Sep 232011

Sequoia National Park

When the Tea Partiers were getting all upset about the health care plan, one of their rallying cries was “We want our country back!” The refrain was taken up by birthers with an unstated, but rather obvious, at least to me, tinge of racism. Giving the phrase its most charitable interpretation, people who support the tea party will say that the slogan is about out of control government: too much spending, too much regulation, just too much government.

That’s not what I mean when I say I want my country back. The country I want back is one that may have never existed, or at least, one that only partially existed, but is no more.

The country I want back seems to have started disappearing about 30 years ago, around the time Ronald Reagan was President.

The country I want back is the one where each succeeding generation could look forward to doing better financially than their parents; having more to spend, enjoying more leisure time. I’m old enough to remember when a married couple could prosper in the middle class on a single wage-earner’s income. In most cases, that meant the husband had a paying job outside the home and the wife worked in the home, raising the kids and running the household. How many families could do that today? Do you know anyone who could afford that?

The country I want back is the one where we didn’t have a homeless problem, where the homeless were mostly “hobos’ or men who chose to live free of the constraints of society.

The country I want back is one where young kids felt safe playing outside, often far away from parents, sometimes even after dark when hide and seek was the most fun. How many parents would let their kids do that today?

The country I want back is one where people were free to go where they wanted and do what they wanted without intrusive government surveillance of their every action. Where there were no traffic cameras, no surveillance cameras.

The country I want back is one where people could arrive at the airport 15 minutes before the flight left and simply board the aircraft without having to wait in line for a security check, endure a virtual strip search by an X-ray machine or a “pat-down” search that could be properly classified as sexual molestation. One where train trips and car trips could be entirely without hassle or without anyone from the government stopping you and asking whether you are a citizen.

The country I want back is one where merchants aren’t able to track your every purchase through the use of credit card receipts and “preferred customer” cards. Where on-line data aggregators can’t keep track of every move you make, every web search you do, every site you visit and then sell that data on you to anyone that wants it without any oversight. Where cell phone companies can track every place you have been and then willingly and without pressure give that information to government authorities.

The country I want back is one where the healthcare insurance industry is not controlled by a handful of companies that effectively ration the healthcare in the country by the decisions they make concerning coverage and what they will and won’t pay for; where the doctors and patients don’t have to fight with the insurance companies to get the treatments that the doctor and patient agree are most effective.

The country I want back is one where, although they disagreed on many things, the two major parties could work together and actually accomplish things of great import for the good of the country, things like major infrastructure investments such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the  interstate highway system, Hoover dam. Where social advances such as women’s suffrage, voting rights and racial equality could be recognized, sometimes after long debate, as worthy accomplishments and worth the effort it takes to enact them.

The country I want back is the one where the educational system was recognized as one of the best in the world and prepared generations for competition in the world they were entering. I want the country where the most serious disciplinary problems facing school teachers were talking and chewing gum in class and teachers were free to concentrate on teaching.

The country I want back is one where we were generally at the head of the pack of all countries in a whole host of measures including education, infrastructure, science, manufacturing and health care instead of ranking much lower, in some cases towards the bottom, in all of these categories.

The country I want back is one which could dream of big things, like putting a man on the moon, and then have the means to actually achieve it.

As I said before, this country probably never existed as I envision it. But all of the things I want did exist at one time or another. The common saying is “9/11 changed everything”, but the effect I’m describing goes back much further than that. And the causes are many. In education, the lack of well planned and executed tests of new educational approaches and the willingness of the educational establishment to try out untested hypotheses have contributed to the decline. But so have the rise of families with two parents working outside the home, the push for “back to basics” education, the rise of illicit drugs aided by the ill-conceived “war on drugs”, struggles to measure progress based on standardized tests and a host of other things.

The decline in manufacturing has resulted from companies’ increased emphasis on short term profitability, outsourced jobs, globalization, and increased competition from emerging economies. The decline in infrastructure is a result of “benign neglect” as Nixon said in another context and the increasing polarization and politicization of government.

While we still have a robust science community, there are pressures here too. Other countries have gained on us, particularly in areas where asinine religious objections have stymied basic research for years (for example, stem cell research). The increasing influence of religion in government has resulted in a de-emphasis and distrust of science. The government has also seemed to lose a good deal of interest in funding basic research in response to the overblown deficit crisis.

We ourselves have contributed to making this not the country I want back, primarily through our desire for the latest new gadgets, expansive use of the internet and other technology in which we have given up the expectation of privacy for the convenience that such technological improvements provide us. I often wonder if it is worth it or if we realize what we have given up.

In spite of the causes, the country I want back is the one where we can say “We’re number one!’ and actually be correct. We were there once, and I don’t know if we can be again, but I believe we can’t get there if we don’t try. We have to try.

 Posted by at 4:40 pm
Sep 022011

Old Abandoned Train Trestle

It never fails. Seems the day before I submitted my last article (August 30, 2011), The Nation website posted an article by David K Shiplet titled “Our Vanished Civil Liberties“. I didn’t become aware of that article until today. It summarizes much better than I could what the problem is with the current state of affairs related to measures implemented after 9/11. I am very concerned that lack of privacy and the imposition of police state policies will become the new normal for a very long period of time.

 Posted by at 2:06 pm
Aug 312011

Spider Web

*Bill Moyers

I had originally titled this post with the Benjamin Franklin quotation: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” But on reflection, although the quotation is apropos, I find it a little too familiar, a little too hackneyed. The Bill Moyers quotation I ended up using is just as succinct and appropriate, so it became my title.

This post has taken me some time to produce and is the result of a number articles I have come across over the last week or so. I am indebted to the excellent organization, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, whose email newsletter provides a number of references each day. I heartily recommend subscribing to it and supporting the organization in any way you can.

The first article I read, which depressed and angered me more than I can express, was an August 25th article on OpEdNews, a self described “non-partisan, non-profit, bottom-up, progressive / liberal news, opinion, op-ed media site, activism tool and blog community”. It was the first article in a three part series titled “2001-2011: A decade of civil liberties’ erosion in America”. This series is written by Abdus-Sattar Ghazali, a freelance journalist and Executive Editor of American Muslim Perspective.

The article begins by talking about the brief history of the gradual erosion of our civil liberties and stated forthrightly that

“The so-called War on Terror has seriously compromised the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights of citizens and non-citizens alike.”

Mr. Ghazali goes on to describe the top ten abuses of power since 9/11  identified by the ACLU in a September 2006 report:

  1. Warrentless wiretapping
  2. Torture, Kidnapping and Detention
  3. The Growing Surveillance Society
  4. Abuse of the Patriot Act
  5. Government Secrecy
  6. Real ID
  7. No Fly and Selectee Lists
  8. Political Spying
  9. Abuse of Material Witness Statute
  10. Attacks on Academic Freedom

The key point Mr. Ghazali makes is that these erosions of civil liberties have taken place gradually, over time. They were originally justified as reasonable action to take against our foreign enemies, but have come to affect not only non-US citizens, but all of us.

In the second and third parts of the series, Mr. Ghazali describes how authorities at all levels from federal to state to local have expanded upon the powers given to them by a combination of Congressional and judicial actions. The expansive view of executive power originally espoused by the Bush administration, while initially criticized by President Obama, has come to be embraced and expanded by his administration.

Accompanying the erosion of our civil liberties has been an embrace of government secrecy, a serious threat to any democracy.

On the same day (August 25th), there was an article which appeared on the Washington Post website. This article, titled Why are we subverting the Constitution in the name of security?, was written by  Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency. In it, he describes his attempts to stop the secret electronic eavesdropping and data mining operations that the government is conducting against American citizens. He concludes his piece by stating

“Before the war on terrorism, our country recognized the importance of free speech and privacy. If we sacrifice these basic liberties, according to the false dichotomy that such is required for security, then we transform ourselves from an oasis of freedom into a police state that crucifies its citizens when they step out of line or speak up against government wrongdoing. These are the hallmarks of despotism, not democracy. Is this the country we want to keep?”

Then, at the Los Angeles Time website on August 29, 2011, an article by Ken Dilanian, titled  A key Sept. 11 legacy: more domestic surveillance, was published which described the escalation of FBI and NSA secret surveillance activities on ordinary Americans starting with National Security Letters and moving onto programs which tap into and accumulate the wealth of data that exists about each of us on the Internet. All of this surveillance and data gathering are happening without judicial oversight and leads to a situation where a single branch of the government, the executive, can decide on its own who and how it wants to investigate.

Mr. Dilanian concludes with a quote from one of the people he talked with for the story, Nicholas Merril:

“I want the America back that I was taught about in school,” Merrill said. “The one where there’s checks and balances, and where one branch of government can’t do everything on its own.”

Finally, there was an article On August 30, 2011 on Security News Daily by Sue Marquette Poremba, titled 10 Ways the Government Watches You, which lists less formal mechanisms which are in place which add to government’s ability to find out things it never could in the past. Many were and are incredibly useful to each of us in our day-to-day activities, such as one-pass systems to let you get through bridge or other toll situations quickly and easily and GPS which lets you find locations with little hassle. While useful, such systems increase the government’s ability to find out about where you go and what you do. While all the legal issues are still being resolved, there have been courts rulings that accessing such information doesn’t require a search warrant (with others that disagree).

Taken together, these articles and others describe a government that is taking the first steps towards the despotism that Thomas Drake describes. The executive branch is out of control, gathering more and more information about each of us, and stepping on Constitutionally guaranteed rights without concern. The legislative and judicial branches seem to have abrogated their traditional roles of providing a check on authorities’ actions. Just where are we as a country headed?

Let me finish this post by quoting the conclusion of Abdus-Sattar Ghazali

“Rights can never be taken for granted, Prof. Gary Orfield [of the UCLA Civil Rights Project] argues by adding: In a nation that rightly proclaims its commitment to freedom across the world, our freedoms at home are our most precious asset and any threat to them undermines our credibility everywhere in an age of instant global communication. Prof. Orfield reminds us that the history of the United States is that rights are not given, they are won and they must always be defended.

“The core challenge during the Obama era to civil liberties is to rollback the repressive policies of the Bush regime, while fighting any further erosion of constitutional rights. Many Americans resisted the attacks on civil liberties during the Bush administration. Over 400 local governments and several states passed resolutions supporting the Bill of Rights and objecting to parts of the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 laws, executive orders, and policy changes. Some cities passed ordinances directing police to facilitate, not impede, peaceful demonstrations.

“Attacks on civil liberties are not minor infringements on the rights of a few extremists. Today they affect a vast cross-section of Americans. It will not be too much to say that the chilling effect of denials of our democratic freedoms curtails political debate within the U.S.

“To borrow Paul Craig Roberts, an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration, today Americans are unsafe, not because of terrorists and domestic extremists, but because they have lost their civil liberties and have no protection from unaccountable government power. One would think that how this came about would be worthy of public debate and congressional hearings.”


 Posted by at 4:53 pm
Jun 062011

Tree Shadows

Lately, I have had the question of privacy on my mind. The “brave new world” that we live in seems to be marching headlong into a state where privacy is non-existent. On the internet, for example, Mark Zukerberg on January 8, 2010 declared that the age of privacy was essentially over, that people have become so accustomed to sharing more and different kinds of information and more openly with more people, that the social norm regarding privacy had fundamentally shifted. And it seems pretty clear that the internet generation is very open about sharing even the most intimate details of their lives on-line.

There are other forces at work here too. The “War on Terror” has, through the Patriot Act, other legislation, and associated court cases, lead to increased government surveillance of everyone, including Americans who are not even suspected of any criminal activity.

Then, there are the commercial aspects. The greatly expanded nature of communication and increased access to large amounts of computing power and mass storage have enabled businesses to accumulate, store and access vast amounts of data on virtually everyone in the country. Much of the data accumulated is public record, but there is a vast difference in the economics of having to access the data by visiting the appropriate county courthouse and looking through the paper records versus a simple data base query via a computer attached to the internet. In the former case, getting the data is cost prohibitive, in the latter, it is trivial.

By the way, is anyone else weirded out by the Progressive Insurance “SnapshotSM” program where you plug a device into the diagnostic port of your car, drive for 30 days and then send the device to the company where they use your driving habits to determine how much to charge you for insurance? I suppose you get something (maybe lower rates) for giving up some of your privacy, and I suppose it’s up to the individual to determine if it is worth it, but it’s not something I’m going to do.

My own view of privacy has gone through some shifts too. I have always felt uncomfortable with the typical question posed in title to this post. “Why should you care what we have access to? You shouldn’t have any worries if you have nothing to hide.” This always struck me as a case of guilty until proven innocent. It’s as if the government (and others) are saying, “We’re going to assume that you have something to hide and hence we claim the right to look ‘just to make sure you really are clean’.” A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 15, 2011 made it very clear in my mind that privacy is important even when there is nothing to hide. The basic question should be, “what right do you have to that information,” not an assumption that anyone else has a right to it unless there IS something to hide. Our privacy is precious and we should not give it up unthinkingly.

I’m old enough to remember the 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade in which the court justified a woman’s right to abortion, citing the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution to affirm the people’s right to privacy and restrictions on the individual states to place restrictions on that (and other) rights. But the word privacy doesn’t appear in in the constitution, and that lack made me scratch my head and wonder at the ruling. Of course, with the current makeup of the Supreme Court and its seeming disdain for precedent, plus the other efforts underway by the states’ and federal legislatures, that right to privacy may go the way that many of our other rights have gone (away) in the last few years.

It seems to me that the march of technology and the action of the conservative right, in combination with the complicity of the more progressive politicians who either actively aid the right or, more insidiously, don’t oppose it, are leading us down a road I don’t want to travel. More than ever, I want to have my privacy and I refuse to give it up without a really strong overriding reason. I haven’t heard that reason.

 Posted by at 11:54 am