Happy Independence Day, only without the happy part
(Obviously, this post was meant to be up yesterday.)
The obligation to deliver an uplifting message of hope about the real meaning of Independence Day hovers. But I just don’t have it in me.
I said last Thanksgiving, "I am acutely conscious of the blessings I enjoy, my privileged place in a shrinking world." Every holiday my awareness grows more acute, as those blessings stand in starker and starker contrast to the disaster taking place on the world stage.
Two situations are reaching a crisis point.
The first is climate change. If you believe James Hansen, we have ten years before positive feedback loops like the albedo effect and methane leaking from melting permafrost accelerate beyond our ability to rein them in. Of course we aren’t certain what the effects will be, but they are likely to be unpleasant for a large number of earth’s inhabitants, particularly the global poor. It would not, as some descriptions might lead you to believe, involve merely a shift to a new, stable, slightly warmer climate. We’re closing off the climate system and packing more thermal energy into it. That means not just a new climate but a newly volatile climate — wider swings and faster changes, with no end. Weirding.
Ten years. That is less than a heartbeat. Less than the blink of an eye in historical time. If Hansen is right, we’re almost certainly screwed. If we’re not to be screwed it means acting: with international unity and cooperation, quickly, decisively, and pragmatically. That is a considerable challenge at present, to put it charitably.
The other situation that approaches crisis — one that ought to be in our thoughts on Independence Day — is the systematic assault on the U.S. Constitution: Bush’s bid for virtually unlimited executive power. Secret military tribunals, warrantless searches, torture, rendition, legislation-defying signing statements, and imprisonment without trial are unwise and immoral as government policy, but especially ominous when undertaken in the complete absence of congressional or judicial oversight.
It’s not a partisan issue. Right now, Bush is basically saying "trust me," and playing nice with his new toys. But these are extraordinary powers he is claiming. As conservative jurist Bruce Fein says, “Bush’s precedents are dangerous, and will lie around like loaded weapons readily unleashed by any incumbent in times of strife or conflict, e.g., a second edition of 9/11.” No leader, Republican or Democrat, ought to be tempted with the tools of authoritarianism. Bush partisans don’t seem to understand that U.S. procedural limitations on executive power are not some sort of luxury to be tossed overboard the minute security demands it. They are the source of our security. They’ve proven remarkably adaptable and successful, both in their own right and as a source of moral authority in the international arena. They disperse and limit power, because power corrupts. Rule of laws, not men: that above all was what the founding fathers sought.
This nascent authoritarianism is even more ominous for rising alongside an army of aspiring Stasi and devoted apparatchiks. The emergence of every authoritarian movement in the last century has crucially involved two things: loyal thugs competing to see who will go farthest in defense of the homeland, and a credulous public that fails to see the status quo shifting under its feet.
If this description strikes you as overwrought, read this and project forward about a decade. You may be thinking it is just an easy piece of mockery, dredged up from the partisan internet swamps. But to think so is to severely underestimate the situation. The people who are most vociferous about jailing and executing journalists who publish news the Bush administration doesn’t want published are the very people on cable tv every night, on the op-ed pages every day. They reach millions of people. They are granted respect. They mix in Beltway circles. And they are joined and legitimized by establishment figures like Bill Bennett. Anchors on FOX News openly advocate for a "Department of Censorship."
This is not a fringe phenomenon: the Bush administration has put together a full apparat, and part of its charge is to stoke murderous rage toward its enemies, including the independent media. The eliminationist rhetoric is nothing new. It is the very template for authoritarian movements.
The combination of these — the 10-year window we have to act on global warming, and a paranoid, secretive, power-hungry administration in the midst of visiting permanent damage on our system of government — suppresses my normally buoyant holiday spirit.
Independence Day celebrates the citizens of this country who rose up to throw off the yolk of British rule. But I fear our populace is anesthetized and benumbed by the white noise of today’s media culture. There is no visceral recoiling at the casual rollback of our liberties. There is no will to revolt, not even to protest. We march as though hypnotized toward a doom we foresee but do not bother to avoid.