Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Democracy in Colonial America, 1984, and 2014

It’s nice to be home.

For the last 10 days I traveled to Boston, MA and Portland Maine with my family.

In Boston we took our teenage boys down “Freedom Trail.” We walked among places frequented by those who first institutionalized the grand Enlightenment experiment of modern democracy at the close of the eighteenth century.

It is true that only a tiny minority of Americans were counted as citizens and afforded the rights institutionalized in the US Constitution at the time of its signing. Habeas corpus, free speech, and privacy were granted only to a small minority of white men counted as citizens. The criteria for citizenship included property, race/ethnicity, and sex.

Over time, the seeds of democratic enlightenment grew, nourishing our capacities to transcend narrow criteria by recognizing that the capacity for reason is universal among humans.

Barriers to universal franchise were disassembled throughout the twentieth century, resulting in vastly expanded opportunities for “legitimate” political engagement.

However, while the spirit of democratic reason was disseminated more broadly, sovereign interpretation and enactment of constitutional rights were too often SELECTIVE and SELF-INTERESTED. Democratic processes are easily corrupted and subject to capture by forces of tyranny, both near and far.

In particular, the idea of universal democracy – defined in terms of free speech, due process, and the right to vote – has been undone by legalistically introduced EXCEPTIONS that operate with the force of LAW.

For example, while walking the Freedom Trail, my family observed that habeas corpus – the cornerstone of the US Constitution, and liberal democracy itself, hasn’t been upheld since passage of the Patriot Act and is mocked by US drone assassinations.

Moreover, the concept of privacy has been completely sabotaged by UBIQUITOUS NSA surveillance.

Even my deeply patriotic mother-in-law is outraged. My father-in-law, a naturalized citizen who taught constitutional law, shakes his head in disgust.

The process for destroying foundational principles has been both extra-ordinary and mundane. The process has been extra-ordinary to the degree that the sovereign state and modern corporation have carved out EXCEPTIONS to the constitutional principles of democratic rule and the enlightenment ideal of due process.

Although The Patriot Act was not the first sovereign exception to Constitutionally enshrined principles, it was passed in a technological context enabling automated remote surveillance and control. Computer automation and centralization have enabled ubiquitous surveillance , while death itself was fully mechanized with the War on Terror’s drone warfare.

War has long been the rationale for exception in western democratic law, as free speech, privacy, and habeas corpus were routinely sacrificed to military power during the twentieth century.

The military and the police are the "arm of power" of the feudal sovereign lurking within purportedly democratic institutions.

The sovereign arm is governed by a diverse group of global elites who bicker and strategize among themselves in their endless military and economic games. They are not a cabal of unified interests, but rather represent powerful individuals and networks that have access to the levers of power because of their positioning and ownership.

Their constant warring and economic predation produced the most recent concerted assault on democracy - The War on Terror. The War on Terror adapted the Cold War’s social paranoia by mapping “terrorist” onto “communist.” Communists were potentially everywhere, as are today’s terrorists. The difference lies in the automation and centralization of surveillance and control now available.

I read George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in Poly Science 101 as a college student in 1985. At the time I thought Huxley would better predict the future because his vision of extensive social engineering seemed an especially effective mode of social control and the newly invented Prozac anti-depressant so closely resembled Huxley’s Soma.

Propaganda seemed less obvious in the wake of its glaring displays during the Cold War. Propaganda at the close of the twentieth century seemed to operate more ubiquitously through hedonistic appeals, rather than through fear and authority. By the mid-1980, social-engineering seemed to have eclipsed brute sovereign force as desire was organized around consumption.

Yet, the forces of sovereign authority remained. Although they could be found in almost all forms of social organization (ranging from families to organized institutions), the most powerful among them gained political voice with the rise of the US neoliberals and neonconservatives. I tell that story in my book, Governmentality, Biopower, and Everyday Life (which is, I’m afraid, painfully academic in writing style).

Neoconservative empire building drove legislation facilitating the dispossession of liberal rights. The Patriot and National Defense Authorization Acts have been for me the most obvious instances where free speech, habeas corpus, and privacy were exceptionally violated through the mundane process of legislation rationalized by neocon conceived "security" threats.

The dangers of the War on Terror has been masterfully told by many journalists, bloggers, and academics, who continue today to warn us of the tactics and strategies being used by the forces of tyranny:

Scahill, J. & Devereaux (2014, July 23). Blacklisted: The Secret Government Rulebook For Labeling You a Terrorist, The Intercept. Available https://firstlook.org/theintercept/article/2014/07/23/blacklisted/

The Obama administration has quietly approved a substantial expansion of the terrorist watchlist system, authorizing a secret process that requires neither “concrete facts” nor “irrefutable evidence” to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist, according to a key government document obtained by The Intercept.

The “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance,” a 166-page document issued last year by the National Counterterrorism Center, spells out the government’s secret rules for putting individuals on its main terrorist database, as well as the no fly list and the selectee list, which triggers enhanced screening at airports and border crossings. 

The new guidelines allow individuals to be designated as representatives of terror organizations without any evidence they are actually connected to such organizations, and it gives a single White House official the unilateral authority to place “entire categories” of people the government is tracking onto the no fly and selectee lists. 

It broadens the authority of government officials to “nominate” people to the watchlists based on what is vaguely described as “fragmentary information.” It also allows for dead people to be watchlisted….  As the rulebook notes, “watchlisting is not an exact science.”

March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance. Made Available by The Intercept (2014) https://firstlook.org/theintercept/document/2014/07/23/march-2013-watchlisting-guidance/
Human Rights Watch (2014, July 21) US: Terrorism Prosecutions Often An Illusion http://www.hrw.org/node/127456

The 214-page report, “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions,” examines 27 federal terrorism cases from initiation of the investigations to sentencing and post-conviction conditions of confinement. It documents the significant human cost of certain counterterrorism practices, such as overly aggressive sting operations and unnecessarily restrictive conditions of confinement....[end]

One has to wonder what America's founding "fathers" would think about such illiberal legislation and conduct by government and corporations.

Read the report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch on the erosion of democracy in America With Liberty to Monitor All


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