Saturday, January 15, 2011

2006: The Desiccated Alfalfa Stalk

Another one from the good old Santa Cruz Comic News. Aside from my bad predictions about the then-impending election, this remains timely.

One day in 1787, as he walked out of the constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin was stopped by a woman who asked, "What sort of government have you given us? A republic or a monarchy?" He replied, "A republic–if you can keep it."

Well, we haven't. We lost our republic on September 29, 2006.

On that date our Congress voted not just to legalize torture–as if that wasn't shame enough–but to allow one man, the 43rd President, to define what is and isn't torture. He may now designate anyone he chooses to be an "enemy combatant"–even a US citizen–and lock that person up for life, with no charges or trial.

The right to habeas corpus, a pillar of our system of jurisprudence since the year twelve hundred and fifteen, is now dead. As the ACLU helpfully noted: "The president can now - with the approval of Congress - indefinitely hold people without charge, take away protections against horrific abuse, put people on trial based on hearsay evidence, authorize trials that can sentence people to death based on testimony literally beaten out of witnesses, and slam shut the courthouse door for habeas petitions."

When Nixon resigned, when Clinton was impeached, we were told: this is a nation of laws, not men. No longer.

Of late, many have wondered what would become of our simmering constitutional crisis of illegal wiretaps and imperious "signing statements." How would we deal with a president who vows to defy the Congress and the courts? The answer is, we won't. This Congress (virtually every Republican, and about a quarter of the Democrats) didn't simply vote to allow any sort of torture that George Bush cares to assert is something other than torture. They legalized it retroactively.

All the stomach-turning horrors committed in our names: Children raped at Abu Ghraib, on videotapes too shocking to release. Prisoners beaten to death, their bodies mutilated for sport. Jose Padilla freezing naked on the floor of his cell, injected with psychiatric drugs, charged with no crime. Elderly Afghan men, denounced by rival clans, delivered to Guantanamo to sit in a cage for years before being released. Vicious dogs attacking naked, cowering men. German or Canadian citizens, kidnapped and rendered to ghoulish torture chambers in Egypt or Syria, eventually found innocent. Guns to the heads of prisoners' children to compel capitulation. Waterboarding, a crime against humanity in Word War II, now a "no-brainer" to our veep. Human limbs, beaten to a pulp, their owners expiring of heart failure. The iconic, hooded figure, hooked to electrodes, standing for hours atop a stool, told it would be his death the moment he stumbled off.

Who will be accountable for this? Nobody. We are a republic no longer.

The "Republicans" who rule us, should they retain their grip on the legislative branch, will surely do more to sweep these monstrosities under the rug, legalize retroactively the other crimes of their Dear Leader and his minions, give us more judges who smile benignly on such petty controversies. And yet?

And yet the very next day, in one of those bittersweet ironies that fill the pages of history, their grip began to loosen. One of their own was revealed as a drunken, lecherous sexual predator, grooming the teenaged pages on Capitol Hill for his future seductions. His party leadership stood accused not just of the usual cover-up, but of crass negligence and astonishingly cynical ploys to retain his Florida seat and his fundraising prowess. And the penultimate desiccated alfalfa stalk was placed atop the dromedary's spinal column, as an unholy bellow issued forth from the overburdened beast.

Had the Foley firestorm come a week earlier, it's doubtful they could have mustered the votes to shred our Constitution with but a few whimpers of disapproval heard in the galleries. But shred it they did, and then came the firestorm. Scandal after scandal, sometimes several new ones per day, bales of hay being dropped on the poor dead camel and his broken back.

The Congresscritter who cheated on his wife and choked his mistress. The Christian legislator who insulted the Jews and sent an aide to claim that his boss was a more observant Jew than any of them. The lobbyist daughter whose offices were raided. The land scams that enriched their well-connected patrons. The Senator with a petty cash fund bigger than Richard Nixon's. The candidate who assaulted a woman in a parking lot. The one who sent out letters to intimidate Latino voters. The anti-abortion ad that called black women "ho's." The incumbent who threatened to slap her wheelchair-bound opponent. The indicted Congresscritter who refused to resign. The mocking of a Parkinson's victim. And so many, many more.

All this on top of the pre-Foley scandals involving DeLay, Abramoff, Cunningham, and a burgeoning cast of characters. And all of that on top of, as pundit Michael Kinsley once quipped, the real scandal in Washington: what's legal.

It was almost as if the Democrats' fondest dream were about to come true: an election dropped in their laps, in which the Republicans came to be so despised that the Democrats didn't even have to bother to stand for something other than "We're not as bad as them."

All right, that's not entirely fair. All kinds of Democrats stand for all sorts of worthy policies; you can find them on their websites. But the party leaders, who fund the campaigns, had to be dragged kicking and screaming into looking at polls that tell them the grotesque, unending Iraq War is hugely unpopular. Who knew?

This rant is being typed out in the last fortnight of the campaign, but you are probably reading it after the election results have come in. As I write, the Repubs are relying on their reinforcements, what they wryly called their "backlash insurance:" the mighty wurlitzer of their media machine, their army of church-recruited GOTV volunteers, their computer-enhanced gerrymandering of the electoral map, their majority of secretaries of state to oversee elections; their intimidation and race-baiting tactics to suppress turnout, a torrent of cash for negative campaign ads, and their amoral willingness to say any goddamned thing, no matter how libelous, mendacious, despicable and revolting, if it helps them to win. Hey, it's worked before.

Oh, and did I mention the voting machines? I believe it may have come up before: Elephant-friendly corporations have privatized 40% of the vote count. Trust them, they would never abuse that power.

Prognostication is risky, and so is conspiracy theory, but I like to live dangerously. Tell you what: if I controlled 40% of the vote count, I would let the other guys win one every once in a while, just to throw them off. So my prediction is, the Demos take the House, by quite a wide margin, in fact. Let Waxman and Conyers and Rangell have their committee chairs and issue their subpoenas. They will be stonewalled in the corridors of power and belittled in the media.

The Senate, which advises and consents to our foreign policies and our judicial nominees, will remain in Dick Cheney's hands. The seats of Missouri, Tennessee, and/or Virginia will be too close to call on Election Eve and will fall comfortably in the red column the next day. Wouldn't even matter if McCaskill, Ford and Webb had twelve-point leads, either; just ask Max Cleland.

Hope I'm wrong about that, but if I'm not, our civil liberties, our moral standing and our treasury will suffer further degradation. If the Repubs hold both houses, double that, and renew your passport. If the Demos take both of them away, don't expect miracles. If the rouged elephants actually lose both houses, I will believe it is because the people who run this country have come to believe that the Repubs are bad for business. Happens sometimes; we will just have to take advantage of this historical moment.

But that is in fact our only hope now. However flawed our opposition party, they can be goaded into actually opposing; a combination of carrots and sticks works on most donkeys. There is a fresh new crop of candidates, beholden not to party elders but to grassroots fundraising, goosed by the networking possibilities of the Internet. They will be a small group, but whether Joe Lieberman lives to fight another day, his primary defeat sent a powerful message to the slightly less insane wing of the corporate duopoly: fear the voters. And as they always say in Washington, it's better to be feared than loved.

So what will it be, a monarchy or a republic? A republic, if we can get it back.

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