U.S. Constitution

President Obama’s Farewell Speech continues, despite the best efforts of the Trump Administration

Posted on January 20, 2017. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

So now we continue with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, for as long as it is allowed to post it.

We left off in part 1 with President Obama talking about his time as a grassroots political organizer in Chicago:

Now this is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.

After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.

—Those last two sentences are so critically important: we must participate in our democracy in order to uphold it. It doesn’t matter what kind of change you want. You have to act for it, and support others who take action.

That action should be informed by nothing other than our founding principles:

of due process before the law…

of equality of opportunity…

of no discrimination based on race, creed, or sex…

…of liberty and justice for all. Any change, any movement, any one that does not support these things is un-American. So erasing gay people and non-white people is not supporting our democracy. It is un-American.

It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

What a radical idea, the great gift that our Founders gave to us. The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, and toil, and imagination — and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.

—These founding principles are indeed a gift and an imperative. We have to work to maintain them—they are not self-perxetuating. We will have them for as long as we want them. When Americans top wanting everyone in this country to be treated as equal, our democracy will end.

For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom.

It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan — and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.

—All of those examples in the second paragraph are concrete manifestations of “liberty and justice for all.” All of the people mentioned are true Americans.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

—It would seem the president had been reading our blog! Especially our About page.

When we face people saying they want to make America great again, we must ask them what they mean by that. Whose lives will be made better? What should be changed? What exactly isn’t great? How can we solve problems by expanding civil rights rather than curtailing them?

We’ll leave off here for now. Next time, the ridiculous red herring of “the peaceful transfer of power.”

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…the Obama Farewell address is no more on the Trump whitehouse.gov site

Posted on January 20, 2017. Filed under: U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Post 2 in our series close-reading the Obama farewell speech has started ominously.

We put in the URL for the speech that we referenced in our first post—whitehouse.gov/farewell—into our usual search engine. The first time, we got a page with a photo of President Trump and VP Pence (which we didn’t think to get a screenshot of) giving a thumbs up and asking us to Make America Great Again.

We typed the URL into the field at the top of the page, and got a page with only this message:

no-farewell

We searched for it on the whitehouse.gov site and got this:

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-2-25-53-pm

We tried the link from Google—same result.

We had thought maybe we should pause parsing Obama’s farewell to address the Trump inaugural address; now we’re not sure how to proceed. An attack so blatant on people searching for the Obama address, with the Trump/Pence screen that only comes up once, has shocked us for the moment. We won’t be silenced, so we’ll be back very quickly, but this deserves a stand-alone post.

Go try it yourselves. Then come back for our series.

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President Obama’s Farewell Address

Posted on January 13, 2017. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Presidential farewell addresses are fairly predictable. They are dramatic, emotional, and long. But sometimes they are very important, because they shine a clear light on how our highest leader thinks about the United States, his analysis of what is good and bad about the nation, and how he wants us to think about it. You may recall our series on the first farewell address, from George Washington, and  our series on Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address. Both are instances of important farewell addresses. Both warn the American people against dangers and urge them to preserve what America stands for (though they could not possibly be more different in how they define each of those categories).

Now Barack Obama has delivered his farewell, and we feel it is important, partly because of the president giving it, and partly because of the president about to follow him. Here is the first installment in our close-reading (we take our text from the official White House transcript, omitting only the times it tells you people applauded [“Applause”]):

THE PRESIDENT: Hello, Chicago! It’s good to be home! Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. All right, everybody sit down. We’re on live TV here. I’ve got to move. You can tell that I’m a lame duck because nobody is following instructions. (Laughter.) Everybody have a seat.

—Right away we see Obama doing something different: he’s the only president since Lyndon Johnson to give his Farewell Address in front of a live audience (Johnson gave his as part of his last State of the Union Address in 1969). Presidents before TV generally saw farewell addresses as literary artifacts: they were published without ever being delivered as speeches. Presidents in the radio age gave their addresses over the radio. And with the exception of Johnson, presidents in the TV age gave their addresses on TV. There is usually no call-and-response between president and audience. Here, we see Obama responding to the audience, and we deleted about a half-dozen references to applause.

Why the actual speech? There seem to be two possible or likely answers: first, Obama enjoys talking to a live audience; second, it was particularly important for him to see the faces of his supporters (since people who do not support him would be unlikely to show up at this event). He has always expressed great affection for and closeness to his supporters, and as he hands off the presidency to someone who clearly does not like Obama supporters, Mr. Obama wanted to “be with them” one last time as president. This jibes with the overall optimism of Obama’s message; he seems to have wanted to bolster the mood and hopes of those who look forward to Trump’s presidency with dread. It’s far easier to do this in person, where you can gesture and laugh and walk around a little—not things you can really do as well on TV.

My fellow Americans, Michelle and I have been so touched by all the well wishes that we’ve received over the past few weeks. But tonight, it’s my turn to say thanks.  Whether we have seen eye-to-eye or rarely agreed at all, my conversations with you, the American people, in living rooms and in schools, at farms, on factory floors, at diners and on distant military outposts — those conversations are what have kept me honest, and kept me inspired, and kept me going. And every day, I have learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.

So I first came to Chicago when I was in my early 20s. And I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life. And it was a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

THE PRESIDENT: I can’t do that.

AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

—It seems odd to us that people began to chant “four more years” at this point. It’s something Americans do, but not usually this early in a speech, and not usually until the president says something about what he’s accomplished in office. Here, Obama has made only  a fairly boilerplate statement, so far as presidential speeches go, about what he’s learned from the American people, and just begun to talk about his early years (something almost every address since Reagan seems to do). And even this reminiscing, so far, is pretty standard—talking about the dignity of hard-working Americans who meet challenges bravely.

Maybe people’s emotions were sparked because the president speaking is black, and for the first time, so are the working people dealing with struggle and loss. Obama will address this openly later in the Address, when he says (in so many words) that “hard-working Americans” has become a code for “white Americans”. But as a young black organizer, Obama met with black Americans who struggled but possessed dignity and faith, and he recognized them as real Americans. This may have hit his audience and led them to cry out for four more years of a black president.

Next time: the most important thing any president, any American, could say

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The Problems of American Freedom

Posted on December 2, 2016. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

We’re re-running this 2010 post because it seems fitting to revisit these issues as 2016 draws to a close.

 

We saw in the last post that Americans live in a unique situation: we enjoy all three types of basic freedom, national, political, and individual. Listing the nations that have offered all three freedoms to all of their citizens is a counting-on-one-hand proposition. Successfully providing and defending all three freedoms is what makes the United States great.

But it also presents some problems. Over the generations, Americans have veered between putting national freedom first and putting individual freedom first. We’re sometimes willing to give up individual freedom to be safe from attack, and sometimes unwilling to perform our duties of national and political freedom in the name of individual freedom. When the U.S. faces attack or threats to its safety, many Americans want to put laws in place curtailing individual freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly in order to at once weed out troublemakers and create a more homogenous society. Conversely, when the federal government tries to put sweeping legislation into effect, such as government-paid health care or social security or gun control, many Americans loudly protest the move as an infringement of their individual rights.

Individual rights also lead many Americans to neglect their political freedom to participate in government by holding office and/or voting. The feeling that participation in our democracy  is unnecessary, an extra rather than a basic tenet of American citizenship, is pervasive. Resentment of “big government” leads many people not to want to participate in government at all, as if they would be supporting an invasive federal government by voting or running for office, although the way to change the nature of government is to join it or vote in those you wish to have representing your views. The belief that our government is an impediment to individual freedom is sadly prevalent.

Holding all three freedoms in equal esteem is difficult. Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.

Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.

Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.

National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.

Going forward, we’re seeking to bring our three freedoms into balance and remember that each is equally valuable, and each demands our equal time and effort to maintain.

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Trump, protest, and being “fair”

Posted on November 17, 2016. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

In the days since the election, we’ve heard a few consistent messages:

—We need to come together and support Trump because the peaceful transfer of power is crucial to our democracy;

—We need to put aside our differences and unite as a nation;

—We need to acknowledge the other side and not automatically assume that anyone across the political aisle is evil.

The real issue at the heart of these three messages is relativism: there is no absolute, objective truth, like “Trump is bad” or “Democrats are good”. We have to support Trump’s election because accepting him, relative to the chaos that the failure of a peaceful transfer of power would bring, is necessary.We have to give every argument a fair hearing. One man’s meat is another man’s poison.

We’d like to challenge this relativism. One senses that many Americans would like to challenge it, feeling that there is something different about this situation, that rejecting Trump is not just petty party politics but a way to take a stand for justice. They are right.

What is our basis for saying this, our objective truth? Well, in this context, there is only one objective truth to turn to. We are Americans. We were educated so that we can understand how our government was framed, how it is supposed to work, and what its goals are—both literal, as in what tasks it is supposed to perform, and more figurative, as in what impact it is meant to have, what kind of nation and people it is meant to create.

Our federal government, as described in the Constitution, was created to balance power between three branches of government. Two of those branches are representative, in that we vote people into their offices. The judiciary is appointed by our representatives. The executive branch handles foreign policy and is the commander-in-chief of our armed forces. The legislatures creates laws. The judiciary reviews laws to be sure they are constitutional, and amends or invalidates laws that are not.

Our Constitution states that the goal of our nation is to offer liberty and justice to all, and to protect citizens’ right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It says that we can only protect those rights for all if we offer them to all (that took a few amendments, to extend those rights to non-whites and women, but it got done). It says, in the Bill of Rights, that we have immense personal liberty to worship as we please, speak and write as we please, and generally do as we please—so long as we do not infringe on someone else’s rights by doing that. It’s a balancing act in which our right to liberty is checked by other’s rights to liberty.

Fulfilling these terms has led our judiciary and Congress to pass laws guaranteeing equality of opportunity; laws that give every American as level a playing field for success as we can, through public education that is mixed and equal, through sexual harassment laws, anti-discrimination laws, and more.

These are the objective truths of American government, our Constitution, and our goals as a nation.

Therefore, these are the standards by which we must measure any U.S. citizen. We judge presidents by them, we judge members of Congress by them, we judge state and local officials by them. We judge news outlets and social organizations by them.

And so we must judge Trump by them. When he says he will punish women who have abortions, when he says natural-born American citizens whose parents are not from the U.S. are biased and unworthy to serve in public office, when he says he doesn’t know if the Ku Klux Klan is a hate group, when he says he engages in sexual assault, when he says he will get rid of governmental organizations like the EPA that keep our air and water safe because they hurt big business—in all these cases, he is violating our principles of government and the goals of the American nation.

When his supporters say, as we heard many say over the past weeks and months, that a vote for Trump is a vote for the “angry white man”, and for white supremacy, they are violating liberty and justice for all. When his supporters say Muslims should not be allowed to live in America, they violate the First Amendment.

And most of all, when his supporters say what they want most is for Trump to destroy the federal government, they are striking at the very heart of our nation.

So there is an objective reason for Americans to oppose Trump. He opposes America.

Peaceful transfer of power is important in a democracy—but we have to put the democracy first. We will peacefully transfer power to Trump, but we will not peacefully give him the power to destroy our democracy once he is in office. If all we preserve of our democracy is transfer of power, we don’t really have anything left.

We do not need to come together and support Trump. We need to come together to do what we can to oppose him when he violates our Constitution and our laws and our heritage, and support him when he does not.

We cannot put aside our differences with those who would destroy the American way of life as expressed in our Constitution and system of law. We have to try to get them to see the error of their ways, not say that their opinions are equally valid.

Anyone who wants to destroy this nation’s system of government  and commitment to liberty and justice for all is, in our opinion, either evil or extremely dangerous. They cannot be allowed to carry out their mission on the basis of “fairness”. This is not a question of which political party you belong to. It’s a question of whether you hold the American commitment to liberty and justice for all dear.

This is the only objective truth we can call upon when discussing politics, the only way that does not degenerate into relativism. It’s the yardstick we must use as we move forward.

 

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Trump and the Great American Experiment

Posted on November 10, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Today we’re re-running a post written at the very start of this blog, for reasons that will become evident as you read, on the second day of living in anticipation of a new presidency that is dedicated to perverting and destroying America’s founding principles.

From this point on, the HP is going to increase its focus on civics, our founding principles, and the fight for liberty and justice for all under the Constitution, because all Americans will need that information going forward into a Trump presidency that will not only allow that man to exercise his ill-judgment, but open the door to all Americans who have no faith in their nation’s founding principles. To destroy those principles is treason. The HP fights treason in all forms.

So, with a quote from the great Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery newspaper, we begin this new era:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

 

America is an experiment. From the time of its first white settlement, America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, I think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere. Barack Obama is such an American, and his election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

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Trump and Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech

Posted on July 5, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part four of our series on the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. Here we take a look at Abraham Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Institute in New York City (now Cooper Union) on February 28, 1860 and compare one part of it with the rhetoric coming from Trump supporters in 2016.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “war on Christianity”and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

In the Cooper Union address, Lincoln represented the new Republican Party, in only its second presidential election season. He was in 1860 still walking the fine line of saying that while the Republican Party was dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery into the west, it would not try to abolish slavery in the south. In most of his speeches on the campaign trail, Lincoln tried to do two things at once: force southerners to accept a Republican victory, if it came, by emphasizing that winning the popular vote would mean that most Americans wanted to stop the spread of slavery and therefore southerners could not claim that the election had been hijacked by a radical minority; and convince southerners that this antislavery majority did not mean that the south would have to get on board with the rest of the nation and abolish slavery.

This is the context for the statement we’re about to quote from the Cooper Union address, in which Lincoln addresses proslaveryites and debunks their claim that they have a Constitutional right to enslave other people and, therefore, an implied right to secede from the Union if slavery is abolished or even limited to the south. Here is the candidate:

…But you will break up the Union, rather than submit to a denial of your Constitutional rights.

That has a somewhat reckless sound: but it would be palliated, if not fully justified, were we proposing, by the mere force of numbers, to deprive you of some right plainly written down in the Constitution. But we are proposing no such thing.

When you make these declarations, you have a specific and well-understood allusion to an assumed Constitutional right of yours to take slaves into the Federal Territories, and to hold them there as property. But no such right is specifically written in the Constitution. That instrument is literally silent about any such right. We, on the contrary, deny that such  right has any existence in the Constitution, even by implication.

Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is, that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events.

Sub out “slaves” and the right to enslave for the right of anyone and everyone to buy and openly carry guns anywhere in public, even schools, or the right of self-professed Christians to deny public services to people who they feel offend Christianity, or the right of anti-choice legislatures to deny women access to health care from providers that also perform abortions, and you have a Democratic speech right out of 2016.

Many people today who self-identify as conservative in our new sectionalism of conservative v. liberal consistently claim a constitutional right to deprive others of their personal liberties. Yet the Constitution, as Lincoln points out, is “literally silent about any such right”. The Second Amendment does not protect private gun ownership for private use; it protects the right of American citizens to own guns so they can fight in local militias sanctioned and controlled by local governments. The Constitution does not mention Christianity in any way, and the Founders officially denied any Christian basis for the United States. Abortion or the rights of fetuses are not in the Constitution.

Too often an American’s right to freedom of speech, which actually is in the Constitution, is construed to protect “rights” that are not in the Constitution. Ever since the Supreme Court decided that actions could be identified as speech, this has happened. If it’s constitutional to protest outside an abortion clinic, clinics must be unconstitutional. If religious freedom is protected in the Constitution, then all of my religious beliefs must also be constitutionally protected (nope—see Gay Marriage, Religious Freedom, and the First Amendment for a rundown of the difference between religious worship and religious belief).

But conservatives who believe that all their beliefs are enshrined in the Constitution are often deaf to these arguments. As Lincoln put it, they will destroy the Government, unless they be allowed to construe the Constitution as they please, on all points in dispute between them and liberals. They will rule or ruin in all events. The eagerness of Trump’s supporters to destroy the federal government that they see as denying them their constitutional rights is a harvest sown by neoconservative Republicans for over thirty years now. This anti-government, Constitution-bending activist section may likely dispute the outcome of the presidential election if Clinton wins. And so we find ourselves, like Lincoln, facing a possible contested election over chimerical Constitutional rights. Secession seems slightly less likely today than in 1860… but it seemed unlikely to most observers in 1860.

Next time: on with the 1860 campaigns

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Make America great again–by supporting its federal government

Posted on March 2, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’re re-running this post from a few years ago to counter the constant message of the Republican presidential campaigners and those of their supporters who get on TV and the radio saying that what makes America great is its people, not its government. Marco Rubio just made this statement a few days ago at a rally.

How the Founders would shudder to hear this. If the American people are great, it’s because of their government, which empowers and ennobles them, gives them national, political, and individual freedom, and relies on the people themselves to participate in the government, by voting and/or serving in public office.

When you have a government like that, you are free, even determined to offer free public education for all, to make sure everyone gets enough food, to sit on juries so your fellow Americans can get justice. Our representative democracy—still so very rare in the world, the first of its kind, and in the minority even in the 21st century—is what gives us our national character, our optimism, our passion for justice, our sense of fair play. We infuse our government with these good things.

When we decide the federal government is the root of all ills, that decision is usually led by  selfish people who don’t want to help their fellow Americans eat or get justice or live in decent housing; they are out for themselves and themselves alone. They call themselves libertarians or rugged individuals, and they claim that they are returning to original American values that made the country great.

These people are voted into office and there they pervert the federal and state governments into criminal systems that oppress the poor and non-white and female. It’s vicious circle: People who hate the government go into it to destroy and pervert it, and then the government actually becomes the root of all evils they said it was. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If America is no longer great, it’s because of these people saying they themselves will make it great again by destroying the government.

But we need to cling to our representative democracy, our principles of liberty and justice for all, taxation with representation that helps people get the things they need. We need to let it keep us generous and fair-minded. A woman on the radio this morning said she voted for Trump because “I just want a change. I want a change.”

Change in and of itself is not positive. You can’t just say I’m fed up and I will throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can’t say “change” when you mean “I want to get my own way all the time and not help anyone else.” You will get a change for the worse, and you might find that it’s a change you don’t end up liking.

Here’s the original post. We’re in it for the long haul to November and beyond.

 

We saw in the last post that Americans live in a unique situation: we enjoy all three types of basic freedom, national, political, and individual. Listing the nations that have offered all three freedoms to all of their citizens is a counting-on-one-hand proposition. Successfully providing and defending all three freedoms is what makes the United States great.

But it also presents some problems. Over the generations, Americans have veered between putting national freedom first and putting individual freedom first. We’re sometimes willing to give up individual freedom to be safe from attack, and sometimes unwilling to perform our duties of national and political freedom in the name of individual freedom. When the U.S. faces attack or threats to its safety, many Americans want to put laws in place curtailing individual freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly in order to at once weed out troublemakers and create a more homogenous society. Conversely, when the federal government tries to put sweeping legislation into effect, such as government-paid health care or social security or gun control, many Americans loudly protest the move as an infringement of their individual rights.

Individual rights also lead many Americans to neglect their political freedom to participate in government by holding office and/or voting. The feeling that participation in our democracy  is unnecessary, an extra rather than a basic tenet of American citizenship, is pervasive. Resentment of “big government” leads many people not to want to participate in government at all, as if they would be supporting an invasive federal government by voting or running for office, although the way to change the nature of government is to join it or vote in those you wish to have representing your views. The belief that our government is an impediment to individual freedom is sadly prevalent.

Holding all three freedoms in equal esteem is difficult. Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.

Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.

Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.

National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.

Going forward, we’re seeking to bring our three freedoms into balance and remember that each is equally valuable, and each demands our equal time and effort to maintain.

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Michael Hayden: don’t be ashamed of torture

Posted on February 23, 2016. Filed under: U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

We were innocently listening to the radio when an interview with retired Air Force General Michael Hayden came on. He ran the NSA for a decade (1999-2009) and was director of the CIA. He’s just written a memoir, which unfortunately over the past 15 years has come to mean a high-level military director reveals all the ways he violated our Constitution. Whether he expresses regret or not is always the question; Hayden answered that question in the negative very quickly. The transcript we’re relying on can be found here.

 

 

In explaining the monitoring of all Americans’ phone calls by the NSA, Hayden was unapologetic:

SIEGEL: …in order for this program to work over the years – and we’re talking about a threat that we foresee existing for many years…

HAYDEN: …Right.

SIEGEL: You’re going to store my data through many different CIA directors, NSA directors, FBI directors, members of Congress, presidents, all the while telephonic history – at least the metadata history – is going to be accessible to the government.

HAYDEN: It’s going to be preserved. And access was a very important part of this program. And it was accessible by about two dozen people at NSA whose access to the database had keystroke monitoring on it. Now, look, any power in the government can be abused. But what you’ve just described is an equally powerful argument against arming policemen. That can be abused too, Robert.

SIEGEL: That can be abused.

HAYDEN: We actually need to give government some power to protect us…

—How the argument that the federal government monitoring all phone calls at all times and keeping that data seemingly forever is comparable to refusing to let the police carry weapons is beyond us… except that it’s actually a dead-on comparison: our police are fatally over-armed, carrying military-grade weapons they don’t need that they come to abuse, and our government is violating the Constitution by stripping us of our privacy, a power which can only end in one of two results: either the monitoring is so light and uninformative that it’s never consulted and therefore ignored; or it is gradually and inevitably used to monitor more and more citizens for its’ own sake (i.e., abused).

 

…SIEGEL: Toward the end of your tenure at the Center Intelligence Agency, the question of interrogations became extremely controversial. You advised your successor – President Obama’s nominee, Leon Panetta – what to say about waterboarding. I want you to tell us what your guidance was.

HAYDEN: Yeah. I simply said do not use the word torture and CIA in the same sentence ever again. You can object to some of the enhanced interrogation techniques. You can, in your heart of hearts, believe they meet some legal definition of torture. But Leon, you’re taking over a workforce that did these things in good faith, that did these things with the assurance of the attorney general that they indeed were not torture. Do not accuse them of felonies.

SIEGEL: As a matter of institutional politics or as a matter of truth?

HAYDEN: Well, certainly as a matter of truth. Look, I get it. Honest men differ. A lot of good people describe these things as torture. The definitive legal judgment under which the agency was operating – and, you know, sooner or later, Robert, somebody’s got to call balls and strikes, and that’s the way it is.

—“Interrogations” is the new euphemism for torture. So is “enhanced interrogation”. What is interrogation enhanced by? Torture. We don’t think one has to consult one’s “heart of hearts” to know that water boarding and electro-shocking and force-feeding is torture: if you wouldn’t want it to happen to you if you were in military custody, it’s torture. The idea that you can do something bad “in good faith” is already tenuous: it’s technically possible, but only if you don’t know that what you’re doing is bad. No one tortures in good faith because everyone knows it’s bad. Hayden’s argument is, frankly, exactly what Nazi soldiers said after the war: I didn’t know it was bad, I was told it was good.

And we would add that Hayden sort of protests too much: you don’t threaten people and try to stop them from calling something torture if you really don’t believe it was torture, or if you really believe there’s nothing wrong with torture. You do that when you know it was torture, and that torture is wrong, and you want to hush it up.

The last statement is beyond belief. “Honest men differ”? And the last sentence is telling: he starts to say the definitive legal judgment is that it was not torture, then right-turns into saying well, the judgment the NSA was working from (a cobbled-together judgment created to justify NSA’s actions as opposed to an official legal judgment), then just drops it and says “we just decided it was necessary.” Anyone who resorts to baseball analogies to justify torture is beyond callous; they’re not in their right mind.

We’ll break the next section down bit by awful bit:

SIEGEL: But if we read accounts of ISIS waterboarding hostages somewhere in Syria or Iraq, I don’t think we’d hesitate but to say they’re torturing these people.

HAYDEN: Well, did ISIS have someone present who was legally and morally responsible for the well-being of the hostage? Did ISIS have someone there with monitoring devices on the body of the hostage? Does ISIS have a rule that anyone in the room can call knock it off if they believe the interrogation..

—Hayden conjures up a 1984 image of an American sitting quietly in the corner while someone is tortured making sure that the person being tortured is happy. And telling the torturers to stop if the torture impacts the prisoner’s well-being.

SIEGEL: …Now the person that’s being waterboarded can’t call knock it off.

HAYDEN: No.

SIEGEL: You’re saying somebody who’s part of the team.

HAYDEN: Right, who’s part of the team.

—If you’re “part of the team”, are you likely to tell your fellow-torturers to stop? If, as Hayden claims, the torturing was done in good faith because Americans felt it was the right thing to do, when would anyone step up and say to stop?

SIEGEL: I will – I checked reference books. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary cuts you a break. They say it’s a form of interrogation, waterboarding. The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls it a method of torture. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it a form of torture. I mean, must one take a very legalistic and narrow view of torture rather than say look, you guys – what you did, you believed to be legal. You were acting in the flush of 9/11 with the expectation of further attacks, but this was wrong. What you did was wrong.

HAYDEN: Oh, that’s a totally honorable position. I get that. What I don’t get is someone who says by the way, it didn’t work anyway.

—Hayden uses the word “honorable” in a despicable way here to mean “bleeding hearts who don’t want to live in the real world”. That’s why he then takes an otherwise baffling left-turn to say it’s crazy to claim that torture doesn’t get results.

SIEGEL: You would say it worked?

HAYDEN: I would say we got information from the people against whom we used enhanced interrogation techniques. We moved them from a zone that was pretty much represented by defiance to a zone where they were at least more compliant, more willing to talk about the things we believed we needed to know to keep the country safe.

—Of course they got information; people who are being tortured will say anything to stop the torture. It’s terrible and telling that Hayden refers to that information as “things we believed we needed to know”—the torturers decided to believe what they heard. Of course they did; you have to find a way to sleep at night.

The interview moved on, but we were left a wreck in the wake of this passage. Americans do not torture. We led the world in banning torture of prisoners of war. We believe in justice for all. If you can find an American who believes an American military service member should be water-boarded if captured by an enemy, then we might change our minds, but that won’t happen.

It reminds us of something Abraham Lincoln said in a debate with Stephen Douglas where Douglas had gone on for a half-hour justifying slavery as not so bad. Lincoln basically said, Douglas seems to think slavery is good but if you asked him to be a slave himself he would say no.

We don’t want to be tortured, so we shouldn’t torture—even if it produced good information (which is does not). We can’t let people like Michael Hayden convince us otherwise.

 

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Confusion on the campaign trail in South Carolina

Posted on February 19, 2016. Filed under: Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , |

We were listening to NPR yesterday morning and heard yet another story about the upcoming primary in South Carolina, this one focused on the drive to win the votes of military personnel, who make up about 25% of eligible voters in that state. It very quickly changed from just another story to one that brought up several boggling contradictions. For this post, we’re working from the transcript of the story.

Just outside the small town of Walterboro in South Carolina’s low country yesterday, the stage for a big outdoor rally featured giant American flags and camouflage bunting.

—Camouflage bunting? This is very hard to picture. The whole point of bunting is that it is another way to display the colors of the U.S. flag, which is desirable because it shows loyalty to and support for the United States. Using camouflage bunting creates a queasy equivalence of the nation with the armed forces, and we wondered who made it. A quick look online did not uncover U.S. flag-type bunting, though camouflage-pink baby bunting is available… it made us wonder if one of the campaigns created it especially for South Carolina campaigning, which again creates a queasy one-to-one identification of the U.S. with its military (and nothing but its military).

…in the hours before that speech by Donald Trump began, a long line formed on the wooded property, including many voters with military ties, among them 58-year-old Jim Shinta, a veteran of both the Army and the Air Force.

JIM SHINTA: I never registered to vote before until this election.

—If you are eligible to vote and never vote, you are not doing your duty as an American. Participating in our representative democracy is crucial. When people do not vote, the system becomes rigged in favor of those who know they can push through un-American policies and laws simply because no one will turn up to vote against them. Serving in the armed forces can be a way to serve your country, but voting—keeping our democracy alive and in good working order—is far more important. There’s no America to defend if there’s no participatory democracy.

GONYEA: He says Trump is the reason. Shinta likes Trump’s promise to restore U.S. respect around the world.

What do you want to see Trump do in that regard?

SHINTA: Defeat ISIS number one, close the borders – that’s number two.

—We have commented recently on this mindset (at Nation of Refugees and Immigrants have always been scary looking, but that’s never stopped us before); here the desire to defeat ISIS is oddly connected with closing the U.S.-Mexican border, and the message is that all outsiders are evil threats and the U.S. must destroy the worst of them and keep out the rest of them, and live in a splendid isolation of perfection. The day the U.S. closes its borders is the day we should dismantle the Statue of Liberty. But we get the feeling Shinta does not mean all borders—he probably doesn’t mind non-Latin or non-Syrian immigrants coming in. It’s a partial border closing, a racially based border selection, that again sits ill with the concept of liberty and justice for all.

…Nearby is 49-year-old Shawn Sauerbrei, who was in the Marines for 23 years. He has no doubts about Trump, saying it’s great to have a candidate who’s truly committed to helping veterans. He also says people should take some of Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric with a grain of salt.

SHAWN SAUERBREI: You know, if he uses the language, it’s Donald. He makes people cheer. He makes people think that OK, he’s going to do something.

—The conflation here is dangerous: Trump says he’s going to do some crazy things that you can ignore because they’re meaningless… yet these are the things that make people happy—they’re the things people want him to do. So which is it: we can ignore it because no one really means it, or it’s exactly what people want? This question is immediately answered:

GONYEA: But on some of Trump’s very tough talk, Sauerbrei says it’s warranted, like when Trump says he’ll bring back waterboarding and worse.

SAUERBREI: I think we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do for terrorism. If he wants to bring it back – hey, if it works it works. If it doesn’t, I’m sure he’ll try something else.

—This is a prime example of deciding something is okay and then ignoring all evidence it is not. Torturing prisoners has been proved over and over to be worthless, because people will say anything to stop the torture. So it doesn’t work. Sauerbrei himself goes back and forth: at first torture is “what we’ve got to do”, and then “if it works it works”, and finally “if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else”. Deep down he knows torture is pointless and even counter-productive, but like the people he discounts in his previous statement, the talk of torture makes him cheer because it means Trump will do something.

Even if torture did get good, solid results, a nation devoted to justice can never, ever use it. The U.S. led the global campaign against torturing prisoners of war in the 20th century. We can’t let it now lead a global campaign promoting torture. It’s not compatible with our founding principles, and we would think someone who took an oath to protect his nation would be more interested in protecting it from tearing its integrity to shreds.

…Meanwhile, at a Jeb Bush event in North Charleston, 48-year-old Derek Robbins says the military has been neglected under President Obama. Robbins’ son currently serves in the Air Force.

DEREK ROBBINS: We have one in the service. And so we see how important that is. And to see the military, you know, to be downgraded – it’s very important to rebuild that strength.

—The idea that the military is being pushed into a dark corner and allowed to rot is just another example of deciding something is true and sticking to it no matter how many proofs to the contrary you see around you every day. Let us offer just two graphics:

001_military_spending_dollars

002_military_spending_percent_of_world

Since September 11th, military spending has skyrocketed, and actually had a strong surge upward during President Obama’s first term (after a slowdown during Bush’s second term). Even the decline in Obama’s second term leaves spending levels far higher than they’ve been for nearly 40 years. So the military  has not been neglected…

…unless you mean spending on people, not equipment. What these veterans in South Carolina are really talking about is support for people in active service and for veterans, especially those with health problems related to their service. The U.S. treats its veterans shamefully for the most part, providing little to no health care, counseling, insurance, or just plain money and time and people and care for the men and women who serve in its ranks. Veterans dying on a wait list for VA hospitals make the news, then fade away. The high suicide and murder rate among veterans is well-known, yet the government does almost nothing about it.

When this is the problem, people should say so plainly instead of making broad statements about the military being downgraded and needing to rebuild its strength. No military is stronger technology and materiel-wise than ours. But our military is weak and tottering when it comes to the mental and physical health, the income, and the security of its members. If Trump torturing POWs and bombing the sh** out of China will fix those things, then we’re all for it. But it won’t.

And so we leave South Carolina with a sense of foreboding. Simply being in the military is not patriotic. You have to support, and vote to support, the founding principles of this nation if you want to protect and defend it. Let’s hope the vote turns out well for the democracy and justice the U.S. is meant to stand for.

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