Wednesday, April 12, 2006
Let us review. According to several sources, most notably Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, the president has the right to arrest and hold anyone he chooses, without charge, for as long as he wants, without access to a lawyer and without any kind of public judicial proceeding -- or, in a pinch, without even a private judicial proceeding. He has the right to tap the telephone, read the e-mail and examine the financial records of anyone he chooses.
It now appears that he also has the right to selectively declassify intelligence documents to obtain political goals, even if (or perhaps particularly if) the intelligence in question is suspect. He has the right to lie to the American people in order to enter into a war of unknown intensity and duration.
The president does not yet have an ermine robe and a gold crown, but no one can say for sure that plans to obtain such trappings of state are not already under way. Heck, no one can say for sure anything at all because the quality of information is so degraded that it's hard to know what's going to happen until it happens, and sometimes not even then. We can say this: No one ever went broke not trusting George W. Bush.
None of this is news. The question, really, is not "Why has the president's approval rating dipped to 36 percent?" but "Why hasn't it dipped lower?" Why do people continue to support him? He has taken unto himself vast amounts of power not ever granted in the Constitution. Surely people treasure democracy, love the system of checks and balances, are afraid of tyrants.
History suggests otherwise. History suggests that, in times of trouble, people like a strong leader. People are willing to give up their autonomy in order to strengthen their leader. Democracy is a messy and confusing business. Maybe it's OK some of the time, but when malign enemies are roaming the streets, when our very way of life is threatened by shadowy figures of menace -- we want Daddy. Most of the world is run by Daddy, one way or the other.
Political society tends to devolve back to dictatorship. The standard pattern seems to be war followed by confusion followed by a coalition government followed by Daddy. Of course this is not inevitable, but it happens often enough that the basic urge should not be surprising.
The Founders understood that. They debated, they pondered, and they came up with a firm rule: no more kings. That idea is all over the Constitution. Presidents almost immediately began trying to find ways to circumvent the Constitution. It's so hard to get things done. I have a dream -- I want neither a check nor a balance.
Most people would rather cede control than exercise it. Responsibility is hard and shopping is easy. Most people are sheep -- heck, most sheep are sheep. Sheepiness is the default mammalian mode. I wish I didn't think that was true, but look at the evidence; it's hard to be optimistic. We should keep our ideals, but we should realize that the reason we call them "ideals" is that they're not very real.
One thing Daddy has to convince his subjects about: He is just like them. He believes what they believe. He will fight for whatever it is they would also fight for. If that's true, then what does it matter how much power we give him -- he's going to use it just the way we would. He's going to uphold our values and smite our enemies. That's why George Bush got elected. I doubt that any of his supporters thought he was competent; they just thought he was unwavering in his beliefs. And he is. He has done what he was elected to do.
The delusion is circular and complete: When he says he's going to tap telephones, he doesn't mean your telephone, he means other people's phones. He's not going to throw you in jail for ever and ever; it's not you he's after. When the people who are in jail say, "I was just like you, trying to lead my life in America," you can say, "You're not like me -- you're in jail."
I was 18 when I first heard the famous quote from Martin Niemoeller. I was gobsmacked. There are several versions; this one's from Bartlett's: "In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."
Democracy is neither natural nor easy; that's why we really can't do it very well. It's like playing the bassoon, only with more speeches. Democracy will never be an Olympic sport -- although, come to think of it, neither will playing the bassoon.
It would be madness to let the purposes or the methods of private enterprise set the habits of firstname.lastname@example.org