Archive for February, 2010

Ohm of the Brave

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

I was invited to join a civil resistance affinity group a few weeks ago.  The object would be a criminal trial (with one or more of us as defendants) in which lethal or injurious government policy becomes the key issue.

It put me in mind of Thoreau’s essay of 150 years ago on civil disobedience, in which he advocated the violation of bad laws.  He protested a war tax, was found guilty of non-payment, and was carted off to jail by Massachusetts authorities.  As often happens, his jailers promptly freed him, and so his martyrdom was short-lived, but his example lives on.  A good number of the peace activists of my acquaintance have been arrested at least once.  

Civil resistance differs from civil disobedience in that the resister seeks vindication and not martyrdom.  A civil resister takes steps–illegal ones–to impede government in some injurious activity.  The defendant then pleads to the jury that his actions were necessary to prevent greater harm. 

There’s an illustrative case pending in Utah involving an auction of federal oil leases during the last days of the Bush presidency.  The lawbreaker made bids at the auction that he didn’t intend to fulfill–a federal crime–and he’s defending himself now with the claim that his act of sabotage saved some sensitive federal lands from injurious exploitation. 

The so-called tea-baggers celebrate an act of political lawbreaking–the Boston Tea Party–that could be a model for civil resistance.  A couple of years before the Declaration of Independence, a group of men protesting a tea tax boarded a British ship in Boston Harbor to deep-six its cargo of tea.  It was a spectacular act of defiance, one that would be called terrorism if it happened today.  The tea-baggers of 1773 disguised themselves and were never prosecuted, but they might have raised the defense of necessity if they’d been caught.  Twenty-first century tea-baggers don’t seem to grasp that they’re terrorist wannabees

Consider the implications of joining a civil resistance  affinity group.  At some point, the members would be conspiring to commit a crime, which is itself a crime. The defendants might encounter some problems proving that plotting to chain themselves to the federal building, for example, could in some way save lives or impede some injurious government policy.

An alternative course might be to plot a serious crime–”rendering” Joe Lieberman, say–with no intention of actually carrying it out.  Conspire openly, but limit the whole exercise to fiction.  Meet every week to consider ways to abduct Joe Lieberman, but don’t do anything to make it happen. Legally, you’re as innocent as Agatha Christie.  Maybe you publish your proceedings in a journal, and maybe somebody picks up your plan and takes Joe for a ride.  If Joe gets kidnaped and the plotters get arrested, they can plead that they were simply writing fiction and at the same time trying to deter the nefarious senator from his lethal mission. 

Obviously, there’s a potential for liability here, especially when the target is a government that, in defiance of its own laws, imprisons suspects without legal process and, in some cases, summarily evaporates them with guided missiles. Still, it’s tempting to contemplate a brainstorming session on ways to commandeer one of those pilotless bombers and send it in a new direction.  

Be Not Afraid

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

All the experts agree: America’s enemies are certain to launch attacks on “the homeland” in the near future. Terrorists foreign and domestic are plotting, as we read, to shoot up shopping centers and incinerate airplanes because they hate us. Luckily, Obama’s people are protecting us, mainly by invading our privacy, but we’re OK with that if it makes us safer. “What’s in your shorts?” the attendant might soon inquire. “C-4 yourself,” a saucy passenger might reply.

Why are the experts so sure of an attack? Could it be that our own leaders have set events in motion that make an attack likely? Certainly, that was what happened on September 11, 2001, when the Air Force was kept on the ground while airliners were allowed to crash into buildings. Profiteers and government officials have been reaping the perquisites of warfare ever since. Maybe we’re not scared enough to keep the security industry flush and are in need of a little booster.

Or are the experts sure of an attack simply because we so richly deserve it? We’ve been visiting death and destruction on foreigners for most of the present century, for no good reason except to steal their resources. Ordinary citizens can’t say we didn’t know what was happening (as old Germans typically point out when reminded of the death camps). We know everything. We’ve seen pictures of our torture victims. We cheered the trashing of Baghdad and Fallujah. And we can’t say we were powerless to do anything. We voted for violence over and over again. Nine-eleven’s a garden party compared to what divine justice could have in store for us.

Our government and media would have us believe that the Fruit of the Loom bomber has us spooked. Wouldn’t we like to torture him and his buddies, and aren’t we nostalgic now for the old waterboarding days? Two wars weren’t enough. Terorists take notice: We kill people in the remotest reaches of Pakistan and laugh about it afterwards. Don’t screw with us. Our kids can’t find work, and they’ll be just as happy to take up a rifle and kill yours if we make it worth their while.

In self-defense, mind you. Because we’re afraid. Because our government tells us we’re in danger. From things we can’t see. We cross city streets fearlessly, drive 90 whenever we can, eat fat by the gob, and soak ourselves in beer a couple of times a week, but we’re scared to go out because there might be a terrorist lurking. Yeah. Right.

There are people who live in constant fear, but most people frighten appropriately, when there is evidence of danger. Fear is in our nature, and we can’t survive without it, but irrational fear–of terrorist attack, for instance–is another matter. It’s a maladjustment, and it runs counter to our values. Timidity is not a virtue.

We ought to be offended at our government’s incessant whining about the danger we’re in. Life goes on. This preoccupation with “security” is like having a baby monitor in your bedroom: a bit much. People are afraid, realistically, of losing their jobs, not of getting wasted by a stranger. It’s time for us to quit coddling the prozac crowd and show a little spunk.

Can the Senate

Saturday, February 6th, 2010

The founders of our country made some egregious compromises to get the Constitution ratified–the official adoption of slavery, for one–and not all of the wrongs have been righted over the 220 intervening years. One of their biggest mistakes was the United States Senate. It was meant as a buffer against public opinion, but it turned out to be a check on the public interest.

As originally conceived (and until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913), the senate consisted of members elected by the legislatures of the several states. With a six-year term and a measure of insulation from the day-to-day affairs of the general public, the senate was meant as a “check and balance” against the other house, which was elected directly by the people every two years. The House of Representatives could be anticipated to turn over suddenly and traumatically with radical shifts in public opinion, but the Senate could be expected to remain largely intact, minimizing the legislative consequences of such changes.

Since no law can be passed without majority support in both houses, individual senators have considerable power to restrain Congressional action, and this was the founders’ explicit reason for establishing such a body. The founders believed that a senate would give the union a certain consistency and stability, and they’ve been proved right. What the founders didn’t anticipate was a network of mass media that would enable self-dealing interests to purchase seats in the US Senate and make it a guarantor of the status quo. That’s what it’s been for most of the 20th Century and all of the 21st, so far.

It’s not often that citizens get to see the deficiencies in their system exposed. The antidemocratic character of the Senate–we have two senators per state, regardless of population–isn’t much of an issue when the president and one or the other house of Congress are of different parties, as has often been the case over the past 50 years or so. The people don’t expect much legislative progress in such conditions. But when the president has a majority in both houses and gridlock continues, voters become restive and suspicious.

Health care–what Obama now calls health insurance reform–is a case in point. It’s pretty clear that most people favor a health care financing mechanism along the lines of Canada’s system, which delivers care to every one more effficiently and for less money per person than Americans now pay in insurance premiums. The House of Representatives voted to create the rudiments of such a system, but too many senators won’t go along. Their seats were purchased for them by high rollers in finance and insurance, and they’re obligated to preserve the status quo, regardless of what the people might want or need.

Democrats claim that Republicans are responsible for the gridlock on health care, but Democrats hold a 60-40 majority and should be able to prevail on any vote. Turns out the Democrats are facilititating the Republicans here, something Democratic senators tend to do whenever the status quo is threatened. There’s a hundred-year-old rule of Senate procedure that requires a 60-vote majority to silence any senator. It’s an antidemocratic rule, but senators of both parties love it because it increases their individual power and attracts money and other emoluments from people with an interest in the status quo. Democrats could repeal the rule with a snap of Harry Reid’s finger, but they choose not to. Senators have absolute power to impede change–a commodity of inestimable value to a corrupt politician–and they’re not about to relinquish it. That’s why the Senate ought to be dissolved.

Fact is that the 17th Amendment has been a bust. Our popularly elected senate has failed us time and time again. The members sell out so cheaply, and many if not most of them are unabashedly answerable to a cabal of rich supporters And so we citizens find ourselves ankle deep in the 21st Century with nothing but 20th Century gear. I recommend a constitutional amendment to disband this dysfunctional institution. One house of Congress is enough. Let it turn over every two years. Let it legislate real change. We’re a mature republic now, and the people have no further need for checks on their power to act in their own interest.