Saturday, January 17, 2009

The nature of freedom

So, I was hanging out at my friend's virtual digs last night, and we got into a heated discussion about police states. (Here if you are interested.) It got me to thinking about the nature of freedom, and how it is on a graduating scale rather than an absolute in most places. After all, even in the most repressive regimes like the Soviet Union, individuals retained the ability to make certain personal decisions with impunity. Likewise, in even the most free states, there are restrictions on the individual that the majority deem acceptable, wise and prudent. My position is that the U.S. has become relentlessly less free over my 42 years. (For this article, I mean "freedom" as the ability of the individual to make decisions and take actions without fear of governmental interference of any kind, whether it be criminal prosecution or civil regulation.)

The following is a short compilation of some of the powers the national government has abrogated to itself over the last 25 years or so.

***Invade sovereign nations to bring that country's political leadership to the U.S. for trial for violations of U.S. law (Noriega, Panama, 1989). This was a violation of treaties our government approved, and thus was a violation of U.S. law. But because Noriega is so unsympathetic a person, no one much cared.

***Invade sovereign nations that might, some day, obtain the capacity to harm the U.S., without regard to their current capability to do so. This is no different at all from what Stalin did to Finland, or Hitler to Poland. Every nation might someday in the future become a threat to any other nation, after all; this simply undoes by fiat the international condemnation of wars of aggression.

***Declare any individual to be a non-citizen and an 'enemy combatant,' who then has no recourse to any neutral judge to contest his detention.

***Ship any person either to our own torture centers or through 'extraordinary rendition' to the torture centers of other countries for the extraction of a 'confession.'

***Hold any person in a cell for the duration of their life without charges, if said person is deemed by the executive branch to be 'enemy combatant.' Said decision is not subject to review for error or bias by anyone.

***Record, preserve, and analyze with computers the transmissions of any data via any media, without warrants or any other approval.

***Through secret letters of demand, which the target is not even allowed to know about, the gov't can without a warrant get any and all information concerning a specific individual from anyone in U.S. jurisdiction. This includes mental health treatment, tax records, physical health treatment, and library records.

As was pointed out to me, the Wiki definition of "Police State," "describes a state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic and political life of the population." I have to concede that the U.S., today, does not meet that technical definition of a police state. All the powers claimed by the U.S. government have not been applied to a large segment of the population to date. As of today, only a couple of disaffected nutjobs like Lindh and a few other marginal citizens have been black-bagged to Gitmo, or to years of solitary confinement in a brig, or to heaven only knows what. Most people aren't under the boot heel, so I lose that argument on the numbers.

I could probably dig around and find a less strict definition for "police state," but that wouldn't address my main point, which is that freedom is on the retreat in this country. Bear in mind that our own revolution was not fought after liberties had been taken, but after Parliament claimed the right to take those liberties. That your gov't claims authority to do these things to you, and to me, ought to bother us all far more than it does. But we (the U.S. as a whole, not you and I specifically) are no different from the people in that poem against the Nazis, in which no one spoke up when they went after the Jews, the gays, the commies, and so on, because it didn't affect them personally. There is no general outcry against these abuses, no marches in the streets, because of who the targets have been so far.

I've said for a year and a half that my highest hope is that a new president would begin to dismantle these and other extralegal systems immediately upon taking office. That is my hope. My fear is that the new president will decide that these powers are very useful tools for him, and that he'll only use them for good, and he'll keep a tight reign on them... and then those powers are permanent, since both parties have both officially and in practice signed off on them.

Lord Acton was correct in his axiom, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The bedrock principle underlying our Constitution is that no one person, or group of persons, no matter how wise or well-intentioned, can ever be trusted with unchecked power. It's a good principle. However, the development of our government over time has uniformly been a long, mostly uninterrupted slide away from legislative power and toward executive power. The metaphor I've long used is the transition of Rome from republic to empire. There was never any official declaration of empire, you know. The Roman Senate remained in place almost to the very end. But real power began to shift with Julius Caesar, and by the end of Augustus' reign real power was completely in the hands of the emperor. (Augustus never used that term, by the way, maintaining throughout his life he was merely 'first among equals.' Clever pol, that Augustus).

I am a firm believer that "the past is prologue." That is, history is an excellent tool for predicting future human behavior, because our fundamental nature remains unchanged for all our technological advances. The history of every republic, without exception, is that devolves into some form of authoritarian regime over time. Perhaps humans simply haven't the will to do the work necessary to keep a republic; perhaps their fears make too many willing to trade essential liberties for illusions of security. So in the long run, I am not optimistic that our fate as a nation will be any different. Nonetheless, I can do what I can do to not let it happen in my lifetime, and trust that my children, and theirs, will do the same.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

2008 in review

Tagged by mi amigo at for this one, so here goes:

1. What did you do in 2008 that you'd never done before? Ate the pink stuff next to the wasabi at the Japanese restaurant. It tastes like lemon soap.

2. Did you keep your New Year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?I don't make NYR, but I do intend to keep losing weight. (Down to 315 now from 355 in September.)

3. Did anyone close to you give birth? Have I mentioned my granddaughter in the last 35 seconds? Yeah. Pics at my facebook.

4. Did anyone close to you die? Thankfully, no.

5. What places did you visit? I think I didn't leave the state of Mississippi in 2008. Damn, no wonder I'm so irritable lately...

6. What would you like to have in 2009 that you lacked in 2008? Time and money are givens for everyone, so it would be cheesy to say those, IMO. I think the only honest answer besides those two, though, is "sex."

7. What dates from 2008 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? November 4th, 2008, of course. August 14, being present at my grandchild's birth, on a personal level.

8. What was your biggest achievement(s) of the year? I got over 1,000 substantive court orders (1,017 to be precise) and filed over 700 new cases for support. With a two-county legal department that consists of the three of us: me, myself, and I.

9. What was your biggest failure? The price I paid to do what was necessary for those orders and filings: I did fast, mistake-filled work, making a conscious choice that I could fix my mistakes more easily than I could live with the knowledge that I was keeping some kid without by being persnickity about my paperwork. I loathe myself for the boneheaded errors I've made, but still think I made the objectively best, utilitarian choice. ("The needs of the many," you know.)

10. Did you suffer illness or injury? I lost my voice in October and had to do court sounding like Wolfman Jack. That was interesting.

11. What was the best thing you bought? The Honda Civic. I got it in January, so it counts for 2008.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration? In the public arena, Obama. Toast's answer to this one is very good. In my personal life... well, I'm a bit embarrassed to say I'm not sure. We all had a pretty uneventful year.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed? Miss South Carolina. Every public official of the Republican party. Some of my racist in-laws.

14. Where did most of your money go? Bills, of course. Didn't everyone's?

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? Honestly... only my grandchild, and even that was only "really excited" on my personal scale. Any observer would have called me "mildly interested."

16. What song will always remind you of 2008? There is no song with which I associate 2008.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you: a) Happier or sadder? Happier. b) thinner or fatter? Thinner . c) richer or poorer? Poorer. I've paid down the mortgage for a year, but began 2008 involuntarily unemployed.

18. What do you wish you'd done more of? Traveled.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of? File cases and write orders. Duh.

20. How did you spend Christmas this year? We went to several people's houses and had a gathering here as well. It was quite hectic.

21. Did you fall in love in 2008? Yeah. Did I mention my granddaughter in the last 15 sentences?

22. How was work? New job, completely different scale and nature of work, and not enough of any resource whatsoever. I made 1/3 of what I made in 2007, and my judge cries when she sees me coming with a 2 foot tall stack of orders for her. Other than that, I can't complain.

23. What was your favorite TV program? Either Doctor Who or Torchwood.

24. What did you do for your birthday in 2008? Small party at my house with closest friends and immediate family.

25. What was the best book you read? No lie, it's one I got from my son for Christmas called Uncle John's Biggest Ever Bathroom Reader. 600 pages of beautiful tidbits and trivia in perfectly sized portions for, oh, 15 minutes of reading.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery? That it is really, really easy to put all my CDs on the computer and burn my own mixes for the car.

27. What did you want and get? The Honda Civic. A leather hip holster for my Zippo. A black fedora hat. And sex, of course.

28. What did you want and not get? Sex, of course. An office printer that works properly. An office computer that doesn't go "blue screen of death" at least once a day. Respect of my peers.

29. What was your favorite film of this year? Dark Knight. Bought it on DVD the day it came out.

30. Did you make some new friends this year? That depends on definitions, I think. But in common parlance, I would say no.

31. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? Same as last year: Impeachment proceedings.

32. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2008? Whatever is in my closet will do.

33. What kept you sane? Who said I'm sane?

34. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? I'm interpreting "fancy" to mean "lust for," and will say Kim Kardashian.

35. What political issue stirred you the most? Civil liberties and their continued, ongoing repeal.

35a. What political issue stirred you the least? Among the major ones, I'd have to say "gun rights." Don't misunderstand, I am all in favorite of individual rights to firearms; I just perceive that the Dems have been effectively neutered on the matter for a while and am content with the status quo on that front. Hence, it didn't stir me.

36. Who did you miss? Same person I've missed the most since Palm Sunday, 2003: my dad.

37. Who was the best new person you met? I met several at and through work. (BTW, I consider co-workers to be by my definition excluded from "friend" unless they eat at my house, or I at theirs. Hence, no new friends this year, though I like all my people.) Since I am given no criteria to determine "best" (best looking, best dressed, best bank account, what?), I decline to answer this one.

38. Burn any bridges? I never, ever burn bridges. At least not deliberately.

39. Best new restaurant you went to? I think we started going to Ichiban before 2008, but it's still the best.

40. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2008. No new lessons leap to mind. I was reminded of the truth of many old lessons I already knew. Endure. Hope. Be kind. Try to give a damn even when you aren't sure why, it'll come to you later. Keep doing all that you know to do, and when you have done all, stand firm.

I am not the least sorry to see this year go. Buh bye. Don't let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.