Havel to the Castle
December 18, 2011

“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.” – Václav Havel
1936 – 2011

When Václav Havel was still a playwright and dissident in Communist Czechoslovakia — before the Velvet Revolution and his ascendance to the presidency of the post-Communist Czech Republic — he would urge his fellow anti-Communist revolutionaries to “live within the truth.” The Communist regime, he argued, perpetuated itself on the basis of lies. By forcing its subjects to go through small daily rituals of deceit, the Communist Party could make everyone culpable in their crimes. They could strangle resistance by turning everyone into a collaborator by default.

But when a regime derives its legitimacy from lies, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. The regime, Havel wrote, “only works as long as people are willing to live within the lie.” If enough Czechoslovakians were willing to live within the truth, the truth would eventually prevail.

Neoliberal America is not Communist Czechoslovakia, but much of the American state’s power also rests on a foundation of lies. In this country — ostensibly a beacon of freedom and democracy for the rest of the world — 2.5 million people rot in prison. Eleven million undocumented immigrants are denied basic freedoms on a daily basis. The Obama administration has deported record numbers of the undocumented, and reserves the right to assassinate its own citizens abroad.

In what is supposed to be the land of opportunity, the Census now classifies nearly half of all Americans as “low-income earners.” Those who can still find employment are spending longer and longer hours in the workplace — which, as union density declines, remains the least democratic space in public life.

If you want to honor Václav Havel’s memory, tell the truth.

Polarization Theater
May 24, 2011

President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group ...

Image via Wikipedia

Last week I wrote that, regarding civil liberties and executive overreach, “we’ve got the worst kind of bipartisan consensus on our hands: one in favor of abetting, through act or through silence, unconscionable behavior.” Now Glenn Greenwald has again made much the same observation:

So when they were out of power, the Democrats reviled the Patriot Act and constantly complained about fear-mongering tactics and exploitation of the Terrorist threat being used to stifle civil liberties and privacy concerns. Now that they’re in power and a Democratic administration is arguing for extension of the Patriot Act, they use fear-mongering tactics and exploitation of the Terrorist threat to stifle civil liberties and privacy concerns (“If somebody wants to take on their shoulders not having provisions in place which are necessary to protect the United States at this time, that’s a big, big weight to bear,” warned Feinstein). And they’re joined in those efforts by the vast majority of the GOP caucus. Remember, though: there is no bipartisanship in Washington, the parties are constantly at each other’s throats, and they don’t agree on anything significant, and thus can’t get anything done. If only that were true.

To be sure, partisan polarization is a real phenomenon. But it is also theater, and our willingness to accept its more theatrical qualities at face value has had dire consequences for civil liberties.

The beauty of polarization theater is that it paradoxically asserts and reaffirms a holistic political consensus. You probably already know one of the ways in which it does this: oftentimes both parties will implicitly accept the same basic premises but become “polarized” over the implications. In this way they make the premises established fact, so that challenging them lies outside the parameters of acceptable debate.

But polarization theater also serves as a crucial distraction. The fights of polarization theater dominate the news to such a degree that they almost entirely crowd out those issues on which both parties agree. Which is why, as Greenwald writes, another four-year extension of the Patriot Act just managed to whisper through Congress on the wings of bipartisan sanction.

Pretty neat trick, huh? But don’t fret: we’ve still got a debt ceiling to squabble over. So me and the rest of the political junkies can continue to pretend that this is about white hats versus black hats, instead of power versus everything else.

UPDATE: Turns out I was a little mistaken about the scope of the bipartisan consensus. From the ACLU’s official Twitter feed:

Inside baseball: Dem office tells ACLU Ds to vote YES on cloture b/c they want 2 debate #Patriot. Reserve right to vote NO on final passage.

h/t Dara

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The Case for Civil Libertarianism
May 17, 2011

Dick Cheney, Vice President of the United States.

Image via Wikipedia

If you follow civil liberties news very closely, there’s a decent chance you didn’t have the best day yesterday. That was when the New Yorker released Jane Mayer’s chilling new exposé on warrantless domestic surveillance, government secrecy, and the attendant crackdown on whistleblowers. It was also when the United States Supreme Court ruled that police officers can break into your home without a warrant if they suspect that you’re in the process of destroying evidence.

Meanwhile — in not exactly breaking, but nonetheless disturbing news — the White House is scrambling to put together a “plausible theory” under which it will be legal to continue our don’t-call-it-a-war with Libya even after Congress misses the deadline for authorization under the War Powers Resolution. Lucky for the president that by the time our next humanitarian intervention rolls around, bypassing Congress could be even easier; the House is preparing to grant his office virtually unchecked power to deploy the US military at home and around the world.

Some of this is precedented, some of it is not. In the latter category: one of Mayer’s sources says that “Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history.” And Section 1034 of the National Defense Authorization Act would cede the presidency warmaking powers beyond Dick Cheney’s most audacious hopes. But for some reason none of this is news.

Sure, sure. Mayer holds some of the most prized real estate in journalism, and her article has been dutifully passed around Twitter. But will it register as more than a blip? Will Sec 1034 even reach blip status before formal debate starts? I very much doubt it.

As much as I hate playing the counterfactual thought experiment game, it’s worth asking ourselves what would have happened if comparable news had broken during the Bush administration. I’m so old I remember when civil liberties and checks and balances were the rallying cries of the left, so I can’t help but suspect that the netroots would be losing their shit hard enough to crash the servers of our mid-aught forefathers’ pre-Twitter communication tools.

But now? Crickets, mostly. Sure, there is a handful of crack progressive commentators who talk about this stuff, but by and large they’re civil liberties specialists. Adam Serwer, Marcy Wheeler, Glenn Greenwald, et al put out good work on the margins while policy generalists and mainstream tastemakers mostly keep away. And since the right-wing critique of Obama tends to vacillate between, “You’re not abusing civil liberties enough,” and “I am very confused right now,” that means we’ve got the worst kind of bipartisan consensus on our hands: one in favor of abetting, through act or through silence, unconscionable behavior.

We need to do better. Diffidence — or, worse, apathy — is nothing less than a betrayal of the entire liberal project. Liberalism, progressivism, whatever you want to call it, should be about non-domination. It should be about the fight against all forms of dominating, coercive power, whether that power is concentrated in state or in capital. Indeed, one of the key insights of liberalism is its recognition of the close bond between these two forms of coercion. Because of that bond, granting the state more coercive power than private enterprise is only justifiable under these conditions: when doing so promotes liberty, when the state is answerable to the people, and when it must demonstrate that it is behaving in their best interests.

When state power fails to meet these conditions it is not just a problem for the opposition party. Nor is it just a problem for libertarians, or the left’s civil libertarian niche lobby. It is a problem for everyone. Because regardless of whether a state chooses to exercise its power over you, that power still exists. A government can wholly dominate you without ever interfering in your affairs.

That’s why it doesn’t matter whether you think Obama has exercised his vast power with wisdom and restraint. Nor does it matter if you don’t feel personally affected, or if you just plain don’t want to undermine your team’s agenda. This is our problem. This is supposed to be our fight. We need to do better.

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The Imperial Presidency
November 8, 2010

My latest Salon column was prompted, at least in part, by a post Conor Friedersdorf wrote last week, in which he asked why “the Daily Show left” seemed to have lost so much interest in protecting civil liberties now that they had their Democratic president. I question some of the premise — I have no idea who counts as part of the Daily Show left, nor do I think it’s Jon Stewart’s job to grill the president on matters of policy — but Freidersdorf’s point still struck a nerve. I can’t speak for the rest of the Daily Show left, but I am on the left, I watch The Daily Show, and for the past two years I haven’t been treating these issues with nearly the attention I think they deserve.

Anyway, I’ve made a resolution to rededicate myself to this The more people who do, the better.

What is a Person?
October 7, 2010

That’s the question I set out to answer in my latest Salon column, which plays off of Adam’s piece in this month’s American Prospect on the civil liberties battles of our dystopian future. Helping me puzzle out the nature of personhood: Neil Sinhababu, philosophy professor and blogger at Donkeylicious, and Joshua Knobe, a leading figure in the young field of experimental philosophy.

Read the whole thing.

The CIA’s guide to [Redacted]
July 25, 2008

The New York Times has a report today about a declassified memo outlining what the CIA can and can’t do to its prisoners. But good luck figuring any of that out from the actual memo. Kevin Drum has a handy visual aid.

Rest assured, none of it is torture, because none of these techniques are used solely to induce sever pain. Apparently gut-wrenching agony only counts as torture if it’s done out of revenge, instead of, say, to obtain information. Thanks for the info, CIA!

You know guys, the reason people normally want stuff declassified is so that they can have information revealed to them. Not just so it can induce a vague sense of dread.

I would say that the agonizing wait to find out the whole text of the memo is “torture,” but apparently it doesn’t count as torture because the CIA is withholding that information so they may continue to torture others, and not out of pure sadism.

A brief word from our sponsors
July 14, 2008

Dylan and John are both friends of the blog, and I think they’re mostly right. Threatening to not vote for Obama because he’s disappointed you on a few issues when he’s still, by leaps and bounds, the superior candidate, is really dumb. And this Stephen Suh post is as absurd as the well-deserved takedown by John Cain in the comments is funny.

But I don’t think Glenn Greenwald is doing anything wrong by taking Obama to task on his FISA vote. And in general, I’m not in favor of muting criticism of our guy when he fucks up simply because he’s our guy.

I mean, first off, I’m pretty sure that at the end of the day Greenwald still recognizes that Obama is the superior candidate and isn’t telling anyone differently. And even if he did, I’m pretty sure Glennzilla doesn’t wield a whole lot of influence over the electorate.

Besides, these inter-party debates are healthy, as long as everyone remembers that we’re ultimately on the same side. They show that most of the liberal blogosphere, unlike its right-wing counterpart, holds truth and other grand ideals higher than simply advancing the party for the party’s own sake. They show members of the Democratic Party that they can’t just screw up whenever they feel like and still have the blogs cover for them. And, on a more cynical note, provoking this sort of criticism may be a way of letting Obama distance himself from the nutroots, or whatever.

As far as this blog goes, I may as well just cut and paste Atrios’ comments into the mission statement:

I actually think all perspectives, except the crazy people who imagine the Obama campaign is funneling lots of money to me, have merit. It is vitally important that Obama win this election, and the importance of that towers over most day to day stuff But I’m inspired to criticize at times when I think Obama (and Kerry before him) is engaging in bad politics.

Mostly I just do whatever it is I do on this sucky blog without thinking too much about it. Still I try to distinguish between actions (what Obama does as a senator) and campaign rhetoric which doesn’t matter nearly as much. Obama isn’t trying to win my vote and the campaign isn’t going to be aimed at me.

Yeah, pretty much. I support Obama, and I think everyone should vote for him, but this is a blog where I just get shouty about stupid shit, regardless of which side it’s coming from. And although I’m going to continue to do that, I don’t think anyone who reads this is going to be confused at the end of the day over which candidate I’m voting for.

UPDATE: I should point out that Mike gives a much more detailed explanation of why what Greenwald wrote was cool and what Suh wrote was not at all cool.

Obama’s ability to occasionally disappoint me proves that he is the Anti-Christ
July 4, 2008

Help me out here, guys. I can’t decide what’s more annoying about this whole thing. We’ve got two options:

1.) Obama’s super-disappointing and lame response to the criticisms being leveled at him by people who are still sort of fans of the Fourth Amendment,


2.) This shit:

I believe a letter from leading law school deans would be in order. But I’m rather afraid they may be reluctant to speak out, simply because Obama is not Bush.



Good job, guys! With that kind of hyperbolic, overheated doom-mongering, Barack Obama is sure to take us seriously!

Bobby Jindal is fucking terrifying
June 27, 2008

Unless you’re in the Peace Corps right now, chances are the artist formerly known as Minipundit is having a far more productive summer than you. Coming to us live from a fancy internship at The American Prospect, Dylan reports that Governor Van Helsing, in addition to being a demon slayer, is also Bruce Willis at the very end of Sin City.

Which is to say, if you are a sex offender, HE WILL CLAIM YOUR TESTICLES.

Apparently we’re basing public policy off of bloody pop-culture revenge fantasies now. No word on what this means for the 2008 75 Bars Mandatory Sentencing Act when it gets out of committee.

The audacity of something
June 20, 2008

So in my last post, I asked, “Where the fuck is Obama” on retroactive immunity. Little did I know that, as I was blogging away, Obama was revealing to the world where he was: crouched under his desk, hiding from anything that would look like a strong statement in one direction or the other.


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