tellingly, any of ‘the people’ who oppose victimist demands are equally in danger of being attacked.

So I think this is more like ‘rule’ by a vanguard elite. But not – as in Leninist praxis – by a vanguard elite with a plan and a vision. It is more of a ‘negative’ power: it has no vision of what the country should be like in the near or far future, or what it should be like ideally – unless it be that the United States will be a country with no ‘victimizers’.

But if the police power of Our government is to be deployed for the purpose of stamping out ‘victimizing’, then it will need both the omnipotence and the omniscience formerly ascribed to God. And while the government no longer officially has much truck with God, there is no reason or evidence whatsoever to indicate that, having replaced God with itself, the government has succeeded to the fullness of the deity’s personal gifts and powers.

And, weirdly, this echoes the game-plan of the 9-11 hijackers, who having replaced the pilots of the aircraft, had only enough skills to destroy the planes and the towers.

More ominously, it signals that the very legislative power of the Congress – the first Branch in the Founders’ scheme, has been ‘delegated’ quietly to whomever has the gumption to get some pain and cameras together and threaten the honorable gentlepersons with baaad publicity.

Except – also ominously – for the legislators’ relationship with the wealthy – individual or corporate: for fear of losing the only sure source of cash and perks upon which Members can still rely, they will permit their power to be ‘delegated’ to whomever threatens to cut off the most contributions.

What can We do?

We can re-assert Our role as The People. Not as ‘victims’, though We have most surely been largely screwed and for a long time now. Rather, We can re-assert Our role as the mature and serious ‘court’ to which legislators will have to answer.

Yes, it would be wonderful to imagine that the current generations of legislators are themselves mature and genuinely worthy of being called “The Honorable”, and only need Our encouragement to stand up again. But I don’t think it’s been true for quite some time. Most – with a few exceptions – are flowery reeds in the wind.

So We, by virtue of the authority vested in Us, must exercise the role of The Wind, and make sure that these reeds blow in the service of Our common weal.

Because if We don’t, then there is another ‘Wind’, that of History, and I don’t think History and its events and forces – powerful though they may be – will act decisively with Our best interests at heart.

We have to save the country, or else – as Lincoln put it – the country will commit “suicide”, because no other nation in the world can overwhelm it. At least, that was the situation in Lincoln’s day. Whether it remains true today – well, let’s hope that it’s too soon to tell.

But We are key. And perhaps a genuine sympathy that allowed itself to be translated into unwise decisions is what We must now reconsider. A nation that is – willy or nilly – preoccupied with the task of stamping out and preventing ‘victimization’ has set itself as impossible a task as a nation that is determined with war to stamp out and prevent ‘terrorism’. Set on the one habit, We – alas – slid almost thoughtlessly into the other.

Both will destroy Us if not checked.

We need to think. Whether We are still up to it – that is the real emergency.

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