In September, when Attorney General John Ashcroft was on an impromptu tour to stump for the USA Patriot Act, he gave Boston law officials a closed-to-the-public speech while, according to the Boston Globe, protestors outside chanted, "This is what democracy looks like!"
Funny, it's also what dissent looks like.
The Faneuil Hall demonstration against the Act's abrogation of basic American freedoms was particularly meaningful, perhaps, taking place in front of the "cradle of liberty." But Ashcroft got pretty much the same reception wherever he went, and from a diverse coalition of citizens -- from soccer moms to Arab-Americans to members of the American Civil Liberties Union.
That's because the USA Patriot Act is, well, unpatriotic. Despite the euphemistic name of this legislation, which was hurried through Congress without debate in the wake of 9/11 to help "combat terrorism," most sentient Americans are rightly alarmed about its far-reaching implications. Among its egregious elements that severely weaken parts of the Bill of Rights are secret spying, arrest without warrants and extreme invasion of privacy.
More than 160 towns and cities and three states, including Vermont, responded with resolutions condemning the unconstitutional provisions of the USA Patriot Act. With an impressive whoosh of outrage, librarians around the country shed the demure stereotype and vowed to destroy patron records rather than turn them over to the government. It's probably no coincidence that some ingenious entrepreneur almost immediately followed up by creating a librarian "action"-figure doll.
This is an era when protest, a.k.a. dissent, has been deemed "unpatriotic" by the neocons in, and in support of, the Bush administration. And in the same month that Ash-croft rallied for Patriot I, the President of the United States proposed Patriot Act II. This one would give the AG and his spooks even more power to spy on electronic communications, to give a carte blanche subpoena to authorities for "terrorist" investigations, and to apply the death penalty more widely.
Unfortunately, this Big Brother legislation is just one item on a very long list of outrages put forth by the Bushies. Let's revisit some others:
"Weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq -- the reason given for invading a country that did not attack us first. Yes, Saddam Hussein was/is a bad, bad man, but he was not a threat to the United States. The BushCo's own Iraq Survey Group and teams of U.N. inspectors before that did not turn up any WMDs, not even a little-bitty one. Also a lie: the alleged connection between Saddam and al Qaeda. And by the way, where is Saddam? Osama?
When he was running for president, Bush said he wanted to protect individual privacy. So why is the Defense Department developing a data-mining computer system called "Total Information Awareness" that would turn us all into suspects without proof of wrongdoing? Making every iota of personal information -- including emails, medical records and travel history -- available to the government sounds more like piracy than privacy.
Two years ago, Bush told an audience of veterans they were a priority for his administration and this would be reflected in his budget. Yet last year he had an opportunity to approve an emergency funding bill that included $275 million for the medical care of veterans and he refused. Funding has been cut for the Veterans Administration in his 2004 budget; the American Legion calculates it "comes $1.9 billion short of maintaining an inadequate status quo." Don't tell that to the soldiers getting wounded on a near-daily basis in Iraq. They're probably already bummed about their pay cut since the war "officially" ended.
Space does not allow a whole host of other prevarications from the Bushmen, such as "compassionate" conservatism, "No Child Left Behind" and "high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans." For details, read Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right by comedian Al Franken; Bushwhacked by those viciously funny Texans Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose; Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Get It Back by the funny Texan populist writer Jim Hightower; and dead serious The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception by The Nation's Washington editor David Corn.
As a result of unilaterally starting a war that nobody else wanted, this administration has arrogantly dissed traditional allies -- except, of course, Britain. Even countries normally lukewarm or cool to the U.S. were sympathetic after 9/11. Bush has squandered that good will and opportunity to build a cooperative international force against terrorism. Never mind further inflaming everyone who hated us in the first place.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, more than 70 American companies and individuals have won up to $8 billion in contracts for work in post-war Iraq and Afghanistan over the past two years. Those same firms donated more than $500,000 to the presidential campaign of George W. Bush. Reminder: The top recipient of these federal contracts is Halliburton, the company led by Dick Cheney before he was chosen as Bush's VP. Coincidence? Bechtel Group, also with high-level ties to government officials, got the second-biggest contracts. The General Accounting Office has begun an investigation amidst allegations of fraud and cronyism.
The economy is in the toilet. Even before Bush asked Congress for $87 billion to "rebuild" Iraq and support the U.S. military presence there, his tax cut primarily benefited the wealthiest Americans and evaporated the record surplus achieved by the Clinton administration. The General Accounting Office has estimated the federal deficit to be more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years. What will happen to Social Security? Medicare?
George W. Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over an economy that has lost jobs, rather than created them -- more than 2.9 million lost since 2001.
The environment: Fuhgeddaboudit. Thirty years of environmental safeguards are wiped out. So are arsenic-in-water standards and U.S. involvement with the Kyoto Protocol. Funding for maintenance of national parks, which Bush once called "the crown jewel of America's recreation system," is pitiful. According to the National Resources Defense Council, the "Clear Skies" legislation will allow 50 percent more sulfur emissions and five times more mercury emissions, and will result in 100,000 additional premature deaths by 2020. (Guess who's downwind of Midwestern factories?)
Despite the president's vow to "uncover every detail" of the 9/11 attacks, administration officials continue to withhold key documents from a bipartisan investigation commission. The group finally issued a subpoena last month. "This administration is the most secretive of our lifetime, even more than the Nixon administration," notes Larry Klayman, chair of the conservative Judicial Watch. "They don't believe the American people or Congress have any right to information."
We could go on, but who wants to? It's too depressing to consider, as Newsweek magazine recently did, that Bush believes his mandate comes from God. Instead, let's see what the opposition is up to.
It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who
said, "The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right." Of course, he wasn't talking right wing. More recently author Michael Kazin, who sits on the editorial board for Dissent magazine, offered this advice for patriotic progressives: "The most effective way to love the country is to fight like hell to change it." The best dissent, surely, is not just a stance against something but a positive vision for what America can and should be -- and has at times been -- both at home and abroad. Simply being reactionary and defensive isn't enough -- especially if you're trying to take back a country.
That said, dissent is by its very nature a response to something you don't like, whether you just want to keep the status quo or to create something even better. The challenge is to persuade "my country right or wrong" types that "country" and "government" are not the same thing. You can love your country and really, really not love an administration. Conservatives who continue to loathe Bill Clinton should be able to understand that.
It's the ACLU's mission to protect freedoms as they exist in the Bill of Rights; recently the group filed the first-ever legal challenge to the USA Patriot Act. "Ordinary Americans should not have to worry that the FBI is rifling through their medical records, seizing their personal papers, or forcing charities and advocacy groups to divulge membership lists," says Ann Beeson, the ACLU's legal director. "We know from our clients that the FBI is once again targeting ethnic, religious and political minority communities disproportionately."
Meanwhile, some members of Congress have introduced bills to knock a few teeth out of Patriot I. Following a vote in the House to ban "sneak and peek" searches, Senators Larry Craig (R-ID) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) have introduced the bipartisan Security and Freedom Ensured (SAFE) Act of 2003.
The truth is, a number of Republicans are knitting their eyebrows and admitting the Patriot Act has "moved the scales out of balance," as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) puts it. Even the arch-conservative Bill O'Reilly, host of the Fox News talk show "The O'Reilly Factor," has no use for the random search or wiretap; or, apparently, the prudish AG: "The president should have emergency powers, as Abraham Lincoln had during the Civil War, in times of emergency [but] just to give it to the attorney general, no. I mean, look, Janet Reno was the attorney general, John Mitchell was the attorney general. I don't want these people to have this power. And this guy Ashcroft is throwing sheets over statues. Come on."
Well, it passes for thinking things through, anyway. And if even Bill O'Reilly can do that, there is hope. Better news is that, finally, liberal/progressive talk shows are beginning to appear, aiming to counter the hypocritical spew of conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh. The new Center for American Progress, which held a kick-off national conference last week -- and which employs former Bernie Sanders wunderkind David Sirota -- is offering to provide information and research to reporters and commentators. Former Vice President Al Gore and Joel Hyatt are considering a cable TV network to take on the virulently right-wing Fox News.
The right has foisted upon us a climate of mean-spiritedness and intolerance, in which might is right and so is money. Yet from the deepest muck can grow flowers. Most hopefulness, and progressive activity, seems to be blooming on the Internet these days. See the sidebar for a number of Web sites that provide info, action alerts and the increasingly popular "one-click activism." The Internet has done wonders for Howard Dean's presidential campaign, and it shows signs of being the great democratic meetinghouse its creators dreamed about. But don't think the revolution can just be emailed. That's what voting is for.
"Politics is not something you can stand off and look at as though it were a television program or a painting on a wall and decide you really don't much care for it," write Ivins and Dubose in Bushwhacked. Their advice? "Time to raise hell."