Thursday, January 05, 2006

Preventing Tyranny: Part One

Okay, I tried not to rant at you too much, during the POE Period... (Peace on Earth... or Purity of Essence)... leading up to New Years. (Get the reference to the greatest movie ever made?)

And, yes. I gave the new year a few days to shape up and do better than 2005, without help from me. Alas, disappointed, I will now return to carping and criticizing and offering suggestions on how we might try to help things along. So, let’s get back to the issue that’s paramount... one that boils down to nothing less than saving civilization.

The political lamp is lit...

HIDDEN-STATELet me offer you a few excerpts from The Hidden State Steps Forward by Jonathan Schell. (Published recently in THE NATION) Schell presents a highly aggressive piece about the President and his administration. But, unlike some lefty rants, this one is pure and crystalline cogency. Partly because he presents the issue not as one of left-right policy bickering, per se, but rather, as a matter of fundamental constitutionalism.

It is a complaint that any reasonable moderate might make. Proving that “moderation” need not mean tepid lack of passion. Not when the real culture war is fanaticism versus civilization.

Says Schell....

“When the New York Times revealed that George W. Bush had ordered the National Security Agency to wiretap the foreign calls of American citizens without seeking court permission, as is indisputably required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), passed by Congress in 1978, he faced a decision. Would he deny the practice, or would he admit it? He admitted it. But instead of expressing regret, he took full ownership of the deed, stating that his order had been entirely justified, that he had in fact renewed it thirty times, that he would continue to renew it and--going even more boldly on the offensive--that those who had made his law-breaking known had committed a "shameful act."

“As justification, he offered two arguments, one derisory, the other deeply alarming. The derisory one was that Congress, by authorizing him to use force after September 11, had authorized him to suspend FISA, although that law is unmentioned in the resolution. Thus has Bush informed the members of a supposedly co-equal branch of government of what, unbeknownst to themselves, they were thinking when they cast their vote. The alarming argument is that as Commander in Chief he possesses "inherent" authority to suspend laws in wartime. But if he can suspend FISA at his whim and in secret, then what law can he not suspend? What need is there, for example, to pass or not pass the Patriot Act if any or all of its provisions can be secretly exceeded by the President?” ...


“The danger is not abstract or merely symbolic. Bush's abuses of presidential power are the most extensive in American history. He has launched an aggressive war ("war of choice," in today's euphemism) on false grounds. He has presided over a system of torture and sought to legitimize it by specious definitions of the word. He has asserted a wholesale right to lock up American citizens and others indefinitely without any legal showing or the right to see a lawyer or anyone else. He has kidnapped people in foreign countries and sent them to other countries, where they were tortured. In rationalizing these and other acts, his officials have laid claim to the unlimited, uncheckable and unreviewable powers he has asserted in the wiretapping case. He has tried to drop a thick shroud of secrecy over these and other actions.”

“There is a name for a system of government that wages aggressive war, deceives its citizens, violates their rights, abuses power and breaks the law, rejects judicial and legislative checks on itself, claims power without limit, tortures prisoners and acts in secret. It is dictatorship.

“The Administration of George W. Bush is not a dictatorship, but it does manifest the characteristics of one in embryonic form. Until recently, these were developing and growing in the twilight world of secrecy. Even within the executive branch itself, Bush seemed to govern outside the normally constituted channels of the Cabinet and to rely on what Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff has called a "cabal." Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill reported the same thing. Cabinet meetings were for show. Real decisions were made elsewhere, out of sight. Another White House official, John DiIulio, has commented that there was "a complete lack of a policy apparatus" in the White House. "What you've got is everything, and I mean everything, being run by the political arm." As in many Communist states, a highly centralized party, in this case the Republican Party, was beginning to forge a parallel apparatus at the heart of government, a semi-hidden state-within-a-state, by which the real decisions were made.”

-- Please go read the article in its entirety.

Now, first off, recall I am a heretic in the matter of government “spying” on the people. Unlike nearly every other opponent of the Bush Administration, I am far less incensed over their efforts -- through vehicles like the PATRIOT Act and the NSA -- to empower our paid protector caste (e.g. the FBI etc) with better access to wiretaps and other powers of surveillance. Their increased ability to see is inevitable, and not intrinsically worrisome. Indeed, in this new century, we will simply have to get used to the fact that elites will see very, very well. Get used to it.

RECIPROCAL-ACCOUNTABILITYBut this need not be the end of freedom. What I hammer relentlessly is the point about reciprocal accountability -- that average citizens must fight, like demons, to retain our ability to look back! To ensure that the protector caste can never get away with spying or meddling or doing anything else unsupervised and unscrutinized by a citizenry who are both knowing and fiercely determined to the bosses of this civilization. To stay free.

Rather than focusing on a few rogue wiretaps, it is the Bushite frenzy for secrecy, dismantling every tool of accountability and oversight, that we should find far more terrifying.

The utter insanity of our situation cannot be over-emphasized. Ask ANY of your conservative friends what their reaction would have been, had Bill Clinton done 1/10 of any of these things. Take ANY ONE category. From busting the budget to relentless secrecy, demolition of our military readiness, torture, domestic spying, ruination of all our alliances, support for monopolies, the taking of bribes in exchange for pork contracts, interpreting every law as optional under the “Commander in Chief” clause, and utter destruction of international goodwill...

. . . .or the creation of a new category of human being called “enemy combatant.” One that has no legal rights, not even those guaranteed to prisoners of war. (Remind me to go into this further, in “comments.”)

Defy your conservative friends (the sincere ones) to close their eyes and imagine if Bill Clinton had done even a scintilla of any of these things... and tried to justify it all based on a state of “war” that not only was never declared, but that does not even exist.

Then remind them that, inevitably, another Clinton someday will re-take power in the see-saw rhythm of our democracy.

Do they really want the office of the presidency - regally empowered by such precedents - to behave in such ways, so secret and utterly unaccountable?

I mean it, go ask. Find the conservatives around you who are starting to twitch uncomfortably, their rationalizations turning strained and a bit shrill. These are people who know, deep down, that America -- and conservatism itself -- are in big trouble. Talk to them about all this from the perspective of conservatism! For example, their pragmatic need to prevent the kind of backlash that will put the left in power for decades! Grab them by the scruff of the neck and pose the “what if Clinton did this?” challenge.

It is time to make them face their duty. Tell them to stand up.

== Continue to Preventing Tyranny Part 2


Anonymous said...

Brin said:
" . . . .or the creation of a new category of human being called “enemy combatant.” One that has no legal rights, not even those guaranteed to prisoners of war. (Remind me to go into this further, in “comments.”)"

Consider yourself reminded.

And always protect those precious bodily fluids. :)


reason said...

Actually if you are going to talk about Dr Strangelove, I saw it again recently. Notice how the President was the moderate rational one. Now the president makes the General in the film look sane. When the civilian politicians are the extreme paranoids it is definitely time to worry.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of politics, saving the world, and proxy power, Dr. Brin, do you support this one?


Anonymous said...

"Then remind them that, inevitably, another Clinton someday will re-take power in the see-saw rhythm of our democracy."

Maybe neocons don't care about that because they've already infiltrated the Democratic Party... perhaps spawning the 'neodems'?

JGF said...

More than half of the Bush base don't expect the reign of man to last much longer, so appeals on the basis of future democratic presidency are futile. Of the rest at least half are truly clueless. The small fraction that remain are alarmed already, nothing we can say will much change that.

David, your transparent society work is, to me, the most impressive and prescient work you've done. As I posted in The case for the American Police State I suspect Cheney is acting on a "rational" basis when instituting a police state, but there are better alternatives he's failed to consider. You've outlined many of them. If we were to seriously talk about these problems we could come up with others.

Rob Perkins said...

I think it's incorrect to say and tiring to hear that half of the Republican base is clueless, while the other half are insane.

koreyel said...

I think it's incorrect to say and tiring to hear that half of the Republican base is clueless, while the other half are insane.

But not because it isn't true.

But rather because it is not inclusive enough.

It ought to read something like this:

Half of the world's population is clueless, while the other half is insane. The clueless half are those who merely believe in God. The insane half are those who believe God's thoughts have been captured in book form, and use that book to club to death dissenting sentient creatures.

Thought experiment:

Two indentical humanoid planets created by God as an experiment. Both planets are given a dose of free will.

In the first planet, God creates a gene that causes the humanoids to believe in god.

In the second planet he omits the gene.

Question: Which planet has the adults?

Jake Silver said...

amazing post, mr. brin

Anonymous said...

Two links of note:

Bruce Sterling takes a break from planning his relocation to the Balkans (!?!?!) to host a interesting discussion on The Well:

Sterling suggests that the Bush administration is suffering from having inhaled memes floating in the air since the Confederacy went up in smoke.

TruthOut reprints a Texas Observer story documenting ties between Abramoff and the White House:

To the pols thinking that giving dirty campaign money to charities will cleanse their souls:

How about taking back all the favors those dollars bought?


Anonymous said...

To the pols thinking that giving dirty campaign money to charities will cleanse their souls:

Yet another example of the toxic attitudes which seem to accrete around the career politician. The man on the street would never consider it acceptable to rob a bank, then turn around and give some or all of it to a charity and call it even.

I've said it on some of the more virulent listserv conversations on the topic: dogmatic partisanship is a particularly toxic meme, but how do you go about supplanting it? Historically it's only been accomplished through violent upheaval, and I'd really rather not have my children experience that if I can help it.

David Brin said...

John, you raise an interesting point. Suppose there are Illuminati style secret aristocratic masters... as there have been in many cultures... who manipulate everything behind the scenes.

Yes, there is a level at which this is paranoid nonsense. Elders of Zion/Swiss-Struldbrugs and all that. Black Helicopters. UFOS.

And another level at which it is all so boringly obvious. (That there is collusion among Rupert Murdoch, the Halliburton/Exxon crowd, and the R-oil House? Plus, maybe, the New Confucians? D’uh!)

Only now let’s posit something in between. That there’s maybe a level above Murdoch. One that’s pretty well organized and that really has a plan. They have rationalized, in their minds, that it is very important to return humanity to hierarchical rule by elites, turning away from the transparency-enlightenment-modernist experiment. Their rationalizations may be multifold:

1- personal self- interest. The oldest one and the most honest. They are kneejerk going for feudal power, as a genetic reflex inherited from all those ancestors who got to have more women and babies because they had the castle and other men had hovels. To one extent or another, this is deeply human -- our curse -- and it is (to some (I hope much smaller) extent) what you and I would do.

2- the Fukayama rationalization... that new technologies make renunciation necessary for human survival. An elite of Plato’s philosopher kings should decide what’s best for everybody. I deal harshly with this reasoning in my singularity paper.

3- the religious/conservative rationalization... that basic values demand control from above, because the masses are inherently filthy and stupid, or immoral and untrustworthy.

...and so on. There are many versions, and I am sure that their court intellectuals and clerics have couched it all in lovely and flowery and persuasive incantations, perhaps as well versed as Augustine and Machiavelli, combined. And all of it insulated against any danger of criticism.

But surely, among them, there must be a few minds who are smart enough to notice how, well, self-serving and convenient these rationalizations are. How suspiciously pat and handy, fitting JUST so into a catechism supporting their own cabal’s quest for castles and coercion and babes. There must be a few who understand the blatant truth, that human beings are supreme rationalizers and self-deluders...

...and that history shows such deluded cabals to NEVER have been right or successful at statecraft. Not for very long.

“Show me one example!” I would demand, if these guys ever invited me to participate in a disputation before them... the way a few wise kings of old actually asked to have their own ideas challenged. But, alas, the whole “O’Reilly Factor” phenomenon shows that these fellows are probably - overall - too dismally stupid to see the trap that snared nearly all of their predecessors. They have power and money, but few neurons.

It’s a pity, because there ARE people who are as bright as they are rich. These include the really smart billionaires, like Jeff Bezos or Sergey Brin or even Bill Gates. These guys know they owe everything to the Enlightenment. If THEY ever got organized, the struldbrugs would face real trouble.

(Now this: if these guys exist, surely some of their minions have been watching this blog and are reading this now. “Shall we smoosh Brin? Or might that raise a scent of suspicion that would lend credibility to his arguments?” On the other hand, maybe one of the younger struldbrugs is thinking... “How much more fun a future I will get to live in, if the Enlightenment notions are right, after all?”)


Rob, I agree with you that it is slander to call Republicans half clueless and half insane. THAT kind of talk keeps driving decent conservatives back into the arms of the monsters.

As I see it, the LARGEST GOP voter block is libertarian-minded or Goldwater conservatives. They get NOTHING from the monsters, but stay grudgingly loyal because the left cannot get it through their thick skulls that it is time to reach out. If room were set at the table, we might get a sudden coalition of the middle and end Culture War, sending the other four GOP constituencies into the wilderness.

Those are (in descending order of numbers but ascending order of influence):

2. religious radicals: numberous, active, hate the enlightenment... they get lip service and no action.
3. neocons: bright, educated, totally loony. They got their war. Little else.
4. kleptocrats: few, voracious, CEOS, pigs at the biggest pork frenzy in history.
5. you-know-who

David Brin said...

re: the “enemy combatants” ploy....

Far from a necessary emergency measure, no one has even tried to rationalize this staggering reversal of honor and standards as a temporary measure -- which might be justified for short spans of dire-urgency -- so long as accountability were only deferred, not forever buried. Only now, these measures have mutated into a way to stuff large numbers of people down an oubliette (or hole of forgetfulness) for spans that may be indefinite, possibly perpetual, with no recourse to any conceivable possibility of appeal. And never once a thought to how we would feel, if this were done to our own.

(In fact, Guantanamo, “renditions” and many other aspects of this scandal might be partially excused under rare and special conditions of dire national urgency, assuming that true professionals resorted to them as an utter last resort, with full intention to account (before independent review) for every deviation from due process, when conditions allow. The utter irony? This sort of thing has probably been going on for decades as rare, “secret agent” stuff. Only now, by rashly expanding such procedures at least 100-fold, the Bush Administration has ensured that we will have to turn our public spotlight onto these exercises in “realpolitik’ and ban them completely. What had been a discreet set of emergency tools for professionals, became a scandalous stain upon our national honor. Another stunning example of so called ‘practical patriots’ accomplishing the exact opposite of their intent.)

Ouranosaurus said...

Excellent post overall. But I do take issue with this bit:

What I hammer relentlessly is the point about reciprocal accountability -- that average citizens must fight, like demons, to retain our ability to look back! To ensure that the protector caste can never get away with spying or meddling or doing anything else unsupervised and unscrutinized by a citizenry who are both knowing and fiercely determined to the bosses of this civilization.

Just because the average peon knows what his superiors are up to, does not make him any more free. Now, when the power gap is still (relatively) small, it would of course make a difference. But if the gap in wealth, education and power widens much further, any transparency won't do us any good. And, of course, a wider gap means they will be able to deny us that transparency in the first place.

On Libertarians working with liberals and leftists, I don't know enough about the GOP to second guess you're contention that they and their fellow travellers are the biggest single Republican block. But if it is true, I still can't see an out-and-out alliance between liberal Dems and libertarians. Better to try and get people to work together on single issues they agree on (drug law reform, strong protection against police search and wiretapping, free speech) at first. Most lefty social democrat types her in Canada would rather die than join up with a libertarian, even though both sides share a lot of the values I just listed. It's a question of perception and attitude.

Rob Perkins said...

Koryel, it absolutely isn't true. A sweeping generalization about people who "believe in God" guarantees you only isolation and emnity from them, along with more than a little bit of knee jerk opposition, born of the fear of you you'll evoke if your memes ever become powerful.

In any case, I'll direct you to the Communist Manifesto, which has little good to say about religion. That book was used to club more dissenting sentients to death than any other in a similar timespan.

Largely in secret. Therefore, the bogeyman you want to attack is not religionists, but *dogmatists*.

But then, of course, that's a more complex thought than doing exactly what Evangelical Christians do, when they vilify their enemies by starting with their premises rather than yours.

And David, you're doing it too. The libertarian minded conservatives are not, I submit, thick in the head. It's milder stuff than koreyel's thing, but still assumes that your opposites cannot see.

Meantime, they're comfortable in the confidence that it is YOU who cannot see.

I think they simply think everyone the Democrats have put forward in the last decade is a worse choice, a bigger monster. So we live with the monster we have and maybe (maybe!) send a Democrat to the Congress to check him, confident that he's term limited.

Democrats ought to push some optimism at them, rather than simply screaming "BUSH IS EVIL" demagoguery at the top of their lungs.

David Brin said...

Rob, I have always been one to do what you say above. I am urging democrats (elsewhere) to examine the 1994 Gingrich CONTRACT WITH AMERICA in order to propose a new version that won't be betrayed.

Still, you miss the point.

Conservatives now face a situation like 1947, when liberals could no longer hide from themselves the monstrousness of Stalin, or pretend that stalwart Uncle Joe would never do bad stuff.

And that year, more than half of them... including the core of the labor movement... did the right thing.

The situation is THAT BAD for conservatism today. Oh, Bush is no Stalin... but he's HERE!!!!! His hands are on our constitution and in our pockets. Do the multiplier effect. The threat is of similar magnitude.

STop turning this around and making John Kerry the issue. ANY HONEST PERSON would be better than what we've got. Hell, any normally dishonest person who is not a member of a well-organized cabal to divide a great nation using the pretext of "culture war" will do nicely at this point!

Blaming the democrats is exactly the kind of frantic issue-avoidance that has kept Buckley and Will and millions of other decent conservatives from heeding the whirring sound that now shrieks from Barry Goldwater's spinning grave.

Anonymous said...

@ Rob

"Democrats ought to push some optimism at them"

This seems to be the issue that comes up in water-cooler talk.

The Republicans have painted themselves as the "party of inclusiveness", and they're for stuff. For God, for cheaper gas, for democracy, for a better way of life, for the American dream. At least on paper.

The Democrats have presented a pretty solid front of being divisive and mainly against stuff. Against the war, against the Pledge of Allegiance, against drilling for oil in Alaska, against cutting taxes.

This is "Marketing 101" stuff.

Rob Perkins said...

Well, first, do keep in mind that I'm not describing myself among the Goldwater conservatives; I'm answering your call to pick the ideas apart. Apologia is not necessarily the same thing as alliance.

Second, Kerry, Gore, and Clinton, not just Kerry. And not just them but the Senate and House candidates fronted by the Dems. Take a step back and think about it in terms of more than just the Presidential elections. The Democratic party apparatus has codified, in its various State platforms, ideas and policies which those Goldwater conservatives abhor completely. They can never caucus with people who want to deny the freedoms they consider more important than Whatever Bush Has Done.

Further, if you think about it, Bush is term-limited. With any hope at all, someone like Romney or McCain will take the nomination in '08, instead of whomever Bush anoints. We need, I think, dual reform: The Dems need to inject optomism, and the Republicans need to maginalize the loony Rightists.

In the meantime I don't know what else I can do (this year at least) except speak up for and cast my vote for Brian Baird, Democrat for Congress, who will not lose for all the reasons you pointed out in your gerrymandering essays.

In other words, no matter what a candidate says, the Democratic party platforms contained dealbreakers for them, mostly in the form of no tax relief and no tort reform. The Republican ones did not.

All entirely beside my primary point, which is that you won't win *anyone* over to your side by calling them insane, addled, evil, or thick in the head. Do it enough and they'll just oppose you *even* if it's to everyone's detriment. They're Americans, after all!

That's really at 90 degrees to the pro- or anti-Democrat sentiment.

And just as a bit of corrective criticism, by 1947, Stalin had already murdered more than ten million people domestically. Clearly you don't want to wait until then, but let's not compare them quite yet as equals of any kind.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the holidays are over, and I'm going to actually start commenting here more often again. I hope.

David Brin said:

Then remind them that, inevitably, another Clinton someday will re-take power in the see-saw rhythm of our democracy.

I've tried this with a couple of my conservative friends. And, honestly, it hasn't worked. I'm not completely sure why. The most I've been able to get from them are statements similar to Rob Perkins's, along the lines of "Well, yes, but the Democrats are worse." And watching the political news, where there are people actually up defending TORTURE, of all things, in the 21st century, it doesn't inspire confidence. Maybe they can ignore me, fitting me into the "kooky liberal" box, or something but it doesn't seem to work. And I no longer know how to reach them at all, which is part of the source of my despair. I see other, normally clear headed conservative bloggers attacking Amnesty International for calling our secret torture prisons "gulags", but not addressing the fact we have secret torture prisons. In these and many other ways, I simply do not understand what these conservatives want or believe, and don't know how to reach them.

Rob Perkins said:

Democrats ought to push some optimism at them, rather than simply screaming "BUSH IS EVIL" demagoguery at the top of their lungs.

Case in point, not aimed exactly at Rob, but he provided an example. The entire conservatve media machine of talk radio, FOX News, etc, is out there screaming "DEMOCRATS/LIBERALS ARE EVIL BABYKILLING TRAITORS WHO HATE AMERICA!" demagoguery at the top of their lungs, day in and day out... And yet it's the Democrats who're pessimistic and exclusive and out of ideas.

How are we to convince people who consider no "tax relief" to be a deal breaker, but don't consider torture, secret detainment without evidence, and the rest of the abuses of the Bush administration to be not deal-breakers?

Rob Perkins said...

Now, that's a point I hadn't directly thought of: The Republican-allied demagogues are out in just as full force as any Democratic ones.

The difference appears to me to be one of alliance. The Republicans don't precisely forswear their demagogues, but the Democrats (and I get this from reading their official State party websites) fully embrace theirs.

And noone says more outrageous things than Nancy Pelosi.

Sarabeth said...

I, too, attempted to use conservatism and your argument to some of my friends. Instead of getting my question answered (Would you want another Clinton in office with this type of power and unchecked?) I was belittled for being a liberal (which I am not) and for not understanding the situation completely because I chose to stay at home with my children (a sure stab at me being a woman and an odd stab at their own professed "family values").

Unless all of us stop belittling the other "side", we will accomplish nothing. Debate the issues, come up with a workable yet changeable plan. If we could only have people like that in office.

Anonymous said...


defenition of Liberal:

broad meaning: showing or characterized by broad-mindedness; "a broad political stance"; "generous and broad sympathies"; "a liberal newspaper"; "tolerant of his opponent's opinions".

having political or social views favoring reform and progress
tolerant of change; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or tradition

a person who favors a political philosophy of progress and reform and the protection of civil liberties

a person who favors an economic theory of laissez-faire and self-regulating markets

from the DENENITION OF THE WORD are you SURE you are not realya a liberal


Anonymous said...

I hope I'm not too late to add a comment...

From the original post:

Ask ANY of your conservative friends what their reaction would have been, had Bill Clinton done 1/10 of any of these things

Or, you could look back 10 years at a minor scandal in 1996 - In which Whitehouse head of security Craig Livingstone requested and recieved the FBI files on several whitehouse personel without first garnering their consent.

As with countless scandals and potential scandals since the mid-70's the suffix -gate was added to it and we got "filegate". Conservative pundits had a field day. Complaints of abuse of power and untrustorthyness were commonplace amidst reactionary circles.

And that doesn't even come close the criteria as 1/10th as bad. A scandal of a 1/10 of the current one would have resulted in real impeachment proceedings - for which they would have had the excuse they had been desperately been seeking from day to proceed.

Citizen James

Anonymous said...

Who is "5. you-know-who" ?

Anonymous said...