The End of America: Letter of Warning To A Young Patriot
From the book’s Preface:
I wrote this book because I could no longer ignore the echoes between events in the past and forces at work today.
When I discussed these issues informally with a good friend who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors — and who teaches students about the American system of government as a kind of personal response to what happened to her family — she insisted that I present this argument.
I also wrote it as I did because, in the midst of my research, I went to Christopher Le and Jennifer Gandin’s wedding.
Chris — the “young patriot” of the subtitle — is a born activist, a natural grassroots leader and teacher. He helps run the Nation Suicide Prevention Lifeline and is active on a range of issues. Chris and Jennifer are characteristic of the kinds of the idealistic young people — idealistic Americans — who need to lead our nation out of this crisis.
I was there having emerged from my reading and could not ignore the terrible storm clouds gathering in the nation at large, and I felt that the young couple needed one more gift: the tools to fully realize and defend their freedom; the means to be sure that their own children would be born in liberty.
It is not just the young who are disconnected from democracy’s tasks at just the moment that the nation’s freedoms are being dismantled; in my travels across the country, I have heard from citizens of all backgrounds who feel alienated from the Founders’ idea that they are the ones who must lead; they are the ones who must decide and confront and draw a line. They are the ones who matter. This book is written for them.
Such citizens need the keys to, the understanding of, the Founders’ radical legacy. They need to understand how despots have gone about their work. They need a primer so they and those around them can be well-equipped for the fight that lies ahead.
So they can fight it well.
So that our children may continue to live in freedom.
So that we may all.
What follows is the first of two parts of the introduction to The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. Part II will be posted in this space on the Huffington Post on Wednesday, September 12. Chelsea Green Publishing has also generously made available a PDF version [PDF here] of the entire Introduction, with footnotes included.
I am writing because we have an emergency.
Here are U.S. news headlines from a two-week period in the late summer of 2006:
July 22: “CIA WORKER SAYS MESSAGE ON TORTURE GOT HER FIRED.” Christine Axsmith, a computer security expert working for the C.I.A., said she had been fired for posting a message on a blog site on a top-secret computer network. Axsmith criticized waterboarding: “Waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong.” Ms. Axsmith lost her job as well as her top-secret clearance, which she had held since 1993. She fears her career in intelligence is over.
July 28: “DRAFT BILL WAIVES DUE PROCESS FOR ENEMY COMBATANTS.” The Bush administration has been working in secret on a draft bill “detailing procedures [for] bringing to trial those it captures in the war on terrorism, including some stark diversions from regular trial procedures. . . . Speedy trials are not required. . . . Hearsay information is admissible . . . the [military] lawyer can close the proceedings [and] can also order ‘exclusion of the defendant’ and his civilian counsel.” Those defined as “enemy combatants” and “persons who have engaged in unlawful belligerence” can be held in prison until “the cessation of hostilities,” no matter when that may be or what jail sentence they may get.
July 29: “THE COURT UNDER SIEGE.” In June 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that denying prisoners at Guantánamo judicial safeguards violated the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law. The Supreme Court also insisted that a prisoner be able to be present at his own trial. In response, the White House prepared a bill that “simply revokes that right.” The New York Times editorial page warned, “It is especially frightening to see the administration use the debates over the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and domestic spying to mount a new offensive against the courts.”
July 31: “A SLIP OF THE PEN.” U.S. lawyers issued a statement expressing alarm at the way the president was overusing “signing statements.” They argued that this was an exertion of executive power that undermined the Constitution. Said the head of the American Bar Association, “The threat to our Republic posed by presidential signing statements is both imminent and real unless immediate corrective action is taken.”
August 2: “BLOGGER JAILED AFTER DEFYING COURT ORDERS.” A freelance blogger, Josh Wolf, 24, was jailed after he refused to turn over to investigators a video he had taken of a protest in San Francisco. Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said that, although the jailing of American journalists was becoming more frequent, Mr. Wolf was the first American blogger she knew of to be imprisoned by federal authorities.
August 2: “GOVERNMENT WINS ACCESS TO REPORTER PHONE RECORDS.” “A federal prosecutor may inspect the telephone records of two New York Times reporters in an effort to identify their confidential sources. . .” according to The New York Times. A dissenting judge speculated that in the future, reporters would have to meet their sources illicitly, like drug dealers meeting contacts “in darkened doorways.”
August 3: “STRONG-ARMING THE VOTE.” In Alabama, a federal judge took away powers over the election process from a Democratic official, Secretary of State Worley, and handed them over to a Republican governor: “[P]arty politics certainly appears to have been a driving force,” argued the Times. “The Justice Department’s request to shift Ms. Worley’s powers to Governor Riley is extraordinary.” When Worley sought redress in a court overseen by a federal judge aligned with the Bush administration, she wasn’t allowed her chosen lawyer. It was “a one-sided proceeding that felt a lot like a kangaroo court. . .” cautioned the newspaper. She lost.
Why am I writing this warning to you right now, in 2007? After all, we have had a Congressional election giving control of the House and the Senate to Democrats. The new leaders are at work. Surely, Americans who have been worried about erosions of civil liberties, and the destruction of our system of checks and balances, can relax now: see, the system corrects itself. It is tempting to believe that the basic machinery of democracy still works fine and that any emergency threatening it has passed — or, worst case, can be corrected in the upcoming presidential election.
But the dangers are not gone; they are regrouping. In some ways they are rapidly gaining force. The big picture reveals that 10 classic pressures — pressures that have been used in various times and places in the past to close down pluralistic societies — were set in motion by the Bush administration to close down our own open society. These pressures have never been put in place before in this way in this nation.
A breather is unearned; we can’t simply relax now. The laws that drive these pressures are still on the books. The people who have a vested interest in a less open society may be in a moment of formal political regrouping; but their funds are just as massive as before, their strategic thinking unchanged, and their strategy now is to regroup so that next time their majority will be permanent.
All of us — Republicans, Democrats, Independents, American citizens — have little time to repeal the laws and roll back the forces that can bring about the end of the American system we have inherited from the Founders — a system that has protected our freedom for over 200 years.
I have written this warning because our country — the democracy our young patriots expect to inherit — is in the process of being altered forever. History has a great deal to teach us about what is happening right now — what has happened since 2001 and what could well unfold after the 2008 election. But fewer and fewer of us have read much about the history of the mid-twentieth century — or about the ways the Founders set up our freedoms to save us from the kinds of tyranny they knew could emerge in the future. High school students, college students, recent graduates, activists from all walks of life, have a sense that something overwhelming has been going on. But they have lacked a primer to brief them on these themes and put the pieces together, so it is hard for them to know how urgent the situation is, let alone what they need to do.
Americans expect to have freedom around us just as we expect to have air to breathe, so we have only limited understanding of the furnaces of repression that the Founders knew intimately. Few of us spend much time thinking about how “the system” they put in place protects our liberties. We spend even less time, considering how dictators in the past have broken down democracies or quelled pro-democracy uprisings. We take our American liberty for granted the way we take our natural resources for granted, seeing both, rather casually, as being magically self-replenishing. We have not noticed how vulnerable either resource is until very late in the game, when systems start to falter. We have been slow to learn that liberty, like nature, demands a relationship with us in order for it to continue to sustain us.
Most of us have only a faint understanding of how societies open up or close down, become supportive of freedom or ruled by fear, because this is not the kind of history that we feel, or that our educational system believes, is important for us to know. Another reason for our vagueness about how liberty lives or dies is that we have tended lately to subcontract out the tasks of the patriot: to let the professionals — lawyers, scholars, activists, politicians — worry about understanding the Constitution and protecting our rights. We think that “they” should manage our rights, the way we hire a professional to do our taxes; “they” should run the government, create policy, worry about whether democracy is up and running. We’re busy.
But the Founders did not mean for powerful men and women far away from the citizens — for people with their own agendas, or for a class of professionals — to perform the patriots’ tasks, or to protect freedom. They meant for us to do it: you, me, the American who delivers your mail, the one who teaches your kids.
I am one of the citizens who needed to relearn these lessons. Though I studied civics, our system of government was taught to me, as it was to you, as a fairly boring explication of a three-part civil bureaucracy, not as the mechanism of a thrilling, radical, and totally unprecedented experiment in human self-determination. My teachers explained that our three-part system was set up with “checks and balances,” so that no one branch of government could seize too much power. Not so exciting: this sounded like “checks and balances” in a bureaucratic turf war. Our teachers failed to explain to us that the power that the Founders restrained in each branch of government is not abstract: it is the power to strip you and me of personal liberty.
So I needed to go back and read, more deeply than I had the first time around, histories of how patriots gave us our America out of the crucible of tyrants, as well as histories of how dictators came to power in the last century. I had to reread the stories of the making and the unmaking of freedom. The more I read these histories, the more disturbed I became.
I give you the lessons we can learn from them in this pamphlet form because of the crisis we face.
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